Built on a small island in the river Deel, Askeaton Castle, County Limerick dates from 1199 when built by the Norman settler William de Burgo. It subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond but while surviving assault during that family’s rebellions against the English crown in the 16th century the castle was eventually dismantled around 1650 by the regicide Colonel Daniel Axtel when he was crushing opposition to Cromwell’s forces in this part of the country. Even as a ruin, its remains continue to dominate the surrounding landscape.
Irish landlords, that small band of men who once owned the greater part of the country, do not enjoy a good reputation here. Judged to have been rapacious and, still worse in the popular imagination, foreign, it cannot be denied that many of their number often put personal interest ahead of concern for the condition of tenants, with disastrous results following the onset of the potato blight in the mid-1840s. However, it would be wrong to tar all landlords with the same blackening brush, since there were a few of them who sought to improve circumstances on their property. Among this unusual group, none was more out of the ordinary than Joseph Henry Blake, third Lord Wallscourt, of Ardfry, County Galway.
The Blakes were one of the Tribes of Galway, fourteen merchant families who dominated life in the western city from the 13th century onwards. They liked to claim descent from Ap-Lake, one of the knight’s of King Arthur’s round table, but in fact they were originally called Caddell, the first of them coming to Ireland in the 12th century with Strongbow: in the early 14th century Richard Caddell, Sheriff of Connacht in 1303, was known as Niger or Black, from which the name Blake evolved.
Like others among the Galway Tribes, the Blakes soon began to acquire land in the surrounding area, a process that accelerated from the late 1500s onwards. Thus in May 1612 Robert Blake of Galway received a grant by letters patent from James I of Ballinacourt (later Wallscourt) and Ardfry, both in County Galway, as well as additional property in County Mayo. His eldest son Richard Blake, a lawyer by training, was knighted in 1624, served as Mayor of Galway 1627-28, and M.P. for the County of Galway in 1639 before becoming Speaker or Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Irish Confederation which sat at Kilkenny from 1647 to 1649. Although the Blakes subsequently lost their lands during the Cromwellian confiscations, they received them back after the Restoration and remained in possession thereafter, basing themselves at Ardfry which lies on the southern shores of Galway Bay.
Sir Richard Blake’s direct descendants died out in 1744 but a kinsman, Joseph Blake bought the estates from trustees and moved to Ardfry where around 1770 he built a house on the site of an old castle. The new property was long and low, at least nine bays wide and of two storeys over basement, with pyramidal pavilions at either end. Here in 1787 came the Hon Martha Herbert, wife of the rector of Cashel-on-Suir, County Tipperary, together with her daughter Dorothea (author of the celebrated Retrospections published a century after her death). On arrival they found ‘a large party of grandees’ whom Dorothea judged to be a ‘formidable set’ and were informed by their hostess that at Ardfry ‘they seldom or ever sat down to a meal with less than a hundred in family’, the latter term being used more loosely then than would now be the case.
Hitherto the Blakes had remained Roman Catholic but Joseph’s son, Joseph Henry Blake conformed to established church and was thus able to stand for election to the Irish parliament, to which he was elected in 1790. He retained his seat until the Act of Union a decade later and having voted in favour of this legislation was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Baron Wallscourt of Ardfry. However, his marriage to an heiress, Lady Louisa Bermingham, daughter of the first Earl of Louth, did not produce a son and so it was arranged that the title would devolve by special remainder to one of his nephews. Thus following his death in 1803 at the age of 37, Joseph Blake, son of the first Baron’s younger brother, became second Lord Wallscourt. The latter in turn dying in 1816 aged 19, his cousin Joseph Henry Blake (son of another of the first Baron’s brothers) became third Lord Wallscourt.
Although he had grown up at Ardfry where his father served as land agent, the new Lord Wallscourt had not expected to inherit the estate. At the time of his cousin’s death he was just eighteen and serving as a lieutenant in the army which he had joined after leaving Eton three years earlier. It is often stated that on coming into the title he immediately indulged in reckless spending but one must wonder how much there was to squander: Dorothea Herbert’s observations indicate that the late 18th century Blakes were already living beyond their means, and around 1795 more than 1,500 acres of the original estate (including the townland of Wallscourt) was offered for sale, while another parcel of land was also put on the market. What remained was some 2,834 statute acres (the greater part of it at Ardfry) yielding a notional annual rental of £3,200, although this always depended on the ability and preparedness of tenants to pay what was expected. Lord Wallscourt had financial obligations to meet regardless of actual revenue: various family members and retainers were entitled to an income for the duration of their respective lifetimes to an annual total of £800, and there was a further £7,000 owing, mostly to relatives. Thus the young peer would have found he had little enough to fritter away, especially after 1820 when creditors had the estate placed in trust so as to maximise income and pay off all debts. Under the new arrangement Lord Wallscourt was permitted a yearly allowance of £500.
