Part of the coved ceiling in the drawing room of Somerville, County Meath. The house dates from c.1730 when it was built for Sir James Somerville, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1736 and also sometime M.P. for the city. Towards the end of the century, further work was carried out by Sir James’ grandson and it appears the neo-classical plasterwork was added at that time into a space then serving as entrance hall (the entire building was subsequently turned back to front, thereby making this the drawing room). The result is an extravagance of floral garlands and arabesques, ostrich plumes and decorative flourishes together with the family coat of arms, all set inside a sequence of panels. The exceptional quality of the workmanship has led to suggestions the ceiling may have been executed by Dublin stuccodore Michael Stapleton (1747-1801).
A detail of the plaster frieze running around the walls of the staircase hall at Ardbraccan, County Meath. We know that in 1773 James Wyatt produced drawings for the centre block of the house. These were commissioned by Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath whose brother Barry Maxwell, Earl of Farnham would likewise employ Wyatt to design a new house for him in County Cavan a few years later. In the event, the architect’s plans for Ardbraccan were modified to incorporate elements from schemes by both Thomas Cooley and Daniel Beaufort, the latter a gifted amateur who was also Rector of nearby Navan. However, the staircase hall’s plasterwork is distinctly Wyatt’esque and so it is surely not too fanciful to imagine that at least this part of his proposal was executed without intervention from other hands.
A solitary obelisk standing on raised ground in what was once the parkland of Dangan Castle, County Meath. Dangan was the seat of Richard Wesley, created first Baron Mornington in 1746. He spent a great deal of money improving his house and grounds, and Bishop Pococke in his 1752 Tour in Ireland described the former as being ‘situated on a most beautiful flat, with an Amphitheater of hills rising round it, one over another, in a most beautiful manner; at the lower end is a very large piece of water, at one corner of which is an Island, it is a regular fortification, there is a ship a sloop and boats on the water, and a yard for building; the hill beyond it, is improved into a beautiful wilderness: on a round hill near the house is a Temple, and the hills round are adorned with obelisks: Pillars and some buildings, altogether the most beautiful thing I ever saw.’ Mrs Delany also visited Dangan several times, being godmother to Mornington’s heir Garret, future first Earl of Mornington and, in turn, the father of Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington who likewise spent much of his childhood here. Yet before the end of the century the family had sold the estate, the house was accidentally destroyed by fire and in 1841 J. Stirling Coyne could write ‘The noble woods, too, which adorned the demesne, have shared in the general destruction; and all the giants of the sylvan scene have been prostrated by the ruthless axe.’ Today there remain few signs of Dangan’s former splendour other than this obelisk rising in the midst of a field, and another not far away, the latter restored of late with help from the Meath branch of An Taisce.
Not a picture by John Hinde but a photograph taken earlier this summer of the gate lodge at Fosterstown House, County Meath. Located immediately south of Trim, the main house dates from the 1840s but evidently there was an earlier property on the site since it was recorded that the future Duke of Wellington lived there at least some of the time after he had been elected to the Irish House of Commons as MP for Trim. This information was reported by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 when Wellington was still alive (he died fifteen years later). In any case the little white-washed and thatched lodge is older than the house at the end of the drive; it dates from c.1800 and provides a charming introduction to Fosterstown.
In 1142 St Malachy of Armagh was responsible for founding Ireland’s first Cistercian monastery at Mellifont, County Louth. Five years later a small group of this house’s residents walked some 35 miles to establish a second monastery close to the banks of the Boyne river at Bective, County Meath. Built on land granted by Murchadh O’Melaghlin, King of Meath the new monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and quickly grew into a thriving community. Half a century after its foundation, such was the importance of Bective Abbey that in 1196 the body of the Anglo-Norman Lord of Meath Hugh de Lacy was interred here; it was later moved to St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. By the start of the following century Irish Cistercians would appear to have slipped into laxness; attempts by the church authorities to initiate a programme were rebuffed, not least by the Abbot of Bective who in 1217 participated in a ‘riot’ at Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny and was further charged with imprisoning a man in a tree stump until he died. The Abbot was subsequently sent to Clairvaux in France for trial and prior of the Norman Abbey of Beaubec appointed to take responsibility for Bective.
Nothing remains of the original monastic establishment at Bective; the earliest part of the present range of buildings dates from the 12th – 13th century buildings and include there remain the chapter house on the south-east side, a plain rectangular building with central column, also part of the west range and fragments of the aisled cruciform church. By the 15th century a serious decline in numbers had occurred and the premises were reduced in size. The church, for example, was substantially shortened and its south aisles demolished which in turn blocked off the adjoining arcades. Massive fortified towers were erected on the church’s west façade and on the south-west corner of the monastery, giving Bective the appearance more of a castle than a religious establishment. The most striking feature to the modern eye is the cloister that was built at this time, smaller than its predecessor (measuring no more than 33 feet square) and now the best-preserved Cistercian cloister in Ireland. The passages are set not beyond the walls but within them and are thus recessed, with each arcade composed of three miniature arches supported by double-column shafts. In one instance a panel between inner and outer shaft is decorated with the carved figure of an unidentified cleric set into an ogee-headed niche with his arms including three fleur-de-lys (see the top-most picture for a detail of this feature).
Despite having fewer occupants, Bective Abbey remained a considerable land owner; at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, this establishment was recorded as possessing a total of 4,400 acres in Meath. And the land was of high quality, so there was no shortage of lay people eager to acquire it, beginning with the Staffordshire-born Thomas Agard who came to Ireland in the crown service and charged with the task of assessing the country’s mineral resources and the possibility of developing lead mines. He began the process of converting the former monastery into a domestic residence, with the cloister transformed into an internal courtyard and the refectory turned into a Great Hall. Larger openings were inserted to create windows and tall chimneys rose above the roofline. After Agard’s death house and estate were briefly owned by Ireland’s Lord Chancellor John Allen before being bought in 1552 by Andrew Wyse, Vice-Treasurer of Ireland for £1,380 16s 7d. It passed through a couple of generations of his family but already by 1619 the abbey was described as being deserted. Twenty years later the property came into the possession of Sir Richard Bolton, like Agard originally from Staffordshire but by this date Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The estate remained in the possession of the Boltons for the next two centuries although they usually rented it out and by 1800 had built Bective House on the other side of the Boyne. In 1884 Bective was inherited by the Rev. George Martin, Rector of Agher, County Meath and ten years later he vested the abbey ruins to the Board of Public Works. It has remained in state ownership ever since but has recently been made more accessible than hitherto the case. The surrounding flat land and its high towers make Bective Abbey easy to spot and since access to the site has recently been improved exploration of this wondrous relic of late-mediaeval/early modern Irish architecture is a delight.
A watercolour of Killeen Castle, County Meath, painted by Lady Emma Frances Plunkett (1826-1866), daughter of the ninth Earl of Fingall. The Plunketts are of Norman origin and established themselves in this part of Ireland at the end of the 14th century. The Earls of Fingall were notable for remaining Roman Catholic throughout the Penal era, unlike their neighbouring cousins, the Lords Dunsany who converted to Anglicanism. The picture is significant because it shows Killeen prior to extensive changes made to the structure from 1841 onwards by Lady Emma’s father, in other words it must have been painted while she was still an adolescent. At the age of 24 she married William Ince Anderton, member of an old Lancashire recusant family and together they embarked on the construction of a new chapel on his estate at Euxton Hall to the designs of Edward Welby Pugin; following Lady Emma’s death in 1866, a large stained glass window was installed in the chapel which shows her kneeling at the foot of the cross.
Killeen remained in the ownership of the Plunkett family until it was sold by the twelth and last Earl of Fingall in 1951. Thirty years later, after changing hands a couple of times more, the castle was gutted in an arson attack. It then stood ruinous until the estate was bought in 1997 by a development company which undertook to restore the building as centrepiece of a luxury hotel and spa. The rest of the same organisation’s scheme, including the inevitable championship golf course and series of commuter houses went ahead but of course the castle’s restoration stalled: when I visited some years ago, the roof had been repaired and concrete floors installed but little further work undertaken. Below is another watercolour by Lady Emma Plunkett, this one showing Dunsany Castle which happily remains intact and in the ownership of its original family. Both pictures, and three more by the same amateur artist, are included in an exhibition opening next week in Dublin’s Gorry Gallery (see http://www.gorrygallery.ie).
Palladian is a much-abused term in this country, frequently applied to buildings which visibly have no link with Palladio but which happen to be old. Rather than attempt to re-write an already admirable summary, I here quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘Palladianism, style of architecture based on the writings and buildings of the humanist and theorist from Vicenza, Andrea Palladio (1508–80), perhaps the greatest architect of the latter 16th century and certainly the most influential. Palladio felt that architecture should be governed by reason and by the principles of classical antiquity as it was known in surviving buildings and in the writings of the 1st-century-bc architect and theorist Vitruvius. Palladianism bespeaks rationality in its clarity, order, and symmetry, while it also pays homage to antiquity in its use of classical forms and decorative motifs.’
Palladianism as we see it in Ireland emerged in the early 18th century, heavily influenced by English practitioners and theorists such as Colen Campbell whose Vitruvius Britannicus was published in 1715, and his patron Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (and also, let it not be forgotten, 4th Earl of Cork, since he was a large landowner in this country). The first indisputably Irish Palladian house is Castletown, County Kildare on which work began c.1722 with its facade designed by Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), today best known for his work at the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.
One aspect of Palladianism often overlooked is its functionality: seduced by the beauty of the overall design we are inclined to forget these buildings were intended to serve a practical purpose. In the 16th century many of Palladio’s clients were wealthy Venetians who owned country estates on which they wished to spend the summer months. The estates were working farms, and the houses Palladio created at their centre reflect this reality. Because of his admiration for classical design and the importance of symmetry, rather than permit a variety of stand-alone farm buildings scattered across the site as had customarily been the case, he consolidated them into a single unit.
Thus the archetypal Palladian villa is dominated by a central residence with a facade inspired by Roman temples (hence the frequency of pedimented porticos). On either side of this block run a series of lower wings symmetrical in appearance and practical in purpose. Behind their calm and orderly exteriors a quantity of different activities would take place, whether the preparation of meals or the storage of grain, the housing of livestock or the washing of clothes. There would be stables and dovecots, piggeries and chicken coops, all of them part of a single harmonious unit. The concept was both simple and yet sophisticated, rational yet handsome. In the late 19th century the American architect Louis Sullivan proclaimed ‘form ever follows function.’ Palladio’s villas demonstrate the truth of this maxim. As his influence spread beyond Italy, so too did his designs and the practical philosophy that underlay them. This approach found a particularly warm reception in Ireland where from the late 17th century onwards landowners sought to bring order to their estates and to create new residences at their core.
One such estate was Ardbraccan, County Meath. This had been the seat of a bishopric for over a thousand years and in the 16th century a large Tudor house called St Mary’s stood there. However by the early 18th century the old residence had become so dilapidated that a new house was deemed essential. In 1734 then-Bishop of Meath Arthur Price made a start on the project but within a few years he had been transferred to the Archbishopric of Cashel (where incidentally he was responsible for unroofing the old cathedral, seemingly because he found his carriage could not easily be driven to the top of the hill on which it stands). It would be another 30 years before the work initiated by Price was brought to completion, but the two wings of the building he commissioned were completed before his departure.
The architect employed for this task was Richard Castle, whose personal history remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. He is believed to have grown up in Dresden, where his father, an English-born Jew named Joseph Riccardo, served as Director of Munitions and Mines to Friedrich Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. By 1725 Castle, sometimes called Cassels, had come to England where he is likely to have encountered Lord Burlington and his circle of Palladians. Three years later he moved to Ireland, supposedly at the request of Sir Gustavus Hume, to design Castle Hume, County Fermanagh. Not long after Castle began working as a draughtsman for Sir Edward Lovett Pearce on the plans of the new Parliament House then being built in Dublin. Following Pearce’s death in 1733 Castle took over some of his unfinished commissions and also became the most notable designer of country houses in Ireland. He was, therefore, the obvious choice when Bishop Price sought an architect for the new residence at Ardbraccan.
Understandably visitors to Ardbraccan focus their attention on the main house, finished in the 1770s to the designs of no less than three architects: James Wyatt, Thomas Cooley and the Rev. Daniel Beaufort. As a result, the rest of the structure receives less notice, even though it offers one of the purest examples of Palladianism in Ireland. To north and south of the central block run arcaded quadrants that link to two-storey, five-bay wings, their entrances facing one another across the house’s forecourt. The facade presented to the world is one of order and equilibrium, harmony and proportion. In classic Palladian fashion Castle provided facilities for a wealth of complementary domestic and agricultural activities, all housed in splendidly constructed outbuildings that remain intact. These include stables and carriage houses, kitchens and laundry yard, pump yard and slaughter house, piggeries, granary, dovecotes, cattle sheds and fowl yards, accommodation for the large community of workers who engaged in diverse activities, and rising above them all a clock tower to ensure time was kept on the day’s tasks.
One of the pleasures of these buildings is the quality of their finish, a tribute to Irish workmanship at the time. It is worth noting the way different sections interact; the mixture of cut and uncut stone within the stable block to the north, for example, is surprisingly successful. On this side of the house a Gibbsian door permitted the bishop to descend to the yard via a flight of handsome steps, and then climb another short sequence to the mounting block for his horse. Inside the wing itself look at the superlative groin vaulting in the stables, the vaults carried on solid Tuscan column. Elsewhere the interplay of curved wall and staircase is another delight. These were all practical spaces, intended to ensure the estate operated smoothly and would be almost self-sufficient. Nonetheless as much attention was paid to their design and construction as to the episcopal residence. Here are the tenets of Palladianism put into practice and showing their mettle.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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…’
I realise that this photograph may not look especially inspiring. However, it shows the residue of yard buildings lying to the east of Summerhill, County Meath, site of the greatest of Ireland’s country houses lost in the last century. Scarcely anything remains of this immense baroque palace or of the many other buildings once found throughout the Summerhill estate. This particular block, today used to shelter cattle, is a rare survival from otherwise widespread destruction.
I will be writing more on Summerhill in a few weeks’ time.