A Heartless Pastime

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Kilconnell Friary, County Galway

‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.’ From Italian Hours (1873) by Henry James.

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Tyrone House, County Galway

‘I salute you, lonely ruins. While your aspect repulses with a secret fear the gaze of the vulgar, my heart finds in contemplating you the charm of a thousand sentiments and thoughts. How many useful lessons and touching reflections do you not offer to the spirit which knows how to consult you!’
From Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791) by Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney.

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Mount Shannon, County Limerick

‘I do love these ancient ruins
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ’t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day. But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.’
From The Duchess of Malfi (1612) by John Webster.

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Former Church of Ireland church, Rathcormac, County Cork

‘The ideas aroused within me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away, only the world remains, time alone endures. How old is this world! I walk between these two eternities…What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of this crumbling stone?’
From Denis Diderot’s Salon (1767).

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Duckett’s Grove, County Carlow

‘At fifteen I went with the army,
At fourscore I came home.
On the way I met a man from the village,
I asked him who there was at home.
That over there is your house,
All covered over with trees and bushes.
Rabbits had run in at the dog-hole,
Pheasants flew down from the beams of the roof.
In the courtyard was growing some wild grain;
And by the well, some wild mallows.
I’ll boil the grain and make porridge,
I’ll pluck the mallows and make soup.
Soup and porridge are both cooked,
But there is no one to eat them with.
I went out and looked towards the east,
While tears fell and wetted my clothes.’
Chinese poem by an unknown author, translated by Arthur Waley (1919).

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Belan, County Kildare

‘What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, ye
Whose agonies are evils of a day! A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay. . . .
Then let the winds howl on! Their harmony
Shall henceforth be my music, and the night
The sound shall temper with the owlets’ cry,
As I now hear them in the fading light…’
From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818) by Lord Byron.

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Dromore, County Limerick

‘Where rev’rend shrines in gothic grandeur stood,
The nettle, or the noxious night-shade spreads;
And ashlings, wafted from the neighboring wood,
Through the worn turrets wave their trembling heads.
I left the mantling shade in moral mood . . .
Sigh’d, as the mould’ring monuments I viewed.
Inexorably calm, with silent pace,
Here Time has pass’d What ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o’er its hallow’d base,
Turn’d not his step, nor could his course delay.’
From Poems chiefly Pastoral (1766) by John Cunningham.

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‘Fall’n, fall’n, a silent heap; her heroes all
Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp.
The throne of nations fall’n; obscur’d by dust;
Ev’n yet majestical; the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising Sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crush’d columns, rifled moles…’
From The Ruins of Rome (1740) by John Dyer.

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Downhill, County Derry

‘…Since first these ruins fell, how chang’d the scene!
What busy, bustling mortals, now unknown,
Have come and gone, as tho’ there nought had been,
Since first Oblivion call’d the spot her own.

Ye busy, bustling mortals, known before,
Of what you’ve done, where went, or what you see,
Of what your hopes attain’d to, (now no more,)
For everlasting lies a mystery.

Like yours, awaits for me that common lot;
‘Tis mine to be of every hope bereft:
A few more years and I shall be forgot,
And not a vestige of my memory left.’
From Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth (1818) by John Clare

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Shane’s Castle, County Antrim

‘Amidst the gloom arose the ruins of the abbey, tinged with a bright ray, which discovered a profusion of rich Gothic workmanship; and exhibited in pleasing contrast the grey stone of which the ruins are composed, with the feathering foliage that floated round them. . . . The imagination formed it, after the vision vanished.’
From Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1782) by William Gilpin.

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Folly at Bellevue, County Galway

A Lost Palace

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Today an unremarkable suburb of Dublin, Tallaght was for many centuries a frontier settlement, marking the edge of the Pale beyond which the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose ancestors were inclined to engage in assault and pillage. A monastery had been established here in the eighth century by St Maelruan but it was sacked by the Vikings in 811 and suffered sundry other attacks thereafter. However, the religious link meant that when Tallaght came under the authority of the Archbishop of Dublin in 1179, a castle was built and this in turn became an archiepiscopal retreat. The old castle having fallen into dilapidation, it was largely rebuilt soon after 1729 by then-Archbishop John Hoadly but within a century this property too was deemed no longer suitable for habitation: in 1821 Archbishop Lord John Beresford disposed of the property by act of parliament and it passed into private hands. Another programme of rebuilding followed before the place was acquired in 1856 by members of the Dominican order whose St Mary’s Priory remains on the site still, incorporating a single tower of the original castle.
The engraving above shows the archiepiscopal palace not long before it ceased to serve this function and was largely demolished. A contemporaneous account by James Norris Brewer offers fascinating information about its appearance, the palace described as being ‘a spacious, but long and narrow, building, composed of the grey stone of the country, and is destitute of pretensions to architectural beauty. The interior contains many apartments of ample proportions but none that are highly embellished.’ These included a hall measuring twenty-one foot square and lit by two tiers of windows, and a drawing room thirty-three feet wide and twenty-one feet wide. All now long gone and recalled only by a handful of images such as this one.

In Exchange

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A 1792 print by James Malton of the Tholsel in Dublin. Seemingly the word Tholsel derives from the old English ‘toll’ meaning tax and ‘sael’ meaning hall, and it was thus a place where taxes and the like were paid. But in the mediaeval city it also served as court house, custom-house, guildhall and merchants’ meeting place. By the 17th century the original Tholsel had fallen into disrepair and in the 1680s was replaced by the structure seen here, standing on Skinner’s Row (opposite Christ Church Cathedral). This baroque building had an open arcade on the ground floor where mercantile business could be conducted, and a chamber for council meetings of Dublin Corporation upstairs. Its façade was adorned with two niches containing statues of Charles II and his brother the Duke of York (later and briefly James II) behind which rose a tower and weather vane. However, by the time Malton’s print was published the towner had been taken down and early in the following century the entire building was demolished, its functions superseded by Thomas Cooley’s Exchange (now City Hall) on Dame Street, and the City Assembly House on South William Street where the local authority preferred to meet. Next Wednesday evening, May 21st, I shall be introducing a talk by Andrew Bonar Law on Malton’s Irish prints to be given in the self-same City Assembly House, now headquarters for the Irish Georgian Society. For further information, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/the-irish-prints-of-james-malton-lecture-by-andrew-bonar-law

Hail Glorious Knights of St Patrick

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Above is a portrait of George III’s fifth son Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and, from 1837 until his death fourteen years later, King of Hanover: he was also Earl of Armagh in the Irish peerage. The picture is of interest because it shows the Duke in the robes of a Knight Companion of the Order of St Patrick to which he was appointed in August 1821.
Dormant without being extinct, the Illustrious Order of St Patrick was established in February 1783 by George III ‘to distinguish the virtue, loyalty and fidelity of his subjects in Ireland.’ Note that its creation came the year after Grattan and his supporters had secured greater autonomy for the Irish parliament; the new chivalric order was intended to ensure firmer ties, at least among members of the peerage, to the British crown. Modelled on the very much older Order of the Garter, initially it consisted of the ruling Sovereign, a Grand Master (always the current Lord Lieutenant) and fifteen Knights Companions (this number later increased). In addition the Archbishop of Armagh served as Prelate of the Order, the Archbishop of Dublin as Chancellor, the Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin as Registrar and other posts included a Secretary, Genealogist, Usher and King of Arms. Naturally St Patrick was patron of the order, its motto being ‘Quis separabit?’ Latin for ‘Who will separate us?’ (an allusion to St Paul’s enquiry in his Letter to the Romans, ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’).