Thankfully a couple of years later he married a 17-year old English heiress, Elizabeth Lock who was beautiful as well as rich and who would be painted by a family friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1825: this portrait hung in Ardfry until the last century. That same year she and her husband, who had now regained control of his estate, came to look at Ardfry which had been sadly neglected and required extensive renovation. ‘The woods and the walks are certainly very pretty,’ Lady Wallscourt wrote to her mother, ‘and some of the trees very old and remind me of those poor dear old woods at Norbury, but the house is even in a worse state than I had expected, and you know I was not prepared to find grand chose. The building at a distance looks very well and is very handsome, but it seems to me impossible anything can be done to it. There is so much to do, repairing and building, to make it all inhabitable, that I am sure Wallscourt will not attempt it.’ Contrary to expectations, her husband did undertake the necessary work and by the end of the following year, after the building had been given some of the gothic flourishes it retains to this day, the couple moved in with their young children, the occasion marked by a ball given for the servants and tenants. At this event, after some initial hesitancy on the part of the guests, ‘the great decorum and silence gave place to the most violent noise and rioting as they grew merrier, and they danced incessantly to a piper till five. They had enormous suppers of a whole sheep and two or three rounds of beef, and all went home mad drunk with drinking Henry’s health in “the cratur”, as they call whisky.’ Lady Wallscourt soon retired upstairs and allowed the nurse in charge of the children to join the throng where she became ‘quite the life of the party…springing and capering about in a most ludicrous way.’
And now let us touch briefly on efforts by Lord Wallscourt to improve the circumstances of his tenants. When travelling about Europe as a young man and through meeting sundry liberal thinkers of the period, he had become impressed by ‘some of the theories, then much debated, for lifting the labourer into the position of a partner with the capitalist.’ Following his return to Ireland, in 1831 he was interested to hear how the County Clare landlord and founder of the Hibernian Philanthropic Society John Scott Vandeleur had invited Manchester-born journalist and proto-socialist Edward Thomas Craig to establish a co-operative community on his own estate at Ralahine. This was duly visited by Lord Wallscourt who found much to engage him and having sent his overseer to study the system in more detail he set aside 100 acres at Ardfry for his own socialist experiment. Even if begun on a smaller scale, the scheme fared better and lasted longer than that at Ralahine (which Vandeleur, who was addicted to gambling, managed to lose in a bet in 1833, after which he fled to America leaving his poor former tenants to fend for themselves against unmerciless creditors).
Lord Wallscourt also embarked on other philanthropic enterprises seeking to establish both a national school and an agricultural school as well as sponsoring the education of a number of boys in England and even as far away as Switzerland. He sought to improve the living conditions of tenants, building a two-storey slate-roofed house built as a model to replace the existing thatched cabins of the area. However it proved impossible to find anyone prepared to move into the new property, tenants apparently explaining ‘it would be mighty cold, and my Lord would be expecting me to keep it too clean.’ Eventually after standing empty for five years, a newly-wed couple took the place, on the grounds that it was ‘better than nothing at all.’
During the terrible years of the famine, Lord Wallscourt worked to ensure the well-being of his own tenants, and those on other estates in the area. He sat on a number of relief committees and on the Galway Board of Guardians, where he was critical of the operation of the poor law system and of his fellow guardians, who, he said, seemed ‘little disposed to transact the business for the discharge of which they were elected’. In 1847 he actively associated himself for the first time with the campaign for tenant rights and employed the distinguished agriculturalist Thomas Skilling (later first Professor of Agriculture at Queen’s University, Galway) to create a new tillage project employing labourers and tenants at Ardfry. He even started to establish an agricultural college on the estate.
One suspects that Lord Wallscourt, however well-intentioned, did not tolerate opposition from his tenants or indeed from anyone else. Evidence for this was provided by his wife when she sought a divorce in 1846 ‘by reason of his cruelty and adultery,’ citing several instances when her husband had assaulted her. He was known to be a man of considerable strength and when young had been a keen boxer (more peculiarly he liked to walk about his house wearing no clothes: eventually Lady Wallscourt persuaded him carry a cowbell in his hand when nude so maidservants had notice of his imminent arrival). The couple suffered the loss of their two elder sons, and it was only during a brief rapprochement in late 1840 that an eventual heir was conceived. It may be that Lady Wallscourt did not care for her husband’s humanitarian enterprises. What, one wonders, must she have made for the welcome he gave to the 1848 Paris insurrection that led to the final overthrow of the French monarchy: he even presided at a celebratory public rally in Dublin. The following year he visited Paris with his young son and while there died after contracting cholera.
