Stable hands taking to artistic endeavours


Red Stables, once owned by the Guinness family, has been restored to create artists' studios, workshops and gallery spaces, writes Rachel Dugan.

Tadhg McSweeney looks around his new Dublin abode, and smiles. It's difficult not to notice the mixture of awe and disbelief etched onto his face as he moves his eyes around what, for the next 12 months, will be his home. The view from the one-bedroom apartment is breathtaking. Framed in the window, like a nostalgic watercolour, is St Anne's Park, and beyond, but invisible to the naked eye, lies Dollymount Strand and the choppy Irish Sea.

This is no suburban bachelor pad though, but a residential artist's studio located in the recently renovated Red Stables, nestled in among the oak trees and rose garden of St Anne's Park, Raheny.

Originally part of the Ardilaun Estate which was built in 1885 and owned, until the 1930s, by the Guinness family, the two-storey Victorian building provided stables and coach houses for successive generations of the Dublin dynasty. In the 1930s the then Dublin Corporation acquired the estate and turned it into a public green space.

The stables had served as a works depot for the city council parks division since the 1970s. More than three years ago, the tractors moved out, and the builders moved in, to begin the painstaking process of restoring the run-down building into a number of artists' studios, gallery spaces and arts and crafts workshops.

When he applied to be the centre's artist-in-residence, the young Sligo artist was looking for an affordable way of getting a base and studio space in the capital, but had no idea of the kind of illustrious surrounding he would be occupying.

"When I came up to view the place, it was my first time in this part of Dublin," admits the 27-year-old painter and sculptor. "It was a real surprise, the location. I had a little studio near home in Sligo, and I was doing other work to make some money. I was just getting by."

According to Jack Gilligan, Dublin City Council's Arts Officer and one of those who sat on the adjudicating panel, McSweeney is exactly the kind of tenant they were looking for. "We were very keen on getting a residential artist here, an Irish artist at the beginning of his or her career who could use it as a jumping-off point. Tadhg is really a very promising young artist."

It was Gilligan who came up with the idea of turning the run-down works depot into a space for Dublin's artistic community, although he is keen to stress that bringing that idea to fruition was an immense task involving many people.

"I remember thinking what a wonderful place it was, and that it would be ideal for artists to work," he says. "There is such a huge shortage of spaces for artists in the city - rehearsal and performance space as well as studio and exhibition space."

RAPID DEVELOPMENT in Dublin's centre has lessened the amount of space for studios and galleries in prime locations. Artist Edel Campbell had been based at Sheriff Street's Pallas Studios before securing a non-residential studio space at the Red Stables. "This is dream come true for me," she says. "We were squeezed out of last place because of developers and I feel that this is becoming a common occurrence in the city."

In the quiet solitude of St Anne's Park, the noisy development and ugly cranes of the Celtic Tiger seem a million miles away. But for the past three and a half years, the Red Stables have been subject to a carefully researched and gingerly approached development itself.

City Architect Tony Duggan, who worked on the project with Brendan O'Sullivan, describes the amount of research and preparatory work that had to be completed before even a single brick could be touched.

Swabs were taken from the walls and woodwork to discover the original colour that the Guinness family would have chosen, and while the reason for the lack of first floor at the courtyard's southwestern corner could not be discovered, what now completes the symmetry is a light-filled glazed conservatory, which will house the centre's tearooms and provide stunning views across the park.

It is a distinctly modern construction without a country kitchen or fake beam in sight, and encapsulates perfectly the general ethos behind the project.

"In line with conservation principles of the Venice charter, we tried to keep as much of what was original as we could," explains the architect. "Any intervention was done in a modern way, so people could actually see it."

In the stalls that would have housed the horses, but will soon be home to a number of jewellers and potters, the damage done by the hooves of the Guinness steeds is still visible on the restored wood panelling. From the original flagstones to the 19th-century azure blue tiling and the dark wood beams overhead, everything that could be kept, was. A decision was also taken to make the artists' workspaces fit the original layout rather than the other way round. The result is a number of quirky and small craft spaces nestled between cast iron railings of the horses stalls and stables.

Sections of the first floor were once used to store equipment of the civil defence, who used the Ardilaun Estate stables during the second World War. Thousands of their helmets once lined the upper reaches of the building, as well as mattresses used during simulated exercises and even the makings of a field hospital, according to Mick Harford, who has worked at the park since the late 1970s.

When fully occupied, the centre will have one residential studio, five non-residential studios and a number of small arts and crafts workshops, as well as two gallery spaces: one commercial, the other for use by local amateur art groups who have been displaying their work here for many years.

This cosy artistic community will not be static one however, and an international artists' residence will provide an injection of foreign talent for short periods throughout the year. In August and September, there will be two international artists staying in the residence as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival's Out of Site programme. It is envisaged that some sort of exchange programme will keep the space occupied throughout the year.

McSweeney, occupying the largest space in the centre, is undoubtedly the king of this particular artistic castle. He may be moving in today but it is only his second time in the apartment and it will take a while to take in exactly what he has. He is extremely grateful for the opportunity to move east, and devote himself entirely to his work. He will pay what he describes as, "a very reasonable rent" for the studio and the generously proportioned accommodation. "It's such a great space and there is so much room. I wouldn't want to squander it, so I am going to devote myself full-time to my work."

A suggestion that it would make a great location for a party is met with nods of agreement and some hearty laughter. With such a great career opportunity as this in his grasp though, I won't be holding my breath for an invite.