Merchant’s Arch – Dublin City
Proposed changes around Merchant’s Arch are the focus of much fury in Dublin at present.
Local historian and guide Arran Henderson looks at what’s proposed, at the iconic building itself and finally how the Arch fits into the deeper history of Dublin’s and Europe’s old guild system and guildhalls.
Many citizens of Dublin were disgusted, to learn that one of the capital’s best-loved buildings, Merchant’s Arch, is due to be altered in its aspect by the demolition of some of its immediate surrounding buildings and the erection of a new hotel in their place.
The archway runs through a fine early 19th century building, by architect Frederick Darley, originally constructed as a hall for the merchants guild of Dublin, back in 1828.
To be clear, the proposal does not involve – as has been incorrectly reported in some quarters – the demolition of the building itself on Wellington Quay, nor its iconic arch through to Meeting House Square. What’s proposed instead is the removal of buildings immediately adjoining the arch building, at 1-4 Merchants Arch, on the Meeting House Square side, and their replacement with a “boutique” 9-bedroom hotel, with restaurant on the ground floor.
Many worry that this would change the nature of the arch and its immediate area. The archway and its passage are among the most familiar and evocative sights of old Dublin. Anything that permanently changes its rich sense of atmosphere, it is felt by many, may be detrimental to the city’s historic character.
According to RTE News, this is the third time Mr Doone, owner of the adjoining Merchant’s Arch pub, has sought to develop the site in the corner of Temple Bar Square. On the previous two occasions, An Bord Pleanála upheld appeals against his plans. On this occasion, however, the Bord granted permission for a new four-storey over-basement hotel with ground-floor restaurant.
In doing so, An Bord Pleanála effectively ignored the advice of its own inspector, who recommended refusing planning permission after concluding the scheme’s “height, scale, mass and bulk… would be out of character with the development of the area”.
Notwithstanding that advice, the appeals board granted permission, after finding that a restaurant replacing the smaller retail units “would be an acceptable design approach which would not have a negative impact on the scale, urban grain and vibrancy of the area”. It also stated the design approach would provide “an appropriate design solution for the prominent infill site”.
Quite why the area needs such “an appropriate design solution for the prominent infill site” was left unspoken. Presumably the area only becomes a “prominent infill site” and therefore requiring “an appropriate design solution” if one allows the demolition of buildings in the first place!
In any case, the Bord concluded the scheme constitutes an “appropriate quantum of development” and won’t seriously injure the character of the area.
The measure of how many Dubliners feel may be judged by how quickly a petition to oppose the scheme was launched. That document is rapidly gathering signatures; a good indicator, although what will be more effective – as always – is if activists actually write to local councillors and TDs.
AS A GUIDE AND LOCAL HISTORIAN, I USE ARCHITECTURE AS A WAY TO ADDRESS THE HISTORY OF THE CITY.
At the very same time, an entirely separate proposal north of the river Liffey, to alter the famous Cobblestone Pub on Smithfield, met with an equally hostile response. On Saturday 10th October a large protest march took place to express opposition to both schemes. Many marchers, as well as activists on social media and elsewhere, referenced both the proposed Cobblestone and Merchant’s Arch developments. It may well be that each campaign helps fuel the other and each helps maintain anger and momentum.
Back to the Merchant’s Arch scheme, its permission was already being appealed, by local residents in particular. Former Irish Times environment editor and Temple Bar resident Frank McDonald led the charge, expressing fears the restaurant would become yet another pub for Temple Bar, an area McDonald points out is already “saturated with restaurants…especially when it would displace small traders who add vibrancy to Merchant’s Arch”. McDonald further argued that Dublin’s “Cultural Quarter…can ill afford to lose this little alley and its authentic, even chaotic mix and match uses”.
That’s the immediate and present situation. Have we finally met a Rubicon, where developers can no longer destroy heritage with impunity, and where An Bord Pleanála can no longer tamely wave them through?
We shall all watch the developing situation with keen interest
Image: The Merchant’s Arch at night by Flora Mitchell.