His estranged wife now regained control, since the boy Erroll Augustus Blake was then aged only seven. The co-operative projects at Ardfry were abandoned and more familiar methods of estate management re-instated. On the other hand, upon reaching maturity the fourth Lord Wallscourt followed the parental example and undertook diverse improvements, most notably the establishment of an oyster fishery in Galway Bay which provided local employment. In other respects however, he could not be compared with his father, being so small in stature that he was known in the vicinity as ‘the lordeen’: Nationalist politician T.P. O’Connor later remembered meeting ‘a tiny little man, sad, deprecatory, almost timid in manner.’ This may have been because he was oppressed by money worries, especially after his second marriage. His new wife turned out to be a hopeless gambler: in the early years of the last century the lead was stripped from Ardfry’s roof to pay her debts and the contents – including that lovely portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence – sold. Nor did the Wallscourt peerage survive much longer: the fourth lord was succeeded in 1918 by his only son who died without children just two years later.
And so we see Ardfry as it stands today, a shell of a monument to an abandoned social and agricultural experiment. Who knows what might yet have happened here had the third Lord Wallscourt not died in Paris in 1849, and what example it might have given to other landlords in Ireland. The shame is that his efforts to improve the lives of the country’s tenants are today so little known, and the estate on which he carried out his endeavours has been allowed to fall into such disrepair, the trees and hedges cut down, the walls tumbled, the outbuildings and estate cottages gone or, the the main house, little more than four walls. Dorothea Herbert called Ardfry ‘a beautiful place’ and Griffith’s Valuation of 1857 refers to a ‘beautiful and picturesque demesne, well planted with forest and ornamental timber.’ There’s little enough beauty here now.
For more information on the third Lord Wallscourt, I recommend John Cunningham’s truly excellent essay (to which I am much indebted) ‘Lord Wallscourt of Ardfry (1797-1849)’ in Vol. LVII (2005) of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.
A chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Furness, County Kildare. The name of 18th century amateur architect Francis Bindon has occurred here several times before (most recently When New Becomes Old, March 24th), and this is another house attributed to him. The core of the building is believed to date from c.1730, and some of the decoration from that period survives, not least this chimneypiece which is carved from pearwood, a material often used for wind instruments and of dark hue: in this instance, it has been painted to imitate stone.
More on Furness to follow in the coming weeks.
The shared carriage gates for a pair of houses on English Street, Downpatrick, County Down. The three-storey over basement buildings were designed c.1835-36 by the English-born John Lynn seemingly for himself. He is believed to have come to this country as clerk of works for the building of Rockingham, County Roscommon, designed by John Nash for Robert, 1st Viscount Lorton. According to Thomas Bell in his Rambles Northwards in Ireland (1827) Lynn ‘was originally a Carpenter by trade, but the Patronage of the noble Lord has it would appear transfused into his mind the theory of his profession, and converted him into an Architect.’ Evidently he did well in his new career because there are a large number of buildings, several of them gaols (including that in Downpatrick) for which he was responsible. With their prominent bows this pretty pair of houses would not look out of place in Cheltenham. That on the right is known as the Judges’ Lodgings since it was formerly used for that purpose by Assize judges presiding at the nearby courthouse.
Although undoubtedly a great humanitarian, Jonathan Swift was also capable of outbursts of spite. As evidence of which one cites his short essay Character of Primate Marsh, believed to have been written around 1710 (although only published thirty-five years later). In this piece of invective against the then-Archbishop of Armagh, Swift wrote ‘Marsh has the reputation of the most profound and universal learning; this is the general opinion, neither can it be easily disproved. An old rusty iron-chest in a banker’s shop, strongly lockt, and wonderful heavy, is full of gold; this is the general opinion, neither can it be disproved, provided the key be lost, and what is in it be wedged so close that it will not by any motion discover the metal by the clinking…No man will either be glad or sorry at his death, except his successor.’ Certainly following Marsh’s elevation to the primacy his successor in the archdiocese of Dublin William King was equally unkind, describing him as being ‘very dextrous at doing nothing.’ Of course unlike Swift and King, and despite being a Lord Justice of Ireland on six occasions, Marsh does not appear to have been particularly interested in politics and this could explain the two men’s dismissive remarks. Because despite what they might have thought and did write, Archbishop Marsh was far from being an ineffectual cleric and left a lasting and generous legacy through the establishment of the first public library in Ireland.
