Programme two of 'Building Ireland', the new RTÉ series about Ireland’s built heritage, sees architect Orla Murphy in the heart of our capital city and chartered engineer Tim Joyce discovering Dublin’s docklands’ engineering secrets


Building Ireland is now available here on the RTÉ player.

Programme two of Building Ireland, the new RTÉ series about Ireland’s built heritage, aired on July 15 and saw architect Orla Murphy in the heart of our capital city and chartered engineer Tim Joyce discovering the engineering secrets of Dublin’s docklands – including the curious diving bell on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay.

“Dame Street, in the heart of Dublin, is one of the busiest streets in the capital. Traffic, shoppers and commuters throng here but, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the street was brimming with banks. Into this half-mile stretch was crammed the biggest and most influential banks in Ireland – and in this competitive environment, what your bank looked like, inside and out, was as important as the interest rate you were getting. Image was everything,” said Murphy.

The story of modern Irish banking begins in the magnificent building that was originally the Irish Houses of Parliament and is now the Bank of Ireland College Green. This was the first purpose-built, two-chamber Parliament House in the world, constructed at a high point of social, economic and political confidence in Dublin. It has an important place in world political history.

The foundation stone was laid on 3 February 1729. The original Parliament building, designed by Edward Lovett Pearce, was completed by 1739 and is only part of the existing structure. Built in the 19th century, these buildings give the impression that they have been here for hundreds of years. The architecture reflects the bank’s message of the time, which was one of stability, security and continuity.


Starting in 1820, some 819 banking halls and branches were built throughout Ireland. The architecture was ambitious and expensive. They used the best of materials and employed the finest craft workers.

A typical 19th century bank building had its vaults in the basement, the public banking hall at ground level and the manager’s office on the first floor. These buildings were workspaces for the written word. High, vaulted domes attracted plenty of natural light, flooding the counters and clerks’ desks and illuminating ledgers, cash tills and parchment.

Christine Casey, professor of architectural history in Trinity College Dublin, explained the purpose of these ‘cathedrals of capitalism’. “The desire is clearly in some of those interiors to astound, to awe, to impress with the great wealth and importance of these institutions,” she said. “l think architecture is ‘performative’ fundamentally. You can go back to antiquity and you’ll find that people used architecture, especially ornament and beautiful materials, to achieve magnificence.”

The head office of the Munster Bank on Dame Street, which is now the AIB bank opposite the Olympia Theatre, is among the finest examples of a late-Victorian bank building. The Munster Bank was founded in 1864 and grew rapidly, establishing a branch network in rural Ireland and even buying out other banks.

But the bank was repeatedly criticised for over-extending its credit and for allowing its branches to run autonomously. On June 26 1885, five directors of the Munster Bank on Dame Street were found guilty of insider lending on a grand scale.

This led to a dramatic bank collapse and revelations of careless lending to property developers and elite socialites. The assistant manager of this branch, Robert Farquharson, had embezzled over £70,000 and was last spotted on the platform of the railway station on Amiens Street. He vanished without a trace. The collapse of the Munster Bank was the first consumer banking crash in Irish financial history. But it would not be the last.


The programme also featured chartered engineer Tim Joyce setting out to discover how an odd, metal structure on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay – the diving bell – played a crucial role in building the foundations of modern Dublin. Some 140 years ago, the docklands were in need of a radical overhaul, just to keep up trade demands of the British Empire.

An Irish engineer from Clareen, Co Offaly – named Bindon Blood Stoney – was pioneering new methods in port construction, but the finest Victorian engineers of the day said his proposed plans for Dublin port just would not work. Would Blood Stoney’s new innovation of a diving bell and shear crane work?

Meanwhile, geographer Susan Hegarty also featured, on a canoe exploring Dublin from unusual angles. “Dublin has for centuries ran to the rhythm of the sea and its rivers,” she said. “The Liffey is the central artery of the city and, as the city expanded, how people got across it became more and more important. The construction of one bridge in 1795 changed the physical axis of the entire city – the Carlisle Bridge.”

O’Connell Bridge is world famous for being as wide as it is long. But the Carlisle Bridge, which stood here previously, was only 12.5 metres wide. The widening of the bridge happened a hundred years after it was first built – but to understand why they made it so wide, we have to look back to the first great initiative in European town planning, which was the Wide Streets Commission.

Graham Hickey of the Dublin Civic Trust highlighted the role the Wide Streets Commission played in the development of modern Dublin’s streetscape. “The commissioners wanted rational, ordered and very aesthetically rigid architecture to replace the old, organically developed medieval streets,” said Hickey. “So they created new streets, widened existing streets and opened up views of major public buildings. Most innovative of all, they had a real civic ambition of how they saw Dublin as a capital city. The level of control they exerted on the development of the city is quite unique on a European level.”

Following the demise of Grattan’s parliament at the start of the 19th century, Dublin’s rising Catholic middle classes were radically changing the financial and transport infrastructure of the city. The legacy of the rise, fall and consolidation of various banks has left an indelible impression Dublin city’s built heritage – a legacy that we can interact with today, when strolling down Dame Street. The pinnacle of all bank buildings still remains the Bank of Ireland College Green, which has stood resolute as a symbol of the finest architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Programme two of Building Ireland, entitled ‘The Banking Halls of Dame Street’, is now available here on the RTÉ player. O'RiordanNewsDublin,Engineers Ireland,heritage
  Building Ireland is now available here on the RTÉ player. Programme two of Building Ireland, the new RTÉ series about Ireland’s built heritage, aired on July 15 and saw architect Orla Murphy in the heart of our capital city and chartered engineer Tim Joyce discovering the engineering secrets of Dublin's docklands...