Seanad Éireann - Volume 118 - 24 February, 1988

Adjournment Matter. - Botanic Gardens (Dublin) Glasshouses.

[1801] An Leas-Chathaoirleach: For the motion on the Adjournment of the House today I have received notice from Senator David Norris that he proposes to raise the following matter, the condition of the Turner Glasshouses at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.

Mr. Norris: There is a degree of consistency between what this House was discussing a few minutes ago and what I propose to introduce on the Adjournment this evening. The Minister may not be aware that we were discussing the importance of the tourist industry here. This is not the first time I have spoken on this kind of matter. The Minister is, no doubt, aware of the fact that this House gave an Adjournment debate, a matter of less than three weeks ago, to the subject of the condition of the paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland.

I will not rehearse all the arguments I used on that occasion. Suffice it to say that tourism has been signally recognised by the Government, in particular by the Minister for Tourism and Transport and the Taoiseach himself. They have also indicated very clearly that that section of tourism possessing the greatest capacity for expansion and rapid growth — that also means money earned for this country — is becoming now almost a fashionable platitude, cultural tourism. I see this as a very important potential growth area but I am worried about the quality of the product we have.

We have some very fine paintings in the National Gallery. We also possess in some other areas things that are quite unique to this country. I speak about the Turner Glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, not just as a possession of Dublin, but as an item of absolute national importance. It is not often that we can say, even in this great capital city, that we possess something that is of the very first international rank and importance.

In the case of the glasshouses by Richard [1802] Turner we have the greatest surviving examples of his important work in the world. I am aware that Turner not only created the glasshouses at Glasnevin, in particular the great curvilinear range, but that he also built glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast and at the Botanic Gardens at Kew outside London.

In addition to this, he built glasshouses around this country. For example, he produced a superb domed circular conservatory at Woodstock, County Kilkenny, which is now destroyed. He produced conservatories in small ranges at St. Ann's, Clontarf, now destroyed, at Kilakee, County Dublin, now destroyed, at Áras An Uachtaráin in the Phoenix Park mercifully now restored, at Ballyfin, in County Laois, a very beautiful example which is in a considerable state of disrepair. We have less and less of his work but we have the greatest example in the heart of our city in the beautiful Botanic Gardens open to the public and open, which I think is very important in these days of recession and unemployment, free to the public. I was there last Sunday and it was swarming with people, old age pensioners and the unemployed. I spoke to many of those people and I also spoke to the staff who, I am glad to report, are in good heart despite the very adverse conditions in which they are working.

I would like to say a little bit about Turner before I get on to the exact specific structural problems of the cave that exists there. Turner is important to us as an Irishman and as a great Dubliner. Not only is he a product of our city but he made use of his engineering background and his team of skilled Irish workmen, many of them from Dublin, from this city of ours, and doing this, his company produced a package deal answering requirements of international customers. He actually had this capacity to get out and earn money and establish the reputation of this country internationally. He is somebody of whom we can be extremely proud.

I return to the fact that the glasshouses in Glasnevin are, I would say, his finest work. The Minister may wish to cavil a [1803] little bit with this. I am sure he has been advised and has done his homework and he may feel, for example, that the glasshouses at Kew, which are more complex and certainly larger, are the greatest work. I am sure the Minister also will acknowledge that those buildings were taken down and reconstructed, not in the original materials, not with architecture in mind, and not even with a proper balance between architecture and planned conservation, so that they now actually, to an architectural historian and as somebody who is interested in the history of the development of this particular form of art, are not the original Turner glasshouses. Thus, we here in Dublin have a completely unique possession.

The Minister, to his grief I am sure, must know that these buildings are on the point of collapse. I am absolutely astonished when I look at the condition of these buildings. I have watched them over a number of years. I always expected that they would be painted, repaired, but virtually nothing whatever has been done. I draw the attention of the House to an article by Frank McDonald in The Irish Times of Wednesday, 18 May 1983, five years ago, illustrated with some frightening and horrific pictures. The headline is “Botanic Gardens Need Major Renovation Work”. In the article Mr. McDonald, who is well known to all who love and cherish the buildings of this city, starts by saying:

Grave fears are being expressed that the Victorian planthouses in Glasnevin will collapse within the next ten years unless a major renovation programme is begun almost immediately.

Nothing whatever has been done since then.

We are half-way through our allotted time span to save this unique inheritance. The clock is still ticking and nothing has happened: well perhaps not quite nothing. Something very Irish has happened. We printed a set of definitive commemorative stamps congratulating ourselves on our architectural heritage and inevitably the curvilinear range of [1804] the Turner glasshouses at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin are the most significant stamp in the collection. How is that for hypocrisy? How can we possibly do this?

Reference was made earlier on to Ireland of the Welcomes, a most distinguished journal for which I have occasionally written myself. There in my collection of Ireland of the Welcomes, when I went back to look, was a photograph of the curvilinear range. It is dishonest to invite people, which is basically what we are tacitly doing, to come and look at these wonderful things we have if we are going to treat them with nothing other than contempt.

I accept these are very difficult economic times but I would place this in the context of the concealed capacity of things like this to draw income into the country. I can tell the Minister that there was some years ago a proposal by Belfast City Council to demolish the range of Turner Glasshouses in that city. I am very glad to say it was defeated. They were dismantled, repaired and reinstated and they are now one of the most major tourist attractions in that city, which needs tourism even more than the city of Dublin.

I would like very briefly to explain to the House the present conditions at Glasnevin, as witnessed by me no later than last Sunday. In the camellia and palm houses wooden struts have perished, wooden frames for the glass are broken and rotten. That is bad enough but in other areas of these glasshouses where the frames are not wooden but either wrought or cast iron, the decay and the warping also serves to crack and destroy the glass it contains so that not only are they unsightly and potentially dangerous but they also let in the atmosphere which is extremely inimical to some of the sensitive and sub-tropical plants. There is rust on all the railings in the palm house. Some panels of glass are broken here also. There are rotting timbers to the main door at the south end. In fact, the door is not even completely shut. The door is simply hanging on by a few rotten [1805] hinges. It is completely corroded in many places by damp rot, and if I dared I could have put a foot and a hand right through those structures. There is a very serious problem of rot.

I understand that some three years ago or so a small amount of work was done. This consisted, unfortunately, of merely painting over the decay. I am sure that the Minister, as a very practical man, will realise that this kind of plastering over a sore, or as the Elizabethan dramatist would say, the careening of an old morphensed corpse, whiting a sepulchre to use a biblical allusion, actually increases the speed at which the buildings decay. It may titivate them to make them look a little bit more respectable for a while but, in fact, it only increases the decay.

In the area known as the Range Border there is complete corrosion of many of the wrought-iron elements. There are holes six inches wide in perished metal. The whole thing is completely unpainted. Fine decorative detailing is being destroyed and in some of the buildings groups of the stanchions supporting the roof seem to be in a dangerous condition. When I say they seem to be in a dangerous condition I do not just mean that they seem to be in a dangerous condition to me; they also appear so clearly to be in a dangerous condition to the Office of Public Works that I understand they have instructed that sections of these buildings be closed to the public because they are dangerous. These are the buildings which we place on our national stamps.

The main section of the curvilinear range is blocked off and there is a notice which says “This section has been closed for repairs. No entry”. I hope the Minister will be able to give me some details of these repairs. I hope it is not a totally dishonest notice. It has been there for some considerable time. No repairs appear to be going on. I would like to know when they will commence, how extensive they will be and what precisely they will consist of. Even from the exterior you can see both the beauty and the distress, in particular of the curvilinear glasshouse range. One main support [1806] pillar is almost rusted through, panes of glass are missing, flashing is gone, there is warping of frames, entire panels of glass have gone, meaning that there is a threat to the subtropical plants.

I found, coming from this beautiful House in which we have the privilege to meet, a particular sadness, nothing the date inscribed in the wrought-iron, Royal Dublin Society 1843. As the Minister knows, we owe a particular debt to that society who preserved this House, who used it as their headquarters, who gave us the National Gallery about the squandering of whose treasures and riches I spoke the other evening, who gave us a great library and a great showground which is also now in trouble, it gives me great sadness to feel that this precious inheritance of ours is also in serious trouble.

I hope the Minister will be able to convince the House and give us some news of plans in progress to rectify the situation, I know the Office of Public Works themselves are distressed. I would like to put on record how very disheartening it is for people in the public service, in the Office of Public Works, to produce plans, do projections, work out detailed methods of restoration and then find that they are all brought to nought.

In that context I ask the Minister what has happened to the special grant of £29,000 from the European Community that, as a result of a detailed submission from the Office of Public Works, was made available specifically for the restoration work which has not happened. It must have gone somewhere, or perhaps it has not and can be used next week to do some immediate repairs although, of course, a sum of £29,000 would, to use an old Dublin expression, “get lost in a hole in your tooth” in regard to that disaster. I hope the Minister will be gracious enough to give this House an acknowledgment of the seriousness of the problem, an explanation of why money is not available, an explanation of where the £29,000 which was made available has gone, and an undertaking [1807] to initiate a phased programme of restoration.

I am in possession of documentation which indicates very clearly why this is so necessary and I am sure the Minister has it as well. It is confidential but I have my sources and I managed to get hold of it. It is about the curvilinear range. There are photographs which are very distressing to see. Even where repairs had been made, they have been made in unsympathetic metals and have led to further distortion. The conclusion arrived at by the author of this work is that there must be restoration. The restoration should comprise, first of all, the dismantling of the entire range and I gather that arrangements could be made for this to be done without threat to the very valuable and sometimes very venerable stock of rare plants; secondly, the examination of all the iron components; thirdly, the treatment of all iron parts or their replacement; fourthly, the re-erection of the range; fifthly, the refurbishment of the interior of the range and the replanting and rehousing of the plants; and finally, the renovation of ancillary buildings and the construction of new facilities for the public. That is not just the Dublin public, it is also an international public.

I have no doubt that in the year of the Millennium we will get increased attention and increased attendance from people from abroad if we complete this urgent and necessary work. The work could and should commence immediately. It could be completed in three to five years. I understand the cost over a period of years at present figures would be about £3 million.

