On this day in 1849 the wondrous Maria Edgeworth died at the age of 81. She is rightly best remembered for her 1800 novel Castle Rackrent, a remarkable work that had no precedent but many successors, both in Ireland and elsewhere. While nothing else in her output matched its originality, at the same time Edgeworth’s other Irish novels in particular The Absentee (1812) are worth reading for insights into the state of the country in the aftermath of the Act of Union. Her family home, and the place where she produced many of her books, was Edgeworthstown House, County Longford. From around 1770 onwards it was much enlarged and altered by her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the result notable for the distinctive interiors which he designed in an idiosyncratic fashion. The house still stands and has long been a nursing home run by a religious order: the last time I visited the nuns in charge seemed to have little knowledge of or interest in its most famous resident. Sadly the building today bears little resemblance to its appearance during Maria Edgeworth’s lifetime having been ruthlessly stripped of decoration and character. Below is an engraving showing the house’s library as it looked a few years after her death.
This is an engraving of Broadstone on the north side of Dublin dating from 1821 and based on a picture by George Petrie. The most prominent building is the King’s Inns, designed by James Gandon in 1800 and by that date nearing completion. It looks little different today but the surprise is to find a harbour immediately in front since this has long gone. As the picture’s caption reveals, the harbour was constructed to serve the Royal Canal, its site chosen because of proximity to many key resources such as the city markets as well as the Linen Hall and various penitentiaries and workhouses.
Although Broadstone Harbour is no more the Royal Canal survives, despite sundry attempts over the past 150-plus years to damage it irreparably. Linking Dublin to the river Shannon and intended to encourage greater trade between the west and east of the country, the enterprise was plagued with problems from the very start. Not the least of these was the presence of the rival Grand Canal which follows a similar route further south and on which work had started in 1757. Construction of the Royal Canal on the other hand only began in 1790 by which time the senior waterway was almost finished and already taking large quantities of commercial and passenger traffic. So when a group of investors established the Royal Canal Company, they had to petition the Irish Parliament for financial support, receiving £66,000 to add to the £134,000 already raised from subscribers.
Among the key shareholders of the Royal Canal scheme was the second Duke of Leinster, who insisted that the waterway pass by Maynooth, the County Kildare town beside his estate at Carton. This necessitated cutting through extensive rock at Clonsilla and creating an aqueduct to cross the river Ryewater at Leixlip, both of which added greatly to costs. By 1796 the canal had reached Kilcock and the first passengers were able to travel between this town and Dublin at a cost of one shilling and one penny, cheaper than a seat on the traditional stagecoach. However progress on moving the route further west was slow and more expensive than had been anticipated.
By 1811, despite being given almost £144,000 in government grants, the Royal Canal Company’s debts stood at £862,000. A parliamentary investigation into the business was undertaken and two years later the company was dissolved with responsibility for the project handed over to the Directors General of Inland Navigation who were instructed to complete work on the canal at public expense and with all due speed. In 1817 the Royal Canal finally joined the Shannon at a total cost of £1,421,954, seven times more than the original estimate. The following year a new Royal Canal Company assumed responsibility for the concern and built a branch line to Longford town which opened in 1830.
Now as then the Royal Canal runs for 90 miles (146 kilometres) through Counties Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Longford. The main water supply comes from Lough Owel near Mullingar which feeds the canal’s highest level. Its creation involved the building of 46 locks, four aqueducts and 86 bridges.
By the mid-1830s, goods traffic on the canal had grown to 134,000 tons annually, and passenger numbers stood at 46,000 in 1837 by which time the journey between Dublin and Mullingar took an average eight hours. But even at its peak, the Royal Canal was never as successful as the Grand Canal. And the arrival of railways the following decade had an immediate and devastating effect. In 1845 the Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the canal in its entirety for £289,059 with the intention of laying railway tracks on top of the route. The government did not allow this plan to proceed, but it explains why trains heading west from Dublin do so directly alongside the canal for many miles. In 1877 the old Broadstone canal harbour was filled in and the site used as a forecourt for the railway company’s new termimus; a branch line of the canal had already connected it to the Liffey at what is now known as Spencer Dock.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canal went into steady decline, with the annual quantity of goods being carried on its route falling to 30,000 tons and passenger traffic gone. In 1938 ownership was transferred to the Great Southern Railway and six years later to the national rail company Coras Iompair Eireann. In 1955 the last boat officially to pass the length of the canal made its journey and the waterway was closed to navigation in 1961 after which it fell into serious disrepair. In the mid-1970s a group of enthusiasts started a Save the Royal Canal campaign and thanks to their sterling efforts, the route, which passed into the care of the Office of Public Works in 1978, was gradually restored. It took longer to refurbish than it had to construct: work on the last part of the Royal Canal was only completed in 2010.
There are many reasons to celebrate the Royal Canal the most frequently cited being that it is an amenity beneficial to the tourist industry. That is certainly true and boats navigating its length bring visitors and income to towns and villages along the route. But let us leave matters economic to one side, not least because for over two centuries the Royal Canal has failed as a viable commercial proposition, inevitably costing more money than it generates. Though it might seem perverse to do so, this aspect of the waterway should be judged a cause for celebration, especially in the present era when the merit of everything and everyone seems to be based solely on the grounds of cost-effectiveness. Applying that criterion to the Royal Canal makes no sense, but instead demonstrates the fatuity of assessing value on economic grounds alone.
