On Upper Merrion Street at the end of Fitzwilliam Lane in Dublin sits a thoroughly Edwardian pile which has been given the thoroughly boring title of ‘Government Buildings’. The city ceased to be a legislative capital in 1800 when the Irish Parliament voted to abolish itself and join the United Kingdom, so government edifices constructed during the nineteenth century lacked the proud stateliness of the Grattan era. The Westminster parliament finally conceded the principle of Irish home rule in 1914 but disastrously suspended its implementation due to the First World War. In stepped the Irish Volunteers, Easter 1916, the IRB, and all that and by the time the Treaty of Versailles ended the conflict on the continent, Britain was up to her neck in troubles in Ireland. Events had intervened and the unimplemented concession of home rule proved insufficient to quell the dire situation.
Even so, the Government of Ireland Act 1920 partitioned the island and created a separate government for ‘Southern Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’, each with its own devolved legislature. The old Irish Parliament House had been sold to the Bank of Ireland so there was a question as to where the two houses of the new Southern Irish body would convene. Eventually the government decided upon this building, the Royal College of Science, and it was commandeered for that purpose.
The Royal College of Science was the last significant public building of the British era in Dublin’s history. Edward VII laid the foundation stone in 1904 and was opened by George V in 1911. Sir Aston Webb, a capable but far from excellent architect best known for the current façade of Buckingham Palace, designed the complex on the site of a row of Georgian townhouses that were demolished one-by-one as the structure was sequentially completed.
Interestingly, the original plans included a full façade on Merrion Street (above), whereas the final execution (below) features a gap allowing the central dome to be viewed from the street and Fitzwilliam Lane. Neither design is entirely satisfactory. One imagines the composition would have been more successful had the Merrion Street side been left open as a large forecourt rather than partially enclosed as a demi-courtyard. Space in central Dublin was at a premium, however, and the Royal College of Science wanted to make as much use of their site as they could.
After the Irish Free State was created, the Dáil Éireann chose to meet in the Royal Dublin Society’s lecture hall, part of the Leinster House complex adjacent to the Royal College of Science. While various proposals were made on where to site permanently Ireland’s new parliament, the TDs & Senators got comfortable at Leinster House and the government purchased the building from the RDS. Encumbered as Leinster House is by the National Library and the National Museum on either side, the government expanded into the Royal College of Science building. The RCS was subsumed into University College Dublin in 1926 but the engineering faculties remained on Merrion Street in what was know increasingly known as ‘Government Buildings, Dublin’.
From 1921 onwards, the government gradually took over more and more of the complex until finally in 1989 the engineers were kicked out. Charlie Haughey happened to be Taoiseach of Ireland at the time and commissioned a wholesale renovation of the structure to finally complete the transformation from technical institute to center of administration. He even had a heliport put on the roof, but (to Haughey’s disappointment) the Air Corps pilots had a devil of a time landing on it and it eventually fell into disuse. The high public expenditure on the project at a time of relative economic hardship in Ireland was controversial, and some took to nicknaming the Taoiseach’s pet project ‘the Chaz Mahal’. The renovation did, however, win the Silver Medal for Conservation awarded by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland.