- Michael Purcell on the left
presenting David Durdin-Robertson with
family documents in Feb. 2009.
David Durdin-Robertson, who died suddenly aged
56, was a sculptor and raconteur whose extraordinary gifts and
humanity were greatly valued by all who knew him.
He grew up in an enchanted setting of Ireland's
longest inhabited castle (Huntington Castle, Clonegal, Co Carlow).
There he managed to live on good terms with benevolent ghosts - much
nicer than other human beings, he would assure his more nervous
guests - and as a self-taught master builder to keep a foothold in
the real world.
His grandmother first recognised his ability as a
sculptor when he carved a tiny mouse on a small shoe. His youngest
sister Lucy received a miniature carriage drawn by four horses on
her eighth birthday.
His irrepressible aunt Olivia commissioned him to
realise her more celestial visions of female divinities to be
worshipped in the dungeons below.
Five floors above, he remodelled the roof space of
the castle as a hidden studio for his wife Moira, completed last
year beneath a reconstructed roof, along with the replacement of the
windows. The work renewed the glazing bars as they would have been
in 1740 to avoid neo-Victorian pastiche and now look as if they have
been there forever.
He restored the historical interiors, furnished them
with treasures acquired in the un-catalogued debris of local
auctions, and with the fervour his ancestors would have demonstrated
in shooting snipe or casting for salmon.
The castle was opened to the public to comply with
new legislation. He replanted and embellished the gardens, repaired
the family theatre converted from a barn in the 1930s, transformed
the dependencies into self-sustained apartments and made a
dragon-crested Chinese pavilion to allow a friend to guard the gate
to the back avenue. His ceaseless activity assured attention when he
addressed the board established to safeguard the future of Ireland's
historical houses in private hands.
He also made a remarkable contribution to
contemporary architecture with the gallery in the park that he built
for a tenant, the German sculptor Ulrich Ruckreim. This allowed
Ruckreim to house his own work, then generously presented by him in
return for tax exemption as a gift to the Irish Museum of Modern
After a row, witnessed by Durdin-Robertson, but
never divulged, Ruckreim's sculptures were sold to the Museum of
20th Century Art in Vienna. Ireland's loss was Austria's gain.
However, Durdin-Robertson's structure - a cloister
of four steel barns - can still be admired as an empty shrine in its
own right. His expertise was sought after in many commissions. He
was one of a few sculptors able to carve new timber or marble
fireplaces on a heroic scale (Clonmannon House, Ashford, Dargle
Cottage, Enniskerry, Castle Cove, Co Sligo).
One of his most ingenious tasks was - with the help
of Hugo Merry - to protect from collapse the four Francini ceilings
in Kilshannig. Here he also assisted with rebuilding the arcaded
wings, terminating with their domed pavilions, unroofed 150 years
ago by Lord Fermoy to repay huge gambling debts.
After hours of work Durdin-Robertson would then
relax and reveal that he could have also been an actor.
Certainly, his stories, generally told against
himself, revealed an unnerving ability to become another character
with a Shakespearean diversity - playing such double roles as a
pompous ass being outwitted by a country yokel. Few have lived to be
so irreplaceable to his wife, his family and an ever widening circle
of colleagues, friends and admirers.