The History

The History

39 - 43 Merrion Square East

Numbers 39 – 43 Merrion Square East are magnificent buildings that hold a dual significance: not only are they exceptional examples of 18th century architecture, they are also part of Dublin's most intact Georgian square.

These buildings embody the social, economic and architectural ambitions of the wealthy and landed classes, who once ruled the country from its own bicameral parliament. Their subsequent occupation and usage by a range of occupants over the years adds to their historic and social significance, just as their survival for over 200 years is testament to the quality of design and craftsmanship in their construction.

A Triumph of Urban Planning

The houses boast magnificent rooms overlooking the finest residential garden square in the city, and their enduring facades are an integral part of the streetscape on the east side of what is an almost entirely intact Georgian square.

Lord Fitzwilliam developed Merrion Square speculatively between the 1760s-1780s to meet the demand for townhouses near the Duke of Leinster's new house. Numbers 39-43 Merrion Square consist of five protected late eighteenth-century houses on the east side, designed by architect Samuel Sproule.

As with most large historic townhouses, there is a distinct decorative and spatial hierarchy to the rooms in Merrion Square. On the ground and first floor return, the rooms are larger, with higher ceilings and lavish architectural detail intended to make a grand impression.

Behind the deceptively plain brick exterior of numbers 39 - 43, many of these high ceilinged rooms retain fine decorative plasterwork, intricate ornate joinery, and some original chimneypieces.

Change of Use

After the Act of Union of 1801, many aristocratic families moved to London, which in turn diminished the political, social, and economic energy of Dublin. While other Dublin townhouses became tenements, Merrion Square retained its prestige, and became popular homes for doctors and barristers.

The 1847 ordnance survey map shows the five houses with their rear extensions and formal gardens terminated by mews buildings fronting onto Stephen’s Place. Over time, many changes were made to the rear returns and gardens, coinciding with changes in use. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, numbers 39-43 were no longer used for single-occupancy residential purposes, with some, like number 40, being used to accommodate multiple medical functions.

Dr. Ella Webb & No. 40 Merrion Square

Number 40 Merrion Square has a rich history of being used for medical purposes. Sir Robert Henry Woods, a renowned ENT surgeon at Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, lived there with his family and later used it as his private consulting rooms.

From 1914 - 1918, No. 40 housed the Irish War Hospital Supply Depot – the First World War medical supply organisation, which provided the war effort with vital hospital equipment including splints, crutches and surgical supplies.

During Easter Week 1916, it was transformed into an Emergency Field Hospital led by Dr. Ella Webb, the most senior female volunteer with St. John Ambulance at the time, and a pioneering Irish female paediatrician.

The hospital tended to both Rebels and British soldiers injured during the Battle of Mount Street and other battles within the city.

The British Embassy and No. 39 Merrion Square

According to a 1963 usage map, the British Embassy occupied number 39, while the ESB owned numbers 40 - 43.

However, in February 1972, the Embassy suffered severe damage from petrol bomb attacks during protests over the shooting of thirteen civilians in Derry on 'Bloody Sunday.' The building was later restored with concrete floors and replicated former details. Fortunately, it is likely that the rear return survived with minimal damage, as evidenced by the preservation of some of its historic features, including eighteenth-century windows and doors.

Present Day

The five houses of Merrion Square underwent changes and transformations throughout the years.

By 1972, the ESB owned all five houses and converted them for office use. Alterations were made, including the insertion of a lift to the rear of number 41. The party garden walls were largely demolished, and the gardens almost completely subsumed under utilitarian, single-storey structures and electrical substations.

In 1982, Dublin City Council rejected an application for a ‘radical design’ by the controversial architect, Sam Stephenson, on behalf of the ESB, for a contemporary ‘glass office block together with Regency-style townhouses’ to the rear of numbers 39 - 43.

The surrounding area is now seeing rejuvenation, with the extension to the Goethe Institute to the rear of number 37 Merrion Square, the development of the Leinster Hotel on Lower Mount Street, and the new ESB headquarters on Fitzwilliam Street Lower.

The houses' varied history demonstrates their durability and flexibility, with notable persons, uses and organisations associated with them over almost 250 years – including members of the aristocracy, landed gentry, politicians, and many working in medicine. Sir Jonah Barrington, judge and politician (1757 – 1834), St. John Ambulance, the Emergency Field Hospital and the British Embassy connections are particularly significant.

The greatest threat to historic buildings in a small country like Ireland is redundancy. To remain relevant in modern times and ensure their survival for future generations, these historic buildings must be re-imagined and restored to the highest possible standard.