On the Plain of Oaks

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Yesterday was the Feast of St Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patrons, the others being St Patrick and St Columba. It is the last of these that concerns us today since he was the founder of several important monastic settlements in the country, not least that at Durrow, County Offaly. Columba is said to have been born in 521, a descendant of the fifth century Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. His original name was Crimthann, meaning Fox which might be a reference to red hair or to a wily character. In any case, later he was known as Columcille, which means Dove of the Church, or just Columba. He came from the province of Ulster and it was there having completed his training that he established the first of over twenty-five monasteries, on a site that was given the name Doir Colum Cille, the Oak Tree of Columcille: from this derives Derry because the city occupies the same spot. Raphoe in County Donegal followed, as did Kells, County Meath and Swords, County Dublin. But he was a quarrelsome man who engaged in more than one pitched battle and as a result he went in exile to Scotland where he worked to convert the Picts and established a great monastery on the island of Iona, where he died in 597. His hagiography, the Vita Columbae, was written a century later by Adomnán,  ninth Abbot of Iona. It helped to perpetuate his memory in Ireland and ensure that religious houses continued to flourish, not least that at Durrow.

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Durrow Abbey was founded on a site given to Columba by a local chief. Its name comes from Dearmach, Plain of Oaks, as already mentioned a tree also associated with Derry but this should be no surprise as ancient Ireland was densely covered in oak forest. Some of these still survive at Durrow. The monastery flourished for many years after its originator’s departure: in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People completed around the year 731, the Venerable Bede called it a ‘monasterium nobile.’ Although it received patronage of successive kings, at least one of whom was buried on the site, the monastery also engaged in arguments with other such establishments, not least nearby Clonmacnoise; a battle between the two in 764 left two hundred monks from Durrow dead. Worse was to follow. Durrow’s fame and wealth left it vulnerable to attack and between the ninth and twelfth centuries the monastery was burnt and plundered on more than a dozen occasions. In 1095, for example, its famous library was burnt. By this time the original buildings, which would have been made from some of the oak on the site, had been replaced by stone structures: the earliest reference to a church in this material comes in 1019 when it was recorded ‘the stone-church of Dermagh was broken open by Muirchertach, grandson of Carrach.’ Greater changes came in the middle of the twelfth century when ecclesiastical reform led by St Malachy of Armagh saw the establishment of Augustinian houses of regular canons and nuns at Durrow. Then in 1175 the whole area was laid waste by the Anglo-Normans whose head Hugh de Lacy had a large earthen motte erected on the site. This was unwise since it caused indignation among some of the local population: in 1186 while surveying the newly-completed motte, de Lacy was attacked and killed with an axe by a youth of Meath. Thereafter the violence that had marked Durrow for so long came to an end and the Canons enjoyed their quiet reflection until the closure of all monasteries in the 16th century.

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Durrow Abbey is renowned for having long housed two remarkable objects. The first of these is a book of gospels produced at some point between the years 650 and 700, making it a century older than the more famous Book of Kells. Whether the Book of Durrow was created in the monastery’s own scriptorium or in another, perhaps in Northumbria or Columba’s foundation on Iona, has never been resolved. However, it was certainly in Durrow since the time of Flann Sinna, King of Ireland (877-916) since he made a cumdach or metalwork reliquary adorned with a silver cross to hold the work: this container was lost in the 17th century but a note about it written in 1677 is bound into the book. Comprising 248 vellum folios, the Book of Durrow is one of the earliest known manuscripts to devote entire pages solely to ornamentation. These ‘carpet pages’ are filled with elaborate interlaced patterns, filled with spirals and other curvilinear decoration ever since synonymous with Celtic design. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the first half of the 16th century the book passed into private ownership: at one time part of it was immersed into a well by a farmer to provide holy water for his cattle. Eventually it was presented to the library of Trinity College, along with the Book of Kells, by the 17th century Bishop of Meath Henry Jones. The other object associated with Durrow remains on site, albeit recently moved to a new location. Measuring some eleven and a half feet high, the ninth century cross formerly stood at the western end of the graveyard. Its head, arms and shaft are carved from a single block of sandstone and an inscription on the north face may commemorate Maelsechnaill, the Uí Néill high-king of Ireland, who succeeded to the kingship of Tara around the year 846: he was father of Flann Sinna who later made the cover for the Book of Durrow. Despite weathering caused by centuries of exposure to the elements and a resultant loss of detail, it is still possible to make out many of the cross’s carved forms. The west features scenes of Christ’s Passion on the shaft, and the Crucifixion above it. On the east side the head carries a version of the Last Judgment above Christ flanked by apostles and the Sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis. Further scenes from Old and New Testaments can be found on the narrower north and south sides.

