Seen scuttling away with her comrades yesterday morning at Beaulieu, County Louth. The wonderfully mellow bricks used for walls to the rear were all made on site when the house and gardens underwent extensive redevelopment in the early 18th century.
The west front of Mount Stewart, County Down speckled in sunlight last weekend. This was the original entrance to the house designed c.1804 by English architect George Dance the younger. Some thirty years afterwards Mount Stewart was greatly enlarged by William Vitruvius Morrison and Dance’s work relegated to being a mere wing. The elaborate gardens are of a later date, created by Edith, seventh Marchioness of Londonderry between the two world wars (see In Circe’s Circle, November 28th). Now in the care of the National Trust they have recently benefitted from extensive replanting.
St Werburga was born in Staffordshire in the seventh century, the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and his wife Ermenilda who is likewise deemed a saint. Werburga spent most of her life as a nun and ended her days as Abbess of Ely (like her mother, grandmother and great-aunt before her: the odour one detects is a subtle blend of sanctity and nepotism). Dying c.699 she was initially buried in Hanbury, Staffordshire but owing to the threat of Viking invaders her tomb was moved to Chester Abbey (since 1540 Chester Cathedral), and she remains the patron of that city. The cult of St Werburga was sufficiently strong for churches to be founded in her name elsewhere, not least in Dublin where the original St Werburgh’s was established close to Dublin Castle around 1178.
The first church was burnt down in 1300 and rebuilt. It subsequently underwent many vicissitudes, being rebuilt in 1601 and enlarged sixty years later but remained in use and Jonathan Swift was baptised here in 1667. At the start of the 18th century, Dublin’s then-Anglican Archbishop William King, who was responsible for restoring many of the city’s old churches, decreed that St Werburgh’s should once more be rebuilt. Ireland’s Surveyor General Thomas Burgh, also responsible for the likes of the library at Trinity College and Dr Steevens’ Hospital, was given the job of designing a new church for the site. It is sometimes suggested that Alessandro Gallilei (original architect of Castletown, County Kildare) had a hand in the task and certainly the original facade was distinctly Italianate in character.
That original facade’s octagonal tower crowned with a cupola – seen above – was replaced in 1729 by a square tower with Corinthian pilasters, the whole being finished by a spire in the late 1760s. It rose to a height of 160 feet and must have been a marvellous spectacle. However in the aftermath of Robert Emmet’s abortive rebellion of 1803, the government authorities were suspicious that the spire St Werburgh’s overlooked Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard (as can be seen in James Malton’s 1792 print above) and so arranged for no less than seven architects to declare the structure unsafe. Although another architect, Francis Johnston, offered to secure the spire, it was nevertheless taken down in 1810. Twenty-six years later the tower, and it is presumed the upper section of the facade, was likewise removed. What remains, looking magisterial but decidedly truncated, is a building of three bays faced in sandstone and dominated by towering Doric pilasters, the centrepiece being a powerful segmental-pedimented Doric doorcase. From the exterior St Werburgh’s conveys the impression of a scarred but still noble giant.
In 1754 St Werburgh’s had suffered another grievous fire when the roof of the church fell ‘all at once’ into the main body of the building (with such an unfortunate history of conflagrations, no wonder the entrance porch continues to hold a number of ancient fire-fighting devices). The interior was accordingly rebuilt seemingly as a re-creation of what had been lost. The main body of the church is a long high hall with a simple coved ceiling. The recessed chancel’s upper walls are decorated with paired and tripled Ionic columns on the parapet above which rest a sequence of oversized urns, interspersed with masks and garlands of flowers; the plasterwork was executed by Michael McGuire and Thomas Tierney. The main body of the stone-flagged church is filled with dark stained boxed oak pews, above which runs a gallery with additional seating. In 1767 a wonderful new organ was installed at the west end of the gallery, its elaborate case designed by John Smyth. Immediately in front was the vice-regal ‘box’ rather like that in an old theatre, faced with a large carved and painted panel featuring the royal coat of arms.
In the early 19th century, St Werburgh’s lost not only its spire but also its status as vice-regal church since during this period Francis Johnson was responsible for building the Chapel Royal within the walls of Dublin Castle. Yet ultimately St Werburgh’s gained something from this deprivation since in 1878 it acquired the oak pulpit designed by Johnston and carved by Richard Stewart for the aforementioned Chapel Royal. In high Gothick manner, the octagonal pedestal is reached by a flight of steps with thin traceried balusters and is supported by a single slender column. On a swollen base sits a copy of the bible from which rises a cluster of colonnettes, their capital being composed of heads of the four Evangelists on each of whose heads can be found a copy of his own gospel. The sides of the pedestal are likewise heavily carved and carry sundry royal and religious coats of arms. Quite different in spirit from the rest of the interior, this virtuosic piece of work somehow finds a place within St Werburgh’s.
Despite its association with the vice-regal court, even in the 18th century St Werburgh’s was never a rich parish; by that period, fashion had moved north and east, and Toby Barnard (in his 2003 book A New Anatomy of Ireland) noted that of 114 named pew holders in 1725 a mere five were listed as ‘esquires’ with the majority being grocers, goldsmiths, printers and so forth, explaining why the previous decade the parishioners had been described as ‘mostly shopkeepers and tradesmen.’ There were a few notable incumbents, not least Dr Patrick Delany (subsequently husband of the wondrous Mary Delany) who was rector in 1730. But mostly St Werburgh’s was left to slumber. The advantage to this state of affairs is that, whatever about its exterior, after the 1760s very little was done to alter the inside of St Werburgh’s probably because of shortage of funds. It therefore remains as an admirable example of the 18th century Anglican church, box pews and gallery still in place, even the windows’ clear glass remaining in place. Even better, unlike many other city centre parishes services continue to be held at St Werburgh’s and the building has undergone a certain amount of refurbishment in recent years, without any loss of its distinctive ambience. At the moment the church is open for a certain number of hours each day, and a visit is to be encouraged.
A watercolour of Killeen Castle, County Meath, painted by Lady Emma Frances Plunkett (1826-1866), daughter of the ninth Earl of Fingall. The Plunketts are of Norman origin and established themselves in this part of Ireland at the end of the 14th century. The Earls of Fingall were notable for remaining Roman Catholic throughout the Penal era, unlike their neighbouring cousins, the Lords Dunsany who converted to Anglicanism. The picture is significant because it shows Killeen prior to extensive changes made to the structure from 1841 onwards by Lady Emma’s father, in other words it must have been painted while she was still an adolescent. At the age of 24 she married William Ince Anderton, member of an old Lancashire recusant family and together they embarked on the construction of a new chapel on his estate at Euxton Hall to the designs of Edward Welby Pugin; following Lady Emma’s death in 1866, a large stained glass window was installed in the chapel which shows her kneeling at the foot of the cross.
Killeen remained in the ownership of the Plunkett family until it was sold by the twelth and last Earl of Fingall in 1951. Thirty years later, after changing hands a couple of times more, the castle was gutted in an arson attack. It then stood ruinous until the estate was bought in 1997 by a development company which undertook to restore the building as centrepiece of a luxury hotel and spa. The rest of the same organisation’s scheme, including the inevitable championship golf course and series of commuter houses went ahead but of course the castle’s restoration stalled: when I visited some years ago, the roof had been repaired and concrete floors installed but little further work undertaken. Below is another watercolour by Lady Emma Plunkett, this one showing Dunsany Castle which happily remains intact and in the ownership of its original family. Both pictures, and three more by the same amateur artist, are included in an exhibition opening next week in Dublin’s Gorry Gallery (see http://www.gorrygallery.ie).
On this day in 1849 the wondrous Maria Edgeworth died at the age of 81. She is rightly best remembered for her 1800 novel Castle Rackrent, a remarkable work that had no precedent but many successors, both in Ireland and elsewhere. While nothing else in her output matched its originality, at the same time Edgeworth’s other Irish novels in particular The Absentee (1812) are worth reading for insights into the state of the country in the aftermath of the Act of Union. Her family home, and the place where she produced many of her books, was Edgeworthstown House, County Longford. From around 1770 onwards it was much enlarged and altered by her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the result notable for the distinctive interiors which he designed in an idiosyncratic fashion. The house still stands and has long been a nursing home run by a religious order: the last time I visited the nuns in charge seemed to have little knowledge of or interest in its most famous resident. Sadly the building today bears little resemblance to its appearance during Maria Edgeworth’s lifetime having been ruthlessly stripped of decoration and character. Below is an engraving showing the house’s library as it looked a few years after her death.
‘For the last fifty years of my life I have lived in a cottage – a cottage hanging above Ardmore bay, above the village and the Catholic church, its east window lighted over the sea on winter evenings. Beyond my cottage one of the finest round towers in Ireland reaches up to the sky above the ruined and beautiful church and monastery at its foot.’ Part of novelist Molly Keane’s charm is her ability to exaggerate to just the right extent. In this instance, the length of time she lived at Dysart in Ardmore, County Waterford has been amplified to half a century. In fact, she remained in the house for forty-four years, from 1952 until her death at the age of 91 in 1996, and as a result Dysart is replete with memories of its former chatelaine.
Anyone interested in Ireland’s historic houses and their near-universal decay during the course of the last century will be familiar with the work of Molly Keane. In the words of my clever friend Polly Devlin, she ‘observed and preserved…the sounding of the tocsins and the minutiae of the last days of the Irish Raj,’ a surveillance which had begun back in 1800 with the publication of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Molly Keane was successor to Edgeworth, just as she was to Somerville and Ross, and like these earlier writers she combined keen scrutiny with black humour, fully aware she was chronicling the decline and fall of her own people but refusing to be cast down by the prospect. As her older daughter Sally has commented, ‘Her long life almost spanned the century. She has to be the last of the Anglo-Irish writers, because she bore witness to the dying away of her world.’
I never had the good fortune to meet Molly Keane but know well both Sally and her younger sister Virginia who now has charge of their mother’s house in Ardmore. This is a charming coastal town which has been a favourite holiday resort in the area since the 19th century. As already mentioned, it became the last stop in the peregrinations of Molly Keane, born Mary Nesta Skrine in County Kildare in 1904. When she was aged six her family moved to Ballyrankin House, County Wexford; in July 1921 the building and its contents were burnt out by members of the IRA and its owners forced to walk to the nearest town in their nightwear. Despite this Molly’s father Walter declared, ‘I would rather be shot in Ireland than exiled to England’ and remained in the country until his death nine years later. By that time, his daughter was well established as a writer.
Molly’s first novel, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, came out in 1926; she was later rather disparaging about it but I find the book admirable and already full of the themes that recur in her later work, not least love of the Irish countryside and of hunting. It was because of her involvement with the latter that she published the majority of her books under the pseudonym of M.J. Farrell, the name borrowed from a pub she regularly passed on her horse. ‘For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm,’ she later explained. As for her own books, ‘no-one connected them with me. I didn’t want to be recognised as a writer. I only wanted to be good in the hunting field and to be popular at hunt balls. I was so starved of fun when I was young, and I loved fun so much.’ Her books – and the plays she wrote with John Perry – provided her with that fun, and with much-needed income both before her marriage and during her long widowhood. In 1938 she married Bobby Keane but he died only eight years later after what was supposed to be a routine operation in London.
During her marriage and for the first years of widowhood, Molly Keane lived at Belleville outside Cappoquin, a house dating from around 1830. The drawing room, Sally remembers, ‘had a 1930s flavour. It was sort of glamorous, with plumped cushions and a cocktail shaker in the corner. It was decorated in peaceful shades of pale grey, dark blue and rust colours. It had tall windows, crossed with thin glazing bars, facing to the south.’ Above are a couple of photographs from that period, the first showing her working in the garden with Belleville behind, the second of Molly with her daughters Sally and Virginia as small children. However for various reasons, not least monetary, by 1952 she was obliged to move and hence settled into a much smaller property at Ardmore. This was the same year Treasure Hunt her last novel under the name M.J. Farrell appeared; it would be almost three decades before a new book written by her was published. In 1961 Dazzling Prospect, her final play co-authored with John Perry, received such poor reviews from London critics that she gave up writing altogether.
Instead she concentrated on her children, and on her house in Ardmore. Sally has written that gardening grounded her mother, ‘It was very important to her. She loved plants and digging. It assuaged the depressive moods of her artist’s temperament. Its imagery pervades her work and is part of a wider, intense response to the natural world of the Irish landscape…’ The garden Molly Keane created at Ardmore is still there, now tended by Virginia, and so too is the kitchen where, Sally believes, she spent some of her happiest times. ‘She delighted in domesticity and was brilliant at it. For a long period, she stopped writing, and I think she replaced it by cooking. She cooked with the precision and care she spent on words, balancing sweet and sour, and creating subtle unique flavours.’
The story of Molly Keane’s rediscovery is well-known. In 1981 at the age of 77 and under her own name she published Good Behaviour which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and led to all her earlier books being reprinted and their author receiving the credit she was due. Molly Keane went on to write two further, equally acclaimed novels, Time after Time and Loving and Giving. She always liked to write in her own bed, seen above; the lower of the two photographs (a film still courtesy of RoseAnn and Catherine Foley) shows her working away in self-same bed with her dog Hero (she called him ‘My Hero) tucked under an arm.
The special charm of Dysart is that it remains imbued with Molly Keane’s spirit; aside from her novels nowhere else will you be better able to experience the character of this clever, witty, plucky woman. Virginia is very much her mother’s daughter and forever finding ways to encourage greater use of the house, as a writers’ retreat, a centre for creative writing and a venue for one-off events, such as those presented by her own husband, film historian Kevin Brownlow. You can find out more about all these occasions on http://www.mollykeanewritersretreats.com. I will close with some lines written by the Cappoquin-born poet Thomas McCarthy who knew Molly Keane well and is a terrific supporter of Virginia’s endeavours: ‘When you lift the gate and walk down the steps into Molly Keane’s house in Ardmore you know you are coming down into a creative lair, into an eagle’s nest, into a writer’s heaven. I descend into a pillow of voices, an atmosphere that is thick with the scent of white roses, with the memories of some of the loveliest days of my youth. There is old Brigadier FitzGerald before me, happy to have another lost novel of Molly’s in his hand, impatient for Molly’s signature, impatient to get down to a right good gossip about the residents of the Blackwater valley; there is Hurd Hatfield, always hovering, ready to be charming or morose (depending upon whether a visitor remembers who he is), there is Hero, yapping, sniffling in Molly’s arms. But when you enter this house it is not just the place of personal memory: it is the house as a writer’s working space, the house as workshop where the work gets done. Here is a place to come to in County Waterford if you want to attend to the writer’s task.’
Seen on the rear wall of St Werburgh’s, Dublin. The church was built to the design of Thomas Burgh around 1715 but extensively refurbished after a fire less than forty years later. As can be seen, this elegantly composed notice dates from June 1728 and carries a full list of charges for the services on offer, along with their respective fees. Note how non-parishioners were charged considerably more, so for example muffled bells cost a parishioner £1 and a shilling while a ‘foreigner’ had to pay an additional six shillings. And for the former burial within the church’s vault was almost half the price it was for the latter. Conclusion: one way or another in the 18th century you paid your dues at St Werburgh’s.
More on St Werburgh’s in the coming weeks.