Living in Dublin’s Mansion House

Former residents recall births, weddings, music lessons and pizza parties in the house on Dawson Street, which has been the official home of Dublin’s Lord Mayor for 300 years

We get a tour of Dublin’s Mansion House which celebrates it’s 300th anniversary this month. The Dublin City Assembly, now Dublin City Council, purchased Joshua Dawson's house as the Lord Mayor's Residence in 1715. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Walking up the stone steps and opening the front door of the Mansion House with their own keys is one the most striking memories for the families of many former lord mayors of Dublin.

Letting yourself into the oldest freestanding house in the capital and joining in civic ceremonies – or just heading upstairs for a bath – have been among their privileges since it became the only mayoral residence in Ireland, in the 18th century.

Later this month former lord mayors, lady mayoresses – a term applied to spouses regardless of gender – and their families will return to the home and office of Dublin’s first citizen, on Dawson Street, to begin the year’s celebrations for the house’s 300th anniversary.

Patsy Mitchell has particularly strong memories of living in the Mansion House when her late husband, the Fine Gael politician Jim Mitchell, became Dublin’s youngest lord mayor, at the age of 29, in 1976.

“I had no idea we’d live there, but we had Ruairí, and I was pregnant with our second child, Sinéad, so rather than go in and out to our new home, in Rathfarnham, we decided to stay. In fact Sinéad was born in the Mansion House, on December 30th. I was a midwife in the Rotunda Hospital, and the hospital’s obstetrician, Dr Hickey, came and assisted with the birth. There was a film crew in five hours later. I still remember the tiny little Moses basket in the huge room. Sinéad is 38 now. She had her 21st birthday in the Mansion House and still puts ‘born in the Mansion House’ on her CV.”

The Mitchells were the first family to live in the upstairs family quarters for years. “I had to bring in my own washing machine and dryer and do a lot of the cooking for functions. You must remember there were no supermarkets or takeaways or mobile phones then.

“I remember going to Bewley’s for 24 bracks when the Manchester United team came to visit. The steward and his wife, Paddy and Annette Weir, lived upstairs. Netta was like a mother to me, and her daughters used to play the piano for Ruairí in the Round Room.”

Seán Dublin Bay Loftus

Fiona Rowland, daughter of the Independent councillor Seán Dublin Bay Loftus and his wife, Úna Loftus, also has fond memories of the staff at the Mansion House. “I spent a lot of time studying there and chatting with the staff, and I used to wave at the Japanese tour buses from the upstairs windows. We had Christmas Day dinner in the dining room of the Mansion House, which is just amazing to look back on now.”

Rowland reminisces about her father’s time in office. “My dad worked tirelessly on Dublin issues, and being lord mayor was like a reward for all his work. My mother was also like a second mayor who gave talks on the history of the Mansion House. I’m proud that my dad’s coat of arms” – which has the three Dublin towers, an anchor to represent Dublin Bay and a small island for Rockall, another of his causes – “will always be in the Mansion House.”

The Oak Room has a display of every lord mayor’s coat of arms, which immediate descendants are free to use.

Now in relatively good repair, the Mansion House has required significant refurbishment from time to time; one such project was undertaken when the Labour Party councillor Dermot Lacey became lord mayor, in 2002.

“With the refurbishment we couldn’t live there for the first six months. When we moved into the house I realised how much better I could do the job by living there. I could be at functions and drop upstairs to say goodnight to the children,” says Lacey, who claims to have been more political than others while in the job.

“I would always comment on the issue of the day. In fact, while I was lord mayor I was expelled from the Labour Party for breaking the whip on a vote on Dublin city’s budget. I am hugely supportive of the campaign for a directly elected lord mayor and would like the lord mayor’s office to be the first one you call over a cultural, traffic or planning issue.”

Turning the Mansion House into a family home for a year was something that Eibhlin Byrne of Fianna Fáil, who was lord mayor in 2008-9, her husband, Ken, and their daughters, Clare, Lisa and Aisling, did with gusto.

“We tried to make it a fun house and enjoyed taking out the crystal, silver and china for formal occasions and having the girls at the head of the tables when we had large groups visiting. Even our bulldog, Sam, became the first dog of Dublin for the year,” says Byrne. “Ken had a great interest in showcasing Dublin and organised dinners for civic and religious leaders.”

Lisa enjoyed the seven-minute dash to Trinity College Dublin for her second year of studies, and Aisling held her 16th birthday party there at Christmas time. “The house had a lovely feeling at Christmas,” says Aisling. Lisa says, “The only problem was that, when you were ordering takeaway meals, the pizza companies thought we were spoofing when we gave the Mansion House as the delivery address.”

