As a rule the focus of architectural heritage is on historic properties with a distinguished, and traceable, pedigree. An unintended consequence of this approach is that across the country the fate of many secondary, vernacular buildings is overlooked and they are permitted to fall into ruin. Many of these, however, have their own inherent beauty even if not always so obviously apparent. Here are two views of an old rubble stone barn in County Meath. Like thousands of others it is entirely functional, even mundane and yet possessed of a distinctive character that deserves to be cherished.
Reference was made here some weeks ago to the Board of First Fruits (see Made Better by Their Presents II, December 12th 2015). Although it had a considerable impact on the Irish landscape in the 18th and early 19th century, this organization is today little known. To reiterate briefly, the board was established in 1711 to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. First funded by a tax on clerical incomes from 1778 onwards it received grants given by the Irish Parliament, after 1785 this being a yearly sum of £5,000. Following the Act of Union, this country’s Anglican clergy became absorbed into the newly-formed United Church of England and Ireland and thereafter the amount of money made available to the Board of First Fruits rose: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808, soared to £60,000 between 1810-16 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. As a result of this money, the Church of Ireland was able to embark on a building spree: in the first quarter of the 19th century almost 700 churches were either newly constructed or renovated, along with 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. While the entire country benefitted from this programme, there were regional variations depending on the level of engagement by whoever was then in charge of a diocese. Among the most committed to the scheme was Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath for a quarter-century (1798-1823). O’Beirne is a fascinating character. Born into a Roman Catholic family in County Longford, initially he studied for the Catholic priesthood at the Jesuit seminary in St Omer, France: his younger brother Denis was there at the same time and completed his studies (the siblings would later serve in the same parish of Templemichael, Longford, Thomas as rector and Denis as parish priest). A breakdown in health led Thomas to England where he converted to Anglicanism and attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Highly intelligent, industrious and devotedly loyal to the Church of Ireland, he was appointed first to the Diocese of Ossory in 1795 before being transferred to Meath three years later. During his long episcopate, he embarked on an improvement of both clergy and buildings in the diocese, a schedule of work which has been thoroughly investigated by Mary Caroline Gallagher in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the subject.
Exhibiting the customary fervour of the convert, O’Beirne believed incumbents ought to be resident in their parishes (not something which had hitherto been universally the case) and services should be held in churches that were structurally sound and, appropriately designed and maintained. Hence his keen interest in improving both clergymen’s homes and places of worship. He was fortunate in his timing, his period as Bishop of Meath coinciding with the Board of First Fruits having most money to distribute, commonly through a mixture of grants and loans to parishes (which on occasion had the effect of saddling parishioners with long-term debt). Today we look at two Meath churches that underwent redevelopment in O’Beirne’s time. The first of these (top and above) is St Patrick’s at Castletown-Kilpatrick. There was a mediaeval church on this site and parts of it were incorporated into the newer building, in particular over the east window a portion of what is believed to be a 15th century tomb stone showing a woman in prayer. There are also two old arched windows on the second floor of the belltower and a stone head that projects from the wall of the church. These were presumably rescued by the man responsible for the building’s refurbishment, whose name features in a stone plaque over the doorcase (which also looks to be older than the main body of the church). The plaque reads ‘This Church was Rebuilt by Order of The Rigt. Honb. & Rt. Revd. Th. Lewis Lord Bishop of Meath. The Revd. Robt. Longfield Rector. Henry Owens Esqr. & Henry Liscoe, ChurchWardens. Robt. Wiggins Builder. A.D; 1820.’ The cost of the project was £467 and four years later a glebe house was also constructed to the immediate south at a cost of £1,107, this work financed by a Board of First Fruits loan. Declining numbers of worshippers meant that by the third quarter of the last century it had become difficult to sustain the church, which closed for services in the mid-1960s. The glebe house had already been sold and demolished around 1945.
Just a few miles south of Castletown-Kilpatrick stands St Sinch’s, Kilshine (above and below). According to legend St Abbán, whose father was a king of Leinster, founded a convent here and placed at its head a holy virgin called Sinche or Sineach, the church being called Cill-Sinche (thus the Anglicised name Kilshine). By the 18th century this building had fallen into poor repair and so a new church was built in 1815 at a cost of £1,600 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits. As at St Patrick’s the occasion was commemorated with a plaque: ‘The rebuilding and restoring of this Parish Church, after it had laid in ruin for upwards of a century, were the effects of the pious exertions of that excellent Prelate, the Right Honourable and Most Reverend Father in God, Doctor Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Lord Bishop of Meath, who in the conscientious discharge of the functions of his high and important office not only caused many other churches in this Diocese to be rebuilt and restored, but procured for that most respectable Body, the Reverend the Parochial Clergy, residences and glebes within their respective Livings, suitable as far as it was possible to their situations, thereby enabling them duly to discharge the duties of Resident Protestant Clergymen, and to dispense to their parishioners of that persuasion the invaluable comforts of Our Blessed Religion. Aided by a pecuniary grant of 1,600 from the Board of First Fruits obtained through the intercession of His Lordship the Bishop of Meath.’ Let it not be thought the work of Bishop O’Beirne went unrecorded. But once more declining attendance numbers meant St Sinch’s had closed for services by 1958 after which its monuments were removed: today both here and St Patrick’s, Castletown-Kilpatrick are united with the church at Donoughpatrick where services continue to be held. Meanwhile tangible evidence of the efforts of Thomas Lewis O’Beirne and the Board of First Fruits to ensure the Church of Ireland had a long-term future looks to be irreparably vanishing. It seems only a matter of time before both these churches, and many more beside, vanish from the countryside altogether. Truly as Thomas à Kempis advised ‘Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.’
The above oil, painted in Constantinople in 1740 by Jean-Étienne Liotard, features in a marvellous exhibition devoted to the Franco-Swiss artist running until the end of the present month at the Royal Academy, London. The sitter was the Anglican clergyman Richard Pococke, then on an extended Grand Tour lasting more than eight years. Pococke’s travels took him not only around Europe but also to Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon & Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece: fortunately his full correspondence (predominantly letters sent to his mother, always addressed as ‘Honoured Madam’) from this period has been edited and published in three volumes in recent years by Dr Rachel Finnegan and is much recommended. From these we learn of Pococke’s meetings in 1740 with Liotard who was then resident in Constantinople, hence in this picture Pococke is represented in oriental costume (a fashion which the artist did much to promote when he returned to Europe). From 1747 onwards Pococke spent increasing periods of time in Ireland where his restless spirit directed him on several journeys around the country: his published tour of 1752 is also compelling reading. He was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1756 and then of Meath in 1765 but died only a matter of months after assuming the latter office. His memorial in the graveyard of Ardbraccan, County Meath can be seen below. As mentioned, the Liotard exhibition is unquestionably worth seeing, not least for its strong Irish interest since he had many patrons in this country including Simon Luttrell, first Earl of Carhampton, the Earl of Clanbrassil and above all William Ponsonby, second Earl of Bessborough who had first invited Liotard to accompany him to Constantinople.
Looking across the river Boyne, a view of Donaghpatrick parish church, County Meath. On an ancient site (as the name implies, the original church is said to have been founded by St Patrick), the building was extensively reconstructed in the 1860s by architect James Franklin Fuller but still incorporates a mediaeval tower. To the right can be seen the charming parish hall of 1890.
The Irish Aesthete wishes all friends and followers a very Happy Christmas.
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.
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
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.
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?