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Following the monastery’s dissolution in the 1540s the land on which it stood was first leased and then bought from the Crown by Nicholas Herbert whose descendants later purchased it outright to create an estate.   In the late 17th century the old church was recorded as being in reasonable condition with shingled roof, two glazed windows, a clay floor, a reading desk, a pulpit and an unrailed communion table. However, following the death of Sir George Herbert in 1712 Durrow was inherited by his sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox. A report of the diocese made in 1733 noted that the church at Durrow had been in poor repair, ‘but ye said Mrs Fox pulled it down and rebuilt it at her own expense.’ This is a charmingly simple building, almost like a Quaker meeting house, its only distinctive feature being the limestone square-headed door with keystone and scroll brackets supporting a cornice surmounted by three urns. The church now stood within the landscaped demesne known as Durrow Park, close to a classical seven-bay residence which in the early 19th century was bought by the Toler family, one of whom, the second Earl of Norbury was killed by an unknown assailant on the estate in 1839. The church had repaired in 1802, with a gift of £450, and a loan of £50, from the Board of First Fruits and was used for services until the 1880s when it was supplanted by a new Church of Ireland church in the local village: its graveyard was closed in 1913. The Durrow estate passed through various hands in the second half of the last century and at the start of the present one an application was lodged to turn it into an hotel with the dreadful ancillary elements that would have necessitated. To prevent this happening, in 2003 the state acquired church, graveyard and surrounding acreage and undertook a programme of  restoration which included moving the High Cross inside the building. Located at the end of a long, well-wooded drive it seems to welcome relatively few visitors and thereby retains the meditative atmosphere which must first have drawn St Columba.

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Starting at the Bottom

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The base of a window and its curtain in the Gothic Saloon at Birr Castle, County Offaly. Lit by three arches offering views down to the river Camcor and a vaulted ceiling supported by slender shafts, this wonderful room dates from the early 19th century when it was created by the second Earl of Rosse assisted by an otherwise almost unknown architect called John Johnston who, according to Mark Girouard (writing in Country Life, March 1965) did ‘little more than make working drawings based on the sketches of his employer.’

Waiting to be Woken

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Anyone who has read Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes will remember the author’s evocation of Les Sablonnières, ancient home of the de Galais family which has seen better days. It is here that the novel’s eponymous hero, having disappeared from school, comes across a magical costume party and falls in love as much with the place as with the girl he meets on that occasion. Thereafter both he and the narrator are driven by a desire to recapture a lost moment and as a result are repeatedly driven to return to Les Sablonnières.
Milltown Park, County Offaly is like an Irish version of Alain-Fournier’s fictional house. Hidden from sight on all nearby roads, unknown even by many of the local residents and only discovered at the end of a long, verdant drive, it seems to seep memories and to be haunted by the past. Replete with echoes and reverberations, it is a sleeping beauty of a building, deep in dreams of what once took place within its walls and waiting for someone to come along and stir it into life again.

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In a blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720 but the accompanying initials W.S. suggest this was added long after the house was finished, since at the time of its original construction the estate was owned by the Spunner family: they only became White-Spunners in the 19th century after the son of Benjamin White and Elizabeth Spunner changed his name from Thomas Spunner White to Thomas Spunner White-Spunner on inheriting Milltown. Behind and to the north of the house is a large model farm courtyard built in 1840 so perhaps the initials and date on the front of the property were added at the same time.
In fact, Milltown is only slightly later in origin. The lands on which it stands appear to have been in the ownership of the Spunners since the 1500s and the ruins of an earlier residence remain. By the 18th century, with circumstances in the country more settled than had previously been the case and the economy accordingly more buoyant, the Spunners must have decided to embark on erecting a more fashionable home for themselves.

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‘From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first is it like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have...This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness...’
From Le Grand Meaulnes

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In Maurice Craig’s wonderful (and wonderfully named) 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, although Milltown Park does not feature many of its architectural elements are discussed. So, for example, when considering the elevation of these buildings, he writes of the widespread use of a tripartite opening, commenting ‘I prefer this term rather than “Venetian window” because it covers a number of pseudo-Palladian features which, though inter-related, can be distinguished from one another. It should be borne in mind that a round-headed door flanked by side-lights [as found at Milltown Park] is first cousin to a “Venetian” window. Such a door occurs in Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, where the sidelights are separated from the door by piers of walling...’
From grand Seaton Delaval in Northumberland to modest Milltown Park in Offaly in twenty-odd years is quite a journey, but the latter house shows how taste could travel and fashions be adopted by other architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (whose father, after all, was a first cousin of Vanbrugh). Note how the same tripartite design is used on both the ground floor (for the smart Gibbsian doorway) and that above but slightly bungled because, as indicated by the photograph below of the landing, the ceiling was too low to accommodate the full height of the central window. Thus its upper section is blind. Another indication of Milltown Park’s ‘country cousin’ status are the blunt gable-ends with oversized chimney stacks. The house shares characteristics with two others in neighbouring County Laois, Summergrove and Roundwood: all have five-bay limestone facades with a central breakfront featuring tripartite windows on the ground and first floor and a pediment above. They represent, as Maurice Craig notes, ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm.’

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The interior of Milltown Park displays the same mixture of sophistication and naïveté, a broad awareness of current trends without a full understanding of how best to implement them. The design of some rooms clearly received more attention than did others. The entrance hall with its lovely flagged floor concludes in a screen that might have been inspired by Brunelleschi. And the front section has a ceiling decorated with pretty rococo plasterwork, generic in style but no less charming for that.
This is the only room with such ornamentation, although the drawing room has a good marble chimney piece and the morning room a fine neo-classical cornice frieze. But it is the handsome sturdiness of Milltown Park that most appeals, embodied by the broad first floor landing with its wide oak boards and views over the surrounding parkland. This was never an especially grand house, inspired more by aspiration than pretension, and embellished only as and when funds permitted. Hence its endurance for almost three centuries. Now, for the first time since being constructed, it is to be sold: a potentially hazardous moment in its history. Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires - and deserves - special care. Wanted: one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories and happy to permit the ghosts of its past wander free.

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The Beauty of Birr

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Anne, Countess of Rosse (1902-1992) was one of the best looking and most stylish women of her generation. Birr Castle, County Offaly is full of mementoes of her tenure as chatelelaine including this chalk portrait which hangs above a mahogany chest on the return of the main staircase. Proposing her as an 18th century beauty, the artist was Anne Rosse’s brother, Oliver Messel (1904-1978). Originally renowned as a stage designer, in later years he achieved fame for the houses he created in the Caribbean.

A Template for Temples

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Birr, County Offaly is one of Ireland’s most perfectly planned towns. From 1817 onwards St John’s Mall was developed in an easterly direction by local landlord, the second Earl of Rosse. In 1833 at mid-point between two terraces of houses on the mall he built this impeccably simple, single-storey limestone Ionic-porticoed temple to commemorate his second son, the Hon John Clere Parsons, who had died five years earlier of scarlet fever just days before his 26th birthday. Since then John’s Hall, as it is called, has served a variety of purposes but almost 180 years after construction the building now stands empty awaiting a new use.