Vanishing Ireland at City Assembly House
I have walked along South William Street a million times, but never really noticed, perceptive as I am, City Assembly House. So, when I went along to meet Donough from the Irish Georgian Society, I was interested to hear about the varied history attached to the newly refurbished building, just opposite Grogan’s, which shares a corner with Coppinger Row.
City Assembly House was built in the 1760s by the Society of Artists in Ireland, in an effort to celebrate and engage the general public with the Irish art and Irish artists. Rather than artists engaging directly with patrons, the facility allowed them to display and celebrate their work, which at the time was an extremely innovative concept.
The main draw of the building is the breath-taking, octagonal exhibition room built in 1766, and of particular interest from an art-history point of view; it was the first time that an exhibition room had been built for public access, the first purpose-built exhibition room in Ireland, Britain and possibly Europe. This exhibition room, which is midway through refurbishment, is hosting Vanishing Ireland, the first cultural event since the building’s reopening in early June. The photographs are displayed on the unplastered walls from which old metal protrudes; in stark contrast to the delicate coving and beautiful dome window overhead. In a way the unfinished, raw elements of the room, are in keeping with the cool, young vibe that you would expect from South William Street – it also makes for a great backdrop to a beautiful exhibition.
The venue lasted as an exhibition space for 20 years and then served a variety of functions up until the 1800s, hosting several historical debates and meetings, including one headed by Lord Mayor of Dublin at the time, Daniel O’Connell. In 1809 Dublin Corporation acquired the building, and it was used for the assembly of the corporation until 1852. During the 20th century the building was used as the civic museum until it closed in 2003. From then it had been lying unused until the Irish Georgian Society set about refurbishing it, to create a cultural centre for the city of Dublin.
The first exhibition started last month and includes photographs from the series of books by James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury. The pair interviewed and photographed men and women over the age of 70 who had people across the country:
‘experienced a traditional, working class upbringing…blacksmiths, saddlers, farmers, fishermen, housemaids, lacemakers, publicans, postmen, thatchers, musicians, anyone who would help us to gain a better understanding of a world which was fading fast’ – Turtle Bunbury
The exhibition is an important piece of work, which helps to preserve the legacy of an older generation and way of life that is so important to Ireland. Future plans for the City Assembly House include exhibitions as part of Culture Night in September and as part of Open House in October.
This historic gem has been reinvented as a cultural centre right in the heart of the Creative Quarter, waiting to be discovered. The exhibition and the building itself is well worth the visit, so if you find yourself wandering down South William street over the coming month, make sure to drop in.
The exhibition runs until the 31st of August from 10am-5pm, Monday – Saturday at 58 South William Street, entry is free.