Many (including my fellow Dubliner’s) are surprised to learn that the world’s first purpose designed two chamber Parliament building is in Dublin and is largely extant. When Parliaments emerged they were housed in existing buildings – Palaces or Great Houses, Town Halls or Churches but in the Irish Parliament was housed in a revolutionary purpose built building which influences architectural design to this day. The Irish Houses of Parliament (Irish: Tithe na Parlaiminte), also known as the Irish Parliament House, today called the Bank of Ireland, College Green, due to its use by the bank, was the world’s first purpose-built two-chamber parliament house. It served as the seat of both chambers (the Lords and Commons) of the Irish Parliament of the Kingdom of Ireland for most of the 18th century until that parliament was abolished by the Act of Union of 1800, when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
At the centre of Dublin, College Green provides a fine public space with the well mannered Corinthian façade of Trinity College looking down Dame Street, the ceremonial road to the former British centre of power, Dublin Castle, and the fine bank head offices and on its left the building known today as the Bank of Ireland but originally the world’s first purpose built parliament building. Originaly this was known as Hoggen Green deriving its name from the Scandinavian word for mound and the nearby nunnery of Blessed Virgin Mary del Hogges founded in 1156. Nearby was the Thingmote, which was the Viking assembly place. It was renamed College Green after Trinity College in the 1600s.
Edward Lovett Pearce, who was himself a Member of Parliament and a protégé of the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Connolly of Castletown House was the architect of the original building, now the centre portion of the bank. While building begun, parliament moved to the Blue Coat Hospital on Dublin’s north side. The foundation stone for the new building was laid on 3 February 1729.
This was the first purpose built Parliament House in the world and was constructed at a great time of public confidence in Dublin. The original building designed by Pearce was constructed between 1729 and 1739 is only part of the existing structure. This consisted of the central section with its huge colonnades. Pearce was actually knighted in the building on the 10 March 1731.
Pearce’s design for the new Irish Houses of Parliament was revolutionary. The building was effectively semi-circular in shape, occupying nearly 6,000 m² (1.5 acres) of ground. Unlike Chichester House, which was set far back from Hoggen Green, the new building was to open up directly onto the Green, as the above photograph shows. The principal entrance consisted of a colonnade of Ionic columns extending around three sides of the entrance quadrangle, forming a letter ‘E’ (see picture at the bottom of the page). Three statues, representing Hibernia (the Latin name for Ireland), Fidelity and Commerce stood above the portico. Over the main entrance, the royal coat of arms were cut in stone.
Pearce’s creation was fronted by an E-shaped Ionic collonade and portico facing what by then became known as College Green. What is somewhat odd, perhaps even off-kilter, about Pearce’s plan is the prominence it gives to the House of Commons, presumably at the expense of the House of Lords. The Commons chamber was on a direct axis with the front entrance while the Lords were pushed off the axis towards the east. This may have reflected the fact that Pearce was himself a member of the Commons, but it is also probable that William Connolly, the powerful Speaker of the House as well as Pearce’s political mentor, played a part in this seemingly inappropriate architectural distinction.
This inbalance is in contrast to the later Houses of Parliament at Westminster designed by Pugin and Barry, in which the Commons and the Lords are given virtually equal distinction in terms of the plan. Somewhat ironically, Pugin’s parliament, which has no real main façade, was designed somewhat to look as if it was constructed at different time periods (albeit with the external style all the same), though in reality except for Westminster Hall and some basements and crypts the entire structure was completed by a single architectural duo working at one time. Contrarily, the Irish Parliament building was constructed by three architects at three different times (though all within the same century) yet has been made to appear as if composed as a whole.
Like other buildings in Dublin notably the Custom House, the Bank of Ireland is graced by sculptures by Edward Smyth. These statues are placed over the portico to the House of Lords and symbolise Wisdom, Justice and Liberty.
In the last thirty years of the Irish parliament’s existence, a series of crises and reforms changed the role of parliament. In 1782, following agitation by major parliamentary figures, but most notably Henry Grattan, the severe restrictions such as Poyning’s Law that effectively controlled the Irish Parliament’s ability to control its own legislative agenda were removed, producing what was known as the Constitution of 1782. A little over a decade later, Roman Catholics, who were by far the majority in the Kingdom of Ireland, were allowed to cast votes in elections to parliament, though they were still debarred from membership. The crisis over the ‘madness’ of King George III produced a major strain in Anglo-Irish relation, as both of the King’s parliaments in both of his kingdoms possessed the theoretical right to nominate a regent, without the requirement that they choose the same person, though both in fact chose the Prince of Wales.
The British government decided that the entire relationship between Britain and Ireland should be changed, with the merger of both states and parliaments. After one failed attempt, this finally was achieved, albeit with mass bribery of members of both Houses, who were awarded British and United Kingdom peerages and other ‘encouragements’. In August 1800 parliament held its last session in the Irish Houses of Parliament. On 1 January 1801 the Kingdom of Ireland and its parliament ceased to exist, with the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland coming into being, with a united parliament meeting in Westminster, to which Ireland sent approximately 100 members while Irish peers had the constant right to elect a number of fellow Irish peers as representative peers to represent Ireland in the House of Lords, on the model already introduced for Scottish peers.
