Thursday 15 October 2009

Maurice Craig - Ireland's first conservation warrior

Architectural historian Maurice Craig began his battle against the demolition of historic Irish buildings in the 1940s. He's now nearly 90 and a new edition of his book about Irish mausoleums is about to be published

“I’VE BEEN remarkably lucky,” says architectural historian Maurice Craig as he approaches his 90th birthday and as the new edition of his book Mausolea Hibernica , which was illustrated by his son Michael, is about to be published. Meeting the right people at the right time, he says, led to the publication of his books on architectural history, bookbinding, poetry and a collection of belle lettres called The Elephant and the Polish Question which, he says was a critical but not a commercial success: “Booksellers didn’t know what category to put it under.”

He doesn’t relish being 90 – “it’s not very nice, I don’t recommend it” – but he is still a dedicated storyteller, both verbally and in print. Despite cursing his declining memory he still recalls complete poems and songs from the past and is not inhibited about performing them to illustrate a point or to periodically keep himself and others amused.

Through his writing, campaigning and photographs of an Ireland that has now disappeared, he made people aware that our historic buildings were national treasures that should be saved from demolition – because of this, he has now become a national treasure himself.

He was born in Belfast in 1919 and went to school in Dublin – whose historic buildings and their decline he was later to document – but his interest in architecture came in his late teens.

“Like all small boys I didn’t look at buildings. I was in Dublin between the ages of eight and 13 and I can give you first-hand testimony that kids do not give a great deal of attention to architecture. I became more interested bit by bit. When we went on family holidays I would generally take some note of buildings and later I went, in what is now called a gap year, to Paris. The architecture I saw there made a prodigious impression on me.”

Yet back in Ireland it was literature that tickled him. “I had taken to going to Dublin from time to time partly because of the Abbey Theatre and Yeats still living here so my interest had rather a literary emphasis.”

To this day he takes a wide interest in the arts. He speaks of one friend who is involved in the world of building conservation, of whom he is very fond, but criticises their lack of interest in poetry, music and animals.

A scholarship to study history at Magdalene college in Cambridge deepened Craig’s love of buildings. “I got rooms in the absolutely delightful 17th century Pepys Building. Cambridge was a revelation; I loved it and have been in love with it ever since.”

He then returned to Dublin and was “tickled pink at the buildings”. Nicer than his native Belfast? He chuckles and then counters it with: “Don’t make me laugh. Bits of Belfast are quite nice – about Queens – and there was a quarter down near the town centre that had been quite good but the buildings have nearly all been pulled down and replaced by offices.”

His response to a question about what the city was like before The Troubles covers its artistic scene. “There was a small literary coterie in Belfast – with the likes of Richard Rowley, John Hewitt and artists George and Mercy MacCann. The literati used to go for coffee in Campbells near the City Hall and I was friends with Denis Ireland who was well known in those days. He was an odd man out because he was a Protestant nationalist – as were some of the others: liberals and nationalists.”

Craig moved to Dublin in the early 1940s: “It was the capital and that’s where things are.” He brought his love of literature with him – specifically for the poet Walter Savage Landor – and planned to write a book about him. “One day I was walking along Merrion Square when I met Paddy Kavanagh – Dublin society was so small that people like me would know Paddy as well as others including Seumas O’Sullivan and Austin Clarke, and we would meet in the Palace Bar and later The Pearl – so I was walking along Merrion Square and Paddy said, ‘What’s up?’ And I said I was going to write a book about Landor.” The poet suggested that Craig do it as a thesis in Trinity.

“The PhD on Landor was of enormous value because it taught me how not to write a book. The first thing is, don’t try to put everything in – you need to keep it as short as possible – the second is to try and give it an overall shape.”

Craig’s writing beautifully combines his knowledge of history and literature – being both learned and readable and incorporating occasional doses of welcome wit.

He looks surprised: “I don’t do this on purpose.” Well there was his reference to a saying in his book The Architecture of Ireland: from the earliest times to 1880 that it is better to be deaf in England and blind in Ireland (to ignore the self-coloured concrete buildings). “I said it was a well-known saying but it wasn’t at all, I made it up. It was the type of wit that was simply the fruit of my effort to explain a difference between the English and the Irish. If you can do that in four words so much the better,” he says proceeding to illustrate the wit of James Joyce, who he went to see on a visit to Paris in 1938.

A discussion on the musician Sir Hamilton Harty lead Craig to observe that it was easy to get into the Church of Ireland church in Hillsborough, Co Down, where Harty was an organist.

“Joyce said, ‘the trouble with my church is getting out of it’.”

In a letter to Craig, Joyce asked him to track down the source of the quote: “May the lord in his mercy be kind to Belfast.” That proved a lengthy quest and by the time Craig found it Joyce was dead.

“I was so taken with it I wrote a ballad entirely based on it,” says Craig, reciting it. President Mary McAleese has quoted the poem and Brendan Behan also used it in one of his books.

“I wrote it one morning – it wrote itself in about half an hour,” which was unusual for Craig. “I write very, very slowly. It takes me a long time to push a sentence around, back to front, inside out, and I vary the vocabulary until the thing will run.”

He enjoyed writing Mausolea Hibernica – which contains his son Michael’s intricate drawings – because he was given a clear brief and a certain amount of space in which to write about each of the mausolea featured (the difference between mausolea and tombs is that you can enter the former). “It was an extraordinary privilege to work with my own son on a project of a kind in which he is an acknowledged master. All I had to do was fill in the spaces and produce this lovely book.

“Mikey did the drawings and I was told I would be allowed x words. In my enthusiasm, I had written more than x words because I had more to say, but I was sternly told by the master that I had to shorten my entries so they would sit comfortably opposite the drawings.”

The book took seven years to compile and became a family bonding exercise with expeditions to go and see mausolea across Ireland, with Michael’s wife Gemma Fallon doing the driving. “I wanted to do this book because I felt that mausolea were being ignored,” says Michael. Maurice enjoyed it for similar reason – he had covered just about every building type in Ireland in his book on Irish architecture. But not this.

Craig was at the forefront of the conservation movement, and his collection of photographs from the 1940s and 1950s shows an Ireland in which a horse-and-cart was still a key mode of transport. The pictures depict parts of Dublin that are no longer there, including photographs of Gardiner Street before many of its period buildings were demolished and on Longford Street, near Aungier Street in Dublin 8, the last pair of curved ‘Dutch-billy’ gabled buildings in Dublin which were demolished in about 1960.

“In Ireland at the time you expected a large rumpus about this or that, but there was no rumpus about things that were quietly taken down. Regarding Longford Street, I put my case to the official channels and was assured that they would look after them but they didn’t. In the meantime I had taken photographs of them and made a sketch survey.”

In 1952 he wrote Dublin 1660-1860 , the book that began his recording of the city’s history and its important buildings. “I wrote the book under contract. The publishers did the normal thing that publishers do if you go to them with an idea. They say: ‘Young man if you write about the following subject we will publish it.’ They wanted a book on Dublin and I am sure they thought they would get the usual stuff about snuff boxes and hoop skirts. But I was interested in architecture and researched it by keeping my eyes open and going around on my feet.”

Many people were blinkered to the demolitions, he says, and although there was a list of buildings that needed to be preserved, Craig contends that “when push came to shove they didn’t make any effort to save them. I was at war with them .”

Even now he finds that architecture in Ireland is not given its due, citing a large tome on Irish history which had no category on architecture. “They farmed out various bits to various people to write, on agriculture, finance and coinage, but divil a word about buildings: didn’t look at them.”

And if he were to write a book on architecture in more recent times? “It would not be a long book.” I suggest that much new architecture in Dublin has been knitted discreetly into the city, rather than as iconic structures. “Some people tried to design buildings that were decent without being especially memorable, which is not as easy as it sounds. A very good example is the new part of Dún Laoghaire town hall by McCullough Mulvin . They did it really well. You can tell at a glance that it is a 20th century building. It fits in with the older part and is not quarrelling with it.”

He still prefers older buildings though, and his favourite part of Dublin is near the Liberties, where some of Dublin’s oldest structures lie, including the Royal Hospital (1684), Collins Barracks (1701) and Steevens’ Hospital (1733).

Attitudes have changed towards building conservation and much is to do with the highlighting of issues by the likes of Maurice Craig and the Knight of Glin, who co-authored a book with Maurice. It must be heartening to feel he had some influence. “I hope so. I hope I have been of some use but I would not be so vain as to put it all down to my influence.”

Mausolea Hibernica is published by Associated Editions and will be available from book shops from October 22nd or from, price €25 paperback, €50 signed hardback

Irish Times

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