Mapping the Past

 

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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.

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A Lamentable Waste

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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On the Town I

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spirituality as Spectacle

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Welcome to My World

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Cupids play at the top of a blind niche in the rotunda of Townley Hall, County Louth, one of the loveliest houses in Ireland which has been discussed here on several occasions in the past (mostly notably Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* on June 10th last year). Today marks the second anniversary of The Irish Aesthete, the first post being made on September 24th 2012. Two years later the site remains busy with at least three postings each week and, I am happy to report, an ever-increasing audience. In 2012 The Irish Aesthete received an average 23 views per day: the site now generates more than 610 views daily. Interest comes from across the world, the majority of visitors understandably resident in English-speaking countries but during the last quarter there have been substantial numbers from Brazil, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Vietnam, among many others.
Whoever you are and wherever you live, thank you to all my readers for engaging with this site and for encouraging me to continue writing about Ireland’s architectural heritage, a subject dear to my heart and evidently to yours also. Your comments are always appreciated, although some of those written in more intemperate language may not be published (this site appreciates good manners). Please keep sending me your thoughts and responses, and in addition if you have suggestions for future subjects, I should be delighted to know of these: like all authors, I relish feedback.
Thank you once again, and I look forward to retaining your interest over the next twelve months.

Mr Speaker

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Most visitors to Collon, County Louth are likely to pass swiftly on their way, unaware the house on the north-east corner of the village’s crossroads has powerful links with a pivotal moment in our history when the country likewise stood at a crossroad: the 1800 Act of Union. This building, known as Collon House, was the birthplace and lifelong residence of John Foster, last speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The Fosters are believed to have been of English origin, coming from Cumberland to settle in this country sometime around the time of Charles II’s Restoration: the name of a Samuel Foster appears in the Hearth Money return (by which one shilling was paid for every firehearth or stove in a dwelling) for the parish of Dunleer, County Louth in 1666. Samuel Foster’s son Anthony, named as a burgess of Dunleer in 1683, seems to have been a small tenant farmer in the area but his son John studied law, married well and started to acquire land, much of it formerly belonging to an impecunious branch of the Moore family. By the time of his death in 1747 he had built up an estate of some 6,000 acres. This property included Collon where around 1740 John Foster’s son, another Anthony, built the family residence. Land ownership conveyed power and thus with his election as an M.P. in 1737 Anthony Foster was able to wrest control of the Dunleer borough over which he and his son thereafter retained until the abolition of the Irish parliament. Trained as a barrister, from 1760 to 1766 Anthony Foster held the Office of First Counsel to the Commissioners of the Revenue, before being appointed Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, retiring from this position a year before his death in 1778.

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John Foster’s biographer Anthony Malcolmson describes Anthony Foster as ‘an able man whose misfortune it has been to be overshadowed by an even abler son.’ This is evident in his enterprises in Collon and surrounding areas. Finding the land here in poor condition – he recalled it had been ‘a waste sheep walk, covered chiefly with heath, with some dwarf furze and fern’ – he carried out many improvements, not least through drainage. When the English agriculturalist Arthur Young published his Tour of Ireland in 1780 he called Anthony Foster a ‘great improver, a title more deserving estimation than that of a great general or a great minister,’ someone who had ‘made a barren wilderness smile with cultivation, planted it with people and made those people happy,’ altogether a man whose work on his estate was ‘of a magnitude I have never heard of before.’
Anthony Foster gained a patent to hold a weekly market in Collon as well as two annual fairs, and the grounds of his house, in which he built greenhouses in 1763 for the production of exotic fruits, became renowned for their variety of trees and shrubs: this interest in botany would be inherited by his son who is credited with introducing the copper beech to Ireland. However, all this land acquisition and improvement came at a price, and as early as 1740 John Foster the elder was concerned over his level of indebtedness. The family never managed to become solvent and by 1810 his grandson John was estimated to have debts of £72,000. As we shall see, this helps to explain the relative modesty of Collon House.

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John Foster was born in 1740, on other words precisely around the time Collon House was being built by his father. Like the latter, he sought to improve the family estate, developing a linen industry in the area, building mills and encouraging Protestant weavers to settle in Collon. Also following the example of Anthony Foster he studied law and was first elected to parliament in 1761. Noted for his interest in the economic and commercial betterment of this country, he was involved in successfully ‘regulating Ireland’s external trade with Great Britain, with other parts of the Empire, with the United States, and with France’. In 1777 he served as Chairman of the Committee of Supply and Ways and Means before succeeding his cousin and brother-in-law Walter Hussey de Burgh as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1784. In that year parliament passed his corn law, ‘granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation.’ According to the 19th century historian William Lecky, ‘This law is one of the capital facts in Irish history. In a few years it changed the face of the land and made Ireland to a great extent an arable instead of a pasture country.’
Foster only remained in the Exchequer a year before becoming Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1785, the final man to hold this position. His understanding of Ireland and her particular circumstances made him a leading opponent of the Act of Union. ‘I declare from my soul,’ he declared when the abolition of the Irish parliament was first proposed, ‘that if England were to give us all her revenues, I could not barter for them the free constitution of my country.’ He was forced to preside over the debate in the Commons for its own eradication, an occasion later recalled by Sir Jonah Barrington who wrote, ‘The Speaker rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honours and of his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent.’ However, Foster refused to surrender the Speaker’s mace, declaring that “until the body that intrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them.’ The mace was eventually offered for sale by his descendants in 1937 and bought by the Bank of Ireland. It has ever since remained in that organisation’s premises, the former Irish parliament building.

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It is often proposed as evidence of the Fosters’ prudence that they did not indulge in building a lavish country mansion. But the fact that they remained in Collon might just be due as much to ongoing indebtedness as to financial sagacity. And they were not without other properties, having a residence in central Dublin (essential for any member of Parliament) as well as one on the outskirts of the capital (Merville, now part of the University College Dublin campus, but its original owners remembered in the name of adjacent Foster Avenue). Furthermore in the 1770s a short distance from Collon they would build themselves a pleasure pavilion called Oriel Temple and John Foster leased in perpetuity another house in the county, Rathescar Lodge which likewise still stands although much enlarged.
Nevertheless, the principal Foster residence remained that in Collon which, as built by Anthony c.1740 was a exceptionally extended version of the traditional Irish ‘long house’, in this case running two storeys and eighteen bays. It seems to have comprised a series of long, low rooms, none very substantial. Many of these survive, as can be seen in the photographs above and testify to the determinedly modest condition of the family’s living conditions: when Anthony Foster invited a cousin to stay around 1766 he warned that a shared room should be expected, presumably due to the number of other guests due at the same time. Inside the design is determinedly simple, with surviving chimneypieces and cornicing almost devoid of decoration. The want of ostentation was not necessarily to everyone’s taste. Indeed John Foster’s own daughter Anna, Lady Dufferin later wrote that arrangements in Collon House were ‘so uncomfortable as soon to banish all visitors, even of our own family.’ This would change somewhat after Anthony Foster’s death when his son inherited the house and embarked on a programme of aggrandisement.

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The original Collon House ran east-west facing onto what is now the main road from Drogheda to Kells, County Meath but was then open countryside. Around the late 1770s John Foster enlarged the building at its western end, adding an additional storey to the final five bays and then to the immediate north creating a substantial entrance hall, high-ceilinged saloon and, behind these two, a stairhall lit by two big round-headed windows as it turns upon itself to climb to the upper floors. These windows look out on a courtyard around which run the various original outbuildings and service quarters. The proportions in John Foster’s addition are more generous, the cornicing and chimneypieces more elaborate but at the same time the earlier element of cautious restraint has not been forsaken: even in its late 18th century adjunct the house holds onto a certain self-effacement, all the more surprising since first Mrs Foster and then her husband were granted peerages.
The Fosters likewise held on to Collon House and its estate, although later generations, who became Viscounts Massereene, tended to spend the greater part of their time in County Antrim. Thus Collon House was neglected and indeed the more easterly part of the property internally separated from the main part of the building, hence today it runs to seven bays. In his biography of John Foster Anthony Malcolmson records that when he first visited the house in 1977 it was in ‘a fairly ruinous state.’ Having since changed residents a couple of times, Collon House has in recent years undergone extensive and meticulous restoration and, one suspects, now looks better than it did even when occupied by the Fosters. To give just one example the present owners panelled the dining room and thereby greatly improved its appearance; they have also created rather splendid gardens, a recollection of those made by Anthony Foster, as can be seen below. Today Collon House is in splendid shape. Visitors ought not to rush through the village but consider lingering there in order to experience the abiding spirit of the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

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Collon House is now open for guests. Further information can be found at: http://www.collonhouse.com/index.html

Keep It Clean

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The ceiling of the former dining room at Townley Hall, County Louth, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture designed by Francis Johnston c.1794 for his well-informed patron Blayney Townley Balfour. Very spare, very pure, this is design at its most ascetic and at the same time most refined. (For more information on Townley Hall, and especially its matchless staircase, see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté*, June 10th 2013)