The core of the house was built in 1751 by Nathaniel Clements on the side of a small house called Newtown Cottage. Clements was appointed to the position of Park Ranger and wanted a house to reflect his new position. He was a wealthy member of Dublin high society so he built himself a grand mansion in the Palladian style. He also designed the house himself as he was a gifted amateur architect and a prodigy of Luke Gardiner, the man responsible for laying out Dublin’s original Georgian core on the North side of the city. Clements is thought to have designed at least five of the houses on Henrietta Street, one of Dublin’s most beautiful and intact early Georgian Streets.
In 1782 the house and contents were sold to the crown for use as a weekend retreat for the Viceroy of Ireland. The Viceroy was resident in Dublin Castle and the Castle was no longer suitable as a residence for the Viceroy and his family. The Castle was in the core of the old medieval city and would have been loud, smelly and generally unsafe. The Castle also house one of the prisons where rebels from the various rebellions in Ireland were incarcerated. In 1801 the house was extended with a new portico and a large ballroom by Francis Johnston, the man who designed the GPO in Dublin. Johnston was a friend of a man called James Hoban, another architect who emigrated to the USA and later designed the White House in Washington DC. Hoban may have been inspired by Johnston’s portico as there are similarities between the two buildings. In 1840 Decimus Burton laid out the Gardens and in 1849 Jacob Owen designed the dining and drawing rooms for a visit by Queen Victoria of England.
Apart from being the residence of the Viceroys to Ireland it was also the home of two Governors General to the Irish Free State and nine Irish presidents. The house has 92 rooms.
The state car is a 1947 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith and was bought second hand in England for our second president Sean T. O’Kelly in 1949. This was the first post WWII Rolls Royce to be produced so it has a relatively small six cylinder engine in keeping with post war austerity. The car is finished with walnut panelling and the upholstery is blue. The blue is St. Patrick’s blue and is the national colour of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Over on the wall you can see the original toolbox from the car and you will notice that the car uses a crank to start. The car is known colloquially as ‘Dev’s Car’, as it was used frequently by Eamon DeValera, our third president throughout the 1960s. There were relatively few cars on the road in Ireland in the 1960s and DeValera was instantly recognisable driving around Dublin in his frock coat and top hat. The car was last used by president McAleese on her inauguration in 1997. It has since been stood down and the engine needs a complete overhaul. Hopefully this will happen at some stage as it would be wonderful to see the president driving to state functions in this magnificent machine!
STATE CORRIDOR (LA FRANCINI CORRIDOR)
This corridor is not original to the house. It was designed and built in 1957 by the OPW’s chief architect, Australian born Raymond McGrath. The corridor incorporates the orchestra alcove from the ballroom as is lit by a series of skylights making it bright and airy even on the dullest of rainy days. The hallway is also called the LaFrancini Corridor after the LaFrancini brothers. They were two 18 century Swiss-Italian stucco artists and were responsible for work in houses in Ireland, including Russborough and Carlton Houses. The stucco work on the wall features various allegorical figures and was comes from Riverstown House in Cork. In the 1950s Riverstown was due for demolition and it was decided to try to save the plasterwork. It was not possible to remove it from the walls as it was so securely attached. As a compromise casts were made of the plasterwork and sent to Dublin. In the meantime the Irish Georgian Society bought the house and renovated it and the original plasterwork was saved.
To our right is a portrait of Thomas Drummond. Drummond was originally from Scotland and was Undersecretary for Ireland. He was responsible for mapping Ireland for the Ordnance Survey. He was fond of Ireland and is reported to have shamed many wealthy Irish landlords into improving their tenant’s lot. He invented a lighting technique for lighthouses called the Drummond Light, based on the lime light used in the theatre and is responsible for saving many lives that would otherwise have been lost at sea. His love for Ireland caused him to stay on after Independence and he is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin. You can see a statue of him in the rotunda in City Hall, which features a small lighthouse at his feet. The wooden wine cooler at his feet was designed by Francis Johnston, the designer of the Portico of the house.
The chandeliers lighting the corridor are bespoke and were made by Waterford Crystal. The carpet runner is a hand woven, wool Killybegs carpet. Both of these premium, would renowned Irish companies are now sadly no longer in operation.
To our left are busts of our past presidents sitting on Connemara marble plinths. They are Douglas Hyde, Sean T. O’Kelly, Eamon DeValera, Erskine Childers, (Childers’ father brought guns to Ireland form Germany on his yacht the Askard to arm the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and wrote the famous novel The Riddle of the Sands), Cearbhall O’Dalaigh, Patrick Hillery, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. Missing is President Higgins, as the president sits for his bust during office and it is only displayed after he leaves.
The term in office of the Irish president is seven years and they can serve two terms. President Higgins is serving his second term at the moment.
We will now proceed to the State Dining Room.
STATE DINING ROOM
The State Dining room was built in 1849 for a visit by Queen Victoria of England. Why they needed to build a new dining room for her visit will become apparent later when we visit the old dining room.
The dining table is actually the original cabinet table from the Irish parliament, Dail Eireann and was brought here by President Eamon DeValera in the 1960s. It was built by Hicks of Dublin.
An old tradition meant that the departing Viceroy would always take a part of the house with him. One of the last Viceroys took the two fireplaces with him from the dining room and replaced them with very two very plain ones. According to Lady Fingal, the first Governor General, Tim Healey ‘could not bear to look at anything so ugly’ so he purchased two fireplaces from Archbishop Murray, the Catholic Archbishop Of Dublin from his house on Mountjoy Square and had them installed in the dining room. When Healey was leaving he wanted to take his fireplaces with him, but was convinced to leave them in place and you can see the small plaque thanking him for this on one of the fireplaces.
Around the walls you can see portraits of our past presidents. You will notice the change in style from the older presidents to the modern ones. The gentlemen all look very austere and serious and this changes from President Robinson onwards. The portraits of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese are much brighter and more informal in keeping with the change in style of the modern Presidency. DeValera’s portrait is the largest, and the reason for this is that he refused to sit for his portrait. Firstly he claimed he was too busy and then he said he did not want to incur the expense. As a compromise he donated a portrait of himself given to him by the Irish Army on leaving office as Taoiseach.
The chandelier is Birmingham crystal and has been lit by candle, gas and electricity. You will also notice that the chandelier is not centred in the room. This is because the room was shortened at the time the State Corridor was being built. It was thought it was better to leave the chandelier in line with the two chandeliers in the State Reception Room.
Outside you can see a small white octagonal building. This room was used to store garden equipment. When President Higgins looked inside he noted that it had a lovely interior. He had the building cleared out and decorated and now uses it as a contemplation space and actually writes some of his poetry there.
STATE RECEPTION ROOM
This room is an 1802 addition to the original house and was built as a ballroom. The plasterwork on the ceiling is also by the La Francini Brothers and is another cast of an original from Riverstown House. It depicts Time rescuing Truth from the assault of Disharmony and Envy. It is based on an original painting by Poussin from the Louvre Gallery in France and originally hung in Cardinal Richleau’s bedchamber. The chandeliers are 18C and are also from France. 18C chandeliers contain large teardrop crystals, as the techniques for precision cutting had not yet been developed. Artisans working on glass in the 18C would have lived very short lives and they were in constant contact with lead and mercury and were slowly poisoned. Why do ballroom dancers dance in a circle or a figure of eight? Because they did not want to get wax on their clothes from the wax dripping off the chandeliers!
The tables along the walls are called ‘pier tables’ and would originally have had mirrors behind them. They would have had large candelabras standing on them to further light the ballroom. They were designed by Mack, Williams and Gibton of Dublin. Like the chandeliers they are original to the room. The four paintings around the walls are by George Mullins. Mullins was a snuff box painter and was known to work with a paintbrush containing only one hair when painting detailed landscapes. The paintings originally hung in the Earl of Charlamont’s Casino in Marino and are in the style of Claude Lorraine. They depict Killarney at dawn, morning, afternoon and evening.
