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Posted 02 August 2011

UCD in Merrion Street: The Building of the State

Government Buildings in Merrion Street is one of the most important and most widely recognised buildings in Ireland, but relatively few are aware of its role in the history of science and engineering in the country. 

Opened by King George V on 8 July 1911, the building was designed to house the Royal College of Science for Ireland alongside government activities transferred from Westminster to Dublin.

By the mid-1920s the College had been absorbed into University College Dublin, and the complex housed the headquarters of government of the fledgling Irish state.  By the time UCD left Merrion Street in 1989, the building had been home to several generations of UCD scientists and engineers.

In a new publication and website, “The Building of the State", authors Orla Feely and Clara Cullen follow the contribution of these scientists and engineers through world wars, the creation of an independent state, and the development of a technology sector known and respected throughout the world.


Seed testing laboratory, Merrion Street
Seed testing laboratory, Merrion Street

During the first world war the college building housed the central sphagnum moss collection depot for Ireland.  The moss was packaged into dressings for use in theatres of war, and by 1919 over 900,000 dressings had been sent to hospitals throughout Europe.

As the emerging Irish state asserted its independence, the engineers and scientists of UCD in Merrion Street were to the forefront in the practical expression of that independence.

Students in Merrion Street in the early 1960s
Students in Merrion Street in the early 1960s

Energy was a key priority, with graduate Thomas McLaughlin leading the Shannon hydroelectric scheme, Professor Hugh Ryan and others championing the development of a peat production industry and James Drumm developing a rechargeable alkaline battery that was used for railway traction.

The second world war fuelled other inventions, discoveries and adaptations.  UCD botanists, Oliver Roberts and Diarmuid Murphy, funded by the Medical Research Council, produced a penicillin-based on Irish sea moss.  By the end of 1944 this ‘wonder drug’ was available in Ireland and used to treat members of the public – unlike other countries where penicillin was strictly reserved for the armed forces.  Around the same time, Vincent Barry set up his laboratory in Merrion Street, also funded by the Medical Research Council, and began the investigations that would help to transform leprosy into a curable disease.

The electric car
The electric car

As Ireland emerged from isolation in the 1960s, innovators and entrepreneurs such as Seamus Timoney had international success, and the 1970s and 1980s saw the faculty and graduates of Merrion Street play a key role in the development of Ireland's technology sector.

Gradutes in the 1980s
Gradutes in the 1980s

“The Building of the State” charts this history of innovation and discovery decade by decade, placing it in the context of the national political and economic landscape that was being shaped by the politicians and civil servants also working in the complex.  It profiles some of the distinguished researchers to have worked in Merrion Street, such as Walter Hartley, Phyllis Clinch and Jim Dooge, and some of the notable graduates, including Sophie Peirce, Pat Kenny and David O'Reilly.  Opening with the visit of George V in 1911 and closing with that of his granddaughter Elizabeth II in 2011, this publication will be of interest to all those who passed through the porticos of Merrion Street as students, academics, civil servants and politicians.

The publication can be downloaded from the website, and a limited number of hard copies are available on request from the UCD College of Engineering, Mathematical and Physical Sciences or  An accompanying exhibition is currently on view in the National Library, Dublin, and will move to UCD’s Belfield campus in autumn 2011.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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