Built on a small island in the river Deel, Askeaton Castle, County Limerick dates from 1199 when built by the Norman settler William de Burgo. It subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond but while surviving assault during that family’s rebellions against the English crown in the 16th century the castle was eventually dismantled around 1650 by the regicide Colonel Daniel Axtel when he was crushing opposition to Cromwell’s forces in this part of the country. Even as a ruin, its remains continue to dominate the surrounding landscape.
In early June 1765 Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported that the former M.P. Francis Bindon had ‘died suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ before going on to descrive him as having been ‘one of the best Painters and Architects this Nation has ever produced,’ as well as ‘a most Polite, wellbred gentleman and an excellent scholar which he improved by his Travels abroad.’
We know a certain amount about Bindon but some facts elude us, such as the date of his birth although this must have been around the end of the 17th century. He was the fourth of five sons and three daughters born to David Bindon, M.P. for Ennis and Dorothy Burton, whose family controlled the Ennis Parliamentary borough. Based at Clooney, County Clare, an estate they acquired in the 1660s, the Bindons were substantial landowners in that county and in neighbouring Limerick. Among Francis’ siblings, two brothers Henry and Thomas studied at Trinity College Dublin, the former becoming a barrister-at-law, the latter Dean of Limerick. The other two brothers David, who wrote on trade and commerce, and Samuel both served as M.P. for Ennis as indeed did Francis after 1761: even in the 18th century Irish politics was a family affair. However, of especial interest to us here is the fact that in 1716 Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Coote Hill aunt of the distinguished architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce.
Bindon was a successful gentleman amateur sans pareil: family wealth and connections meant he did not have to earn a living, yet he appears to have been highly productive throughout his life. It would seem he spent some time studying abroad: he is recorded as having been in Padua with his cousin Samuel Burton of Burton Hall, Co. Dublin, in October 1716. He is also believed to have attended the Academy of Painting run by Sir Godfrey Kneller in London between 1711-16. Returning to Ireland and settling in Dublin where he spent the greater part of his time thereafter, Bindon built up a substantial practice as a portraitist, no doubt aided by his family’s political links. Sitters included the Viceroy, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset painted in 1734 and Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral painted four times by Bindon between 1735 and 1740. Many other well-connected clerics sat for him like Dean Patrick Delaney, Archbishop Hugh Boulter and Archbishop Charles Cobbe. Bindon was a member of the Dublin Society in 1733 (two years after its foundation) and that same year was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke in Dublin (the city’s Corporation of Painter-Stayners). By 1758 failing eyesight had forced him to give up painting and the following year he drew up a will, leaving most of his possessions in Dublin and an annuity of £75 for life to Francis Ryan, a house painter of Dublin, who had lived and worked with him for many years.
In addition to working as a portraitist, Bindon was also an architect, his ties by marriage with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce being of use in gaining commissions. It appears that he collaborated on at least two projects with Richard Castle, who following Pearce’s death in 1733 had become as the country’s premier designer of country houses. The first of these was the now-ruined Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013), and the second Russborough, County Kildare where Bindon is considered to have been responsible for the interiors following Castle’s own death in 1751. A number of houses in his native County Clare are attributed to him including Carnelly, Newhall and Castlepark as well as two once fine residences in County Kilkenny: Woodstock (see Of Wonderous Beauty did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and Bessborough (see In the Borough of Bess and Back to Bessborough, November 25th and December 2nd 2013). As an architect, Bindon was certainly not of the first rank, his work being derivative and dependent on a handful of leitmotifs. As the Knight of Glin wrote in an assessment of Bindon’s output, examined collectively ‘one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naive and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.
And there is one piece of work that is rather special, namely that shown here today: Bindon’s design for John’s Square, Limerick. Work on this began in 1751, meaning it predates by a couple of years the earliest of similar developments in Dublin, Rutland (now Parnell) Square. John’s Square was a speculative scheme undertaken by two local men, John Purdon and Edmond Sexton Pery (future speaker of the Irish House of Commons) on a site in Limerick’s Irishtown which had never recovered from an assault by Williamite troops during the siege of the city in August 1690. Members of the local aristocracy and gentry when visiting Limerick had nowhere fashionable to stay, and New Square as it was originally called, was created to address this need. Eight houses (with a further two subsequently added) were built on three sides of the square, the fourth easterly side being occupied by the church of St John which still remains, although rebuilt in the mid-19th century and no longer in use for services.
Built at a cost of £630, John’s Square as designed by Francis Bindon consists of two L-shaped blocks of limestone-fronted houses each one identical to its neighbour and sharing certain features such as brick-lined oculi. Eight of the houses are three-bay, three-storey over basement, those at the extreme end of the north and south sides being larger and running to five bays. When the square was completed, Pery and Purdon both took a property, the other houses being let at £32 per annum. Original tenants included Vere Hunt from Curraghchase, William Monsell of Tervoe and Pery’s brother, the Rev. William Cecil Pery, later Bishop of Limerick.
In her 1991 book The Building of Limerick Judith Hill, having noted that the development of John’s Square ‘was Limerick’s first taste of fashionable urban architecture’ goes on to report that a surviving building account made by Pery for the scheme and dating from 1751 to 1757 ‘gives an insight into the materials used and the construction process at this date. Pery appears to have paid each worker separately, a role taken today by the building contractor. He not only paid those on the city site but also quarrymen, stone-cutters and turf carriers presumably operating locally but at a distance. Brick also seems to have been burnt locally for Pery paid for turf “in nine boats” and “the emptying of the boats and casting of turfs into the green brick yard”. He paid men for attending the fire, he paid for reeds for their shelter and for the loading, carriage and landing of kiln-loads of brick at Mardyke. … Brick was used in John’s Square for floors to the kitchen and the passage, the vaulting to the cellars, the internal partitions, as a dry lining to the exterior walls and as an infil for the stone oculi on the facades. There was sufficient faith in the strength and integrity of locally produced bricks to give them a significant structural role.’
Following the demolition of the old city walls, in 1765 Edmond Sexton Pery commissioned the Italian engineer Davis Ducart to design an urban plan for land he owned to the immediate south of Limerick: this became known as Newtown Pery. Its emergence spelled trouble for John’s Square as wealthy residents preferred to move to the newer quarter: typically both Pery and his brother the bishop acquired alternative residences on Henry Street.
Meanwhile John’s Square began going into decline. For example, one Sam Dixon opened a dye works to the immediate rear of his residence at the extreme end of the south side. On the opposite side there appears to have been a brewery established (behind what is today a butcher’s shop). In the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the houses became tenements, although No. 3 on the north side remained the residence of the rector of St John’s Church until 1922 (it is distinguished from all the other houses by a wider doorway with fanlight which one assumes was inserted in the late 1700s). By the 1960s many of the properties were vacant and there was talk of demolishing the entire square. Fortunately this did not come to pass and instead extensive restoration work was carried out in 1975 to coincide with European Architectural Heritage Year. Further improvements were undertaken more recently with the local authority laying down granite paving, upgrading lighting and introducing traffic calming measures.
Even if it never returns to fashionability, the future of John’s Square is now secure, although after all the money spent improving the area’s appearance it is a disappointment so many of the houses have inappropriate uPVC windows and other ill-considered alterations. Nevertheless, considering what might have happened here, one should rejoice this very important example of 18th century urban improvement still stands. To end, a photograph of John’s Square taken probably in the 1950s when its survival looked much less certain than it does today.
A plasterwork panel forming part of the stairwell decoration at Kilpeacon, County Limerick. The building’s external appearance makes it look like a modest-sized villa but this is an case of looks being deceptive since Kilpeacon proves a substantial country house. Dating from c.1810-20 its design is attributed to Sir Richard Morrison whose client would have been local land owner Edward Cripps; he assumed the additional surname of Villiers on inheriting property from an uncle who had died childless. This gentleman’s widow, Mrs Hannah Villiers, on her own death in 1821 left funds to build alms houses in Limerick city; designed by James Pain and still in use, these were originally intended ‘as an asylum for Protestant, or Presbyterian widows, who will each receive £24 per annum besides most comfortable accommodation.’
