50 years of the IGS

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    • #709914

      from The Art Newpaper: http://www.theartnewspaper.com/article.asp?id=7650

      The saving of the Irish country house (pity about the countryside)

      The Irish Georgian Society is celebrating its 50th anniversary: the battles won—and still to fight

      Anna Somers Cocks | 19.3.08 | Issue 189

      We would drive down rutted tracks to find a desolate space where once there had been a house, with perhaps the stables still standing. Or the house would be there, but the owners were retreating from room to room as the rain came through the roof. Often there was almost nothing left in the way of good furniture except a massive, carved, black 18th-century sideboard, but great hospitality, with drink and soup in the kitchen”: this is the art dealer and collector Christopher Gibbs speaking. Like the Ormsby-Gores, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, he was one of the Beautiful People who gravitated to the Ireland of the 1960s, where hippy dippiness and anti-materialism found a natural affinity with the declining and congenitally eccentric Anglo-Irish upper class.

      But it was not all picnics, pot and champagne. A great endeavour was also beginning in those days: no less than the saving of a country’s artistic memory and monuments, led by three nobly born Pied Pipers, the Honourable Desmond Guinness, his late wife Mariga, a German princess, and Desmond FitzGerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, together the founders of the Irish Georgian Society in 1958. Other heroes of the movement are the architectural historians Kevin Nowlan, Edward McParland, Alastair Rowan, Anne Cruikshank, the lawyer Nicholas Robinson and a former British inspector of ancient monuments, Maurice Craig.

      Lord Gowrie, later to become British Minister for the Arts, explains: “Mariga was so bohemian that she cut across all classes and gained support for the Society outside Anglo-Irish circles, which was very important at the time. Desmond Guinness was the brilliant fundraiser and Desmond FitzGerald the scholar, which was essential because so little was known then; most of the Irish heritage still had to be explored and pinned down.”

      But time seemed to be running out. In 1890 there were 2,500 families living in Ireland with around 1,000 acres and therefore presumably with houses of some dignity. By 1988, when the Knight’s book, Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland was published, about 500 houses were listed as vanished or in ruins, and not more than 25 have survived until today with their contents intact.

      It was not just that, as the novelist Elizabeth Bowen put it, Ireland was a country where there was “a quick flux to decay in houses, cities and people”, their economic base was cut from under them even before independence by the Wyndham Act of 1903 that enabled tenants to buy their land with grants from the British government. By 1914, three-quarters of all tenants had done so, leaving the landlords only with whatever they had in hand at the time, usually only a few hundred acres.

      It was economically downhill all the way from then, and in the 1950s a Scotsman called David Frame would buy houses for their break value, hauling away fireplaces, staircases and lead from the roof.

      Fifty years ago the buildings also needed to be defended because schoolchildren were still being taught to be Irish in terms of anti-Britishness, and anything associated with the Ascendancy, the ruling class up to Independence, was at best ignored, at worst deliberately destroyed.

      The anti-Ascendancy attitude, combined with the same crusading modernism which did so much damage to English towns, came close to wrecking 18th-century Dublin, a city of wide streets and deceptively austere brick façades, with wilder and grander plasterwork inside than any London house. “The great scandal was the pulling down of half of Lower Fitzwilliam Street by the Electricity Supply Board,” says architectural historian John Harris, “But the Irish Georgians made the government take note of the problem.”

      So, as the Irish Georgians swing into celebrating half a century of fighting for beauty in Ireland, what has changed? Starting with the grey, but very necessary world of legislation, the greatest improvement has come recently. Ireland used to have no national statutory system for protecting buildings; listing was the responsibility of each county, some with a very rudimentary policy: for example, in Co. Clare the only listed building was the cottage once lived in by the founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

      Finally, in 2000 there came the Planning and Development Act, which obliges local authorities to keep a watch on the buildings of architectural importance in their territory. The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage has the role of deciding which these should be, and so far they have worked their way through about half the counties of Ireland.

      The stick is that a negligent owner of a listed building can be fined or even imprisoned; the very inadequate carrot is the €3m a year for restoration allocated by central government and administered locally. Another difficulty in putting the 2000 law into practice is inadequate supervision: “There should be a conservation officer in each local administration, but only about 75% of them have one, and only half have enough manpower to deal with any architectural problem,” says Emmeline Henderson of the Irish Georgian Society.

      Even if the law is only partly effective at present, it is, nonetheless, proof that the government today is behind the idea of conservation. It was the Taoiseach’s (prime minister) office that was instrumental in getting the Irish Architectural Archive moved into its grand Merrion Square premises. The Office of Public Works has taken on the running of Castletown and is very responsive to the Irish Georgians.

      Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose father was a gardener at Belvedere House, Westmeath, has supported the British financier Sir David Davies in the setting up of the Irish Heritage Trust, which plans to be a kind of National Trust for major houses and gardens, starting with Fota House, County Cork. There are Civic Trusts in Dublin, Cork and Limerick and the Irish Landmark Trust already has more than 15 properties on its books, all earning their keep. It is highly significant that the Landmark Trust covers northern as well as southern Ireland; the old hatreds are now a thing of the past as the Irish see themselves as Europeans rather than heirs to an old and bitter struggle. Homegrown millionaires like the late Tony Ryan (Ryanair) and Tony O’Reilly (News & Media Group) have been happy to move into Ascendancy houses.

      The biggest reason for this change of sentiment has been Ireland’s astonishing economic development since the 1990s, a tigerish annual growth in GDP of 6.9%, which has transformed a country that in the 1960s was still primarily agricultural. A large part of this growth has been in construction, with five times more housing completed in 2006 than in the early 1990s, while the levels have been static elsewhere in the EU and UK. But this brings one to the fact that no silver lining is without its cloud: the historic buildings of Ireland may have been in a dismal state when the two Desmonds and Mariga started their crusade 50 years ago, but Ireland itself was a much more beautiful place then. Now, Southfork-style bungalows and villas line all the country roads and the pastoral views across small green fields have been ruined.

      “There is a deep-rooted feeling even among local councillors that there shouldn’t be any planning controls at all,” says Frank Macdonald of The Irish Times, “yet this building sprawl is going on while villages and small towns are crying out for a revival in their population. This process is unsustainable.” Clearly, the Irish Georgians and other, newer heritage bodies have this other battle to fight now, and, as in the previous one, their strongest ally may well be economic forces, with the Irish economy slowing down and a sharp downturn in the housing market widely predicted. No one enjoys a slump, but if this one forces a better use of existing housing stock and a slowdown in building, then not all the pain will have been wasted.

    • #799082

      notjim: Very useful of you to share this piece with us, especially those not resident in Ireland. It may sound daft, but surely there is room (with financial backing, possibly in the form of a public/private trust) to promote or extend an equivalent of the Tidy Towns idea? I thought that TT was all about a lick of paint and some hanging baskets, but if you read their adjudications, they are detailed and thoughful and, more to the point, comprehensive. Once the idea catches on that the Georgian (and many other vernacular) houses are worth preserving, are part of the collective heritage and are a part of the nation’s identity and there is a little competitive edge in their conservation, then their future might begin to be assured.
      The trick is to sell them as grand, but not exclusive, houses which are the heritage not just of the wealthy but of everyone with an interest in architecture and heritage.

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