On the Town V

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Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry (from the Irish Éadan Doire meaning ‘hill-brow of the oak wood’) in County Offaly is effectively one long narrow street that dribbles away to an unsatisfactory conclusion at either end. It was ever thus: from the 18th century on visitors to Ireland have commented on the way urban settlements here were rarely planned but developed in a haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion. On occasion an improving landlord would try to impose order, and indeed this happened at Edenderry but not until long after the place had first come into existence. While there is a pre-Christian hill-fort in the area, it was really with the arrival of the Normans that permanent residential structures began to appear around what is now Edenderry. In 1325 John de Bermingham, first Earl of Louth (famous for having killed Edward Bruce – younger brother of Robert, King of Scotland – in 1318) founded a Franciscan Friary at Monasteroris to the immediate west of the town; little of it remains today. Although from the mid-14th century this part of the country was officially under the authority of the Earls of Kildare, in practice it came under the control of the O’Connors. They were likely responsible in the 15th century for what is now known as Blundell Castle, eventually destroyed by Jacobite forces in 1691; the ruins stand on a hill  above the town. In the middle of the previous century Offaly was shired as King’s County and its land granted to men loyal to the English crown, among them Sir Henry Colley whose father Walter had served as Principal Solicitor for Ireland and later as the country’s Solicitor-General. The connection with the Colley family meant that for sometime thereafter Edenderry came to be known as Coolestown. Henry Colley’s granddaughter Sarah married Sir George Blundell and so the land passed into the hands of his family, remaining with them until the death in 1756 of Montague, first and last Viscount Blundell. His only daughter Mary inherited the property as in turn did her only daughter, another Mary who in 1786 married Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire.

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Thanks to his marriage, the Marquess of Downshire acquired some 14,000 acres of land around Edenderry. He vigorously opposed the 1800 Act of Union and as a result earned the enmity of the London government which exacted retribution by depriving him of governorship of County Down and the colonelcy of the local militia, and dismissing his supporters from official posts. He died the following year; his widow blamed official hostility, but, having inherited an estate in England from a childless uncle, was somewhat consoled in 1802 by being created Baroness Sandys in her own right. Meanwhile her twelve-year old eldest son became heir to the Irish properties. It was he, the third Marquess of Downshire who after coming of age in 1809 left the most lasting visible impact on Edenderry. This was despite the fact that he inherited responsibility for his forbears’ considerable debts and that his mother continued to receive two-thirds of the rent from the Offaly estates until her death in 1836. Among his most notable legacies to the town is the large former Market House, designed by Thomas Duff in 1826 and built at a cost of £5,000. Today used as a courthouse and local authority office, this handsome cut limestone building has a five-bay pedimented facade and presumably once featured an open arcaded groundfloor and assembly room above. Standing in the middle of what is now called O’Connell Square, it is testament to Edenderry’s prosperous past as a market town, a history echoed by other buildings in the town. These include Blundell House, named after the former owners of the estate but erected to his own design in 1813 by James Brownrigg who like his father worked for the Downshires and acted as agent for the County Offaly estate. Of two storeys over half-raised basement, its groundfloor has an exceptionally wide door fanlight and Wyatt windows to either side. Lying to the immediate east is the town’s Quaker meeting house which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced earlier premises on the site.

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Lord Downshire’s engagement with Edenderry was not restricted to public buildings like the Market House: he also undertook to better the condition of the rest of the town, replacing mud cabins with slated, two-storey stone houses. Many of them remain and often carry a date from the early 1820s above the entrance
The materials used in the construction of these and other buildings were brought to Edenderry thanks to an initiative undertaken by his father: the creation of a branch of the Grand Canal into the town. Work began in 1797 and was completed with a harbour in 1802 at a total cost of £692 which was financed by the Downshires. The quays still lead right to the main street and conclude in a squared-off section surrounded by limestone wall. For much of the 19th century the canal provided a vital social and commercial link for Edenderry, and helped to bring prosperity to the region. The last barge left the quays here in 1962, around the same time that the railway at the other end of the town also closed. As with the canal, this was a branch line, known in its day as the Nesbitt Junction after a Miss Nesbitt who contributed £10,000 to its cost so that she could convey prize cattle to the Royal Dublin Society. Its buildings, erected in 1877 by the Midland Great Western Railway, remain although the little stone ticket office looks sadly neglected. The third Marquess’ contribution to the town’s development was commemorated a year after his death in 1845 with the erection of a statue to his memory sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk, son of Thomas whose figure of Nelson adorned the top of the pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street until blown up in 1966.

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Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry is in seemingly irreversible decline, as the above photographs make clear. The outskirts, spread randomly and with no apparent forethought, are full of generic housing estates. One is currently being constructed at the immediate west end of the main street and has been given a name every bit as banal as the design of the supposedly ‘exclusive’ houses contained therein: Cedar Lawns. Meanwhile the centre of Edenderry slides ever further into decrepitude with a terrifying number of premises vacant and unkempt. Groups of listless youths – presumably residents of the aforementioned exclusive housing estates – drift along the pavements past properties that might entertain or engage them but instead exhibit empty windows. Even in O’Connell Square, while money has been spent on renovating the old Market House it is surrounded by properties with well-worn signs offering them for sale. For the moment Edenderry still has a post office and branches of the main banks: but for how much longer? The reality is that as the centre decays and householders travel elsewhere to spend their money, those banking businesses will find it no longer viable to maintain an operation here. They will duly close down and the standard outcry will ensue, yet this is the inevitable consequence of failure to maintain a vibrant town centre. The general tattiness and want of adequate maintenance is apparent everywhere, beginning with the ruins of Blundell Castle where the bars of a protective fence have long-since been wrenched off, if the quantity of mouldering empty beer cans discarded inside its walls can be taken as evidence. By failing to take care of Edenderry’s most ancient site, the local authority is sending out a signal of indifference which will noted by all those late-night drinkers, and everyone else as well. The same sense of apathy and disregard is emitted by every other building permitted to suffer neglect. Among the remaining retailers, the word Eden – a none-too-subtle pun on the town’s name – is often deployed. Frankly Eden lies well east, or west or anywhere else. Whatever one might think of absentee landlords and whatever his motivation, at least Lord Downshire tried to improve circumstances in Edenderry. Nobody today seems interested in following his example.

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TLC Needed

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The entrance to Knockdrin, County Westmeath. Like the main house, this was designed for Sir Richard Levinge around 1810 by Richard Morrison. The high-romantic and intentionally asymmetrical style of arched gateway flanked by dummy turret on one side and taller octagonal tower on the other serve as a prelude to what lies at the end of the drive: a full-blown castle.
For more on Knockdrin, see Knock Knock, August 5th 2013.

Finely Carved

 

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The limestone chimney piece in the entrance hall of the Hugh Lane Gallery, formerly Charlemont House, Dublin. This building, begun in 1763 to the design of Sir William Chambers, features the work of a number of master craftsmen including the London-born sculptor and stonecutter Simon Vierpyl. It is believed he was responsible for this chimney piece with its vigorous carving of a rams skull, and scrolls and swags in the upper section and a variety of tools and instruments running down the sides.
A reminder that I shall be speaking of Hugh Lane in the gallery tomorrow evening from 6.45. Admission is free.

Exuberance

 

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Paolo Lafranchini (1695-1776) and his younger brothers Filippo (1702-79) and Pietro-Natale (1705-88) were three of fifteen children born to Carlo and Isabella Lafranchini in the parish of Bironico which lies within the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. This part of the world produced a number of distinguished stuccodores including Giovanni Bagutti, and Giovanni Batista Artaria and his son Giuseppe. The two Artarias were employed to decorate the interior of the cathedral in the German city-state of Fulda. In 1720 Paolo Lafranchini is recorded as working for Fulda’s Prince-Bishop at his castle of Johannisberg, after which he is believed to have moved to England whence the Artarias had also gone. Giovanni Bagutti likewise relocated during this period and worked in several English houses including Castle Howard.

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In A Book of Architecture (published 1728) James Gibbs made reference to Artaria and Bagutti but not to the Lafranchini brothers who had yet to arrive in England: evidently Filippo and Pietro-Natale followed the example of their elder brother and emigrated in pursuit of work. Carlo Palumbo-Fossati who investigated the careers of the siblings in 1982 proposes that while in England, ‘they almost certainly met James Gibbs, Daniel Garrett and, possibly Lord Burlington.’ Who can say for certain? It has been suggested that around 1730 a Lafrancini worked with Artaria and Bagutti at Moor Park, Hertfordshire, a Palladian house designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni. More specifically in the archives of Drummond’s Bank, London are listed payments from James Gibbs’ accounts to ‘la Franchino’ in December 1731 (for ten guineas) and to ‘Mr Lafranchini’ in August 1736 (for £95). And the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford contains a design for an unknown house of two ceilings by Gibbs with an agreement in Italian on the verso for their execution signed Paolo Lafranchini.