More about Kilpeacon in the coming weeks.
The history of Dromore Castle, County Limerick and the work of its architect Edward William Godwin were discussed here some weeks ago (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013). Today the focus is on what remains of the building’s remarkable interiors since every aspect of their original decoration – furniture, wall paintings, chimney pieces, stained glass, tiles, brass- and ironwork – was likewise overseen by Godwin.
It was in the mid-1860s that William Pery, third Earl of Limerick decided to rectify his lack of a country seat in Ireland where the family had long owned thousands of acres of land in Counties Limerick and Cork. Hitherto when not in England he and his forebears had occupied an 18th century house in Limerick city but this was no longer deemed satisfactory. His decision to create a new rural residence coincided with Lord Limerick’s friendship with Godwin, the two men then respectively serving as President and Vice-President of the Architectural Society in England.
An article on Dromore Castle written by Marian Locke and published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Old Limerick Journal states that Godwin thoroughly explored his prospective client’s estates in search of a site without finding anywhere he deemed suitable before coming across a small shooting lodge owned by the Earl on a piece of land of some forty acres overlooking Dromore Lake. This the architect decided was the perfect spot, ‘a dream-like situation on the edge of a wood…overlooking the water, which would reflect the castle one hundred feet below.’ As indeed it still does, Lord Limerick buying up a further 200 acres, seventy of which were covered by aforementioned water.
So the rocky outcrop on which Dromore stands, and the views offered from this position, made certain other decisions inevitable, not least that the greater part of the accommodation would face north, hardly the best way to ensure the building’s interior would retain heat, or receive much sunlight.
Access to Dromore Castle is through a gateway on the western side and immediately to the south, only accessible by first stepping outside, was the large double-height banqueting hall seen here. This still has its hooded stone chimneypiece, but the minstrels’ gallery has gone along with the pitched timber roof. A door at the far end of the hall gave access to a slender three-storey Chaplain’s Tower which on the first floor in turn opened onto south-facing battlements, concluding in the easterly corner with a small block that originally served as a bakery.
The main portion of the castle runs west to east, with a chapel located on the first floor over the main gateway; above this looms the round tower that is one of Dromore’s more unusual features. Most of the northwest corner is taken up by a stone staircase leading to the first floor where it terminates in an arched gothic window. The shape of this window is echoed by stepped barrow vaulting above the steps, one of Godwin’s most striking effects to survive.
On reaching the top of the main staircase, one turned west along a corridor off which opened a succession of reception rooms inside what, from the exterior, looks like an enormous fortified keep. Thus the entire ground floor was given over to servants’ quarters, with a typically massive kitchen occupying the central portion. A consequence of this arrangement is that the central courtyard was primarily a service area, although a door leading from the southern end of the drawing room opened onto another run of battlements, this time looking eastwards down to the lake (or west into the courtyard). Still, it must have been a drawback that the castle’s owners could not directly enter the surrounding gardens. Perhaps they might not have wished to do so, given the splendour of their surroundings. The drawing room, for example, featured an elaborately carved pink marble chimney piece (which survives, suspended in space), and arched recesses with marble columns (some of which remain in situ) beneath more carved capitals.
Meanwhile up another flight of stairs one reached a further north-facing corridor, its windows set inside deep arched recesses, off which ran the main bedrooms. At the very end of the passage, the north-east corner was given over to the countess’s bedroom which had a stone balcony providing views of the lake far below but this was an advantage enjoyed by nobody else. The third floor was given over to servants’ bedrooms and then, once more in the north-east corner one ascended to the fourth floor billiard room, something of a break with the spirit of medievalism pervading elsewhere.