Narcissus Marsh was born in Wiltshire in 1638 ‘of honest parents,’ as he wrote in his diary. His name, while unusual, was not so distinctive as that given to either of his two brothers who were christened Epaphroditus and Onesiphorus: all three derive from persons mentioned in St Paul’s Epistles. While an undergraduate at Oxford Marsh decided to take orders and soon after was offered a living in Swindon, only subsequently discovering that he was expected to marry a friend of the people responsible for his preferment. This he refused, having determined never to marry since he believed he could only serve the church while a bachelor.
Returning to Oxford he continued his studies until appointed Principal of St Alban Hall in Oxford by the first Duke of Ormond who was Chancellor of the University; it was presumably through this connection that in 1679 he came to Ireland to take up the Provostship of Trinity College in Dublin. One of his greatest achievements during this time was arranging for an Irish translation of the Old Testament (the New Testament having already been translated earlier in the century). He also employed, at his own expense, a former Catholic priest, Paul Higgins, to teach Irish to the students at Trinity College and to preach an Irish sermon once a month; seemingly both sermons and lectures were extremely popular.
Marsh was appointed Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in 1683 but following the accession of James II found himself much harassed and eventually retreated to England, only returning to this country after the Battle of the Boyne. In 1690 he was made Archbishop of Cashel and four years later moved to Dublin. Finally in 1703 he became Archbishop of Armagh and remained there until his death ten years later.
It was while Provost of Trinity College that Marsh conceived the notion of establishing a new public library in Dublin. He had already undertaken work to improve the college’s own facilities, revising the library regulations, and insisting that when a keeper was appointed all the books in his care must be accounted for, either replacing or paying for any that had been lost. But Marsh also noticed how hard it was for potential scholars to use the college library, remarking that what rendered it inaccessible to the greater part of the population was that according to the institution’s statutes ‘no man, besides the Provost and Fellows is permitted to study there, unless carry’d up thither by one of them, who is bound to be present all the time the other stays in the library: and ‘twas this, and this consideration alone that at first mov’d me to think of building a library in some other place (than in the college) for public use, where all might have free access, seeing they cannot have it in the College; nor are our booksellers’ shops furnished anything tolerably with other books than new trifles and pamphlets, and not well with them also.’
Hence following his appointment to Dublin Marsh embarked on the creating a library which, while a place of scholarship, would also be open to everyone. To ensure its legal status, he wished the new foundation to be incorporated through an Act of Parliament. However, the bill he drew up for this purpose met with severe opposition from some of his fellow clerics, including Jonathan Swift. Because the new library was within the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Marsh proposed that its keeper also be the cathedral’s Precentor (that is, the clergyman in charge of organising liturgy and worship). Those against this move were concerned that property belonging to the Church of Ireland might be lost to the library, the board of which could come to exercise authority over the Precentor. A second point of complaint arose from Marsh’s intention to appoint as keeper a Huguenot refugee, Elias Bouhéreau (of whom more below) based on the latter’s commitment to donate his own collection of books to the library, a requirement allowing the opposition to claim the Archbishop had engaged in simony through what was effectively the sale of an ecclesiastical office. These matters may seem of small importance to us today, but they caused a great deal of trouble at the time and delayed the official establishment of the library. Ultimately Marsh was forced to abandon the link between Keeper and Precentor (although Elias Bouhéreau did take up his duties) and in 1707, by which time he had transferred to Armagh, he was able to see passed an act ‘for settling and preserving a Publick Library for ever.’
One of the few 18th century buildings in Ireland still used for its original purpose, Marsh’s Library holds a collection of over 25,000 books and 300 manuscripts. There are eighty books printed before 1501, 430 books printed in Italy before 1600, 1,200 books printed in England before 1640 and 5,000 books printed in England before 1700. At the heart of all this material is the library assembled by Edward Stillingfleet, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London and from 1689 Bishop of Worcester. Following his death in 1699, there was much public interest in what would happen to Stillingfeet’s books, deemed to constitute the best private library in the British Isles. Efforts were made to keep it in England but in 1705 the entire printed collection of almost 10,000 books was purchased by Marsh for just over £2,000 and brought to Dublin where it has remained ever since. It contains works on diverse subjects including theology, history, the classics, law, medicine and travel, whereas Marsh’s own collection reflects his interest in oriental studies including Arabic and Hebrew books as well as his engagement with the Irish language: in 1695 he had bought a number of manuscripts belonging to the distinguished jurist and orientalist, Dudley Loftus (of whom Marsh wrote that he ‘never knew so much Learning in the Keeping of a Fool,’ although this did not stop him acquiring Loftus’ collection).
