An Irishman's Diary

 

No one attending Dublin’s annual Oxford Cambridge alumni dinner could grumble that its guest speakers are predictable. After 150 black-tied/evening-gowned guests toast the President and Queen Elizabeth, followed by a Latin grace and dinner, two guest speakers representing England’s most ancient universities each poke fun at The Other Place before leading fellow alumni in toasting it.

The inaugural dinner in 2010 at the Kildare Street University Club saw chairman of the Oxford Cambridge Society of Ireland, Dublin barrister and biographer Charles Lysaght (Cantab.) matched by former Fianna Fáil minister Martin Mansergh (Oxon.), a key player in the Northern Ireland peace process.

At Trinity College Dublin the following year Ulsterman John Lennox, Oxford professor of mathematics and public advocate in the “God debate”, (Lennox spoke for God) was matched by James McGuire, UCD historian and co-editor of The Dictionary of Irish Biography. Last year at the King’s Inns, 78-year-old Thomas Pakenham (Oxon.), historian, arborist and chairman of the Irish Tree Society, was followed by 32-year-old Cantabrian Adrian Gahan, MD of a London consultancy advising business on social, ethical and environmental strategies, while boasting one forebear who signed the 1916 Proclamation and others dating from the Norman conquest.

This year the Law Society of Ireland’s headquarters in Blackhall Place, is hosting the dinner on March 23rd. Appropriately, given the venue, the master of ceremonies is Dublin solicitor Mark-Pery-Knox-Gore (Oxon.), secretary and driving force of the Oxford Cambridge Society of Ireland.

This year’s speakers are also light years removed from their predecessors. Consider Julian Ellison who, following graduation from Oxford in 1987, worked variously as a theatre producer, literary agent, journalist and market researcher before launching – and for 12 years managing – BBC Online. With his wife Fania (also Oxon.) in 2006 he resettled in her home county, Mayo, and founded InTime Media.

Speaking for Cambridge is Ruth Dudley Edwards. Based in Britain, she too is a historian and also a radio broadcaster and newspaper columnist who loves stirring the pot.

The story of Blackhall Place mirrors the wider drama of Ireland. In 1671 a royal charter entitled the Hospital and Free School of King Charles II, Dublin, proclaimed commitment to building a charitable institution, colloquially called the King’s Hospital and Blue Coat School (after the school jacket of its pupils).

A century on, when the premises threatened to collapse, its governors decided to rebuild the charity on another site. In 1772 architects were invited to compete for the commission. The winner was Cork-born Thomas Ivory, then master of the school of drawing in the Dublin Society.

Inspired by Kilmainham Royal Hospital (1684) and the Royal Exchange (1769, now the City Hall) and by Palladian and the increasingly fashionable neo-classical architectural styles, Ivory’s plans for Blackhall Place (now in the British Library), confirm his eye for beauty.

Though the governors’ petitions for public funding were rejected, they decided to proceed anyhow while paring back the budget. Ivory objected and resigned in disgust, leaving others to complete a scaled-back version of his vision. Thus his 140-feet circular steeple gave way to a short, round octagonal cupola . In 1783 the school re-opened in its new premises and continued until 1968, when the Law Society bought it.

The obstacles, however, were awesome. The government rejected Law Society petitions for public money to fund its renovation for its new purpose, while cost estimates escalated.Convinced it was untenable, in 1972 the Society advised the minister for justice it would sell the premises. But for the resolve of senior society office-bearers, successive presidents Peter Prentice and Moya Quinlan in particular, Blackhall Place would probably have been discarded.

Nine years after its purchase, taoiseach Jack Lynch opened the new headquarters. According to Sean O’Reilly and Nicholas Robinson, authors of New Lease of Life: The Law Society’s Building at Blackhall Place (1990), it had not been easy; indeed, the parallels with the 1770s are striking. Then, as now, not every compromise forced by financial considerations provided the best solution to aspects of the building; nevertheless taken as a whole they secured the future of Thomas Ivory’s great building.

Alumni inquiries: tinyurl.com/b4vm8b4

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