Although the exterior walls of Dromore Castle are up to six feet thick, from the start it suffered from problems of damp. In an attempt to overcome this problem, Godwin designed a brick lining with a cavity of about two inches from the stonework, but to no avail. In an article on the building carried by Country Life in November 1964, Mark Bence-Jones quotes from a lecture the architect gave in 1878, that is less than a decade after completing his commission, in which he commented ‘Whenever it was going to rain…the walls showed it like a weather glass.’ Thus the elaborate murals he designed for the main rooms never had a chance of survival. At least some of these were executed by Academician Henry Stacy Marks, an artist who specialised in painting birds. At Dromore, however, the plan was for him to cover the walls of the first-floor corridor were to depict the four seasons, twelve months and day and night (complemented by stained glass windows showing the six days of earth’s creation). The dining room murals featured the eight virtues, those of the drawing room the four winds and the four elements. Alas, none could withstand the harsh Irish elements and before long all had perished. Nevertheless, according to Bence-Jones Lord Limerick was ‘extremely delighted’ with his new property, even if this delight did not encourage him to spend much time at Dromore.
According to Marian Locke, Dromore cost in the region of £80,00-£100,000 to build, and yet it was only intermittently occupied by the Limericks for fifty years. After the First World War the family effectively abandoned the property and finally in 1939 the castle and many of its contents along with the surrounding land were sold, reputedly for just £8,000, to a local timber merchant Morgan McMahon. Although he bought the estate primarily for the value of its woodland, Dromore’s new owner was so engaged by the place that he and his family carried out necessary repairs and moved in. They remained in residence until the mid-1950s when it was again sold, but this time there was no reprieve. Faced with costly maintenance and rates, the new owners removed the roof and stripped out the interior. Since then the castle has stood empty, the dividing floors long gone so that now there is no difference between those areas once occupied by master and by servant: today all are equally open to sun and rain, and all share the same patina of neglect. Yet somehow enough of Godwin’s decorative scheme lingers on. It offers a tantalising sense of what Dromore must have looked like during its all too brief, but wondrous, heyday.
A stone spiral staircase leading from first-floor reception rooms to the bedchambers above in Dromore Castle, County Limerick. The exterior of this building, designed by Edward Godwin in the late 1860s, has featured here before (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013). Next Monday’s page will be devoted to exploring what remains of Dromore’s quite extraordinary interiors.
Writing of Askeaton, County Limerick in 1841, the unflagging Mrs Hall commented that ‘the object of principal interest here is the abbey. It stands at the opposite side of, and adjacent to, the river, and is a pile of very considerable extent and in tolerable preservation. It was founded in 1420 by James, seventh Earl of Desmond for conventual Franciscans, and was reformed in 1490, by the Observantine friars. James, the fifteenth Earl, died and was buried here, in 1558. In 1564 a chapter of the order was held within it. At the suppression of monasteries, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, after the destruction of Desmond’s power, this structure shared the general fate; but an abortive effort at its restoration was made in 1648, by the confederate Catholics; since then it has been gradually, though slowly, progressing to its present state. The church stands in the midst of the conventual buildings. It is a long oblong, from which a transept branches off at the north side, at the intersection of which formerly stood a tower, the ruins of which lie around in solid masses.’
Mrs Hall continued, ‘The east window is a broad and lofty opening of five lights, the mullions forming intersecting tracery at head. The transept opens into the church by two fair, broad and lofty arches. It is divided in its length by a range of three similar arches springing from plain pillars, and forming a lateral aisle. This portion of the building also contains some old tombs. The cloister, which lies at the south side of the church, is not the least beautiful portion of this interesting ruin. It is an area encompassed by low arched ambulatories, opening on a central square in a succession of small, neatly executed, pointed arches, twelve to each side. An old white-thorn occupies the centre. The refectory, dormitories, hospital, and other offices are all in fair preservation and, meet haunts as they are for “musing melancholy,” are not without their due attraction to detain the footsteps of the curious visitor.’
Evidently Mrs Hall (and presumably her husband too) was greatly taken with the remains of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary, since she devoted more attention to the site than was often the case in the course of the couple’s diligent investigations, and more than she did to anything else in the immediate area. And why not, since the former religious house is one of the most attractive mediaeval ruins in the entire country, and the greater part of it has survived in exceptionally good condition.
The town of Askeaton lies to the west of Limerick city and is sited on the river Deel which a couple of miles further north flows into the Shannon estuary. Its situation gave the place strategic importance and hence at the very end of the 12th century Hugo de Burgo established a castle here: it subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond, the dominant family in this part of Munster. They remained in possession until the late 16th century and the castle itself suffered extensive damage in 1652. Now under the care of the Office of Public Works it has been undergoing interminable repairs for far too many years and remains closed to the public, thereby ill-serving the local community.
