Posted by: mdmusingsie | August 24, 2013

A-round-a-square

As part of Heritage Week, one of the events that intrigued me was the Open Day at Merrion Square. An opportunity to go inside some of the Georgian buildings surrounding three sides of the park (the fourth contains the government buildings of Leinster House as well as the National Museum and Gallery). Most if not all of the buildings these days are businesses yet they were once home to the likes of W.B. Yeates, Daniel O’Connell, and Oscar Wilde.

Despite this being an Open Day, a few of the places I visited are open to the public all the time. Of particular interest was the Irish Traditional Music Archive. The archive consists of a recording studio, a library of Irish music, Irish historical books as well as a significant library of recorded Irish music dating from current times back to the late 1800’s. Working in a place like this would be one of my dream jobs.

The first recordings were made on tinfoil, but that proved too flimsy so it progressed to wax cylinders, which for obvious reasons had their own failings, followed by celluloid cylinders.  The recording device was invented by none other than Thomas Edison.  Copper moulds were used to duplicate the wax cylinders, but in the process, destroyed the original.  It was deemed worth the sacrifice to be able to produce multiple copies from the copper mould, and accounts for the survival of some of the earliest recordings.

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First voice recording device invented by Thomas Edison late 1800’s

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Cylinders used for voice and musical recordings

I almost missed a talk on Medieval Ireland as it was listed in the program under Public Lectures which was such a generic topic I sped by it more than once.  Luckily I did pause on one perusal (the morning of) and rushed to make sure I made it.  There were actually two lectures, the first by Dr. Howard Clarke on Politics, Sex, and Violence in the suburbs of Medieval Dublin (who could resist that topic!), and another on Making a Home in Early 20th Century Dublin: Servants, Lodgers and the Respectable Classes by Dr. Ruth McManus.

I’ve always held a fascination for Medieval Times, so the first topic drew me in.  Did you know that in the 14th Century if you insulted your neighbor you could be fined 2 shillings, but if you insulted the Mayor the fine was 40 shillings?  It might also cost you 12 pence if you didn’t clear your front walk, 15 for brewing a bad batch of beer, or 6 shillings 8 pence for a baker who did not properly mark their bread.  Toll booths are not a new phenomenon; murage was charged back in medieval times when entering the city gates in order to raise funds to build and maintain the city walls.

Other fun facts: due to the stench, butchers had to slaughter outside the city walls, and the cesspit in your back garden where you placed your human and household waste had to be 2 feet 6 inches from your neighbor’s property.

Not only did some of the abbeys receive a tax on liquor sales to supplement their income, there is evidence that the Bishop of Winchester (London) owned a series of brothels.  If the church couldn’t curb immorality, they could at least profit from it.

The second topic may seem a bit droll to some, but since I’m in the process of writing a novel about a young girl in early 20th century Dublin, the life and times of a typical household would aid my research.  This was the beginning of the middle class in Ireland, and not only was indoor plumbing coming into popular use, but having a domestic servant, preferably live-in, was an indication of status.

The building where the lectures were held still retains much of the architecture of a traditional Georgian home including ornate plasterwork and a beautifully manicured back garden with a gate that led to the mews or stables.

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Plaster ceiling in the corridor of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in Merrion Square

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Back garden at the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Merrion Square

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Dublin Doors in Merrion Square

At the Irish Architectural archive I learned that the FitzWilliams leased the property to builders and buyers, but you couldn’t just pick your spot, you had to take the next available one in order from the North West corner at No. 1 where Oscar Wilde lived as a child but is now the American College of Dublin, to the east and around the square. The FitzWilliams were shrewd business people, giving builders a discount if they bought stone and marble from the related family businesses.

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I Stop for Castles – couldn’t resist snapping this model at the Irish Architectural Archive

If you’re interested in what a Georgian house looked like in its heyday, there is a Georgian House Museum at 29 Lower FitzWilliam St, which is just at the south east corner of the square.  Admission is free year round.  Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures, but they have a gorgeous Waterford Crystal chandelier in the dining room.

Inside the park in the center of Merrion square they were holding archaeological events including a makeshift dig for kids to get in and experience the joy of discovering objects hidden in the ground.  The park, like St. Stephen’s Green but on a smaller scale, is another of the oases in the bustle of a large, often noisy city.

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There we so many things to see and do during Heritage Week and so little time, but at least it’s an opportunity to visit areas you might not have known existed and discover some little known tidbits about the area in which you live.  All countries should have such events.  I can’t wait until next year!

PS – You just never know what you’re going to see in Dublin.  I saw this crazy bunch singing and peddling their way down Parnell Street as I waited for the bus home.

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