At the World Travel Awards in October 2021, EPIC, the Irish emigration museum, broke a new record when it became the first visitor attraction to be voted as Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction award three times in a row. This is the remarkable story of the Liffey-side building in which the museum is located. I launched my book ‘1847 – Tales of Genius, Generosity and Savagery’ in EPIC in 2016. I have also done considerable research on the history of the building and the surrounding docklands, and the engineers and architects involved, of which the following is a very top-line introduction.
Dublin, 1856. The city had never seen anything quite like it. Over 3,600 bronzed and bearded red-coated soldiers marching down the quays, temporarily deafened by cheering crowds and the pipes and drums that resounded all around them. Some of the soldiers hobbled on crutches; others were missing arms or badly scarred. Upon the breasts of their handsome scarlet uniforms, each man sported the medal he had earned for his service in the British Army during its costly but victorious campaign against the Russians in the Crimea.
Shortly after the long column of soldiers passed the Custom House, they wheeled into a massive warehouse that lay on the east side of George’s Dock. The Tobacco Store, as it was then known, had been completely redesigned for the impending occasion – a massive banquet, paid for by the citizens of Dublin, to thank the soldiers for their war service. The walls of the warehouse were hung with huge flags of Britain and her key allies, including France, as well as banners displaying the names of Crimean battles such as Sebastopol and Balaklava and major players from the war like Lord Raglan and Florence Nightingale.
As well as the 3,628 soldiers, another 1,000 guests were seated in a purpose-built gallery overlooking them all. ‘When all were seated, and the sun shone in and lighted up in golden splendour the unparalleled scene, it was one of the grandest and most brilliant spectacles ever witnessed,’ marvelled one participant.
In 2016, the Tobacco Store – now known as The CHQ Building – became a place of immense historical importance once again with the opening of EPIC – The Irish Emigration Museum, an ingenious visitor experience that tells the story of the Irish diaspora, the millions who have left this island to pursue their luck overseas. Spread over 20 galleries in the magnificent vaults beneath the building, the highly interactive, software-based exhibition is now one of Dublin’s foremost tourist destinations, winning a three-in-a-row of Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
Conceived and privately funded by Neville Isdell, the Co. Down born former Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola who bought The CHQ Building in 2013, EPIC was developed by the team behind the Titanic Belfast – Conal Harvey and Michael Counahan of CHL Consulting – together with Event Communications and Fiona Ross, a former head of the National Library of Ireland who operated as its first Museum Director. The project was orchestrated by Mervyn Greene, Neville’s Kinsale based step-brother, and the museum is now run by John Patrick Greene.
THE TOBACCO STORE
The CHQ Building was constructed 200 years ago as a bonded warehouse where tobacco, wines and spirits could be stored while awaiting assessment by the customs officers from the nearby Custom House. Completed between 1817 and 1820, the building was Ireland’s first completely iron-roofed warehouse. It was designed by John Rennie, one of the pre-eminent civil engineers of the Georgian Age, and completed by his equally accomplished fellow Scot, Thomas Telford.
One of its most exceptional features, attributed to Rennie’s son George, was the elaborate use of cast-and wrought-iron roof girders, columns and trusses, ensuring that the building was fireproof, a vital attribute given that its primary purpose was to store highly inflammable tobacco imports. A basement of barrel-vaulted chambers, composed of limestone and brickwork, was constructed under the floor to store the wines and spirits while internal illumination was provided by a series of lanterns at the apex of the vault roofs.
The dockers and merchants knew The CHQ Building as the Tobacco Store or, later, as Stack A. The warehouse formed part of a major complex built to the east of the Custom House between 1815 and 1823 that also included George’s Dock, the Inner Dock and other warehouses and yards for the Commissioners of Excise and Customs.
In 1825 the then government-owned warehouse and surrounding docks were leased to John and Harry Scovell, prominent wharf-owners from Southwark in south London. Their older brother Sir George Scovell was much revered for having cracked Napoleon’s secret ‘chiffre’ code at the height of the Peninsula Wars, enabling the Duke of Wellington to oust the French from Andalusia and to liberate Madrid. Sir George went on to serve at Waterloo and was Governor of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst for 20 years.
Harry Scovell was Deputy Assistant Paymaster to the British Army during the Iron Duke’s Iberian campaign, after which he married a daughter of Thomas Whitmore, the Secretary of the Commissioner of Customs in London. This proved serendipitous when Whitmore’s assistant secretary was sent to Dublin to oversee the lease of the Custom House Docks. It just so happened the assistant secretary was Charles Scovell, the youngest of the four Scovell brothers. The lease he offered to John and Harry was Georgian nepotism at its best, particularly in view of the ‘very extraordinary privileges’ they were granted in terms of charging entrance fees on all vessels that henceforth used the docks.