I would like to put on record two points which are rather sad. The first is that the director of the gardens is quoted in 1983 as saying: “Frankly, we are at our wits' end trying to get them” — the Office of Public Works and the Department of Agriculture and Food — “to do something about it”. The Office of Public Works said they themselves were acutely aware of the situation. It is a tragedy that there should be such structural and [1808] possibly permanent damage. I am glad to tell the Minister that my advice is that it is not too late, that something can be done.

I urge the Minister to give some positive news to the House this evening, in particular a commitment in this year of the Millennium. I know he will agree with me what a tragedy, what an irony, what a blasphemy it would be and what a betrayal of the people of this city if in the year of its thousandth anniversary we disgrace ourselves internationally by allowing this collapse. Five years ago we were warned we had ten years left, five years have gone and we must now, this very day, set about the restoration of these superbly brilliant buildings. I am sure that the Minister will have visited them over the last week or so. If not, I hope he will go and join the many hundreds of other Dubliners who will do so this weekend.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. Kirk): I would like to thank Senator Norris for his fine, comprehensive contribution on this problem of the Turner range of curvilinear glasshouses in the Botanic Gardens.

I am fully aware of the cultural and historic importance of the Turner range of curvilinear glasshouses in the National Botanic Gardens, quite apart from their primary function in providing a suitable environment in which many hundreds of rare and important botanical specimens can thrive and be displayed to best advantage to students and the general public. These houses are in use since the middle of the last century and have over the years suffered the inevitable occasional winter storm damage and the wear and tear of constant use. The normal maintenance works arising in this way have been the responsibility of the Office of Public Works who have dealt with them in a competent and professional manner. However, a few years ago it became evident that because of the inherent susceptibility of the Victorian castiron work to the effects of metal fatigue, corrosion, rusting and so on, the houses were in need [1809] of a complete structural rehabilitation of the most fundamental character.

The matter was taken up by my Department in 1983 with the Office of Public Works who commissioned an engineering firm with the specialised skills demanded by this particular assignment to carry out a detailed survey of the range and to submit a report with recommendations. I should perhaps mention that Turner was a Dublin engineering craftsman who in the 1840s pioneered the use of curvilinear glass and structural wrought-iron ribs for building purposes. Other fine examples of Turner-designed and fabricated conservatories from the same period are at Kew Gardens, London, and the Botanic Gardens, Belfast. The condition of these better structures also had so deteriorated from the effects of age and corrosion over the years that a major and costly refurbishment scheme for their conservation had to be undertaken at both these locations.

The conclusion drawn by the consultant engineers from their inspections of the Glasnevin range of glasshouses in 1984 and 1986 was that while it was inherently sound it nevertheless was in urgent need of a complete overhaul. All cast-iron elements had suffered corrosion but until dismantled the actual condition of many elements would not be fully revealed.

The Office of Public Works have proposed a programme of restoration to be carried out in four phases at an estimated cost of £4 million. The first phase would deal with the central pavilion, where deterioration has been most severe. The restoration would comprise the dismantling of the structure section by section, the restoration or replacement of the cast-iron and wrought-iron elements and their re-erection. Planning of this scheme was brought to an advanced stage during 1986 but invitations to tender have since been deferred due to the budgetary situation. The fact is that there are too many competing claims for the limited financial resources available. I might say at this point that the EC grant of £29,000 which Senator Norris inquired about is at [1810] present being held by the Office of Public Works for use in the major work, but it is only a very small part of the total cost and the resources which will be required to get them back into proper shape.

The Office of Public Works have already restored a small Turner propagation greenhouse in the nursery area at the gardens. The work was carried out in 1985-86. The work involved dismantling of the building, the restoration of the members and re-erection in a new location. In addition, old service greenhouses which are in poor condition were demolished and replaced by new modular commercial types. Ancillary works such as tarmacadaming, paving, ducting, etc., and replacement of boiler house were also carried out. The total cost of the works was £330,000. The work carried out to the Turner building has provided invaluable practical experience and information which has been of great assistance in the planning of the restoration of the curvilinear range houses.

The Office of Public Works, who are responsible for day-to-day maintenance of the glasshouses, advised recently that deterioration of the curvilinear range, particularly the elevated centre section, had now accelerated and they recommended that this section be closed to the public for reasons of safety. I have, therefore, directed my Department's officials to prepare an application for assistance from the heritage projects allocation in the national lottery fund to help finance the restoration work and I hope the application will be successful. In the meantime, the director of the gardens has had all the plant specimens in the section now closed off transferred to suitable alternative quarters elsewhere at the gardens and the section cleared to facilitate the rehabilitation work going ahead. The House can be assured that all possible steps will be taken with a view to securing the restoration of this splendid range of glasshouses to its original form and elegance.

Mr. Norris: I welcome what the Minister has said. Any support I can give in [1811] his application or the application he has directed his officials to make to the national lottery will be supported with all the vigour and what little rhetoric I possess. If I can be of any assistance, I [1812] certainly will. I welcome the general trend of what he says. Thank you.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 25 February 1988.