Ballyragget Castle, County Kilkenny is a late 15th century tower house originally built by a branch of the Butler family one of whom, Richard Butler became first Viscount Mountgarret in 1550; his mother, the spirited Lady Margaret FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond is said to have lived here. Butlers continued to occupy the building until 1788 when they moved into a house close by. Surrounded by a bawn wall and climbing four or five storeys high with fine crenellations and handsome cut stone windows, the castle could easily be put to good use, not least as a tourist attraction. Instead it stands on the edge of a farmyard, all doors and other points of ingress sealed by concrete breeze blocks. An admirable example of how to treat the country’s built heritage…
One of the stained glass windows in the 16th century tower house at Tulira Castle, County Galway. This is in Edward Martyn’s former private library, redecorated by George Ashlin when he made over the whole property in the 1880s. The windows, featuring luminaries such as Chaucer and Shakespeare shown here, were designed by English artist Edward Frampton in 1882. The irony, of course, is that within decades of the windows’ installation many key figures in Ireland’s literary revival – not least another pair of giants, Martyn’s neighbour Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats – would gather at Tulira. Their presence there went unrecorded, at least in glass.
For more on Tulira Castle, see The Ascetic Aesthete, October 13th 2014.
Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.
Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.
Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.
There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.
It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.
Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.
Shrule Castle, County Mayo was built c.1238 and was long a stronghold for the de Burgh family, one time Earls of Ulster. Having been subject to several assaults by rival forces in the 16th century, in 1610 it passed into ownership of Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde who then leased castle and lands to one of the Lynches of Galway. It is associated with an unhappy incident during the Confederate Wars three decades later when, in February 1642, a group of English settlers including the Anglican Bishop of Killala, Dr John Maxwell, were held captive there. Although they expected to be escorted to Galway, the prisoners on leaving the castle were instead massacred on the orders of an Irish soldier Edmond Bourke, the numbers killed being estimated as many as sixty-five. The survivors were rescued and given protection by the Franciscans of nearby Ross Errilly Friary (for more on that building, see To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th last).
It was the misfortune of Edward Martyn that his appearance and character so frequently encouraged ridicule. A large, lumbering man with a passion for beauty in all its manifestations, he devoted the greater part of his life and income attempting to convert others in Ireland to his aesthetic beliefs, with only limited success. In his former friend George Moore’s entertaining, irreverent but not always credible memoir Hail and Farewell, Martyn is described as being ‘not very sure-footed on new ground, and being a heavy man, his stumblings are loud. Moreover, he is obsessed by a certain part of his person which he speaks of as his soul; it demands Mass in the morning, Vespers in the afternoon, and compels him to believe in the efficacy of Sacraments and the Pope’s indulgences…’ W.B. Yeats, another friend-turned-opponent with whom Martyn and Lady Gregory had helped to found Ireland’s National Theatre, was still less charitable, not least on the subject of his old comrade’s religiosity which the poet thought ill-became a member of the ruling gentry. Yeats proposed, ‘The whole system of Irish Catholicism pulls down the able and well-born if it pulls up the peasant, as I think it does.’ From this, he wrote snobbishly of Martyn, ‘I used to think that the two traditions met and destroyed each other in his blood, creating the sterility of the mule…His father’s family was old and honoured; his mother but one generation from the peasant.’ On another occasion Yeats called Martyn, ‘An unhappy, childless, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away’. Both Moore and Yeats were baffled by the seeming contradictions in Martyn’s persona, not least his revelling in discomfort. Moore has left an account of Martyn’s accommodation in Dublin, a modest flat above a tobacconist shop on Leinster Street: ‘Two short flights of stairs, and we are in his room. It never changes – the same litter, from day to day, from year to year, the same old and broken mahogany furniture, the same musty wall-paper, dusty manuscripts lying about in heaps, and many dusty books … old prints that he tacks on the wall … a torn, dusty, ragged screen … between the folds of the screen … a small harmonium of about three octaves, and on it a score of Palestrina … on the table is a candlestick made out of white tin, designed probably by Edward himself, for it holds four candles…Is there another man in this world whose income is two thousand a year, and who sleeps in a bare bedroom, without dressing room, or bathroom, or servant in the house to brush his clothes and who has to go to the baker’s for his breakfast?’ Yet Martyn was wont to abandon himself to the same self-imposed hardship even when staying in his country house, Tulira Castle, County Galway.
