On the Town VIII

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Bank Holiday Monday morning and a coach pulls into the main square of Macroom, County Cork. The passengers step gingerly down, a few of them take photographs outside the former castle’s entrance but most wander about for a few minutes looking bewildered. Then they all climb aboard again and the bus departs. It doesn’t help that in the middle of a town which promotes itself as the tourism gateway to West Cork and South Kerry not a single premises is open for the visitors. No chance of getting a cup of coffee, or buying a postcard, or bringing home a souvenir of Macroom. Nothing to look at but shuttered shops and the residue of Sunday night’s revelry on the streets. No wonder the bus didn’t linger.

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Deriving its name from the Irish Maigh Chromtha, believed to refer to a crooked oak that once stood in what is now the main square, Macroom was of some significance in pre-Christian Ireland. However, its modern history really begins with the construction of a castle above the river Sullane, probably first begun in the 12th century by the O’Flynns who then controlled this part of what was the Kingdom of Muskerry. The McCarthys subsequently became the dominant family and at various dates they both enlarged and improved Macroom Castle. The building suffered a series of assaults in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1602 Cormac McDermot Carthy, Lord of Muscry was arrested by the government authorities and the castle besieged, during which time it caught fire. Then in 1650 Boetius MacEgan, Bishop of Ross who was a leading figure in the Confederate camp (and clearly not a pacifist) assembled a force at the castle which was set on fire rather than allow it fall into the hands of the approaching English Commonwealth army led by Roger Boyle Lord Broghill. In an ensuing battle the bishop was captured but promised his freedom if he persuaded the garrison of Carrigadrohid Castle to surrender: instead he exhorted those inside the castle to ‘Hold out to the last’ and was accordingly hanged from a nearby tree. Seemingly Macroom Castle was then burnt again by the New Model Army’s General Henry Ireton, presumably prior to his death after the Siege of Limerick in 1651. Macroom next passed briefly into the hands of Admiral Sir William Penn of whose son, the Quaker convert William Penn, would found the state of Pennsylvania in America in the 1680s. Meanwhile following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Macroom had been restored to the McCarthys who renovated the castle before losing it again in 1691 owing to their allegiance to James II. The need for the English government to pay troops who had fought in Ireland led to the castle being sold at auction in 1703 when it was bought by that speculative entity the Hollow Sword Blade Company. In turn this organization resold it to lawyer and politician Francis Bernard (popularly known as Judge Bernard after he became a Judge on the Irish Court of Common Pleas). By the middle of the 18th century Macroom Castle was occupied by the Hedges Eyre family who acquired the building outright in the 19th century. When Robert Hedges Eyre died childless in 1840, Macroom was inherited by his cousin, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White who, following the death of his elder brother twenty-eight years later, became third Earl of Bantry. In 1850 his eldest daughter, Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born in Macroom Castle which she eventually inherited.

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The town of Macroom effectively grew up around, and in order to service the needs of, the castle at its centre. However the advantageous location at a river crossing on the main route from east to west also helped to encourage development as a centre for commerce: seemingly the original market house was erected here by the McCarthys in 1620 (its sandstone successor, now the Town Hall, dates from two centuries later). Writing in 1837 Samuel Lewis described Macroom as consisting ‘of one principal street, nearly a mile in length, and towards the western extremity having a wider space, in which is the newly erected market-house, forming one side of a square, of which the opposite side is occupied by the hotel and the castle gateway: the inhabitants are supplied with water from springs and public pumps recently erected by subscription…There are no fixed sources of public amusement, but the town is frequently enlivened by the lovers of field sports and steeple chases, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated. There are two flour-mills and two tanyards at present in operation; and there were formerly a distillery and saltworks, which have been discontinued. The principal trade is in corn, which is brought into the town daily by the farmers, and purchased on account of the Cork merchants; the quantity sold during the year 1835 exceeded 39,000 barrels. The market is on Saturday, and is abundantly supplied with butchers’ meat, vegetables, and provisions at a moderate price; and from January till May there is a weekly market for pigs, many of which are slaughtered here and afterwards sent to Cork. From May till the end of the year, cattle fairs are held on the 12th of every month alternately in the town and at the village of Masseys-town, the property of Massey Hutchinson Massey, Esq., a little to the southwest.’
Masseytown mentioned above is a district to the immediate west of the Sullane that includes a particularly charming terrace of houses dating from the early 1860s; these are overlooked by the fine limestone courthouse with central Venetian window. The building probably dates from the 1820s, as does the Church of Ireland across the river which was designed by George Pain. Most of the houses in the immediate vicinity likewise were erected in the first half of the 19th century when the mud cabins hitherto occupied by many of Macroom’s residents were replaced by the present structures.

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Nothing better represents Macroom’s current state than the condition of its castle remains. The building which had already survived so much damage over the previous centuries, was burnt one last time by Anti-Treaty forces in 1922 and two years later the castle and demesne were sold by the widowed Lady Ardilaun (previously Lady Olivia Hedges-White) to a group of local businessmen. The structure survived until the 1960s but so poorly supported that the greater part of it then had to be demolished. What remains is a section of the western wall with a three-stage square tower at its north-west corner, the whole perched above the river and providing a dramatic view from the other side of the bridge, not dissimilar to that at Lismore with the castle above the Blackwater. But unlike Lismore what remains of Macroom Castle appears as insufficiently maintained, and as vulnerable to demolition, as what has already been lost. So too do the buildings directly below it, several of which are now vacant (a not uncommon condition throughout the town). Likewise the early 19th century Church of Ireland directly across the road to the castle: this is now boarded up and its stained glass windows in perilous condition (several have already been broken). Two years ago the National Roads Authority controversially tacked a pedestrian crossing onto the old stone bridge: while such a facility was obviously necessary, its siting and design (or want of same) took no account of the historical context. The same is true elsewhere in the town. Visitors passing through the old castle gates on the square will not find open parkland but a series of ugly buildings developed from the 1930s onwards as a secondary school: again no doubt an important facility for the townspeople but the location is ill-chosen, particularly when in the background can be seen the remnants of the castle falling into irreparable decrepitude. An opportunity to exploit the castle’s significant history, not least to American visitors thanks to a link with William Penn, remains grossly unexploited. But this is the case throughout Macroom, a town that markets itself as a tourism destination and then does little to encourage tourists to linger. No wonder those bus passengers soon climbed back onboard and drove away.

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A Swagger of Garlands

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The central panel of the Portland stone chimney piece in the entrance hall at Kilshannig, County Cork. On either side of a mask flow garlands of flowers and fruit carved with such precision and depth that they look as though ready to drop to the floor (were they not secured by hooks at either end of the panel). Evidently whoever was responsible for this exquisitely assured work liaised with stuccadore Filippo Lafranchini, since the chimney piece decoration echoes the latter’s ceilings throughout the house’s main rooms. (For more on Kilshannig’s plasterwork, see Exuberance, May 18th 2015).

Literary Links

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On Main Street, Doneraile, County Cork a three-storey, three bay house dating from c.1810. Typical of the domestic buildings in this handsome town, for a long time it served as parochial house for the Roman Catholic priest. The property’s most famous residence was the Reverend Patrick Sheehan who occupied the premises from the time of his appointment to the parish in 1895 until his death in 1913. It was here that he wrote the novels such as My New Curate and Glenanaar, once found in many Irish homes but now more likely to be discovered in second-hand bookshops.

