An Irishman's Diary

 

IN APRIL and May 1878, a few months before he died 130 years ago, the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Paul Cullen, initiated a period of intense activity in the property market which was to have a lasting effect on the geography of the first major urban area created by the independent Irish state.

He paid £8,260 for the 300-acre Marino estate owned by the Earls of Charlemont in Donnycarney. The ink was barely dry on the deal when he sold on all but 41 acres to the Christian Brothers for £6,000. The Brothers then sold their headquarters at Belvedere House, Drumcondra, to the Cardinal for £3000. They moved to Marino House, the earl's former home, and St Patrick's teacher training college relocated to Belvedere House soon after.

None of this might have happened had not the Cardinal been left £80,000 in the will of Bridget O'Brien, whose family had made its fortune in the wholesale wool trade on Usher's Quay in the 19th century.

She left the money for the founding, farming, endowing and supporting of "a respectable and becoming" house and school for "the sufficient and comfortable lodging, dieting, clothing, and educating of a certain number of poor and destitute children". She had never married. The last surviving member of her family, she lived for a time at 12 Fitzwilliam Square, but spent most of her adult life in hotels in Dublin and Paris. She died in the Shelbourne Hotel, aged 57, in November 1876.

As a child Bridget must have been affected by the social conditions around Usher's Quay, which a contemporary described as "a network of lanes, alleys, courts, dark, filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden and badly drained, with too many dram shops". This probably influenced when she made her will, at the age of 27.

The Marino estate had been the seat of the Charlemonts since Henry Adderley, a flourishing industrialist, acquired it and built Marino House as a gift for his stepson, the first earl. After finishing school, the earl spent nine years on the Continent, and settled in Marino in 1753. The place was originally called Donnycarney Estate but he renamed it Marino, because of either its fine sea view or his fascination with Italy. Barely established there, Charlemont decided to build the Casino, a very sophisticated example of Franco-Roman neo-classical design. He confessed that its cost, £30,000-£40,000, would permanently cripple the estate.

In declining health, he left Marino in 1791 to take the waters at Bath and the demesne was neglected by his successors. Perhaps they were visited by the curse of Dracula. It is said that a contractor, Charles Ffolliott, disliked Charlemont so much that he built a row of houses on Fairview in 1792, effectively to block the sea view from Marino House. This became known as Marino Crescent. Dracula's creator, Bram Stoker, was born in No. 15 in 1847.

The estate's decline provided Cardinal Cullen with the opportunity to buy it. The O'Brien Institute (OBI) was founded on the 41 acres he had retained, centred on an imposing, red-brick French Gothic structure which cost £25,000 to build. The site included the Casino, left in a poor state by the later Charlemonts. Its upkeep was a constant worry to the trustees until it was taken over by the State in 1932. The Christian Brothers were given charge of the school and its first pupils were admitted 120 years ago this spring.

For most of its existence - it finally closed in 1972 for lack of numbers after a new day school, Ard Scoil Ris, had been built in the grounds - the OBI had only boarders. The average number was only only 75-85 at any one time, because Bridget O'Brien had insisted that "no greater number of children be kept, under any pretence whatsoever, as can be carefully and fully and sufficiently provided for and attended to". There was to be no overcrowding.

Her approach to education was similarly enlightened. Another stipulation was that that if particular children showed a capacity or taste "for music, painting, sculpture, or any other useful trade, profession or calling", the trustees should facilitate them.

Although only a little over two miles from Dublin city centre, Marino was still very rural. The sea came up to the road and covered the present site of Fairview Park. Marino developed as an extensive suburb when the first large-scale housing scheme (1300 dwellings) undertaken by the newly-independent State was built there in 1924-29. The Marino estate gradually disappeared. Marino House was demolished around 1920. St. Joseph's Christian Brothers School was built at the estate's entrance on Fairview Strand. The Christian Brothers again moved headquarters to a new building on Griffith Avenue.

Apart from the Casino, all that remains of the estate is its entrance, with the Charlemont motto, Deo duce, ferro comitante ("with God as my guide, and my sword at my side"), hewn into its granite pillars. These now form the gateway to the Marino Institute of Education on Griffith Avenue.

Griffith Avenue became known locally as "the Holy Land" because of the number of Catholic-run institutions there, including the parish church, St Vincent de Paul's, opened in 1928. One of Marino's most famous organisations, St Vincent's GAA club - the current All-Ireland football club champion - has been rooted in the parish since its foundation in 1931. A logo of the Casino and part of the Charlemont motto (ferro comitante), are embossed on the club's crest.

The club bid for the OBI after the school closed but was trumped by Dublin Corporation, which has used the listed structure as the city's fire brigade training college ever since.

The O'Brien Trust, established through Bridget's bequest to found the OBI, is still administered by the Dublin diocese. In 1977 it was authorised by the High Court to use its funds for educational purposes in deprived areas of the diocese. Since then it has disbursed grants, inter alia, for a teaching project for Travellers, drugs awareness programmes, a hostel for homeless boys and the further education of children with particular gifts and talents living in disadvantaged areas.

Jim Cantwell is researching the history of the O'Brien Institute and would welcome recollections and information from former pupils. Email: cantwell_j@hotmail.com