To understand Tulira and how it now looks, one needs to know something of the history of the Martyn family. Supposedly descended from a Norman supporter of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow, they liked to claim one of their number, Oliver Martyn, had accompanied Richard I on the Third Crusade. In return for this support, the king presented him with armorial bearings. More significantly, the Martyns settled in Galway and became one of the city’s mercantile ‘tribes.’ Like so many of the others of their ilk, during the upheavals of the 16th century they moved into the countryside and acquired large amounts of land, not least that around an old de Burgo castle which was in their possession by 1598. Somehow they survived the turbulence of the following century and were confirmed in the possession of their estates in 1710 when they were specifically exempted by Queen Anne in an Act of Parliament passed ‘to prevent the growth of Popery.’ This was thanks to another Oliver Martyn who, it was noted, during the recent Williamite wars, ‘behaved himself with great moderation, and was remarkably kind to Protestants in distress, many of whom he supported in his family and by his charity and goodness, saved their lives.’ As a result the Martyns of Tulira were confirmed in ‘their very extensive estates and in all their rights as citizens, proprietors, and Catholics.’ At some time in the 18th century, another generation of Martyns built a new house beside the old de Burgo tower. Nothing of this Georgian structure, seemingly three-storeys over basement, has survived, although the stable yard immediately behind the castle dates from that period. In the 1870s when Edward Martyn was still a minor the old house was demolished and replaced with a new residence. The impetus for this transformation seems to have come from his formidable mother. Mrs Martyn was born Annie Josephine Smyth of Masonbrook, County Galway. When she married John Martyn in 1857, her self-made father presented his son-in-law with Annie Josephine’s weight in gold: the sum was supposed to amount to £20,000. After only three years of marriage, John Martyn died, leaving his heir Edward aged just 14 months to be raised by the widowed Annie. The following decade, she embarked on Tulira’s transformation, the eventual cost of which is said to have been £20,000, the same amount as was handed over by her father at the time of her marriage.
Given that Edward Martyn was only in his teens when Tulira was rebuilt, it seems likely his mother was responsible for choosing the architect. Since she was an ardent Roman Catholic, it is not altogether surprising the commission should have gone to George Ashlin, who otherwise worked primarily for clerical clients. Ashlin was born in County Cork in 1837 and in his late teens was articled in England to E W Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin (whose daughter Ashlin married in 1860). When, in 1859, the younger Pugin received the commission for the church of SS Peter and Paul, Cork, he made Ashlin a partner with responsibility for their Irish work, which included St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. Ashlin remained in partnership with Pugin until about 1870 after which he set up his own highly successful practice. Tulira was his only major secular commission and regrettably no documents relating to the castle’s design or construction have survived.
In any case, for Mrs Martyn and her son, Ashlin designed a densely-castellated two-storey house directly linked to the old castle. In the centre of the asymmetric facade is a projecting three storey tower containing an arched Gothic door case and an oriel window immediately above; on the corbels of the latter are carved Edward Martyn’s initials and the date 1882 indicating this was when work concluded. On either side of the tower are polygonal corner turrets which once more are raised slightly higher than the roof parapet. The garden front shows a similar differentiation in surface rhythm thanks to the presence of further projecting towers. The house has always inspired mixed feelings. Moore, in his usual imaginative way, claimed he attempted to dissuade Martyn from undertaking the project: ‘walking on the lawn, I remember trying to persuade him that the eighteenth-century house which one of his ancestors had built alongside of the old castle, on the decline of brigandage, would be sufficient for his want.’ However, since Mrs Martyn was the driving force behind the enterprise, this recollection seems defective. However in 1896 Yeats and the English critic Arthur Symons stayed in Tulira after which Symons wrote in The Savoy that here he discovered ‘a castle of dreams’, where ‘in the morning, I climb the winding staircase in the tower, creep through the secret passage, and find myself in a vast deserted room above the chapel which is my retiring room for meditation; or following the winding staircase, come out of the battlements, where I can look widely across Galway, to the hills.’ Yeats was also enchanted, although his preference was for ‘the many rookeries, the square old tower, and the great yard where medieval soldiers had exercised.’ Much later, his verdict was more harsh, dismissing Ashlin’s design as being nothing better than ‘a pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families.’
It is generally accepted that Mrs Martyn’s reason for rebuilding Tulira was to provide a comfortable home for future generations of the ancient family into which she had married. George Moore, most likely apochryally, claimed Annie Martyn had proclaimed, ‘Edward must build a large and substantial house of family importance, and when this house was finished he could not do otherwise than marry.’ Unfortunately she had not reckoned on her son’s lifelong dedication to celibacy and reluctance to linger in the company of women. When he endowed the foundation of the Palestrina Choir in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin in 1904, for example, he stipulated ‘the said choir shall consist of men and boys only’ and that ‘on no occasion shall females be employed.’
Mrs Martyn also under-estimated her son’s partiality for asceticism: although Tulira was splendidly finished, Martyn preferred to live in the old tower. Here a stone staircase ascending the full height of the building leads to the first floor which served as his private library and still retains its oak floor and oak-panelled walls, as well as stained glass windows designed by Edward Frampton in 1882 and featuring literary figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dante. A door at the far end of the library provides access to a simple room where Martyn slept, according to Moore ‘with the bed as narrow as a monk’s and the walls whitewashed like a cell and nothing upon them but a crucifix.’ Above this is his private chapel, its fittings, including the benches and altar, apparently designed by Irish architect William A Scott, although the chimneypiece has the dates 1613 and 1681 carved into the limestone. An even more impressive chimneypiece is found on the third floor where the ceiling rises to the roof, allowing for the inclusion of a small minstrels’ gallery at one gable end.
Meanwhile inside the Ashlin-designed house, after passing through a modest entrance one reaches the great hall measuring some 31 by 32 feet and rising 42 feet, the full height of Ashlin’s castle. Here Edward Martyn would play the polyphonic music of Palestrina and Vittoria on a long-since lost organ. On a richly-tiled floor repeatedly decorated with the Martyn motto of Sic hur Ad Astra (‘Thus One Climbs to the Stars’) rest the bases of black marble columns, their capitals elaborately carved with figures. From here a massive staircase with quatrefoil balustrading leads to the galleried first floor where a sequence of arches is supported by further marble columns. Much of this room’s decoration is attributed to John Dibblee Crace, the English designer and decorator whose father had worked with Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in London. Crace produced designs for the hall’s main window but these were never executed, as it seems Martyn lost interest in completing the scheme for the castle’s interior decoration. However, on the ground floor a series of reception rooms, intended to impress those prospective brides who were never invited, have compartmented timber ceilings with the recessed panels painted in a delicate design, also by Crace. The drawing and dining rooms retain their polychromatic marble chimneypieces as well as stained glass bearing the crests of Galway’s tribes. The embossed red and bronze wallpaper in the dining room was hung when the castle was first built, with certain sections restored more recently by David Skinner who also made paper for a number of other rooms in the house.
