Vaulting Ambition

Mention has been made recently of George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, and the time he spent with his mistress Lady Conyngham in Slane Castle, County Meath. Here is a view of the ceiling in the castle’s saloon on which – if any horizontal position was assumed during the time spent there – he likely gazed. The history of the building’s construction and decoration is complex, and seems to have involved a number of architects. It has been proposed that an amalgam of Francis Johnston and Thomas Hopper was responsible for the design of the saloon, its historically inaccurate but delightful Gothic dome from c.1813 featuring twenty miniature fan vaults which lie between the same number of ribs all leading to a central boss from which is suspended the single candelabra.

When Royalty Comes to Call


Today the visit of George IV to Ireland in 1821 is primarily remembered because it is believed to have led to the road between Dublin and Slane, County Meath being made as straight as possible. But the event was noteworthy for other reasons, not least due to the fact this was the first time a reigning English monarch had arrived in the country without bellicose intentions (as had last been the case when James II and his son-in-law fought here for control of the British throne, with the latter victorious at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690). The original arrangement would have had George IV land south of the capital at Dunleary, from whence he would set out to make a formal entry into the city. However following the death of his estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick just days before the visit was due to begin, it was felt expedient a more low-key approach be taken to the king’s arrival. Accordingly the royal party landed on August 12th 1821 at Howth harbour where the fifty-nine year old monarch made an immediate impression on the waiting crowd by displaying symptoms of being, to use modern parlance, tired and emotional after the rigours of his passage across the Irish Sea. (Incidentally, his footprints, memorialised by a local stonemason, can still be seen on Howth’s west pier). He flung himself into the throng, shaking hands with anyone within reach before being put into a carriage that set off for the Phoenix Park and the Viceregal Lodge. On arrival there, the king again abandoned protocol by insisting the park gates be thrown open and, in descending from his carriage, making an impromptu speech during which he declared, ‘rank, station and honour are nothing: to feel that I live in the hearts of my Irish subjects, is to me the most exalted happiness.’ No wonder one commentator observed that he was behaving not as a sovereign but ‘like a popular candidate come down upon an electioneering trip.’

Despite national woes due to the economic downturn following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, and indeed owing to the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union, George IV’s visit had been keenly anticipated. It helped that he had expressed a wish everyone he met during his time in Ireland should be wearing locally-produced clothing, thereby giving a boost to trade. In addition, he asked that Lord Forbes, son of the Roman Catholic Earl of Granard, be one of his aides-de-camp for the duration of the visit, and he arranged to act as witness for the installation of the Earl of Fingall as the first Catholic member of the Order of St. Patrick. For his own official entry into Dublin – this was after a period of recovery in the Viceregal Lodge – he wore the order’s ribbon over a full military uniform, shamrock on his hat and on his breast a rosette ‘more than twice the size of a military cockade’: no wonder comparisons were made with election candidates. The formal procession of some 200 carriages began by making its way down Sackville (now O’Connell Street) accessed via temporary gates for which keys were handed to the king by the Herald, Athlone Pursuivant. Progress was slow due to the crowds, and this set the tone for subsequent events, all of which attracted enormous and consistently enthusiastic attendance. The welcome he received in Ireland was in striking contrast to his unpopularity in England, and more than once he noted the difference between the ‘triumph of Dublin’ and the ‘horrors of London’ where he was often booed in the streets. Up to the day of departure, on 5th September and from Dunleary which was then renamed Kingstown in his honour, the numbers following his course never diminished and the visit concluded with Daniel O’Connell – Ireland’s so-called Liberator – kneeling before the monarch and proferring a laurel wreath

