Insider Tips

Strong Foundations

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Dublin is diverse – a modern and vibrant city, it’s become home to the likes of Google, while a host of innovative restaurants and bars have also popped up. This cosmopolitan capital also boasts a rich history – you’ll find stunning examples of architecture dating right back to the ‘Dubh Linn’ (‘black pool’) settlement. Here, with a little help from Máirtín D’Alton of Architecture Tours Ireland, we take a journey through the ages, highlighting some of the city’s impressive hidden architecture.

1190s: St. Audoen's Church

St Audeons Church

Dublin was originally built around the areas of Christchurch and Cornmarket, on the banks of the River Liffey. Located just a stone’s throw from what was once the medieval city-centre, you’ll find St. Audoen’s, the city’s oldest church and a fine example of 12th century Anglo-Norman architecture. It was subsequently expanded; King Henry VI oversaw the addition of a chantry in 1430, while its distinctive tower was built in the 17th century. It’s an atmospheric place too – not only is it home to the city’s famous Lucky Stone, the steps of the church are said to be haunted by the ghost of Darkey Kelly. Thought to be Dublin’s first female serial killer, she was burned to death on Baggot Street on January 7, 1761. St. Audoen’s is just one of the stops on the new Dublin Discovery Trails app. Download it today, and you’ll have access to themed walking trails which will allow you to independently explore the rich narrative concealed behind the city’s many facades. As you pass Dublin’s iconic buildings, streets and churches (at your own pace), the audio-guides will reveal their hidden history! 

1203: Wardrobe Tower (Dublin Castle)

Wardrobe Tower at Dublin Castle

King John of England oversaw the building of Dublin Castle in the early thirteenth century; he wanted a strong fortress with thick walls and deep ditches, a defensive base from which Ireland would be ruled by the Crown. Its foreboding Wardrobe Tower is Dublin’s last intact medieval tower, and is positively steeped in history. Finished in 1203, it got its name from the fact that was used to house the visiting monarchs’ royal robes. But it has other names too; Black Tower, Gunner’s Tower and Record Tower, and in fact, up until the 1700s, it was used primarily as a prison. Red Hugh O’Donnell, then King of Donegalfamously escaped the tower with his comrades Art and Henry O’Neill in 1591. They’d been captured by the English and imprisoned, because their clans wouldn’t declare loyalty to the King. In freezing conditions, the trio headed for Glenmalure Valley in the Wicklow Mountains, over 50km away. Though Red Hugh and Henry survived the trip, Art sadly died from exposure, just miles from their destination. Every year, a group of walkers commemorate the ill-fated trip by re-enacting the escape. Today, the tower is part of the Garda Síochána (Irish Police) Museum and Archives. Here you’ll find documents and artefacts relating to the colourful history of the force throughout the years.

1662: Smock Alley Theatre

Smock Alley Theatre

The second purpose-built theatre in Ireland, Smock Alley on Exchange Street Lower dates back to 1662. In its original form (as the Theatre Royal), renowned international stars performed; English actor and playwright David Garrick first played Hamlet on this Dublin stage. In the early nineteenth century, the theatre was bought by a priest, and converted into a church. In 1811, it was the first Catholic bell to ring in nearly 300 years. The church closed in 1989, and 20 years later, an archaeological excavation began in the area, which revealed that in fact the original theatre hadn’t been completely demolished. The foundations from 1662 were found intact, as well as 229 artefacts including wine bottles, some mosaic tile pieces, a tobacco pipe and even an actor’s wig curler! Following a six-year renovation, the theatre reopened as Smock Alley, one of the many jewels in cultural quarter Temple Bar’s crown.

1775: Casino, Marino

The Casino at Marino

Designed by esteemed architect Sir William Chambers, the Casino (no not that kind, the word means ‘little house’ in Italian!) in north Dublin suburb Marino is a true work of art. A stunning example of eighteenth century neo-classical architecture, it served as a ‘pleasure house’ for James Caulfield, the First Earl of nearby Charlemont. Though from a distance it appears to be a small, one-storey building, this is a clever architectural optical illusion, and there are actually 16 beautiful rooms inside. Feature highlights include angled windows that can’t be seen through, decorative urns on the roof that are in fact chimneypots, and a very intriguing series of underground tunnels. Historians have speculated down through the years as to why Chambers built the tunnels, the longest of which originally linked to the main house. Others vary in length from 10 to 20 feet, and have an array of mysterious alcoves, rooms and carvings in their walls. Some scholars argue that the house was actually a Masonic lodge; and the star on the entrance floor would certainly seem to support this theory. Another rumour is that the tunnels were used by the Republican side during the Irish War of Independence, (1919–1921), and that iconic revolutionary leader Michael Collins was at times hidden there from British authorities. Whether these stories are true or not, the Casino is a fascinating space, and well worth a visit. 

1791:  The Custom House

The Custom's House

Though this is another fine example of neo-classical architecture, not many Dubliners are aware of the Custom House’s rather controversial history. The existing building (home to various government departments) sits on the north bank of the River Liffey, however the original Custom House was actually located further upstream at Essex Quay. Built in 1707, it was declared unsound just 70 years later. The proposed location for its replacement was a contentious one; the then Commissioner of Revenue John Beresford insisted that it be built in its current spot, against the wishes of Dublin Corporation and many local merchants, who believed it would lower the value of their properties. The project went ahead though, with Englishman James Gandon appointed lead architect. Despite its controversial beginnings, it’s a one of the grandest buildings in the city and boasts four monumental facades – each different but consistent – and linked by identical corner pavilions. Look out for beautiful exterior adornments and coats of arms too. Its finely detailed sculptures are the work of Meath man Edward Smyth. Check out the ornate 16-foot statue of Commerce on top of the building’s dome, and on the keystones of its arches, 16 Heads, symbolising the principal rivers of Ireland. Another sculpture called an ‘alto relievo’ represents the friendly union of Great Britain and Ireland.

