Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Mahaffy House, Dublin City - Restored Home of Oscar Wilde's Tutor

Photographs by James Fennell.

In 1967, Dublin socialite Desiree Shortt was bidden to dinner on the city's northside. Her host directed her attention to a dilapidated redbrick townhouse nearby. He told her it once belonged to Oscar Wilde's tutor, Sir John Mahaffy. In the early years of the Irish Free State, the once fashionable neighbourhood was abandoned and Mahaffy's house became a brothel. Mrs. Shortt mused a while. One night, six years later, she sat up in her bed and decided to buy the house. A check for IR£8000 was duly issued and she became the proud owner of a five storey, 22- room Georgian terrace house on Dublin's north side. "I was mad, of course. Everyone said it. I knew it. I slept in the back boiler room for the first seventeen years".

Mrs. Shortt had never actually visited the property when she purchased it. She did not know, for instance, that there were 27 permanent tenants in the building or that they all shared one communal bathroom. However, before she could make any progress, she took a very serious fall from a horse while playing polo. The fall damaged her back sufficiently to end a promising career in advertising. Mrs. Shortt is not one to be daunted for long. She decided to reinvent herself and began studying china restoration. Her friends responded by sending her every chunk of chipped porcelain or cracked China they could find. Within a short period of time, Mrs. Shortt had become Ireland's foremost authority on the restoration of china.

Examples of her splendid china collection lie scattered throughout the house. Indeed, their presence seems so permanent that one could be forgiven for thinking they have been here all along. And that is the essence of Mrs. Shortt's genius. Over the past thirty years she has almost single-handedly rescued a building from collapse and converted it into one of the most desirable residences in the Irish capital.

It has not been an easy ride. First up, the twenty seven tenants had to be coaxed into the departure lounge. And then there was sixty years of serious neglect to set right. Mrs. Shortt may have baulked at the prospect, especially while peeling an astounding seventeen layers of wallpaper from the dining room walls. But she did not waver in her ambition. And, over time, her efforts began to bear fruit. Perhaps the most exiting discovery was that, hidden beneath a layer of thick soot and grime, the oval ceiling in the drawing room featured one of the most exquisite examples of Georgian plasterwork in Ireland. This was the work of Charles Thorpe, one of Georgian Dublin's foremost stuccodores, who built the house in 1785. Thorpe, subsequently Lord Mayor of Dublin, seems to have determined the house not simply as a family home but also as a showcase for his talents. Certainly his guests must have marvelled at the cornices and friezes adorning the oval ceiling. His descendents retained the property until the 1920s. From 1870 to 1910 it was the home to Sir John Mahaffy, who later became Provost of Trinity College Dublin.

Mrs. Shortt has now converted the building into four separate apartments. She occupies the biggest of these, which covers the basement and two lower floors. Her energy is ceaseless. The dining room is a case in point. After the 17 layers of wallpaper were removed, Thorpe's original wall revealed itself as a dull, uninspiring brown. Mrs. Shortt decided to cheer it up. Over the course of 65 hours, she applied six coats of red emulsion to the wall with a cosmetic sponge. A seventh coat of semi-matt glaze completed what is now a rich and deeply satisfying finish.

Mrs. Shortt has fitted the house with a wonderful array of Georgian art and furniture - portraits of Royal mistresses and English statesmen, tables and chairs of the Irish regency, statuary from Greece and Rome, plate from Delft and vases from China. The stairwell leading up to the second floor features some remarkable allegorical murals, painted on canvas in the style of Angelica Kauffman. The Swiss classicist visited Dublin in 1792 and befriended Thorpe. "I've tried to keep it all authentic, to keep it Georgian and Irish where possible. But it's not all politically correct and I'm quite happy with that. I like to allow for a degree of eclectism when it comes to furniture and decoration." Her bedroom, for example, carries the unmistakable aroma of Morocco. "I'm very keen on Marrakesh at the moment", concedes Mrs. Shortt. "The colours and shapes are so wild and wonderful. I go there twice a year and rarely return without a trunk laden with fabrics". Mrs. Shortt's voluptuous red bedroom reflects this Moroccan fascination. Her bed linen is cotton damask dyed. A pair of giant size papier mache firedogs guard the fireplace. Strikingly colourful abstracts by Irish artists Tarquin Landseer and Countess Anne Bernstorff adorn the wall, alongside a set of three quirky 19th century Japanese cartoons etched on mulberry paper.

The restoration is, inevitably, an ongoing process. The most recent project involved a complete renovation of the timber and slate roof by Dublin architects Sheehan & Barry (Tel: 01-4962888). The costs were in part met by a grant from the Irish Georgian Society and in part by the makers of the romantic 2004 Pierce Brosnan comedy "Laws of Attraction" who used the house as a location. Mrs. Shortt is to be commended for her wonderful efforts in preserving one of Dublin's finest private residences.

This article appeared in 25 Beautiful Homes in November 2004.