New Geneva, County Waterford

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Had history turned out differently, Swiss watchmaking might have established itself in Waterford towards the end of the eighteenth century. A thousand Geneva watchmakers were ready to bring Swiss industriousness and know-how to the people of Passage on the southern coast of Ireland. This utopian project fell through at the last moment. Switzerland on the River Suir was not to be. All that remains is the name: Geneva Barracks.


Arial view of the ground plan of Geneva Barracks, Passage, Co. Waterford

In 1782 a group of Geneva “mechanics,” as the documents characterise them, one thousand strong and disaffected, staged a bloodless uprising against their masters, the combined forces of the French and the Bernese. Their rebellion was defeated. Some rebels relocated to Brussels, others to the shores of Lake Constance. King George III of England, through his emissary Lord Mahon (who had studied at the University of Geneva), offered these rebellious craftsmen asylum in Ireland. The idea was that the hard-working Genevans were to set a good example to the local population, then under English rule. Tired of the heavy hand of their masters, these “mechanics” thought Ireland might prove a more utopian location. We could see this genuine attempt to found a new community of workers as an early example of a free-trade zone or business park.


The proposed site for New Geneva was east of the town of Passage in County Waterford on the estuary of the River Suir. It was on tenanted land of the well-connected Alcock family, whose line ran to members of parliament and soldiery. Their estate, however, had originally been confiscated c. 1654 from the Butler family. The British government acquired the site in 1782 with the intention of making it over to the Genevans. Across the water from the proposed New Geneva is Duncannon Fort, testifying to the strategic importance of the estuary.

Map of Duncannon Fort dating to 1611 © The British Library

Map of Duncannon Fort dating to 1611 © The British Library

There was already a settlement of French Huguenots in Waterford and Switzerland’s Geneva was itself a Huguenot town, staunchly reformist. Utopias were all the rage in the late eighteenth century. Shakers in America had founded utopian communities built around the sanctity of work, work as a sign of the Elect, an idea derived from Martin Luther and still part of the American tool kit today.


Map of Duncannon Fort dating to late 16th or early 17th century ©Lambeth Palace Library

Ireland at the time had a parliament comprised of the Protestant Ascendancy, a landowning class under the yoke of the English crown and seeking to establish a measure of independence from it. But there was no question of extending the franchise to the ordinary peasant or sharecropper. 1782 is also the year of the founding of the Irish Volunteers in Dungannon, a force keen to secure free trade for Ireland and opposed to the French. Granting land to Geneva rebels was part of a grander plan to stimulate trade and in line with contemporary anti-French sentiment.

Lord Temple, Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant and Vice-Regent, endowed the tract of 11,000 acres overlooking the Suir estuary. Temple had ulterior motives. He thought an influx of Geneva Protestants would have a sobering effect on the locals. In a letter to Grenville,[1] the Chief Secretary, Temple mused that the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South who want it more”. He had plans to establish a university there but needed his scheme kept secret from the governors of Trinity College.

 James Gandon and Family by Paul Sandby

James Gandon and Family by Paul Sandby

No less a figure than James Gandon, himself of French Huguenot descent, was appointed architect. Gandon was responsible for O’Connell Bridge, the Four Courts and the Bank of Ireland, all well-known Dublin landmarks. There were plans for a school, the Swiss being known for excellence in education. Town planning was grandiose. Existing documents show provision for not one but two churches, academies of science and arts, and row housing as befitted the artisan class. The original town footprint stretched south to the headland of Crooke and was intended to be much larger than the barracks ruins evident on-site today.

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

Perhaps some mulberry descendants still grow today along the Suir estuary, with the benefit of the warming Gulf Stream. (Those extant on the Upper Suir were planted in 1702 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Anne.) The only remains today of this attempted New Geneva are some ruined walls in a grassy field above the sea.

The quays in Waterford city, circa 1890

The quays in Waterford city, circa 1890


The site was turned into a prison housing 1798 rebels – “croppy boys” in local parlance, referring to their cropped hair. Over a thousand nationalist prisoners were interned at what became Geneva Barracks, across the estuary from Duncannon Fort. The site was ideal for shipping them out to the colonies. In one of history’s many ironies, the Geneva utopian settlement morphed into a holding centre for Irish rebels transported to Australia or conscripted into the Prussian army. What had begun in utopianism, ended in incarceration, with an after-life of song. Geneva Barracks makes a brief appearance in the last verse of the well-known rebel song “The Croppy Boy”, one of James Joyce’s favourites and cited by him in Ulysses:

At Geneva Barrack that young man died,

And at Passage they have his body laid.

Good people who live in peace and joy,

Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy.

The song’s lyrics are by Irish poet William B. McBurney (Carroll Malone) and it is set to a five-hundred-year-old air, “Cailin Óg a Stór”, a tune picked up by Nobel prizewinner Bob Dylan in his song “Bob Dylan’s Dream”.

Essayist, traveller and historian Hubert Butler, painted in 1957 by Claude Harrison

Essayist, traveller and historian Hubert Butler, painted in 1957 by Claude Harrison

Groundbreaking and stylish Irish essayist Hubert Butler (of the family originally expropriated by the Alcocks of Waterford) explored this early utopian experiment in “New Geneva in Waterford”, a short essay published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland in 1947, and to which I am indebted. Writing from Geneva, Butler brings to bear documentary research from the Hotel de Ville archives. “Geneva was a hotbed of humanitarian thinking, very disquieting to its rulers and also to its neighbours in the Kingdoms of France and Savoy.” Butler explains the rationale behind the choice of a Waterford site by the Viceroy, Lord Temple: “I wished to remove them from the Northern Republicans and to place them where they might make an essential reform in the religion…” The whiff of ethnic cleansing here is unmistakable and the name Geneva Barracks still resonates with colonial oppression.

[1] Letter dated February 9, 1783.


The Dublin photographs of William Gedney


William Gedney (1932-1989) was a street photographer whose work has only gained in reputation since his early death from AIDS at the age of fifty-six. He was born in Greenville (Edgemont), Westchester County, New York, but is best known for his gritty photos of Kentucky, Calcutta and Benares in India. He also documented gay life in San Francisco and taught photography at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for many years until his untimely death.

William Gedney, Entire Cornett family on porch, 1964

©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Entire Cornett family on porch, 1964


He spent time, in 1964 and again in 1972, with one large, extended family, the Cornetts, in rural Kentucky. Willy Cornett, a laid-off miner, and his wife Vivian had twelve children. From this period we see Gedney’s documentary impulse emerge, and his harking back to the Thirties photographers of the South and the Farm Security Administration (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks and others). The above family portrait echoes earlier porch photographs by these iconic photographers.

William Gedney, Boy with arms crossed, 1972

Boy with arms crossed, 1972, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library



He is fond of placing his subjects in or under cars and on front porches. He gives a kind of grease-monkey charge to his male figures. The proportion of happy accident and posed masterpiece in his photographs is high. Their grey light, the colour of wrecked car chassis and dusty oil, is a wonder to behold.

William Gedner, Boy looking out of truck bed, 1972

©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Boy looking out of truck bed, 1972


Gedney was a curious, observant traveller and kept detailed notebooks. His archive at Duke University Library is full of surprises and a profitable hour or two can be spent scrolling through its images, hardly any of which saw the light of day during his lifetime. The part of his large archive which interests me records his visit to Ireland in 1974. He photographed mostly in and around Dublin, and from the evidence it must have been Horse Show weekend, an annual event in mid-August.

William Gedney, RDS Dublin 1974

RDS, Dublin, 1974 ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


I have a particular affection for this group of photos because it is the Ireland I knew, during the last period of sustained time I spent in the country. The black and white mitigates against any false sense of the modern, though the signs are there, and cuts off any folksiness. In the photo above, I feel I know those formidable women at the Royal Dublin Society Show. They carry their handbags like royalty, as they have been taught to do by the nuns, and wouldn’t hesitate to poke you out of the way with their parasols. The white kid gloves and the Chanel-style suit are pure First Lady Jackie. The look of the lady on the left is gimlet eyed, the cut of the jaw not to be trifled with.

William Gedney, Nude man stretching at seashore, 1974

Nude man stretching at seashore, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


In this photograph of the well-known south Dublin bathing place, the Forty-Foot, all the figures are isolated and distinct. The concrete proscenium breaks up the picture plane and leads the viewer’s eye out to the incoming ferry and Howth Head beyond. The gradations of washed-out grey are surprising, given the strong shadows. the eye is led in an ellipsis from youthful to ageing figure.

William Gedney, Elderly women and man on street, Dublin 1974

Elderly women and man on street, Dublin 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


This street scene (junction of Caledon Road and East Road, looking north) is in Dublin’s East Wall area, with the Bord Gáis tank at the vanishing point (now vanished!) The men are in eternal sports coats, the talking women in scarf, apron and raincoat. Again we have the strong sunlight and the picture plane centered around an angular horizon and the vertical line of the house front. Gedney captures the bleakness of that particular part of Dublin.

