At a protest outside the Dáil one day we found ourselves taking shelter from the rain in that sad-looking square next door.
Taking a look about us we saw some extraordinary sculptures that have a certain totalitarian feel and topped off by some kind of Ironman-Michael O’Leary character spewing aircraft across the balcony. We gave Lisa Cassidy a bell, she’s behind the award-winning BuiltDublin.com blog, and asked does she know where we are…
…Yes rabble, it’s the sort of place where a few benches would make so much sense that you’re surprised every time to find none, and so you‘re just stuck standing there, surrounded on three sides by Government Buildings and government buildings.
Right in front of you, that’s the large stripped classical building constructed for the Department of Industry and Commerce between 1939 and 1942, designed by James Rupert Boyd Barrett.
Starting off easy, the two keystones (over the entrance and on School House Lane) are of Eire and St. Brendan the Navigator. The keystones, like the relief panels on the ministerial balcony, were sculpted by Gabriel Hayes in 1940 – all the more impressive because she was afraid of heights and did the work in situ, using a cage filled with sacks as scaffolding. She comes across as an amazing woman when you read about the project, frustrated that the reaction to the work was just fascination that the sculptor was female.
The balcony is a showcase of Irish commerce and industry. The sculpture work is great and the faces are damn handsome – their expressions are complex enough to make the scenes seem real, with the earnest, unguarded focus of someone concentrating without knowing anyone can see them. The panels start with the iron and steel industry (a man with a serious, assessing expression) on the left end, with his milling counterpart on the right end. Across the front, the panels include shoemaking, the cement industry, tobacco (a woman in a neat hat, see photo), the Shannon scheme, spinning and pottery (a muscular man with his eyes closed, tracing the curves of a vase).
If, somehow, you still weren’t excited about our brave industrial and commercial future, things go into overdrive on the panel above the door. There’s Lugh, the Celtic god of light, throwing a swarm of aeroplanes into the sky. It seems like absurd imagery of air travel was kind of a thing, because an Office of Public Works pamphlet on the building’s architecture shows a small ashtray with a chubby cast of a plane on it. Maybe the best workplace souvenir of all time.
There’s a long history of buildings having decorative elements whose functions include giving lessons, and maybe the best example is stained glass in the Middle Ages – images reinforced the sermon using narrative and metaphor and the rich, coloured light to reach a substantially illiterate congregation.
Matched with the deliberate use of native materials and the stern intensity of the architecture, the building’s imagery reads a bit like the stained glass. It’s interesting to wonder who the intended audience was, then: is it advertising Ireland to the world (and to Britain), or reminding the workers that the most handsome, the most Irish of heroes are the ones who put their heads down and graft? I’m guessing both, and then some people who just really, really like planes.