MAURICE CRAIG, the distinguished architectural historian, writer and poet, who has died at the age of 91, did much to persuade Irish people that our historic buildings were of national importance and should be saved from demolition.
Almost a lone voice at the time, his masterly, comprehensive and elegant book, Dublin 1660-1860: The Shaping of a City , was published in 1952. It took 13 years to sell the 2,000 copies of the first edition, by which time many buildings had been pulled down without comment or protest.
As Craig once wrote: “Architecture is the most accessible of the arts; yet paradoxically, it is the least noticed by people at large and is commonly thought by them to be arcane mystery.”
He was born in Belfast, the son of a successful ophthalmic surgeon, whose father had had a business in Ballymoney of ironmongery, hardware, building materials, watches and clocks. “James Craig Ballymoney” is occasionally still to be seen on clock faces.
After school at Castlepark in Dalkey, Shrewsbury in England and a few months in Paris, he took up the scholarship he had won to Magdalene College Cambridge, where he lived in the rooms Parnell once had.
Returning to live in Dublin and meeting Patrick Kavanagh in the street, he told him he was going to write a book on the poet Walter Savage Landor. Kavanagh said he should do it as a doctorate at Trinity College Dublin, and he did.
In 1952 he joined the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments in England. He once went to No 10 Downing Street in connection with door knobs. Having finished his business, he came out of the front door, stood for a few seconds so the curious crowd could speculate on who he could be, and then put on his bicycle clips and pedalled off.
In 1969 he was appointed full-time executive secretary to An Taisce for the year that it had obtained funding.
He wrote several books including The Volunteer Earl, a biography of Lord Charlemont who built the Casino at Marino – “small, perfect and almost totally unaltered . . . it is great fun even if it is not much use.”
Others included Dublin City Churches, Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size – which was widely acclaimed, though sometimes called Country Houses for the Middle Class – and The Architecture of Ireland from the Earliest Times to 1880. He also wrote books of poetry.
His volume Irish Bookbindings 1600-1800 came out in 1954. He was extremely knowledgeable on the subject, and had spent many hours in the Long Room at Trinity searching along the shelves on the long summer evenings with the librarian, Billy O’Sullivan, looking for special bindings.
As a child, Craig had wanted to be a painter, but he realised he could not draw. He had a great interest in music and would have liked to be a composer, but was not good at playing. At the age of 18, he fixed on becoming a writer.
He was a fine builder of large ship models – he made a magnificent model of Guinness’s SS Clarecastle. The man who had commanded her, after looking over the model very carefully, said, “It is exact.”
Another interest was motor cars, and for a time he drove a D8 4-litre Delarge with Figonie coachwork.
Among those who acknowledge his influence and inspiration is Frank McDonald, Environment Editor of The Irish Times. “Long before I met Maurice Craig, I had read his great Dublin book – Dublin 1660-1860: The Shaping of a City – and, as for so many others, it opened my eyes to the value of our architectural heritage. It’s to him that I owe the inspiration to begin writing about it myself when it was still under attack in the 1980s. I can never imagine him other than being surrounded by books.
“He was undoubtedly Ireland’s leading architectural historian and one of the most important chroniclers of Dublin’s heritage and history.”
He was married three times; to Beatrix Hurst, Jeanne Edwards and to Agnes Bernelle.
He is survived by his son Michael and daughter Catherine by his first marriage.
Maurice James Craig: born October 25th, 1919; died May 11th, 2011.