History of the French Residence in Dublin

A fine piece of Dublin’s History can be found at 53, Ailesbury Road (Dublin 4): the French Residence. David W. Bustard, Professor Emeritus at Ulster University, tells us all about its nooks and turns.

The Residence

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Ailesbury Road, a piece of Dublin’s History

Ailesbury Road was planned in the middle of the 19th century as a residential road in south-east Dublin, in the district then known as the Pembroke Township. This area was owned by the Earl of Pembroke, whose family seat is at Wilton, near Salisbury, England. The road was so named as a tribute to the Marquess of Ailesbury, who had married a daughter of Lord Pembroke. The Marquess was also heir to the title and estate of Lord Cardigan, who led the charge of the light brigade at Balaclava in 1854.

Ailesbury Road was then the longest straight road in Dublin—one mile from the church at Donnybrook to the railway station at Sidney Parade. The original design set for houses on this road is shown in Nos. 1 to 51 on the south-east side. These are built of red brick and granite in various combinations, with a uniform flight of granite steps leading to the hall door, and iron railings bordering the front garden. The houses Nos. 1-27 inclusive were erected by Alderman Meade, whose designs here and elsewhere in Dublin are characterised by circular granite pillars at the entrance gate. His own residence, which he also designed, is now St Michael’s School at the Merrion end of the road.

The architecture of the residence (53, Ailesbury Road)

The Residence, House No. 53, known initially as Mytilene, differs significantly from the other more or less uniform houses on the road. It is much larger, detached, and stands in a wooded garden. It has over forty rooms, on three main floors, with more than sixty windows. At the front, the house has twin gates flanked by square granite pillars, with a granite balustrade and wide steps leading to a pillared entrance. The house is close to the road but its grandeur has been enhanced by an artificial incline towards the entrance steps and, as a result, has a steep descent at the rear, leading down to a naturally occurring stream.

Mytilene was constructed using white bricks, with inset designs of black bricks and an ornamental rosette frieze, also made of bricks in the same porcelain finish. The specially made bricks were expensive, at 2 ½ pence each, earning it the local nickname “The Tuppence Ha’penny House.”

Mytilene took two years to build, from 1883 to 1885. The architect was Alfred Gresham Jones, who in his career designed over fifty significant buildings in Dublin and other parts of Ireland. These include the buildings that now house the Davenport Hotel on Dublin’s Merrion Street, the National Concert Hall on Earlsfort Terrace, and Wesley College, also in Dublin.

Mytilene and the Bustard Family

The house was commissioned in 1883 by the Bustard family of Belleville House, Dunkineely in Donegal. At that time, the family owned land in the south of Donegal extending over 10,000 acres,from Killybegs, in the west, to Ballyshannon in the east. While the land was certainly valuable, their main source of wealth was from earlier business ventures in Louisville, Kentucky. John Bustard emigrated from Ireland to the USA in 1791, at the age of 22, and was later joined by his younger sister Margaret. He arrived in Louisville when it was a frontier town and became a prosperous business and financial leader with considerable land holdings.

Neither John nor Margaret Bustard married but kept their Louisville interests in the family by passing them on to their nephew Ebenezer Bustard from 1839. Ebenezer continued in Louisville for a further thirty years before circumstances encouraged him to return to Ireland. The main factor was his inheritance of the family estate in Donegal in 1869 but the consequences of the American Civil War (1861-65), including the loss of four children in that period must also have influenced his decision. He sold up completely in Louisville and never returned.

Ebenezer Bustard arrived back at Belleville House with a wife and eight children in 1871 and had two more sons in the years immediately afterwards. The family lived there for nearly ten years before beginning a move to Dublin. This was encouraged by their eldest son, George Bustard, who qualified as a barrister in 1880 after completing a Law Degree at Trinity College. The family lived initially in a large terrace house in Lower Baggot Street, commissioning the house on Ailesbury Road after the death of Ebenezer Bustard in 1882. Apparently no expense was spared in its construction and fitting out, with the cost estimated within the family at roughly £40,000, equivalent to over €5M today.