The Mansion House has hosted many significant birthday parties, christenings and, indeed, wedding receptions for the incumbents and their families. John Gormley of the Green Party, who was lord mayor in 1994-5, got married at St Ann’s Church, a few doors down Dawson Street, and held the reception at the Mansion House.

Lord mayor’s carriage

Royston Brady, who held the office in 2003-4, used the lord mayor’s carriage to take him from St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral to the Mansion House for his wedding reception. The 18th-century coach is usually taken out only on St Patrick’s Day, for the capital’s main parade, and for the lord mayor’s visit to the first day of the Dublin Horse Show. A homeless couple were also allowed to use the Mansion House for their wedding reception during Brady’s time as lord mayor.

 

Hosting civic receptions for charity, community, sporting and business groups and giving people the freedom of the city – recipients are nominated by the lord mayor, then voted on by Dublin councillors – are other duties that families remember well.

Michelle O’Halloran recalls chatting with Bob Geldof when he received the freedom of the city, in 1984, while her father, Michael O’Halloran, was lord mayor.

The members of U2 – Bono, the Edge, Larry Mullen jnr and Adam Clayton, plus their then manager, Paul McGuinness – became freemen of Dublin on March 18th, 2000. Under one of their new rights, Bono and the Edge grazed lambs on St Stephen’s Green the next day.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition politician, was given the freedom of the city at the same time, but as she was under house arrest her son came instead; then, on June 18th, 2012, after her release, she came to Dublin to sign the “roll of honorary freedom”.

One of the Mansion House’s oldest living former occupants is Paddy Byrne – now 89 – whose father, Alfie Byrne, was Dublin’s longest-serving lord mayor, from 1930 to 1939 and from 1954 to 1955. Paddy Byrne has many memories of his father’s hospitality at the Mansion House.

“My father was very popular, a man of the people. He always said, ‘The kettle is always on the hob.’ The house always felt like an official residence, because there were always strangers around – and my mother, who was a private person, didn’t like that.

“We were a musical family, and I can remember getting music lessons on the baby grand piano. And I can remember dipping in the goldfish pond in the centre of the garden with my two sisters on a hot day.”

What are the current lord mayor’s sentiments about the house? “I don’t live in it at all. I’m a homer,” says Christy Burke, the Sinn Féin councillor who took up the post in June last year. “I spent one night in the house with my partner, and we sat looking out the windows until 4am, and then got up the next morning and went to Bewley’s for breakfast.”

300 years of hospitality: A history of the house
The Mansion House was built as a town house for Joshua Dawson, city merchant and property developer, in 1710. “He was the second-wealthiest man in Ireland at the time, aligned to Queen Anne, so the house was built in the Queen Anne style, with baroque features,” says Nicola Matthews, architectural conservation officer at Dublin City Council. “Dawson built St Ann’s Church on Dawson Street at the same time, and Dawson Street became a major artery between the large new square of St Stephen’s Green – formerly a commonage – and the medieval All Hallows monastery, which became Trinity College.”

Dawson never lived in the house. Instead he added the Oak Room, as a reception room, and sold the building to Dublin Corporation in 1715 to be the lord mayor’s residence. The Oak Room contains a portrait of Charles Stewart Parnell and the coats of arms of all former lord mayors since Daniel O’Connell, in 1841.

The style of the house became unfashionable in the Georgian period, so various changes were made, including the addition of the portico. The Round Room was built (on a former bowling green) in six weeks in 1821 to celebrate the arrival of King George IV; the Supper Room – now Fire restaurant – was built in 1867. The Round Room held the meeting of the first Dáil in January 1919.

The lady mayoress’s room to the right of the front door, the drawing room behind it and the dining room are open to groups on request (lordmayor@dublincity.ie) and to the general public on Culture Night.

The stained-glass window by Joshua Clarke at the turn on the stairs is one of the house’s most admired pieces of local craftsmanship. It was originally put in place to celebrate Home Rule but has since been renamed the Peace Window.

Nicola Matthews will talk about the history of the Mansion House at the Irish Georgian Society (City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin 2) on Tuesday at 6.30pm. Admission €10/€5; 01-6798675 or info@igs.ie. The Mansion House, Dublin: Three Hundred Years of History and Hospitality, edited by Dr Mark Clark, Dublin city archivist, will be published shortly. A cultural programme to celebrate the Mansion House’s 300th anniversary will run throughout the year. See lordmayordublin.ie

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