The Road to Belfield

From the Merrion Gates we can follow the Rock Road to continue our coastal trek through Booterstown and on to Blackrock. But first a detour to take us deeper into D4. Dublin 4 is a varied slice of Dublin. While the simple-minded think of it as the epitome of upper middle class arrogance, D4 does, as we’ve seen, include dockland and traditional working class communities around the Liffey estuary and the lower reaches of the Dodder. Heading south things go significantly upmarket. Shrewsbury and Aylesbury Road, in particular, are renowned for redbrick mansions, the homes of the great and the good, the site of many impressive embassies, and being the purple patch on Irish Monopoly boards. In the early twenty first century the French Embassy was sold for €60 million, topping a Shrewsbury €58m price tag from the previous year. That property, Walford, an Edwardian era mansion, more recently went for under €15m and is scheduled for demolition to make way for a newer, bigger mansion. Snakes and property ladders. Aylesbury Road cuts a straight tree lined avenue from Sydney Parade station to the Church of the Sacred Heart, Donnybrook.

A more direct route from the Merrion Road to the N11 is Nutley Lane, leading up from St Vincent’s Hospital along Elm Park golf course on our left to RTE studios. The television mast is the beacon of Donnybrook, beaming out the waves of the national television service since New Years Eve 1961. The buildings were designed by Ronnie Tallon, of Scott Tallon Walker firm of architects. Begun in 1960, they would form a gleaming glass and steel complex set in manicured parkland campus.

At the Junction with Nutley you’ll notice another startling landmark, the Belfield water tower, a stone tulip rising above suburbia. It was built in 1972 as part of the growing university campus laid out along the West bank of the N11. UCD originated as Dublin’s Catholic college, in opposition to Protestant Trinity College. It was founded by Cardinal John Henry Newman in 1854 and based on St Stephen’s Green. Newman House, as it became known, had been built in 1738 by Richard Cassels. Expanding into adjoining properties, the college thrived, though it had its detractors. John Mahaffy, Trinity Provost, charmingly contended it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aborigines of this island, as he put it. He cited the existence of James Joyce, a BA graduate in 1902, as proof of this folly, calling him the leader of the corner boys who spit in the Liffey. Mahaffy was a tutor of Oscar Wilde who would at least equal him in wit, but surpass him in charm. Indeed Wilde went further still, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed in Paris.

By 1908 the National University of Ireland was formed with University College Dublin a constituent part. The austere neo-classical building facing Earlsfort Terrace was acquired as their main building in 1914, after a competition won by architects Doolin and Butler. Politicians, artists, revolutionaries have passed through its portals. Edna O’Brien, Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien) and Maeve Binchy are amongst its other famed literary graduates.

The site was once known as Leeson Fields. John Scott, first Earl of Clonmel, bought eleven acres for his private gardens in the late eighteenth century. In 1817 they became the Coburg Gardens and featured grand evening shows, often celebrating the glories of empire. Later bought by Benjamin Guinness, he developed the site as a recreational garden in the Victorian style, incorporating the Dublin Exhibition Palace and Winter Gardens. The Great Exhibition of 1865 attracted almost a million people. Popularity declined however, and in 1883 they reverted to the private gardens of the Guinness’s Iveagh House on St. Stephen’s Green. Lord Iveagh donated them to the University in 1941, with the stipulation that they not be built upon and would remain a lung for the city.

They became Dublin’s hidden gardens. As art students in the 80s we would explore their ruined delights. With camera and sketch pad, we depicted the fascinating feud between nature and statuary. In the imagination these were ancient temples, or a brief manifestation of the faerie world. I mean, what was in that orange juice? They came under state care in 1991, and have since been restored to some of their original splendour. There are live rock gigs in summer, and, in a quieter corner, a statue of John McCormack poised to sing. The park radiates an eerie, gothic ambience off season.

By 1960 the Earlsfort Terrace site was not enough to contain Dublin’s academic flower. Respecting the stipulation that the gardens would not be built upon, UCD began relocating to the huge Belfield campus in D4. The Earlsfort Terrace building was converted into the National Concert Hall; Dublin never having got around to building a dedicated Opera House. Classical, Opera and Jazz all feature, with summer outdoor recitals in the Iveagh Gardens. Newman House, meanwhile became MoLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland.

Oh Molly, my Irish Molly, my sweet macushla dear,
I’m fairly off my trolley, my Irish Molly, when you are near
Spring time is always ring time, come dear now don’t be slow
Change your name, go on be game, Begor I’ll do the same
My Irish Molly O!

My Irish Molly is an American vaudeville song; lyrics written by Irish American William Jerome Flannery and music by Hungarian born Jean Schwartz in 1905. A big hit in its day, it was revived by Irish band De Danann in 1981 with Maura O’Connell on vocals. It’s included on the album The Star Spangled Molly.

Belfield made for a startling contrast with Earlsfort Terrace and the Iveagh Gardens. Sleek modernity in the buildings, a hard edged focal lake, the assertive debris of modernist sculpture. Yet, it is the same garden seen with different eyes. The stone and steel idea of the future has softened with time, and become heavy with memories that evoke the past.

Of course, Belfield was modelled in my own youth, so it is all a bit deceptive. When it was decided to move UCD, a competition was launched to find the best design. There were 120 entrants from 46 countries. In Warsaw, a young graduate architect Andrzej Wejchert, swept the table clear in his mother’s kitchen, and sketched out the plan for what would become the Belfield Campus. When informed of his win, he was on his way to Paris to rendezvous with his wife to be, Danuta, but quickly changed course for Dublin with a suitcase full of books, a one way ticket and the clothes on his back. It was 1964, and he was only twenty seven.

His outline for the campus has withstood the test of time. Futuristic and radical in concept, it was determinedly pro student and remote from worn out notions of stern authority. In some lights, especially early on, it could seem a bit harsh, but the blend of parkland and hard edge modernity endures. There is a variety of architecture on show, with Scott Tallon Walker and Wejchert supplying a significant amount over the first couple of decades. Wejchert is responsible for the regular artificial lake at the university’s heart. He also designed the Arts Block (Newman Building) in 69 and the Administration building of 72 which was awarded the RIAI Gold Medal. Above all soars the sixty metre octagonal concrete water tower landmark with its pentagonal stem and duodecahedral tank. Pure science fiction for me, when first I saw it on a star spangled Saturday night, head throbbing with the music of the Belfield gig, soul alive to the touch of young love and friendship.

The campus is open to all and there are trails to take you through woodland, modern architecture and a rich collection of sculpture. Amongst the best statues here are Rendezvous beside the main lake. A woman is poised expectantly on a bench, a disconcerting presence if you choose to sit there. Sculptor Bob Quinn, originally a graphic designer made this in bronze and stone in 2008.

The irregular lake south of the main complex is a more naturalistic setting. My favourite piece stands here. An exuberant dancing couple is cast in bronze but appear to be in perpetual motion. Wind and Water is the title. The stated intention is to evoke the harmony of the elements though the work may be interpreted as you wish. It is by Irish sculptor, Paddy Campbell, based in Florence,

UCD is now the largest university in Ireland with over thirty thousand students spread over a 330acre site; often quite literally, especially in sunny weather. Whatever the weather, enjoy a stately garden of aesthetic delight, an oasis of learning, or simply a walk in the woods. Modern but in harmony with the ages, a city of dreaming spires that is accessible to all.

7 thoughts on “The Road to Belfield

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