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A brush with art and history in Rathgar

A home that once belonged to artist George Russell and was later owned by the conservator who restored the Book of Kells is on the market

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The exterior of 17 Rathgar Avenue in Dublin 6

The exterior of 17 Rathgar Avenue in Dublin 6

The plaque dedicated to George Russell outside the house

The plaque dedicated to George Russell outside the house

The conservatory at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The conservatory at 17 Rathgar Avenue

Matt Cains

Matt Cains

17 Rathgar Avenue in D6

17 Rathgar Avenue in D6

The dining room at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The dining room at 17 Rathgar Avenue

Plaque

Plaque

George Russell

George Russell

Matt Cairns

Matt Cairns

Conservatory

Conservatory

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The exterior of 17 Rathgar Avenue in Dublin 6

17 Rathgar Avenue, Dublin 6. Asking price: €1.395m. Agent: Sherry FitzGerald Terenure (01) 490 7433

There’s a round plaque on the wall of 17 Rathgar Avenue stating that George Russell, ‘The poet, painter, economist and mystic’ lived there from 1911 to 1933.

Russell, who wrote under the pseudonym of AE, was a central figure in the Irish literary revival of the late 19th century and a supporter of national politics. An assistant secretary of the Irish Agricultural Organisation, he was also the editor of several papers affiliated with it, and a prolific writer of essays, plays, poetry and novels.

You could say that the five-bedroom, 2,465 sq ft Victorian villa, which still retains many of its original features, played an integral part in the literary revival of the time.

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The plaque dedicated to George Russell outside the house

The plaque dedicated to George Russell outside the house

The plaque dedicated to George Russell outside the house

It served as a meeting place for artists, writers, poets, politicians, and nationalists. Russell, a cultured and social man, and his wife Violet held ‘at homes’ in the library at back of the house. WB Yeats, Michael Collins, Oliver St John Gogarty and even James Joyce, were among the noteworthy figures in regular attendance. George Moore, the writer, said of him: “He settles everybody’s difficulties and consoles the afflicted.”

WB Yeats, who he’d met at the Metropolitan School of Art in his early days, was a lifelong friend, and both were painters. The front room of 17 Rathgar Avenue served as AE’s studio, and it was here he painted and exhibited.

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George Russell

George Russell

George Russell

Both were advocates of theosophy, a late 19th century movement purporting that divine wisdom controls our lives, and mysticism, and these were the subjects he wrote about. We can conclude that these and other topics, including the politics of the time, were discussed at Number 17.

When Violet died in 1932, Russell sold number 17 and moved to Bournemouth in England, where he died three years later. It is apt, however, that a later owner, Anthony Cains, also played a part in the history of the State. Cains, originally from London, was a world-renowned book restorer who played an integral part in restoring the Book of Kells, among other projects, and was the director of conservation at Trinity College.

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The dining room at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The dining room at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The dining room at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The most significant development in his career came in 1966 when he travelled to Italy to respond to the catastrophic flooding of the River Arno in Florence. There, he was appointed technical director of conservation at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (the National Central Library in Florence) where he managed a staff of 90 in rescuing and restoring thousands of mud- and water-damaged books over six years.

On moving to Ireland in 1972, Anthony bought 17 Rathgar Avenue and lived there with his wife Elaine and their three young sons — Matthew, Andrew and Timothy, who, following the death of their father in 2020, are now selling the house, despite their strong attachment to it.

Matt, the eldest, is also a conservator, and works in the National Library of Ireland. He points out that during his lifetime, his father treated the house much like the books he conserved. “He never really wanted to change or remove anything. He wanted to make good what was there,” he says.

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Matt Cains

Matt Cains

Matt Cains

As a result, the house, built in the 1840s, still retains many of its original features. The front door for example, accessed via a flight of stone steps, is original. Underneath these steps is a door which leads to a small lobby on the ground floor. This in turn leads to the kitchen/breakfast room and the conservatory, which opens to the back garden on one side, and three bedrooms on the other.

Upstairs, can be found two more bedrooms, a bathroom which has a little art deco stain glass window above the door, the dining room, which was AE’s library, and the sitting room — AE’s studio. “We actually found an old easel peg, splattered with oil paint, when Dad was working on the electrics in the house. We like to entertain the thought that it belonged to AE Russell,” says Matt.

The ceilings of the upstairs rooms are notably high and typical of the era. They still retain much of the original intricate cornicing, some of which was restored by Anthony. “He was incredibly active,” says Matt of his father. “He had an amazing drive to learn and discover new things. He was an artist really.”

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The conservatory at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The conservatory at 17 Rathgar Avenue

The conservatory at 17 Rathgar Avenue

There are original heavy wooden doors and door frames throughout the house and some of these were swapped around over the years. Anthony also uncovered a large granite fireplace and hearth in the kitchen, which now has a modern range — there’s a larder room off the kitchen, too. Upstairs, there are original cast iron fireplaces in the three bedrooms, all of which are spacious double rooms. Large windows throughout the property, some of which are original and still intact, flood the house with light and the walls are mostly white. This combined with the high ceilings gives it a spacious air.

The conservatory is also an addition. It gets the sun in the evening and opens to the back garden, which is 103 ft x 38 ft. Matt’s mother Elaine looked after it until she died in 2017. “Up to that point, it was immaculate,” says Matt. “We tried to preserve it as best we could, but it needs a little care now.”

Considering that not much has been changed, the house is in remarkably good condition. It’s a two-minute walk from Rathgar Village, which is a hive of coffee shops, delis and restaurants, and just 10 minutes from Dublin city centre.

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The stunning gardens

The stunning gardens

The stunning gardens

“The house has this serene quality,” says Matt. “When you’re in it, you’re really not aware that you’re living in a city.” Matt and his brothers shared a happy childhood here and it won’t be easy for them to part with it. “I hope that its new owners will give it the love and attention it deserves,” he says. “I hope they don’t gut the place and make it into some sort of modern bijou loft. But that instead they appreciate its beautiful character and its wonderful history.”



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