Although Mrs Hall was accurate in most of her commentary, her crediting the seventh Earl of Desmond with the foundation of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary appears to have been incorrect. Since its origins are generally dated to c.1389, the man responsible would be the poetically-inclined Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond. But let us not become too pedantic, especially since hard and fast evidence is unavailable. What matters more is that the buildings are evidence of how the decorative arts flourished in late-mediaeval Ireland and were put to use in the ornamentation of religious buildings.
The friary having been completed in the early fifteenth century then enjoyed 100 years of undisturbed occupancy before the disruption of the Reformation, the Desmond Rebellion, the upheavals of conquest and resettlement which so much of the rest of the country also underwent from the 1540s onwards. In 1579, for example, Sir Nicholas Malby, then Lord President of Connacht, having failed to take the neighbouring Desmond castle, instead attacked the friary and apparently slaughtered several of its occupants. But those Franciscans were a hardy bunch and repeatedly returned to their house; during the confederate wars of the 1640s, for example, it was repaired and re-occupied. Seemingly members of the order remained in the locale well into the 18th century and part of the site was used for Roman Catholic services until the construction of a new chapel in 1851.
As can be seen, the glory of Askeaton friary is its cloister, unusually located to the south of the church and remarkably intact considering the assaults the building underwent in earlier centuries. Again reverting to Mrs Hall for guidance, we note that each of its four vaulted sides feature twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with richly moulded capitals; the ancient whitethorn bush standing in the centre of the courtyard to which she referred, and which was much commented on by other observers in the 19th century, has since been removed and the space looks rather bleak without it. All of the arch pillars are original save two which were stolen in the 19th century and have since been replaced. A column on the north-east corner of the cloisters features a medieval carving of St. Francis of Assisi displahing his stigmata. The face is more worn than the rest of the figure because it used to be believed kissing it would cure toothache.
Given its excellent condition, proximity to Limerick city and inherent beauty, one might expect Askeaton friary to be a popular destination for visitors. In fact visitors to the ruin are unlikely to find anyone else there. Should this be a cause for lamentation? Of course it is important that the national heritage be duly appreciated and celebrated, Yet experiencing Askeaton friary alone allows one to engage in what might be described as a Thomas Gray moment, an opportunity to revel in that ‘musing melancholy’ to which Mrs Hall so rightly referred. And who could resist that cloistered self-indulgence?
A portrait of Thomas FitzGerald, 23rd Knight of Glin painted by Philip Hussey which hangs in the entrance hall of Glin Castle, County Limerick. Tomorrow evening, Wednesday 29th January, I shall be giving a talk on the life and achievements of Desmond FitzGerald, 29th and last Knight of Glin at the Irish Georgian Society headquarters in the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin. Further information can be found at http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/The-Last-Knight-Lecture-by-Robert-OByrne.
Given the notoriety of its late 18th century resident, the fate of Mount Shannon, County Limerick seems inevitable. One of the country’s more striking ruins, the house formerly stood at the centre of a 900-acre demesne famous for its trees and gardens: in his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening the Scottish botanist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon specifically cited Mount Shannon as an example of improvements in Ireland, and proposed these had been carried out under the direction of the first Earl of Clare, of whom more anon. Five years later Fitzgerald and McGregor in their study of the history and topography of Limerick city and county likewise refer to Mount Shannon: ‘the plantations are laid out with fine taste, and the gardens are extensive and well arranged.’ Aside from a handful of surviving specimen trees, no evidence of the demesne’s former glories now remains, and much of the land is given over to suburban housing, making it difficult to discern what the grounds must have looked like even a century ago. On the other hand it is still possible to gain a sense of the main house’s former appearance. In 1827 Fitzgerald and McGregor described it as being ‘one of the most superb mansions in the South of Ireland’ and although a hollow shell for over ninety years it clings onto a residue of grandeur.
