A view of the formal gardens at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, lying directly below the building’s north face. The hospital’s minutes in 1695 note, ‘The garden walls to be arranged so the garden may lie open to the north part…for the greater grace of the house.’ Although the design here is a 20th century reconstruction, it gives an idea of the style of classical garden once common in Ireland but now rarely seen. A recently published book by Vandra Costello, Irish Desmesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 gives an idea of what has been lost, as well as what remains. She rightly chooses 1660 as her starting date, since that was the year Charles II was restored to the throne and his supporters, including James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, returned from mainland Europe. During their years in exile, these royalists had observed the French fashion for gardening epitomised by the work of André Le Nôtre and in due course introduced these ideas to their own countries. These gardens, as Costello observes, were guided by the principle of utile et dulci: the notion that landowners, in addition to following contemporary fashion and devising idealised landscapes in which to enjoy themselves ought at the same time ‘to make their fruit growing endeavours, timber plantations and parklands economically profitable and sustainable as well as aesthetically pleasing.’ Thus the garden at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – the building of which had been initiated by the Duke of Ormond – was expected to provide not just elegant surroundings for the main structure but also produce for its occupants. In the course of her highly informative and elegantly written book, Costello also explodes a few well-cherished myths, such as the notion that the 17th century formal gardens at Kilruddery, County Wicklow, the finest such example remaining in this country, were designed by a Frenchman called Bonnet, possibly a pupil of Le Nôtre himself: this error, she points out, has arisen from confusion over a reference in the papers of Sir William Petty. And she discusses how it was that the classical garden fell out of favour with Irish landowners in the 18th century, noting the process was less attributable to politics – it is often proposed that Tories liked formality while Whigs preferred the ‘natural’ – than to straightforward changes in taste. In her garden at Delville, County Dublin Mrs Delaney, who was unquestionably a Whig, incorporated many elements of the formal style including a bowling green, terrace walk, parterre and orangery. As so often in Irish history, the simple interpretation is rarely correct. A terrific read, and definitely worth adding to every library.
Although the Board of First Fruits is no longer much remembered, for more than a century it was an important organization in this country. Established in 1711 during the reign of Queen Anne, the board was devised to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. Initially funded by a tax on clerical incomes, from 1778 onwards the body benefitted from grants given by the Irish Parliament, the amount varying until 1785 after which it received an annual sum of £5,000. Following the abolition of the country’s parliament in 1800, just as Ireland’s elected representatives were more closely bound to their English equivalents, so too were Irish Anglican clergy, thanks to the creation of the United Church of England and Ireland. One consequence of this merger was a substantial increase in money available to the Board of First Fruits: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808 and then climbed to a remarkable £60,000 between 1810-26 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. This largesse led to a massive building boom, with almost 700 churches either constructed or renovated, as well as 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. Of course the Church of Ireland population was never large (just over 10 per cent in the 1831 census) and has steadily declined (today it is less than three per cent), rendering increasing numbers of these buildings surplus to need. Over the past century, parishes have been amalgamated and properties let go, with many churches falling into dereliction. Readers may already be familiar with photographer Tarquin Blake’s previous books including two featuring Abandoned Mansions of Ireland. Now he has produced a new volume Abandoned Churches of Ireland, which contains accounts of 82 properties spread across twenty-five counties. In varying stages of decline, they represent the Church of Ireland’s history from dominant faith – in authority if not in numbers – to minority denomination. Blake’s pictures and text eloquently tell the story of churches like that at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny (seen above and below), its present form dating from 1810 when the Board of First Fruits provided the parish with a grant and loan for this purpose. Built on the site of an older church, it remained in use until 1961 and is now a roofless shell.
The Romanesque west doorway of St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, founded by Donal Mór O’Brian, King of munster in 1168 but said to incorporate elements of an older palace on the same site. This is one of a number of such buildings considered in Niamh NicGhabhann’s recently published Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1178-1915. The fascinating text explores changing attitudes to gothic architecture during the period, and increased academic interest in the subject as antiquarians like George Wilkinson and George Petrie carried out detailed surveys of old monuments. Equally interesting is how over the course of the 19th century Ireland’s built heritage became politicised, with debate focussed on what elements might be judged ‘authentically’ Irish and what foreign imports. As NicGhabhann writes, ‘In Ireland, debates on the meaning of architectural style were complicated by issues of religious identity, as well as by ideas of political symbolism and national representation.’ If not necessarily in the field of gothic architecture, these debates continue to resonate in some quarters to the present day. They became immediately applicable in Limerick when work on a new Roman Catholic cathedral, designed by Philip Charles Hardwicke, began in 1856: this stands in the area known since the Middle Ages as ‘Irishtown’ whereas St Mary’s is on King’s Island, otherwise known as ‘Englishtown.’ ‘The public and religious celebrations surrounding the consecration of St John’s Cathedral,’ writes NicGhabhann of this event in 1894, ‘can be read as a performance of both Catholic identity within the city, and the negotiation between the religious and political significance of the two cathedrals.’ That negotiation could be fractious, not least in Dublin where the Church of Ireland had possession of the capital’s two ancient gothic cathedrals, and the Catholic church had to settle for a neo-Catholic Pro-Cathedral. The choir of one of the former, St Patrick’s Cathedral , can be seen below. The building underwent a controversial ‘restoration’ in the 1860s, since Sir Benjamin Guinness, who funded the entire enterprise, chose to dispense with the services of an architect.
A view from Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge looking south. This was one of twelve topographical images of the city executed in watercolour and pencil by Samuel Brocas and then engraved by his brother Henry between 1818 and 1829. The caption reads ‘Published July 1st, 1820, by J. Le Petit, Printseller, 20 Capel Street, and Bell and Wright, Duke Street, Bloomsbury, London.’ The print was to be part of an intended Book of Views of Ireland which never materialised, probably due to lack of sufficient support but it gives us a wonderful idea of how Dublin looked two centuries ago, and how successful had been the work of the Wide Street Commissioners. Imagine a similar view taken today, and how little of the coherence of design and intelligence of layout visible here still remains.
In 1972 Mariga Guinness claimed that Ireland ‘has more follies to the acre than anywhere else in the world.’ The assertion has yet to be verified (has anyone actually traversed every acre of the country in search of follies?) but we certainly have our ample share of these whimsical edifices. Some research on the subject has been published but usually of an academic nature and with no spirit of the playfulness which inspired the typical folly’s construction. For surely the essence of such a building’s character lies in its name, with the implication of common sense being absent and fun gaining the upper hand.
What a treat, therefore, to find a book which celebrates the irrational, glorifies the absurd and encourages the downright nonsensical. Fabulous Follies of Ireland is a collaboration between author William Laffan and illustrator Nesta FitzGerald. It explores fifteen of the country’s follies, some of them like the Casino at Marino (shown above) widely known, others such as McDermott’s Castle at Rockingham, County Roscommon insufficiently appreciated. And it does so with just the right balance of erudition and wit, ensuring readers are as much entertained as informed. The book is published by the Irish Georgian Society, the emblem of which – the Conolly Folly, County Kildare – can be seen below. It costs €7.50, making this a fabulous folly anyone can afford.
Russborough, County Wicklow has featured more than once on this site and why not since it is often judged to be the most beautiful country house in Ireland. Dating from the 1740s, Russborough was commissioned by Joseph Leeson, a wealthy brewer who in 1763 became first Earl of Milltown. His architect was German-born Richard Castle and work on the project seems to have proceeded fast because in his 1746 A Tour through Ireland William Chetwood found at Russborough ‘a noble new house, forming into perfection’, adding ‘if we may judge of the picture of the outlines, we shall, when finished, see a complete beauty’. This indeed has proven to be the case. Just as lovely is the newly-published Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. Written by William Laffan and Kevin V Mulligan, the book covers over 300 years of history, travelling far in various directions but always returning to the building that lies at its core. And this is as it should be, the authors noting how the approach to the house is carefully managed ‘so that the main block is completely concealed, the first views taking in a finely articulated cupolaed gateway, the east wing and then its distant counterpart. These low ashlar-fronted blocks – to the east the kitchen wing, to the west the stables – are impressive in their own way, given deep plans with broad fronts, attractively articulated with Ionic pilasters to the centre bays and urns punctuating the parapets, but the void between seems to offer the greater distraction and an inducement to progress further. Once revealed in its entirety, the visual power and complexity of the composition, its symmetry and poise, is simply captivating…The viewer’s instinct is to draw back immediately so as to take in everything as one comes to realise the full extent of the plan. A symmetrical expanse, drawn out on either side beyond the wings to encompass a further complex of buildings on each side, is laid out to achieve a façade that extends from end to end a distance of some seven hundred feet.’ Scholarly and engaging (a too-rare combination) the prose is matched by James Fennell’s splendid and copious photographs, making this the most complete work yet produced on a single Irish house. An essential addition to any library this season.
Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections is published by the Alfred Beit Foundation, €50.
This is the first in a short series of suggestions for gifts this season. David Hicks’ Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is the successor to his 2012 book, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change. Like the latter, he features a number of properties from each of Ireland’s four provinces but here the conceit (using that word in the old-fashioned sense) is hanging the story of a building on a portrait, the kind of device once loved by film directors as a means of introducing audiences to what might otherwise be too unfamiliar territory. It works just as successfully here and means the text is as much social as architectural history.
Certain artists’ names recur, not least that of William Orpen who is represented in five of the 18 houses featured and they tend to date from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The buildings on the other hand, span a broader chronology, from 16th century Castle Taylor, County Galway to Kilteragh, the County Dublin Arts and Crafts house designed by William Douglas Caroe in 1905 for that consummate patriot, Sir Horace Plunkett: it was burnt out by the IRA in January 1923. Another house, featured on the cover, is Curraghmore, County Waterford, home of the Marquis of Waterford. The main block of Curraghmore has at its core a mediaeval tower house, and in this lies the billiard room with a rococo ceiling of the late 1740s, its decoration attributed to the Lafranchini brothers. (The picture below comes not from Hicks’ book but from the Sadleir and Dickinson volume featured here on Monday). The Irish Georgian Society has recently made a grant to assist in the conservation of this plasterwork.
Handsomely produced and with many excellent photographs taken by the author, Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters adds further to the genre especially when it covers places not hitherto the subject of much attention. It looks well and reads well: for what more could one wish?
Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is published by Collins Press, €39.99.