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Dublin: 3 °C Friday 18 April, 2014

Five things you didn’t know about the Bank of Ireland on College Green

Leo Varadkar says it should be used by the Dublin Mayor. Here’s some history.

Image: UggBoy via Flickr

FINE GAEL TD Leo Varadkar believes that some of the Bank of Ireland building on College Green should be handed over to the State for use by the Mayor of Dublin when the position becomes directly elected next year.

If the plan came to fruition, it would be just another milestone for one of Dublin’s most historical buildings.

1. Ever notice that there’s no windows?
If you’re standing outside it, look up – you’ll notice that there’s no windows in the building’s facade, with there instead being some slight indentations instead where some windows ought to be.

This is because when the building was being erected in in the 1730s, a Window Tax was in force throughout Britain and Ireland – so the intended windows were filled in, intended to be glazed at a later date, to cut costs.

With the window tax (a precursor the modern notion of ‘income tax’) retained for several decades after construction, the window bricks were ultimately never removed and became a permanent feature.

2. It was the world’s first purpose-built two-chamber parliament house
Although more commonly known merely as ‘the Bank of Ireland’ after its current occupants, the building is officially titled the Irish Houses of Parliament, having been commissioned to act as a parliamentary chamber.

£6,000 in old money was spent on the building, which was designed by an architect called Edward Lovett Pearse – who knew exactly what a parliament house would need, given that he was himself an MP.

Pearse died young, however, so its many extensions were designed by the legendary James Gandon who is also responsible for the Custom House, the Four Courts, and the King’s Inns.

3. It was such a good model, it was copied for the US Capitol Building
The Americans seemed to be quite big fans of Irish architecture when their state was being founded.

Not only is the White House somewhat modelled on Leinster House (and reportedly also on the Custom House), but the design of the Capitol building (above) – Washington’s own houses of parliament – is modelled on Pearse’s building.

The design of the ceiling of the original House of Commons chamber was used in the original chambers for both the US House of Representatives and Senate, though both have since moved to alternate rooms.

The exterior design of the British Museum is also inspired by the House of Commons entrance to the building.

4. It was sold to the fledgling Bank of Ireland on one condition…
…that it never be used as a parliament house again. The building had become redundant in 1800 after its parliament, and that of Westminster, both passed Acts of Union in 1800 which created a unified parliament in London.

With the Kingdom of Ireland thus being incorporated into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, there was no need for a parliament house any more, so the Bank of Ireland bought it in 1803 for £40,000.

There was just the one stipulation – that it be adapted so that a parliament could never sit there again – and as a result the magnificent House of Commons chamber, having been recently refurbished after a fire just four year earlier, was sadly broken up into smaller offices.

They kinda cheated, though – the House of Lords escaped virtually untouched and is used today for events like book launches.

5. The reason it’s not the current parliament? Public rowdiness (and the bank)
As a splinter organisation, comprising of republican MPs who had, strictly speaking, been elected to serve in Westminster instead – to borrow the Mansion House for its first sitting in 1919.

If they had chosen to use the old parliament building, they probably wouldn’t have been able to anyway – the building was still being used as the BoI headquarters and it simply wouldn’t have wanted to move.

Three years later the Irish Free State opted to rent Leinster House from the Royal Dublin Society in 1922, for one other reason: the building was too close to the street.

The original members of the Irish House of Lords had demanded that the current bank’s modern entrance, facing the front entrance of Trinity College, be constructed directly off the street to allow for grand exits and entries.

But the political culture of 1922 was far too volatile with a civil war raging. Leinster House, alternatively, was well in from the street and could be more easily secured – so it became the accidental home of Irish politics.

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