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As can be seen above, the first Knights were invested on 11th March 1783 in a ceremony held in the great ballroom of Dublin Castle, renamed St Patrick’s Hall and forever after known as such. The Order’s statutes restricted membership to men who were both knights and gentlemen, the latter being defined as having three generations of ‘noblesse’, that is ancestors bearing coats of arms on both their father’s and mother’s side. In fact only Irish Peers, and the occasional foreign princes, were ever created Knights of St Patrick.
Among the Knights Founders were George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward Augustus, later Duke of Kent and father of the future Queen Victoria: in his absence he was represented by Robert Deane, first Baron Muskerry. The only other absentee was Henry Loftus, Earl of Ely, then taking the waters in Bath in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to improve his health (he would be dead within two months); he was represented by John Joshua, second Baron Carysfort. The other new Knights were all present, including the second Duke of Leinster, the 12th Earl of Clanrickarde, the 6th Earl of Westmeath, the fifth Earl of Inchiquin, the second Earl of Shannon, the second Earl of Mornington (father of the future Duke of Wellington) and the great Earl of Charlemont. Only one peer declined to join the new order, Randal MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim because he was already a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath, and it was not permitted to hold both knighthoods: his place was taken by Arthur Gore, second Earl of Arran.

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Installation of P of Wales (later Edward VII) as Kn of St P

Formal ceremonies to mark the foundation of the Order took place on 17th March 1783. The day began with a ceremony in St Patrick’s Cathedral to which the Knights, after gathering at Dublin Castle, had all processed in their robes. The cathedral’s old choir was now designated the Chapel of the Order, in which each knight was required to affix his arms to his stall and to display his family banner above. Investiture of new Knights continued to take place in the cathedral choir until the official disestablishment of the Church of Ireland by Gladstone’s Liberal government in January 1871.
Following a service at St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Knights returned to Dublin Castle where the Lord Lieutenant, George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, Earl Temple held a banquet in St Patrick’s Hall. The first picture shows this occasion with Lord Temple at the centre and the other Knights in all their finery, including cloaks and plumed tricornes, disposed on either side of him. Lady Temple is shown seated on the extreme left although in fact she was in the gallery behind her husband. This commemorative picture was created by a Sussex-born artist called John Keyse Sherwin who began his working life as a wood-cutter but subsequently acquired fame for his prints. However he hungered to become known as a painter, and so laboured on large canvases such as one some fifty feet long representing the Installation of the Knights of St Patrick. It was not a success, with one observer deriding the result as ‘a wretched daub.’ Still, this work, which became a popular engraving, helps to give us some idea of the occasion.
The second painting, by the Waterford-born artist Michael Angelo Hayes, depicts the March 1868 investiture as a Knight of St Patrick of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII). The ceremony took place after St Patrick’s Cathedral had been extensively restored earlier in the decade thanks to the beneficence of brewer Benjamin Lee Guinness. It was one of the last occasions when such a ceremony involving the Order took place at this location.

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Although the Order’s original statutes were quite strict, they gradually became more relaxed. For example, when George IV visited in Ireland in 1821 the event was marked by the investiture of an additional six Knights of St Patrick (its membership was eventually increased to twenty-two). One of those appointed by the king was the first Roman Catholic to be so honoured, Arthur Plunkett, 8th Earl of Fingall. His family had always remained loyal to the old faith, and Lord Fingall was a leading supporter of Catholic Emancipation. This was not a position meeting with the King’s approval (nor that of his younger brother the aforementioned Duke of Cumberland who was vehemently opposed to the repeal of the old Penal Laws). Nevertheless in August 1821 Lord Fingall became a Knight of St Patrick. Strangely the most articulate opposition to his investiture came from Lord Byron, by then living in Italy (he would die less than three years later while trying to help Greece achieve independence from the Ottoman Empire). Hearing of the king’s visit to Ireland, and of the enthusiastic manner in which he was received, the poet wrote The Irish Avatar in which he castigated this country’s natives for their servile behaviour before the monarch. Specifically he wrote, ‘Will thy yard of blue riband, poor Fingal, recall/The fetters from millions of Catholic limbs?/Or, has it not bound thee the fastest of all/The slaves, who now hail their betrayer with hymns?’

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As already mentioned, once Gladstone’s government saw through legislation for the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and thus ended its link with the state, the connection between the Knights of St Patrick and St Patrick’s Cathedral was also broken, the latter no longer serving as a venue for the former’s investiture ceremonies (these were subsequently moved to St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Cathedral). It was decided that the heraldic banners of all knights at the time of the change would be left hanging over their respective choir stalls, along with their helmets and swords. And as can be seen above, so they remain to the present day, a reminder of a minor but fascinating detail of Irish history.
As for the Illustrious Order of St Patrick the last peer to be appointed to its ranks was James Hamilton, third Duke of Abercorn in June 1922. Three members of the British royal family followed: Edward, Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor) in 1927; Henry, Duke of Gloucester in 1934 and George, Duke of York (later George VI) in 1936. Although there have been no new Knights since then and there are no living ones since the death of the Duke of Gloucester in 1972, the order was never abolished and in theory could be revived. It seems an unlikely prospect, but then so once did a State Visit by the President of Ireland to Britain, and that takes place next month…
Happy St Patrick’s Day to all readers and followers of The Irish Aesthete.

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Ave Maria

Maria Edgeworth

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.

Library in Edgeworthstown House

Of Wonderous Beauty Did the Vision Seem*

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Writing to a friend in September 1795, the English Romantic poet Anna Seward, known during her lifetime as the Swan of Lichfield, reported ‘I must not conclude my letter without observing, that, on my second visit to the fairy palace [Llangollen Vale], a lovely Being cast around its apartments the soft lunar rays of her congenial beauty. — Mrs. Tighe, the wife of one of my friend’s nephews, an elegant and intelligent young woman, whom I should have observed more had his wife’s beauty been less. I used the word “lunar” as characteristic of that beauty, for it is not resplendent and sunny, like Mrs. Plummer’s, but, as it were, shaded, though exquisite. She is scarce two-and-twenty. Is it not too much that Aonian inspiration should be added to the cestus of Venus? She left an elegant and accurate sonnet, addressed to Lady E. Butler and her friend, on leaving their enchanting bowers.’
The ‘Mrs Tighe’ to whom Seward here refers was another poet, Mary Tighe, while ‘Lady E. Butler and her friend’ were the famous Ladies of Llangollen, and a house in Ireland, today a ruin, links them all together: Woodstock, County Kilkenny. Lady Elinor, who grew up in Kilkenny Castle, knew the place well since it was here in 1768 that she met her lifelong companion, Sarah Ponsonby. Lady Elinor was then aged 28, Miss Butler some fifteen years younger but they formed so close a bond that more than a decade later, braving the opprobrium of their respective families, and of society at large, they ran away together and set up home at Plas Newydd, near the Welsh town of Llangollen. Although living quietly and on a relatively modest income, they soon became famous and attracted visitors from throughout Britain and Ireland: Queen Charlotte wanted to see their house and persuaded George III to grant them a pension. Writers in particular were especially fascinated by the Ladies of Llangollen and among those who travelled to see them were Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. Plus, of course, both Anna Seward and Mary Tighe.

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Mary Tighe (née Blachford) was born in 1772, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman who died when she was very young. Her mother Theodosia Tighe was an early supporter of John Wesley and Mary had a severely religious upbringing. At the age of twenty-one she married her first cousin Henry Tighe but it appears the union was not happy. In addition Mary soon began to manifest signs of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her.
From an early age she had written both poetry and prose but only in 1805 was her long poem Psyche, or the Legend of Love privately printed in an edition of just fifty copies. Nevertheless, it brought her considerable fame: in the same year Thomas Moore wrote his own poem To Mrs Henry Tighe on Reading her Psyche which opens with the lines, ‘Tell me the witching tale again/For never has my heart or ear/Hung on so sweet, so pure a strain/So pure to feel, so sweet to hear.’
Psyche is a six-canto allegorical poem in Spenserian stanzas recounting the classical myth of the love between Cupid and Psyche, and the travails the couple must endure before they can achieve happiness. In sentiment it is of its own era and not of ours, but stylistically the work is highly accomplished and one can understand why it achieved such renown in the early 19th century. A year after the death of the poem’s lovely young author in 1810 a new edition of Psyche, along with some of her other verses, was published and this helped to cement Mary Tighe’s fame across Europe.

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Mary Tighe spent the final months of her short life at Woodstock which belonged to her brother-in-law William Tighe. Wonderfully located on high ground above the village of Inistioge and the river Nore, the house dates from around 1745 and is believed to have been designed by the architect Francis Bindon for Sir William Fownes. Its north-east front of six bays and three storeys over part-raised basement is notable for having an elaborate central doorway comprising the door itself and two flanking windows immediately above which is a niche which originally contained a life-size statue, and an oculus over that again. So deep is the building that it has a small inner courtyard to light the central rooms.
Woodstock was inherited by Sir William Fownes’ grandson William Tighe and c. 1804 he was responsible for adding the flanking single-storey wings with pedimented breakfronts, the designer of these being local architect William Robertson. The interior was especially noted for its fine library and a couple of old photographs show ceilings with elaborate rococo plasterwork. The main hall contained a white marble figure representing Mary Tighe carved by the Tuscan Lorenzo Bartolini some five years after her death. This has gone but her mausoleum survives in the graveyard attached to the former Augustinian priory of St Columbkill is Inistioge. Inside the severe neo-classical limestone structure is another life size figure carved by the English sculptor John Flaxman and showing the recumbent poet with a small winged figure – Inspiration perhaps? – crouching beside her head.

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Set on sloping ground, the gardens of Woodstock were originally laid out in the ‘natural’ style popularized by Capability Brown. However they were transformed in the middle of the 19th century by Lady Louisa Tighe, wife of another William Tighe; Lady Louisa was the daughter of the fourth Duke of Richmond and therefore the great-niece of the Lennox sisters who made such an impact on Ireland during the previous century (as anyone familiar with Stella Tillyard’s 1995 book Aristocrats will remember). Late in life, Lady Louisa who was born in 1803 recalled attending her mother the Duchess of Richmond’s legendary ball in Brussels, held three days before the Battle of Waterloo: ‘I well remember the Gordon Highlanders dancing reels at the ball. My mother thought it would interest foreigners to see them…some of the poor men who danced in our house died at Waterloo.’ (A piece of trivial information: four years after Waterloo, the Duke, by then Governor General of Canada, was bitten by a pet fox and subsequently died of rabies.)
Working with her then-head gardener Pierce Butler, Lady Louisa’s interventions at Woodstock were extensive, beginning with a series of three terraces to the immediate west of the walled garden. The middle of these three was aligned to the south with a large circular conservatory designed by the Dublin iron master Richard Turner. This work completed and Pierce Butler having died, Lady Louisa then embarked on another major project with her new head gardener Scotsman Charles McDonald: the creation of a winter garden to the immediate rear of the house. Consisting of four sunken panels each filled with elaborately planted parterres, its creation involved the removal of more than 200,000 cubic yards of soil and the building of massive granite embankments. Extant photographs indicate the style of these gardens to be of the kind now found only in municipal parks, with lines of bright bedding plants and even at Woodstock pathways of different coloured gravel. Less lurid elements elsewhere in the demesne included an arboretum, yew walk and rose garden, Monkey Puzzle and Noble Fir avenues, a grotto, rustic summer house and various other features.

