Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book launch of Irish Georgian Society - A Celebration


Speech by Dr Martin Mansergh, TD, Minister of State with responsibility for OPW and the Arts at the launch of The Irish Georgian Society A Celebration by Robert O’Byrne at the Crawford Gallery, Cork, Thursday, 6 October 2008, at 6:30pm

I am very pleased and honoured to have been asked to perform the Cork launch of the 50th anniversary publication of The Irish Georgian Society, A Celebration. It all began with a letter by Desmond Guinness to the Irish Times on 22 July 1957 [sic], asking if anyone would object to the revival of a long defunct Georgian Society from the early years of the 20th century. So it is appropriate that its history should be written by an Irish Times, now freelance, journalist, Robert O’Byrne.

Its look, feel, quality and illustrations are reminiscent of Desmond Guinness’ and Jacqueline O’Brien’s even slightly larger Great Irish Houses and Castles, and I would have to say I have on my bookshelves in Tipperary for reference a good many of the books mentioned in the bibliography.

I would have known some of the characters mentioned in the book. I have fond memories of Mariga Guinness, through my mother, who in the 1960s and 1970s shared the enthusiasm for all things Irish Georgian. She had an Adam-style fireplace recovered, by an architect from a demolished house in Dublin installed in our drawing room in Tipperary. My own aesthetic tastes are 18th century, with an orientation towards the France of Louis XV, the Italy of Canaletto and Tiepolo, and the Germany of Schloss Bruhl, Dresden and Sanssouci. Of course, much of the architectural inspiration in both Britain and Ireland came from the continental grand tour, and artists who had either visited or were from the continent, like Angelika Kaufmann. If I have an historical prejudice, it is that I never really liked or admired any of the Georges, though George II was probably the most competent among them. His statue is in the National Gallery.

Robert O’Byrne’s book is very much an inside story, an engagé account of the Irish Georgian Society reflecting its view. It was a movement that engaged in a struggle to salvage and gain recognition for what could in large part be described as the more valuable parts of the Anglo-Irish artistic and architectural heritage. The difficulties it faced was its strong association with the ancien régime. The biggest achievement of the Irish Georgian Society over the past 50 years has been to overcome that, and give the people of Ireland a greater sense of ownership of this part of their heritage, a sense which barely existed at the beginning outside perhaps of the employees and social circle of the big house. To put it another way, Georgian buildings have been mainstreamed.

The context has to be understood, and it is a moot point as to whether poverty and lack of resources or burgeoning wealth was the more destructive of heritage. Up to the 1960s, there was no money to save heritage, unless property owners made shrewd and rewarding marriage alliances. My biggest regrets are not great houses burnt in revolutionary circumstances, but places like Coole Park, demolished in 1939, which would have been a mecca of the Literary Revival if it had survived, and Bowenscourt lost in 1960, which had classic aesthetic merit as well. My father always claimed he had taken me to tea at Bowenscourt when I was young, with his distant cousin Bitha, as Elizabeth Bowen was known, but I would have been very young, at an age when one is easily bored having to sit quietly through adult conversation over tea, so I do not remember it.

I have since been a member of the Farahy Trust, which looks after the adjacent small church, and attached 1720s schoolhouse, where an annual Elizabeth Bowen memorial service and an occasional chamber concert are held, and I have taken up the cudgels more than once in defence of Elizabeth Bowen against her detractors, who believe that because of her reporting back to London on Irish public attitudes during World War II, she forfeited any claim to be regarded as Irish.

The Irish Georgian Society were formed in circumstances, when the Irish State had hugely pressing economic and social priorities, and when its cultural policy was directed almost entirely to the rescue, maintenance and documentation of early Christian and Celtic cultural remains. In those days, everyone was poor in comparison to today, but in a classic post-colonial situation the residue of a former ruling minority still held a disproportionate amount of the wealth of the country. In public discourse and bureaucratic assumptions, little value was attached to what many people regarded or purported to regard as reminders of an alien and oppressive heritage.

The social and cultural minority, though of more than one religion, is often accused of having kept its head down. No more than Hubert Butler, the Irish Georgian Society did not keep the head down. They engaged in rearguard battles against commercial forces that were gaining the upper hand. They saved Castletown House and Tailors’ Hall. Even where battles were lost in Fitzwilliam Street and Frascati, public awareness was increased. The public sphere was gradually nudged in the direction of accepting greater responsibility for all of Ireland’s heritage.

