The Ceremonial Mace of Athy, County Kildare made in Dublin by John Wilme in 1746. This splendid example of mid-18th century Irish silversmithery was presented to the town in the year of its production by James FitzGerald, twentieth Earl of Kildare (and later first Duke of Leinster). It remained in the town until c.1840 when reform of municipal government caused the abolition of the local borough. The mace eventually returned to the Leinsters before being auctioned by Sotheby’s in March 1982 after which it crossed the Atlantic. Today it is part of what is considered the finest collection of antique Irish silver in the world, in the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas.
You can read more about this and many other Irish treasures now in the American collections in an article I have written for the March issue of Apollo magazine.
A pair of figures on the tomb of Walter Wellesley, penultimate Prior of Great Connell, County Kildare, a religious house belonging to the Augustinian canons. Judged a man of both exceptional learning and political wisdom, Wellesley, who became Bishop of Kildare in 1529, had sufficient influence with Henry VIII to ensure the survival of Great Connell during the following decade when other religious houses were being suppressed. When he died in 1539 this tomb was erected in his memory but the following year the priory was closed down and its occupants dispersed. The buildings subsequently passed into other hands and in the early 19th century much of the original masonry was used to construct a military barracks in Newbridge. At that time surviving fragments of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb were incoporated into the wall of a graveyard at Great Connell where they remained until 1971 when removed to St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. There they remain in the south transept although portions of the tomb have never been recovered.
The column terminating a vista in front of Furness, County Kildare (see A Gentle Evolution, May 26th last). Originally this column stood in the parkland of Dangan, County Meath, once the property of Richard Colley Wesley, first Baron Mornington (and grandfather of the first Duke of Wellington). When Mrs Delany visited Dangan in 1749 she wrote that in the grounds ‘there is a fir-grove dedicated to Vesta, in the midst of which is her statue; at some distance from it is a mound covered with evergreens, on which is placed a Temple with the statues of Apollo, Neptune, Proserpine, Diana, all have honours paid to them and Fame has been too good a friend to the mentor of all these improvements to be neglected; her Temple is near the house, at the end of the terrace near where The Four Seasons take their stand, very well represented by Flora, Ceres, Bacchus and an old gentleman with a hood on his head, warming his hands over a fire.’ All now gone unfortunately, but the column – topped by a copy of Giambologna’s Mercury – was rescued in the last century and set up in the grounds of Furness to mark the 21st birthday of a previous owner.
‘It is extraordinary how women’s figures change according to the fashion of the times. Then, hers seemed to be absolutely perfect. She had that wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that, like Mary Queen of Scots, when she swallowed, you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat. I have never seen such a skin or such flesh…Her face was lovely, with soft brown eyes, a delicately formed, slightly retroussé nose, and brilliant, pouting lips. It was before the days of make-up and her wonderful colour was her own. Alas! That colour told its own tragic story. It was the beauty of the consumptive.’
Thus Hermione, fifth Duchess of Leinster as described by her friend Daisy Fingall (whose memoirs, Seventy Years Young cannot be sufficiently recommended to anyone who has yet to discover them). Judged one of the great beauties of the late Victorian era, at the age of 19 she had married Gerald FitzGerald, then Marquess of Kildare. Although the couple had two sons, Maurice and Desmond – Hermione can be seen with them both above – the marriage was not happy: while living in Kilkea Castle, County Kildare she once wrote the couplet, ‘Kilkea Castle and Lord Kildare/Are more than any woman can bear.’
She then embarked on an affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) the brother of another friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, and with him had a third son Edward. It was the misfortune of the FitzGeralds that following the early deaths of both the fifth Duke and Duchess of Leinster their eldest child should have suffered psychiatric problems and been institutionalised before he too died young, while the second son was killed in the First World War.
