A Rebel Preservationist

Uinseann MacEoin lived a remarkable and colourful life, which brought him from the ranks of the republican movement to the frontlines of the battle for the heart and soul of Dublin city, as developers and preservationists struggled for influence in the 1960s and ’70s.

He left his mark – quite literally – on Henrietta Street, which is soon to witness the opening of a museum dedicated to the story of tenement Dublin.

As editor of the influential (and controversial) Plan magazine, he sought to expose poor developments and abuse of planning laws in the capital, never afraid to call out other architects when it mattered.

Uinseann Ó Rathaille MacEoin was born in Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, in 1920. His middle name was a nod towards Michael Joseph Ó Rathaille, a participant in the 1916 Rising who was killed in action in Moore Lane during the evacuation of the General Post Office.

This alone said something of family convictions, but so did the fact his father was interned upon the Argenta, a prison ship moored in Larne Harbour in the early 1920s.

The MacEoins would resettle to Dublin while Uinseann was still a boy, and he drifted into republican politics as a young man in the 1930s. He served a year in prison for IRA membership, before being interned in the Curragh during the period ridiculously known here as “the Emergency”.

While MacEoin never lost his republican convictions, it was architecture and planning that would come to dominate much of his life from the time of his release. This journey began with studying and correspondence while in the Curragh, and as an early career architect he worked with Michael Scott and Partners and Dublin Corporation, before establishing his own practice.

MacEoin’s background made him somewhat unusual in the days of the great debates over the future of Dublin’s urban landscape, with Hibernia magazine describing him once as “a rabid republican cum architect cum town planner of definite convictions cum determined preservationist and exposer of shady planning applications”.

In not dissimilar terms, the Irish Times wrote in 1963 that MacEoin was “already well known for his trenchant criticisms of the workings both of his own profession and that of central and local government”.

The destruction of Georgian Dublin was sometimes cheered on by narrow-minded gombeens wrapped in green flags, who regarded the eighteenth century city as “the creation of an alien aristocracy”, seeing it as something that said nothing of Irish life and experience and was out of place in the capital of an Irish republic.

The Irish Times warned its readers at Christmas 1959 that it was becoming increasingly clear “the days of Dublin’s Georgian heritage are numbered”, but MacEoin and other preservationists and activists fought bravely.

There were victories, but more often defeats; in 1964, MacEoin was one of those to sign a letter to the taoiseach deploring the plans to gut Georgian houses for the Electricity Supply Board premises near Merrion Square.

Shortly afterwards, a journalist joked that MacEoin had “acquired the reputation of being a consistently Angry Young Man”, though at least “his thunderbolts are aimed in all the right directions”.

MacEoin took on those he disagreed with, yet provided them a platform to put forward their arguments too.

In the pages of Build, a publication he edited, he interviewed the brilliantly talented but controversial Sam Stephenson, who made the case that “a city must live. It must evolve and keep changing”. In response, MacEoin accused Stephenson of “cheque book planning”, clearing some of the finest parts of the city.

MacEoin didn’t hold back; a 1967 article in the magazine Scene attacked the Planning Act, which he believed developers were dancing around, joking that “Act is right, it should be in a circus”.

He was highly critical of what he viewed as an attempt to drive long-established working-class communities out of the city to the benefit of developers, believing that it had led to the “imposition of a rigid class conscious boundary”.

As historian Erika Hanna has noted, MacEoin “condemned the destruction of the inner city as resulting from a combination of cultural myopia and the Corporation’s policy of creating Catholic homes in the suburbs”.

We know now that many of these initiatives of local and national government failed, moving people into under-resourced suburbs that were soon plagued by social problems.

Together with his wife Margaret, who shared his passion for preservation, MacEoin took the necessary steps to save whatever they could of Georgian Dublin themselves.

Establishing the company Luke Gardiner Ltd, named in honour of the great eighteenth-century developer of northside Dublin, they purchased homes on Henrietta Street and Mountjoy Square.

Their son Ruadhán recalled that “My parents put what little money they had into buying houses in the north Georgian quarter.”

Numbers 5–7 Henrietta Street were purchased by MacEoin in the early 1970s, and he wasted no time in renaming one of the homes James Bryson House, in honour of an IRA Volunteer who had died on active service a few short years earlier. Today, the plaque remains upon the home.

Beyond saving the buildings of Georgian Dublin, MacEoin produced a number of important histories of the Irish republican movement, including the groundbreaking oral-history collection Survivors, in which he interviewed veterans of the revolutionary period.

This was an important work, as some veterans of the 1916–23 period had refused to talk to the Bureau of Military History, a state initiative to record their first-hand testimonies.

Beyond life as a historian, architect and activist, he also adored mountain climbing, taking to the Alps and succeeding in climbing all of the Munros.

By the time of his passing in December 2007, MacEoin had done much to protect and preserve the heart of the city. While born in Tyrone, he became synonymous with the streets of the nation’s capital, and loved them with all his being.

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