For much of the early 16th century, the port city of Calais was owned by the British Crown. The status of Calais was however to change when in 1558, King Henry II of France, troubled by the grand alliance through royal marriage, of Spain and England, ordered the siege of Calais.
Thomas Molyneux was a resident of Calais and, like all Calaisiens at that time, an English Subject. The only child of well-to-do parents who died when he was young, Thomas was raised by a family friend and Alderman of Calais, John Brishin. Apart from the obvious dangers associated with the siege and ensuing conflict itself, there was also to be considered the unsavoury business of the treatment of Reformists at the hands of the French insurgents. Still, Thomas being of high class and of considerable means, felt he could negotiate terms with the aggressor for his safe exile from Calais that would prove more favourable to him than if he were to cut and run during the siege. In any event Calais did fall to the French siege led by the Duke of Guise in 1558, following which Thomas was taken prisoner. As he correctly judged he was able to successfully ransom his release and safe passage for the sum of five hundred crowns. And so in 1558 or 1559, at the age of 27, Thomas Molyneux departed Calais, never to return, and headed north for the city Bruges. In the ensuing few years Thomas married Katherine, daughter of Ludovic Stabcort, Governor of Bruges and shortly thereafter moved from Bruges to London. In the year 1576, Thomas Molyneux was sent to Ireland and later was appointed Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer by Queen Elizabeth, in the process receiving extensive grants of lands in the vicinity of Swords.
It is probably the case that the name Molyneux would have appeared in Ireland from the time of the Norman conquests. As a result, it is not an uncommon name in parts of Ireland today. More Molyneux possibly arrived with the flight of the Huguenots from France in the late 17th century. But it also can be said that many carrying the name of Molyneux and living on this island can trace their origins directly to the siege of Calais in 1558. This is no truer than for the man, and his many descendants, who built the original Molyneux House in 1710 on
Peter Street, close to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, in what is now Dublin 8. His name was also Thomas Molyneux and he was the great grandson of the Calais exile. Educated at Trinity College Dublin he graduated as a physician and in his early years, practised medicine in Chester. Following the Battle of the Boyne (1690) he returned to Ireland where he was appointed Physician General to the Army in Ireland. He is said to have married twice, the second with Catherine Howard, yielding four sons and eight daughters. One of his sister’s in law developed an illness that caused blindness and it is believed that this could have been the inspiration for the establishment of an Asylum for Blind Females, in 1815. By that time, Thomas Molyneux had long since passed away, but it seems likely that his wishes in this respect had been documented prior to his death in 1733.
To stroll down Peter Street today you have to tightly close your eyes if you are to imagine what life must have been like there in the 18th century. None of the original buildings survives. Molyneux House itself was demolished in 1943. The quiet residents of the Huguenot cemetery dating from about 1710 until the last burial there in 1795, were exhumed and reinterred at Mount Jerome Cemetery in the late 1960s. The entire plot which included the site of a Huguenot Church, also dating from 1710, was redeveloped and is today occupied by an industrial-grade building that houses the National Archives, with its rather drab rear end facing onto Peter Street – a snub to our colonial heritage if ever there was one. All the more regrettable as Peter Street and Molyneux House had an interesting and colourful past, especially during the period towards the end of the 18th century (and prior to the opening of the Asylum for Blind Females there in 1815).
About 1790, the building was rented by Philip Astley who had achieved commercial success in London with his ‘Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts’. Astley is in fact credited with having invented the modern day circus and following his commercial success in London he established the ‘Amphitheatre Anglais’ in Paris and went on to establish similar theatres in several European cities, including Dublin. Public shows of acrobatic horsemanship were nothing new for that time - Astley’s innovation was to display these equestrian skills within the confines of an enclosed ring, 20 yards in diameter, with the obvious advantages for viewer experience above and around. Furthermore, the centrifugal force experienced by the riders as they circled the ring allowed for greater stability and more daring tricks compared to performers riding in a straight line, as on a larger field track. Astley also broadened the appeal of the show with comic clowns, tight robe walkers, tumblers, jugglers and dancing dogs.