Historical background of Merchant’s Arch
As a guide and local historian, I use architecture as a way to address the history of the city. The existing structure is not very ancient yet is of considerable architectural importance. It dates from the 1820s, the first quarter of the 19th century and the late end of the Georgian Period (1720-1830). The National Inventory of Historic Architecture (NIHA) identifies it as the most important building on Wellington Quay.
Its architect is a significant figure: Frederick Darley, from a famous Dublin family of stone-cutters and masons who are generally held to worked the granite quarries at Golden Hill near Ballyknocken (in the same vicinity of west Wicklow the Poulaphouca Reservoir sits today).
The family soon diversified with many family members variously active as builders, developers and architects, over several generation. There is, for example, a Hugh Darley, a Henry Darley and confusingly two Frederick Darleys (older and younger).
Hugh Darley built the odd but lovely Dining Hall (c. 1760-65) facing Front Square of Trinity College. It stands to the right of the college chapel and with a similar mix of its façade of granite with window and door mouldings in finer, imported Portland stone. The building scores low on classical decorum (its proportions and use of classical orders is, to be polite, unorthodox) but scores high on beauty and charm.
Frederick Darley the elder built several very grand houses on Mountjoy Square East in the late 1700s; while in the 19th century Frederick Darley the younger is responsible for the King’s Inns Library (1825-28) on Henrietta Street, and aspects of the Tyrone House complex of buildings – between Marlborough St and Gardiner Street – as well as Merchant’s Arch.
Another building, now entirely lost, by Frederick Darley younger is the former Bethesda Chapel (1839) a Protestant Church which once stood on the corner where Dorset Street meets Granby Row. It closed as a church by 1910, when it promptly became one of the arliest cinemas in Dublin, initially with veruy few changes to its architecture or appearance. However, in the 1960s, the columns and capitals on its beautiful, classical temple front were hacked back flat, then encased in cement, when it was converted to a more modern looking cinema. At this point Darley’s architecture was all entirely hidden. Thus, after more than 25 years hidden away out of sight behind concrete, first as a cinema, then the Dublin Wax Museum, there was hardly anyone left to remember it as it once was, and thus few, if any protests when the building was demolished in its entirety in the 2000s, to build the Maldron Hotel that now stands on the site.
Image: Bethesda Chapel Granby Row, Frederick Darley. Dublin. image courtesy Archiseek
To give one other example of his oeuvre, curiously, Frederick Darley may also be responsible for one of Dublin’s very few other surviving fragments of the old Guild system, namely Carpenters’ Hall. This building at 35 Sean Mac Dermott Street Lower has been variously attributed to either him or to George Papworth. When one says “surviving” – it’s important to stress that the interior has been gutted, but the fine stuccoed façade remains.
That loss ties us neatly to both the importance of conservation, and to the long, rich history of the Guilds in Dublin. I’m particularly fascinated by relics of the ancient guild system which once dominated the economics and politics of medieval and early modern Dublin.
Undoubtedly the Merchant’s building and archway form an important part of the jigsaw of remaining fragments of the guild system.
Trade Guilds were of course, a medieval institution, across Europe, dating back to the early middle ages. They controlled access to various trades and professions and they regulated standards, education and training.
The Guilds all had patron saints and maintained a presence at a church always with their own shrine or chapel. They were also routinely involved in both charity work and in artistic patronage, funding for example artworks in churches, chapels.
In the case of wealthier guilds, they often funded the construction of entire buildings. Artistic patronage in Florence for example, one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, was an intensely competitive business. Florence’s preeminent guild, the Arte de Calimala – the cloth finishers and wool importers guild – were responsible for the Baptistry beside the cathedral and were immensely proud of this responsibility. They lavished vast sums on art works for the building, including Lorenzo Ghiberti’s legendary bronze doors. The Arte de Lana on the other hand – the wool weavers and makers guild – were the guild with primary responsibility for the cathedral itself.
In Dublin there were between twenty and twenty five guilds, the exact number could fluctuate slightly over the centuries. There was also a sort of ranking system, with the Guild of Merchants at the top, then the tailors, then the others. In most cases this ranking was simply a matter of prestige, except for the case of the merchants, who genuinely flexed more real power, notably through the large amount of seats they controlled on Dublin’s municipal Government, the Corporation. Over 25 seats were reserved for the Merchants, and they provided the greatest number of key office holders, including of course, the office of mayor.
In many countries and cities, including Dublin, Guilds in Medieval times used to organise pageants and religious plays, particularly around the feast day of Corpus Christi in June. They would paint and decorate floats on religious themes, usually figuring their own saint.
In many countries Guilds were in fact named after their patron saint, not after the trades they represented. The guild of painters for example, was the Guild of Saint Luke, because that Evangelist once reputed drew a likeness of the Virgin. We see this exact origin story depicted in several paintings by the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden (himself a St Luke’s guild member in Brussels and Tournai, in modern day Belgium) when he painted Saint Luke drawing the Virgin. There are several versions of the painting today in Boston and in Germany and a smaller version in our own National Gallery of Ireland.
Different trades were often grouped together into a single guild, often in what we may now find unlikely pairings, such as the Guild of Barbers and Surgeons.
On the other hand Painters, Cutlers, Paper Stainers and Stationers were all grouped in the aforementioned Guild of Saint Luke. Carpenters, Millers, Masons and Tilers were all in the pithily-named Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the House of St Thomas the Martyr. There are no prizes for guessing where they maintained the guild’s Chantry Chapel.
The religious function of the guilds has already been touched on. Needless to say, religious observance was effectively universal in the period and therefore, not only did every guild have a patron saint, or (in the case of nearly one third of the guilds) the patronage of the Blessed Mary Virgin, they each maintained a chantry chapel. This was usually an aisle or other part of a larger church, set aside for them or under their special protection.
For example, in Dublin the Shoemakers, also known as the Cordwainers, worshipped at The Lady Chapel of the Church of Saint Michael, on High Street, where the Synod hall and the Dublinia museum and visitor centre are today. Bakers were part of the Guild of Saint Clement and Saint Anne, so their chantry chapel was the Chapel of St Anne’s within the church of Saint Mary le Damme, Dublin. To give two more examples, the Merchant Tailors – whose patron was Saint John the Baptist – had the Lady Chapel in (perhaps confusingly) the church of Saint John the Evangelist on Fishamble Street (now long gone); while the Smiths, whose patron was Saint Loy, had the Chapel of Saint Loy in the Churchyard of the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist without Newgate.
The stunning Merchants arch in modern times, image courtesy Antppe
It’s important to clarify that the chapels – which were of course for prayer, dedication and worship – were an entirely separate matter to Guild halls, like the Merchant’s Arch Building, which were used for secular purposes like meetings, assemblies, feasts, exhibitions and so forth. Not every guild had its own Guild hall, nor owned a building outright, although the wealthier ones like the Merchants and the Merchant-Tailors typically did. Other guilds rented premises, often for many years. It was also not uncommon to rent premises from other guilds, or share spaces with them.
Many of the guilds, at least half a dozen of them, used rooms or chambers within Tailors Hall on Back Lane, at some point since its construction in 1707. The Tailors Guild themselves had had an earlier hall on the same site back in the 1600s, which they demolished and rebuilt. Prior to that, their old Tailors Hall was on Winetavern Street. The Merchants had the Thosel, Dublin’s premier secular civic or municipal building, outside of the castle complex. It stood on Skinner’s Row, near Christ Church, the end of Castle Street and near the upper end of Werburgh Street, until it was demolished in the 1700s. Later again of course they moved to Wellington Quay.
A surprising amount of the guilds leased premises which were part of the medieval walls, gates and the defensive watch towers that had once ringed medieval and early modern Dublin. These were intact until the very late 1680 and 1690s. Many of these remained standing through the following centuries as well, as indeed some sections remain to this day.
We know that around 1661 the Barbers and Surgeons, for example, had a lease on the now-vanished Pole Gate, one of the great fortified gates in the defensive walls of Dublin. Around 1653-4 we find the Guild of Saint Loy (the Smiths’ Guild) in another, the Gormond Gate.
