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Irish lesson in insularity

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In 1971 I gave two bob to a wee boy who rattled a tin at the door of an orphanage on Lower Dominick Street in Dublin's North Side. This donation was rewarded with a peep behind a regular bland eighteenth-century brick terraced facade that revealed the most extraordinary Rococo plastered staircases and salons. It took just a leap of the imagination to expel the Flotex carpets, vinyl chairs and fluorescent lighting and realise that nothing quite like this existed north of the Pas de Calais.

An Insular Rococo recounts how Ireland logged on to a major European movement in architecture that passed the English by, apart from a minor detour of reverse colonialism to the West Country. How this happened demands a resume.

French Rococo interiors required the skills of an integrated craft team - joiners, wood carvers, painters, upholsterers - led by an experienced designer. Italian Rococo required fresco painters; plasterwork and stucco were way down the list of priorities. In England, where parsimony was a virtue, a high priority was given to cheaper materials - lime, hair, sand and water, and there were few talented craftsmen. Even the best, Thornhill, laboured for years on his stiff ceilings at Greenwich and St Paul's; clearly no Tintoretto. The consequences were dire when compared to France, Germany or Italy.

Along the way there were a few exceptions: most prominent was Castle Howard, where some decent craftsmen were employed. But then Vanbrugh was sidelined by Colen Campbell and the Palladian revival. Ireland had better luck. Firstly, some Swiss stuccodores arrived, and then indigenous ones emerged. They happened to be Catholic too, so their work is a flourishing of self-expression against the Protestant ascendancy.

Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw fill in a huge number of blanks for both lay and scholarly readers, particularly on this side of the Irish Sea. I had always suspected Lord Burlington of being rather second-rate, less rigorous than rich and influential. 'The flaw at the heart of Burlington's architectural work was that he was content to recreate ancient Roman interiors by cannibalising parts of the exteriors of Roman buildings,' say the authors. He was also an operator, for he managed to use the Whig ascendancy and his political connections to hijack the Palladian revival and replace it with his own Roman revival.

Contemporary historians have given up endless taxonomy and shifted their focus onto the people who were there and made events happen. This book is full of wonderful characters - Lords, Viceroys and great socialites cheek-by-jowl with artisans. It is an important piece of scholarship: witty, sharp, a major contribution to the canon of Irish architectural history. It eruditely explains how English architecture drifted downhill from Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh into dull Palladianism, Chinoiserie and the Gothick before the genuine Gothic Revival revitalised it. Ireland meanwhile enjoyed the works of Edward Lovett Pearce, at his best an architect of Hawksmoor's class.

When history holds up a mirror to our own times, it can be revelatory. The Irish have always looked to mainland Europe and have been far from insular. Today the Dublin school and its contextual Modernism (as at Temple Bar) is so in touch with the current European debate in architectural circles. A small capital city of one million or so people maintains a literary, filmic, musical and architectural culture that, this side of the Irish Sea, has no like outside London.

Stephen Greenberg is director of architecture at DEGW

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