The Museum Building revealed

The Museum Building is home to the Geography Department, along with our colleagues in Geology and Civil Engineering. The building is often described as the most striking on Trinity College campus with its fine architecture and rich history.

Last year, Dr Patrick Wyse Jackson, Associate Professor of Geology and Curator of the Geological Museum, Trinity College, Dublin wrote a fantastic piece  for taking readers on a tour of the decorative and dimension stones of a Victorian architectural gem in the heart of Dublin. The article is shared below:

The Museum Building revealed

Figure 1. View of the Museum Building shortly after completion in 1857
Figure 1. View of the Museum Building shortly after completion in 1857.


Recent work [summer, 2015] in the Geology Library necessitated the removal of an internal partition wall, and high up on the cornice surrounding the room was revealed the original hand-painted decoration (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Original painted decoration of cornice of old geology museum. (Photograph: Katie Wyse Jackson)

Golden scrolls weaved their way across reddish boards. This was typical early Victorian gothic style embellishment. Sadly during the 1950s and later much of this extravagant decoration and colour in the building was painted over in white.

The Museum Building in Trinity College, Dublin (Figure 1) is memorable in many respects, not least in the utilisation, by the architectural practice of Deane, Woodward and Deane (Figure 3), of many rock-types, most notably Irish limestones. Prior to the 1850s many Dublin buildings were constructed of locally quarried dark-coloured Calp limestone and, or the pale Leinster Granite from a number of quarries in south Co. Dublin and north Wicklow. Many early Victorian architects sought new sources of building materials to impart flamboyance and colour to their buildings, as well as developing more elaborate styles of decoration. Some were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin who championed the return to natural form in art and architecture. At this time new sources of Irish stone had become available to the construction industry, and in Britain rock types such as the Triassic New Red Sandstone was finding favour with mercantile entrepreneurs for their establishments. This can be seen in Dublin in the façades of the Bank bar on Dame Street and former AIB building on Pearse Street.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Thomas Deane; Benjamin Woodward; and Thomas Newenham Deane (left to right).

Genesis of the Museum Building

In 1833 the Board of Trinity College, Dublin invited entries for a new building to house its museum, which at that time was located in a large room in Regent House overlooking College Green.

After a succession of plans over twenty years were considered, the Cork-based firm headed up by Sir Thomas Deane (1792–1871) (Figure 3a) was awarded the contract in April 1853. Deane’s partner Benjamin Woodward (1816–1861) (Figure 3b) was the design guru in the firm, and the third junior member of the triumvirate was Thomas Newenham Deane (1828–1899) (Figure 3c).

Thomas Deane was the first of a lineage of architects all of whom were knighted – his grandson Thomas Manly Deane co-designed the Royal College of Science (now Government Buildings) and the Hall of Honour and 1937 Reading Room in Trinity where his only son, who was killed in the First World War, is commemorated.

Woodward was born in Tullamore, Co. Offaly and joined Deane’s firm in 1845. His early work included the Killarney Lunatic Asylum and Queen’s College (University College) Cork (1846-1849). He was made a partner of the firm in 1851 and assumed chief responsibility for the designs. They are characterised by possessing rich sculptural decorations, ornate windows, and making much use of colour. The style, which owed much to Venetian architecture, was favourably endorsed and promoted by John Ruskin.

Thomas Newenham Deane was born in Cork and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He was a keen yachtsman and wished to join the Navy. However, at his father’s insistence he joined the family firm in 1850. The following year he was made a partner and became increasingly responsible for management. He designed the National Museum and National Library on Kildare Street for which he was knighted.

On winning the contract the firm relocated to Dublin where over time it was to design notable buildings such as the Kildare Street Club and some banks on Dame Street, and in England, the Oxford Museum, a larger manifestation of its Trinity masterpiece. To the observant eye, the DWD style, termed ‘Ruskinian Gothic” by some commentators, is easy to spot (see Further Reading for some essential sources).


The site for the new building was selected immediately east of Thomas Burgh’s Library (where Deane and Woodward were to redesign the Long Room by inserting the barrelled ceiling). The building was built by the Dublin contractors Messrs Cockburn and Sons and they had completed the exterior by 1855 (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4. The Museum Building building under construction, c. 1855. Note the Calp limestone rubble wall behind the window arches and the use of thin tree trunks for scaffolding.


The interior was originally planned to be plastered but the architects won over the Board who agreed to the extra expenditure of £185 for French stone. Nevertheless they were not pleased at having to spend £13 on each decorative column, and grumbled in particular as some columns comprised several pieces as full lengths of stone seven feet six inches could not be procured. The materials and labour costs for the building came to just under £29,000 [Text Box 1] of which the exterior stonework contributed to approximately half of this total. The building opened in 1857 and contained two large museums – one engineering and one geological on the first floor, several lecture rooms and office accommodation. It was originally heated by open fireplaces or stoves and an ingenious system of ventilation allowed stale air to be removed through inverted cone-shaped vents in the ceilings of lecture theatres that connected to half-moon-shaped openings on the side of the building.

