High society on Kildare Street

This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the purchase by the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) of a large, palatial building in the centre of Dublin. The society’s mission was to improve the wretched conditions of the people. It used the grounds to host the Dublin Spring Show and the city’s famous horse show, an annual event that continues elsewhere to this day. The RDS’s venue became more famous than was ever imagined by the man who’d commissioned the building in the 1740s. He once predicted that fashion would follow in whatever direction he led.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Once home to show jumping, Leinster House is now associated with grandstanding. The location is still tasked with focusing on the plight of the people. The good news for tourists is you don’t need to be a member to visit. Leinster House is home to the Irish parliament.

Originally named Kildare House, this house was no like no other in Dublin in size or grandeur. It was home to successive dukes of Leinster from the time of James Fitzgerald, who became duke in 1776 (the house is eponymously named) until it was bought by the RDS in 1815.

The society made numerous extensions to the house, including the building of a large lecture theatre. When Ireland gained independence in 1922, the new government secured part of the complex as temporary accommodation and hired the theatre for the opening of parliament. In 1924, the government abandoned the idea of converting the Royal Hospital Kilmainham into a parliament and purchased the Kildare Street building for a permanent parliamentary home.

Tourists can now visit this large complex, which is steeped in old elegance, history and politics. Guided tours give visitors an overview of the building’s history and stories of some of the statesmen, local and international, who define its story. The ushers amuse with anecdotes, point out the famous portraits (including previous Taoisigh) and show you the seats of parliamentary action – the converted lecture theatre, which is the lower house; the old ballroom, now used as a senate. Look out for some of the paintings on the ground floor near the Dáil, almost unnoticed yet magnificent.

If you’re a regular visitor to Dublin, 2015 is a good time to visit Leinster House. The building needs major renovations and the future will probably see the upper (and possibly lower) house temporarily relocated.

Overseas visitors with no contacts in Ireland can make tour bookings by contacting Leinster House directly, but are restricted to visits on Monday and Fridays, when parliament usually doesn’t sit. If you’ve friends or family in Ireland, try and get them to book you on a mid-week tour during a Dáil term through one of their local parliamentarians. It is at those times that you will absorb the true atmosphere of the place, with politicians, political assistants and media circulating throughout the complex. Observe the eye contact, the nods and smiles, the buzz, the sense of intrigue along the corridors of power.

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