The Iveagh Play Centre in Bull Alley (1912-1915) was an innovative school intended to complete the philanthropic vision of Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), scion of the enormously rich and influential brewing family. It, and the larger scheme of which it was part, provides one of the most notable examples of the power and reach of private philanthropy in poverty riven late-Victorian and early-Edwardian Dublin. Informed by the affordable housing initiatives pioneered by social reformers and philanthropists such as Octavia Hill and George Peabody in the notorious ‘Rookeries’ and ‘Stews’ of Victorian London, Lord Iveagh lent his considerable fianances and political clout to the endeavour. Consequently, in 1890, the Guinness Trust was simultaneously founded in Dublin and London ‘for the amelioration of the condition of the poorer of the working classes.’
Using the same London architectural firm, Joseph and Smithsem, Iveagh’s vision in Dublin was to create a complex of housing and associated health-giving and educational facilities, to replace some of the existing tenement slums in and around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a stone’s throw from the Guinness Brewery. Known collectively as the ‘Bull Alley’ complex, it consisted of affordable workmen’s housing in Bride Street and Patrick Street (1901-1904); a workman’s hostel (the Iveagh Hostel, 1904), and the Iveagh Trust Public Baths (1905-6). Though separated by a road, George Frederick Hicks’s (1870-1962) Iveagh Markets (1902-1906) were also intended to form an integral part of the social (and moral) fabric of the enclave. The last to be built was the Iveagh Play Centre in Bull Alley (1912-1915). As a building it was, the Irish Builder of the time tells us, ‘a novel one…’ for Dublin, and one which would be a welcome addition to the improvements already carried out by the Iveagh Trust in that part of the city. In an echo of the philanthropic didactic, or paternalistic, impulse common in London’s East End in the late-nineteenth century, the aim of the centre was ‘to provide education with amusement, so that the two wants of children can be catered for.’ This was an echo of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s seminal credo on the funtion and role of museums: ‘First to delight, then to educate.’ It also, in part, seems to borrow from the concept of ‘the people’s palace’ in Walter Besant’s All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882) – a scheme for a culture centre in London’s East End, which the Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel (1884) and later, the Mary Ward Settlement (1894) in Bloomsbury, pioneered.
The ‘best, most health-giving, picturesque’ site in the locale, directly opposite the side of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was chosen for the Play Centre. A limited competition was held to find the architect. Out of the four shortlisted architectural practices, the design of McDonnell and Reid, which has been called the ‘most audacious school building in the city… an exuberant and generously scaled essay in a Free Queen Anne idiom,’ was chosen. A Dublin firm, McDonnell and Reid had an interesting pedigree, with McDonnell having the more traditional architectural education to Reid’s BA in TCD. Following his pupilage, McDonnell worked for T.N. Deane – of Deane & Woodward fame – and represented the practice in Oxford for two years, before joining the practice of J.F. Fuller in Dublin.
Before working for Reid, McDonnell appears to have enjoyed the patronage of some of the richest and most influential people in Ireland, not least the hugely popular 7th Earl of Aberdeen, John Hamilton Gordon (1847-1934), the past and future Liberal Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1886; 1905-1915), and Lady Aberdeen, née Ishbel Marjoribanks (1857-1939), a famed philanthropist and champion of women’s issues. Significantly for McDonnell’s career, Lady Aberdeen and her committee selected him to design an ‘Irish Industrial Village’ for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892, and her husband later commissioned a plan for a mansion in Scotland. It seems plausible that McDonnell and Reid’s appointment to design the Iveagh Play Centre could have been influenced by the fact that they had recently undertaken additions to Edward Cecil’s son’s house, Knockmaroon, in Chapelizod, so were a known and trusted pair of hands.
The ubiquitous building firm Mclaughlin & Harvey commenced work on the site in May 1911, and the school, intended for children aged 3-14, living in the Iveagh Trust flats, opened in early May 1911. The cost of the project was £40,000. L-shaped in plan, its rooms were spacious, well-designed and equipped, and were accessed from a centrally located corridor. It boasted twelve well-planned rooms set apart for teaching purposes, an assembly hall and a large concert hall. Open five evenings and one morning a week, it taught boys and girls a wide-range of practical subjects, including basket weaving, needlework, painting, dancing, singing and gymnastics. McDonnell & Reid’s Iveagh Play Centre is stylistically grandiose and bold in effect. They would have been very aware of, if not influenced by, Aston Webb’s Royal College of Science (Government Buildings today) on Upper Merrion Street, which was one of the biggest projects of the period. Unlike Webb, however, they seemed to respond carefully to the site’s context and used all Irish materials, particularly Kingscourt bricks, with Ballyknocken Granite dressings, which softened its boldness and lent it a more picturesque, country house character. Like Webb, however, McDonnell & Reid employed recent technology in the design. An ad in the Irish Builder and Engineer in October 1914, informs us that the English Expanded Metal Company supplied expanded metal for the reinforced concrete and fire-resistant construction, thus lending flexibility to the spaces and enabling the integration of more advanced services and environmental control.
The Iveagh Play Centre quickly earned a positive reputation with the children of the wider neighbourhood, who promptly nicknamed it the ‘Bay-no’ (beano, free-for-all) for the superior quality of its free buns, cocoa and large scale parties. It was not just the quality of the buns and cocoa, however, that earned it a positive reputation. From the outset, it was incredibly successful as a building that provided a practical education and social hub for the children of the locality, a tradition it has developed and continued to this day for post-Leaving Certificate students, just as it continues to picturesquely grace St. Patrick’s Park.