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For members of Ireland’s aristocracy, George IV’s visit was especially significant since it appeared to offer them an opportunity to entertain their monarch. Still today there are a number of State Bedrooms created in 1821 in expectation of a royal guest. The best-known of these is in Castle Coole, County Fermanagh but another can be found in Loughton, County Offaly (in recent years this has been home to Minister for Children and Youth Affairs James Reilly but it is now on the market). Alas the hopes of many prospective hosts were dashed, because while the king did make a few excursions out of Dublin – notably to Powerscourt, County Wicklow where by lingering over luncheon he avoided being swept away by the waterfall, damned in anticipation of his arrival, which burst through its barricades and swept away the viewing platform – outside Dublin he stayed for several nights in one place only: Slane Castle, County Meath. For those unfamiliar with the tale, herein lies the explanation for the fast straight road from the capital: Slane was the home of George IV’s mistress, the Marchioness Conyngham, and her accommodating husband. Neither the king nor his inamorata were in the first flush of youth, and both were equally corpulent. These circumstances however did nothing to dampen their ardour. As was written of them at the time, ‘Tis pleasant at seasons to see how they sit/ First cracking their nuts, and then cracking their wit/ Then quaffing their claret – then mingling their lips/ Or tickling the fat about each other’s hips.’ And according to one contemporary observer, Lady Conyngham ‘lived exclusively with him during the whole time he was in Ireland at the Phoenix Park. When he went to Slane, she received him dressed out as for a drawing-room; he saluted her, and they then retired alone to her apartments.’ Hence those other State Bedrooms going abegging…

One house that did receive a royal visit was Annesbrook, County Meath – presumably because its location was not too off the route to Slane. Annesbrook is a relatively modest country residence which may have begun as a farm house before being extended westwards in either the late 18th or early 19th century. The front of the building is of two storeys and three bays, the emphatic arch of the centre groundfloor entrance echoed in the shallow relieving window arches to either side. Inside, the hall is divided by a screen of Corinthian columns, the stairs snaking upward inside a bow to the north. That might have been the limit of the house had not its owner in 1821, one Henry Smith, decide to improve the property in anticipation of the king coming to call. Thus he aggrandised the facade by the addition of an enormous limestone portico comprising four Ionic-capped columns beneath a pediment that soars above Annesbrook’s shallow hipped roof. Then to the north of the main block he constructed a single storey, four bay extension in which to entertain the king to lunch. While the exterior of this is plain, the interior, accessed via a antechamber off the dining room, is a riot of gothick decoration, a late flowering of the 18th century style prior to the advent of historical accuracy. Whether on the ceiling, walls or even the marble chimneypiece, Annesbrook’s gothick is as much rococo as mediaeval, with an overlay of classical symmetry. The room is a playful frolic, the plasterwork treated like icing sugar ornamentation, an opportunity to demonstrate the unknown stuccodore’s ingenuity and skill. It was always intended as a backdrop for entertainments and that remains the case: the house’s present owner has worked to preserve the room as best as resources allow, and to this end has received assistance from a variety of agencies including the Irish Georgian Society. While sections of the ceiling still require attention, more than sufficient has already been secured for the remaining work to be undertaken once requisite funds become available. Visitors to Annesbrook today can admire Henry Smith’s enterprise, perhaps more than did George IV: seemingly on the day of his visit to the house, the sun shone and the royal guest chose to dine outdoors. Ironically he never even saw the room built to entertain him.


All the Saints

Inside the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, Duleek, County Meath, a 17th century box tomb bearing the arms of four families once prominent in the region: the Plunketts, Bellews, Prestons and St Lawrences. At either end four panels contain figures. Those above are, from left to right, St Patrick, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Thomas à Becket and St Peter. Those at the other side are less well preserved and therefore more difficult to identify but they appear to include an Archangel (perhaps Gabriel), a Crucifixion scene and, furthest right, St George slaying the dragon. Who might be swinging a thurible to his immediate left?


In Full Flight

Mount Hanover, County Meath is believed to date from the start of the 18th century: its name suggests some time around the accession of George I in 1714. Of three storeys over basement, this tall and slender house has a handsome but relatively modest appearance until one steps into the dining room where the ceiling displays an unexpected riot of rococo plasterwork. Scrolls and curlicues abound and in the area occupied by a canted bay are clusters of flowers and fruit, and swooping birds. Although stylistically it shows a lighter touch, given the house’s location not many miles from Drogheda, might this be another example of the handiwork of the stuccodore of St Peter’s, or at least of someone working with him?


Change is Constant

It has long been commented that Mountainstown, County Meath is mis-named since its location in the midst of flat countryside is near neither a mountain nor a town. One ill-tempered Englishwoman in the 1840s wrote ‘At the beginning of this month we came to a place called Mountainstown, which name it must have been received from the inveterately stupid and perverse disposition of the Natives, because the place is situated in a low and flat Country, and there is not a Mountain to be seen within the Horizon.’ In fact the denomination most likely derives from an Anglicisation of the Irish for ‘Beside a Bog.’ It has borne the name for hundreds of years since the house here, soon due to celebrate the tercentenary of its construction, has always been known as Mountainstown. It is believed to have erected around 1720 for Richard Gibbons whose father Samuel acquired the estate in the late 17th century: in the same year he made a visitation of his diocses, Bishop Anthony Dopping of Meath recorded ‘Mr Gibbons and his wife came here in xmas 1693.’ Mr Gibbons’ son Richard is likewise recorded as being at Mountainstown in Faulkiner’s Dublin Journal in 1745, by which time the house would have been well finished.

The oldest part of Mountainstown is a stocky rectangular block with six bay front, of two main storeys with dormer attic above and basement below. Kevin Mulligan has described the building as occupying ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion’ and like others employed the terms bucolic and naive when speaking of its design. Mountainstown’s facade is its most immediately striking feature, a determined effort on the part of Richard Gibbons to display awareness of current architectural trends even if these were employed in a somewhat unsophisticated manner. Four slender Ionic pilasters ascend to the top of the building but without the intervention of an entablature and frieze; instead they meet the roofline via a narrow moulded cornice. The two central pilasters support a pediment but again appear too slight for the task. The raised entrance is reached by flights of stone steps with iron work railings on either side, the Venetian doorcase once more being flanked by pairs of pilasters with sidelights above which sit half-urns while over the door itself is a stone cartouche featuring the arms of the Pollocks, the family that followed the Gibbonses at Mountainstown. The latter remained in possession of the estate until 1796 when it was sold to the John Pollock who had already been renting for some time.

The history of Mountainstown’s next owners represents a familiar trajectory from merchant class to gentry, a route to which many families formerly aspired. The first John Pollock moved from Scotland to Ireland in 1732 and settled in Newry where he became involved in the burgeoning linen trade. His son continued in the same business and was commemorated by a tombstone in St Mary’s, Newry declaring he and his wife Elizabeth had been ‘parents of eleven children all of whom they lived to see established in the world.’ One of those children, another John, became a successful solicitor in Dublin and was appointed Transscriptor of the Court of the Exchequer. He also acted as agent for the Hills, Marquesses of Downshire, among the country’s largest landowners: at one time they had 115,000 acres, mostly but not exclusively in County Down. Hence being their agent was a profitable occupation and allowed John Pollock first to rent and then to buy Mountainstown although he retained a townhouse in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square so that his business could continue. Married to the daughter of a London banker, around 1811 he extended Mountainstown by adding a two-storey wing to the south-west of the older building. The ground floor of this new section contains a large drawing room with canted bay window and beyond it an equally substantial dining room. To the immediate right of the facade is a long kitchen wing and behind this lies a very substantial stable yard added by the next generation.

Mountainstown is thus of two periods and two parts, each complementing the other. While the later portion of the house is relatively plain and very much in the Regency taste with deep tripartite windows, high ceilings and understated plasterwork, the earlier reflects the more ostentatious taste of the period in which it was built. The entrance hall, stairs and first floor landing retain their original decoration, moulded plaster panels with lugged heads forming tabernacle frames beneath a dentil cornice. The handsome stairs are wide and shallow, Doric balusters supporting the handrail and the side of each tread adorned with carved curls of foliage. As with the facade, this decoration represents the original builder’s interest in showing he was au courant with the latest fashions. The most unexpected feature can be found almost immediately inside the front door: what looks to be a death mask set into the ceiling. It is commonly believed that the man shown is Samuel Gibbons, perhaps placed here as an act of filial piety on the part of his son Richard. The rooms in the front portion of the house are noticeably smaller than those added in the 19th century, and some have angled corner chimneypieces: a marble panel on that in the former morning room featuring a knight in armour.

In the mid-1820s Mountainstown was inherited by Arthur Hill Cornwallis Pollock, named after his father’s patron, Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire. Almost twenty years before he had been sent on a tour of Europe by his parents, presumably keen that their heir have the upbringing of a gentleman. Having visited France and Italy, he travelled as far as Russia, spending time at the Imperial court in St Petersburg with his friends Lords Royston and Somerton, before finally returning home in the second half of 1807. Four years later he married a cousin and devoted the rest of his life to agriculture and country pursuits. It was Arthur who created the spacious yard immediately to the north of the main house as he often won medals for his animals at agricultural shows. The Pollocks were always keen on hunting and Arthur had his own pack of hounds at Mountainstown as did many of his neighbours: eventually these were amalgamated into the Clonghill Hunt which later became the Meath. And so it has gone on until now, when the present generation has decided the moment is right to pass Mountainstown on to another family, perhaps one that will remain in the house for as long as have the Pollocks. It is always sad to see an historic property come on the market, especially in Ireland where relatively few families have stayed in the same place for so long. However, one should remember the words of Disraeli who in 1867 observed, ‘Change is inevitable in a progressive country. Change is constant.’ Whatever one’s personal feelings, the proposed departure of the Pollocks from Mountainstown, like that of the Gibbonses before them, is a reflection of that necessary change.


On the Town III


Trim, County Meath can be described as an urban might-have-been. Site of the largest Norman Castle in Ireland, it is also the location for a Church of Ireland cathedral and almost became a university town in the 16th century. However aside from the castle which still dominates the skyline, little enough of Trim’s former aspirations are evident today. Instead over recent decades the place has often displayed a resolutely disinterested attitude towards its distinguished past, despite ample signs advising visitors that this is a heritage town.
The name Trim derives from the Irish ‘Baile Átha Troim’, meaning ‘town at the ford of the alder trees’, since it is located on the banks of the river Boyne. Originally a monastery was founded here – the peripatetic St Patrick is inevitably said to have been involved – and in the 12th century it was refounded as St Mary’s Abbey under the Augustinian order. A wooden statue of the Virgin reputed to work miracles made the abbey a site of pilgrimage, at least until the Reformation when the statue was burnt and the abbey dissolved. Several other religious orders had a presence in the vicinity of the town. The Franciscan Grey Friary, established in the early 14th century and dedicated to St Bonaventure, stood on the site of the present courthouse; following the dissolution of the monasteries, its buildings were destroyed and the church turned into a tholsel. A Dominican friary was also established in 1263 by Geoffrey de Genneville who had married the heiress Maud de Lacy, fought in the Eighth Crusade and served as Marshall of England. At the end of his life, he entered the friary he had founded in Trim and died there in 1314. Close by also were the abbey church or Cathedral of Newtown Trim as well as the Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist. These religious settlements were a reflection of Trim’s importance after this part of the country had been granted by Henry II to Hugh de Lacy in 1172 in return for the service of fifty knights. On a raised site overlooking a fording point on the Boyne de Lacy built a motte and bailey with double palisade and external ditch, although these defences were insufficient to stop the structure being subsequently attacked and burnt the following year by Rory O’Connor, High King of Ireland.

Trim Castle stands in the midst of a three-acre site surrounded by a curtain wall with a series of semi-circular towers along the south and east sides. Soon after O’Connor’s attack it was rebuilt and presumably reinforced so that as better to withstand future assault. Work is believed to have been completed around the end of the second decade of the 13th century. Local limestone is the predominant material and, as has been noted, with little superfluous ornament the overriding effect is one of massive strength. While the river flows past the north and east sides, a ditch was cut on the other two so that water from the Boyne would cut off the castle and limit access except via a drawbridge. The Town Gate, for example, through which most visitors enter the complex, is today approached by a ramped roadway but formerly would have been reached across a drawbridge. It is one of two access points, the other being the Barbican Gate which by its design was intended to force opponents into a confined passageway where they could be more easily defeated. Within the walls rises the great three-storey castle, a square with similar corner turrets plus four-storey towers projecting in the middle of each side (that on the north long-since demolished). Different reasons have been advanced for this variant on the Greek cross design, among them that it was the best solution to a need for many rooms or that the complex architecture was intended to make a statement of authority. Whatever the reason, it continues to create a powerful impact on anyone approaching, especially since some of the other buildings in the complex, such as the great hall that once ran along the north defensive wall, are now gone. By the 17th century the castle seems no longer to have been much in use; in fact from around the mid-14th century onwards it ceased to be permanently occupied. In the following century, during which the building reverted to the crown, the Irish parliament met there on several occasions and a mint operated within the grounds. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, it was granted to the Wellesleys who retained ownership until the first Duke of Wellington sold Trim Castle to the Leslies. It then passed to the Plunketts of Dunsany and remained in their possession until sold to the state in 1993: after a programme of restoration it has been open to the public since 2000.

Trim it is claimed contains more mediaeval buildings than any other town in Ireland. Certainly there are ample remnants of its past to be seen, not least what is known as the Yellow Steeple, so called because of the hue it takes when hit by sunlight at dawn and dusk. Situated across the Boyne from Trim Castle, this is the seven-storey east wall of the steeple of St Mary’s church, part of the former Augustinian establishment that housed the supposedly-miraculous statue of the Virgin. To the south-west, and directly above the river stands the so-called Talbot’s Castle, its name deriving from a belief that Sir John Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland for several years from 1414 was responsible for the building’s construction soon after his arrival in this country. However more recently the suggestion has been made that the core of the building was the refectory of the Augustinian house. In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift, when he was living in the area prior to becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, advised Esther Johnson, otherwise known to posterity as ‘Stella’ that the local diocesan school had become ‘thin.’ A few years after she bought the building and either sold or gave it to Swift, after which it became the home of the Diocesan School and remained such until the 19th century. It has since served as a private residence. Elsewhere on the southern side of the Boyne are such historic structures as the vast rusticated limestone screen wall of the former gaol designed by John Hargrave in 1827, a fitting match for the castle immediately north, although the two are separated by a singularly modest police station. Then there is the Wellington Monument of 1817, a Corinthian column on top of which stands a statue of the Iron Duke whose former family estate, Dangan Castle, lies a few miles south of the town.

In 1584 when Trim was being suggested as the site for Ireland’s first university, the local rector Robert Draper advised that the town was ‘full of very faire castles and stone houses builded after the English fashion and devyded into five faire streetes.’ Aside from the great castle, the others of that name have gone and so too have most of the old stone houses. And, a problem by no means unique to Trim, much of what survives has suffered from a shaming want of due care. Directly to the south of the castle and facing its walls, for example, is a terrace of ten early 19th century cottages with decorated bargeboards and canopied porches, and mullioned windows. Several of these are visibly decaying, with panes of glass broken and vegetation sprouting in the gutters: hardly a good advertisement for a heritage town. Nor is the adjacent hotel built a decade ago after much controversy and the production of an independent report criticised a government minister for ignoring objections to the development from the relevant officials in his own department. Not only is the resultant building ill-considered for its location but also poorly designed and demonstrating little awareness of this most sensitive location. On the other hand, such insensitivity is widespread in Trim. At the top of Market Street stands a substantial mid-18th century five-bay, three-storey market house with first floor Venetian window and Diocletian window above. All have suffered from the insertion of uPVC (like so many other buildings throughout the town) while the ground floor is defaced with crassly-executed contemporary shop fronts. Richard Morrison’s nearby Courthouse of 1810 similarly is afflicted by a recent development to one side that shows no respect for the context or for Trim’s history. Elsewhere old buildings, and even new ones, are allowed to remain fallow, and this in an era when shortage of housing is constantly lamented. Vacant sites litter the streets and more recent additions display no regard for the original urban layout. The difficulty of securing a clear view of the Wellington Monument embodies all the place’s problems: nobody seems to have noticed what has happened to the town’s architectural heritage and moved to have matters improved. Everywhere one turns there appears to be a want of coherence or planning, and the complete absence of any vision. The outcome is that Trim fails to capitalise on its advantages as a heritage town, with obvious economic consequences. An unfinished housing estate on the edge of Trim, a victim of the recent recession, rejoices in the name Maudlin Vale: enough said.


Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design VI


In 1797 James Wyatt designed a hall bench for Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, a set then being made for the house by London cabinet maker William Kidd. Their distinctive features such as the splayed saber legs and corresponding arms gave the benches so widespread and long-lasting an appeal that the design was subsequently copied, not least by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton which produced the example seen here at some date between 1829-42, in other words three or four decades after the original. Above it hangs Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Lady Maria Conyngham commissioned, along with those of her mother and sister, in the mid-1820s by George IV who hung the three in his bedroom in St James’ Palace, London (Lady Conyngham, it will be remembered, was his last mistress). Following the king’s death the pictures were transferred to the Conyngham family residence Slane Castle, County Meath where they remained until sold at the start of the last century. This portrait is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York while the Williams & Gibton bench belongs to the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence.