Words Jean Flitcroft
Traditionally the address of Dublin’s social elite, the iconic Georgian core is once again becoming a vibrant residential hub
Dublin’s magnificent Georgian townhouses, in particular those around the historic squares, are loved by Dubliners and tourists alike. Their history is a 300-year-old story of transformation and a battle for survival; from elegant homes for the landed gentry to run-down tenements or ‘modern’ offices stripped of their fine cornicing and period features. Throughout the centuries, money, fashion, politics, and social trends have all had a part to play.
Our Georgian Heritage
From the 1730s, on the lands of the Gardiner Estate (on the northside) and later on the Fitzwilliam Estate (southside), these houses were built for the social elite. MPs and Lords descended on Dublin while parliament sat and for the social season, which ended with a series of society balls in Dublin Castle around St Patrick’s Day. Then it was back to London or their country estates.
In 1800 with the Act of Union the Irish Parliament moved to London and against a backdrop of political change, revolutionary wars in Europe and money shortages, the Georgian property bubble burst and Dublin society evaporated.
On the southside, they were soon filled with the emerging Irish professional classes – lawyers and doctor’s families. On the northside, the much larger houses were divided into apartments and, post-famine, became seriously overcrowded tenements. By 1911, for example, seventeen different families lived under one roof in 14 Henrietta Street. In 2000, this house was purchased by Dublin City Council and is now the Tenement Museum. The museum tells the important and unique story of Dublin tenement living in these former fashionable grand houses.
Sadly by the 1960s, some of the Georgian houses had collapsed through neglect, while others were knocked down with the help of Dublin City Council’s vision for a ‘modern’ Dublin. When St Vincent’s Hospital moved from Stephen’s Green to Merrion Road in 1970, there was an exodus of doctors and their families from the area. By the 1980s, most townhouses on the southside had become offices, some with nightclubs in the basement and bedsits on the top floors.
There were only a handful of these elegant townhouses in the entire city left in full residential use by the 1990s, until many prominent business families moved in, making it fashionable once more to live in Georgian Dublin.
The New Georgians
The dramatic drop in property prices from 2010–2016 opened up the market to a new group of purchasers, people with realistic budgets and a passion for these incredible buildings and their history. The results have been the creation of some amazing family homes. I’ve seen many decorating styles, from traditional to classic contemporary, from art deco to minimalist, each one reflecting the owner and their lifestyle and yet all respecting the houses’ Georgian heritage. I know of one which still has no central heating or mod-cons at all, with electricity only on the top floor, and yet it’s a wonderful home. Candlelit dinners and large open fires are a glorious throwback and seriously appeal to the romantic in me, but admittedly it’s not for everyone. These houses can be configured in so many ways for a stunning family home, which utilises every room effectively.
Having lived in London in the 1980s, where houses and apartments in city-centre historic squares are highly prized and priced, I’m puzzled why people in Ireland have favoured the suburbs over the heart of the city and all it has to offer. Yes, the renovation costs and the fact that they are protected structures do deter people. But frequently there are similar amounts spent on very average suburban homes.
It is possible to do a Georgian renovation in stages over time and there are ways to help with the costs. Many people keep the basement in commercial use or rent extra bedrooms which provide an income stream.
The Lure of Georgian Dublin
We made the move ourselves, from Dublin 18 to Dublin 2, a few years ago, and what surprises me most is the incredibly strong sense of community here. It feels like a village within the city. We walk everywhere as we are right beside supermarkets, endless restaurants, parks, galleries, theatres, nightclubs and, of course, schools. We have Dowlings, a lovely old-style chemist nearby, and of course there’s Gerry, who has sold flowers from his van opposite Toner’s pub for thirty-five years.
Living in the city is more than just convenience for me. It’s also what these Georgian houses represent – gracious homes with fascinating personal histories. Structurally too, they are hard to beat. The light streaming through the large windows into elegantly proportioned rooms, illuminating the decorative plasterwork is certainly uplifting. The city noise is dampened by the old trees, the planting still true to Georgian times, and the evening light reflects off the warm red brick of the houses.
I sincerely hope that the future will be kind to these architectural gems. It’s heartening to see the growing number of home-owners interested in conservation and attending lunchtime talks run by Dublin City Council Culture and the Irish Georgian Society. This trend has also been helped by the ‘Living City Initiative’, which allows all refurbishment costs to be tax deducted over time. This predominantly applies to the northside and some areas southside, and is worth checking when buying. A growing residential community with young families moving in represents a unique opportunity for these magnificent Georgian houses to be restored to their original purpose.
Georgian Dublin has inspired many artists and writers. Fitzwilliam Square was called ‘a noble place’ by William Thackeray. He wrote, ‘the leaves are green and not black as in similar places in London; the red brick houses tall and handsome.’
It was also a source of inspiration for a ballad by Percy French:
‘In this paradise of pleasure
Where the town and country meet,
Lying like a green Atlantis
In the desert of the street.’
The Square was home to many important women artists – Rose Barton, Mainie Jellet, Norah McGuinness, Evie Hone and Kitty Wilmer O’Brien. Jack B Yeats lived in number 18 and held legendary Thursday soirees, serving Malaga wine with a twist of lemon to regulars such as Samuel Beckett. Oh, to have been a fly on that wall! This is only a few of a long list of characters, famous and infamous, that have lived on the square.
Jean Flitcroft is co-owner of design company Leon & Croft, along with Cristian Leon Concha. She is also a writer of children’s fiction and, has written freelance travel and lifestyle articles for International Living, USA. For further advice on Georgian restoration, contact Jean via https://leonandcroft.com