Hidden history of Trinity’s Museum Building uncovered

Posted on: 12 December 2018

The quarrymen, stonemasons and craftspeople who cut, carved and constructed Ireland’s splendid Victorian buildings have been long lost to history, overshadowed by the architects and patrons who designed and commissioned them. Today however, Trinity College Dublin is launching a ground-breaking research project which will illuminate the hidden history of one of Dublin’s most iconic Victorian buildings.

For the last two years the ‘Making Victorian Dublin’ project, funded by the Irish Research Council, has dissected and analysed Trinity’s Museum Building — regarded as one of the finest and most influential examples of Victorian architecture. Built in the 1850s, the building has been home to the college’s Departments of Engineering, Geology and Geography for almost 160 years. The building was pioneering in its patriotic use of Irish marble and decorative stone and established a taste for Connemara marble and Cork Red limestone which spread across Ireland to Britain, the United States and even as far as Cape Town in South Africa.

To mark the launch of the project today, a new interactive website (www.makingvictoriandublin.com) allows the public to explore and navigate a 3-D digital scan of the splendid building. Users worldwide will be able to admire the splendid double-domed main hallway, the richly decorated interior carvings and 32 spectacular columns of coloured Irish stone.

The website also showcases new and exciting findings on the architecture, materials and sculptures of the building conducted by researchers from the Department of Geology and the Department of History of Art and Architecture. The team’s research, involving building surveys, extensive archival research and quarry visits, has led to new insights into the pioneering role of the Museum Building in the employment of Irish decorative stone and new understandings of the industry which sourced, supplied and crafted this stone.

Christine Casey, Professor in Architectural History, commented:  “Too often we remember those who paid for these buildings and those who designed them. Architectural history is strong on telling the story of the patrons and architects and weak on those who translated design and ambition into reality. Ireland’s historic buildings were created by generations of craftsmen from raw materials extracted and cut by quarrymen and stone carvers. This project has sought to illuminate this largely hidden history by foregrounding the history of building materials and craftsmanship.”

Section of 3-D scan of the main atrium, which showcases the finest of Irish marble and decorative stone

Patrick Wyse Jackson, Associate Professor of Geology, added: “Built at the start of the golden age of Ireland’s decorative stone industry, Trinity’s Museum Building set out to showcase the extraordinary potential of Irish decorative stone. Featuring stone from right across the country the building is an Irish geology lesson in itself — in a few strides a visitor can encounter stone from the length and breadth of the country. The dominant use of Irish stone and the depiction of native Irish plants and animals in the building’s carvings were in keeping with a post-famine drive to promote and exploit Ireland’s natural resources through various Great Exhibitions and the newly launched ordnance and geological surveys.”

Website highlights:

  • Navigate and explore the main Museum Building with an interactive 3-D scan and admire up close the work of quarrymen, stone masons, and builders.
  • Find out about the 22 different stone types used in the construction of the building — 13 of which are Irish, coming from quarries across the country.
  • Learn about the remarkable networks of quarries, craft communities and transport routes linked to the construction of the Museum Building.
  • Watch a short film which charts the journey of massive blocks of Connemara marble from quarries in the west of Ireland, up through the River Shannon to a marble works in Killaloe, where they were transformed into columns, and onwards by barge to Dublin.
  • Learn about a range of new sources for some of the building’s striking architectural details which have been traced to buildings in Italy, Spain and the Middle East.
  • Admire the multitude of native Irish plants and animals identified by the team which feature in the building’s beautiful internal and external carvings.
  • Learn about how the building was constructed and how ornamental stone was used in load bearing columns for the first time in a building in Ireland and Britain.
  • Meet the remarkable O’Shea brothers who carved the building’s superb stone carvings and how they were given the freedom to design these carvings themselves — a revolutionary idea at the time.


More about the Museum Building:

The Museum Building of Trinity College Dublin (1853-7), by Cork architects Deane, Son & Woodward, is a seminal work of Ruskinian Gothic architecture, influencing a generation of British and Irish architects, and revolutionising Victorian architectural taste. Central to the architects’ design was a radical endorsement of the creative power of individual human happiness. Adopting an aesthetic first articulated by England’s pre-eminent art critic John Ruskin, the architects encouraged the freedom of their workmen in designing and executing the building’s external and internal carvings. The building was also pioneering in how it showcased a range of Irish stone and utilised them for structural load-bearing columns for the first time in a building in Ireland or Britain. Constructed as a School of Engineering to house lecture theatres, staff accommodation and two museums — one of engineering models and one of geological specimens — today the building is home to the disciplines of Geology, Geography and Civil Engineering.

More about ‘Making Victorian Dublin’:

In January 2017 an interdisciplinary project, Making Victorian Dublin, was initiated by Trinity College Dublin’s Department of History of Art and Architecture and Department of Geology, examining the relationship of architect and craftsman and the role of materials in the delivery of the University’s Museum Building. The collaborative project explores the pioneering role of the Museum Building in the employment of Irish ‘marble’ and the industry which sourced, supplied and crafted the stone. This project is funded by the Irish Research Council New Horizons Interdisciplinary Research Project Award.