Set into the eastern section of a wall surrounding St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth, the tombstone slab of a funerary monument dating from 1520 and commemorating Sir Edmond Golding and his wife Elizabeth Flemyng. Depicting the couple as cadavers, this stone would originally have sat on top of a free-standing tomb but was presumably moved to its present position when St Peter’s was rebuilt in the 1750s. Sections of the lower portion of the tomb can also be found elsewhere on the same wall.
‘Little Dr Beaufort of Navan,’ Richard, Marquess Wellesley once commented, ‘would make a good terrier.’ Small, energetic and forever chasing after a new idea or scheme, the Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort was indeed terrier-like in his doggedness. According to his biographer Canon C.C. Ellison, ‘Possessed of an insatiable curiosity, his keen eye and ready pen recorded the passing scene. He could not resist calling at a mansion or a castle, especially if building work was in progress. Usually he found a welcome, a dinner and a bed. Parks, gardens and farms were of special interest and he was ever on the lookout for new methods and machinery to try out on his own land. An art collection, museum or curiosity of any sort drew him like a magnet. He liked to copy old records and try his hand at scientific experiments. He had so many interests that he seldom concentrated on any of them long enough to make a lasting impact. If there was a pedigree to be puzzled out, an escutcheon to be designed, a good executor to be found, a plan to be drawn, a congratulatory address to be written, or confidential business to be transacted, the solution was often, Ask Dr. Beaufort.’ He was born in London in October 1739 the son of French Huguenot refugees Daniel Cornelis de Beaufort and Esther Gougeon. His father was initially pastor of the Huguenot church in Spitalfieds and then of that in Parliament Street, Bishopsgate, in 1729. Two years later, however, he converted to the Church of England and served as rector of East Barnet from 1739 to 1743. When William Stanhope, first Earl of Harrington was sent to Ireland as Viceroy in 1747 he brought Beaufort senior with him as his private chaplain. The whole family followed and remained in this country. Many men in who gained such a position usually worked it to their advantage and secured an affluent bishopric for themselves. However, Daniel Cornelis, like his son after him, seems to have lacked the ability to improve his circumstances and the highest office he secured from Lord Harrington was the rectorship of Navan, County Meath. He was provost and archdeacon of Tuam from 1753 to 1758 and thereafter until his death thirty years later was rector of a parish in County Laois.
Daniel Augustus Beaufort was educated at the Preston School, Navan and then went to Trinity College, Dublin of which he was elected a scholar in 1757. He attained a B.A. in 1759, an M.A. in 1764, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the university in 1789. Long before then he had been ordained by the Bishop of Salisbury, and, in succession to his father, was rector of Navan, co. Meath, from 1765 to 1818. In 1790 he was presented by John Foster to the vicarage of Collon, co. Louth: until his final years he was ostensibly responsible for both parishes although given his travels and other engagements curates did most of the work. He also held several other benefices yet despite this plurality of incomes he was always chronically short of funds and forever falling into debt from which he had to be rescued by relatives and friends. From 1779 to 1784, for example, he and his family lived first in Wales and then Cheltenham, ostensibly for the sake of his son’s education. In fact the main motivation was to reduce expenditure and to avoid creditors in Ireland. He paid three brief visits to the country during this period, one of them being for the purpose of voting in a Meath election but, in typical fashion, he arrived too late for the ballot. Likewise Cheltenham disappointed, his sons being almost immediately expelled from the Grammar School because of their impenetrable Irish accents.
In 1767 Beaufort had married Mary, daughter and co-heiress of William Waller of Allenstown, County Meath. The couple had five children who survived to adulthood, the best known being Francis Beaufort who became a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and in 1805 invented the Beaufort Scale, an empirical measure that relates wind speeds to observed conditions at sea or on land and is still used today. The eldest of their three daughters, Frances Anne in 1798 married Richard Lovell Edgeworth as his fourth wife: he was only five years younger than her father. Just to confuse matters further, her brother the aforementioned Francis Beaufort married as his second wife Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Honora Edgeworth. In this way he became both a brother- and son-in-law of the same man. Richard Lovell’s most famous offspring (he had more than twenty children from his quartet of wives) was Maria Edgeworth. Her 1817 novel Ormond contains a character called Dr Cambray, an Anglican cleric of Huguenot extraction modelled on Daniel Beaufort. At one point in the book Dr Cambray is described as being ‘a very agreeable, respectable, amiable person’ and at another as someone whose ‘persuasive benevolent politeness could not have failed to operate even on first acquaintance, in pleasing and conciliating even those who were of opposite opinions.’
Among Dr Beaufort’s more notable achievements in the religious realm were the prominent role he played in the establishment and encouragement of Sunday Schools, and the preparation of elementary educational books. Today however he is better recalled for his secular work. He was a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy and associated with the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society) in its early days. His great life project was the preparation of a new map of Ireland, Civil and Ecclesiastical published on the scale of six miles to the inch and accompanied by a quarto ‘Memoir of a Map of Ireland illustrating the Topography of that Kingdom and containing a short Account of its present State civil and ecclesiastical with a complete Index to the Map.’ It took years for this enterprise to reach completion, not helped by established cartographers taking umbrage after he, a mere amateur, had proclaimed that his map would be ‘more correct’ than their earlier efforts. In 1787, having finally secured approval from the relevant authorities, including the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Beaufort embarked on two years of exhaustive journeying throughout Ireland, writing a daily account of all he had seen, everyone he met and all the places he stayed. Despite the harsh conditions of the time, he was indefatigable in his pursuit of new experiences, Maria Edgeworth telling her step-mother (and Beaufort’s daughter) in 1806 that he ‘next to my own, is I think the best and most agreeable traveller in the world…’ Further research and preparation absorbed another few years and only in 1792 did Beaufort’s map finally appear; typically, after all his trouble the river Boyne was somehow omitted from the index. But the Map proved to be a success, selling 2000 copies within 18 months of publication and a 2nd edition appearing in 1797. Nevertheless, the project ended up costing him £1,000.
In addition to his many other interests and activities, Dr Beaufort was also an amateur architect of some ability, producing designs for houses and religious buildings alike. As with so much else in this busy man’s life, not all his proposals were realised, but some did reach completion, not least the last and finest: the church in Collon, County Louth. As has already been mentioned, in 1790 Dr Beaufort was presented with the living at Collon, thanks to his friendship with John Foster last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, who lived there (for more on Foster and Collon, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). There already was a church in the village, erected as recently as 1763, but it was inadequate to the needs of the Fosters who required a new family vault. Thus by 1810 plans were underway for the building’s replacement with a new church designed by Dr Beaufort, now in his mid-seventies but as indefatigable as ever. It seems likely the Fosters provided some funds, and the Board of First Fruits (an Anglican organisation intended to improve the condition of the country’s churches and glebe houses) offered both a grant of £800 and a loan of £1700. The foundation of the new building was laid in July 1811 but two years later Beaufort discovered to his surprise – but most likely no one else’s – that £760 of his own money had been swallowed up in the work. Thanks to an intervention by John Foster, the Board of First Fruits granted a further loan of £2000. It is not too surprising costs had spiralled given that Beaufort chose as the model for his design one of the finest religious buildings in England: the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This superlative example of 15th century Perpendicular architecture was reproduced on a smaller scale in a Louth village, albeit with some modifications. Aside from the east gable which is dominated by a large window, the exterior of Collon church is relatively plain. The interior, however, is more engaging, the east window and those along the south wall filled with abstract coloured glass designed by Beaufort’s equally talented daughter Louisa. The real joy of the building is its plastered fan-vaulted ceiling which dominates the space without overwhelming it. Both this and a heating system beneath the tiered box seating on either side of a central aisle are believed to have been designed by William Edgeworth, the engineer son of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Collon church opened for services two hundred years ago, in 1815 and aside from some minor changes – the entrance was moved from the east to west end at some date in the later 19th century – remains exactly as it was when first designed. Yet even this endeavour was not without its hiccups, as usual of a financial nature. It is said that when Dr Beaufort was fitting out the interior he asked a carpenter to speak from the pulpit to test the acoustics. The man mounted the steps and shouted, ‘When will you pay me?’
When that chronicle of loss, Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland was published in 1988, it did not include Glyde Court, County Louth. There must have seemed no need to feature the place; the last member of the original family to own the estate had only died five years earlier and it would have been presumed another would now take over Glyde Court. Such assumptions proved incorrect and today the house is a skeletal ruin set in the remains of planned parkland. By the time the book’s thirtieth anniversary occurs, Glyde Court will most likely have vanished. The lands on which the remains of the house stand were acquired in the middle of the 18th century by John William Foster. He was a younger brother of Anthony Foster, responsible for building the main family residence elsewhere at Collon in the same county (for more on this house, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). At the time Glyde Court was called Rosy Park and after John William’s death it passed to a nephew, John Thomas Foster, son of the Reverend Thomas Foster, Rector of Dunleer and first cousin of the John Foster who served as last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In 1776, John Thomas married Lady Elizabeth Hervey, youngest daughter of Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol. (The Earl Bishop’s building exploits have been discussed in It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013 and Let the Door be Instantly Open, For there is Much Wealth Within, March 31st 2014).
Although they had three children, two of whom survived to adulthood, the marriage of John Thomas Foster and Lady Elizabeth Hervey was not a success and the couple separated after five years. What followed next is well known. Lady Elizabeth moved to England where in 1782 she met the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in Bath. Soon she and the Duchess, the famous Lady Georgiana Spencer, had become close friends. Subsequently Lady Elizabeth became a mistress of the Duke with whom she had two children. Although both born elsewhere in Europe the pair were eventually brought to England and raised with the Devonshires’ own offspring. Lady Elizabeth is also believed to have been the mistress of several other notable figures including the Dukes of Dorset and Richmond, Count Axel von Fersen and the first Earl of Dunraven. In 1809, three years after the death of Georgiana, she married the Duke of Devonshire but within two years he too had died. Eventually she moved to Rome and remained there until her own death in 1824. As mentioned, John Thomas Foster and his wife had two sons, the younger of whom, Augustus John, became a diplomat, a career assisted by his mother’s relationship with the Duke of Devonshire. By 1811 he was Minister Plenipoteniary to the United States, although he returned to Britain the following year after the outbreak of hostilities between the two countries. He later became Minister Plenipotentiary successfully to Denmark and Turin, Kingdom of Sardinia before retiring in 1840; in 1831 he had been made a baronet. He died in 1848 after cutting his throat during a delirium caused by poor health. Two of Sir Augustus’ sons succeeded him as baronet, the elder Sir Frederick Foster dying unmarried in 1857 was succeeded by the next brother, Sir Cavendish Hervey Foster who spent over forty years as rector of a parish in Essex. The youngest son, Vere Foster, is remembered as a notable philanthropist beginning when he paid a visit to Ireland in 1847 and was shocked to see the effects of the country’s ongoing famine. As a result, he spent the next half century advocating better conditions for the poor including improved educational opportunities. When he died in Belfast in December 1900, he had effectively spent all his personal funds on helping others.
As for Rosy Park, following the death of John Thomas Foster in 1796 and given that his children were based in England, it appears the property was let for a long period to the Upton family. The original house was of typical late Georgian design with an extended two-storey facade. At some unknown date work began on extending and converting the building in the Jacobean style to the designs of an unknown architect. It may be that this development was initiated by Sir Augustus Foster after his retirement but then came to a stop on his death, or perhaps the Uptons undertook the project themselves. At some point during the lifetime of the third baronet (he died in 1890) the transformation of Rosy Park was completed, so most likely the job was undertaken by his son, Major John Frederick Foster since during the 1870s he was High Sheriff and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Louth. As finished, the now-renamed Glyde Court incorporated the old house into a long slim range accessed by a three-arched porch at the north end. Its design gives an indication of what lay ahead thanks to the arched openings and vaguely Perpendicular-style ceiling. On either side rise blank gables, their curled tops underlining the Jacobean inspiration; the breakfront chimney breasts here carry the Foster coat of arms. The west, garden front has a five-bay centre flanked by deep flat-roofed, two-storey and three-bay bows, with another three bays on either side of these. Curling gables once more climbed above the roofline, several incorporating dormer windows while the east end of this block had an Oriel window with Gothic glazing (that elsewhere was of the standard sash window variety). Cement mouldings give surface interest to this facade, all of which looks in old photographs to have been white-washed. Immediately behind and to the south are red-brick ranges containing stables and other services, at least some of these including a handsome pedimented carriage arch, look to have been part of the original 18th century development. The house’s main reception rooms ran north to south, beginning with an entrance hall the same width as the porch. This leads to a passageway with a series of westerly openings into the former drawing and dining rooms (which featured the two large bow windows), library and so forth. From what remains, it appears the interior decoration was a mixture of 18h century classicism and 19th gothicisation: fragments of fallen plasterwork scattered about the place reveal a mixture of designs.
Major John Frederick Foster died just months before his father, so both the baronetcy and the Glyde Court estate passed to the next generation. Sir Augustus Vere Foster was seventeen when he came into his inheritance and four years later he married Charlotte ffolkes whose father, like his grandfather, was an Anglican clergyman based in Norfolk. In 1907, after thirteen years of marriage, the couple agreed to have their portrait painted by William Orpen, the commission coming via Hugh Lane who had met the Fosters a few years earlier when looking for pictures for an exhibition. He underwrote the portrait to the tune of £100 because the Fosters pleaded poverty: when Lane advised her on how best to redecorate Glyde Court, she warned, ‘Honestly, at most I am sure £40 is the outside of what ought to be spent on our drawing room.’ Lane also took a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Foster by Sir Thomas Lawrence, as part-payment for the Orpen picture: the Lawrence is now in the National Gallery of Ireland. The execution of Orpen’s painting seems to have been fraught from the start. The artist went to stay at Glyde Court which was being updated at the time and on the first floor candles were the only form of lighting. Sir Vere was impatient and preferred to go out shooting while his highly-strung wife (‘Vere hates the idea of “sitting” and will only do so as a favour to me’) fussed and fluttered. ‘All seems strange here,’ Orpen wrote to his wife, ‘They seem like two children playing at being married.’ Although several years the junior, he also commented ‘I feel years older than Sir Vere or Lady Foster and find myself giving them advice on how to manage their servants, etc. and children.’ By this date they had two daughters who were also to be included in the picture, together with a donkey (Lady Foster had a passion for the animals). Although summer, the weather was cold and wet, and so sometimes the donkey had to be brought into the drawing room for its sittings. The elder girl Philippa, then aged nine, liked to imagine she was really a boy and insisted on being called John and wearing a knickerbocker suit of brown velvet. In fact, Lady Foster was then pregnant with the couple’s much longed-for son, Anthony who was born the following February but as a result of her condition, she regularly disappeared to bed for days, making Orpen’s task even more difficult. When he finally completed the picture, Lady Foster wrote to Lane complaining that she and the other members of the family had been given the same expressions as the donkey: ‘If you knew of all the idiotic comments that tinkle through to us about the group, you would in a way understand my touchiness on the subject.’
In the aftermath of the first World War, the War of Independence and the Civil War, the Fosters remained on at Glyde Court, although Lady Foster’s propensity for remaining in bed grew more and more pronounced and she was inclined to hibernate throughout the winter months. The couple’s son Anthony appears to have been more lively and in 1931 he revived an annual midsummer festival called the ‘Patrun’ or Pattern in the nearby village of Tallanstown. On the first occasion he initiated proceedings by blowing on a trumpet, while a local band played and a symbolic bough was set up in the centre of the village. Singing and dancing followed, together with humorous sketches and ‘recitations’ and, in the evening, the performance of a play, after which Anthony Foster once more blew on his trumpet. The festival continued to be held even though for much of the time thereafter he was in India, a subaltern in the British army. From there he wrote to his sisters in late 1933, asking them to advise his parents that for Christmas, ‘Let them put thirty shillings aside for my return, when we can have a dance to which the band, the Patrum Committee and all my friends are invited and that will pay for their refreshments. That’s what I’d love most in the world.’ It was not to be. The following September after his regiment had moved to Khartoum, he was found dead in what have been described as ‘tragic and mysterious circumstances’, contemporary newspaper announcements declaring they would be releasing details of what had happened. Lady Foster died four years later but her husband lived on until 1947, when he left Glyde to his younger daughter Dorothy. In 1940 she had married Colonel Arthur May and the couple thereafter lived in her family home. The older sister, still calling herself John and distinguished by her cropped hair and mannish dress, lived in the same county with a cousin, Miss Evelyn ffolkes until her death in 1962. Dorothy May survived another twenty-one years but had no children and with her passing, the Foster link with Glyde Court came to a close. Still, that is less than thirty years ago and one might have thought the house would today still stand. Instead, it is about to disappear, absorbed into the landscape. The nation’s already sparse architectural heritage will be further diminished.
Since last Monday’s post about Carstown, County Louth excited some interest (see: A Lamentable Waste, January 26th), readers might like to know that ownership of this house and its history have been better chronicled over the past few centuries than is the case for many other such places. Above is a map drawn up in December 1774 by cartographer Charles Frizell Jr. who performed a similar service for estates across Ireland. At that time Carstown was owned by Edward Smith-Stanley, future Earl of Derby (and originator of the annual race at Epsom Downs that bears his name) whose mother, the heiress Lucy Smith, had inherited the property. Her forebear was Erasmus Smith who in the previous century had endowed a number of schools including that in Drogheda so shamefully demolished in 1989 (see: On the Town I, January 12th last). Ten years after Lord Stanley sold the estate to Miles Chester, for whose descendant Miss Henrietta Chester another map was published in 1856 (see below) at which date it was part of an estate running to 1,962 acres inherited from her father who had died the same year. Henrietta Chester lived until 1913 after which Carstown was inherited by her great-nephew, Edward Ryan whose family lived at Inch, County Tipperary: eight years after he died in 1939 his widow Rita sold the house and contents; the first photograph in Monday’s post was taken not long before that occurrence.
For a variety of reasons, some of which have been discussed here before, Ireland possesses a disproportionately small number of domestic dwellings from the 16th and 17th centuries. One might expect therefore that any remaining examples of architecture of this period would be especially cherished. The case of Carstown Manor, County Louth demonstrates the fallacy of such a supposition. As will be shown below, much about Carstown’s origins are, as so often, unclear. However, two pieces of on-site evidence help to date the building even if not exactly in the form it has today. These are a pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door. Although differing in shape, they carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. These stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, who came from Galtrim, County Meath. Both families were long settled in this part of the country, Oliver being the grandson of another Oliver Plunkett, first Baron Louth and also related to the slightly later Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh who was executed in 1681 and canonised in 1975. The alliance between the Plunketts and the Husseys was thus one linking two important dynasties of the Pale. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind at Carstown.
Carstown is a south-facing five-bay single-storey house over raised basement, the attic lit by gabled dormer windows believed to have been inserted at some date later than the main building’s construction. The façade is notable for a number of oddities, among them the substantial protruding chimneystack on the west gable: that on the east is incorporated into the house. The raised doorway, reached by a flight of stone steps projecting some twenty-four feet out from the house, is off-centre, closer to the east than the west. Add the intermittent use of brick and the fact that some of the dormers are taller than others and it is easy to see why all these anomalies have encouraged speculation into the origins of Carstown, the lands of which appears to have been in Plunkett ownership long before 1612. The most common explanation for the building’s unusual appearance is that it began as a late 15th/early 16th century tower house which stood on the site of the two eastern bays. This theory is strengthened by the existence of a cut-stone arch surviving in the north-west corner of this part of the basement, suggesting it was the tower house’s entrance; a curve in the wall immediately to the north would also propose this was where the spiral staircase began. Throughout the country there are examples of similar buildings being modernised by incorporation into later structures, the whole often then rendered so as to conceal where the old work ended and the new began. Clearly at Carstown the latter started fairly early because the internal plaque of 1612 serves as keystone of a chimneypiece measuring almost nine feet wide and five feet high; this would have heated a space serving as the house’s great hall. Additional work carried out in either the late 18th century or early decades of the 19th century – when it seems most of the fine yard buildings were erected – have further muddled matters, not least because at that time a three-bay, three-storey extension was added behind the main block, thereby giving Carstown a T-shaped plan.
In 2011 Michael Corcoran published a paper proposing an alternative narrative for Carstown. Based on evidence from other contemporaneous buildings in Ireland and England, he suggests the core of the structure could be a late-mediaeval house dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. It would have been a relatively modest gabled rectangular domestic residence but not so greatly different from what can be seen today. The main floor would already have been over a raised basement with attic space above, accessed as now through a door approximately two-thirds along the front towards the eastern end. ‘It is uncertain whether the original entrance would have been elevated, accessed by a staircase for which the current one is a replacement. It is quite possible that the original entrance was at ground-level, possibly through the opening beneath the current stairs. The building would have been heated by at least three ﬁreplaces, one at each gable end and another – the largest – along the back wall of the house, possibly serving a great hall.’ Thus, Corcoran submits, Carstown most likely underwent a remodelling around 1612, with the two stones carrying this date being inserted to mark that occasion, as well perhaps as the marriage of Oliver Plunkett and Katherine Hussey. Jacobean taste would have led to the insertion of larger windows and perhaps the gabled dormers were added at the same time, both to increase light and to provide additional living space. ‘It is at this point, also, that we see probably the earliest appearance of brick at the site, which was used in carefully selected places such as at the tops of the chimneys and in a thin course beneath the eaves of the roof. It is likely that the building remained in this form up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which there were successive periods of remodelling and extending.’
If Michael Corcoran’s hypothesis about Carstown’s origins holds up under further investigation, then as he writes, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’ The likelihood of that further investigation taking place grows slimmer by the day because Carstown is now in perilous condition. The house was occupied until relatively recently (the photograph top was taken in the 1940s) and it still has electricity; there is even a television aerial on the roof indicating occupancy in the not-too distant past. But as always in our damp climate, lack of constant residency rapidly takes its toll on a building, not least because it then becomes vulnerable to vandalism. This clearly happened at Carstown, so the present owners took the step of blocking up all openings with cement blocks, although limited access to the interior is still possible. Limited because it is no longer safe to venture above the basement and therefore impossible to know the condition of 18th century joinery and plasterwork still in place less than twenty years ago, not to mention the great chimneypiece with its keystone carrying the date 1612. At some point in the past six months lead was stripped from the roof, along with a set of gates beyond the yard, probably by metal thieves. This has exacerbated the house’s decline as large numbers of slates have come free, leaving the floors below exposed to the elements. Time is running out for Carstown, a house that in other jurisdictions would be cherished for its rarity. Unless intervention occurs within the coming year the building is likely to slip into irreversible decline. All those who could and should play a part to ensure its survival, not least the owners and the local authority, need to understand that by failing to act now they are not only diminishing the nation’s architectural heritage but depriving future generations of better understanding our complex history. Take a good look at that date stone: it could soon be replaced by another marking the demise of Carstown.
During 2015 the Irish Aesthete will visit an Irish town once a month and comment on the state of its architectural heritage. January’s town is Drogheda, County Louth.
As has often been pointed out the name Droichead Átha – meaning Bridge of the Ford – indicates Drogheda is the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea. This made the place strategically important. Although St Patrick is said to have landed here and Viking raiding parties wintered in the area, Drogheda was only founded, as two separate towns on either side of the Boyne, in the late 12th century when Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey in the Millmount area. For two centuries rival corporations faced each other across the river but were united as one in 1412. As evidence of its prosperity, Drogheda was subject to raids by both the Scots and the native Irish, leading to the construction of walls some twenty feet high and with a circumference of more than one and a half miles. These defences were strong enough to repulse an attack in 1315-16 by Edward the Bruce’s Scottish army in 1316-16. The most visible remnant today is St Laurence’s Gate on the eastern side of the old town. While the medieval religious establishments were closed during the Reformation, otherwise Drogheda continued to blossom until caught up in the wars of the 1640s. In November 1641 the Irish Confederate army under Sir Phelim O’Neill laid siege to the town and three times attempted to take it, without success; eventually the following spring relief forces from Dublin forced O’Neill to retire. Seven years later the town was again besieged, this time by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army which after three days gained possession and slaughtered many of the citizens. But Drogheda recovered from this terrible event and thanks to a revival of trade enjoyed something of a golden age in the 18th century when some of its finest extant buildings were constructed. Commercial decline began in the second half of the 19th century and has continued ever since; with improved transport links, such as the arrival of the railway and then the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin (less than 35 miles) has been to its disadvantage. The consequences of this are evident to anyone visiting the place.
As already mentioned, the most tangible attestation of Drogheda’s medieval defences is St Laurence’s Gate. The print at the top of this page, taken from John D’Alton’s History of Drogheda and its Environs (1844) shows how the gate, with its little toll houses on either side, looked in the first half of the 19th century looking eastwards up St Laurence Street with the old grammar school (of which more below) to the north and a series of handsome houses to the south. Originally built in the 13th century and St Laurence’s Gate survives but is difficult to inspect or appreciate, both because surrounded by a jumble of telegrath wires and other clutter, and because it is used by traffic as a point of entry from this side of the town. Immediately to the south on Featherbed Lane is a section of the old walls with its series of elliptical arches: both the walls and the lane are in poor condition and look as though little has been done for many years to improve their state. Moving northwards and to the periphery of the old town one reaches the Magdalene Tower, all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded by Lucas de Netterville, Archbishop of Armagh in 1224. It is likely to be of a later date, the upper windows judged to be from the early 14th century. At the end of the same century it was here that the Ulster chiefs acknowledged their submission to Richard II. Today it stands isolated amid housing estates. The Magdalene Tower’s environment is considerably better than that of Drogheda’s other medieval ecclesiastical remains, those of the Abbey and Hospital of St Mary d’Urso, aptly described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan in 1993 as ‘a perfect expression of the State’s lackadaisical attitude towards its historic buildings.’ More than two decades later, nothing has changed. Found at the end of Abbey Lane, despite its central location the tower is surrounded by derelict buildings, rubbish and graffiti: an apt metaphor for how Drogheda treats its architectural heritage
After the depredations of the 17th century, much of Drogheda had to be rebuilt. But in addition the town’s regained prosperity encouraged something of a building boom as affluent citizens wished to live in better premises than had their forebears. One of the most notable additions of the period was Barlow House on Drogheda’s western perimeter. The building dates from 1734 when Alderman James Barlow married Althemia Leigh, daughter of another alderman and merchant; its prominence even at the time is attested by an appearance on Joseph Ravell’s map of the town which was produced in 1749. The architect is unknown but it has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon. Of three storeys over basement, and five bays wide with a stone eaves cornice, the focus of the house’s facade is a pedimented Gibbsian doorcase with the first-floor window above flanked by scrolled volutes topped by a segmental pediment. In the mid-19th century the building became a police station and continued being used as such until 1997. In 2000 a three-year restoration programme began and the house is now used as a venue by the local arts centre. Some thirty years after James Barlow began building his new residence and as evidence of the town’s mercantile prosperity, in 1765 Drogheda Corporation ordered the demolition of the old wooden tholsel and the construction of a new replacement. Completed in five years, this was designed by George Darley and faces onto two thoroughfares with a plain four-bay front on Shop Street and an entrance front around the corner on West Street. With an exaggeratedly high first floor this rises just two storeys before being crowned by a cupola tower ending in an octagonal belfry and dome. The Tholsell was converted into a bank in 1890 and continued as such until a few years ago: it is now a tourist office. Between them, the Barlow House and the Tholsel reflect the confidence and ambition of Drogheda’s citizens in the 18th century, qualities that are much less apparent in the town today.
At least both the Barlow House and the Tholsel survive. The fate of Drogheda Grammar School provides a salutary instance of how easily a town’s architectural heritage can be lost. This institution occupied what had been Mr Clarke’s Free School on St Laurence Street (founded 1669) and the neighbouring Singleton House. The former building begun in 1728 was attributed to Michael Wills who at the time worked as an assistant to Thomas Burgh. The latter, possibly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, was built circa 1740 as a residence for Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; it contained one of the finest oak-panelled interiors in Ireland including a magnificent staircase. Both were used by the grammaer school until it moved to modern premises in 1975. Thereafter the two houses stood empty for several years until 1978 when a consortium of local businessmen set up a company called DGS Ltd. This acquired the old Grammar School for £70,000 and looked for an opportunity to demolish the buildings even though they had been listed since 1967 as ‘worthy of preservation.’ A small group of civic-minded local residents established the Drogheda Grammar School Preservation Committee in an effort to counter DGS Ltd’s systematic neglect, a policy based on the expectation that eventually the site would be deemed irreparably dilapidated. To add insult to injury in April 1980 the company claimed £12,500 from Drogheda Corporation for vandalism to the old Grammar School, a property the DGS Ltd had done nothing to protect. Indeed the local authority, while insisting it wanted the old Grammar School to survive and discussing the possibility of the buildings’ use as a public library, signally failed to utilise its statutory powers compelling the owners to safeguard listed properties. Over the next decade a series of court cases followed, during which the condition of the buildings continued to deteriorate. Then one Sunday morning in July 1989 a demolition contractor hired by DGS Ltd moved onto the site and proceeded to knock down the old Grammar School. The local preservation committee immediately went to the High Court in Dublin where the presiding judge issued an order preventing any further demolition or the removal of building materials and requiring the protection of the remains of the building. It proved to be a Pyrhhic victory, as the damage done during the unauthorised work was so great not even the original facade could be salvaged. Eventually a replica of this was built behind which DGS Ltd developed its intended shops and offices. This is what one sees today. What should have been a valuable tourist asset to all Drogheda and the surrounding region was obliterated so that a handful of speculators might gain.
Drogheda’s former prosperity deserted it some time ago: when Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term that would not be out of place today: last week in the annual nationwide survey of towns organised by Irish Business Against Litter Drogheda had fallen to 35th place out of 40. The links between urban decay and litter, together with such associated problems as graffiti, are too well known to need repeating here. What really shocks a visitor to Drogheda is the flagrant neglect of the town’s historic fabric, the fact that so many old buildings are being permitted to fall into desuetude. There is scarcely a street in the centre which does not have several houses in advanced stages of the decay cited by Thackeray, and the consequences are inevitable: the property is not treated with respect, becomes subjected to vandalism, slips further into ruin and likely drags neighbours with it. After all, who wants to live or conduct a business in an area on its way down?
To pick one example of many possible, Fair Street, which has many fine 18th century townhouses and should be cherished, is today anything but fair in appearance despite the former Francis Johnston-designed Cornmarket having housed the local authority since the end of the 19th century: if those in charge don’t see the problems on their doorstep, what hope anyone else will? Likewise while Barlow House has been restored, many other buildings in the vicinity are in an advanced stage of decay, giving a very poor impression of the western entrance to the old town. With its enviably rich architectural history, Drogheda has the potential to rival Kilkenny in terms of becoming a popular tourist destination. It needs both literally and metaphorically to clean up its act and start appreciating the advantages it has been bequeathed. But at the moment, the town is failing to reap the benefits of its heritage, preferring instead to squander them. When explanations are sought as to why Irish towns should be in seemingly inexorable decline, Drogheda can provide a ready and regrettable explanation.
The picture above was painted by the Drogheda, County Louth artist Bernard Tumalti in 1844. It shows the interior as it then was of the town’s principal church, St Peter’s and therefore serves as an invaluable record of how the building looked before it was subjected to a number of changes later in the century. Among the most significant of these was the removal of the box pews in 1865 and the insertion of stained glass in many of the windows, not least that the great east window which dates from the following decade. At some point also the handsome line of hanging brass candelabra shown by Tumalti were also lost, another misfortune. As a result of these and other alterations to the church, its original character is no longer as easily discernible, not least the element of baroque theatricality that was manifestly intended as part of the design and which must have transformed services into performances.
St Peter’s has likely been the site of worship for as long as there has been a settlement in Drogheda. Situated just three miles from the mouth of the river Boyne, this is said to be the place where St Patrick landed in c.432 and a little over 850 years later the Norman knight Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey on the existing Viking fort. Not far away St Peter’s was established by de Lacy and given to Welsh Augustinian canons. It subsequently grew – as did Drogheda – to be one of the largest churches in the country and although various changes were made to the structure, St Peter’s survived relatively intact until the town was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in September 1649. Many citizens took refuge inside the church, but to no avail as it was set on fire and, after the occupants had been massacred, subjected to looting. Nevertheless enough of the medieval St Peter’s survived for it to continued in use as a centre of worship for another century.
According to the Vestry Minute Book, ‘In the Year one thousand seven hundred and Forty Eight, The old Parisk Church of Saint Peters Drogheda being in ruinous Condition and in danger of falling was Order’d to be pulled down which was done accordingly and a New Church begun to be Built in the room of the old one the same Year and Carry’d on ‘till finish’d by the Several Contributions Subscribed and pay’d by the undernamed Persons, And a Cess [levy] of Three Hundred Pounds only lay’d upon the said Parish.’ The new St Peter’s is believed to have been designed by Hugh Darley, member of a family which across more than two centuries worked as builders, stone cutters and architects. Hugh Darley’s best-known building is Trinity College Dublin’s Dining Hall erected in the early 1760s to replace Richard Castle’s earlier hall which had twice collapsed during construction and was eventually demolished after its vaults fell in while an adjacent kitchen was being built. The entry on St Peter’s in The Buildings of North Leinster by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, having described the church as one of the best of its kind from the 18th century notes the handsome Palladian facade. This is of ‘three bays and two storeys of limestone ashlar, horizontally channelled, with a broad eaves pediment broken by the great central tower rising above it through two storeys. The tower is expressed as a giant round-headed entrance, a terse Diocletian window in the first floor and in the belfry stage corner pilasters, a round-headed opening, and above a Gibbsian bracketed oculus. Above all this rises a Gothic steeple added by Francis Johnston in the 1780s.’ The exterior of St Peter’s is austere and devoid of superfluous decoration. This makes the extravagance of its interior all the more surprising.
The interior of St Peter’s is classical in design, a long hall with galleries along the west, north and south sides carried on octagonal oak piers: these are continued on the upper level as Ionic columns. The surprise comes when one looks east to the chancel, the walls of which are smothered in elaborate plasterwork featuring garlands of fruit and flowers, cornucopiae, clouds and hovering above it all birds (possibly intended to represent eagles) with their wings spread wide. More late baroque than rococo in spirit, the chancel’s north and south walls are embellished with intricate plasterwork frames surrounding a pair of funerary monuments, one to Alderman Francis Leigh (d.1778), the other to the Rev. John Magee (d.1837). Both were evidently inserted some decades after the decoration had been completed and it remains a matter of conjecture who might have been responsible for this piece of bravura craftsmanship. Stylistic comparisons have been made between the plasterwork of St Peter’s and that in the drawing and dining rooms of Russborough, County Wicklow. Other parts of that house, most notably the saloon, have always been attributed to the Swiss-born Lafranchini brothers, Paolo and Filippo, who from the late 1730s onwards worked extensively in Ireland. However the character of Russborough’s drawing and dining rooms is more robust than that of the saloon, and it was art historian Joseph McDonnell in his 1991 book Irish Eighteenth Century Stuccowork and its European Sources who drew attention to the similarities between the decoration of these spaces and the church in Drogheda. McDonnell came up with the concept of ‘the St Peter’s stuccodore’ and more recently the same individual has also been credited with the plasterwork found in Glasnevin House, County Dublin. Across all these buildings the same vigorous ebullience is on display, suggesting the hand of someone who, like the Lafranchinis, came here from continental Europe.
The chancel’s plasterwork indicates little concern with the religious and indeed seems more suited to a domestic setting: while it lifts the spirits, they are not necessarily raised above the temporal. A certain effort has been made to remind the congregation that it is present for devotional purposes: in the plasterwork above the east window is a small panel bearing an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah and translated as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts’ and the open volumes that feature on either side are presumably intended to represent the gospels or some other scriptural text. But St Peter’s, in its original incarnation, must have borne more than a passing resemblance to the theatre: this is religion as drama, with the chancel substituting for stage and the main body of the building for auditorium. At least one of the other funerary monuments celebrates this ambiguity, that to the immediate south which celebrates Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and Master of the Rolls who died in 1759: his memorial features an oval plaque in which a woman weeps over an urn, putti supporting an inscription and a portrait bust of the man himself sculpted by Thomas Hickey. As though conscious of the possibility for confusion between the sacred and profane, Hugh Darley designed the great east window in the gothic idiom, thereby leading the mind back to matters devotional. And that aspect was further accentuated by the reordering of the church over the course of the second half of the 19th century, notably the removal of the box pews (not unlike theatre boxes) and the insertion of stained glass into many of the windows. The effect was to play down the secular element, even if this was to the detriment of the decoration. St Peter’s remains a wonderful building and unquestionably among the very best churches erected here in the post-Reformation era. But imagine how much better it must have looked when painted by Bernard Tumalti in 1844.