Re: ‘Dutch Billys’

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Our dwindling stock of gabled houses is a topic that has come up on various threads, ‘Dublin Vistas’, ‘Thomas St./James’s St.’ etc., but I think, as an endangered species, this forgotten remnant of our built heritage deserves a thread of it’s own.

The explosion in the construction of curvilinear gabled houses throughout Dublin, and across most of the other urban centres of Ireland, in the last decades of the 17th century, and which continued to be the dominant urban style in residential architecture into the 1740s, deserves a closer look.

The best published references that I know of are: the ‘Dutch Billys’ article by Peter walsh in the 1973 ‘Liberties of Dublin’ ed. Elgy Gillespie, and pgs. 29 -61 of McCullough’s ‘Dublin, an Urban History’. Maurice Craig ‘Dublin 1660 – 1860‘ just about acknowledges the presence of gabled houses but his passion was for the classical Georgian city.

So completely have the gabled streets of Dublin been lost, or masked, that the tendency has been to regard the dimly remembered curvilinear gabled houses as some kind of neanderthal off-shoot in the evolutionary process that shortly afterwards delivered the presumed perfection of ‘Georgian’ Dublin. Part of this may have been down to the agressive marketing of Luke Gardiner and his circle, who, in a very short space of time, managed to persuade upwardly mobile Dubliners that, not only were they living in the wrong part of town, but they were also living in the wrong design of house.

One of the ironies of the ‘Dutch Billy’ is that, by about 1730, the style was so ubiquitous and so well developed, that it must have constituted something very close to a national architectural style. Dispite having huge loyalist Williamite conatations, curvilinear gabled houses appear to be an Irish phenomenon, were fasionable in Dublin in the years before there was any consciousness of Dutch Billy himself, and most amazingly, the ‘Dutch Billy’ does not seem to exist in England at all. You can scan the backgrounds of all the Hogarth prints and Canneletto paintings of London you like, there are no Dutch gabled houses there!

McCullough points to the obvious trading links with Europe, and Holland in particular, as the likely source of the
initial outbreak, and Dutch architects were evident on the ground in Dublin in the period, but that can only be part of the story. On very few occassions, before or since, have Dublin and London taken such divergent routes.

The fact that the pivotal battle of the era took place in Ireland, and the fact that it ushered in an unprecedented period of stability, prosperity and growth, may go towards explaining the extraordinary degree to which Loyalist Ireland took William of Orange to their hearts, perhaps up to and including the desire to live in houses that honoured his memory in bricks and mortar. In England, where William was probably more regarded as just another king, and where Holland was more directly perceived as a fierce trading rival, no particular desire may have emerged to go Dutch in house design.

Whatever about the origins of the style, what developed here was a full blown architectural movement with a complex language and a real urban vitality that none of Luke Gardiner’s sober ‘Georgian’ street would ever equal, in my opinion. To compare a complex ‘Dutch Billy’ corner with the half hearted efforts of the Georgians is to compare a piece of sculpture with a photocopy. The development of the close twin or ‘Siamese’ gabled house, as a response to the common urban phenominon of the wedge shaped corner site, may even have been a Dublin invention.

The loss that Dublin suffered in going over to the Luke Gardiner led English Palladian model, and turning it’s back on it’s indigenous urban tradition, is not just about the near irradication of the whole record of an architectural style, it’s also about the substitution of a slightly superficial, segregated and imported model, for a truely urban, mixed use and socially integrated model.

I don’t want to keep dumping on Luke Gardiner, given that he has attained such iconic status as the developer that all other developers are supposed to look up to, but his legacy is decidedly mixed at best. If we use the anology of red squirrels and grey squirrels. Imagine Dublin as a little wooded glade alive with happy little native red squirrels buzzing about in sylvan harmony. Then a man walks into the clearing with a sack of foreign ravenous grey squirrels and proceeds to dump them out. I’m just suggesting that, in that analogy, that man is Luke Gardiner, and he is an ugly man, and he smells.

I’ll stick up as many pictures as I can over the next while to try and illustrate the points I’ve made here, but the primary concern has to be to safeguard the few houses that remain, albeit in their altered Georgian form.

This stretch of James’s Street opposite the Fountain contains at least two originally gabled houses, the pink house was a simple small curvilinear gabled house and it’s neighbour to the right, dispite it’s minute size, was a twin gabled house, which I think illustrates the real consciousness of the urban rhythm that the sequence of gables were capable of creating.

No. 10 Mill Street now and as illustrated in the 19th century below.

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