Georgian Dublin: No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street Lower

Georgian Dublin

This next building offers a glimpse into what life was like for the middle and upper classes in Georgian Dublin. No. 29 Fitzwilliam Street is a fine example of Georgian architecture, typical between the beginning of the reign of King George I (1714) and the death of King George IV (1830). The city is home to hundreds of three-story townhouses built in this style; you’ll recognise them as typically terraced, with a distinctive arched window frame above the heavy, panelled front door, high ceilings, elaborate, marble chimney places and lavishly adorned walls and ceilings. No. 29, which was occupied from 1794 by Olivia Beatty, the widow of a prominent wine merchant, is fully decorated today as it would have been during that time. You can pop in between 10am and 5pm for a self-guided tour, or partake in one of the four daily guided tours. 

1857: Trinity College's Museum Buildings

Trinity College Museum Building

In 1833, the Board of Trinity College Dublin invited architects to submit proposals for a new building, which would house the college’s various geological collections. Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward were finally accepted (an astounding 20 years later!), and set to work on what would eventually be a Palazzo style building, inspired by Venice’s Byzantine architecture, and finished in Lombardo-Romanesque detailing. Given its future purpose, Dean and Woodward used a vast array of stone to complete the job – in fact, legend has it that there’s a stone present from every quarry in Ireland! It’s undoubtedly a job well done; inside its doors you’ll find 14 full columns and eighteen half-columns of Irish marble, a series of stunning Romanesque arches and a large, domed central hall.

1902: Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness Storehouse

To a more modern attraction next; the Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate.  Arthur Guinness famously signed a 9,000-year lease at this site in 1759, and his famous porter has been brewed there ever since. The current building however was constructed in 1902, in the style of the Chicago School of Architecture ­ the first steel-framed multi-storey building in Europe. It’s an impressive design, and amazingly is shaped like a giant Guinness glass; one that would take 14.3 million pints to fill! Today you can take a tour of the Storehouse, ascending up through its seven floors to finally enjoy a pint in the famous Gravity Bar, which offers amazing panoramic views of the city. 

1939: The War Memorial Gardens

The War Memorial Gardens at Island Bridge

These leafy, tranquil gardens are located just minutes from the city-centre, and pay tribute to the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died in WWI. The gardens were designed by Londoner Sir Edwin Lutyens, a skilled architect who found inspiration in traditional styles. In the gardens, you’ll find beautiful examples of classical symmetry and formality. A central lawn surrounds the ‘War Stone’, a granite wedge weighing over seven tons. At either end of the gardens there are two pairs of granite book rooms, representing the four provinces of Ireland. Other features of note include a beautiful sunken rose garden and the tree-lined roads that lead from the central temple. Though these gardens sadly fell into disrepair during the 1970s and 1980s, they’ve been restored to their original elegance and grace today. Be sure to spend some time in the War Memorial Gardens during your visit.

1953: Busáras

Busaras bus station

This next architectural accomplishment is a bit more divisive! Dublin’s central bus station, Busáras is located on Store Street and dates back to the 1940s. One of the first buildings in the city which aimed to integrate art and architecture, it was designed by Michael Scott in an International Modern style, inspired by noted Swiss-French architect le Corbusier’s Maison Suisse in Paris. Like the Custom House before it, Busáras faced much public criticism. In the run-up to Scott beginning work on the building, transport corporation Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) faced extensive financial difficulties, and many Dubliners felt the proposed project was too lavish and expensive, given the circumstances. Nevertheless, plans went ahead, and the building, encompassing a bus terminus, transport company offices and a small newsreel cinema designed to keep visitors entertained (no longer there, sadly) was completed in 1953. Yet Busáras continues to this day to divide the opinion of the masses. What do you think? Take a wander through it today, and you’ll see a number of Scott’s original fittings and fixtures, including terrazzo floor tiles, timber wall panels and mosaic-tiled winged canopy.

2009: Samuel Beckett Bridge

The Samuel Beckett Bridge

This contemporary design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was inspired by flipping a coin and seeing the image of an Irish harp spinning through the air. Named after the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet and playwright Beckett, this slick and modern bridge has become an iconic part of the city’s landscape. Crossing the Liffey at the historic yet regenerated Docklands, it’s the perfect representation of tradition merging with modernity in our ever-changing city. 

2010: Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

The Bord Gais Energy Theatre

The last item on our list is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of modern architecture in the city. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind in 2010, and its contemporary, angular style ties in perfectly with its home in the ultra modern Grand Canal area. The design ties into its theatrical theme with a striking composition of a ‘red carpet’ with bright resin-glass paving extending from the theatre, covered with distinctive red glowing angled light sticks. The theatre itself has a capacity of over 2,000, and has played host to various ballet shows (Swan Lake marked its official opening), concerts, operas and musicals.

Máirtín D’Alton is a consultant conservation architect at Extend and studio tutor at DIT Bolton Street.