Another monumental work

Ignorance and indifference rather than wilful destruction have been major obstacles to the preservation of Ireland's architectural…

Ignorance and indifference rather than wilful destruction have been major obstacles to the preservation of Ireland's architectural heritage. The contribution of architectural historian and erstwhile poet, Maurice Craig, to the survival of that heritage has been immense. Unlike many campaigning warriors, his approach could never be described as aggressive or righteous. His style is as civilised as the buildings he has described, in many cases immortalised.

Not bad for an English literature graduate who never formally studied either architecture or art history, yet has mastered isometric drawing and model-making among other arts. He has heightened awareness of 18th-century architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce - "a creature of an altogether different kind from any which had till then appeared upon the Irish scene" - and of others such as Robert Cassels or Castle, and Craig also edited and annotated The Life of James Gandon.

Now in his 80th year - Craig remarks his birthday is October 25th, "the same day as Picasso and Micheal MacLiammoir" - he is characteristically more unimpressed than alarmed by a recent heart attack. He remains most proud of Irish Bookbindings, a superb, definitive study which was published in 1954, two years after the publication of Dublin 1660-1860, the work for which he is most famous. While it remains the standard reference on Georgian Dublin, Craig is critical of it, probably because it has overshadowed his other books and also because its complicated publishing history has given him share of irritations. Two years after re-issuing it, the publishers cancelled it on the grounds it wasn't selling. "But people still wanted it. It is a steady book. I don't understand the logic of publishing."

As self-critical as perfectionists tend to be, he is also honest and remains grateful to that book. "It got me a job and that's not the sort of thing one forgets." Craig recalls how he presented the finished manuscript to the interview board when applying for a job as inspector of ancient monuments for the British Ministry of Works.


It was a post he loved. "It brought me to places in England and Wales I had never heard of and would never have seen otherwise. It was also most important because it meant I saw buildings in a state of undress which gave me an advantage over purely art history types or journalists writing for Country Life. I saw how buildings are made, the bones." Describing his methods, he says: "I like to be able to see and feel and touch. My approach is best suited to being in the field than working my way through papers" and he agrees his interest in Georgian Dublin was first ignited on discovering the beauty of Lord Charlemont's Casino in Marino.

On being told that all the Earl's papers were held by the National Library, Craig set out to write a biography of the remarkable James Caulfield, the fourth Viscount and first Earl of Charlemont (1728-99), nationalist and Renaissance man, whose home now houses the Hugh Lane Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin's Parnell Square. The Volunteer Earl was published in 1948 and its success led to Craig being asked to write another on life in 18th-century Dublin. Admittedly the publishers had been thinking more along the lines of "high grade social chit chat" featuring the personalities of the time. What they got was a fascinating hybrid, an elegant and informed architectural history graced with vignettes and a deliberate sense of the growth of Dublin and the emergence of late 18th-century Protestant nationalism. In short, a quality reference book with personality.

It is mid-afternoon and Craig sits in the small 1930s Dalkey terraced house he bought on his return to Dublin in 1969. His son and collaborator, the artist Michael Craig, author and illustrator of Fish Out of Water, now lives here with his wife. The Stanley cooker hums in the corner and both Craigs admire the first two copies of their book, Mausolea Hibernica, which have just arrived from the publisher.

It is the result of a collaborative project begun some 21 years ago. Written by Craig the elder, and illustrated by the pen and ink drawings of Craig the younger, it is a picture book, the genesis of which may be traced to the closing section, "Coda: Requiescant" of The Architecture of Ireland - from the earliest times to 1880. In that Craig writes: "Mausolea - that is to say free-standing buildings of funerary purpose, whether in graveyards or elsewhere - are not uncommon in Ireland and are fairly evenly distributed. They are of very uneven interest and architectural merit." The new book is as much a celebration of Craig's relationship with his only son and the pleasure experienced in visiting such sites, as it is of the memorials described within. It quickly becomes obvious Craig the Elder is more interested in discussing this collaboration than any aspect of his previous career. "I don't think there are any, or many, fathers and sons who get on as well as we do," he says.

Considering that Craig would most likely strike any stranger as an aloof, asture, intensely cerebral individual, his pride in his son's artistic gift is unexpectedly moving. "Michael" he says, "is entirely self-taught. He is a testament to the futility of formal education." Referring to his son's knowledge of natural history and flair for drawing animals and birds as well as the craftsman's precision of his work, Craig's face becomes animated. He speaks quickly and the habitually deep, sonorous voice acquires a lightness. Indeed, his voice is so strong, his delivery so clear, it is amazing his services have not been recruited as a broadcaster.

Logical, consciously erudite, he looks far younger than his years and when he refers to his age, describing himself as "an old person" and admitting that he tends to remember more clearly something that happened a long time ago, rather than yesterday, there is more surprise than regret in his tone.

Not that it appears he has forgotten anything. When mentioning his shared birthday with Micheal MacLiammoir, Craig recalls meeting him for the second time at the second funeral of Yeats, when the body was returned to Ireland from France in 1949 for burial in Sligo, in Drumcliffe churchyard. Among the attendance was the actor who greeted Craig by name, "a useful gift, and I have often wondered whether it betokens a real interest in other people, or is it merely a knack".

Even now, 50 years after the event, the strangeness of attending anyone's second funeral is not lost on Craig. Of that occasion which he has recorded in The Elephant and the Polish Question - "not my autobiography" he stresses, "I see that book more in the tradition of Belles Lettres" - Craig reports the several appearances along the route that day, including the graveside, of playwright Lennox Robinson. "The following week Picture Post (London) carried a full coverage of the funeral, including a photograph of me captioned "son of Lennox Robinson".

