As regular readers will know, for much of the 1960s I was fascinated by pop music and religion. The fact that I was largely oblivious to other aspects of Irish society and culture simply reflects my immaturity at the time. But, as I now realise, it was not just my twin preoccupations that were being transformed or even destroyed. I was living through a revolution that threatened to alter everything, including Dublin’s architectural landscape. 

When I was growing up the look of Dublin reflected the city’s history, which dated back to the Middle Ages. There were medieval buildings like St. Audoen’s Protestant church and Dublin Castle, both located only a mile from where we lived. Just across the Liffey was the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, built in the 17th-century but largely gone to seed - so off-limits to me. 

Of course there were also new glass and steel structures rising up in the city centre, such as the horrible Hawkins House near College Green. This replaced the Regal Cinema where I had spent some happy Sunday afternoons with my father. The Regal was by no means ancient - it was built in the 1930s. But its demise reflected a growing move to bulldoze anything that stood in the way of progress.[1]  

As the Irish economy took off in the early 1960s, an alliance of property developers and politicians set about dismantling Dublin’s architectural heritage. The city’s elegant Georgian streetscapes and squares – built during the eighteenth century under British rule - were a particular target of those who, for reasons of profit or misplaced nationalism, sought to replace them with modern office blocks. 

Probably the best-known example of this trend was the violation of the famous “Georgian Mile” stretching from Leeson Street down to Holles Street Hospital. In September 1964, the government ordered the demolition of sixteen of the houses along this unique vista and their replacement with a new headquarters for the Electricity Supply Board (ESB).

Author Brian Cleeve compared this outrage to ripping several perfectly good teeth out of someone’s mouth. The results were just as hideous as that image suggests because, as Brian went on to describe, 

Georgian architecture depended for its effects on wholeness, on a panoramic sweep of view along a terrace or around a crescent or square.[2] 

Some of Dublin’s Georgian districts consisted of dilapidated slums, while others were made up of professional offices and stylish homes. But, irrespective of their current state, there was something ineffably beautiful about a long terrace of Georgian houses, a beauty that could not be found in a modern eyesore like the ESB HQ. 

But what is beauty? Does it depend on the subjective “eye of the beholder”? Or has beauty an absolute reality, independent of the observer?

In the closing lines of his Ode on a Grecian Urn, John Keats made a bold assertion.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’, – That is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

If truth is absolute then so too is beauty. That is how I interpret Keats’ famous lines. But in the 1960s these concepts were already becoming unfashionable in a society that had little regard for what Myles na Gopaleen called “the nation’s soul”.[3] 

Thankfully Georgian Dublin survived demolition and many of those terraces and squares continue to delight the eye today. A sign perhaps that, as long as we prize the beauty around us, those seeking its destruction will never prevail.

[1] Frank McDonald, The Destruction of Dublin (Dublin 1985), pp. 40-1.

[2] Brian Cleeve, A View of the Irish (London 1983), p. 162.

[3] Irish Georgian Society [https://www.igs.ie/about/history], 5 Dec 2020.


  1. Strange Jim, I've been musing on a similar quotation by Keats for many years - "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." The poet Wallace Stevens (and the symbolist movement he sprang from, started by Mallarme) was of a polar opposite view. They believed that all artistic form is finite, so loses allure in time, including architecture. Mallarme set out to try and show that a new era of elliptical poetry might replace the great masterworks by Dante. But they failed miserably. Their greatest achievement - by another American Symbolist TS Eliot (at the beginning of his career before he wised up0 - led to a wasteland. I guess the same principle might be applied to architecture. Johnny Duhan

    1. Thanks Johnny. I agree that natural beauty supersedes anything humanity can produce. Yet the greatest art, whether in music, painting, or even architecture, can reflect divinely-inspired beauty (however imperfectly) that it arouses joy in the human heart.


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