Then there are the books that originally belonged to the institution’s first librarian, Dr Elias Bouhéreau, a Huguenot doctor from La Rochelle who had left France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Bouhéreau’s collection contains many works relating to his native country and to the various religious controversies of the 17th century as well as medical texts. Finally a fourth major collection was bequeathed to Marsh’s library in 1745 by John Stearne, former Bishop of Clogher (who left his manuscripts to Trinity College, Dublin where he had earlier provided £1,000 to build a printing house). As former Keeper Muriel McCarthy has noted, ‘It is easy to forget that in the early eighteenth century Marsh’s would have been regarded as a modern library with the latest books and a modern classification system. To study and examine the books in Marsh’s is to explore a world which has been one of the hallmarks of Europe’s great cultural heritage.’
Not only have the contents of Marsh’s library scarcely altered since originally assembled by its founder, but so too has its appearance remained much the same. Built at a cost of £5,000 the core of the building was designed 1701-3 by Sir William Robinson who for the previous three decades had acted as Surveyor General of Ireland and whose other extant works include the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. In 1710 Thomas Burgh, who had succeeded Robinson as Surveyor General, extended the library by adding another wing and also designed its entrance porch. Thereafter little happened structurally until the mid-19th century when, as part of the restoration work to St Patrick’s Cathedral underwritten by Benjamin Lee Guinness, a new entrance front and stair hall was built, as well as a Gothic gateway. At the same time the easterly churchyard elevation was clad in limestone, but the 18th century brick courtyard on the other side of the library survives, as do the original interiors.
The library proper is primarily composed of two first-floor galleries, the earlier (designed by Robinson) running sixty feet south-north, while that added by Burgh at right-angles to the north corner is linked by a librarian’s room and runs seventy-six feet west-east. At the latter end is a short further extension which originally provided direct access to the former Archbishop of Dublin’s Palace of St Sepulchre. This stretch is distinguished by having three enclosed alcoves known as ‘cages’, their carved timber tympana decorated with gothick tracery and finials: these spaces were intended to ensure the safety of the smaller, more valuable books since users could be locked inside. The main galleries are indebted for their appearance to Oxford’s 17th century Bodleian Library, with which Marsh was familiar from his time at that university, and which he cited in correspondence when discussing his own intentions; he wrote to a friend and fellow cleric Dr Thomas Smith that the Dublin building’s upper part ‘is contrived like the cross part of the Bodleyan Library.’ On either side of both galleries and at right angles to the windows are a succession of dark oak bookcases, the stack end of each treated as a pedimented pier with painted and gilded cartouches bearing classmarks while the top is surmounted by carved cartouches with mitre and stole finials. The uniformity of this design, and the fact that it has not been subject to alteration, helps to give the galleries their special character and to link today’s users to their 18th century precursors.
Marsh’s Library remains dedicated to its original purpose but in addition welcomes visitors and hosts temporary exhibitions (the next of which, Imagining Japan, 1570-1750, opens to the public on April 16th). It is one of our best and least changed bonds with the dynamism of Georgian Dublin, an era more often honoured in the breach than in observance of due respect for its achievements. But by remaining true to the founder’s original wishes Marsh’s Library both honours the past and bears witness to the erroneousness of Swift’s unkind remarks.
With thanks to the staff, Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library. For more information, see: http://www.marshlibrary.ie
120 St Stephen’s Green is one of a pair of houses on the west side of the square designed by Richard Castle to look from the exterior like a single unit. Following Castle’s death in 1751, the development was sold by his executors to Richard Thwaites who by 1764 had completed and leased the houses. No. 120 is the finer, and more intact of the two and contains some delicious rococo plasterwork such as that seen here reflected in a mirror over the first-floor saloon chimneypiece.
More about 120 St Stephen’s Green in the coming weeks.
Two years ago the Irish public voted Sir Frederic William Burton’s 1864 watercolour The Meeting on the Turret Stairs the nation’s favourite painting. Burton, who eventually became director of the National Gallery in London, was born in this house, Clifden, County Clare in 1816. The Burtons were landowners in this part of the country: Sir Frederic’s grandfather was High Sheriff of Clare in 1780. The family seem originally to have lived in a house called Riverstown which Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) reported as being ‘now converted into a chief constabulary police station.’ It was presumably succeeded by Clifden, believed to date from c.1800 and a house of seven bays and two storeys over basement. The rendered façade is distinguished by the charming blind niche directly over the main entrance with its handsome cut limestone doorcase. The property has been recently and very sensitively restored.