The next heir was Hermione’s third child, Lord Edward FitzGerald, a notorious spendthrift and wastrel who was barely 21 before being declared bankrupt for the first of several occasions. As is well-known, in 1917 he sold his birthright for £67,000 worth of debts and an annuity of £1,000: five years later he became the seventh Duke of Leinster. The outcome was, and has been ever since, catastrophic for the FitzGeralds and for their old estate at Carton, County Kildare. A photograph of how the saloon looked in the 1890s before any of this misfortune occurred can be seen below. The story is now told in Terence Dooley’s new book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1872-1948 (Four Courts Press) which makes for a grim but gripping read. In recent months there has been extensive media coverage of several once-wealthy Irish plutocrats brought crashing down: Terence Dooley’s book demonstrates this is no new phenomenon.
This church at Coolcarrigan, County Kildare has rightly been described by art historian Nicola Gordon Bowe as ‘a tiny gem of the Hiberno-Romanesque Celtic Revival.’ The building is not large and was built primarily – although not exclusively – for members of the family on whose land it stands. Seemingly prior to the church’s construction the first-floor room of a thatched house in the nearby farmyard was used for religious services, so one understands why in the early 1880s Robert Mackay Wilson decided to build something more suitable: the completed church was consecrated in 1885 by William Plunket, fourth Baron Plunket and, since the previous year Archbishop of Dublin (his statue can be seen on Kildare Place in central Dublin). Located in an opening of woodland, it has been in continuous use ever since, and services are held there on two Sundays each month.
Coolcarrigan church’s design derives from that of the 12th century Temple Finghin and McCarthy’s Tower at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, believed to be the earliest instance of these two structures combined together (as opposed to being placed adjacent to each other). In the latter instance, they are part of a larger architectural ensemble, whereas here they stand alone. Furthermore, an unusual feature of the County Kildare site is that it is surrounded by a circular dry moat, access to the building only being gained by passing through a lych gate with its red-tiled roof: this is an architectural element more commonly found in the eastern counties of England than in Ireland. However, thereafter the Celtic spirit reigns throughout in this sturdy little granite building.
There has been some discussion about who might have been responsible for the church’s design, with the names of both James Franklin Fuller and Sir Thomas Drew advanced as the possible architect. No papers concerning the commission are known to survive, and a reference to the building in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of January 5th 1884, while noting the construction of the building ‘following the example of some ancient Irish churches,’ does not credit anyone with the work. In favour of Fuller is the fact that he was Diocesan Architect at this date, worked in the Hiberno-Romanesque style and built a number of other private churches. On the other hand, Drew’s 1910 obituary apparently mentions additions to Coolcarrigan and, like the estate’s owners, he was an Ulsterman. Unless new evidence comes to light, like so many other matters associated with religion, the architect’s name must remain a mystery.
We know a great deal more about the parties responsible for the church’s interior decoration. One of those who literally had a hand in the work was Douglas Hyde, himself the son of a Church of Ireland rector (indeed his grandfather and great-grandfather had likewise been Anglican clergymen). The future first President of Ireland and leading figure in the Gaelic Revival movement was an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin at the same time as the Wilson’s elder son Robert and so came to know the family. Sadly, as one of the church’s windows explains, Robert Wilson died in 1887, three years after his younger brother; two of the Wilson’s daughters likewise predeceased their parents. All the siblings are commemorated here in stained glass.
Since he graduated from university in 1884, it must have been around that time that Douglas Hyde came up with the scheme for the texts which are painted onto the walls using a distinctive Irish alphabet. Given his background, Hyde would have been well-placed to choose apposite scriptural quotations. It is worth noting that the various items of church furniture such as table, lectern, reading desk, chairs and so forth are likewise carved in traditional Celtic patterns.
The two earliest of Coolcarrigan church’s splendid stained glass windows, memorials to the Wilsons’ deceased sons, were, according to Paul Larmour, not of Irish manufacture: ‘I would guess they are by Heaton Butler & Bayne the English firm. They did the stained glass in Clane and also in St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (where J.F. Fuller was in charge, restoring the east end in the 1880s or 90s).’ However, the other three windows on the south and north walls, installed in 1911, 1912 and 1927 respectively, were all made by Clare-born Catherine O’Brien who for almost forty years from 1906 worked at An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) the co-operative studio established in Dublin in 1903 by artist Sarah Purser at the instigation of Edward Martyn (a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre). An Túr Gloine’s output did much to encourage interest in the emergence of a national style in this medium, since for much of the 19th century new churches had imported insipid and generic stained glass from Germany and other countries. Hence the abundant use of Celtic designs in the Coolcarrigan windows, as also in the large pair in the west wall (dating from 1916), likewise designed by Catherine O’Brien and commemorating Robert Mackay Wilson and his wife Elizabeth. That above the altar on the east wall is the most recent window, installed in 1980 and designed by Patrick Pollen who almost three decades before had moved to Ireland in order to study at An Túr Gloine, and who only died four years ago.