The Parliament of the eighteenth century was largely controlled by the wealthy ascendancy. With the Act of Union the centre of power shifted to London and with it the desire for improvements to Dublin as many of the ascendancy moved to London when not living on their country estates. After this, Dublin began its slow slide into disrepair with the famous Gardiner Estate going bankrupt and the decay of many of the glorious Georgian streets as the houses were split up into tenements. The Parliament building was sold to the Bank of Ireland under the condition that it should not be used for political assemblies.
The abolition of the parliament in 1800 had a major economic impact on the life of the city. Within a decade, many of the finest mansions (Leinster House, Powerscourt House, Aldborough House, etc) had been sold, often to government agencies. Though parliament itself was based on the
exclusion of Irish Catholics, many catholic nationalist historians and writers blamed the absence of parliament for the increased impoverishment of Dublin, with many of the large mansions in areas like Henrietta Street sold to unscrupulous property developers and landlords who reduced them to tenements.
The draw of the vice regal court and its social season was not enough to encourage most Irish peers and their large entourage to come to Dublin anymore, their absence and that of their servants, with all their collective and previously excessive spending, severely hitting the economy of Dublin, which went into dramatic decline. By the 1830s and 1840s, nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell was leading a demand for the Repeal of the Act of Union and the re-establishment of an Irish parliament in Dublin, only this time one in which Catholics like O’Connell could now be elected to and sit in, in contrast with the entirely Protestant assembly that had met in the old Houses of Parliament.
One of the more colourful figures to adorn the Irish Parliament was Sir Boyle Roche. Born in 1743, Sir Boyle Roche became the Member of Parliament for Tralee, County Kerry in the Irish House of Commons. His striking but incoherent images became famous. More seriously, he played a part in Irish history by opposing Catholic emancipation. When the Act of Union was passed in 1801, abolishing the old Irish Parliament, he did not become an MP at Westminster. He died in 1807.
He was famous for bringing mixed metaphors to new heights or depths depending on your viewpoint!
“Mr Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I will nip him in the bud.”
It was sentences like these that made Sir Boyle Roche famous in his day. Long after his death, many of these sayings are still remembered. Most of Sir Boyle Roche’s more famous blunders were in speeches to the Irish House of Commons. In his speeches, he supported the Act of Union with Britain, and was deeply suspicious of any political ideas inspired by the French Revolution. A few of his sayings are remembered from letters to friends.
Why should we put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity? For what has posterity ever done for us?
How can I be in two places at once, unless I were a bird?
Half the lies our opponents tell about us are untrue.
The cup of Ireland’s misery has been overflowing for centuries and is not yet half full.
Ireland and England are like two sisters; I would have them embrace like one brother.
All along the untrodden paths of the future, I can see the footprints of an unseen hand.
We should silence anyone who opposes the right to freedom of speech.
Here perhaps, sir, the murderous Marshallaw-men would break in, cut us to mince-meat and throw our bleeding heads upon that table, to stare us in the face!
The only thing to prevent what’s past is to put a stop to it before it happens.
At present there are such goings-on that everything is at a standstill.
In a letter:
While I write this letter, I have a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other.
In a letter:
PS If you do not receive this, of course it must have been miscarried; therefore I beg you to write and let me know.
This type of confused figure of speech became known as an Irish Bull. Dr John Mahaffy (the great 19th Century scholar of Trinity College Dublin) said that ‘An Irish Bull is always pregnant’. Irish Bulls can still be spotted occasionally, especially in the speeches of politicians, take a cue, George W. Bush!
Pearce’s revolutionary designs came to be studied and copied both at home and abroad. The Viceregal Apartments in Dublin Castle copied his top-lit corridors, through with minor alterations that undermined the effect somewhat. The British Museum in London copied his colonnaded House of Commons entrance for its own facade. The Prints of Dublin by James Malton in the 18th Century employed Robert Smirke the Elder to sketch in the people in the pictures. His son, Robert Smirke the Younger, was the architect of the British Museum and is thought to have been inspired by the colonnade in the prints his father worked on.
The impact of his designs stretched as far as Washington, DC where Pearce’s building, and in particular his octagonal House of Commons chamber, was studied as plans were made for the new United States’s new Capitol building. While the shape of the chamber was not replicated, some of its decorative motifs were, with the ceiling structure in the Old Senate Chamber and old House of Representatives chamber (now the Statuary Hall) holding a striking resemblance to the original Pearce-designed ceiling in the original House of Commons. Ironically, while the Capitol was copying aspects of the Irish Parliament’s design, the White House was being modelled on the ground and first floors of Leinster House, then the residence of one of the leading peers in the Irish House of Lords, the Duke of Leinster, and now the seat of the modern independent Irish parliament, Oireachtas Éireann. The White House was designed by the Irish architect James Hoban, a pupil of Richard Cassels (Von Kassel) the German born architect of Leinster House.Old Senate Chamber
At the side of the building is an attractive tree lined close named after John Foster (1740-1828), a Wide Streets Commissioner and the last Speaker of the House of Commons in the Irish Parliament. Prior to widening by the Wide Streets Commissioners, this was known as Turnstile Alley. Foster Place is a cul-de-sac leading to the former Central Bank building and dominated by the curving screen wall and portico of the former Houses of Parliament. Cobbled and tree-lined, it is a popular street for filming, as it required little work to create a scene for period drama. The Bank of Ireland Arts Centre occupies the former armoury of the bank at the end of Foster Place and was designed by Francis Johnston in 1803 as part of his brief to convert the old Parliament House.