The Dublin amphitheatre was constructed to the rear of Molyneux House. On the afternoon of an event, small troupes of performers would put on short impromptu street shows on Peter Street and the surrounding areas of Bride Street and Aungier Street to draw in the crowds. Acrobats would perform daring hand stands on the railings of Molyneux House while dogs danced below. Horsemen would roam as far as the plazas at Christ Church and College Green and weave through the throngs standing on horseback. All of this caused jaws to drop and of course whipped up excitement amid the dull lives and generally down trodden masses on the streets of late eighteen century Dublin. Meanwhile, the theatrical techniques for securing the attention of the masses did not go unnoticed among a certain group intent on whipping up support for another cause.
Astley received legal recognition for his circus from the Crown’s administration in Ireland and throughout the 1790s, his Dublin Amphitheatre essentially had the effect of mobilising the support of ordinary folk of Dublin in the interest of the Crown and the Empire. Such was the importance with which London viewed this theatre, that in addition to Astley’s troupes, some notable entertainers were specially dispatched from London to further advance the Crown’s agenda. However the United Irishmen, having nothing against Astley in particular, were less inclined to tolerate the Crown’s mission and set on a counter-strategy to rally support for the nationalist revolution. Peter Street thus became a frequent flash point of orchestrated disturbances and riots that on a few occasions escalated into street brawls and pitched battles between loyalist and activists for a republic. With tumbling clowns throwing themselves about the streets it sometimes was hard to distinguish street theatre from menacing brawl. Ultimately the riots rocked Astley's Amphitheatre.
By 1800 the theatre was in financial difficulty. The building had suffered damage and there were little funds available for essential repairs. Moreover, by this time, the bloody revolution of 1798 had come and gone and the Crown’s support for Astley’s Circus waned as the Act of Union established direct rule from London for the dawning century.
It seems that around this time or shortly afterwards, the lease for Molyneux House expired and the property reverted to the Molyneux estate which set about establishing the Asylum for Blind Females according to the expressed wishes of Thomas Molyneux. The Asylum for Blind Females on Peter Street, opened its doors in the old house, two hundred years ago, in 1815. It operated there for forty seven years until the home moved to new, purpose-built premises in the grounds of Christ Church, Leeson Park. Both the church and the asylum were designed by the young Dublin architect, James Rawson Carroll, 1830 - 1911, who won the competition for the buildings in 1859 shortly before he was thirty. The church was built so that the income from pew rents, which was substantial in this growing and fashionable district, could subsidise the costs of running the Molyneux home. Carroll's success in the competition would serve to launch him as an architect much employed within the Church of Ireland and for domestic and commercial work as well. The home was originally designed to accommodate twenty five blind females and a new south porch was added to the church to provide them with convenient access to its services.
The history of life in the asylum itself from 1815 is beyond the scope of this essay. However it seems worthwhile to refer here to a House of Commons Report upon the Principal Charitable Institutions of Dublin, dated May 1, 1835, which contains a favourable account of the Molyneux Asylum, the account beginning as follows:
“Until the year 1815 there did not exist any institution whatever in Ireland for the support, relief, or education of the female poor who were afflicted by the loss of sight. In the early part of that year, or latter part of the preceding year, the Rev. John Crosthwaite communicated to Mr Hughes and Mr Ferrier the design of such an institution; a house was accordingly taken and a prospectus issued, and on 1st June 1815 the institution was opened, though at that time the funds were not sufficient for its support. Astley’s Amphitheatre (which formed part of the premises taken by the trustees) a building which consisted of upright posts, supporting a canvass covering, was converted, by substituting walls for the posts, into a chapel for the celebration of divine services, according to the forms of the Church of England, to which a roof was added after the expiration of about six years …..”
© Noel Magee 2015
“Jacobin Revolutionary Theatre and the Early Circus: Astley's Dublin Amphitheatre in the 1790s” by Professor Helen Burke (Published Online, February 10 2006)
“Castle Dillon and the Molyneux Family” by Jack Kerr, published in Review, the Journal of Craigavon Historical Society, 1996/97
Selection of Reports and Papers of the House of Commons, Volume 48