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Set in stone? The architecture of colonialism

Can the physical reminders of British occupation ever be seen as home?

Merrion Square, Dublin. Credit: Nelro2 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are some subjects that should never be brought up in polite conversation. Traditionally, Northern Ireland (part British, part Irish) was one of them. Colonial buildings are another. As design objects, they often have great charm (and make romantic ruins), but they are politically provocative. Opinion on them divides along an obvious line—between those who have no personal or historical experience of colonisation, and those who do.

In countries like Myanmar and India, such buildings have been decaying peacefully and prettily without garnering too much of the world’s attention for more than half a century, but recently that has changed. In Yangon/Rangoon, for example, the long-abandoned Pegu Club is one of the world’s most atmospheric ruins, and its fate has become something of a cause célèbre. A popular New York bar has taken its name and re-popularised the legendary ‘Pegu Club cocktail’ of gin, Curaçao, lime juice, Angostura, and orange bitters.

Originally the Club was “open to all gentlemen.” According to local author Wai Wai Myaing, this meant that “rank, wealth, and birth had no relevance. The colour of the skin was the only feature that mattered.” Wild dogs are now said to have taken up residence in the abandoned building. Many locals seem happy enough to leave it to them.

Canines also feature in the history of a Mumbai monument—the old Watson’s Hotel, which famously bore a sign saying “Indians and Dogs are not Allowed” and hired only English waitresses in its restaurant. This landmark building is now “most dilapidated” (that’s an official classification). Architecturally important (it was India’s first cast-iron building), the old hotel is now causing so much concern abroad that it has been put on a global watch list of 100 endangered monuments. Cost and bureaucracy in Mumbai—rather than antipathy to the building’s history—are said to be responsible for its ongoing deterioration. I’m not so sure.

In Ireland, where I live, attitudes to our own ‘colonial’ architecture have been evolving since independence, and like everything else here they have been sharply divided. We were never, strictly speaking, a colony, but we were, in Edmund Burke’s words, occupied and ruled by a “colonial garrison” whose aim, as he put it, was “to keep the natives in subjection to the other state of Great Britain.”

No one quotes that line of Burke’s any more—it would be thought politically incorrect. We have long ceased to talk with openness about our history. In any case, historians have been so busy rewriting our past (particularly after the Troubles broke out in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s) that only those with the dedication to plough through masses of original documents now know much about it.

Still, even the most revisionist historian can’t deny the basics: the English won the battles here, seized our land, imposed penal laws on the natives, and gave the seized land to settlers of different nationality and religion who were also given total power in Ireland. The society created by these actions was both corrupting and cruel.

The most powerful physical reminder of those centuries of occupation is Ireland’s stock of 18th and 19th century buildings—big though not always attractive country houses in every part of the island, and some magnificent Georgian terraces in the cities, particularly in Dublin.

These buildings used to give varying degrees of offence, with those who were angriest at the memory of British rule and who were old enough to remember it feeling the most distaste. After all, they were built to house the “colonial garrison” but paid for unwillingly by the Irish people so that they could be ruled from them—badly and violently.

In the 1930s, plans were afoot for the demolition of some of Dublin’s most prestigious Georgian houses in Merrion Square, which had been chosen as a site for a new Catholic Cathedral. The plans were eventually abandoned, but press comment at the time was revealing:

“These [houses] were occupied for centuries by men whose whole feelings were hostile to the Catholic faith. The creation of a great Catholic Cathedral in the heart of the beautiful park on which these old mansions front seems to the Irish people like an act of retribution, almost, for the harm done to the Church long ago by the residents of these mansions.”

In 1957, when two prominent Georgian houses in Kildare Place were knocked down, there were vocal objections from individuals like Desmond Guinness, son of Lord Moyne, and his wife, Mariga, daughter of Prince Albrecht von Urach. A government minister, on the other hand, said: “I was glad to see them go. They stood for everything I hate.

In June 1963, two Georgian houses in Dublin, on different streets, collapsed. In the panic that followed, more than a thousand old houses were demolished. Two years later, in the face of major international protests, a line of houses was knocked down in Fitzwilliam Street, which previously had been the longest continuous Georgian street in Europe. The President of the Massachusetts Institute of Architects was reported to have wept at the sight.

I love Dublin’s Georgian houses. I love the layout of the rooms and the privacy from the world that comes from having the main living area a storey-and-a-half up from the street. I think it’s hugely sad that the Fitzwilliam Street houses were demolished and I’m very glad that Merrion Square survived intact.

But I have no problem in understanding why, in the 1930s, the 1950, and 1960s, many people believed that Dublin would be a better place if those buildings, and the memories that went with them, were gone. The threat to the Square came shortly after the ending of British rule in southern Ireland, when the memory of British soldiers, barracks, martial law, workhouses, collaborators and the other joys of occupation were alive and active in the memories of most adults.

To make it worse, Merrion Square had been developed in a period of genuine horror. The impressive English agriculturalist, Arthur Young, visited Ireland in 1776–1779, and was appalled by what he saw. His book A Tour in Ireland (published in 1780) vividly captured the sheer hell of the society that was ruled from the Irish Georgian house:

“The landlord of an Irish estate inhabited by Roman Catholics is a sort of despot who yields obedience, in whatever concerns the poor, to no law but that of his will…A landlord in Ireland can scarcely invent an order which a servant, labourer, or cottar, dares to refuse to execute. Nothing satisfies him but unlimited submission. Disrespect, or anything tending towards sauciness, he may punish with his cane or his horsewhip with the most perfect security. A poor man would have his bones broken, if he offered to lift a hand in his own defence. Knocking down is spoken of in the country in a manner that makes an Englishman stare. Landlords of consequence have assured me, that many of their cottars would think themselves honoured by having their wives and daughters sent for to the bed of their master—a mark of slavery which proves the oppression under which such people must live.”

Another commentator, the balladeer Thomas Moore, was able to turn the hatred between the occupiers and the occupied into humour in his Memoirs of Captain Rock, which was hugely successful when it was published in England in 1824:

“From Roscrea,” his narrator [an ‘English gentleman’] explains, “I turned off the main road to pay a visit to an old friend, the Rev. Mr. —, whom I found comfortably situated in his new living, with the sole drawback, it is true, of being obliged to barricade his house of an evening, and having little embrasures in his hall-door, to fire through at unwelcome visitors.”

The passage of time is a powerful force. Living memory of British occupation still exists in the ex-colonies of Asia and Africa, and it still existed in Ireland when so many Georgian houses were knocked down here. But now, living memory has passed, and with it has passed the power of such buildings to provoke.

Nostalgia for the regime that produced those buildings continues to cause annoyance, but our Georgian architecture has finally become just a product, something we market, largely to tourists and foreign buyers. As I write this, I’m looking at a tourist website which describes the Georgian era as a “uniquely golden period” for Ireland.

The Irish, however, remain reluctant to live in the architecture of that “golden period”—particularly Dublin’s 18th century terraces. It seems that, although we have forgiven the buildings for their part in our ugly history, some spiritual mismatch remains between the Irish and those houses. The passage of time has converted them into a product that we are willing to use to our commercial advantage, but not many of us have a desire to call them home.


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