Here, with a little help from Máirtín D’Alton of Architecture Tours Ireland, join a journey through the ages, highlighting some of our capital city’s hidden architecture.
Dublin was originally built around Christchurch and Cornmarket, on the banks of the River Liffey. A stone’s throw from what was once the medieval city-centre, explore St. Audoen’s, the city’s oldest church, a fine example of 12th-century Anglo-Norman architecture. Find the city’s famous Lucky Stone here and chillingly, the steps of the church are said to be haunted by the ghost of Darkey Kelly. Thought to be Dublin’s first female serial killer, she was burned to death on Baggot Street on January 7, 1761.
King John of England oversaw the building of Dublin Castle in the early thirteenth century; he wanted a strong fortress with thick walls and deep ditches. Finished in 1203, the Wardrobe Tower got its name from the fact that it was used to house the visiting monarchs’ royal robes.
Also named Black Tower, Gunner’s Tower and Record Tower, it was used as a prison up until the 1700s. Red Hugh O’Donnell, then King of Donegal, famously escaped the tower with his comrades Art and Henry O’Neill in 1591. They had been imprisoned because their clans wouldn’t declare loyalty to the King of England. In freezing conditions, the trio headed for Glenmalure Valley in the Wicklow Mountains. Though Red Hugh and Henry survived the trip, Art died just miles from their destination.
Every year, a group of walkers commemorate the trip by re-enacting the escape. Today, the tower is part of the Garda Síochána Museum and Archives, check out the documents and artefacts relating to the history of the Gardaí throughout the years.
The second purpose-built theatre in Ireland, Smock Alley on Exchange Street Lower dates back to 1662. In its original form (as the Theatre Royal), international stars performed here; English actor and playwright David Garrick first played Hamlet on this Dublin stage. In the early 19th century, the theatre was converted into a church and the first Catholic bell rang after almost 300 years.
The church closed in 1989, and 20 years later, an archaeological excavation began in the area. The foundations from 1662 were found intact, as well as 229 artefacts including wine bottles, mosaic tile pieces, a tobacco pipe and an actor’s wig curler. Now known as Smock Alley, experience this jewel in Temple Bar’s crown.
Designed by architect Sir William Chambers, the Casino (the word means ‘little house’ in Italian) in Marino is a work of art, displaying 18th century neo-classical architecture. From a distance, it appears as a small, one-storey building but this is a clever optical illusion, and there are 16 beautiful rooms inside.
Feature highlights include angled windows, decorative chimney pots, and an intriguing series of underground tunnels. Historians often speculate as to why Chambers built the tunnels, some scholars argue that the house was a Masonic lodge; and the star on the entrance floor appears to support this theory. Another rumour is that Michael Collins was hidden there from British authorities. Check out the Casino on your next visit to Dublin, it’s a fascinating space.
Another example of neo-classical architecture, not all Dubliners are aware of the Custom House’s controversial history. The existing building sits on the north bank of the River Liffey, but the original Custom House was found at Essex Quay.
Built in 1707, it was declared unsound 70 years later. The proposed location for its replacement was a contentious one; the then Commissioner of Revenue John Beresford insisted it be built in its current spot, against the wishes of Dublin Corporation and many local merchants, who believed it would lower the value of their properties. The project went ahead, with Englishman James Gandon appointed lead architect.
Now one of the grandest buildings in the city, marvel at the monumental facades linked by identical corner pavilions, beautiful exterior adornments, coats of arms and detailed sculptures by Meath man Edward Smyth. Check out the ornate 16-foot statue of Commerce on the dome, and on the keystones of its arches, symbolising the principal rivers of Ireland.
For a showcase of Georgian Architecture visit 14 Henrietta Street and see the style that was typical between the beginning of the reign of King George I (1714) and the death of King George IV (1830).
Initially occupied by wealthy and noble families, the building soon became home to lawyers and professionals. After The Famine, there was a huge surge in demand for accommodation and 14 Henrietta Street, as well as many other buildings, were subdivided into much smaller units. In 1911, 14 Henrietta Street was called home by over 100 people. Learn about the truly fascinating history of this building on one of their guided tours.
In 1833, the Board of Trinity College Dublin invited architects to submit proposals for a new building to feature the university’s geological collections. Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward were accepted (an astounding 20 years later), and set to work on what would be a Palazzo style building, inspired by Venice’s Byzantine architecture, and finished in Lombardo-Romanesque detailing.
Dean and Woodward used a vast array of stone to complete the job, the story says there’s a stone from every quarry in Ireland. Inside its doors, admire the 14 full columns and 18 half-columns of Irish marble, stunning Romanesque arches and the large, domed central hall.
Don’t miss the epic Guinness Storehouse at St. James Gate. Arthur Guinness famously signed a 9,000-year lease at this site in 1759, and Guinness has been brewed there ever since. The current building was constructed in 1902, in the style of the Chicago School of Architecture.
Admire its impressive design, shaped like a giant Guinness glass; one that would take 14.3 million pints to fill. Take a tour of the Storehouse, ascending up through seven floors to enjoy a pint in the famous Gravity Bar, soaking up panoramic views of the city.
Find the tranquil War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge minutes from the city centre, in commemoration to the 49,400 Irish soldiers who died in WWI. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, explore the beautiful examples of classical symmetry and formality. Look out for the ‘War Stone’ on the Central Lawn, a granite wedge weighing over seven tonnes.
At either end of the gardens, there are two pairs of granite book rooms, representing the four provinces of Ireland. Pause at the beautiful sunken rose garden and the tree-lined roads that lead from the central temple.
You’ll find Dublin’s central bus station Busáras on Store Street dating back to the 1940s. Designed by Michael Scott in an International Modern style, it was inspired by noted Swiss-French architect le Corbusier’s Maison Suisse in Paris.
Before Scott began work on the building, Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) faced financial difficulties, and many Dubliners felt the proposed project was too lavish. Nevertheless, plans went ahead, and the bus terminus, transport company offices and a newsreel cinema to entertain visitors (which is no longer there) were completed in 1953.
Take a wander through the building and spot several Scott’s original fittings and fixtures, including terrazzo floor tiles, timber wall panels and mosaic-tiled winged canopy.
This contemporary design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was inspired by flipping a coin and seeing the image of an Irish harp spinning through the air. Named after Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet and playwright Beckett, this bridge is an iconic part of the city’s landscape.
Cross the Liffey at the historic yet regenerated Docklands and see how tradition has merged with modernity in our ever-changing city. There’s lots more iconic bridges to take in on your trip to Dublin.
The last item on our list is one of the finest examples of modern architecture in Dublin. The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre was designed by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind in 2010, and its contemporary, angular style ties in with the cosmopolitan Grand Canal.
The design incorporates a theatrical theme, a ‘red carpet’ with bright resin-glass paving extends from the theatre, covered with distinctive red glowing light sticks. Check out ballet shows (Swan Lake marked its official opening here), concerts, operas, and musicals in the stunning theatre.
Máirtín D’Alton is a consultant conservation architect at Extend and studio tutor at DIT Bolton Street.
What else to see in Dublin?
Dublin is full of incredible architecture and fascinating structures that span many centuries. Check out Visit Dublin for more great things to do and spectacular buildings to visit.