A Clement Vision

These three small oil panels, each measuring just 15×20 cms, are from Clement McAleer’s current Coastal Series. McAleer (b.1949) is one of the artists breathing new life into that potentially moribund genre: Irish landscape painting. His work manages to be both meditative and emotional since, as has been noted, he is concerned not so much with capturing the specifics of place ‘but rather the restless, shifting aspects of nature where cloud or water, land or sea transform themselves atmospherically, one into another.’
On Thursday evening I shall be opening an exhibition of Clement McAleer’s new work at the Hamilton Gallery, Castle Street, Sligo; the show continues until December 1st.

The Old Town looks the Same

Ramelton, County Donegal is marketed as a ‘heritage town’ and with the place’s history and excellent stock of old buildings there is every reason to consider the moniker well deserved. However, as so often proves the case in Ireland a sizeable gap opens between aspiration and actuality. Ramelton has potential, but the greater part of it remains unrealised. And given both the country’s economy and an habitual Irish inability to recognise obvious opportunity, that scenario is unlikely to change any time soon.
The town’s situation is particularly lovely. The main approach is from Letterkenny further south, the road suddenly descending until it comes to a halt on Ramelton’s quayside, grandiloquently named the Mall. Across the river Lennon the land is densely wooded, a perfect counterpoise to the urban development it faces and a reminder of how the entire area once looked.
While people have been living in this part of the world for thousands of years Ramelton is essentially a planters’ town, settled by English and Scottish immigrants in the 17th century; tellingly, a meeting house dating from around 1680 (and today the local library) is believed to be the oldest centre for Presbyterian worship in Ireland. The reason for the site’s appeal to settlers is that it lies at a point where the Lennon widens to join Lough Swilly and thence flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

So Ramelton developed as a port with ships regularly travelling between this part of the country and British, French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, their holds filled with produce like corn and bacon and dairy products. A series of stone warehouses along the quays bears witness to the town’s former prosperity, aided by the regional success of the linen industry: by the early 1840s Ramelton had Donegal’s largest linen bleaching works, evident in a still-extent complex of buildings called the Tanyard at the west end of the Mall.
Decline set in soon after, with Belfast’s emergence as Ireland’s pre-eminent centre for linen, along with the silting of the Lennon and the arrival of the railway to Letterkenny. Like so many other Irish towns, from the second half of the 19th century onwards Ramelton suffered from that peculiarly indigenous combination of neglect and apathy.
The trouble is that in large measure it still does. As elsewhere, the boom years saw plenty of building work but on the periphery of the town. Here you’ll find the customary unimaginative new housing estates with names like The Elms (and, naturally enough, not a single example of the species to be seen).

Meanwhile the historic centre was allowed to slide into dereliction. On almost every street there are gaps where houses have been demolished and sites left vacant; Ramelton is a beauty whose smile reveals advanced dental decay. Typically, on Back Lane a row of old houses which could be utterly winning have fallen into such decrepitude that ‘windows’ are now painted onto boarded-up fronts.
Many of the handsome quay warehouses have fared no better; their sturdiness is being severely tested by wilful neglect. Next to one of them on Shore Road, a typically pointless public amenity has been created on a vacant site: a so-called park featuring quantities of unalluring hard grey surfaces and only a margin of grass. Except as a short-cut for pedestrians, it looks little used – as evidenced by a local farmer parking his tractor and trailer so close to the entrance gate that access was well-nigh impossible.

There is apparently a local Tidy Towns committee and no doubt the members work hard to keep Ramelton as litter-free as possible. But their efforts can only go so far. What’s needed here – and elsewhere – is an understanding of how to capitalise on Ramelton’s currently dormant charm. A similar town in France or Italy would not be filled with vacant sites but instead with visitors enchanted by the distinctive character of the place. Ramelton could be a tourist hub – and recover some of its economic viability – if only serious restoration work were undertaken. There’s no point calling it a heritage town if the heritage is then disregarded.

Heaven’s Gate

20121024-122436.jpg

Garden Gates at Leixlip Castle, County Kildare. Desmond Guinness says these were originally part of the Dublin city reservoir or basin developed in 1721-22 adjacent to where his family later developed the well-known brewery. When the basin was filled in during the 1970s, Desmond acquired the gates.