The carpet is handwoven from Killybegs in Co. Donegal and was designed by Raymond McGrath. It depicts the four Riverine Gods after the carvings on the Customs House in Dublin. The carpet was installed in 2000 and replaced another Donegal Carpet from 1950. The new carpet was woven by descendants of the original weavers and was woven on the same loom. The fireplace is by Pietro Bosi. The inlay on the fireplace is called Scagliola, which means ‘chips’ in Italian. Bosi would carve out a pattern in the marble then fill it in with a mixture of crushed marble, colour and glue. Bosi was very secretive and when he was on his death bed his son asked him to pass on the secret of his technique. Bosi replied ‘There is only one God and only one Bosi’ and expired without telling his son the family secret. When Bosi fireplaces come up for auction they sell for between €50 and €100,000!
COUNCIL OF STATE ROOM
This room was the original dining room of the house. You can see why they had to build the new dining room for Queen Victoria of England’s visit. Victorian women wore wide crinoline dresses and very few of them would have fitted into this room. After the new dining room was built this became the gentleman’s billiards room.
The plaster on the ceiling is by Bartholomew Cramillion. He introduced the Rococo technique in plaster to Ireland. This ceiling is original to the house and if you could imaging dining here by flickering candlelight with the gold gilt and the deep relief of the plaster, the ceiling would have appeared to be moving. The ceiling depicts scenes from Aesop’s Fables, including the Fox and the Stork, The Fox and the Crow and the Fox and the Grapes.
The large painting depicts the first Council of State and includes three former presidents. At the head of the table is Douglas Hyde, to his right is Eamon DeValera and to his left is Sean T. O’Kelly. They are sitting around the cabinet table from Dail Eireann which now resides in the State Dining Room. The next painting depicts an IRA Flying Column from the Irish War of Independence. This was a guerrilla war which led to the withdrawal of the British from 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties and the formation of the Irish Free State. The painting is unfinished and you can clearly see the standing officer is supposed to be leaning on something. The weapons included in this painting include, a Webley, a British officer’s handgun, a Mauser rifle, a German army rifle probably imported in 1914 in the Howth gun running by Erskine Childers on his yacht the Asgard, a Luger, a German officers handgun and a sawn off shotgun. The men are dressed in para-military style uniforms appropriate to a guerrilla army. The paintings either side of the fireplace depict Countess Markievics and Maud Gonne. Markievics was a suffragette and revolutionary leader. She was second in command of the St. Stephen’s Green garrison in 1916. She was condemned to death with the other leaders but her sentence was commuted because she was a woman. She became the first woman to be elected to the British House of Parliament in the 1918 Sinn Fein landslide, but did not take her seat. The other portrait is of Maud Gonne, another suffragette and nationalist figure. She was a famous actress in the Abbey theatre and was renowned for you statuesque beauty. The poet W.B. Yeats saw her as his muse and proposed marriage to her on numerous occasions, which she always refused.
STATE DRAWING ROOM – FRENCH DRAWING ROOM
The State drawing room is original to the house and is where the ladies withdrew to after dinner. It was said to be one of Queen Victoria of England’s favourite rooms because of the beautiful framed view of the Dublin Mountains. She found the room to be a bit chilly so the room was fully lined with sheep’s wool, which is why the room is always a couple of degrees warmer than the other rooms in the house.
The large chandelier is called the Act of Union Chandelier. The chandelier was created to celebrate the Act of Union in 1801. This act did away with the Irish parliament, sending our members of parliament and Lords to sit in the parliament in Westminster in London. The brass chandelier was originally ¾ of a ton in weight and hung in Dublin Castle. The huge weight caused a ceiling to collapse and afterwards the chandelier was broken up into two smaller ones. The one in Dublin castle now weighs ½ tonne and this one weighs ¼ ton. Various small parts of the chandelier that were broken off were refashioned into the light sconces you can see above the doors. The floral motif of the chandelier depicts the Irish Shamrock, the Scottish Thistle and the English Rose.
The sofa is an original Louis XIV sofa from the palace of Versailles, so maybe Marie Antoinette once sat on it. It was presented to President Eamon DeValera by French President Charles De Gaulle in the 1960s. The rest of the furniture was made in Ireland to match the sofa. The green Connemara coffee table was presented to US President, Bill Clinton. He immediately regifted it back as US presidents are not allowed to receive gifts with a monetary value of more than $15 – $20. The marble fireplaces are 18c and made by Adams of London. The two paintings at either end of the room depict the Battle of Ballynahinch which was a battle of the 1798 rebellion and Charles II visiting the fleet in the English Channel in 1672.
The wooden turned bowl is from a walnut tree that was blown over on the site of the Battle of the Boyne. A similar bowl to this one was presented to the late Ian Paisley when he was First Minister of Northern Ireland and now resides in the parliament building in Stormont.
The picture of the woman on the side table is of Deirdre O’Connell. She was from New York City and came to Dublin in the 1960s to set up a theatre group. This group still exists as the Focus Theatre. She ended up marrying musician Luke Kelly from the Dubliners and Sabina Higgins, the President’s wife served as her Maid of Honour. O’Connell dressed in black from head to toe for her wedding which caused much comment at the time!
This is the president’s study and as you can see it is very much a working office. The bookshelves are by by Hicks of Dublin, who also made the State Dining Table. The books on the top rows of the bookcase are transcripts of every debate that has ever taken place in the Irish Parliament, Dail Eireann. The president’s own books are below. You can see from his books that he has a huge interest in the arts and sport and actually served in government as Minister of Arts and the Gaeltacht. The portrait above the fireplace is of Dr. Noel Brown. Brown was a Labour Party Minister of Health and was involved in eradicating TB from Ireland. He also tried to introduce a bill called the Mother and Child Bill which guaranteed Free State care for new mothers and their children. The bill caused great opposition from the Catholic Church and conservative politiona and was defeated, causing Brown to resign. The portrait was purchased by President Higgins with his first pay packet from his job working for the Electricity Supply Board in the 1960s. It depicts Brown with a fencing gauntlet. On the wall is a photograph of two great Irish rock musicians, Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher. It was presented to President Higgins on his inauguration by Niall Stokes from Hot Press Magazine where the President once wrote a weekly column.
The ceiling is also by Bartholomew Cramillion and was saved from Mespille House when it was being demolished for apartments in the 1970s. It had to be removed in 4 parts to save it. It depicts the four seasons being presided over by Jupiter. Spring has flowers and a spade, summer has a bunch of grapes, autumn has a sickle and a sheaf of wheat and winter sits beside a brazier with his hair being ruffled by the wind. It is said to be ‘the loveliest stucco in Ireland, poetry in plaster’!
You will also notice the many presents that President Higgins receives from drawings and paintings to knitted dolls and cushions.
The Entrance hall is original to the 1751 house and from the inside you can see the lovely demi lune or fanlight which cannot be seen from the outside because of the Francis Johnston extension. The coffered, barrel vaulted ceiling depicts scenes from the Phoenix Par, including Charles II, various military and floral designs and a phoenix. The two large busts depict the Nationalist poet and Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator, who was responsible for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland in 1829. The large modern painting is by Chinese artist Ahao Shaordu. It was presented to President Higgins on 11th of the 11th 2011, the date of his inauguration by his family. The painting depicts Chinese good look symbols.
The visitors book has many signatures including, JFK, R. Reagan, B. Clinton, B Obama. Popes John Paul II and Francis. Princess Grace, Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth of England among many others.