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Lady Louisa and William Tighe had no living children and although she remained in residence at Woodstock until her death in 1900 the estate passed to her husband’s nephew Frederick Tighe who in turn left it to his son Edward. Perhaps because Lady Louisa continued to live in the house, this branch of the family spent less time at Woodstock and once the War of Independence broke out the Tighes brought the house’s more valuable furniture and pictures to England. It proved a judicious move since the building was occupied first by members of the hated Black and Tans and then by the Free State Army. The latter left Woodstock on July 1st 1922 and the following day it was set alight, most probably by anti-Treaty forces. All the remaining contents, including the library and Bartolini’s statue of Mary Tighe, were destroyed in the blaze. It was, like so many similar occurrences of the period, an entirely gratuitous act of vandalism that did nothing other than rob Ireland of another part of her cultural heritage.
Woodstock has stood a ruin ever since, its external walls now needing support if they are not to fall down. In recent years Kilkenny County Council has undertaken extensive restoration of the gardens which are open to the public and much prized. The pity is that the once splendid house which was their centerpiece and source of meaning provided should remain a hollow shell. If only in memory of the poet Mary Tighe, Woodstock deserves better than its present condition.

Mary Tighe

*From the first Canto of Psyche.
A new biography of Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell has just been published by the Somerville Press.

My Name is Ozymandias

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In February 1879 Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, popularly known then and since as Sisi, arrived in County Meath. Unhappily married, restless and inclined to melancholy, she found distraction in hunting and it was this sport which brought her to Ireland. Throughout her six-week stay in the country she followed the hounds almost daily with the Ward Union, the Meath and the Kildare Hunts, always accompanied by the most proficient horseman of his generation Captain William ‘Bay’ Middleton, widely rumoured to be her lover. Her own animals not proving suitable for the Irish terrain, local owners lent or sold the Empress their mounts although the Master of the Meath Hunt Captain Robert Fowler of Rahinstown was heard to expostulate ‘I’m not going to have any damned Empress buying my daughter’s horse.’ Nevertheless before her departure, Elisabeth presented a riding crop to Fowler: it was sold by Adam’s of Dublin in September 2010 for €28,000.
During her 1879 visit and on a second occasion the following year the Empress stayed in an immense baroque palace that would not have looked out of place among the foothills outside Vienna. This was Summerhill, one of Ireland’s most remarkable houses the loss of which, as the Knight of Glin once wrote, ‘is probably the greatest tragedy in the history of Irish domestic architecture.’

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Summerhill was constructed for the Hon. Hercules Langford Rowley who in 1732 married his cousin Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Clotworthy Upton. It is generally agreed that work on the house began around this date, perhaps to commemorate the union. Also, although impossible to prove absolutely, the most widespread supposition is that Summerhill’s architect was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. There are echoes in its design of Vanbrugh in whose office Pearce is thought to have trained. Indeed writing of the building in 1752 the Anglican clergyman and future Bishop of Meath Richard Pococke specifically described it as ‘a commanding Eminence, the house is like a Grand Palace, but in the Vanbrugh Style.’
There was already a residence in the immediate vicinity, the ruins of which survive to the present. Known as Lynch’s Castle, it is a late 16th century tower house probably occupied up to the time of Summerhill’s construction. The position selected for Rowley’s new house could scarcely have been better – the 19th century English architect C.R. Cockerell thought ‘few sites more magnificently chosen – the close of a long incline so that the gradual approach along a tree-lined avenue created the impression of impending drama. Finally one reached the entrance front, a massive two-storey, seven-bay block the central feature of which were four towering Corinthian columns, the whole executed in crisply cut limestone. On either side two-storey quadrants swept away from the house towards equally vast pavilions topped by towers and shallow domes.

