Last Tuesday, while out on de Nortsoide on a little excursion, I decided to swing by Marino to visit the Casino, a place on my Dates with Dublin list that no fewer than 43 people have recommended I visit. 43! With enthusiastic endorsement like that, who am I to argue? So on my way back to town I pulled off to the right down the Malahide Road before Fairview, and there, practically in the middle of a housing estate, lies the entrance to Casino Marino.
On my way in the gate, I met an elderly but very sprightly gentleman who’d just been in for a tour of the building. “Isn’t this something else?” he beamed, his eyes shining with delight. “50 years I’ve been in Marino, and I only discovered this place five years ago. Can you believe that?” Dublin’s best-kept secret? Could well be. Or perhaps he was just rather unobservant in his younger days.
Still, though, the Casino doesn’t exactly stand out – until you go through the gates and get your first glimpse. First impressions of the building? It’s tiny, but imposing. Or imposing, but tiny. If that makes sense. It’s small, but perfectly formed. And it’s probably the most unusual building of its time in Dublin.
Some history: The Casino (from the Italian ‘casa’ meaning house, so “little house”, not house of gambling) was built in the late 1700’s, by Scottish architect Sir William Chambers in the grounds of the now-disappeared Marino House. The building, apparently one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in Europe, was commissioned by the filthy rich first Earl of Charlemont, James Caulfield after he returned from a nine-year jaunt around the world with his pals. (Nine years of partying. The Celtic Tiger had nothing on these guys.) It was basically designed as a “pleasure house” – a garden temple of sorts – with no practical purpose, apart from giving Jimmy and his moneyed mates somewhere to play. Designed to remind the Earl of the good times he enjoyed while hanging out in Italy, it takes its inspiration from Greek and Roman architecture. Quite the souvenir! As playhouses go, this is pretty impressive, and once I learned about the clever design concealed within, I was even more impressed.
Guarded by some of the friendliest lions you’ll ever see, from the exterior the house looks like one large room, with four very large windows, and one very large door, with two giant urns on the roof. Inside, however, the pint-sized building cleverly conceals no fewer than sixteen smaller chambers, spread over three floors. In keeping with the style of the day, everything is balanced and symmetrical, and if false walls were needed to maintain the symmetry, they were added in.
Despite the scarcity of space such measures, as well as the clever use of light combined with curved walls and vaulted ceilings manage to make the rooms look bigger than they are. To streamline the building, Chambers cleverly concealed such tiresome practicalities as drainpipes inside the building, within hollow columns with water chains inside.
The two giant urns on the roof are actually chimneys. See that large window on the outside? The subtly curved panes of glass conceal the fact that inside, it traverses a number of walls to provide light to more than one room. There are many other clever design quirks in the Casino, but you’ll have to go and seem them for yourself. Unlike Chambers, who remarkably never got to travel to Ireland to see the beautiful building he had designed.
Intriguingly, there are eight tunnels leading off in four directions from the Casino. None have been excavated to date. One, now filled in, is said to have led to the main house on the estate. Another leads to an underground spring, probably used to supply the house with fresh water. The others are a bit of a mystery, but were in all likelihood used for storage. That’s not the most exciting explanation however, and everyone knows rumours are far more fun. There are suggestions of secret Masonic meetings taking place underground (indeed the pointed star laid into the ornate wooden floor in the main hall would lend some credence to this theory; however there is no documented evidence of Freemasonry in the house, so they are probably just that – rumours).
Indeed, symbolism is evident everywhere you look in the Casino, particularly in the walls and ceilings and anyone with a fertile imagination could come up with a few far-fetched tales. It’s even been suggested that Michael Collins took shelter from the British in one of the tunnels, but again, this has never been verified.
What is known is that the poet Lord Byron was a regular visitor the Casino – in the years after James Caulfield’s death when his son Francis had inherited the house, Bryon befriended his wife, Anne Bermingham, a lady rumoured to be one of the most beautiful in the land (with the added bonus of wealth – she brought a large dowry to the family). On one of Byron’s visits, Anne’s beloved pet hound Neptune passed away. Byron, perhaps in an effort to console the lady of the house, wrote a touching poem, devoted not to Anne, but to the deceased dog. The ode is visible on what’s said to be Nep’s gravestone, seen outside the Casino to this day.
The view from the Marino and the big house originally gave Lord Caulfield an unfettered and undoubtedly stunning view across Dublin Bay, however in the late 18th century, he became engaged in a war of words with a man called Ffolliot from Aungier Street. We don’t know the particulars, but Ffolliot must have been pretty peeved (and pretty loaded), as he promptly proceeded to acquire all the land in front of Marino House and build a huge crescent-shaped row of houses to block Jimmy’s view of the Bay. (They didn’t do revenge by halves in those days). No. 15 Marino Crescent went on to become the birthplace of one Bram Stoker, so the outcome wasn’t all bad.
Caulfield spent a small fortune on the house while he was alive, and unfortunately, many of the baubles and treasures he collected during his lifetime had to be sold after his death. The building gradually fell into disrepair over the 19th century, and was on the verge of collapse until the passing of the National Monuments Act of 1930, lobbied for by architect Dr. Harold Leask, and the casino was taken into state care and painstakingly restored by the Office of Public Works.
It’s a gorgeous little building, well worth a visit and there always appears to be something happening there – check out their Facebook page for details. This week, being Heritage Week, the Casino is hosting a number of events for adults and children alike including talks, workshops and costume tours. You can follow Casino Marino on twitter too (they’re super-friendly, helpful and engaging) and visit it from 10.00-18.00 daily (access by guided tour only). A lovely little gem to lose yourself in for an hour – go see.