The original Mount Shannon was built c.1750 by the euphoniously-named Silver Oliver whose family’s main estate was elsewhere in the county at Clonodfoy, later Castle Oliver. Oliver appears to have sold the property to a member of the White family but around 1765 it came into the possession of John Fitzgibbon, supposedly a descendant of the mediaeval White Knights, who had been raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Anglicanism so that he could become a lawyer (Penal Laws then barring this profession to everyone not a member of the established church). Highly successful, he amassed a considerable fortune
which when he died in 1780 was passed on to his son, also called John and later first Earl of Clare.
It would appear from various references that Lord Clare did much to improve and aggrandise Mount Shannon, not just its demesne but also the house. However the latter’s most striking feature was added by his eldest son the second earl in 1813. The immense Ionic portico with Doric pilasters behind was designed by Lewis Wyatt (a member of the prolific English family of architects and a nephew of James Wyatt), and occupies the three centre bays of the seven-bay north entrance front. Behind three round-headed doors gave access to the hall with the drawing room and other main reception rooms behind. The interiors, as a handful of 19th century photographs show, were chillingly neo-classical with scarcely any ornament. The same was true of the exterior which, as can be seen is constructed of brick with cut limestone dressings. The severity of the south, garden facade was relieved by a very large curved conservatory. To the immediate east of the two-storey over sunken basement house is a long, lower extension which would have been used for services and was originally concealed by a curved screen wall that joined the still-extant wall of the old walled garden.
Many stories are told of John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, first Earl of Clare, some of them apocryphal, few of them kind. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin and Christchurch, Oxford he became a lawyer like his father before him. He was first elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1778 and five years later was appointed Attorney General. Appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland in 1789, he was also received his first peerage, as Baron FitzGibbon, of Lower Connello; he was subsequently advanced to a Viscountcy in 1793 and finally received his earldom in 1795. Four years later he was granted an English peerage (entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster), becoming Baron FitzGibbon, of Sidbury in the County of Devon.
Unquestionably brilliant, Fitzgibbon was also without doubt bigoted. It has often been noted that he was a hardline Protestant and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who avidly promoted whatever measures he believed would best preserve that group’s political domination in Ireland. He supported harsh measures against members of the 1798 Rebellion and was openly hostile to Roman Catholicism despite or perhaps because of his father had originally been a member of this faith. When it came to the Act of Union in 1800, of which he was firmly in favour, there was widespread understanding that this would be accompanied by concessions made to Roman Catholics with the Penal Laws being ameliorated. FitzGibbon persuaded George III that any such liberalisation of the status quo would be a violation of the king’s Coronation Oath and thus ensured pro-Emancipation measures were not included in the Union legislation. In so doing he delayed Catholic Emancipation by three decades and encouraged the spread of sectarianism.
It is said that FitzGibbon once declared he would make the Irish as ‘tame as a dead cat.’ As a result, there are stories of dead cats being thrown into his coach, and of more of the same being flung into his grave when he died in January 1802 following a fall from his horse at Mount Shannon the previous month.
At the time of the Act of Union, Lord Clare arranged for a handsome pension by way of compensation for the loss of his office as Lord Chancellor which was then abolished; this was to be paid both to him and his immediate heir. Thus the second earl, who died in 1851, enjoyed a handsome income not just from his estates which ran to more than 13,000 acres in Counties Limerick and Tipperary but from the munificence of the British Treasury. A close friend of Lord Byron, with whom he was at school, the second earl later became Governor first of Bombay and later of Bengal; he enhanced Mount Shannon by both the addition of the portico and other improvements, but by adding treasures from India and paintings acquired on his travels around Europe.
Since he had no children, his property passed to a younger brother, who duly became third earl. He was to suffer a number of disadvantages, among them the absence of the pension enjoyed by his predecessors, a much depleted income in the aftermath of the Great Famine, and the death of his only son during the Charge of the Light Brigage at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854: Limerick’s Wellesley Bridge used to feature a handsome statue to the youthful Viscount FitzGibbon until it was blown up by the IRA in 1930.
