The Old Man’s House Exhibition at the RHK The Old Man’s House exhibition, created by the Office of Public Works, is an exhibition which tells the story of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) one of the most iconic Dublin buildings and Ireland's foremost example of fine 17th century architecture – now home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
The history of the Kilmainham site includes ancient burial grounds, early Christian monuments, a Viking settlement and a medieval monastery. The RHK was open as a retirement home and infirmary for nearly 250 years for generations of military veterans who lived and died there. The Old Man’s House explores the stories of these soldiers alongside those of the hospital staff, from the earliest beginnings, through to its restoration and the founding of IMMA. The exhibition is free and open Museum hours.
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The History of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham
The founder of the Royal Hospital was James Butler of Kilkenny Castle, who was Duke of Ormonde and Viceroy to King Charles II. Inspired by Les Invalides', then recently opened as Louis XIV's home for his army pensioners, Ormonde obtained a charter from King Charles to create a similar building in Kilmainham. He laid the foundation stone in 1680 and presided over its completion four years later. The architect for Kilmainham was William Robinson, official State Surveyor General. Of his many other buildings only Marsh's Library, Dublin and Charles Fort, Kinsale, still stand.
The Royal Hospital in Chelsea was completed two years later and contains many similarities of style to Kilmainham.
The Duke of Ormonde wanted the Royal Hospital to be on a grand scale, classical in layout and continental in style. He needed a home for his pensioner soldiers but equally he wanted a building of distinction that would, he hoped, mark the starting point of Dublin's development into a city of European standing.
The site selected for the Hospital was once part of the Phoenix Park. A large hospital, founded by Strongbow and under the care of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, was sited in this exact place but was demolished in 1670. Dr.Steeven's Hospital, built nearby in 1720, is a small architectural replica of the Royal Hospital. Incidentally, Sir Patrick Dun was the first Medical Officer to the Royal Hospital.
The Royal Hospital remained an old soldiers' home until 1927. In the 19th-century the building had gradually grown in military significance - becoming the residence and headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the army, who combined this role with that of Governor (or Master) of the Hospital. Queen Victoria paid two visits to the building, which was eventually handed over to the Free State in 1922. It was used as Garda Headquarters from 1930 to 1950.
The building comprises a North Wing containing the Master's Quarters, the Great Hall, the Chapel and the Vaulted Cellar with the 19th-century kitchen and the South, East and West Wings which provided accommodation for the pensioners.
The grounds contain the following:
An early 18th-century formal garden.
Bully's Acre - once Dublin's main cemetary, containing a 10th-century standing stone.
The Hospital Burial Ground - the cemetary of the old soldiers.
The former stable buildings - a 19th-century building, now Kilmainham Garda Barracks.
The West Gateway - the work of Francis Johnston. This structure was formerly a gateway at Watling Street on the Quays. It became a traffic obstruction and was removed from the Quays and rebuilt in Kilmainham in the 1840s.
In May 1991, the Royal Hospital Kilmainham became the Irish Museum of Modern Art. The Museum represents in its permanent and temporary programmes international and Irish art of the 20th-century with associated educational and community programmes.
Transformation of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham
The Royal Hospital Kilmainham is a 17th-century building modelled on Les Invalides in Paris. It was erected between 1680 and 1684 by charter of King Charles II as a home for old, sick and disabled soldiers.
The Office of Public Works (OPW) restored the building completely between 1980 and 1984 and received a Europa Nostra Award in 1986. This restoration however has not ended the involvement of the OPW with the RHK. In 1987 the basement of the North Wing was fitted out sensitively as a restaurant by OPW. This enhanced the continuous usage of the RHK by the public. The Master's Quarters in the North Wing was also then refurbished by the OPW.
In 1988, the OPW carried out the first segment of the establishment of a venue for modern art, by the fitting-out of accommodation for the Gordon Lambert Collection in the West Wing, Ground Floor. In October 1990 work commenced on the fitting-out of accommodation for the entire Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).
In addition, over the last few years, the OPW has carried out works in the RHK Gardens to restore them as formal gardens appropriate to bygone times. This commitment is ongoing. In 2000 the OPW completed the restoration of the former Deputy Master’s House turning it into environmentally controllable New Galleries which adds 320 square metres to the Museum’s exhibition area.
Concept and general description of the Scheme by Shay Cleary, Architect
The scheme involved the adaptation of the East, West and South ranges of the building. The North range which houses the Great Hall, Master's Quarters and Chapel was not included in the project. The three ranges adapted consist of repetitive rooms at each level individually accessed by colonnades at ground level and by corridors at upper levels. There is a staircase in the corner of the each wing.
The existing staircases, because of their hidden and private position, have no current public presence. A new entrance hall is therefore located in the centre of the South range axially related to the Great Hall. By its position it maintains the inherent balance of the overall architectural composition. The new hall contains a ceremonial cascading staircase in double height volume and by its form and location makes public the connection to the first floor where the main collections are housed.
The existing plan at first floor consists of rooms accessed by corridors. A central determinant of the plan is the presence between each pair of rooms of a massive chimney stack thereby freeing the adjacent walls for exhibition purposes. This change of entry seems entirely natural and effortless because of its deference to the existing structural circumstance. By its simplicity it further emphasises the striking repetition of the windows opposite. These first floor rooms combined with what were corridors but are now long galleries are ideally suited to the new use with minor modification.
The courtyard has been changed to a paved and cobbled surface. The entrance hall is the first space the public enter into when visiting the gallery and is used for special events and various sculpture and installation works. This precise and urbane treatment of the space now properly contrasts with the landscape nature of the overall site. It further shows the powerful and historic colannaded perimeter to best advantage and has the potential intensity of an urban space.
The project in its overall conception takes all its values from the existing historic building whether it is the powerful axiality established by the position of the Great Hall, the massive presence of the chimneystack, the striking austerity of the circulation spaces or the potential urbanity of the courtyard. With this approach the adaptation pays due deference to the existing building both formally and structurally. Aesthetically it proposes a clear distinction between old and new where this relationship has a positive visual advantage. It avoids mimicry or pastiche.
OPW involvement in the Scheme
The OPW had a dual role in relation to the development of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. As Contract Manager for the Board of the RHK it appointed the design team, appointed the contractor, provided general advice on contract matters and administration of the project to ensure its completion on time and within budget. As the representative of the Minister for Finance in whom the RHK is vested the OPW monitored the design of the scheme to ensure it took account of the historical and architectural character of the building. While the scheme has been the subject of some controversy with views being expressed by eminent critics both for and against the changes that have been made, the Office of Public Works is satisfied that the scheme strikes a proper balance between the essential characteristics of the building and the requirements of a use which will open up almost all of the building to the public on a permanent basis and will attract and encourage people to visit.
The main contractors for the scheme were Messrs. Mahon McPhillips CEM Ltd. The principal subcontractors were Messrs. Crowe Engineering Ltd, Electrical Services and Elenco Engineering Ltd, Mechanical Services.
The scheme cost approximately €1.39m. The major portion of the funds was provided from the National Lottery by the Department of the Taoiseach. The balance was provided by the Office of Public Works.