Gandon’s Fought Over Corner of Dublin (1791)

This river side corner of Dublin delighted the eye of the 18th century viewer when gazed upon from Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge. Commanding attention was James Gandon’s Custom House, face turned ever so slightly to its admirers and proudly fronting onto Anna Liffey as she twists gently on her final run to the open sea.

London was Gandon’s home, the place in which he had built his reputation. But they came and wooed him - men such as the Right Honourable John Beresford, an Irishman of power and influence. Most definite servants of the British empire they were, yet these men dreamed of a Dublin graced with wide avenues and embellished with buildings of architectural merit and note. The Royal Academy Gold Medal winner was tempted to Dublin and into a den of political intrigue. ‘Nothing must meet the public ear’ - thus, Beresford the Commissioner of Revenue, swore him to secrecy before Gandon quit his London home. ‘Great secrecy must be observed’. This warning rang in Gandon’s ears on his arrival in Dublin on April 26th, 1781. Not for him ceremonial words of welcome nor gala dinners with fashionable hostesses. 

The government had sanctioned the project. Against it were the city corporation, the merchants and, Gandon was warned, the ‘most desperate of the mob’. Growing ever more alarmed at not having even surveyed the proposed site for himself, he was emboldened to set out one early morning and walk the land. What he saw did not please him. But shortly thereafter, Gandon was on site - with instructions that he should work unnoticed insofar as possible. Feeling like a ‘general who is forced to take the field without a staff’ he supervised the digging of the foundations. The foundation stone was laid by John Beresford without any fanfare.

And yes, that ‘most desperate mob’ did arrive armed with shovels and led by the high sheriff of Dublin and the infamous Napper Tandy. And they came back in various guises. Again and again Gandon stoically repaired and rebuilt until the mob relented. Out of such cloak and dagger drama grew one of Dublin’s most treasured architectural gems. All this and at a time of great personal tragedy for him. He returned to London with the intention of bringing his family back to Dublin. Sadly the family settled in Dublin without Gandon’s beloved wife, Eleanor, who in ill health for some time, had died. 

Work continued apace and Beresford Place was laid out. Today, only one of the curving terraces of townhouses survives, laid out behind the Custom House and in line with its iconic central dome. The revival of Dublin was short lived. The Act of Union of 1800 begat Dublin, ‘the faded city’ and within another hundred years iron willed Victorian entrepreneurs would scar his beautifully created vista with their monument to industrialisation - the Loopline Bridge.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 05th September 2013