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George Bustard, barrister, 1880

The house, on George Bustard’s instructions, was called Mytilene, with the name carved vertically on the entrance gates. On either side of the steps leading to the front door are two identical armorial sculptures. Each depicts two large bustard birds, with a shield between them bearing a coat of arms and family motto. The coat of arms is one originally awarded to a Thomas Bustard of Devon in the 1400s. Its use can be traced through to Anthony Bustard, a great grandson of Thomas, living in Oxford in the 1500s. George Bustard’s use of the Coat of Arms implies male descendancy from the Bustards of Oxford but this does not appear to have been confirmed. The family motto shown on the sculpture is: DUM VIGILO TUTUS, meaning “While I watch, I am safe,” which George seems to have introduced.

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Victor and Mary Jane Bustard in a carriage outside Mytilene, with their sister Catherine and mother Margaret in the background, under the portico

When the house was complete, Ebenezer Bustard’s widow, Margaret, and six of her children—three sons and three daughters—moved in. They ranged in age from George, 31, through Margaret, 28, Catherine, 26, Mary Jane, 19, and Victor, 13, down to William, 12. The house had separate suites for the adult children and their mother, with communal reception and dining rooms. Complicated stairways and approaches were needed to make these suites possible.

The Bustard family lived quietly and privately in the house for forty years. Their desire for privacy meant that neighbours seemed unaware of their background. Instead, rumours circulated, which progressively became written up as ‘fact’. In this alternate history, George Bustard was the one who created the wealth to build the house. He was described as starting out as a penniless newspaper seller in Donnybrook who, after finding and returning a large amount of money around 1840, was given sufficient reward to immigrate to Australia and make a fortune in the building industry. This is a fascinating story but completely untrue! It is not clear if any of the family contributed to the mythology.

By the end of the century, the two youngest sons had left the house. William Bustard moved to England and tragically died at the age of 25 in 1899. In the same year, Victor Bustard married and moved to the North of Ireland. George Bustard and his three sisters remained and never married. One sister, Margaret, died in the house in 1915, a few months before her mother, with George himself passing away in 1920.

The two surviving sisters, Catherine and Mary Jane, then found the house too large for their needs, selling it to Exchange Building Ltd. in 1926, after auctioning off its contents. The economic situation at that time, coupled with the size of the house and the potential cost of refurbishment and modernisation, meant that the selling price was much lower than the original price of construction. The house was valued at £5,000 in 1920, when George Bustard died, but was actually sold for half that amount six years later.

The acquisition by the French State

The building was bought by the French State in 1930 to serve as the home of the French Legation and as the residence of the First French Minister to the Irish Free State. It was substantially refurbished but remains remarkably intact in layout and detailing. Also, much of the original planting survives, including a large Cyprus tree and row of shrubs at the front, and a rockery at the rear. The name, Mytilene, was dropped and removed from the entrance pillars.

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As noted by Oliver O’Hanlon of the Department of French at University College Cork, in a paper on the Residence presented at the 2017 Conference of the Association of the Franco-Irish Studies, “The building was refurbished to the highest standards by both French and Irish craftspeople using quality traditional and contemporary French and Irish furniture and fixtures as well as cutting edge appliances. As such, it was to be a showpiece, a symbol of French prestige and patrimoine, as well as being a symbol of how the two countries could co-operate to further develop cordial Franco-Irish relations.”

For the Bustard family, it is satisfying to see the house appreciated and brought fully to life.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

- Norah Fahie, Bulletin des Alliances Françaises (1976)
- Interviews with Ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault and Dr Stéphane Aymard on their experience of the residence and their support
- Interviews with Ms Antoinette O’Neill and Mr Mel Reynolds on the architecture of the residence
- Interviews with Ms Sylvia Moore (nee Bustard) and Ms Venetia Cowie (nee Bustard) on the history of the Bustard family and for family photographs
- Charles E.Deusner, « The Bustard Family of Louisville, 1795-1871 », 2011

Published on 11/09/2017

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