On the death of the third earl in 1864 the title became extinct. His estate was left to the two younger of his three daughters (the eldest, who had caused a scandal by abandoning her own spouse and children to run off with the elderly husband of a half-sister, appears to have been disinherited). While the middle sister took possession of the FitzGibbon silver and, it seems, the greater part of the liquidity attached to the estate, the youngest Lady Louisa FitzGibbon assumed responsibility for Mount Shannon.
Lady Louisa was as dogged by bad luck as her father. Her eldest son died at the age of twenty, followed by her first husband and then the Italian Marchese she married in expectation of his money turned out to be as penniless as herself. With the advent of the Land Wars rents ceased to be paid, portions of the estate had to be sold, what remained was mortgaged, and money borrowed at high interest rates. All to no avail: Lady Louisa’s creditors demanded satisfaction, following litigation a receiver was appointed, and in the course of a sale lasting several days during June 1888 Mount Shannon was stripped of its contents including a very valuable library. Here is a small quote from the fascinating catalogue compiled by Limerick auctioneer John Bernal: ‘The Family Paintings are Chef Douvres [sic], by the first artist of the period, when they were taken, some of the Paintings, see page 42, were placed in the house about 1790, and will afford the connoisseur and speculator a good chance of getting a valuable Old Master on good terms. There are also some replicas from the Dresden gallery.’ The first such melancholy event of its kind in Ireland, a prelude to many more to follow over the coming decades, the Mount Shannon excited huge interest, with special trains and catering arrangements being laid on. Lady Louisa FitzGibbon spent the remainder of her days in a Dominican convent on the Isle of Wight, an establishment founded by the Roman Catholic convert wife of her uncle, the second Lord Clare; this was something of an irony given the first earl’s virulent hatred of all Catholics.
Five years after the sale, Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor, bought Mount Shannon where he died in 1902, just like the first earl following a bad fall from a horse. His widow only survived until 1907 after which the place passed through various hands before what remained of the estate was bought in 1915 by David O’Hannigan of County Cork for £1,000. He did not have long to enjoy Mount Shannon since it was burned down in June 1920 during the War of Independence, the light of the flames apparently seen in Limerick city.
The house remains a shell. To walk through it today is to have a sense what it must have been like visiting a site such as the Baths of Caracalla in the aftermath of Imperial Rome’s collapse, especially as this immense structure is now surrounded by others domestic buildings of infinitely smaller dimensions and aspirations. Even in its present broken-down state Mount Shannon continues dominate the area and to exude an air of greater distinction than any of its neighbours.
Driving west from Limerick city along the N69 after some ten miles one’s attention is caught by the spectacle of immense battlemented ruins to the right. These are the remains of Dromore Castle, built almost 150 years ago, and unroofed for the past sixty. Situated on a promontory overlooking a lake and with sweeping views across the Shannon estuary Dromore’s dramatic silhouette, as has often been commented, would not look out of place above the Rhine. Yet one of the paradoxes of this extravagant building is that the architect responsible was anxious it be historically accurate to Ireland.
Dromore was designed by Edward William Godwin whose influence on the late 19th century Aesthetic movement was considerable, not least because of his advocacy of Japanese taste: Whistler, for example, commissioned Godwin to build him a house in Tite Street (and later married Godwin’s widow) and another of his clients was Oscar Wilde. He also produced many designs for Liberty & Co where in 1884 he became director of the Regent Street store’s new costume department. However earlier in his career Godwin had been a supporter of Ruskinian Gothic and one of the most fascinating aspects of Dromore is the way in which it reflects a transition in his interests and tastes.
Dromore was commissioned by William Pery in 1866, the year in which he became third Earl of Limerick. The Perys had been prominent in the region since the late 1600s, owning a large amount of land beside the mediaeval Limerick City; here in the second half of the 18th century the earl’s forebear Edmund Sexton Pery laid out what became known as Newtown Pery. Although the family had a large house in the city on Henry Street, it did not have a country residence in Ireland and for the first half of the 19th century the Perys spent the greater part of their time in England.
