For most visitors traversing Dublin’s city centre, the building opposite the main Trinity College entrance is striking for its smooth granite exterior and alcoves where windows might have stood. Tourists discover that it’s a bank, formerly ‘Grattan’s Parliament’. Yet it is much more. It’s a seat of Irish parliamentary history and, three centuries ago, was the first purpose-built two chamber parliament in the world.
Built between 1729 and 1739, the building comprises a blend of Palladian, Ionic and Corinthian styles. For a sum of £6,000, it was commissioned by the Irish Parliament to replace its old home of Chichester House on College Green, which had greatly decayed.
Parliament House’s design was a statement of confidence by its members, a symbol of autonomy that was to grow louder as the 18th century developed and Irish MPs and peers came into growing conflict with the authority of parliament and the Crown in London.
This confidence strikes the visitor upon walking into the former House of Lords, still open for viewing. Defined by magnificent oak panelling and light, it contains two masterful tapestries by contemporaneous artist Thomas Braille, one depicting the Defence of Derry, the other the Battle of the Boyne. The room’s opulent chandelier, dating from 1788, is modelled on a Venetian style and contains 1,233 pieces.
The conflict between the Irish parliament and London reached its denouement with the abolition of the Irish Commons and Lords on 1 January 1801 through the Act of Union. The then fledgling Bank of Ireland soon purchased the building for £40,000 and an annual ground rent of £240. The old House of Commons chamber, soon converted into bank offices, is still in use today.
For the visitor strolling by on a weekday during office hours, it’s possible to get an informal tour of the old House of Lords. Its significance in Irish history, tales of the people who designed and occupied it, and the fascinating story of how its members made themselves redundant through the Act of Union makes a visit worthwhile. Larger groups should ring a few days ahead to organise a tour. A formal presentation takes place on Tuesday mornings. The commons’ mace, the symbol of the sovereign’s authority, is on display from Tuesday to Thursday most weeks.
This month, Bank of Ireland submitted a planning application for a development there that would incorporate a cultural and heritage centre. It will be provided to the State to commemorate historic centenaries, commencing next year. With the abolition of parliament in 1801, the old House of Commons became Dublin’s principal art gallery. It would be fitting if the building’s new contributions to the arts and the State will revive interest in, and awareness of, its connections with the same themes in a bygone era.