Let’s just wander, I said. And see where we end up. We were headed to the IFC in Dublin’s docklands, down by the Customs House, to see the 140th annual exhibition by artists of the Dublin Painting and Sketching Club.* Way back in October of 1874, a group of artists got together to start the club, one of whom was Bram Stoker, perhaps better known as the creator of Dracula. This year’s exhibition has the River Liffey as its celebratory theme and features work by both members and invited guests. The catalogue is impressive and just a week into the exhibition, quite a number of the works have sold. I found myself wishing I had €3000 to purchase a painting of Achill Island by John Kirwan and a way to get it to Hungary. It is absolutely stunning. A painting I could lose myself in, over and over again. I have a week to figure out the logistics.
M’s choice, Bluebell Meadow, by Vincent Smith, had already sold.
Heading up the Quays, we passed the Customs House and saw a sign pointing to a Visitor Centre that neither of us had known was there. Admission was free and we had time, so we went inside. This neo-classical stunner was completed in 1791 with a bill of £200 000 (equivalent to about €40 million today). Said to the jewel of James Gandon’s portfolio, it is an iconic part of the Dublin skyline.
During the Irish War of Independence in 1921, it was burned down. I was a little shocked to hear that Michael Collins had given the order. The first round of restoration was completed by 1928 and the second by the bi-centenary in 1991. The part that houses the Visitor Centre is apparently the only original part left.
The exhibition is in four parts:
- Met Éireann’s ‘weather-themed’ room looks at the development of scientific meteorology in Ireland with a special focus on the weather of Easter Week 1916 and the weather on 25 May 1921, when the Custom House was attacked. It highlights the unfailing commitment of weather observers who took daily weather readings, sometimes against all odds.
- The Custom House and 1916, including the story of some Local Government staff dismissed for participating in the Rising, Bureau of Military History statements of prisoners in the Custom House after the Rising, and activity in the area of the Custom house during the Rising.
- Gandon, telling the story of the architect James Gandon and the construction of the Custom House.
- The Custom House Fire 1921, covering the events of 25 May 1921 and the subsequent restoration.
It’s an imposing building with much to note and a classic example of why we should look up more. I’d never noticed the Irish harps beside the English roses, or the very Indian-looking bull face on top of the pillars.
I don’t know much about architects or architecture, but Gandon seems to have taken a delight in this one. And then I read that this was a game played by architects of the time – creating different shaped spaces for people to wander through. How very, very different from the functional stuff we see today.
Having watched the documentaries and read our way through the exhibit, we wandered towards the Irish Life Mall, passing for the millionth time the statue of James Connolly. But this time, we were walking. And we stopped. And saw the Talking Statues logo that gave us a link to tap into our phones to hear the story of Connolly and the part he played in Irish history. Written and narrated by Brendan O’Carroll (of Mrs Brown fame), it taught us stuff we didn’t know and reminded us of stuff we’d long forgotten.
Next time I’m in town, I want to find the statue of Joyce to hear what Roddy Doyle wrote about the man, as told by Gabriel Byrne.
I was born in Dublin. I love the city. And I love the fact that even now, I’m still learning about it.
*PS The art exhibition is on at CHQ, in the IFSC, in Dublin city centre from April 15 to 29, 2018. Admission free.