A new book by the late Arthur Gibney reveals the new materials and techniques used on 18th-century Irish building sites, and also looks at conditions for craftspeople, labourers, architects and engineers. Read on for your chance to win a copy

Many people remember the late Arthur Gibney (1931-2006) as architect of the Irish Management Institute building in Sandyford, which won the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland triennial gold medal in 1974 and – with Sam Stephenson – of the ESB buildings in Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin.

Others know him as the artist of very beautiful paintings. Some of his best are of Italian buildings, the Salute in Venice being one of his favourite subjects. Few know him as an architectural historian who, late in life, undertook a study of the building site in eighteenth-century Ireland – a work now published by Four Courts Press.

As an architect who worked on many great 18th-century buildings such as Dr Steevens’s Hospital, he knew their materials, their structure, their innards: once thrown on to the roof of the hospital by a faulty cherry picker, he knew them at first hand. From the skeletons of ruined buildings throughout the country, he discerned how they had been put together.

In libraries, he browsed the building manuals of the period – the Prices, the Levi Hodgsons, the Batty Langleys, and their Dublin reprintings – to get close to the builders of Georgian Limerick, and Cork and Dublin.

With great success he studied the manuscript records of architects, contractors, craftsmen, labourers, suppliers, clients (particularly the uniquely complete building records of Trinity College Dublin) in order to build up a day-by-day picture of what it was like to be on a Georgian building site.

Changing building styles and practices around 1700

Parliament Square, Trinity College: example of crown glass from the 1750s

The book, The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, is an edited version of a PhD thesis presented by Gibney to the University of Dublin some twenty years ago. The editors (Livia Hurley and Eddie McParland), while respecting the authority of the original thesis (which Maurice Craig as examiner recommended be published as ‘an important addition to the literature’), have guided the reader to additional and more recent studies which have appeared since 1997 and which add to the value of the book.

The decades around 1700 were a time of transition in building in Britain as well as in Ireland:

  • Professional organisation saw the birth of new trade guilds in Ireland;
  • There was an influx of foreign workmen, among them Huguenots; and
  • Changing preferences in building materials saw oak yield to fir, and a new fondness for brick.

As important as any of these developments was a change of architectural style, and the advent in Ireland of fully developed classicism, with casement giving way to sash and the tentative classicism of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (1680) developing into the international Palladianism of Pearce’s Parliament House (1729).

Gibney tells this story by looking at the building site: the contracts made, the role of architects in a world where there was no formal definition of the profession, the cost of labour, the prices and sources of stone, wood, glass, brick, slate, tile, shingle, and how they were put together on – and off – the site.

An example of the interesting interplay between style and material is his account of roof pitch, the Italianate low pitch being suited to the pantiles which originally covered the Printing House in Trinity College (1734), while the smallness of available slates to other buildings of the same date required steeper roofs.

George Semple, Ireland’s unsung Georgian engineer

Trusses providing different pitches of roof, Batty Langley, The city and country builder’s and workman’s treasury of designs (London, 1770)

Of particular interest to engineers is the figure of George Semple, a brilliant figure hitherto seriously understudied. Gibney studies two of his manuscripts, which are probably unique in the records of 18th-century building. They are specifications for his unexecuted design for Public Offices (i.e. a public record office) and for his executed design of St Patrick’s (‘Swift’s’) Hospital in Dublin.

These detailed instructions record in great detail Semple’s requirements of his craftsmen. Semple was a sophisticated and well-travelled engineer whose best known work was Essex (Capel Street) Bridge, now rebuilt, which was informed by his wide reading, including Bernard Forest de Bélidor’s Architecture Hydraulique.

If Semple was an engineer, Ann Martha Rowan’s dictionary of Irish architects correctly describes him also as architect, builder, projector and author. (His Treatise on Building in Water of 1776 is one of the fundamental architectural publications of the century).

Professional distinctions were ill-defined, both at craftsman level and that of architect. Despite the existence of separate guilds for carpenters and joiners, carpenters (particularly in the later 18th century) engaged in joinery; something similar was the case with painters and plasterers. When James Gandon arrived in Ireland in 1781, he complained that there were only two people (Thomas Cooley and Richard Johnston) who were properly called architect.

Gibney’s two introductory chapters, ‘Organisation and management’ and ‘Eighteenth-century building contracts’ study this world of flexible professional definition in which, while George Semple is described in the Dublin directories as engineer, no later engineer is listed as such before the 1790s.

The remaining chapters are arranged by material and trade. For example, Chapter 9 is ‘The roofing trades: the work of the slater and the plumber’. Here, as we saw above, the connection between style, profile of roof and material (lead, pantile, slate, shingle) is looked at, as is roof failure, which was characteristic of Ireland at the time.

The economy of supply is studied (including the cost of transporting from the Dublin docks to Trinity College timber, which had been brought from Norway or the Baltic). What were the different rates paid to sawyers for working on mahogany (hard) and fir (soft)? How much did you have to pay for French crown glass for your windows? Which pigments were allowed to plasterworkers for painting (limited ones, and dull) and which for members of the painters’ guild (more varied and richer)?

Defining characteristics of 18th-century Irish buildings

It has been said that from a high vantage point, 18th-century Irish architecture belongs within the orbit, not of Paris or Rome or Berlin, but of London. But what distinguishes it from English architecture? What, for instance, is characteristically Irish about the terraces of Merrion Square?

Gibney helps with an answer. Greater structural daring related to minimal supports is involved here. Prompted by a strong masonry rather than timber tradition, the roofs of Dutch Billys and of typical provincial town houses relied not on elaborate trusses, but on purlins supported on the masonry cross-walls.

And by the 1740s, Irish carpenters had abandoned the typically English framed floor (with its floor joists, binders, ceiling joists and girders) in favour of one structural member, the long spanning joist running in clear spans of up to 26 feet. (Price’s British carpenter recommended a maximum length of 12 feet for joists. Interestingly, England adopted the more radical long-span joist arrangement in the 19th century.

Gibney’s own architectural understanding, his familiarity with historic structures intact and ruined, and his command of contemporary literature and manuscripts lies behind this wholly original book. He has enormously enriched our understanding of the fabric of 18th-century buildings, as well as our sense of the social and economic history of the period.

The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland (ISBN: 978-1-84682-638-2) is published by Four Courts Press Ltd. For your chance to win a copy, email your answer to the following question to mcarrigan@engineersireland.ie: in what year was George Semple’s Treatise on Building in Water published? The closing date for receipt of answers is Tuesday, 3 October.

Livia Hurley is an architect and architectural historian in private practice in Dublin. She is one of five editors and principal authors of Architecture, 1600–2000, vol. IV of Art and Architecture of Ireland (2014), and she teaches at the School of Architecture, University College Dublin. Edward McParland is a fellow emeritus of Trinity College Dublin. His publications include James Gandon, Vitruvius Hibernicus (1985) and Public Architecture in Ireland, 1680–1760 (2001).

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Many people remember the late Arthur Gibney (1931-2006) as architect of the Irish Management Institute building in Sandyford, which won the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland triennial gold medal in 1974 and – with Sam Stephenson – of the ESB buildings in Fitzwilliam Street in Dublin. Others know...