Nature Full of Poetry

‘In this sequester’d, wild, romantic dell
Where nature loves in solitude to dwell,
Who would expect ‘midst such a lonely park
The charms of fancy and the plans of art,
Whilst the neat mansion, formed with simple taste,
Amidst a wilderness for comfort plac’d,|
Adorns the scene and hospitably shews
The seat of pleasure and serene repose.’
So in 1807 wrote, Joseph Atkinson, an army officer-turned-playwright, of Luggala, County Wicklow. For more than 200 years, this secluded valley tucked deeo into the Wicklow Mountains has been the subject of many such encomia, generations of visitors captivated by what they have found there.
Yet until the onset of the Romantic era at the end of the 18th century Luggala, along with much of the surrounding region, lay unoccupied, untended and largely unknown. Only following its discovery around 1787 by Peter La Touche, a rich banker in search of seclusion, did Luggala come to public notice. Having remained free from the intervention of man for millennia the site, La Touche wisely realised, demanded nothing other than a dwelling with a character to match the setting. Designed by a now-unknown architect, this is Luggala Lodge, facing Lough Tay at the other end of the valley and terminating a vista that stretches from lake shore to steep ground immediately behind. As James Brewer remarked in 1825 the building ‘is well adapted to the recluse parts of Ireland, where nature reigns in wild and mysterious majesty.’

Three years before Brewer the Rev. George Newenham Wright, a cleric with literary aspirations, published A Guide to the County of Wicklow. Several pages of the book are devoted to Luggala, the author awe-struck that the first view of the site ‘is of a bold, awful and sublime character’ and the sheer mass of mountainside closing the prospect ‘exhibiting a continued mass of naked granite to the very summit, forming the most complete representation of all that is wild, dreary and desolate in nature, and defying all attempts at innovation that the aspiring genius of man has ever dared to undertake.’ Not long afterwards, Prince Herman von Pückler-Muskau, an impoverished German aristocrat travelling through Britain and Ireland in search of a wife wealthy enough to fund his inclination towards extravagance, visited County Wicklow and afterwards reported:, ‘I reached the summit of the mountain above the magnificent valley and lake of Luggelaw, the sun gilded all the country beneath me, though the tops of the hills were yet shrouded in mist. This valley belongs to a wealthy proprietor, who has converted it into a delightful park…It is indeed a lovely spot of earth, lonely and secluded; the wood full of game, the lake full of fish and nature full of poetry.’ When American film director John Huston wrote his memoir An Open Book in 1980 he recalled the first time he had visited Luggala twenty-nine years earlier. Arriving late at night and in the dark, he had seen little. ‘The next morning at dawn I went to the window and looked out upon a scene I have never forgotten. Through pines and yews in the garden I saw, across a running stream, a field of marigolds and beyond the field – surprisingly – a white sandy beach bordering a black lake…Above the lake was a mountain of black rock rising precipitously, and on its crest – like a shawl over a piano – a profusion of purple heather. I was to go back to Luggala many times, but I’ll never forget that first impression. I was Ireland’s own from that moment.’

Luggala Lodge, wrote the Knight of Glin in 1965, is an example of ‘that special brand of eighteenth-century gothick that rejoices in little battlements, crochets, trefoil and quatrefoil windows and ogee mantelpieces: in fact, the gothick of pastrycooks and Rockingham china.’ The building observed Michael Luke some twenty years ago, shines ‘like the discarded crown of a prima ballerina.’ Bulgarian-born author Stephane Groueff who stayed in the house during the 1950s remembered it ‘looking like an illustration from a nursery book of “The Queen of Hearts”.’ And actress Anjelica Huston recalls Luggala from her childhood: ‘It was like going into a fairy tale. Descending into the dell with the ferns and the overhanging trees, the flocks of deer and the pheasants, and then coming on the magical lake with its sand made up of chips of mica.’
Diarist Frances Partridge came to stay in the early 1950s and afterwards recorded, ‘What a magical atmosphere that house had, charmingly furnished and decorated to match its style, dim lights, soft music playing and Irish voices ministering seductively to our needs.’ Sixty years later, author and critic Francis Wyndham remembers Luggala as being ‘the most romantic place I’ve ever known,’ and recalls ‘that sparkling little jewel of a house with the black lake before it.’
And here is the present custodian of Luggala, the Hon. Garech Browne, wonderfully photographed by Neil Gavin in the house’s drawing room. Like each of his predecessors, Garech has ensured the special character of this spot be preserved. Luggala today remains as it was in the time of Joseph Atkinson, ‘the seat of pleasure and serene repose.’