What’s more important in this instance is that the Royal Canal provides an example of successful intervention in the natural landscape. We are inclined to believe all man-made intrusions damage the environment, but the Royal Canal offers conclusive evidence this need not be the case: far from impairing its surroundings, the waterway often enhances them. And that is what matters most: the Royal Canal as an object of beauty. The original scheme may have been ill-conceived and sometimes ill-executed, over-time and over-budget in its completion, but we are all now the grateful beneficiaries. That gives it a value beyond price.
Almost big enough to serve as a punchbowl, this exquisitely simple piece of Irish silver dates from 1778 and was made in Dublin by Matthew West, a member of the family which continued operating as the country’s oldest jewellers until its Grafton Street premises closed two years ago. Due to be auctioned by Adam’s on Tuesday, the bowl is one of a number of lots coming from Carrigglas Manor, County Longford.
Like a great many Irish houses, the Carrigglas estate has had what can best be described as a chequered history. Originally part of the estates of the Bishop of Ardagh, the lands were acquired by Trinity College, Dublin before passing into the hands of the Newcomen family who operated one of 18th century Ireland’s most successful banks; designed in 1781 by Thomas Ivory, its former premises still stands on Lord Edward Street, Dublin, albeit enlarged in size. Clearly the Newcomens appreciated fine architecture since they commissioned a range of new buildings on their Carrigglas estate from the greatest architect of the period, James Gandon, responsible for both the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin. Unfortunately, of Gandon’s designs only the main entrance gates and the double stable yard were completed before the Newcomen Bank went into decline; on its ignominious collapse in 1825, the institution’s head, Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen, 2nd Viscount Newcomen, shot himself in his office.
Following this catastrophe, Carrigglas was acquired by a successful Irish barrister called Thomas Lefroy. Today Lefroy is best remembered as the possible object of Jane Austen’s amorous attentions and, arising from this, as inspiration for the character of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; in the rather fanciful 2007 film Becoming Jane, Lefroy was played by James McAvoy. He certainly knew and saw a great deal of Austen in 1796, being mentioned several times in her letters and on one occasion was described by her as ‘a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man’ with whom she admitted to having flirted. However, the following year he became engaged to Mary Paul, sister of a college friend, marrying her on completion of his legal studies in 1799. Ultimately becoming Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852, some fifteen years earlier Lefroy had requested architect Daniel Robertson to design a new house for him at Carrigglas in the Tudoresque idiom. This remained in the hands of successive generations of the family, finally being inherited in the mid-1970s by Jeffry and Tessa Lefroy. Like many other people in their position, they struggled with managing the place and trying to make it generate sufficient income. To this end, they opened the house to day visitors and paying guests. But by the start of the present millennium it was clear the battle for survival was never going to be won and in 2005 the Lefroys sold Carrigglas to a property company which trumpeted its intentions to preserve the estate. Writing in The Times in March that year, Tessa noted that many old Irish houses had been lost over the previous decades but ‘thankfully, Carrigglas’ future is secure: it is going to be turned into a country house hotel development with new homes in the grounds. The planning laws are now so strict that the house and yards must be restored to their former glory.’
Would that this had been the case. Far from taking care of the main house, stable yards and so forth, the only thing Carrigglas’ new owners, Thomas Kearns Developments, did was to strip large stretches of the parkland of trees and start throwing up rows of houses notable for their lack of sympathy with the surroundings. And before this work could be completed, the company ran into financial trouble; by autumn 2007 sub-contractors on the site had withdrawn their labour. The following spring the Bank of Ireland, which had advanced €35 million, called in accountants to assess the project’s viability. It was glaringly obvious this scheme had no future, especially after Thomas Kearns Developments went into liquidation and Carrigglas went into a limbo from which it may never emerge. Over the intervening four years, as these photographs make plain, the place has been allowed to suffer neglect, almost the only attention it receives coming from vandals.
The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage classifies the complex of inter-related structures at Carrigglas as representing ‘one of the most important demesnes in north Leinster.’ This designation did not stop the authorities of Longford County Council from granting permission for the estate’s irrevocable despoilment with that addition of over 300 residential units, a hotel, spa and inevitable golf course. Nor, it would appear, have the same authorities shown much concern for the preservation of what remains, not least the important group of Gandon buildings which are without peer anywhere else in the country. The silver bowl being auctioned on Tuesday will no doubt find a new owner and be much cherished. Regrettably the same good fortune cannot be hoped for Carrigglas. To paraphrase Jane Austen, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an estate in the possession of a receiver, must be in want of a saviour.
With thanks to Brendan Harte and Mary Morrissey for their photographs.
*Insufficiently dispirited by what you have read and seen here? Watch John O’Neill’s short film showing the present wretched condition of Carrigglas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYDKZ33pWX8&feature=plcp
Addendum: the bowl sold for €4,200.00 at Tuesday’s sale. What price Carrigglas?