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We must imagine the original interiors of Summerhill to have been as superb as its exterior since little record of them survive. The house was seriously damaged by fire in the early 19th century and thereafter successive generations of the Rowley owners – it had passed to a branch of the Taylours of Headfort, the first of whom was elevated to the peerage as Baron Langford in 1800 after voting in favour of the Act of Union – never seem to have had sufficient funds to oversee a comprehensive refurbishment. In fact in 1851 the estate was offered for sale. However, some work was done on the house, including a new main staircase, in the 1870s, not long before Summerhill was taken by the Empress Elisabeth. A handful of photographs, reproduced in the invaluable Irish Georgian Society Records of 1913 and shown above give us an idea of the house’s decoration, not least that of the double-height entrance hall with its then-compulsory potted palms (just as the wall above the stairs carries an equally inevitable reproduction of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna). We know the drawing room and small dining room both contained elaborate plasterwork and there were clearly some splendid chimneypieces. The IGS Records also lists many significant paintings in the main rooms.
Before the end of the 19th century the large gothic mausoleum likewise built by Hercules Langford Rowley in 1781 not far from the house had fallen into a ruinous state; some of its exterior walls survive, along with a handful of their curious arched niches. Originally it contained a large memorial carved by Thomas Banks and commemorating the death of a beloved granddaughter, the Hon Mary Pakenham (Rowley’s daughter had married Lord Longford, another of whose children Catherine would in turn marry the Hon Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington). The Banks memorial was rescued from the mausoleum and moved into the main house at Summerhill, there seemingly safe from any damage.

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On the night of 4th February 1922 the Rowleys were away but five staff remained in the house. When a knock came on the back door, the butler refused to open it but shortly afterwards he heard the door being knocked down. He and the others escaped through an exit in the basement and walked towards the farm; turning around, they saw flames rapidly spreading through the house which by morning was left a smoking shell.
It has never been ascertained who was responsible for the burning of Summerhill or why it was attacked in this way, but most likely as elsewhere during the same period it was perceived as representing the old regime and therefore a target for republicans. Afterwards, like other house owners whose property had suffered a similar fate, the Rowleys applied to the new Free State government for compensation, asking for £100,000 to rebuild Summerhill; initially they were offered £65,000 but by April 1923 this had been cut to £16,775 with the condition that at least £12,000 of the sum had to be spent on building some kind of residence on the site, otherwise only £2,000 would be given.
The compensation figure was later raised to £27,500 with no obligation to build but by then the Rowleys left the country (one member of the family had already declared ‘Nothing would induce me to live in Ireland if I was paid to do so…’). For the next thirty-five years Summerhill stood an empty shell. The late Mark Bence-Jones who saw the house during this period later wrote, ‘Even in its ruinous state, Summerhill was one of the wonders of Ireland; in fact like Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, it gained added drama from being a burnt-out shell. The calcining of the central feature of the garden front looked like more fantastic rustication; the stonework of the side arches was more beautiful than ever mottled with red lichen; and as the entrance front came into sight, one first became aware that it was a ruin by noticing daylight showing through the front door.’ In 1947 Maurice Craig visited the site. His wonderfully atmospheric photographs from that time corroborate Bence-Jones’ description.

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Seaton Delaval still stands, but Summerhill is no more. In 1957 the house was demolished, apparently without any objection. Today the site is occupied by a bungalow of the most diminutive proportions surrounded by evergreens which thereby obscure the view which made this spot so special. The difference in scale and style between the original house and its replacement would be hilarious was the loss of Summerhill not so tragic. The village at its former entrance gates gives visitors no indication that close by stood one of Ireland’s greatest architectural beauties. Indeed one suspects local residents themselves are mostly unaware of what they have lost since there is scant evidence of concern for the welfare of other old buildings in the vicinity.
If Summerhill still stood it could be a significant tourist attraction, bringing visitors to this part of the country, not least from Austria and surrounding countries where the Empress Elisabeth enjoys near-cult status. In other words, what went with the house was not just an important piece of Ireland’s architectural heritage but also the opportunity for local employment and income. It is typical, if perhaps the worst instance, of Ireland’s failure to appreciate the potential of her historic buildings, as well as their inherent aesthetic qualities. I think it was Bence-Jones who once called Summerhill Ireland’s Versailles but a more apt comparison would be with Marly, another vanished treasure now known only through a handful of images. As Shelley wrote in 1818,
‘”Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare…’

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