My new book, Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, has now been published.

When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound*

This 18th century mahogany hunt table is due to be auctioned on Sunday by de Vere’s of Dublin. The last time it came on the market was in 1932 when offered in the house contents sale of Coole Park, County Galway, residence of Lady Gregory who had died earlier that year. Some time later, the chairman of Ireland’s Board of Works declared that while Lady Gregory’s place in the pantheon of Anglo-Irish literature was assured, ‘it is straining it somewhat to suggest that her home should be preserved as a National Monument on that account.’ Coole Park, which today would be a place of pilgrimage, was accordingly demolished in 1941.
*from ‘Coole Park’ by W.B. Yeats
Addendum: The table sold for €4,000.

Sapientia in Libris Exsistit*

Both Marsh’s Library, attached to St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and the Bolton Library in Cashel are rightly well-known foundations. Much less familiar to the public is the Cotton Library belonging to St Carthage’s Cathedral in Lismore, County Waterford. St Carthage (otherwise known in Irish as Mochuta) first established a monastery in his native Kerry but finally settled in Lismore in 635, dying there some two years later.
The small cathedral bearing his name, originally the abbey church of St Cathage’s foundation, has gone through a series of vicissitudes, being burnt by the White Knight at the start of the 17th century, re-roofed by Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork soon after, then damaged again during the 1640s before being rebuilt three decades later by the Irish Surveyor General William Robinson whose other extant works include Marsh’s Library. The greater part of the cathedral structure as seen today dates from the beginning of the 19th century when it was extensively reconstructed first by Sir Richard Morrison and then by the brothers James and George Richard Pain.
Only after they had all finished their work did Henry Cotton establish the library which now bears his name. Born in Oxford in 1789 Cotton was appointed sub-librarian of the university’s Bodleian Library in 1814, retaining that position for eight years by which time he had been admitted to holy orders. In 1823 he moved to Ireland where he became domestic chaplain to his father-in-law Richard Lawrence who had recently been elevated to the Archbishopric of Cashel. In 1834 Cotton was elected Dean of Lismore, retaining this position until the end of the following decade when failing eyesight obliged him to retire. A considerable scholar, he wrote many books, most notably Fasti Ecclesiæ Hibernicæ, a five-volume history of the Irish church including the succession of prelates and members of the country’s cathedral bodies. He died in 1879 and is buried within the cathedral grounds.

Believed to date from 1851, the library he founded can be reached by a door off the north transept of the cathedral followed by a short flight of wooden steps. It is unclear whether the room housing the library was built for this purpose or converted when Cotton made his donation. It’s not a large space and much of the north wall is taken up by a wide vaguely Tudor-esque window which provides ample light to the interior but limits opportunities for the bookcases with their charming castellations and spires. The centre of the east wall has a quartrefoil window bearing the arms of the Dukes of Devonshire (who have owned adjacent Lismore Castle since it passed into their hands in the 18th century courtesy of a Boyle heiress) and their motto ‘Cavendo Tutus’ or Safety through Caution. As if testifying to these words, the fireplace immediately beneath the window is now blocked by a display case.

The core of the collection is made up of Cotton’s own library, enhanced by a variety of gifts made over the past 150 years. Among the holdings are a 16th century English translation of John Calvin’s writings and an English translation of the Koran dating from 1734, as well as some works by the great 17th century polymath Robert Boyle. Second-youngest of the first Earl of Cork’s fourteen children, Boyle was born in Lismore and spent part of his adult life in Ireland but eventually left the country since he found it impossible to continue his chemistry research here. There are also quirky items of the sort that give any library its particular interest, not least a Victorian box with the words ‘Exceeding Great and Precious Promises’ on its cover. Inside the box are over 100 tiny scrolls, each bearing a religious injunction; the idea is that you remove one scroll every morning and then implement its directive over the rest of the day.

St Carthage’s current dynamic Dean, Paul Draper, would like the Cotton Library to be more accessible, and appreciated. At the moment there are problems concerning security and safety that would need to be resolved. In addition, some funding for the project is required since the room itself needs attention, especially the western corner of the north wall. Conditional on those issues being addressed, there’s no reason why the Cotton Library shouldn’t provide another reason to visit Lismore and its handsome cathedral.

*Wisdom resides in books