On the Town V

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Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry (from the Irish Éadan Doire meaning ‘hill-brow of the oak wood’) in County Offaly is effectively one long narrow street that dribbles away to an unsatisfactory conclusion at either end. It was ever thus: from the 18th century on visitors to Ireland have commented on the way urban settlements here were rarely planned but developed in a haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion. On occasion an improving landlord would try to impose order, and indeed this happened at Edenderry but not until long after the place had first come into existence. While there is a pre-Christian hill-fort in the area, it was really with the arrival of the Normans that permanent residential structures began to appear around what is now Edenderry. In 1325 John de Bermingham, first Earl of Louth (famous for having killed Edward Bruce – younger brother of Robert, King of Scotland – in 1318) founded a Franciscan Friary at Monasteroris to the immediate west of the town; little of it remains today. Although from the mid-14th century this part of the country was officially under the authority of the Earls of Kildare, in practice it came under the control of the O’Connors. They were likely responsible in the 15th century for what is now known as Blundell Castle, eventually destroyed by Jacobite forces in 1691; the ruins stand on a hill  above the town. In the middle of the previous century Offaly was shired as King’s County and its land granted to men loyal to the English crown, among them Sir Henry Colley whose father Walter had served as Principal Solicitor for Ireland and later as the country’s Solicitor-General. The connection with the Colley family meant that for sometime thereafter Edenderry came to be known as Coolestown. Henry Colley’s granddaughter Sarah married Sir George Blundell and so the land passed into the hands of his family, remaining with them until the death in 1756 of Montague, first and last Viscount Blundell. His only daughter Mary inherited the property as in turn did her only daughter, another Mary who in 1786 married Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire.

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Thanks to his marriage, the Marquess of Downshire acquired some 14,000 acres of land around Edenderry. He vigorously opposed the 1800 Act of Union and as a result earned the enmity of the London government which exacted retribution by depriving him of governorship of County Down and the colonelcy of the local militia, and dismissing his supporters from official posts. He died the following year; his widow blamed official hostility, but, having inherited an estate in England from a childless uncle, was somewhat consoled in 1802 by being created Baroness Sandys in her own right. Meanwhile her twelve-year old eldest son became heir to the Irish properties. It was he, the third Marquess of Downshire who after coming of age in 1809 left the most lasting visible impact on Edenderry. This was despite the fact that he inherited responsibility for his forbears’ considerable debts and that his mother continued to receive two-thirds of the rent from the Offaly estates until her death in 1836. Among his most notable legacies to the town is the large former Market House, designed by Thomas Duff in 1826 and built at a cost of £5,000. Today used as a courthouse and local authority office, this handsome cut limestone building has a five-bay pedimented facade and presumably once featured an open arcaded groundfloor and assembly room above. Standing in the middle of what is now called O’Connell Square, it is testament to Edenderry’s prosperous past as a market town, a history echoed by other buildings in the town. These include Blundell House, named after the former owners of the estate but erected to his own design in 1813 by James Brownrigg who like his father worked for the Downshires and acted as agent for the County Offaly estate. Of two storeys over half-raised basement, its groundfloor has an exceptionally wide door fanlight and Wyatt windows to either side. Lying to the immediate east is the town’s Quaker meeting house which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced earlier premises on the site.

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Lord Downshire’s engagement with Edenderry was not restricted to public buildings like the Market House: he also undertook to better the condition of the rest of the town, replacing mud cabins with slated, two-storey stone houses. Many of them remain and often carry a date from the early 1820s above the entrance
The materials used in the construction of these and other buildings were brought to Edenderry thanks to an initiative undertaken by his father: the creation of a branch of the Grand Canal into the town. Work began in 1797 and was completed with a harbour in 1802 at a total cost of £692 which was financed by the Downshires. The quays still lead right to the main street and conclude in a squared-off section surrounded by limestone wall. For much of the 19th century the canal provided a vital social and commercial link for Edenderry, and helped to bring prosperity to the region. The last barge left the quays here in 1962, around the same time that the railway at the other end of the town also closed. As with the canal, this was a branch line, known in its day as the Nesbitt Junction after a Miss Nesbitt who contributed £10,000 to its cost so that she could convey prize cattle to the Royal Dublin Society. Its buildings, erected in 1877 by the Midland Great Western Railway, remain although the little stone ticket office looks sadly neglected. The third Marquess’ contribution to the town’s development was commemorated a year after his death in 1845 with the erection of a statue to his memory sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk, son of Thomas whose figure of Nelson adorned the top of the pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street until blown up in 1966.

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Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry is in seemingly irreversible decline, as the above photographs make clear. The outskirts, spread randomly and with no apparent forethought, are full of generic housing estates. One is currently being constructed at the immediate west end of the main street and has been given a name every bit as banal as the design of the supposedly ‘exclusive’ houses contained therein: Cedar Lawns. Meanwhile the centre of Edenderry slides ever further into decrepitude with a terrifying number of premises vacant and unkempt. Groups of listless youths – presumably residents of the aforementioned exclusive housing estates – drift along the pavements past properties that might entertain or engage them but instead exhibit empty windows. Even in O’Connell Square, while money has been spent on renovating the old Market House it is surrounded by properties with well-worn signs offering them for sale. For the moment Edenderry still has a post office and branches of the main banks: but for how much longer? The reality is that as the centre decays and householders travel elsewhere to spend their money, those banking businesses will find it no longer viable to maintain an operation here. They will duly close down and the standard outcry will ensue, yet this is the inevitable consequence of failure to maintain a vibrant town centre. The general tattiness and want of adequate maintenance is apparent everywhere, beginning with the ruins of Blundell Castle where the bars of a protective fence have long-since been wrenched off, if the quantity of mouldering empty beer cans discarded inside its walls can be taken as evidence. By failing to take care of Edenderry’s most ancient site, the local authority is sending out a signal of indifference which will noted by all those late-night drinkers, and everyone else as well. The same sense of apathy and disregard is emitted by every other building permitted to suffer neglect. Among the remaining retailers, the word Eden – a none-too-subtle pun on the town’s name – is often deployed. Frankly Eden lies well east, or west or anywhere else. Whatever one might think of absentee landlords and whatever his motivation, at least Lord Downshire tried to improve circumstances in Edenderry. Nobody today seems interested in following his example.

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Return of the Native

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On a table in the Gothic Saloon of Birr Castle, County Offaly, a porcelain figure looms over Cecil Beaton’s photograph of a former chatelaine Anne, Countess of Rosse. Home since 1620 to fifteen generations of the Parsons family, in the past couple of years Birr Castle has welcomed back Patrick, Lord Oxmantown, his wife Anna and their young children who were previously living in China. You can read more about their return to the ancestral seat in an article I have written for the May issue of Architectural Digest. For more, see http://www.architecturaldigest.com/decor/2015-05/birr-castle-tour-county-offaly-ireland-article

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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