Weathering the Storms

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The castle from which Castlemartyr takes its name was likely built in the middle of the 15th century when the lands in this part of the country passed into the control of the FitzGeralds of Imokilly. For more than 100 years from 1580 it was subject to successive sieges and assaults; in 1581, for example, Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond captured the building and hanged the ancient mother of John Fitzedmund FitzGerald from its walls. Castlemartyr became part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s estate which he then sold to Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork in 1602. It is likely that the Boyles built the two-storey manor with tall gable-ended chimney stacks that runs behind the older castle. But the property had to withstand attack again during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and once more in 1690, after which it was finally abandoned to become a picturesque ruin while a new residence went up on a site to the immediate west.

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An Assiduous Collector

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Although now a dormitory town, for centuries Carrigaline, County Cork was a small, single street village where the main employment came from local corn and flax mills. These were operated by successive generations of the Roberts family, of which the original member, the Rev. Thomas Roberts, moved from England to Ireland in the 1630s. Until 1927 his successors lived at Kilmony Abbey near Carrigaline but in 1784 William Roberts acquired a house called Mount Rivers which had been built some twenty years before by a wealthy Cork merchant James Morrison. The building is of unusual design since its facade originally had a recessed centre between two projections with curved corners. A scale model in the main bedroom shows what the building now looks like because in the 1830s the central space was filled in, a portico created and a third storey added to the house. However as a souveenir of its original and unique appearance the outer corners of Mount Rivers still retain their rounded windows and the ground floor porch is a convex-sided recess.

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Mount Rivers never had much land attached and its owners were always businessmen, some more successful than others. Following the closure of the Carrigaline mills in 1928 the house’s then-owner Hodder Roberts converted some of his old industrial buildings into a pottery, having noted that bricks were already being produced not far away. He took a sample of Carrigaline clay to the English potteries at Stoke-on-Trent to see whether it would be possible to interest any of the established companies there in his project. Receiving no offers of support Roberts was about to leave when, through a local landlady, he met the young pottery designer Louis Keeling. The latter took the Irish clay and used it to make a teapot; today this item stands in the drawingroom at Mount Rivers. Initially employing just Louis Keeling and six workers, the Carrigaline Potteries proved to be an outstanding success and grew to have a 250-strong workforce. Demand for its wares meant that by the end of the 1930s it became necessary to import clay from the south of England, with boats travelling up the river Owenabue and docking at Carrigaline. While much of the output was strictly functional, it was also distinguished by the beautiful colour of the glazes, in particular a lustrous turquoise that remains highly distinctive.

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Although the Carrigaline pottery business continued through various travails into the new millennium, after Hodder Roberts’ death in 1952 his family had little further involvement in the pottery. As for Mount Rivers, it passed to the present owner – the sixth generation of Roberts to live there – when his elder brother showed no interest in taking on the responsibility. By then the house had plenty of problems, since it had not been occupied by the family since the early 1950s but instead let to a succession of tenants: at one stage there were 15 of them were living on the groundfloor alone. When these all moved out in 1974 the local authority condemned Mount Rivers as being unfit for human habitation. Fortunately this did not deter the present owner, and nor did the amount of restoration work that lay ahead of him. One of the tenants, for example, drilled holes in the hall ceiling to release rainwater that had come into the house through gaps in the roof; as a result of the constant damp, the ceiling on the floor above had partially collapsed.

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After taking on the role of Mount Rivers’ saviour, the present owner also started to salvage what he could of other buildings once belonging to members of his extended family. The weather slating on the exterior of Mount Rivers, for example, was rescued from a now-demolished house called Hoddersfield. Similarly the limestone step outside the backdoor came from the front door of another now-lost property, Britfieldstown which stood at a place directly associated with the family, Roberts Cove. Inside Mount Rivers spilling out of drawers and cabinets, and covering the top of every possible surface are innumerable items with some Roberts connection, the majority carefully tagged to advise on their origins. In truth, the present owner is an inveterate and assiduous collector, and objects linked to his family’s history provide only one of several outlets for his passion. A room on the top floor of Mount Rivers is filled with boxes containing tens of thousands of postmarks, mostly Irish. Then there is a collection of old signatures and anything to do with th Irish country house: letters, bookplates, sheets of note paper. Books fill every shelf and continue to be heaped on whatever surface might still have space; failing that, they are stacked on the stairs. Not everyone could live in this fashion but it clearly suits Mount Rivers’ current occupants. It also makes their house that rare and absorbing phenomenon: a living museum.

