A little-known laboratory at Government Buildings

The Merrion Street complex was once where some of the State’s greatest scientists went to work

Goverment Buildings on Merrion Street. Photograph: David Sleator

Goverment Buildings on Merrion Street. Photograph: David Sleator

 

The Government Buildings complex on Merrion Street in Dublin is one of Ireland’s iconic buildings, and has played host to some of the most significant national events of recent decades. However, relatively few people are aware of the rich history of science and engineering associated with the building.

The complex was opened in 1911 to house the Royal College of Science for Ireland alongside government departments devolved from Westminster to Dublin. The dean of faculty was the renowned scientist Sir Walter Hartley, a pioneer in the study of the ozone layer. The college had big ambitions for what would be achieved in its grand new premises, but these were rapidly overtaken by world and then national events.

Many students and staff enlisted when war was declared in 1914 and a number lost their lives, including Hartley’s only son, Walter John, who died at Gallipoli.

The college laboratories were involved in research for the war effort, and the building also housed the central sphagnum moss collection depot for Ireland, where more than 900,000 moss dressings were produced for war hospitals. A notable student of the period was Sophie Peirce, who served as a motorcycle dispatch rider in France before going on to achieve fame in aviation and athletics (she also successfully campaigned for the inclusion of women’s track and field events in the Olympics).

National conflict further disrupted the work of the college. In 1922 the provisional government, which had by then selected Merrion Street for its headquarters, ordered the closure of the college building to students “in consequence of the disturbed state of the country”. University College Dublin offered lecture accommodation, and access to the laboratories on Merrion Street was made available to students obtaining “a guarantee of loyalty to the Free State from a Senator, TD or other responsible person”.

Staff and students protested the delay in allowing them to return to Merrion Street following the end of the Civil War, but separate negotiations about their future were already under way, and in 1926 the Royal College of Science for Ireland and its building were transferred to UCD.

 

National self-sufficiency

While the politicians and civil servants occupying the wings of the courtyard complex set about their task of building the fledgling State, the UCD engineers and scientists under the iconic dome contributed more literally to this endeavour. Much of the research in Merrion Street at this time focused on support for infrastructure and for national self-sufficiency. James Drumm developed a rechargeable battery that was used to power trains from Dublin to Bray, while many graduates were involved in the Shannon hydroelectric scheme and the development of the peat industry. Research was also conducted into broader areas of science. Throughout most of the 1940s the building was home to Vincent Barry, whose contributions to the treatment of leprosy rank among the greatest achievements by any Irish scientist.

In the early 1960s UCD began the move from its city-centre locations to the Belfield campus. The three UCD science departments that left Merrion Street with the move were all led by pioneering women professors: Phyllis Clinch (botany), Carmel Humphries (zoology) and Eva Philbin (chemistry).

Over the next 25 years the building housed much or all of UCD’s engineering school. Increasing numbers of students and of engineering degree programmes reflected a period of national educational and industrial expansion, encapsulated in the IDA’s Young Europeans campaign of the 1980s, featuring several alumni of Merrion Street. The rich tradition of research continued under the leadership of eminent faculty such as Jim Dooge, one of the founders of the modern engineering science of hydrology.

In 1989 UCD vacated the complex for the new Engineering Building in Belfield, and the Office of Public Works led the award-winning refurbishment of Government Buildings. The building, with its fine facade, now meets the need for a formal public space identified with government.

It is fitting, however, that the statues that greet occupants and visitors are not politicians or generals, but scientist Robert Boyle and mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, recalling the journeys of learning and discovery that were for so long conducted on Merrion Street.

  • Further details can be found in the publication The Building of the State: Science and Engineering with Government on Merrion Street, edited by Clara Cullen and Orla Feely, available at ucd.ie/merrionstreet
  • Orla Feely is vice-president for research, innovation and impact at University College Dublin. orla.feely@ucd.ie
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