Rotunda Hospital

North of the Liffey

Irish public hospitals aren’t usually attractions, but this one – founded in 1748 as the first maternity hospital in the British Isles – makes for an interesting walk-by or an unofficial wander inside if you’re interested in Victorian plasterwork. It shares its basic design with Leinster House because the architect of both, Richard Cassels, used the same floor plan to economise.

The hospital was established by Dr Bartholomew Mosse and was for a time the world's largest hospital devoted to maternity care – at a time when the burgeoning urban population was enduring shocking infant mortality rates. To the main building Cassels added a three-storey tower, which Mosse intended to use for fundraising purposes (charging visitors an entry fee). He also laid out pleasure gardens, which were fashionable among Dublin’s high society for a time, and built the Rotunda Assembly Hall to raise money. The hall is now occupied by the Ambassador Theatre, and the Supper Rooms house the Gate Theatre.

Inside, the public rooms and staircases give some idea of how beautiful the hospital once was, and they lead to one of Dublin’s largely hidden gems, the sumptuous Rotunda Chapel, built in 1758 and featuring superb coloured plasterwork by German stuccodore Bartholomew Cramillion. The Italian artist Giovanni Battista Cipriani was supposed to supplement the work but his paintings were never installed, which is probably just as well because you can’t imagine how this little space would have looked with even more decoration. If you intend visiting, you have to bear in mind that this is still a functioning hospital and you must be very quiet when coming to see the chapel. It’s not terribly well signposted inside and is often locked outside visiting hours (although if you ask kindly or look like you’re in desperate need of a prayer, somebody will let you in).