Thomas Joseph Byrne: Nation Builder

BkWr13_TomByrneJOHN BYRNE & MICHAEL FEWER
South Dublin Co Co, 2013
pp 143 52 col ills 64 b/w p/b
€12.99 ISBN:9780956580443
Frederick O’Dwyer
This would appear to be the first time that a county council has embarked on an architectural biography and while a relatively short book, at less than 150 pages, it throws important light on how Irish architects, of whom Thomas Joseph Byrne, born in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey in 1876, was a pivotal figure, dealt with the planning challenges that emerged in early years of the 20th century. South Dublin Libraries and the authors, Byrne’s grandson John and the architect and writer Michael Fewer, are to be congratulated in pulling together so many important strands of Irish history in this splendidly illustrated work. The illustrations, drawing on T J Byrne’s own collection as well as material in state and local authority archives, include some remarkable previously unpublished photographs of the destruction and reconstruction (under his superintendence as OPW’s principal architect from 1923) of Dublin’s three major public buildings, the GPO, Custom House and Four Courts. Most of the photographs of Byrne’s executed buildings relate to the early part of his career as a housing architect, where he excelled in planning suburban ‘cottages’ in the arts-and-crafts style, also designing a couple of libraries for South Dublin Rural District Council (SDRDC) (Whitechurch and Clondalkin).

The illustrations, drawing on T J Byrne’s own collection as well as material in state and local authority archives, include some remarkable previously unpublished photographs of the destruction and reconstruction of Dublin’s three major public buildings, the GPO, Custom House and Four Courts

While something of Byrne’s family life was known from his daughter Ethna’s childhood memoir, published in 1989, a major surprise in the present work is T J Byrne’s close friendship with W T Cosgrave, whose 1919 correspondence from internment as a Sinn Fein leader in Reading Gaol is drawn on here. Trained initially in England, Byrne moved to Drogheda in 1895 to work for Anthony Scott and his talented son William. He and William later worked briefly for the progressive Architects Department of London County Council, Byrne returning to Ireland in early 1901 to take up the post of clerk and engineer to SDRDC and to marry William’s sister May. He moved to the Local Government Board in 1919.
His last major project was the terminal building at Dublin Airport, commissioned in late 1936. He hired the young Desmond FitzGerald (who subsequently won a gold medal for it in 1943) as an assistant in January 1937. Byrne, who was its project manager, might have got more credit for its creation had he not died following a heart attack in January 1939. The portrait painted is of a driven man, whose stepbrother thought ‘was over-devoted to his profession and worked too hard’.

Frederick O’Dwyer) is an architect, architectural historian and town planner.

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