If having a gallery of modern art is a pre-requisite for a modern city, James Butler will be resting easily in his grave. In 2012, 63,642 people graced the doors of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde and owner of Kilkenny Castle, received a royal charter from King Charles in 1679 to construct a building on the same site in Kilmainham that Butler hoped would help Dublin develop into a city of European standing.
A gallery of modern art was not Butler’s dream, but a retirement home and infirmary for military veterans. Inspired by ‘Les Invalides’, King Louis XIV’s home for army pensioners, in Paris, Butler commissioned William Robinson, architect of Marsh’s Library and Charles’ Fort in Kinsale, to design a similar building.
The interior of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) retains its appearance of 1684, when it opened. Soldiers sat by the black, Kilkenny stone fireplace. The pine panelled walls have been restored to their original stone-like colour, known as ‘Spanish White’. The ceiling’s simple coved form represents a return to its original look. Above the north facing entrance sits a carving of the Duke of Ormonde’s coat of arms in Portland stone.
For almost two hundred and fifty years the RHK housed army veterans known as ‘in-pensioners’. They were treated well, provided with bed, board, spacious surrounds in which to walk and relax, and a library. On Sundays, visitors and residents were treated to parades. Veterans had been injured in battles from near – the Battle of Rathmines and the Battle of the Boyne – and afar – the Crimean War, Waterloo, the Anglo-Afghan wars. After death, they were buried within the grounds. Though they received no pension, ‘out-pensioners’ did but lived outside the hospital. They could live anywhere in the country but had to report to the RHK every three months. In the days of the hospital, veterans were the only people in Ireland to receive a pension.
Though the grounds grew in military significance during the 19th century, becoming the residence and headquarters of the army’s commander-in-chief, Irish independence changed everything. In 1927, the building sceased to be an old soldiers’ home. Between 1930 and 1950 it housed An Garda Síochána’s headquarters. After decades of renovations, the building found its artistic potential, firstly in the 1980s as the National Centre for the Culture and the Arts, secondly as IMMA, since 1992.
If IMMA is on your Dublin list, search out the modestly signposted ‘Old Man’s House’ in the courtyard. As well as reading about the hospital’s history, you’ll explore its rich, earlier past. This site was home to an early Christian monastery, then a Viking settlement. The tradition of caring here didn’t start with the RHK but in 1174 with the granting by Strongbow (Richard de Clare) of the land to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem for the construction of a priory. The bearded knights looked after pilgrims and the poor. Pre-dating the site’s first cemetry for veterans was Bully’s Acre, the oldest graveyard in Dublin. Body snatching was common there in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The OPW’s exhibition of display boards, props, photos and artefacts charts the site’s history well. It roundly covers its strands of religion, compassion, culture, power and death, themes that could well define any work of modern art.