I’M going to go out on a limb here, and suggest the name George Coppinger Ashlin means nothing to you.
But if you’re out and about around Cork city and county today, there’s a pretty good chance you will see his genius - especially if you glance upwards.
In the city, it will be there in the towering majesty of SS Peter and Paul’s Church - nip inside for a quick prayer, and it will also be evident in the magnificent grand altar within, carved from 36 tons of Carrara marble.
Ashlin’s work will also be on view if you pass by the remarkable Good Shepherd Convent, or Holy Trinity Church in Cork city.
Out in the county, his genius can be seen in Cobh’s landmark cathedral, at the beautiful AIB building in Midleton, and in churches and convents in Bantry, Fermoy, Skibbereen, Mallow, and Clonakilty - the latter’s church being a particularly striking example of Ashlin’s talents.
Not a bad legacy, considering George Coppinger Ashlin died 100 years ago yesterday.
And those are just a few examples of his work in his native county. He was the inspiration behind dozens of landmark buildings all across Ireland - from Castleknock College to Ashford Castle, from St Patrick’s College in Maynooth to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh.
In case you hadn’t twigged yet. Ashlin was an architect, and the fact the centenary of this brilliant man’s death went unnoticed in his native county yesterday, really underlines how little respect we seem to have for their works of art in this country.
Yes, architects are artists - street artists, if you like - and not alone do they produce works of art, but their genius is not tucked away in dusty museums and galleries, or hanging on the walls of wealthy people’s latrines; it is there, right before our eyes, visible, enduring, and, at its very best, awe-inspiring.
The question is, why do we (rightly) laud the skills of people who produce art with pens and brushes, with pencils and stencils, but find it so hard to recognise the importance of great architecture?
It’s not as though George Coppinger Ashlin was an unsung hero while he lived - all the evidence points to the fact he was feted by his contemporaries. But today hardly anyone knows the name of one of Ireland’s finest ever architects, whose work is very much alive, and all around us.
It is a topical debate too, since architecture remains an integral part of the designs of our towns and cities, playing a key role in how we want them to look in the decades, even centuries, ahead.
Can you name an Irish architect, alive or dead? No? Maybe it’s time that mindset changed. Maybe it’s time we lauded the best architects, and appreciated their work more.
George Coppinger Ashlin was born in 1837 in Carrigrenane House on Little Island. His father was a corn merchant, and his mother was from the well-known Cork Coppinger clan, whose family home was in Carrigtwohill.
In 1856, George became a pupil of the architect Edward Welby Pugin later went into partnership with him, and married Edward’s sister, Mary. Edward and Mary’s father, the esteemed architect Augustus, had designed Britain’s Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.
The latter decades of the 19th century were an era of great expansion in Catholic church-building in Ireland, and Ashlin became a leading ecclesiastical architect, designing, altering, and completing at least 60 churches and cathedrals nationwide, as well as schools and convents.
George and Edward’s masterpiece, begun in 1868, was St Colman’s Cathedral, on a hill overlooking Cobh harbour, its spire eventually rising to 300ft.
Although said to be “of a quiet and retiring disposition… with a certain inherent shyness”, Ashlin became the most acclaimed and sought-after architect of his age, and was President of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, and a Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy. In those roles, he was always keen to emphasise and advocate an Irish style in architecture, alongside his own Gothic influences.
Ashlin set up office in Dawson Street, Dublin, and in the early years of the 20th century was a common sight around St Stephen’s Green, as he mounted a horse each morning and cantered around it several times as exercise!
He died aged 84 on December 10, 1921, in a house in Killiney which he had designed for himself and his family, and which was on sale a few years ago for almost €10million. He was buried in the family plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.
In recent years, the built environment of Cork city, particularly the docklands area, has changed beyond all recognition. Much of the new work is glass-fronted. I wonder what George Ashlin would make of it?
Would he embrace the modern urge for transparent, high-rise architecture, or recoil at the homogeneity? Would he see it as a missed opportunity to put a stamp on a place and create something truly memorable, like he did at Cobh or with the Good Shepherd Convent?
It’s strange that such debates are not carried out more in public, involving the very residents of the city who will be casting their eyes over these buildings every day.