A history of Ireland in 100 objects

 

Rococo silver candlestick, circa 1745

With its wild floral elaborations and flamboyant refusal of symmetry or straight lines, this candlestick is entirely characteristic of the rococo style that became all the rage in Paris in the 1720s. That it was in fact made in Dublin tells us something both about the extravagant taste of the Irish ruling class and about the city itself.

Members of the ascendancy could spend enormous sums on silver plate. A dinner service commissioned by the earl of Kildare in 1745, the year when our candlestick was probably made, cost £4,044. This was at a time when £44 would have been regarded as a comfortable annual middle-class income.

The “family silver” was a crucial token of status, and the over-the-top rococo style was perfect for the flaunting of wealth.

Much of the silver made in Dublin was a local version of a London version of a Parisian original – Huguenot craftsmen fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France forming one of the networks through which styles were diffused. But Dublin silverware, made by masters such as John Hamilton and Robert Calderwood, was not merely provincial: it attained very high levels of artistry and came to be prized for itself.

That Dublin could produce such objects is a token of its remarkable development. At the end of the Cromwellian wars, the city was small and miserable: Cromwell described its castle as “the worst in Christendom”, and its two cathedrals were virtually falling down. Its population was just 9,000. Yet, over the following century, Dublin came to be regarded as the second city of the British Empire and, by the end of the 18th century, had a population of nearly 200,000.

The Protestant ruling class, now in almost total control, felt secure enough to invest in the radical redevelopment of their capital city.

Beginning with Parliament House, on College Green, in 1728, a series of grand buildings was erected, including the Royal Exchange and James Gandon’s Custom House and Four Courts. The medieval streetscape was transformed into fine squares and wide thoroughfares. Intellectual life blossomed, with figures such as Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, Richard Steele, the Sheridan family and Mary Delany giving the city an international cultural status.

The first performance of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at the Smock Alley Theatre in 1742 was a mark of Dublin’s new stature. For the rich, Lord Cloncurry’s claim that Dublin was “one of the most agreeable places of residence in Europe” had substance.

But the contrast with the squalor of the city’s poor was even greater than the European norm of the time. With little or no sanitation, gross overcrowding, intermittent epidemics (between 1728 and 1732 and again in 1740-1), low wages and high unemployment, it is unsurprising that Dublin was infamous for its beggars. Or that it was racked by riots: troops were called out in 1734, for example, to put down unemployed weavers who were attacking shops selling English imports.

Child poverty and child mortality reached appalling levels: 25,000 children were taken in by Dublin Foundling Hospital between 1784 and 1796, of whom more than 17,000 subsequently died. Dublin, for all, its elegance, mirrored the profound divisions between the ruling elite and the impoverished majority.


Thanks to Michael Kenny

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie

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