Circling one of Dublin's last remaining private squares


SOCIAL HISTORY: ROBERT O'BYRNEreviews Lives Less Ordinary: Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square 1798-1922By Andrew Hughes, Liffey Press, 286pp. €19.95

ALTHOUGH OFTEN bracketed together, Dublin’s Merrion and Fitzwilliam squares are quite different in character. The former, on which work began in the 1750s with a terrace north of Kildare (later Leinster) House, saw steady progress on successive sites until the result was described by contemporaries as having “an air of magnificence inferior to nothing of the kind . . . except Bath”. While many of the houses here were built by speculative craftsmen, including carpenters, bricklayers and ironsmiths, they were, once finished, occupied by the wealthiest members of Irish society, among them many representatives of the peerage.

This contrasts with Fitzwilliam Square, which was only laid out by surveyors in 1791, after which the Dublin Evening Postinformed its readers, in mid-June: “A new square is planned at the rere of Baggot Street, in which lots are rapidly taken and the buildings are to be immediately commenced.” Despite this early interest, by 1797 just four houses had been erected, all of them on the north side, primarily owing to the impact of the French wars on the national economy and to increasing uncertainty about the impending Act of Union.

That event would have a permanent effect on Fitzwilliam Square, ensuring its piecemeal development. The last house was completed in 1828, more than three decades after the first, and by the time the majority of them were constructed, there was less money in the country and less interest in conspicuous consumption. Hence, in large measure, they are of more modest proportions and more plainly decorated than their neighbours in Merrion Square, which holds 92 properties compared with Fitzwilliam Square’s 69 (17 each on the east, west and north sides and 18 on the south). Tellingly, whilst Christine Casey devotes 14 pages to Merrion Square in her 2005 guide to the buildings of central Dublin, its neighbour barely merits three.

On the other hand, what Fitzwilliam Square does have is a glorious central park created and enclosed in 1813, and now, as then, accessible only to key holders (apart from the recent advent of the weekly public lunchtime food markets on Fridays). In our egalitarian age this may seem an anachronism, but all cities need places of mystery and Fitzwilliam Square is one of the last such spots in central Dublin.

If the park is private, the same cannot be said of the lives of former residents of Fitzwilliam Square, thanks to the sleuthing of historian Andrew Hughes, who has produced an entertaining book based on his research. Some of the more curious tales have a rather tangential association with the square, such as the story of James Sligo Jameson. A member of the whiskey-distilling family, a naturalist and a big-game hunter, in 1887, having paid £1,000, he joined a group led by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr Livingstone, I presume” fame) to rescue the Swiss-born Eduard Schnitzer, trapped in southern Sudan after a change of regime.

The expedition ran into difficulties and Jameson died of fever, his posthumous reputation besmirched by suggestions that he had encouraged cannibalism among a group of African tribesmen. The connection with Fitzwilliam Square? His older brother Andrew was living in number nine at the time and helped to edit James’s diaries and letters in order to restore the deceased man’s character.

A similarly oblique connection with the square provides Hughes with the opportunity to narrate the story of William Deane-Tanner, who in 1890 moved to New York, where he worked in the antiques business, married and became a father before vanishing without trace in 1908. Curiously, his younger brother Denis likewise settled in New York, entered the same profession, also married and had children, and then disappeared four years after William. Yet while Denis was never seen again, his older sibling, now called William Desmond Taylor, turned up some time later in Hollywood, worked for a while as an actor and then became a successful director of more than 60 films starring the likes of Mary Pickford. On February 1st 1922 at the age of 49 he was murdered in his Los Angeles home, a crime which has yet to be solved. His mother, by the way, at one point lived in 27 Fitzwilliam Square.

Not all Hughes’s sagas are so circuitous, as he includes reports of residencies in the square by artists such as Rose Barton and Mainie Jellett, both of whom spent their childhoods there, while the railway entrepreneur and philanthropist William Dargan ended his days in number two.

Worthy as are all these characters and their works, they make for less pleasurable reading than do the accounts of more roguish figures, such as Elizabeth, Lady Branden, born a La Touche and married to a man much older than she. Occupying 21 Fitzwilliam Square, which had been bought by her generous father, she there entertained on innumerable occasions William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne, after he arrived in Dublin in 1827 as chief secretary of Ireland.

It is possible that Lady Branden was offering sympathetic support to Lord Melbourne on the misfortunes of his marriage: his wife was the wild-spirited Lady Caroline Lamb, one-time lover of Lord Byron. Lady Branden’s husband judged otherwise and instigated proceedings for compensation on the grounds of criminal conversation, otherwise known today as adultery. The case was dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but in fact because Lord Branden had been paid off. In his will, he vilified his estranged wife and bequeathed her the sum of one shilling.

Reading Hughes is like travelling around Fitzwilliam Square with an especially well-informed tour guide. This is not meant as disparagement but rather as a reflection on his wish to amuse as well as inform. The book may not be deemed serious history in some quarters, but it is an agreeable way to learn more about Dublin’s social history.

ROBERT O’BYRNE’s most recent book is a biography of Desmond Leslie, published by Lilliput Press