As has been mentioned, Coolcarrigan church continues to serve the function for which it was originally intended, and continues to be scrupulously maintained by the present generation of the family who commissioned the building 130 years ago. So many churches, especially those formerly in the care of the Church of Ireland, have closed over recent years it is a rare pleasure to find one, particularly as here embodying the ideals of the Celtic Revival, still loved and in active use. Long may this remain the case.
The church is located inside the grounds of Coolcarrigan, the lovely gardens of which are open to the public at certain times of the year. For more information, see: http://www.coolcarrigan.ie
The settled nature of County Kildare, the fertile quality of its land and proximity to Dublin, all have long combined to give this part of the country a peacefulness and prosperity not always found elsewhere in Ireland. These qualities are evident at Furness, a property which, unusually, has changed ownership on only a handful of occasions over the past eight hundred years.
On a hill behind the present house stands a longstone rath, an earth ring some 200 feet in diameter with a fourteen foot granite standing stone in the centre: created around 4,000 years ago, it testifies to how long there has been human settlement here. Of more recent vintage are the nearby remains of an old church (a nave and a chancel separated by an arch) built on the site of an earlier religious establishment. In 1210 this church was granted with tithes to the Regular Canons of St Augustine based in the Abbey of St Thomas, Dublin who were considerable landowners in the neighbourhood. They remained in occupation for over three centuries until the advent of the Reformation in the 1530s saw the acquisition of such properties by lay owners. In this instance, the Augustinians were replaced by the Ashes, a mercantile family from nearby Naas who were kinsmen and friends of the powerful Eustace clan. Then, most likely in the 1670s, Furness passed into the hands of the Nevilles (sometimes spelled without the ‘e’).
The Nevilles are believed to be an Anglo-Norman family settled in County Wexford. The first of their number known to be resident at Furness was Richard Neville, listed as Sheriff of County Kildare in 1678. More than twenty years before, he had married Margaret, daughter of Sir William Ussher (the man responsible for the publication of the first New Testament translated into Irish): curiously this family, which is remembered by the Usher’s Quay and Usher’s Island in Dublin, is supposed originally to have been called Neville but their forebear on coming to Ireland in 1185 as usher to King John changed his name to that of his office.
In any case, the next generation, also called Richard Neville was Sheriff of Kildare in 1692, and Sovereign of Naas (that is to say, the town’s mayor) in the same year. He subsequently became Recorder of Naas and its Member of Parliament in 1695, and again in 1708. On his death in 1720, the estate passed to a third Richard Neville, a captain in the army who never married and probably therefore had the wherewithal to embark on the building of a new residence, the three-bay block at the centre of the present house. On his death, Furness passed to a nephew, Arthur Jones whose mother Mary had married Richard Edward Jones, colonel of the regiment in which his brother-in-law served. Even before coming into his inheritance, young Arthur had the good sense to change his surname to Neville.
Arthur Jones Neville had a colourful career. Born c.1712, by 1742 he was a member of the Dublin Society and the following year he was appointed Surveyor General, having purchased the office for £3,300 from its previous holder Arthur Dobbs; during his time in the position he was responsible, amongst other work, for drawing up the plans for barracks at Charles Fort in County Cork and for developing the Bedford Tower range at Dublin Castle. In 1748 he succeeded in having his salary increased and three years later entered the Irish House of Commons as MP for County Wexford. However, his troubles then began and in August 1752 he was dismissed as Surveyor General on the grounds of maladministration in relation to barrack building (he was, however, permitted to sell it on to the next holder). Then in 1753 during what is believed to have been a politically-motivated campaign of vilification he was expelled from the House of Commons. While this setback caused a stir at the time it does not seem to have done him permanent damage, since he returned to represent the same constituency in 1761 (and continued to do so until his death a decade later), and became Sheriff of County Kildare in 1762.