Since his postgraduate days at Trinity College, Craig has championed Dublin as a work of art - though realistically, without ever resorting to rhetoric or romance. This most Dublin of men however is not a Dubliner. Born in Belfast in 1919, he is the elder son of two born to a Protestant ophthalmic surgeon and an English mother. Craig's father was a successful professional whose own father had had an ironmongery.

"My grandfather died a very long time ago in 1876 and his wife, my grandmother, was a remarkable woman. She continued to run it up until the 1920s when she died." At eight, Craig was sent to Castle Park school in Dalkey, Co Dublin, where he stayed until he was 13. A large factor in the choice of school appears to have been Craig's father's determination to rid his son of a strong Belfast accent. Not only does Craig refrain from sentimentalising his youthful self, he has no memory of the boy he once was.

"I remember awfully little about my childhood," he says helpfully, adding, "my late wife, Agnes Bernelle, could never understand this. But to be honest, I didn't like being a child. I couldn't wait to get the business over with and become a grown up. I was very impatient." His brother died at the age of 69, "he was just a year younger than me."

From Castle Park, he was sent to Shrewsbury Grammar school in Shropshire, the Welsh marshes. "I was an awkward schoolboy, scholarly and unathletic." His years in the school, which had a strong Church of England ethos, awakened nationalist feelings in him. "I objected to any efforts to turn me into a little Englishman," he says with a trace of arch stubbornness which still remains. Remaining resolutely Irish did not distract Craig from his studies. The Oxbridge challenge mounted by Shrewsbury in Craig's year consisted of several boys sitting the classics exam, while he opted for history. "As it turned out, the only scholarship we got was me." On arrival at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1938, Craig the Irishman was given the rooms once occupied by Parnell. How was the 19th-century Irish leader viewed in the wartime Cambridge of Craig's day, as a political figure or as a romantic one? "Oh he was a romantic figure, there was all the romance of his fall."

Meanwhile the young Craig was discovering romance. The summer of his first year he went to Paris, "as all young men are supposed to do". There he continued perfecting his French. He also speaks good German. He thinks the secret to learning languages is quite simple. "You have to be unafraid of sounding foreign." Speaking of Agnes Bernelle, who died in February, he says, "she spoke such wonderful German. She left in 1936 and spoke the German of that period. We never married, we didn't have children, but we were always accepted as a couple."

Though he passed his first-year history exams, he changed direction. "It was thought I'd be better at English, so I switched over." The Cambridge of his day boasted several of the leading figures in literary criticism, including the pioneering figure in the New Criticism - F.R. Leavis, as well as the 17th-century specialist Basil Willey and E.W. Tillyard, author of The Elizabeth World Picture. Again, it is not in Craig's nature to wax nostalgically about his university days. "I got a 2.1," he says and points out that most of the brighter people do, leaving intellectually insecure obsessives to collect firsts.

On leaving Cambridge, Craig came to Dublin. Why? The question surprises him. "Dublin [he stresses the name] is the capital," and he explains that by then he had formed the habit of visiting the city, attending the Abbey and so on. At the time he was also thinking about writing a book on the English poet Walter Savage Landor (17751864), whose career straddles both the Romantic and Victorian periods. "I met Paddy Kavanagh, I didn't know him that well, I knew his brother, Peter, better. It was Paddy who suggested I wrote the Landor book as a PhD." He did. He also became part of a literary set given to frequenting the Palace Bar and which included Austin Clarke, Flann O'Brien, Bertie Smyllie and Val Iremonger. By 1948, with The Volunteer Earl published, he was beginning work on his Dublin book, and had two volumes of poetry to his name. He had also married his first wife, Beatrice Hurst. In 1949, their daughter Catherine was born. His long involvement with the English national monuments would begin in 1952, the year after the birth of their son Michael.

Craig agrees he is far more adroit at observing buildings than people. Separations - all of which he takes the blame for - and reunions were followed by a final breakdown of his first marriage. In the mid-1960s he married his second wife Jeanne Edwards. Even a stranger can't help noticing the warmth with which he speaks of her. She died in 1970. They had travelled Europe and South America together.

Approached about writing the book which would become The Architecture of Ireland - from the Earliest Times, Craig was excited. It was a wide brief, to preface what had become his specialist area, that of Georgian Dublin. "It took me about seven years. I write slowly, but always in a single draft. I sent it to the publishers." So far so good. When the publishers contacted him, he was first given the good news. "They liked it. I was told it was the most impressive manuscript they had ever received." Then came the bad news. "It was too long and too expensive."

Craig bargained for the book's fate and said he would meet the cash deficit. He did. Not only is the book as comprehensive as one would expect, it also places Irish architecture in the context of what was happening in England. It contains many treasures, particularly photographs such as the last one taken of a stone bridge in Leixlip, Co Kildare. Built in 1308 "it survived until 1946". Demolished to facilitate a hydro-electric scheme, it was later rebuilt as a "tolerably convincing copy of its former self". The writing has continued. Collecting antiquarian books is another interest. Books and buildings have been his life. It is unfair that both his Dublin book and The Architecture of Ireland should have presented publishing headaches. "I'm used to people saying of Dublin 1660-1860, `Oh so you wrote that', as if I've done nothing else. And they always seem surprised that it is so old."

The practicalities of working in specialist areas are often overlooked. Blunt but far from bitter, Craig says "it is useful to have a private income for this sort of work, as I did from my father." How would he like to be remembered? "As the author of Irish Bookbindings - it's the sort of story I like. You have all the material and it is contained. It can be a finished story. I rather like that."

Mausolea Hibernica by Maurice Craig and Michael Craig is published by Lilliput at £15.95