Despite persistent opposition from the Dublin merchants, including Arthur Guinness, the Scovells retained their monopoly on the docks through until 1841 when their holdings in the Irish capital were substantially down-sized. They were particularly hard hit in 1833 when a fire destroyed a massive warehouse on the west side of George’s Dock. Nonetheless, by the 1850s they still held The CHQ Building, including all the vaults below and the affiliated cranes and machinery, as well as a number of other smaller warehouses, sheds and timber yards nearby.
Harry Scovell is thought to have been the Henry Scovell, Esq, who died aged 70 on 23 January 1861 at 28 Grafton street, Dublin. (Pilot, 23 February 1861, p. 3).
THE CRIMEAN BANQUET OF 1856
The Crimean Banquet was the brainchild of Fergus Farrell, the Lord Mayor of Dublin and a friend of Daniel O’Connell. Appalled by how badly British war veterans had been treated after the Napoleonic Wars, he conceived of the banquet as a way for Dubliners to show their appreciation to the men. It is estimated that one third of the 111,000 men who served in the British Army during the Crimean War were Irish, including 114 of those involved in the fateful Charge of the Light Brigade.
Harry Scovell made The CHQ Building freely available for the occasion while the engineer William Dargan, celebrated as the father of Irish railways, oversaw its conversion into a banqueting hall. Messrs. Spadaccini and Murphy laid on the sumptuous feast for the soldiers while wine merchant Henry Brennan donated a quart bottle of Dublin porter and a pint of port to each man. The event was a huge success, chronicled in detail in newspaper reports that were circulated far and wide across the British Empire. Lord Gough, one of several military icons who delivered stirring speeches that afternoon, declared it ‘the happiest moment’ in his life.
RESTORATION & REBIRTH
By the 1930s, The CHQ Building was being used as a storage depot for products such as sugar, tea and hops. However, the slate-roof building fell into decline during the latter decades of the twentieth century to such an extent that it had become an unofficial car park by the late 1970s.
It was on the cusp of destruction when Michael Collins and Associates were called in by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority to oversee an award-winning conservation and restoration of the building as a pedestrian mall, a project completed in 2003.
The standout feature of the restoration is the immense 50-metre glass gable installed at the south end by Paris-based engineers RFR (Rice Francis Ritchie). This pioneering façade was originally designed by the brilliant Dundalk-born engineer Peter Rice (1935–1992), widely regarded as one of the most distinguished structural engineers of the late twentieth century. His innovations in materials and design greatly advanced the nature of modern architecture. Following early work on the Sydney Opera House, he defined the structural elements of such buildings as the Centre Pompidou and the Pyramide Inversée at the Louvre in Paris. His influence has shaped a new generation of architects and engineers and fittingly he is one of the people featured in the EPIC Ireland exhibition.
After Neville Isdell acquired the building in 2013, it underwent another transformation under the guidance of Darmody Architects, structural and civil engineer Casey O’Rourke and conservation architect Tom Breen who together ensured that the historical fabric of this Georgian gem was expertly maintained, repaired and renovated.
As well as hosting the new EPIC emigration museum, The CHQ Building is home to Dogpatch Labs, a San Francisco inspired start-up hub, originally established in Barrow Street in 2012. Under the leadership of Patrick Walsh it provides a vibrant co-working space for young technology companies seeking to grow and scale through collaboration with co-operative workshops, meet-ups, hackathons and community events. Among the companies to have been based at the 40,000sq ft hub are well-known names such as Intercom, Twilio and Instagram, as well as Cainthus, Assure Hedge, Wia, the Alltech agtech accelerator (established by the late Pearse Lyons) and the Google for Start-Ups initiative. CoderDojo, a registered charity founded in Cork, teaches coding to tens of thousands of children in free weekly ‘dojo’ classes, educating a new generation of tech enthusiasts.
EPIC is also home to the excellent Irish Family History Centre, Mitchell & Son Wine Merchants and numerous cafes. One of the nine barrel-vaulted vaults beneath the CHQ Building (where the widely acclaimed Ely Bar and Grill was based) hosts the FLYEfit CHQ gym. A white water rapids rafting facility is also to be built nearby.
Two hundred years after its construction, the CHQ Building’s relevance as a major city landmark has been reasserted once again. EPIC – The Irish Emigration Museum is certainly an appropriately concept for one of Dublin’s most important yet lesser-known historical gems.