Words Dolores O’Donoghue
In the early 18th century the influence of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio swept through Ireland and was soon to become synonymous with architectural excellence and the preferred style for the luxurious residences of the rich Ascendancy. Ireland can also boast the only surviving example of a building erected to a design by Palladio outside his native Italy: the façade of the Provost’s House, Trinity College, Dublin.
Classical Palladian architecture was introduced to Ireland by a young Florentine architect, Alessandro Galilei, who drew up the original designs for Ireland’s first Palladian mansion, Castletown House. However, Galilei did not supervise the building as he had returned to Italy before it commenced. (His most notable work is the magnificent façade of the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome.)
The build at Castletown House was taken over by Edward Lovett Pearce. Pearce had just returned to Ireland from Italy and was to become the chief exponent of the rich tradition of Palladianism in Ireland. He is best known for his work on Parliament House (now Bank of Ireland) on College Green in Dublin. This was the world’s first purpose-built, two-chamber parliament building. Sadly, Pearce died of septicaemia in 1733, aged thirty-four, and never lived to see his most famous work completed.
Following Pearce’s death, his assistant, a German architect, Richard Cassels, became the most fashionable architect in Ireland, designing a series of lavish country houses including Carton House, Powerscourt House and Russborough House.
In Dublin, Cassels was responsible for the design of Trinity College, Printing House, Tyrone House and Marlborough Street, but his masterpiece is undoubtedly Kildare House, built for Lieutenant-General James FitzGerald, the 20th Earl of Kildare. When the Earl was awarded a dukedom and became First Duke of Leinster, the house was renamed Leinster House. One of the Duke’s sons who didn’t particularly like living in Leinster House was the aristocrat-turned-revolutionary, Lord Edward FitzGerald, who once complained in a letter to his mother that ‘Leinster House does not inspire the brightest ideas’. Leinster House has been the seat of the Oireachtas, the legislature of Ireland, since 1922, so one would hope that the building’s uninspirational ambience is a thing of the past.
Irish Palladianism has long been recognised as a distinctive version of the style, frequently featuring Rococo plasterwork, often with stucco, with far more flamboyant and decorative interiors than Palladian buildings elsewhere in Europe. Although many of the great country houses were destroyed during the Irish War of Independence, many remain today as fine examples of Irish Palladianism.