From our perspective, and much more importantly, Arthur Jones Neville seems to have been a man of exceptional taste and discernment, even during a period when – unlike our own era – such characters were found in abundance in Ireland. For a house he built at 40 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin in 1746, he commissioned the elaborate Apollo ceiling (by an unknown stuccadore): at the time of the building’s demolition, this was rescued and is now, appropriately enough, in the State Apartments of Dublin Castle. Similarly the following decade when he embarked on another building project at 14 Rutland (now Parnell) Square, he commissioned painted lunettes after Pietro da Cortona’s decorations in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence from Jacob Ennis who he had sent to Italy. A subscriber to several volumes on architecture and surveying, during his second period in parliament, he introduced a number of excellent bills, including proposals ‘For the further encouragement of planting timber trees’ (1765) and ‘For the better regulating of buildings in the city of Dublin, the liberties and suburbs thereof’ (1769).
On his death, Arthur Jones Neville was succeeded by his eldest son, once more named Richard Neville. He too became a Member of Parliament for Wexford, holding this position with intervals even after the Act of Union until 1819. He was also Teller of the Exchequer under the Irish Parliament, described as ‘a remarkably pleasant office to hold’ not least because it came with an annual salary of £2,835’ of which £835 went to a deputy who did all the work, leaving the balance to the office holder: he appears to have retained this sinecure until his death in 1822. He is judged to have been an improving landowner, based on an account of Furness given in Arthur Young’s A Tour in Ireland. Young visited the estate in 1777 and afterwards described his host as being ‘a landlord remarkably attentive to the encouragement of his tenantry,’ paying half the cost of houses built on his land, and providing premiums to encourage planting.
Richard Neville left two daughters, Henrietta and Marianne dividing his property equally between the two although ‘Furnace, house, offices, garden, front lawn, and back lawn to the river, cottage, and thirty acres’ were bequeathed to Marianne, with an option to take over the demesne at a valuation. Soon the place was sold to another family, the Beaumans who remained there until they in 1895 when they in turn sold Furness to Nicholas Synnott whose wife Barbara was a granddaughter of the seventh Viscount Netterville of Dowth Hall, County Meath(for more on this house, see Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?, December 24th 2012). The Synotts continued to live at Furness until the late 1980s.
As the photographs above show, Furness has undergone gentle evolution since the original house was built, probably in the early 1730s. The Knight of Glin attributed the building to Francis Bindon, a name that has occurred here on many previous occasions, not least because it is difficult to say with certainty what was and was not from his hand. The ashlar-faced central block is actually quite small, and one wonders whether it was intended to be larger. Of three bays and three storeys, it has a lunette window above a pedimented first-floor window flanked by Ionic columns, beneath which is the entrance with coupled Doric columns with a Doric entablature. Behind this originally were the entrance hall, still with its handsome staircase of Spanish chestnut, and a study, with a number of reception rooms beyond. Were the wings of the same date or added later? In the 1780s the Nevilles certainly enlarged the house and soon after added a dining room with a large bow. It must have been during this period of expansion that the drawing room ceiling received its neo-classical plasterwork, attributed to Michael Stapleton, the central panel depicting a goddess showing the Greeks how to cultivate olive trees (which would harmonise with Richard Neville’s reputation as an improving landlord), as well as the fine white and Siena marble chimney piece. Presumably limited funds meant further such decoration was not possible elsewhere in the house. The next major change came after the estate was acquired by the Synotts when the entrance hall was enlarged by breaking a large arch through into the former study.
Furness has been owned by the same family for more than twenty years but now they have decided to put the house on the market, for only the third time in 280 years. It is a moment of change but, given the peacefulness and prosperity of County Kildare, one trusts Furness will continue to benefit from the same sympathy and love it has hotherto received throughout its history.