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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Last Remains

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Set into the eastern section of a wall surrounding St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth, the tombstone slab of a funerary monument dating from 1520 and commemorating Sir Edmond Golding and his wife Elizabeth Flemyng. Depicting the couple as cadavers, this stone would originally have sat on top of a free-standing tomb but was presumably moved to its present position when St Peter’s was rebuilt in the 1750s. Sections of the lower portion of the tomb can also be found elsewhere on the same wall.

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The Remarkable Dr Beaufort

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‘Little Dr Beaufort of Navan,’ Richard, Marquess Wellesley once commented, ‘would make a good terrier.’ Small, energetic and forever chasing after a new idea or scheme, the Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort was indeed terrier-like in his doggedness. According to his biographer Canon C.C. Ellison, ‘Possessed of an insatiable curiosity, his keen eye and ready pen recorded the passing scene. He could not resist calling at a mansion or a castle, especially if building work was in progress. Usually he found a welcome, a dinner and a bed. Parks, gardens and farms were of special interest and he was ever on the lookout for new methods and machinery to try out on his own land. An art collection, museum or curiosity of any sort drew him like a magnet. He liked to copy old records and try his hand at scientific experiments. He had so many interests that he seldom concentrated on any of them long enough to make a lasting impact. If there was a pedigree to be puzzled out, an escutcheon to be designed, a good executor to be found, a plan to be drawn, a congratulatory address to be written, or confidential business to be transacted, the solution was often, Ask Dr. Beaufort.’ He was born in London in October 1739 the son of French Huguenot refugees Daniel Cornelis de Beaufort and Esther Gougeon. His father was initially pastor of the Huguenot church in Spitalfieds and then of that in Parliament Street, Bishopsgate, in 1729. Two years later, however, he converted to the Church of England and served as rector of East Barnet from 1739 to 1743. When William Stanhope, first Earl of Harrington was sent to Ireland as Viceroy in 1747 he brought Beaufort senior with him as his private chaplain. The whole family followed and remained in this country. Many men in who gained such a position usually worked it to their advantage and secured an affluent bishopric for themselves. However, Daniel Cornelis, like his son after him, seems to have lacked the ability to improve his circumstances and the highest office he secured from Lord Harrington was the rectorship of Navan, County Meath. He was provost and archdeacon of Tuam from 1753 to 1758 and thereafter until his death thirty years later was rector of a parish in County Laois.

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Daniel Augustus Beaufort was educated at the Preston School, Navan and then went to Trinity College, Dublin of which he was elected a scholar in 1757. He attained a B.A. in 1759, an M.A. in 1764, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the university in 1789. Long before then he had been ordained by the Bishop of Salisbury, and, in succession to his father, was rector of Navan, co. Meath, from 1765 to 1818. In 1790 he was presented by John Foster to the vicarage of Collon, co. Louth: until his final years he was ostensibly responsible for both parishes although given his travels and other engagements curates did most of the work. He also held several other benefices yet despite this plurality of incomes he was always chronically short of funds and forever falling into debt from which he had to be rescued by relatives and friends. From 1779 to 1784, for example, he and his family lived first in Wales and then Cheltenham, ostensibly for the sake of his son’s education. In fact the main motivation was to reduce expenditure and to avoid creditors in Ireland. He paid three brief visits to the country during this period, one of them being for the purpose of voting in a Meath election but, in typical fashion, he arrived too late for the ballot. Likewise Cheltenham disappointed, his sons being almost immediately expelled from the Grammar School because of their impenetrable Irish accents.
In 1767 Beaufort had married Mary, daughter and co-heiress of William Waller of Allenstown, County Meath. The couple had five children who survived to adulthood, the best known being Francis Beaufort who became a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and in 1805 invented the Beaufort Scale, an empirical measure that relates wind speeds to observed conditions at sea or on land and is still used today. The eldest of their three daughters, Frances Anne in 1798 married Richard Lovell Edgeworth as his fourth wife: he was only five years younger than her father. Just to confuse matters further, her brother the aforementioned Francis Beaufort married as his second wife Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Honora Edgeworth. In this way he became both a brother- and son-in-law of the same man. Richard Lovell’s most famous offspring (he had more than twenty children from his quartet of wives) was Maria Edgeworth. Her 1817 novel Ormond contains a character called Dr Cambray, an Anglican cleric of Huguenot extraction modelled on Daniel Beaufort. At one point in the book Dr Cambray is described as being ‘a very agreeable, respectable, amiable person’ and at another as someone whose ‘persuasive benevolent politeness could not have failed to operate even on first acquaintance, in pleasing and conciliating even those who were of opposite opinions.’
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Among Dr Beaufort’s more notable achievements in the religious realm were the prominent role he played in the establishment and encouragement of Sunday Schools, and the preparation of elementary educational books. Today however he is better recalled for his secular work. He was a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy and associated with the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society) in its early days. His great life project was the preparation of a new map of Ireland, Civil and Ecclesiastical published on the scale of six miles to the inch and accompanied by a quarto ‘Memoir of a Map of Ireland illustrating the Topography of that Kingdom and containing a short Account of its present State civil and ecclesiastical with a complete Index to the Map.’ It took years for this enterprise to reach completion, not helped by established cartographers taking umbrage after he, a mere amateur, had proclaimed that his map would be ‘more correct’ than their earlier efforts. In 1787, having finally secured approval from the relevant authorities, including the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Beaufort embarked on two years of exhaustive journeying throughout Ireland, writing a daily account of all he had seen, everyone he met and all the places he stayed. Despite the harsh conditions of the time, he was indefatigable in his pursuit of new experiences, Maria Edgeworth telling her step-mother (and Beaufort’s daughter) in 1806 that he ‘next to my own, is I think the best and most agreeable traveller in the world’ Further research and preparation absorbed another few years and only in 1792 did Beaufort’s map finally appear; typically, after all his trouble the river Boyne was somehow omitted from the index. But the Map proved to be a success, selling 2000 copies within 18 months of publication and a 2nd edition appearing in 1797. Nevertheless, the project ended up costing him £1,000.

