When we look at an historic building, there are often details we don’t notice until someone points them out to us. This is because often the current form of a building can hide many elements of its history, with extensions, renovations and alterations adding layers to a building.
In Dublin, there is no lack of these kinds of buildings, ones that reflect a sometimes turbulent, but always multifaceted, history. The old Irish Houses of Parliament building on College Green is one of these, with a story behind it that speaks to the dynamic history of Dublin itself.
Interestingly, the building was also the Bank of Ireland headquarters, as was Miesian Plaza before its redevelopment. This article therefore highlights the bank’s strong history with iconic architecture.
History of the Design
The building was designed by architect Edward Lovett Pearce to serve the Irish Parliament of the Kingdom of Ireland, with the foundation stone for the building laid on 3 February 1729. It was the first purpose-built two-chamber parliamentary building in the world, with chambers for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Since Pearce was a Member of Parliament (MP) himself, his revolutionary semi-circular design was presumably the result of understanding from experience what a more optimal layout for parliament should be.
Notable Design Elements
The interior design of the building was so revolutionary at the time, that the design of both the exterior and interior of the building were copied in other government buildings around the world, including in the design of the Capitol Building in the USA and the British Museum in London. The semi-circular interior design of the building was particularly novel, as opposed to the British parliament structure, which was based on Westminster’s former use as a chapel (in this format, MPs faced each other). The building also opened up directly onto what is now College Green, as opposed to former parliamentary buildings, which were set further back.
A noticeable feature of the building is that the House of Commons was placed in the centre of the building, whereas in other converted parliamentary buildings, the House of Commons and the House of Lords are given equal space, or the House of Lords is more favoured. Other noticeable interior design elements include two tapestries, “Battle of the Boyne” and “Defence of Londonderry” designed by Dutch landscape painter William van der Hagen, which date from 1733 and are both unique.
Unfortunately, Pearce died young and was not able to see the building’s design to completion, and work was taken over by English architect James Gandon, whose work we’ve discussed on this blog in a previous post. The original design by Pearce, and expanded on by Gandon, included a row of columns at the entrance of the building with a portico, and three statues to represent elements of the Irish parliamentary ethos above. At the main entrance, which Pearce designed, there is a row of Ionic columns with a portico and three statues above it: Hibernia (which is Latin for Ireland), Fidelity and Commerce.
The other entrance, designed by Gandon and built from 1785-1789, has a row of Corinthian pillars instead, but also the same structure with three statues, namely Fortitude, Justice and Liberty above the portico. The statues were made by sculptor Edward Smythe, who also worked with Gandon on other important buildings in Dublin.
Interestingly, the way these two entrances are connected by a curved wall was not part of the original design, but actually to cover up some uneven elements of the extension. Later, another curved wall would be added on the other side of the building too, to cover up another row of Ionic pillars that linked to another extension, built by architect Robert Parke. This row of pillars was seen as unattractive, so for the sake of symmetry, the same wall was added to the other side of the building.
From Houses of Parliament to the Bank of Ireland Headquarters
The building served its parliamentary purpose all through the 18th century, until the Act of Union in 1800, when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In the 1790s, the interior and dome of the House of Commons were destroyed by a fire, and rebuilt without the dome and reopoened in 1796, just four years before the Act of Union. The building was later adapted by architect Francis Johnston in the building’s reconstruction as a bank, after the building was bought by the Bank of Ireland in 1803, with the strict proviso that the building would never be used again for parliamentary purposes.
The Bank of Ireland continued to use the building for over 150 years, and was based in the building until the 1970s, when the bank headquarters moved to Baggot Street.
The Building Today
Today the building is referred to as the Bank of Ireland, College Green, and has important historic and symbolic value in the city of Dublin, with some of the rooms open to the public for functions, and with many items of historic importance. The building is seen as having symbolic Irish nationalist value, but this is actually ironic, due to the fact that the building was only used politically during a time when the Irish aristocracy ruled from Britain and the Catholic majority was not allowed to vote, and was barred from taking part in any parliamentary proceedings.
Either way, the building’s longevity still makes it a notable building in Dublin, and is an important point of interest in the city.