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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick. Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.
The Irish saint Féichín is believed to have been born around 585 in County Sligo, descended from a line of chieftains. However he chose a more ascetic existence than his forebears and having studied under another saint, Náth Í of Achonry, he went on to found a succession of churches, including that which eventually became Ballysadare Abbey, County Sligo and Termon Féichín, County Louth. His most famous establishment was at Fore, County Westmeath. Here he built a church on a hill, its western doorway distinguished by a six-foot long, two and a half ton limestone lintel inscribed with a Greek cross. This stone is said to have been too heavy for workmen to lift into place but Féichín was single-handedly able to perform the task after engaging in prayer. The lintel-stone raised by the saint’s prayers is one of the seven Wonders of Fore, of which more anon. It is also said that Féichín attracted many followers so that the community at Fore eventually numbered some 300 monks and 2,000 students. According to the 17th century Annals of the Four Masters Féichín was one of a number of holy men who died after catching a plague raging in Ireland in the year 664.
A particular feature of the site at Fore is the presence of two rag trees. For readers unfamiliar with this phenomenon, rag trees are likely to be a remnant of some pre-Christian practice. They are often found next to a holy well and are Whitethorns. Pilgrims come to pray at the well and, having dipped a strip of cloth into the water, will tie it to the tree, the idea being that as the rag rots away, so the wish – be it relief from a medical condition or an improvement in personal circumstances – will come to pass. The rag trees at Fore are Ash. The first of them is beside a well known as Tobernacogany (from the Irish meaning ‘Well of the Kitchen’ and thus perhaps in some way associated with the adjacent former monastery) and the original tree had three branches growing over the water. The custom in this instance was for visitors to drive a coin edgeways into the bark and hope their prayers would be answered. It appears that ultimately the plant suffered from metal poisoning and died, but one branch survived and this is now loaded with rags and bits of cloth. Two of the other Wonders of Fore were associated with this spot: it was claimed wood from the tree would not burn, and water from the well – traditionally drunk as a cure for head- and toothache – would not boil. The second rag tree is closer to the ruins of the abbey. Known as Doaghfeighin it stands within a box-like structure built of large stone (the name means Féichín’s vat or bath). The well is now dry but was believed to have marked the spot where the saint, in an act of mortification to the flesh, would kneel in prayer. Delicate children were dipped into the well while prayers were said to Féichín. Though the water has gone, the habit of attaching rags to the tree remains.
Three of Fore’s seven ancient wonders have already been mentioned. Of the four remaining, the first is called The Monastery Built upon the Bog, and refers to the medieval abbey which was located in a boggy valley created by water flowing from Lough Lene. Much of this land has since been drained so it is no longer possible to appreciate how the building must once have appeared. The second wonder was the Mill without a Stream. There used to be a mill here, even though no water ran through the site. Instead it was powered by a number of springs and wells that bubble up in the vicinity: the ancient legend was that Féichín, after founding his establishment, caused the water to appear by striking the ground with his staff. The mill continued to operate until the last quarter of the 19th century. The third wonder was the Water that Flows Uphill, an optical illusion occurring when the water supposedly summoned by Féichín turns back on itself and therefore appears to climb upward. Finally mention must be made of the remaining wonder, the Anchorite in a Stone. This refers to a 15th century tower once occupied by hermits but subsequently transformed into a mausoleum for the Earls of Westmeath. The last hermit to live here was the 17th century Patrick Beglin who having entered his cell never left, relying on food and water brought to him by locals. Beglin died after taking a tumble on the premises and so fulfilled his vow never to leave the cell alive.
The foundation established by Féichín was attacked and burnt no less than a dozen times between 771 and 1169, and the site underwent regular rebuilding. The monastic remains seen in the valley today are a Norman creation, established at the end of the 12th century by Hugh de Lacy who had seized this part of the country. He chose the site for a community of Benedictine monks associated with the Abbey of St Taurin in Evreux: thus it now became the Abbey of SS. Taurin and Féichín, endowed by Hugh de Lacy’s son Walter and completed around 1220. With its strong fortified towers, the monastery looks as much like a castle as a religious establishment. This is owing to the struggles between France and England during the Hundred Years War when Fore’s links with Evreux left it deemed ‘alien property’ and vulnerable to attack. Such remained the case even after the monastery broke its overseas ties, the native Irish now becoming the enemy. As a result, in the fifteenth century gates and walls were constructed around the town that had sprung up beside the abbey, and successive priors added two bulky battlemented towers to the complex. But they were to no avail in the following century when all monasteries were dissolved and their occupants scattered. The lands of Fore were granted to Sir Christopher Nugent, sixth Baron Delvin whose descendants would later turn the old anchorite’s cell into a mausoleum. Fore fell into ruin, until a programme of restoration begun in the early part of the last century.
The crisp carving of a pair of capitals on the eastern side of the porch of University Church, Dublin. The building was commissioned in 1855-56 by John Henry Newman from John Hungerford Pollen – like Newman a convert to Roman Catholicism – and occupies the former gardens of its neighbour, 87 St Stephen’s Green. The little porch was an afterthought and added a few years later, most likely as a means of giving the churcsh some presence on the square. Its most distinctive feature are the capitals, carved with the emblems of the Evangelists (those of SS. John and Luke seen above) which are then linked by an abacus decorated by winged angels. Who was the sculptor responsible for this work? Like a medieval craftsman, his name seems not to have been recorded…
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.
On the northern side of the chancel arch in the ruins of St Fechin’s Church, County Westmeath can be found a carving of a seated monk, hands resting on his knees as he grins contentedly at the world. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a very Happy Christmas and hopes you will enjoy as much seasonal cheer as this little fellow.