Four Courts dome in need of extensive repairs, OPW reveals

Investigations show damage caused by rusting of steel angle above 24 columns supporting dome

The scaffolding at the Four Courts in Dublin

The scaffolding at the Four Courts in Dublin

Wed, Sep 4, 2013, 08:24

The dome of the Four Courts in Dublin is in a parlous state and will soon be surrounded by scaffolding so that meticulous repairs can be carried out, the Office of Public Works (OPW) revealed yesterday.

Two years ago, a section of one of the Corinthian capitals at the top of the 24 columns supporting the dome fell on to the roof below. Exploratory investigations showed that this collapse was caused by the rusting of a steel angle above it.

Wearing the requisite hard-hats, high-vis jackets and lumberjack boots, Minister of State at the OPW Brian Hayes, and John McMahon, the commissioner in charge of State property, yesterday climbed the first set of scaffolding to inspect the dome.

Senior OPW architect John Cahill pointed to the melange of repairs that had been carried out in the 1920s – following the bombardment of the Four Courts by Free State forces in 1922 – and again in the 1940s when structural problems resurfaced.

A ring of steel inserted in the 1920s when the dome was rebuilt had rusted quickly and concrete was used to cover it up. Rust has now reappeared, with the weight of the dome bearing down on the capitals below and cracking their delicate, carved Portland stone.


Dentistry
As Mr Cahill explained, the task now facing the OPW is “a bit like dentistry – you have to identify whether it’s a crown or a filling or something else”. And none of this will be easy.

The real miracle is that the Four Courts has survived at all. It was in a much worse state than either the Custom House or the GPO on O’Connell Street following the War of Independence and the Civil War, according to a new book titled Thomas Joseph Byrne: Nation Builder.

TJ Byrne was the State architect in the 1920s, having previously worked for Dublin County Council, designing country cottages in Rathfarnham. In that capacity, he came to know WT Cosgrave, long before he became head of the Free State’s first government.

Authors John Byrne and Michael Fewer recount how Byrne managed to persuade Cosgrave that the Four Courts could be saved; without that intervention, the heavily-shelled building might have been demolished.


1922 shelling
The dome and its supporting drum had suffered extensive damage as a result of a major fire during the 1922 bombardment, which cleared the building of anti-treaty forces. It was rebuilt using reinforced concrete, with the thin shell poured over a period of 30 hours.

It was a mark of Byrne’s ingenuity that the Corinthian capitals were simply rotated, with the damaged elements turned inwards to face the drum or new pieces carved and spliced on to the existing stonework. But many of the capitals that he saved are now cracking up.

Mr Cahill said it was likely that the steel ring supporting the dome would have to be fully removed and replaced by new stainless steel cables. As for the cracking capitals, “it would be the intention to ensure the stability of what is there rather than extensive replacement”.

The OPW sees its latest Four Courts project as a “unique learning opportunity” and has teamed up with the school of engineering in Trinity College.

The OPW has no idea at this stage what the project will cost. Much will depend on the outcome of its current round of approaches to specialist contractors who know something about the pitfalls of 18th century buildings.