The Shoemakers, by contrast, had their own Hall for a hundred years or so, which they built on the north side of Cook Street, opposite Saint Audoen’s Arch. They leased this land in 1689 and built the hall there. They were here well over a hundred years, right up until 1807. But then later, from 1807- 1841, they met at Saint Audoen’s Arch itself. They were one in fact of about half a dozen guilds using Saint Audoen’s Arch, which at this point was the last of the former great gates left standing.
Other guilds eschewed the damp, cold discomforts of using medieval defensive or military architecture embedded in the old city walls. They took the practical step of meeting at an inn or hostelry. The Guild of Cooks and Vintners (patron Saint James the Apostle) met for over thirty years (1782-1816) at the Eagle Tavern on Eustace Street. Then later (from 1816) they moved to No 1, Dawson Street.
The Guild of Paper-makers, Paper-strainers and Cutlers were likewise grouped all in one guild. Their hall formerly stood to the northern side of Cork Hill, in a long vanished building that would today stand on what is now the eastern end of Lord Edward Fitzgerald street. The famous Dublin family of Thomas Reeds Cutlers, with their first shop and business established in the 1600s, were longstanding members of this guild.
Like many other Guilds, the Paper and Cutlers Guild used to rent their hall out for feasts, exhibitions and other functions. In 1731 we find an amusing advertisement placed in the Dublin press by some enterprising impresario, notifying the public of his exhibition “in a warm room, with a good fire, a Raphael, and a troupe of fleas, with gold chains on their legs”
Remarkably the guilds’ long era of political dominance lasted right up to 1840 in Britain and Ireland, but the long, complex, history came to an end around 1841 when the political reform act of the previous year finally swept away centuries of rights, privileges and prerogatives.
Since these inherited systems of rights and prerogatives had long become the entire rasison d’etre of the guilds, their days were numbered: most died out within a few decades, some within years. A few hung on in very reduced form, partly to oversee charitable foundations they had founded in their heyday. Their original function, meanwhile, of setting rates of pay and standards and of regulating entry into the professions, were largely take over by professional bodies and trade union associations in the modern era.
Once the guilds were gone, the survival of their halls became a matter of fate. Dublin buildings seem to suffer a high attrition rate, a combination of neglect, a previously moribund economy, and our damp climate, combined with public and political apathy and often rapacious speculative developers, on the lookout for promising sites.
The Weavers’ Hall, on the Coombe , where that street now looks up the widened and extended Cork Street, was knocked down only in the 1950s. The Carpenters Hall has long been gutted but as noted above, its exterior still stands on Sean Mac Dermot Street.
Tailors’ Hall, on Back Lane in the Liberties, came within a hair’s breadth of annihilation. Mercifully it was saved in the 1970s by a combination of passionate volunteers, the Irish Georgian Society and An Táisce, who now use it as their Dublin headquarters.
It’s true that the Merchants Guild were not in the Wellington Quay building for very long. Yet they built it and in any case, the endless shifts and movement by guilds and other old Dublin institutions are entirely consistent with the character of medieval and early modern Dublin, as I’ve tried to demonstrate above. The old Custom House for example, has moved at least four times that I’m aware of, from Wood Quay to Burgh Quay to Custom House Quay to Alexandra Road. Likewise the Four Courts, the King’s Inns and various City Prisons have all moved on occasion, over the last 450 years.
In similar fashion, the repurposing of old and existing structures is entirely of a piece with how our old city constantly changed and adapted. What is vital now is to save the few surviving structures, now very precious, and to maintain the sense of character and scale of surrounding streets.
To that end I am minded to support the petitions, and any other legal form of protest, surrounding this most puzzling recent decision from our Planning board. Writing and emailing directly to local councillors is far more effective than petitions. Likewise, writing to TDs, telling them plainly that your support at any future election is contingent on their clear and vocal action, will also yield surprising results.
Let us act now, vigorously, and do everything while we still can to prevent the destruction of historic Dublin.
All images in this article – sourced by We Love Ireland.