Hence when William Pery chose to commission Dromore he was indicating a re-engagement with this country. It is open to question whether his decision was received with much favour here. February and March 1867 saw the failed Fenian Rising organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood and at the end of the latter month the Building News, writing of Dromore, then under construction, noted ‘The corridors are kept on the outer side of the building and all the entrances are well guarded, so that in the event of the country being disturbed, the inmates of Dromore Castle might not only feel secure themselves but be able to give real shelter to others.’ The pictures above and below give an indication of just how difficult it remains to gain access to the building’s interior.
On receiving the commission from Lord Limerick, Godwin went to a great deal of trouble to make sure the building was authentically Irish in design. With his friend and fellow architect William Burges (then working on St Finbarr’s Cathedral in Cork) he travelled around the country drawing and measuring old castles and churches; what he saw during the journey influenced the eventual building which was finished by 1869.
The initial impression created by Dromore, no doubt due to a lack of external windows on the lower levels of the roughly-dressed limestone structure and the loss of the original softening landscaping, is of sheer unadorned mass. With walls six feet thick, the entrance block to the south is of three storeys, the actual gateway being rather too squat (it immediately proved insufficiently tall to accommodate a coach and four). A tympanum above features carved lions flanking a sequence of heraldic motifs. Behind to the north is a larger five-storey main keep, this accommodated most but not all of the principal reception rooms. These two blocks overlook an internal courtyard on the opposite side of which are a range of service buildings that included both a chapel and a chaplain’s residence (presumably to increase the impression of mediaeval authenticity), as well as a banqueting hall. The last of these could only be reached by crossing over the entrance gateway, which must have been uncomfortable in bad weather. But again, perhaps this was to encourage the sense of re-enacting life in the Middle Ages. Most of the main windows take the form of paired lancets with quatrefoils above, although in the courtyard there are lines of single arched windows. Despite its relative austerity Godwin provided enough variation in the surface rhythm to hold interest; writing in Country Life in November 1964, Mark Bence-Jones noted how ‘There are Irish stepped crenellations, bold chimneys, bartisans and machicoulis on stout corbelling, trefoil windows and angle loops.’ As can be seen, the castle also incorporates a round tower, something not as a rule found in domestic residences, but Godwin appears to have included it on the grounds that such towers were found on Irish fortified sites like that at the Rock of Cashel.
Godwin was responsible for not just the design of the castle but also much of its interior decoration including chimneypieces, wall paintings, sculpture, tiles, stained and painted glass, brass- and ironwork, and even the furniture, the manufacture of which was undertaken by William Watts of Grafton Street, Dublin. The subject of Dromore’s elaborate interiors will be discussed here at a later date.
When the place was finished its owner professed himself ‘extremely delighted’ with the result. However, the family spent relatively little time at Dromore, and certainly not much after the third earl’s death in 1896. Valued at £75 and ten shillings in 1906, the castle appears to have been almost entirely unused in the aftermath of the First World War and towards the end of the 1930s the whole estate was sold to a local timber merchant called McMahon for a reputed £8,000. However, he did not live there for long and around 1954 Dromore was unroofed to avoid rates being paid on the building (a regrettably common fate for old houses at the time). And so it has remained ever since, indomitable as Godwin intended and proving able to withstand the assault of time and an inclement climate without demonstrating evidence of dilapidation. Rising above the surrounding woodland Dromore’s silhouette continues to dominate the skyline for many miles around and continues to give the impression of a Rhineland castle transported to west Limerick.
Founded in the late 12th century, St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick contains many attractive features, not least the only surviving mediaeval misericords in Ireland. The lip of these seats was designed to allow members of the cathedral chapter to rest during long services without being seen to sit down, hence their name which derives from the Latin word ‘misericordiae’ (acts of mercy). Those in St Mary’s date from 1480-1500 and are carved in oak from the woods of nearby Cratloe, County Clare. Each one is different and they feature both men and beasts, the latter real as well as imaginary. There are 23 misericords which at some date in the 19th century were removed from the main body of the church and stored in the crypt. Thankfully they survived and can now be seen in the north transept.
The Irish Aesthete takes this opportunity to wish all readers a very Happy Christmas and hopes they receive as much rest as those clerics who once celebrated the occasion by settling onto a misericord.