The architect James Gandon (1743-1823) is today synonymous with Dublin. While he worked in other cities, and was born in London’s New Bond Street, his most celebrated works are to be found here. From the Four Courts to parts of the historic Parliament building on College Green, and from Kings Inns to the Rotunda Assembly Rooms, his work is a reminder of the style of the Georgian period that transformed Dublin.
His first project in Dublin was undoubtedly his most controversial. While the Custom House is today recognised as a Dublin landmark building, the very prospect of its construction infuriated Dubliners who believed it would shift the entire axis of the city and negatively effect their own incomes. So controversial was the development, that Dublin workers (dismissed in contemporary accounts as ‘rabble’) would force their way onto the site of the development, led by the firebrand “populist patriot” James Napper Tandy.
Moving the Custom House:
Before Gandon’s Custom House, an earlier one could be found at Essex Quay, more or less at the site of Bono’s Clarence Hotel. Constructed in 1707, it was plagued by numerous problems, including the fact large vessels had difficulty reaching it thanks to the presence of a large reef known as Standfast Dick that proved a nightmare for anyone navigating the Liffey! As Maurice Curtis discusses in his recent history of Temple Bar, other problems included the fact that large vessels often had to use smaller craft , known as ‘lighters’, to unload cargo owing to difficulties in navigating up the Liffey, and the building itself was problematic, with its upper floors discovered to be structurally unsound in the early 1770s.
By 1773, plans were afoot to address the problem, with the powerful Revenue Commissioner John Beresford leading the campaign for a new Custom House to be constructed further eastwards. He proposed a new and enlarged development, though almost immediately the proposals were met by protest. As Joseph Robins notes in his history of the Custom House, “the proposal was opposed by a variety of individuals who feared their interests would be damaged by any shift in the location of commercial activity. Petitions against the project were presented by the merchants, brewers and manufacturers of Dublin, and by the city Corporation, but the government decided in 1774 to go ahead with the move.”
James Gandon arrives in Dublin:
The architect selected for this development was the Londoner James Gandon, grandson of French Huguenot refugees who had fled religious persecution. Gandon had already been awarded the Gold medal for architecture by the Royal Academy in London, and was in considerable demand beyond these shores; the Romanov family had attempted to lure him to St Petersburg around the same time as the Custom House controversy in Dublin.
When Gandon arrived in Dublin, he was kept a virtual prisoner by Beresford. His biographer Hugo Duffy has written of the real fear that gripped Beresford, writing that Gandon’s suspicion of the whole project “must have been heightened when he realised the opposition was so violent as to keep Beresford in a state of anxiety lest it became known that the architect had arrived.”
The primary figure that stood between Gandon and the new Custom House was James Napper Tandy, one of the great characters of the Dublin of his day. An ironmonger by trade, Tandy was elected to the City Assembly in 1777 and was a champion of the Dublin poor, not to mention a vocal campaigner against corruption in local politics. Later a founding member of the United Irishmen, many were unkind towards his appearance, with one observer of a political meeting he addressed remembering:
He was the ugliest man I ever gazed on. He had a dark, yellow, truculent-looking countenance, a long drooping nose, rather sharpened at the point, and the muscles of his face formed two cords at each side of it.
The poor regarded Tandy as a hero, not least when he denounced the police of the day as “a ruffianly and licentious rabble”, or when he campaigned for rights for the Catholic majority. His life would take some remarkable turns, and indeed he arguably came to owe his life to Napoleon Bonaparte, who intervened vigorously on his behalf after the disastrous 1798 rebellion and his capture. Still, ’98 was far away at the time of Gandon’s arrival, and Tandy’s aim was to ensure that the unhappiness of Dublin merchants and workers who he represented was clear to Gandon and Beresford. Gandon was warned that labourers in Dublin were “frequently turbulent, and in the habit of combining together for increase of wages, when works required quickness of execution.” Certainly, Tandy contributed to that.
The ‘rabble’ storming the site:
Gandon was more than aware of the unpopularity of the project. As Robins notes, he received threatening letters on more than one occasion and even carried a cane sword, “which he believed he could still wield to some purpose if forced to defend himself.”
On a September day in 1781, the protestors arrived. Gandon had been warned that Tandy and his followers constituted “the most desperate of the mob” opposed to the project, and the press delighted in reporting of his arrival on the construction site, “followed by numerous rabble with adzes, saws, shovels, etc.” Tandy’s men “came in a body onto the grounds and leveled that portion of the fence, which had been thrown up, adjoining the North Wall and River Liffey.” Beresford would encourage Gandon in the aftermath of this to “laugh at the extreme folly of the people”, but certainly Tandy had made his point. Tandy has been described as a “real force in the municipal and street politics of the capital”, and this was neither the first or the last time he would infuriate the authorities.
Gandon’s masterpiece was eventually completed, though the project took a decade in total and cost an extraordinary sum of money at the time, with the bills running to a sum in excess of £200,000. Napper Tandy wouldn’t be the last radical to storm the site; on 25 May 1921, the men of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, assisted in their task by sympathetic members of the Dublin Fire Brigade, ensured that the building burnt. The centre of Local Government administration in British-occupied Ireland, the buildings interior was gutted on that occasion. Despite drastic changing inside, much of the magnificent exterior today reminds us of the fine talents of James Gandon. Today he is buried in Drumcondra, having died on Christmas Eve, 1823.