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In addition to his many other interests and activities, Dr Beaufort was also an amateur architect of some ability, producing designs for houses and religious buildings alike. As with so much else in this busy man’s life, not all his proposals were realised, but some did reach completion, not least the last and finest: the church in Collon, County Louth. As has already been mentioned, in 1790 Dr Beaufort was presented with the living at Collon, thanks to his friendship with John Foster last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, who lived there (for more on Foster and Collon, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). There already was a church in the village, erected as recently as 1763, but it was inadequate to the needs of the Fosters who required a new family vault. Thus by 1810 plans were underway for the building’s replacement with a new church designed by Dr Beaufort, now in his mid-seventies but as indefatigable as ever. It seems likely the Fosters provided some funds, and the Board of First Fruits (an Anglican organisation intended to improve the condition of the country’s churches and glebe houses) offered both a grant of £800 and a loan of £1700. The foundation of the new building was laid in July 1811 but two years later Beaufort discovered to his surprise – but most likely no one else’s – that £760 of his own money had been swallowed up in the work. Thanks to an intervention by John Foster, the Board of First Fruits granted a further loan of £2000. It is not too surprising costs had spiralled given that Beaufort chose as the model for his design one of the finest religious buildings in England: the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This superlative example of 15th century Perpendicular architecture was reproduced on a smaller scale in a Louth village, albeit with some modifications. Aside from the east gable which is dominated by a large window, the exterior of Collon church is relatively plain. The interior, however, is more engaging, the east window and those along the south wall filled with abstract coloured glass designed by Beaufort’s equally talented daughter Louisa. The real joy of the building is its plastered fan-vaulted ceiling which dominates the space without overwhelming it. Both this and a heating system beneath the tiered box seating on either side of a central aisle are believed to have been designed by William Edgeworth, the engineer son of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Collon church opened for services two hundred years ago, in 1815 and aside from some minor changes – the entrance was moved from the east to west end at some date in the later 19th century – remains exactly as it was when first designed. Yet even this endeavour was not without its hiccups, as usual of a financial nature. It is said that when Dr Beaufort was fitting out the interior he asked a carpenter to speak from the pulpit to test the acoustics. The man mounted the steps and shouted, ‘When will you pay me?’

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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.

Commemorated but Forgotten

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On a wall of the now-roofless 17th century church at Kilcommock, County Longford can be seen this elaborately carved limestone funerary monument which would appear to date from the early 1700s. Unfortunately the central plaque is missing and it is therefore now impossible to know in whose memory it was originally erected. Might some reader have the answer?

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Truncated

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The stump of an 11th century round tower at Dysert O’Dea, County Clare. A little shy of six metres in diameter, this is one of the largest such structures recorded, believed to have risen to a height of 30 metres. However, the tower has been in a state of ruin probably since the 1650s and now serves as an attractive feature in the graveyard surrounding the 12th century church dedicated to its founder, St Tola.

On the Plain of Oaks

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Yesterday was the Feast of St Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patrons, the others being St Patrick and St Columba. It is the last of these that concerns us today since he was the founder of several important monastic settlements in the country, not least that at Durrow, County Offaly. Columba is said to have been born in 521, a descendant of the fifth century Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. His original name was Crimthann, meaning Fox which might be a reference to red hair or to a wily character. In any case, later he was known as Columcille, which means Dove of the Church, or just Columba. He came from the province of Ulster and it was there having completed his training that he established the first of over twenty-five monasteries, on a site that was given the name Doir Colum Cille, the Oak Tree of Columcille: from this derives Derry because the city occupies the same spot. Raphoe in County Donegal followed, as did Kells, County Meath and Swords, County Dublin. But he was a quarrelsome man who engaged in more than one pitched battle and as a result he went in exile to Scotland where he worked to convert the Picts and established a great monastery on the island of Iona, where he died in 597. His hagiography, the Vita Columbae, was written a century later by Adomnán,  ninth Abbot of Iona. It helped to perpetuate his memory in Ireland and ensure that religious houses continued to flourish, not least that at Durrow.

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Durrow Abbey was founded on a site given to Columba by a local chief. Its name comes from Dearmach, Plain of Oaks, as already mentioned a tree also associated with Derry but this should be no surprise as ancient Ireland was densely covered in oak forest. Some of these still survive at Durrow. The monastery flourished for many years after its originator’s departure: in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People completed around the year 731, the Venerable Bede called it a ‘monasterium nobile.’ Although it received patronage of successive kings, at least one of whom was buried on the site, the monastery also engaged in arguments with other such establishments, not least nearby Clonmacnoise; a battle between the two in 764 left two hundred monks from Durrow dead. Worse was to follow. Durrow’s fame and wealth left it vulnerable to attack and between the ninth and twelfth centuries the monastery was burnt and plundered on more than a dozen occasions. In 1095, for example, its famous library was burnt. By this time the original buildings, which would have been made from some of the oak on the site, had been replaced by stone structures: the earliest reference to a church in this material comes in 1019 when it was recorded ‘the stone-church of Dermagh was broken open by Muirchertach, grandson of Carrach.’ Greater changes came in the middle of the twelfth century when ecclesiastical reform led by St Malachy of Armagh saw the establishment of Augustinian houses of regular canons and nuns at Durrow. Then in 1175 the whole area was laid waste by the Anglo-Normans whose head Hugh de Lacy had a large earthen motte erected on the site. This was unwise since it caused indignation among some of the local population: in 1186 while surveying the newly-completed motte, de Lacy was attacked and killed with an axe by a youth of Meath. Thereafter the violence that had marked Durrow for so long came to an end and the Canons enjoyed their quiet reflection until the closure of all monasteries in the 16th century.

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Durrow Abbey is renowned for having long housed two remarkable objects. The first of these is a book of gospels produced at some point between the years 650 and 700, making it a century older than the more famous Book of Kells. Whether the Book of Durrow was created in the monastery’s own scriptorium or in another, perhaps in Northumbria or Columba’s foundation on Iona, has never been resolved. However, it was certainly in Durrow since the time of Flann Sinna, King of Ireland (877-916) since he made a cumdach or metalwork reliquary adorned with a silver cross to hold the work: this container was lost in the 17th century but a note about it written in 1677 is bound into the book. Comprising 248 vellum folios, the Book of Durrow is one of the earliest known manuscripts to devote entire pages solely to ornamentation. These ‘carpet pages’ are filled with elaborate interlaced patterns, filled with spirals and other curvilinear decoration ever since synonymous with Celtic design. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the first half of the 16th century the book passed into private ownership: at one time part of it was immersed into a well by a farmer to provide holy water for his cattle. Eventually it was presented to the library of Trinity College, along with the Book of Kells, by the 17th century Bishop of Meath Henry Jones. The other object associated with Durrow remains on site, albeit recently moved to a new location. Measuring some eleven and a half feet high, the ninth century cross formerly stood at the western end of the graveyard. Its head, arms and shaft are carved from a single block of sandstone and an inscription on the north face may commemorate Maelsechnaill, the Uí Néill high-king of Ireland, who succeeded to the kingship of Tara around the year 846: he was father of Flann Sinna who later made the cover for the Book of Durrow. Despite weathering caused by centuries of exposure to the elements and a resultant loss of detail, it is still possible to make out many of the cross’s carved forms. The west features scenes of Christ’s Passion on the shaft, and the Crucifixion above it. On the east side the head carries a version of the Last Judgment above Christ flanked by apostles and the Sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis. Further scenes from Old and New Testaments can be found on the narrower north and south sides.

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Following the monastery’s dissolution in the 1540s the land on which it stood was first leased and then bought from the Crown by Nicholas Herbert whose descendants later purchased it outright to create an estate.   In the late 17th century the old church was recorded as being in reasonable condition with shingled roof, two glazed windows, a clay floor, a reading desk, a pulpit and an unrailed communion table. However, following the death of Sir George Herbert in 1712 Durrow was inherited by his sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox. A report of the diocese made in 1733 noted that the church at Durrow had been in poor repair, ‘but ye said Mrs Fox pulled it down and rebuilt it at her own expense.’ This is a charmingly simple building, almost like a Quaker meeting house, its only distinctive feature being the limestone square-headed door with keystone and scroll brackets supporting a cornice surmounted by three urns. The church now stood within the landscaped demesne known as Durrow Park, close to a classical seven-bay residence which in the early 19th century was bought by the Toler family, one of whom, the second Earl of Norbury was killed by an unknown assailant on the estate in 1839. The church had repaired in 1802, with a gift of £450, and a loan of £50, from the Board of First Fruits and was used for services until the 1880s when it was supplanted by a new Church of Ireland church in the local village: its graveyard was closed in 1913. The Durrow estate passed through various hands in the second half of the last century and at the start of the present one an application was lodged to turn it into an hotel with the dreadful ancillary elements that would have necessitated. To prevent this happening, in 2003 the state acquired church, graveyard and surrounding acreage and undertook a programme of  restoration which included moving the High Cross inside the building. Located at the end of a long, well-wooded drive it seems to welcome relatively few visitors and thereby retains the meditative atmosphere which must first have drawn St Columba.

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