William Gedney, Two men talking outside horse stall, Ballsbridge, Dublin, 1974

Two men talking outside stall with horse, Ballsbridge, Dublin, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


Conversational intimacy, the closeness of people, the surreal decapitation of the horse, make this moment in Ballsbridge full of interest. Gedney has segmented his picture into rectangles of black and white, like a chequerboard. Below, he has made the receding lines of the benches give depth of field to the boy placed dead center.

William Gedney, Boy at outdoor ampitheatre, 1974

Boy at outdoor ampitheatre, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

William Gedney, Boy selling newspapers, 1974

Boy selling newspapers, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


The boy above selling An Phoblacht and Republican News must have been an IRA sympathiser. The slight resentment in his look reminds me it is 1974 and that trouble in Northern Ireland is in full swing. From the imposing stonework, the location must be outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin’s most public space and symbolic of the 1916 Easter Rising. What I like here in this portrait is the dashund collar of his shirt splayed over a dark jacket, and his quizzical look. It’s almost as if the sitter is asking: Is he Special Branch?

William Gedney, Boys leaning over and sitting on fence at races, Ballsbridge, 1974

Boys leaning over and sitting on fence at races, Ballsbridge, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library


Aran sweater, drawstring jacket, sports coats, pleated trousers, unruly hair and the big dog-eared collar again: the sartorial world of the early Seventies.

William Gedney, Self-portrait, 1974

Self-portrait, Dublin, 1974, ©William Gedney / Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Dieter Waeckerlin at Okay Art

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Dieter Waeckerlin's Behr sideboard, 1958

Dieter Waeckerlin’s Behr sideboard, 1958


I very much liked Dieter Waeckerlin’s design furniture on show at Okay Art in Basel. Waeckerlin is a Basel furniture and interior designer active from the 1950s through to the 1970s and Okay Art is the perfect place to showcase his work. The vintage design gallery is housed in a Herzog & de Meuron townhouse at 11 Schützenmattstrasse. Reha Okay and his wife Nadine have been pioneering vintage furniture and design in Basel for a while now. Reha has an eye for clean lines, signature designers and appreciates the modulated look of early Modernism through to Bauhaus and on down to the Scandinavians.



I never knew what a Hugo cocktail was, and I always appreciate learning something new. It’s a smidgin of elderflower wine in some crushed ice and fresh mint, Prosecco (or in this part of the world – Alsace Crémant) and a bit of sparkling water. Absolutely perfect for a hot muggy Tuesday evening in Basel, with thunderstorms in the afternoon and more in the offing.



Waeckerlin’s furniture is a clear mix as well, between the austere functionalism of the Bauhaus and the cabinet tradition of the Scandinavian moderns. He was interested in the interior as planned, functional living space, the idea behind the Jugendstil (the Gesamtkunstwerk) pared down considerably. Minimalism, order and workmanship are his signature contributions to design. So spare is his work that he often left out handles altogether, relying on touch and sometimes magnets to open and close doors.


Saffa desk lamp designed by Dieter Waeckerlin

Saffa desk lamp designed by Dieter Waeckerlin


He acquired his appreciation of timber early, and was not afraid to put timber on metal and to play them off against each other, especially tropical woods. He liked suspended cubes and oblongs. The interior of his sideboard for the German company Behr is of pale birch and maple with modular, removable shelving and storage. It looks like a coffin on trestles and is his most famous piece. If you took out all the wonderfully carpentered drawers you could fit a corpse inside. The above Saffa desk lamp follows the same clean, utilitarian logic.

1960s dining chairs designed by Dieter Waeckerlin

1960s dining chairs designed by Dieter Waeckerlin


The rare curves in the room were provided by Waeckerlin’s dining chairs around a solid-looking dining table that takes a bit of getting used to. It was made from Macassar and iron for Idealheim, the Basel company which produced most of his work.



Professor Dominic Haag-Walthert of the Hochschule in Luzern gave us a run through the salient points of Waeckerlin’s life and career. A number of people at the vernissage mentioned that their parents had pieces of Waeckerlin’s furniture and they remembered taking it to the brocki (Brockenstube: a furniture recycling centre) sometime in the late decades of the twentieth century. There is a definite Swiss aesthetic to Waeckerlin’s designs: they seem the furniture expression of a need for order, the need to pare things down to essentials, puritanism on legs. The exhibition is at Okay Art at 11 Schützenmattstrasse until 24 June. It’s a great place to pop in for a Hugo or a coffee, and to look at the wonderful vintage art and furniture on display.


Herzog & de Meuron townhouse at 11 Schützenmattstrasse, Basel

Herzog & de Meuron townhouse at 11 Schützenmattstrasse, Basel