Text Box 1: Cost of materials for the Museum Building

  • Foundations: £15/17/8 (pounds/shillings/pence)
  • External stone dressing (Portland Stone & Wicklow Granite): £12,768/3/7
  • Internal stone dressing (Caen and Portland Stone): £6,021/14/11
  • Yorkshire flagging @ 15 shillings per square yard: £324/0/0
  • Marble handrail (98 feet): £122/0/0
  • Marble columns (17” diameter shafts, 7’6” high) [each]: £13/0/0
  • Half shafts [each]: £8/0/0
  • Wall veils and marble insets: £192/0/0
  • Bangor Queen Green and Blue Slates: £290/0/0
  • Brass door handles [each]: £1/10/0
  • TOTAL COST OF BUILDING: £28,790/3/10


Figure 5
Figure 5. Signature of the architects (DWD) carved in shield above small Connemara marble column.

An unusual touch is that the architects signed their building through the use of a shield bearing the intertwined initials ‘DWD’ surmounted on a small Connemara Marble pillar at the top of the stairs (Figure 5).


Distinctive stone

Marble is one of the most variable decorative stones available, and has been utilised for thousands of years. Originally a limestone, marble is formed by metamorphism by heat and/or pressure, and it usually takes a high polish. The best-known Irish example is the distinctive green Connemara Marble from western Co. Galway. Limestone has also long been an important decorative stone, commonly used in the interior of buildings, and it too can take a high polish. This often leads to this rock being called a ‘marble’, but in geological terms this is incorrect as it has never been metamorphosed. In many cases a close examination will reveal fossils in many of these sedimentary rocks.

In Ireland up until the 1840s, Connemara marble and the black Kilkenny and Galway limestones were those exploited, but after this date new sources were sought out and quarries opened. These included red and purple varieties from Counties Cork and Limerick, brown examples from Armagh and the Irish Midlands, and grey forms from a number of districts.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Views of the polychromic vestibule guarded by Giant Irish Deer skeletons, showing use of decorative stone for columns and far staircase.

The pillars, balustrades and ledges in the hallway of the Museum Building (Figures 6 and 7) are of stone from twelve localities [Text Box 2 and figures] which display the complete range of colours available in the 1850s. These all are Irish except for the reddish-black Serpentinite, a low-grade metamorphosed ultramafic rock, which was quarried at the Lizard, Cornwall, England. The balustrades and some columns are of green Connemara serpentine marble which comes in pale or darker varieties from Barnaoran and Clifden, Co. Galway. Red is provided by three varieties of Cork Red Limestone from Baneshane, Little Island and Midleton; brown from limestones from Armagh (these contain shark teeth) and Clonony, Co. Offaly; and black varieties from Counties Fermanagh, Galway, Kilkenny, and Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.

Text Box 2: Decorative stones of the Museum Building
Text Box 2: Decorative stones of the Museum Building

  • (A) Armagh Limestone: A pale, brown limestone containing small button-shaped reddish-coloured fish teeth. Locality: Various quarries Armagh, Co. Armagh.
  • (B) Castle Caldwell Limestone: A pale grey limestone packed with crinoid debris. Locality: Castle Caldwell, near Beleek, Co. Fermanagh.
  • (C) Clonony Limestone: A brown limestone with cavities infilled with white calcite; containing many fossils including crinoids and some cephalopods. Locality: Clonony, Co. Offaly.
  • (D) Cork Red Limestone: A red limestone, (stained by iron oxides) with blebs of white calcite, and linear concentrations of red clays along stylolites. Looks like corned beef! Locality: Baneshane, Cork.
  • (E) Galway Black Limestone: A black relatively unfossiliferous limestone. Galway was one of the major sources of Irish black ‘marble’. It had been quarried since the 1700s. Locality: Menlo Park, Co. Galway.
  • (F) Kilkenny Black Limestone: A black limestone which was favoured for internal work. It is very fossiliferous, containing crinoids, corals and brachiopods. Locality: south of Kilkenny.
  • (G) Mitchelstown Limestone: A black ‘reefal’ limestone which contains many cavities (stromatactis) infilled with white sparry calcite. Locality: Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
  • (H) Connemara Marble: A pale green marble rich in serpentine, chlorite and mica. Resulted from Precambrian metamorphism of limestone. Locality: Clifden, Co. Galway.
  • (I) Lizard Serpentinite: A distinctive black metamorphic rock composed largely of olivine and pyroxene, with veins of red oxidised serpentine minerals. Locality: The Lizard, Cornwall, England.
  • (J) Caen Stone: A pale buff-coloured limestone composed of tiny spherical oolites. Soft and easily carved it is used for internal walls and the coat-of-arms above the main door. Locality: France.


Figure 8
Figure 8. Internal use of colour – the domes are in red, blue, green, and yellow enamelled bricks, while red-stained Caen stone contrasts with uncoloured natural stone.

