Issue 2: The O’Brien Institute, Marino, Dublin
Architect: J.J O’Callaghan
This large institutional building, ‘The School of the Twin Sisters’, is named after Bridget O’Brien, who died in 1876 leaving a fund in her will for the founding and supporting of a house and school for educating poor and destitute children. Her father, Michael O’Brien, had been a wealthy wholesale woollen draper in the city of Dublin. He had left his considerable estate to his daughters, and Bridget, a twin, was the last surviving member of the family. Her generous bequest was undoubtedly influenced by the dark days of social deprivation and poverty in Dublin that she had witnessed during her life.
The school was built on a portion of the former Marino demesne which was purchased in 1878 by the Archdiocese of Dublin. It is close to the sole surviving building on that former estate, the Casino Marino, an architectural gem designed by Sir William Chambers that is now in state care and open to visitors.
Now known as The O’Brien Institute, the school complex is large and imposing, built in red brick in Gothic Revival style. It was designed by the architect John Joseph O’Callaghan, who won a limited architectural competition to gain the commission. Described and illustrated in the Irish Builder in 1883, the building cost £25,000 to build. The materials chosen were of the best quality with brick for the façades coming from the newly-established Kingscourt factory. The contractors, Arthur Hammond & Co., owned a quarrying and stonecutting works on the south side of the River Boyne near Drogheda and used this limestone for the finely detailed stonework in the building. The school opened in 1887 and was run by the Irish Christian Brothers on behalf of the trustees.
The building is sited with its main entrance facing south-east on elevated ground with spectacular views to Dublin Bay. The main block, a long three-storey range of eighteen bays, is terminated at either end with gable-fronted wings and has a central breakfront gabled entrance bay. The chapel is expressed separately, but is linked at the southern end. The entrance bay is finely detailed with lancet windows, chamfered brick reveals, limestone mullions and transoms, and leaded trefoil-headed lights with quatrefoils to the top of each window. A roundel over the entrance contains the inscription ‘The School of the Twin Sisters A.D. 1882’. The entrance doorway has chamfered brick reveals and is recessed within a deep porch with an arcade of elegant pointed arches.
Brick is the main walling material paired with fine limestone dressings. The bricks are a pinkish red colour, machine-made with a smooth finish and built in Flemish bond. Many special chamfered bricks are used in arches and in window reveals, all very carefully detailed. Architectural features of particular interest are the Gothic tracery windows on the central breakfront and the finely detailed entrance porch.
The chapel is in simple Gothic Revival style. The six-bay nave has an impressive rose window on the south-east side. The bell-tower has an octagonal-plan belfry and steep pyramid roof in brick and limestone, topped with a copper cross finial. The red brick walls are built in Flemish bond. The chapel interior has a gallery and an open arched timber roof with trusses supported on limestone corbels.
For most of its existence the school accommodated boarders, usually just 75-85 children at any one time, because Bridget had stipulated that ‘no greater number of children be kept, under any pretence whatsoever, as can be carefully and fully and sufficiently provided for and attended to’. There was to be no overcrowding. Another stipulation was that if any particular child showed a capacity or taste ‘for music, painting, sculpture, or any other useful trade, profession or calling’, the trustees were to facilitate them.
When the school closed in 1976, the building complex was purchased by Dublin Corporation and now has a new life as the Dublin Fire Brigade training centre. Various recent additions and refurbishments have taken place including work to the chapel which was completely refurbished in 2009 and is now used as an auditorium. The complex also accommodates the Dublin Fire Brigade Museum, set up in 1985, which houses artefacts and items donated by the families of Dublin firefighters over the course of the brigade’s history. It is open to the public by appointment.
The O’Brien Trust, established through Bridget’s original bequest to found the O’Brien Institute, is still administered by the Dublin Archdiocese.
Susan Roundtree is a conservation architect with a particular interest in architectural history and historic buildings. She obtained a Master of Letters in Trinity College Dublin for her research on the history of clay brick as a building material in Ireland and this continues to be her area of special interest. She has contributed to many publications on this topic and is currently completing her own book which is a gazetteer of brickmaking history in Ireland.
References & Further Reading
Cantwell, J., Irish Times, 22 Apr 2008
Irish Builder, 1 Aug 1883 (illustrations)
L’Estrange, S., ‘The O’Brien Institution’, Dublin City Council