Despite all that he had done, and all that he had tried to do in the fields of art, music and literature, Edward Martyn’s final years were grim, not least due to creeping ill-health. In her journal for September 1921, Lady Gregory his neighbour and former collaborator, noted, ‘He is anxious about money, has fears of his investment in the English railways, and is very crippled by rheumatism.’ Two years later she visited him at Tulira for the last time and afterwards wrote, ‘In the bow window of the library I saw Edward sitting. I thought he would turn and look round at the noise, but he stayed quite quite immovable, like a stuffed figure, it was quite uncanny…I went in, but he did not turn his head, gazed before him. I touched his hands (one could not shake them, all crippled, Dolan [the butler] says he has to be fed) and spoke to him. He slowly turned his eyes but without recognition. I went on talking without response till I asked him if he had any pain and he whispered: “No, thank God”. I didn’t know if he knew me, but talked a little, and presently, he whispered: “How is Robert?” I said: “He is well, as all are in God’s hands, he has gone before me and before you.” Then I said: “My little grandson, Richard, is well”, and he said with difficulty and in a whisper: “I am very glad of that.” Then I came away, there was no use staying…’
Three months later Edward Martyn was dead at the age of sixty-four, leaving instructions that his body be donated to medical science and the remains afterwards buried in a pauper’s grave. Along with his papers, he left the contents of his personal library to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street, Dublin and they are there still. His collection of paintings, mostly by Irish artists but including a Monet landscape and two works by Degas bought while holidaying in Paris with George Moore in April 1885, Martyn bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. The rest of the castle’s contents, it can be conjectured, were still in Tulira after it was left to a cousin Mary, Lady Hemphill. In 1982 the fifth Lord Hemphill sold Tulira and its surrounding land, and at that time Sotheby’s conducted a house contents auction on the premises when many of the 430 lots once owned by Martyn were dispersed. Between 1982 and 1996, Tulira changed hands no less than five times, on one occasion being exchanged for a yacht, before being sold to its present owners. Since taking possession of Tulira, they have tried to acquire any items of furniture that formerly belonged to the house and have come onto the market, such as a Victorian oak centre table (from a house sale in Oxfordshire) and a set of four oak Gothic chairs of the same period all of which have been returned to the castle’s library. Under their guardianship one feels the spirit of Edward Martyn has returned to Tulira.
The base of a window and its curtain in the Gothic Saloon at Birr Castle, County Offaly. Lit by three arches offering views down to the river Camcor and a vaulted ceiling supported by slender shafts, this wonderful room dates from the early 19th century when it was created by the second Earl of Rosse assisted by an otherwise almost unknown architect called John Johnston who, according to Mark Girouard (writing in Country Life, March 1965) did ‘little more than make working drawings based on the sketches of his employer.’
Monday’s piece on Kingston College (see God Bless the Kings, September 1st) seems to have excited some interest, so readers might be interested to know what became of the King family’s adjacent residence, Mitchelstown Castle. This building, shown above, dated from the early 1820s when the third Earl of Kingston demolished the old house, replacing it with an immense castle designed by James and George Pain and costing in the region of £100,000. With 60 principal rooms, including a 93 feet-long gallery, drawing room, three libraries, morning room and vast dining room, Lord Kingston entertained lavishly until 1830 when, his candidate of choice having failed to win a local by-election, he lost his mind and had to be taken to England where he died towards the close of the decade. The fourth Earl followed his father’s example by being both a reckless spendthrift and then descending into madness. Ultimately the castle was occupied by the fifth Earl’s widow and her second husband, and by the latter alone after his wife’s death. In the summer of 1922 he was driven from the building by anti-Treaty forces who, on their departure, set the castle on fire: it has since been proposed that this only happened after the building’s valuable contents – including the King silver, family portraits and furniture – had been looted from the property. Although efforts were later made to seek compensation the sum offered by the Irish Free State was insufficient to allow Mitchelstown Castle be reconstructed. Instead its cut stone was sold to the Cistercian monks of Mount Melleray, County Waterford who used it to build a new abbey. As can be seen below, the site on which the castle stood is today occupied by the Dairygold Food Co-Operative Society’s factory, which like the earlier building dominates the horizon, albeit in a somewhat less attractive fashion.