From top: a classic Merrion Square house; manholes for ‘coal deliveries’; a selection of Georgian doorways on the Square; sculpture of Oscar Wilde and the Joker’s Chair, in memory of Dermot Morgan; a Merrion row
Walking across Dublin, a visit to Merrion Square makes a fine diversion to view some excellent Georgian architecture along with a beautiful city park replete with some excellent sculptures. Merrion Square harks back to a time when Dublin was one of the most sophisticated and ambitious cities in Europe.
Richard Fitzwilliam, the 6th viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion owned a vast estate stretching all the way from Merrion St to the Dublin mountains and he had an eye on developing it. James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare, arguably Irelands foremost aristocrat, gave him his opportunity when the Earl built Dublin’s grandest palace, Kildare House, in 1745-48, at the edge of Fitzwilliam’s estate. Kildare House was the largest and most palatial Georgian mansion in Dublin.
After the Earl was made the first Duke of Leinster in 1766, Kildare House was renamed as Leinster House. It was said to the Earl that his new mansion was located in a decidedly unfashionable area of the city, to which FitzGerald replied, ‘They will follow me wherever I go’. And follow him they did as the fashionable upper tier of society now desired property near the Earl. Merrion Square soon became known as a smart address for the aristocracy and the building of Merrion Square then began in earnest.
Fitzwilliam laid out Merrion Square in the early 1760s. The construction of the Georgian houses at Merrion Square began in 1762 and continued for 30 years with building beginning clockwise on its North side. Three sides of the square feature some of the finest Georgian houses on view in Ireland. The fourth side has the Government Buildings, Leinster House and two superb museums, The Victorian style Natural History Museum, popularly known to generations of Dubliner’s as “The Dead Zoo” and the National Gallery of Ireland.
The houses were built in tranches by various builders two or three at a time, resulting in a variety of different styles. Walking around the square you will see some individual designs and houses of different heights along your way. You will also note that among the red brick houses you will see some granite fronted ones.
In the 19th century wealthy residents also added wrought iron balconies to their homes. Watch out for the circular manhole covers on the ground outside of the houses. This was to facilitate coal deliveries to be poured into the basement of the buildings with no “coal men” having to traipse through the houses.
A major feature of the square is the often-colourful Georgian doors topped with elegant fanlights and detailed brass knockers’ Some of the doors have beautifully styled door panels.
Merrion Square has had many famous former residents and here is a few of them in no particular preference.:-
The childhood home of Oscar Wilde, is at number 1. His mother Lady Wilde, held salons each Saturday afternoon gathering together Dublin’s most talented writers, poets, singers and musicians. Friends like Bram Stoker, Sheridan le Fanu and Isaac Butt attended their house, which is now part of the American College Dublin
The great “Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell Dublin’s home was at number 58
WB Yeats lived at number 82 and was lucky to be missed by an IRA sniper in the 1920s during the Civil War when the sniper fired into his sitting-room from a roof across the square.
One of my favourite artists & mystic, George (Æ) Russell resided at number 84
Sheridan Le Fanu the Gothic novelist resided at number 70
In April 1926, Violet Gibson, who was raised in 12 Merrion Square attempted to assassinate the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini
The Austrian quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger lived or perhaps didn’t live at no. 65. Depending on the nature of reality, of quantum theory and the interaction with the observer of course.
Over the years some major changes were made to the square. In 1933 the national maternity hospital was built and in 1972 the British Embassy at number 39 was violently burnt down by Dublin rioters in response to the Bloody Sunday murders in Derry.
The 48-hectare private central garden, later Merrion Square Park nearly had the Wellington Monument, dedicated to the Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman Arthur Wellesley, built on it in 1817. But in an early act of nimbyism, after residents of the square complained, it was then erected in the Phoenix Park.
In 1930, Dublin’s Archbishop Edward Byrne, bought the park for £10,000 as the site for a cathedral, but building difficulties and increasing costs put an end to this. The Church eventually chose to build the Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough St. Over the years the park became neglected and overgrown when, in 1974, Archbishop Dermot Ryan and the St Laurence Trust leased the park to Dublin City Council for 127 years at a token rent, to be made into a public park for the people of Dublin.
After Dr Ryan’s death in 1985, it was renamed in his memory. Later in 2010 after the Murphy Report into clerical child abuse was highly critical of Ryan’s “failure to investigate complaints” a decision was taken to rename the park and the public were invited to suggest a new name. The overwhelming majority that responded asked that it be named, “The Oscar Wilde Park”, but saying a lot for the mandarins in Dublin City Council, the park was then officially named “Merrion Square Park”
Excellent work by DCC has created a beautifully laid out park attracting over 100,000 visitors a year. If you visit be sure to note the small grassy hill that contains one of Dublin’s WW2 bomb shelters. Take a stroll around the park, it has some excellent sculptures to view among many, like Oscar Wilde, (opposite his home) and the “Joker’s Chair” in memory of Dermot Morgan of “Father Ted” fame.
There are many other things to enjoy about Merrion Square and its park, my favourite during the summer months is the weekly Sunday Open Air Art Gallery where artists have their paintings on view for sale, with their work hung on the railings on the west, north and east sides of the Square.
So, be sure to visit and perhaps Broadsheet readers may like to share their own particular pleasures and stories of Dublin’s Merrion’s Square in the comments section below.
Harry’s Dublin appears here regularly, often on a Friday.
All pics by Harry Warren