Additional colour is imparted by the enamelled brick ceiling of the two central domes above the main hallway: red, yellow, green and blue, while alternating blocks of Caen Stone in the arches are stained russet red (Figure 8). Today these bricks are rather faded, and intake of water from outside has leached some of the colouration from the stonework.

The internal walls are built of Caen Stone, a soft pale orange-coloured oolitic limestone from France. Today 160 years’ worth of dirt has rather discoloured the stone surface, but in places the original colour can be spotted. The elaborate decorative carvings of the Museum Building were executed by a Mr Roe of Lambeth, London and the highly skilled stone masons John and James O’Shea (Figure 9), brothers from Cork. They carved animals such as cats, mice, squirrels, owls, birds and snakes, and various plants including oak, ivy, lilies, and acanthus (Figures 10 and 11). It is reputed that they used as models stuffed animals from the College Museum collections and plants from the College Botanic Gardens then in Ballsbridge. Whatever the inspiration these men were trusted to be able to carve unworked blocks of stone already lifted high into their final position in the building, rather than working them at ground level and having the work passed fit for inclusion.


Figure 9
Figure 9. James O’Shea working on the Oxford University Museum. After Benjamin Woodward’s death in 1861, James and his brother John worked in England and Wales for a number of years but there is no trace of them or their work after the late 1860s.
FIgure 10
Figure 10. Internal carvings – a snake prepares to strike.
Figure 11
Fig 11. Internal carvings – detail of capitals.


The floor is of Yorkshire flagstone, with black slate and pale and grey limestone insets (Figure 12). The outer margin of the floor is framed by purple slate from Festiniog, Wales which contains green reduction spots. This floor was relaid about 30 years ago and its level was raised about 10 cm. At that time some of the original black slates had been damaged and identical stone could not be sourced, so were replaced with softer Irish limestone which is slightly paler in colour. One slate is now replaced by a piece of timber!

Figure 12
Figure 12. Detail of floor showing large purple slabs of Yorkshire stone surrounded by rectangles of white oolitic limestone. The dark squares bottom and right are black slate and the grey squares top and left are Irish limestone.

The external walls of the building are faced with Leinster Granite blocks twenty-five to thirty centimetres thick, quarried from Ballyknockan, Co. Wicklow in the Wicklow Mountains. The horizontal string-courses and the external carvings around windows and the front door are cut in Portland Stone, a white Jurassic limestone, from the south coast of England (Figures 13 and 14). Close examination of this reveals microfossils and small spherical ooids that indicate that the limestone was deposited in shallow water. In places the vertical chisel marks made by the stone masons as they dressed the ashlar blocks of granite and limestone are still visible (Figure 15). The carved tympanum above the main door bearing the College coat-of-arms is in Caen Stone. In the past two years the exterior has been cleaned, and the splendour of the rich carvings revealed (Figure 16 and 17). Black soot, and white gypsum sticking to the surface was removed using a combination of slow water-washing or picking adherents off with small drills.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Exterior stringcourse carved in Portland Limestone.


Figure 14
Figure 14. A bird defends its nest from lizard attack. This carving to the left of the front door was until recently completely obscured with soot.
Figure 15
Figure 15. Detail of Portland Limestone (left) and Ballyknockan Granite (right) ashlar blocks on exterior with traces of chisel stone dressing.
Figure 16
Figure 16. Main doorway before and after cleaning, with detailed carvings of capitals and piers in Portland Stone, and tympanum with the College coat-of-arms in Caen Stone.
Figure 17
Figure 17. View of the north and east sides of the Museum Building today.

Use of the Museum Building today

Today the Museum Building houses the disciplines of Geology, Geography and Civil Engineering, and is a hive of teaching and research activity. The large museum spaces have gone and were subdivided horizontally and vertically in the 1950s to provide teaching laboratories, and research and office space. A small geological museum was situated, until recently, on the uppermost floor and is now located close by in the Trinity Enterprise Centre on Pearse Street. However, the hallway still contains displays of quality material and is dominated by skeletons of male and female Giant Irish Deer Megaloceros giganteus. These impressive animals became extinct 11,000 years ago.

Do not be surprised to find visitors and first time students standing in the middle of the entrance hallway with expressions of wonder and delight. The Museum Building is one of Ireland’s premier architectural gems and a landmark building. To those who have worked in it for several decades it still inspires, a sentiment that no doubt the architects and those College worthies who commissioned it hoped to instil in all who pass through it.

By Patrick Wyse Jackson, Associate Professor of Geology and Curator of the Geological Museum, Trinity College, Dublin

Originally posted here. Thanks to our colleagues in the Geology Department for sharing! For more Geological News & Views visit

Further reading

Eva Blau (1982) Ruskinian Gothic: the architecture of Deane and Woodward, 1845-1861. Princeton University Press.

Patrick N. Wyse Jackson (1993) The Building Stones of Dublin: a walking guide. Country House, Dublin.

Patrick N. Wyse Jackson (1995) A Victorian Landmark. Trinity College’s Museum Building. Irish Arts Review 11, 149-154.

Frederick O’Dwyer (1997) The architecture of Deane and Woodward. Cork University Press.



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