Rewind - Irish House of Commons

By Sean Heffernan

This week we are leaving the splendid confines of Castletown House and walking to the bus stop opposite Celbridge Credit Union to hop on the 67 bus to Bachelors Walk in Dublin City Centre.

From here we will cross over the Ha’penny Bridge, through Merchants Arch, down Temple Bar, turning left onto Fleet Street, then right onto Anglesea Street and then onto our final destination at The Bank of Ireland branch on College Green.

Irish House of Commons

Built in 1729, the building was purchased in 1803 by Bank of Ireland

But the Bank was not the original occupiers of this grand building; this was the site for the first Irish Parliament.

As regular readers will know, this column loves to link the different stories as much as possible, and it is no different this week. 

Last week we spoke about how Castletown House owed it’s longevity to one William ‘The Speaker’ Connolly, and the dwelling on Fosters Place with the grand columns and statues above it was a regular haunt of his, where he held the important role of ‘Speaker of the Irish House of Commons’.

There were four architects involved in the design of this magnificent structure, among them the man who many would regard as the best known of them all James Gandon.

He was born in London in 1742, if you were thinking that his surname does not sound Irish or English, you would be right – his Grandfather was a Hugenot refugee who fled France after it’s Catholic rulers increased attacks on members of the Protestant faith.

In 1781 his friend Lord Charlemont, who lived in a grand house in Marino, (and now has a street and LUAS stop in Dublin 2 named after him) invited him to Ireland to oversee the design and development of the Custom House.

So impressed were the cities Forefathers with his work by the Liffey, they entrusted him with other projects in the city too, amongst them The Four Courts and The Kings Inns.

The main designer was a gentleman by the name of Edward Pearce, a man born into considerable wealth, with one of his Grandfathers occupying the highly prestigious role of Lord Mayor of Dublin for a time.

With this money he was able to fund a tour of the main cities of Europe, including Florence and Rome.

While on this long trip he was able to witness first-hand the new developments in Architecture, and how in many cases they blended in tastefully with the old.

When he came home, he brought with him a vivid image as to how he would love to see things in Dublin.

It was a surprise to even me, a person who has a huge interest in history, and has read many books on Dublin in my life, to find out recently that the first ever purpose built Parliament building in the world was the one built in our capital city in 1739.

Wisdom, Justice and Liberty

The three structures that stand atop the portico represent Wisdom, Justice and Liberty.

The main part of the building was the ‘House of Commons’ which was in an octagonal shape, with a chamber area where the Parliamentarian’s sat, and a public gallery where interested citizens of Dublin could go to view the proceedings below.

In 1792 a large part of the original structure was destroyed in a fire, and the revamp in 1796 was a dressed down version of the original.

There are two tapestries contained within it’s environs which depict the Battle of the Boyne, where William of Orange defeated Charles II.

Besides William Connolly, other ‘Speakers’ of Parliament included Ralph Gore, the 4th Baronet of this prestigious family, who is famously known for the castle on the Belle Isle estate in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh.

Another was Henry Boyle, a man who held the position of one of the MP’s for Co. Cork from 1715 until 1756, whereupon he was elevated to the title of the Earl of Shannon.

Like so many others I have written about, he had the good fortune – literally – to marry the daughter of someone with enormous wealth, in this case Lord Burlington.

Also, like many other MP’s in the Dublin based Parliament, Boyle owned substantial amounts of land in Cork, and he had cousins who had vast land titles in neighbouring Waterford too.

The final speaker to reside in the position was one John Foster the Baron of Oriel who entered Parliament for the seat of Dunleer Co. Louth.

Foster place beside the building is named after him.

A strong believer in his Protestant faith, he opposed measures which led to the relaxation of the Penal Laws, and restored rights to those of the Presbyterian and Catholic faiths.

Another decision he opposed was one which was to cause ructions on this Island.

In 1800 the bulk of the deputies in the chamber placed ill gotten gains over the wishes of the people they served, as they took backhanders to vote in favour of the ‘Act of Union’ which dissolved the Irish Parliament, and ceded their powers to the Westminster Parliament in London, where they would now sit and come under it’s authority.

Three years later The Bank of Ireland took ownership of the building, which still houses a branch of the financial institution to this day.

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