Wednesday, February 11, 2015

I ALWAYS have a sense of excitement when I am about to examine an old publication for the first time. A goodly portion of that excitement is born out of the anticipation of what the pages will reveal. From time to time, the reality fails to live up to the expectation and you are left trying to salvage what you can, though without much enthusiasm.

However, there are those rare occasions when you come across something which surpasses any expectation you might have had. In these instances, previous disappointments are quickly forgotten, as you begin to mine the rich seams of new information. And on very rare occasions you will come across a document which yields information, which was never its original intention.

William Wilson’s Post-Chaise Companion, to which I referred last week, is just such a document. As a travel directory, which was its primary purpose, it is a very comprehensive document and much of the information in it will keep me going for some time to come. But it is the accidental information that is contained in the list of pre-publication subscribers that is proving to be the real treasure.

I mentioned last week that, of the hundreds of subscribers, there were more than a score who had the letters MRIA after their names. In an accident of timing, Wilson’s work was published in 1786, and the Royal Irish Academy, which was formed in 1785, received its Royal Charter in early 1786. So by accident, all those who appear on the Post-Chaise Companion‘s list of subscribers, who have MRIA after their names, are, at the very least, the initial members of the Academy, and in many cases, they will be founding members.

Indeed, one of Wilson’s subscribers is shown as ‘Pres RIA’. He was the Rt Hon Earl of Charlemont, first president of the Royal Irish Academy and a founding member. We will come back to him a little later.

Naturally, if you do a little lazy man’s research and check the internet, undoubtedly you will be presented with the fact that the Earl of Charlemont was the first president of the Academy, but you are a lot are less likely to find many of the other names cited by William Wilson.

One of the early members of the Royal Irish Academy, who subscribed to the Post-Chaise Companion, has a particular resonance with Laois. We will know him well for his connection to Emo Court, Coolbanagher Church and, of course, the real giveaway … he lends his name to the Gandon Inn.

Fame was a little elusive for James Gandon during the early years. He started his career in Ireland amid much controversy. In 1781 he was invited to Ireland by Lord Carlow to oversee the construction of the Custom House. An iconic building, I’m sure you will agree, but when it came in with a price tag of £200,000, there was a public outcry.

But James Gandon was here to stay and would live out his life in Ireland. In the same year the Post-Chaise Companion was published, James Gandon was concerning himself with the building of the Four Courts. He was called in when Thomas Cooley, the original architect, died.

In a way, it was the second favour Thomas Cooley did for James Gandon. Years earlier, in 1769, and not long after James Gandon had set up his own practice in London, he entered a competition for the building of the Royal Exchange in Dublin. We would know it better as City Hall, adjacent to Dublin Castle.

As it happened, Thomas Cooley won that competition and went on to design the Royal Exchange, but James Gandon came second. It was a notable achievement for the budding architect, which brought him to the attention of the men of influence, who were planning the redevelopment of Dublin at that time.

Nor did Gandon’s membership of the Royal Irish Academy do him any harm. In 1789, he added the Rockingham Library to Charlemont House for the Rt Hon Earl of Charlemont, James Caulfield. Caulfield held the presidency of the Royal Irish Academy since its foundation in 1785 until his death in 1799.

James Gandon would later be called upon by the man who invited him to come to Ireland in the first place, Lord Carlow, to design Emo Court. Lord Carlow, John Dawson, who had succeeded to his father’s titles in 1779, was created 1st Earl of Portarlington in 1785, the year the Royal Irish Society was founded, and Emo Court was a residence befitting his new status.

So, who better to design it than the man who was contributing so much to the changing streetscape of  Dublin city. If you look carefully over the entrance to the house, below the Earl of Portarlington’s crest, you will find a set of Roman numerals, MDCCXCVI, which, if I can recall the scant Latin that remains, represents 1796.

I wonder what James Gandon would make of Emo Court today. Or, for that matter, what John Dawson would make of it. Those were the thoughts that occupied me on a cold, crisp frosty morning last week as I came to the end of a brisk walk in Emo Park, finishing up along part of the Wellingtonia Avenue.

If you chance to walk that way, close to the house, as part of the restoration of that magnificent avenue, there is a pair of recently-planted trees, dwarfed by those along the avenue that have survived the ravages of time. All John Dawson ever saw along that avenue were trees of the size of those which have recently been planted. James Gandon likewise. In life’s circle, like James Gandon and John Dawson, I will not live to see the young trees which I passed the other day grow to the magnificence of their neighbours.

But my compensation is the magnificence today of those trees that were being planted when the earl and the architect walked the self-same avenue, possibly discussing whether or not to include the date of completion of the house in Roman numerals below the crest.

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By Tom Cox
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