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By 1739 Paolo Lafranchini was in Ireland and working at Carton, County Kildare alongside his brother Filippo; according to an article written by Lord Walter FitzGerald, the pair was paid £501 that year, presumably for the decoration of the saloon at Carton. The youngest of the trio, Pietro-Natale does not seem ever to have worked in this country but to have remained in England where among other properties he was employed at Wallington Hall, Northumberland, Hylton Castle, County Durham (both redesigned by the aforementioned Daniel Garrett) and Northumberland House, London. Meanwhile in Ireland, after finishing in Carton Paolo and Filippo moved on to 85 St Stephen’s Green (see The Most Beautiful Room in Ireland?, November 17th 2014) and possibly Tyrone House (now the Department of Education), Marlborough Street, as well as at Russborough, County Wicklow, Curraghmore, County Waterford and two houses in County Cork, Riverstown and Castle Saffron. By the mid-1750s Paolo Lafranchini was back in the family’s native town of Bironico and appears to have remained there until his death over twenty years later.

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Unlike his elder brother Filippo Lafranchini, although he returned to Bironico in 1757, spent the greater part of his later years in Ireland. Here as surviving documents attest he worked at Castletown, County Kildare. In May 1759 the house’s chatelaine Lady Louisa Conolly wrote to her sister, the future Duchess of Leinster, ‘Mr Conolly and I are excessively diverted at Franchini’s impertinence and if he charges anything of that sort to Mr Conolly there is a fine scold in store for his honour.’ Whatever might have been the difference of opinion between the Conollys and their stuccodore – who would be responsible for the decoration of the house’s staircase hall – it passed and he appears to have remained close to the family for the remainder of his life, possibly even dying at Castletown in 1779. Lady Louisa’s accounts note in October 1765 ‘Paid John Earsum his bill for Claret on Frankinys acct. when I was absent. 14s.’ There are also a couple of references to Filippo Lafranchini having a room at Castletown. Meanwhile Mr Conolly had paid the craftsman for his work, a total of £96, thirteen shillings and nine pence at the end of 1765 and the balance owed of £298, thirteen shillings and three pence the following year.

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In the mid-1760s, around the time he was being paid for his work at Castletown, Filippo Lafranchini is believed to have undertaken another commission: the decoration of Kilshannig, County Cork. Built to the designs of the Italian-born engineer and architect Davis Ducart for a rich banker, Abraham Devonsher, Kilshannig is a Palladian house with outstanding interiors. While the Lafranchini’s earlier work was inclined to baroque formalism, here the prevailing spirit is exuberantly rococo. The entrance hall has a coved and sectioned ceiling filled with an abundance of swags and foliage and baskets of fruit. It provides access to the central reception room, a saloon that is half as high again as the entrance hall, and has a ceiling centred on three exquisitely worked figures of Bacchus, Ariadne and Pan. Around them double medallions contain the four elements, as well as Justice and Minerva. To the left lies the dining room the ceiling of which like that in the entrance hall is predominantly given over to foliage and fruit but also contains clusters of dead game and masks. At the other end of the saloon, the library has a ceiling with a central frame containing the figures of Apollo and Diana, as well as corner sections featuring the Four Seasons and immediately above the cornice, framed female heads in profile believed to represent membes of the Devonsher family. Both the passage outside and the circular Portland stone staircase to which it provides access, also contain further stucco decoration. Kilshannig represents the apogee of the Lafranchinis’ work in Ireland and is a testament to this expertise of this exceptional family who chose to spend time in Ireland and left behind such an outstanding legacy of stucco work.

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More about Kilshannig at a later date.

Commemorated but Forgotten

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On a wall of the now-roofless 17th century church at Kilcommock, County Longford can be seen this elaborately carved limestone funerary monument which would appear to date from the early 1700s. Unfortunately the central plaque is missing and it is therefore now impossible to know in whose memory it was originally erected. Might some reader have the answer?

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Up and Away

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The oval glazed dome that lights a narrow passage directly behind the dining room in Mount Stewart, County Down. This is one of the clever interventions made to the house when it was enlarged for the third Marquess of Londonderry in the second half of the 1820s by William Vitruvius Morrison.