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An August Establishment

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At some date between 1202 and 1216 Alexander FitzHugh, Anglo-Norman Lord of Castletownroche, County Cork settled a group of Augustinian Canons Regular on the western bank of the Blackwater: the Augustinians had already been popular with reformers of the Irish church over the previous decades. To ensure the occupants of Bridgetown Priory would flourish FitzHugh provided them with thirteen carucates of woodland, pasture and arable land. A carucate was a mediaeval unit of land approximating the amount of ground a plough team of eight oxen could till in an annual season and is reckoned to have been the equivalent of 100-120 acres: therefore FitzHugh’s gift covered some 1,300-1,500 acres. In addition he gave the canons a third of the revenue from his mills and fisheries, and all income from tolls collected on the bridge that once crossed the river here. The first canons came from two existing Augustinian houses, those at Newtown Trim, County Meath and at the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr in Dublin, both of which were wealthy establishments. Although Bridgetown Priory was never as affluent, in the Papal Taxation rolls for 1306 the house was reckoned to have the substantial value of £40.

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By this time responsibility for the place had passed into the hands of the Roche family from which nearby Castletownroche derives its name. The Roches were descendants of Richard FitzGodebert who had come to Ireland with Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow in 1170. Like him, the FitzGodeberts had a castle in Pembrokeshire, in their case built on an outcrop of stone. As a result they became known as FitzGodebert de la Roch, a name eventually abbreviated to Roche. An early 15th century altar tomb in the chancel of Bridgetown Priory testifies to the authority of the Roches:  carved on its west side is an upside-down shield featuring a fish, one of the Roche devices (the inverted shield indicates its bearer is now dead). Despite the support of this powerful family and although Bridgetown Priory may have housed as many as three hundred persons at its height, decline had already set in during the 14th century. This seems to have had less to do with internal problems and more with the state of the country. Widespread warfare and economic stagnation left its mark on this, as well as many other religious houses, and Bridgetown Priory’s fortunes never recovered. When closed in 1541 its buildings, including a ‘church with belfry, domitory, hall, buttery, kitchen, cloister, and cellar,’ were already largely in ruins and the site valued at just £13. The last Prior was pensioned off and Bridgetown granted to an English solder, Robert Browne.

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A 17th century tower built into the western end of the church at Bridgetown Priory indicates the site was still occupied in the post-Reformation period. But given its semi-ruinous condition then, the property soon became derelict thereafter although still used for local burials as various tombstones testify. When Cork antiquarian John Windele visited Bridgetown in the 1830s he noted the remains were ‘low, covered with ivy and afford no picture.’ On the other hand, they were not entirely without occupants: for the two previous years an elderly woman and her cats had been living in a tomb vault and supplied with food by kind local people. In 1905 local parish priest the Rev Michael Higgins commented the existing remains would likely fall to pieces in a short time and that Bridgetown Priory ‘will be but a memory.’ Just over a decade later the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society remarked ‘Alas! That it must be recorded, 20th century vandalism, aided by the corroding tooth of Time, has rendered the ruins of the Priory an object of pity to the antiquary.’ Fortunately those ruins survived and in the 1970s were cleared of vegetation by the local authority so that they might continue to be enjoyed. Not easily found, Bridgetown Priory receives few visitors but that makes it even more alluring to those who do find their way there and are able to experience the place alone.

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Dieu et Mon Droit

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Hanging high on the north wall and immediately below the pitch-pine roof of the nave in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cloyne, County Cork are the coat of arms of George I. According to a plaque nearby, in 1722 the cathedral chapter commissioned this work from a Mr Maguire. It was specifically requested the work be undertaken for a sum not exceeding £10.