I remember from the late 1950s the old dingy Deanery that was once the Cashel Palace, where I was taken after church to meet the Rev Dr. Robert Wyse-Jackson, later Bishop of Limerick and Killaloe, no mean historian. The Palace has long since been in a succession of good hands as a splendid hotel. Charlie Haughey used to like to slip off to stay in the Bishop’s bedroom with its magnificent view up to the Rock. The Palace, gardens and the Rock in the 18th century have been wonderfully documented by Anthony Malcomson in his vast magisterial volume on Archbishop Charles Agar, the bicentenary of whose death in 1809 will be commemorated next year.

Swiss Cottage, the Cahir Butlers’ answer to Marie-Antoinette’s hameau at Versailles, is a wonderfully restored gem. I helped put together materials for Charles Haughey’s speech for its opening 20 years ago. In March this year, I watched Minister of State for OPW, Noel Ahern, reopen it, after a year’s closure for refurbishment, thinking what a pleasant job he had, with no notion that I would shortly afterwards succeed him.

I fought myself as an advisor to Bertie Ahern a battle to acquire Farnham Castle near Cavan, which was initially offered to the State, with its interesting nine-county Ulster Unionist heritage, the UVF having paraded pre-1914 on the lawn. Lord Farnham’s nine-county Ulster might have shortened the life of partition, which is probably why the Ulster Unionist Council rejected it. I was defeated at the hands of OPW. As a Senator, I echoed calls for Lissadell to be acquired by the State, but in all fairness the Cassidys have done a wonderful job to brighten up what had been up to 20 years previously a depressing atmosphere of decay with family members disowning both 1916 and Countess Markievicz.

I would have to say that I take a much more sanguine view of past, present and future, than is suggested by some of the statements expressed in the book. The State is not actually the villain of the piece. What both amazes and encourages me is the vast quantity of our heritage that has survived, even if a lot has been lost. A substantial part of Georgian Dublin remains intact, but a capital city was never going to be as easy to preserve as Bath. Round the walls of the Dáil chamber are Malton prints from around 1800. Only one of the buildings depicted, the Tholsel, has been lost. Leinster House, Dublin Castle, the Royal Hospital have been wonderfully restored.

Whatever their history, they now belong to us. Castletown House, along with Farmleigh and Kilkenny Castle, are jewels in the crown, and I believe the OPW has done a fantastic job in preserving and restoring good examples of all parts of our heritage, including that part which the Irish Georgian Society has championed. Many private owners, many no longer from old country house families, as well as public institutions, have poured money into fine old properties, some of which have never looked better. What Ireland may need today is a Victorian Society to protect many of the mid-19th century villas threatened with gutting by property developers until recently enticed by high capital gains. The present cooling-off period will prevent many excesses.

Architectural ambition is in general laudable. It existed in the 18th century, as it does now. We are apt to forget that Georgian Dublin virtually obliterated all that had gone before, traffic, and the destruction of the old Waterford Cathedral in 1773 is a fine example of Georgian vandalism, even if the replacement, that now also serves as a concert venue, has its own merits. I am becoming a little allergic to too much talk of iconic buildings, as you pay a lot extra for the iconic bit, especially if you are the State. The splendid new Wexford Opera House cost the public purse €26m, with the total coming to €33m. It is state of the art, but does not attempt on the outside to be iconic.

Today, there are so many more supports in place for architectural heritage of all kinds. Scarcity of resources, especially now, may still be a problem in terms of preventing one doing everything that might be desirable, but the awareness is now there. The State has taken over more of the burden through bodies such as the National Heritage Council, with, for instance, its Buildings at Risk programme, and Section 482 relief.

This country does owe a debt of gratitude to people like Desmond and Mariga Guinness, the Knight of Glin, John Redmill, and many, many others. Only yesterday, I was sitting next to Martin Naughton, whose trust is sponsoring a new Dictionary of Irish Art and Architecture under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy. He and others rescued Wellingtons birthplace or ‘stable’ in 24, Upper Merrion Street, and turned a whole neglected block into a fine hotel.

The Society may once have been a strong political irritant, when Kevin Boland was famously provoked into denouncing the ‘belted Earls’. He quit Fianna Fáil a few years later. Pride of place in that regard is probably now occupied by An Taisce.

The Irish Georgian Society, both by the efforts of its volunteers and by its example, has made a lasting difference to this country, and has exercised an influence of which will be felt for generations. It has also enlarged the sense of Irish identity, and ensured that there is an honoured place in this country for all its traditions, and contributed to greater peace and harmony between them. The degree to which the spirit of the Enlightenment, once so much distrusted, now permeates the State should not be underestimated. I congratulate both the members of the Irish Georgian Society on their achievement, and Robert O’Byrne on a book that celebrates and documents it.

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