The Armoury now contains “The Story of Banking”, an interactive museum which reflects both banking and Irish history over the past 200 years. It also traces the history of the adjoining Bank of Ireland building from its earliest days as Parliament House. Since 1995 the Arts Centre has become a significant venue for the living arts and hosts a variety of events from free classical recitals to exhibitions, theatre, launches and conferences.
On the other side of Foster Place there is the former AIB Bank with its magnificent banking hall. Since this closed and was acquired by Trinity College there is sadly no public access. Daly’s Club, which was the “Gentlemen’s” club for the Irish Parliament was also here. This was also a favourite meeting place was for the notorious “Hellfire Club”. Here the shutters were closed in the morning so that members with hangovers could gamble by candlelight. One gruesome incident occurred when a member, said to be ‘Buck’ Sheely was caught cheating at cards. A ‘court’ was convened presided over by ‘Buck’ English who dressed for the part in the skin, tail and horns of a bull. His verdict was that Sheely was to be hurled through the window of the third floor gaming room. When honour had been satisfied, gambling was resumed. Sheely died in the fall.
The Bank of Ireland has conserved the heritage of the building admirably. Today attendants lead tours that point out the coffered ceiling and oak panelling. There are also huge tapestries of the Battle of the Boyne and the siege of Derry, and a splendid 1,233-piece crystal chandelier dating from 1788. The present building also known as Grattan’s Parliament was completed in 1808 after additions were made.
For whatever reason, however, during the 1916 Rising in Dublin and the War of Independence the ‘Bank of Ireland’ as it was generally called, remained untouched. When in 1919, Irish republican MPs elected in the 1918 general election assembled to form the First Dáil and issue a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, they chose not to seek to use the old Irish parliament house but instead the Round Room of the Mansion House, the residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin. (Ironically the Round Room had more royal connections than the Houses of Parliament; it had been built for the visit of King George IV in 1821).
When it came to choosing a permanent parliament building after Independence in 1922 the Free State Government purchased Leinster House, the headquarters of the RDS, The Royal Dublin Society, as the home for the Irish Parliament. While in the eighteenth century the fact that one of its House of Lords entrance opened directly onto a street caused little worry, in the Ireland of 1922 with a civil war raging it building was simply too insecure to be used as a modern day parliament building. While the House of Commons entrance was surrounded by railings, it offered only minimal parking space and minimal security from attack, and practically no means of escape in the event of an attack. In contrast Leinster House was located well in from the streets that surrounded it, had considerable parking potential and was far more secure in the event of an anti-treaty republican attack on the Free State Dáil and Seanad.
However this would be a decision well worth revisiting in the 21st century. Leinster House is bounded by the National Museum, Art Gallery, Library and Natural History Museum (all founded by the RDS) and its vacating by the Irish Parliament would allow these to be integrated into an outstanding cultural amenity. Because of the site restrictions facilities cannot be developed at Leinster House. However The College Green buildings could easily be reinstated as a Parliament at the very heart of Dublin and there is now ample scope to develop the surroundings to provide the modern office and support facilities such a parliament would need. Ireland has taken great strides in the past decade and the return of parliament to this great purpose designed parliament building and the development of a superb cultural facility at Leinster House would show that Ireland has regained the confidence lost at the Act of Union and is prepared to create a great legacy for the future.
Ultimately the old Irish Houses of Parliament, the world’s first purpose-built two-chamber parliament building, has remained a curiously contradictory symbol for Ireland: a parliament based on discrimination and exclusion that nevertheless, through producing radical leaders like Henry Grattan, is seen generally with affection by a people whose ancestors were debarred from membership. A parliament that, though Protestant establishment in membership and loyal to the Crown, in 1782 produced the first real attempt at Irish independence, achieving the ‘Constitution of 1782’ that stressed its loyalty to the King by virtue of his Irish, not British Crown.
Although flawed in its working, discriminatory in its membership and powerless in its ability to control the executive, it was used as a symbol by generations of nationalist leaders from O’Connell to Parnell and Redmond in their own quest for Irish self government. It is particularly ironic that Sinn Féin, which as a republican party fought for Irish independence during the Anglo-Irish War, was founded by a man, Arthur Griffith, who sought to restore the King, Lords and Commons of Ireland and the 1782 constitution to the centre of Irish governance, and the College Green Houses of Parliament to its position as the home of an Irish parliament.