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History & Architecture of Collins Barracks

Explore the history of Collins Barracks: the spectacular Dublin home of National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History

Clarke Square at Collins Barracks

Collins Barracks was an army base for nearly 300 years before being renovated for use as a museum. The network of tall, granite-faced buildings occupy an 18 acre site and retain an imposing, military air.

The site boasts a rich and varied history. Completed in 1704, it played an important role suppressing uprisings over the centuries. Wolfe Tone, legendary leader of the failed 1798 Rebellion against British rule, was court martialled and imprisoned here. During the 1916 Easter Rising, troops based here tackled rebel positions on Usher's Island, at the Four Courts, and in the GPO.

Collins and Clarke: Legendary Namesakes

Perhaps the clearest historical link is in the site's name. Collins Barracks is named after Michael Collins, the first Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Free State Army. He had previously displayed heroic leadership during the 1920-21 War of Independence, only to be assassinated in 1922, during the Irish Civil War, aged just 31. Today, Collins occupies legendary status in modern Ireland.

Clarke Square, a large central courtyard, forms the heart of the Museum. It is named after Thomas Clarke, executed rebel leader during the 1916 Rising.

Viking Heritage

The local area surrounding Collins Barracks retains a tangible Norse and Viking heritage. This originates from the eleventh century, when this area was settled by Danish migrants. Roughly equivalent to today's Smithfield, Arbour Hill, and Stoneybatter districts, this area became known as Ostmantowne (or Oxmantown). Local, Norse-influenced street names still visible today include Viking Road, Oxmantown Road, and Sitric Road.

Early History

James Butler, Duke of Ormond and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was gifted the site - then known as the 'Palace Gardens' in 1665. His grandson, another James, sold the land to Queen Anne in 1703, for the purpose of developing a barracks. Thomas Burgh, a Limerick military engineer and veteran of the Williamite Wars across Britain, Ireland, and Europe, oversaw initial construction between 1704 and 1710.

Print of Royal Barracks, now Collins Barracks, in Dublin.

Architecture & Layout

Burgh designed the initial building as four squares, or quadrangles:

  • Barrack Square
  • New Square
  • Horse Square
  • Royal Square

Built of Wicklow and Dublin stone, the other materials used were strong Carnarvon (Welsh) slate for the roof and oak for the staircases. The Barracks was designed to house 1500 men in total, including stables for cavalry.

By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the number of solders billeted at the Barracks had grown dramatically. Christopher Myers, an English architect, was appointed to extend the building. He raised Palatine Square by one storey, widening it in the process. Myers also built a marble ballroom.

Barrack Life

Much of barrack life was planned to train loyal, obedient, disciplined yet fearless fighting men. Life then was strict and spartan. 

Six soldiers were allocated to each room, sleeping at least two to a bed. The men cooked their own food in their rooms, with a fireplace, a table, and one iron candlestick allocated per room. Bed sheets were changed approximately once a month. Soldiers were awakened before dawn for drills. Duties included cleaning stables and polishing boots.

Life was different for officers. Their accommodation was spacious, they slept in a wooden bed and ate well, in local taverns.

Find out more about soldiers' lives at the Barracks Life Room

Exterior of Riding School at Collins Barracks

The Riding School

The Riding School, located behind the Main Reception off Clarke Square, was initially planned as a chapel. Built in 1746, this building was used to train cavalry officers and their horses.

Its most notable feature is the remarkably wide roof span of 18 metres (59 ft). In the 1970s, Eric Clapton played a concert here exclusively for the Irish Army. Today, the Riding School is periodically used as an event venue.

A World Record?

Collins Barracks, formerly known as the Royal Barracks, is believed to have been the longest serving army base in the world. The Irish Army moved out in 1997 before the site was renovated and taken over by the National Museum of Ireland. 

Local Historic Landmarks

The Collins Barracks site is located on the north quays of the River Liffey in Dublin. Historic landmarks in the immediate vicinity include: