Brought to Boyle

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Cistercian monks first appeared in Ireland in 1142 with the foundation of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth on the instructions of St Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh. The Cistercians were a reforming order established in Cîteaux, Burgundy at the very end of the previous century to counter what was perceived to be the decadence of the Benedictines in houses like Cluny. Cistercian monks sought to live in remote sites far from existing settlements and their buildings reflected the same desire for austerity: as a rule the order’s monasteries were designed to be simple and utilitarian, and devoid of superfluous decoration. The same was also true of their churches where ornamentation might distract the monks from prayer and reflection. In a much-quoted and influential passage from his Apologia written in 1124 St Bernard of Clairvaux denounced the overly-elaborate religious buildings of the period: ‘But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen?…In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.’ The outcome was that Cistercian abbeys remained notable for the purity of their architecture such as can still be seen in the ruins of the former house at Boyle, County Roscommon.

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Under its abbot Maurice O’Duffy the monastery at Boyle was the first successful Cistercian settlement in Connaught, the monks from Mellifont arriving on the site in 1161. Several efforts had been made in the years immediately preceding to establish a house elsewhere in the area but to no avail. Fortunately the Boyle monastery received support from the MacDermots, Lords of Moylurg who governed over this part of north Roscommon. Nevertheless, even before the building’s completion Boyle Abbey was sacked by the Anglo-Norman adventurer William de Burgo in 1202. Twenty-five years later, the abbey had become involved in a religious dispute known as the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont.’ In essence, this was an argument between Irish monks and those from France and England about what form the cloistered life should take. Whereas the latter wished to impose uniformity of practice among members of the order, the Irish appear to have retained some of their own traditions, such as monks occupying individual cells rather than participating in communal living. Eventually in 1228 Stephen of Lexington, abbot of Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire (and future abbot of Clairvaux) was sent by the Cistercian General Chapter on a visitation to Ireland with the intent of ensuring obedience. Several abbots, including that of Boyle, were removed from their position (and often sent to houses in England or France) and Boyle itself was affiliated to Clairvaux rather than Mellifont so as to ensure it did not slip back into the old ways. A mere seven years later, the monastery was was attacked and plundered by forces under the command of the Lords Justices including Maurice FitzGerald; this army took possession of the premises, seized all goods, vestments and chalices, and stripped the monks of their habits in the cloister. There were further attacks in the later Middle Ages when Boyle became caught up in feuds between the warring MacDermot and O’Conor clans.

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Boyle Abbey exemplifies mediaeval Cistercian architecture while in some respects differing from it. In addition, owing to the length of time taken to construct the church, this building includes elements of both the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles: it was only in 1218, almost sixty years after the monks first settled on the site that the church was solemnly consecrated. The monastery was laid out according to the usual Cistercian plan, around a central cloister garth. To the immediate north of this lies the church, with the chapter house and abbot’s parlour on the east side, and the kitchen and refectory on the south. and the dormitory a church on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area, with a chapter house for meetings of the monks on a second side, and a kitchen and a refectory on the third (with access to clean water from the river immediately behind this range). The gatehouse lay on the west side, as did public access to the church. The last of these remains the best preserved part of the complex. It features a barrel-vaulted 12th century chancel with 13th century lancet windows above the crossing. To the west of this, the main body has a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a pair of chapels on the east wall. A massive tower at the crossing rises to some sixty feet. In the nave the most striking feature is the difference between the piers on the south and north sides. The former are squatter with rounded arches, the latter’s pointed. And contrary to Cistercian disapproval of ornament, many of the corbels and capitals, especially those to the west end of the church, are carved with elaborate designs, some featuring humans and animals.

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The Cistercians remained at Boyle Abbey until the 16th century when the turmoil experienced some three hundred years earlier befell them again. Although Henry VIII introduced legislation in the Irish Parliament in 1537 for the the dissolution of the country’s monasteries, his authority did not actually run throughout Ireland and so the majority of houses continued as before. However, Boyle became caught up in a family dispute among the MacDermotts and in 1555 the abbey was burnt, followed by further assaults in the following years. In 1569 the abbey as granted by the English crown to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardstown, County Meath although ostensibly there was still an abbot of Boyle, Tomaltach MacDermot. In fact its last abbot was Glaisne O Cuilleanain, executed in Dublin in 1584. Five years later it was granted to William Ussher on a lease of twenty-one years and six years after that the old abbey was besieged by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone with a force of some 2,300 men. In 1603 Boyle was leased to two English soldiers, John Bingley and John King, the latter finally taking possession of the property, along with more than 4,000 acres in 1617: the Kings remained a dominant presence in the area until the last century. As for the abbey, now renamed Boyle Castle it became a military barracks and accordingly suffered further, with much of the stone of the cloisters being dismantled and recycled elsewhere. Only the main body of the church remained relatively immune to deprecation, hence its condition today. Boyle Abbey is now in the care of the state and in recent years has benefitted from an extensive programme of restoration, although the large glass corridor built along the north side of the church will not be to everyone’s taste. Resembling a bloated greenhouse it is supposed to protect the building from the elements. However given the rest of the site has no such covering the protection on offer is rather limited. Ignore this latest addition and revel in the superior taste of the Cistercians.

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Neglected and Oppress’d

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The area around Frenchpark, County Roscommon contains  little of any architectural note: the remains of the great Palladian house designed by Richard Castle in the late 1720s were demolished more than forty years ago. Now it would seem that the town’s one remaining historic building is destined to go the same way. Dating from 1840, the two-storey, three bay former market house has for a long time stood forlorn on Frenchpark’s main street. Although listed in the county survey as being of ‘social and historic importance’ no one seems troubled that this final remnant of the locale’s history is on the verge of being lost forever.

Getting to the Bottom of It

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A limestone chimney piece and plaster overmantel located in the basement of Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. As now constituted, the house is mostly the work of Richard Castle in the 18th century and John Lynn in the 19th. We do know however, that an earlier building existed on the site, dating from the late 1700s. The survival of this chimneypiece, and indeed entire room, at the bottom of the present main block suggest that it was originally one of the main reception rooms. Thus when Strokestown was initially aggrandised, probably in the 1730s, additional storeys were added and what had been the ground floor became a basement.

Embrace Simplicity

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One of the quadrants linking the main block to its pavilions at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. This part of the building dates from the 1730s when Thomas Mahon commissioned architect Richard Castle to enlarge and modify an earlier house on the site. Castle undertook the project with exceptional skill by deploying a handful of familiar motifs, in this instance a pedimented doorframe below a recessed niche, both flanked by regular windows and oculi on their respective floors. The crispness of the cut limestone contrasting with the rendered surface of the walls enhances the overall impression of refined simplicity.

Paper Thin

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A section of the dining room wall at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Although the main part of the house dates from c.1730 when designed by Richard Castle, it underwent alterations and redecoration in the first decades of the following century, which is when the rose-pink damask paper was hung in this room, its patinated surface indicating the movement of pictures over the past 200 years (and the sale of some of them during the later part of this period).
The interiors of Strokestown feature in a new book Wallpaper in Ireland 1700-1900 written by David Skinner, the doyen on the subject and this country’s most skilled producer and restorer of papers. The book, itself an object of beauty, is published by the Churchill House Press with all proceeds from its sale going to the Irish Georgian Society. It also contains images of Strokestown’s library paper, some of which can be seen below. Again some two centuries old, this has a wide flock border above the dado rail which has suffered somewhat from pieces of furniture rubbing against the surface, but surely that only adds to its appeal?

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You can read an article written by me and discussing David Skinner’s book in today’s Irish Times magazine. : http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/on-a-roll-wallpaper-from-great-irish-houses-1.1854262

Fit for a King

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Boyle, County Roscommon is a provincial market town, seemingly indistinguishable from many others throughout the country. Once of importance as a centre of trade for the locality, it now appears to have slipped into irreversible decline. Somewhere, in other words, to by-pass except that rising in the middle of the town and towering over all other buildings is an immense early 18th century townhouse.
Known as King House, the name taken from the family responsible for its construction, this marvellous edifice is reminiscent of the seigneurial chateaux one finds in regional French urban centres, evidence of a powerful dynasty determined to wield and enforce authority. The family association with Boyle was due to John King (d.1637), an English adventurer who had come to Ireland with Sir Richard Bingham, the royal-appointed Governor of Connacht. In 1603 the Boyle estate running to over 4,000 acres and originally developed by the Cistercian monks whose abbey had since been dissolved, was leased to King and another soldier but in 1617 the former was granted the entire property as a reward for ‘reducing the Irish to obedience.’ One of his children Edward King, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge drowned while on a boat sailing to Ireland in August 1637 and was soon eulogised by his friend John Milton in the poem Lycidas. However, Sir John had six sons and thereafter successive generations of the family increased its holdings until the Kings became the area’s most prominent land owner.

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Of three storeys over basement, King House was built for Sir Henry King, dates from 1720-30 and is believed to occupy the site of an earlier structure. As ever, we do not know the architect responsible. Both Pearce and Castle have been mentioned, but so too has William Halfpenny (d.1755), an Englishman who worked in Ireland during the 1730s in Dublin, Hillsborough, County Down and Waterford City. There is also some speculation that the building as seen today is incomplete; the pedimented north front is strikingly plain, so it has been posited that the two-bay projecting wings were meant to be joined by another block so as to form an enclosed courtyard. If this was the intention, then it helps to explain the want of external decoration. The rear of the house, which looks south to the river Boyle and would once have had a pleasure garden running down to water’s edge, is more satisfactory if rather too rigorously symmetrical. In fact the best views are those of the two sides, where a pair of Venetian windows sits one above the other. Roughcast render suggests a variety of material was used for the building, although all the window and door surrounds are of fine cut limestone.
Not a lot of the original interior remains, but there is an explanation why this should be the case. The Kings used their house for little more than half a century before it was damaged by fire in 1788. By this date tastes had changed and it was considered more desirable to reside in the countryside, so the family moved to the nearby estate of Rockingham (of which more in the months ahead). King House was first leased and then in 1795 sold for £3,000 to the government. Subsequently it was converted into an army barracks and during the 19th century was occupied by the Connaught Rangers; presumably during this period was added the large extension to the south-west of the main block. As evidence of its size the house was able to accommodate 12 officers and 260 non-commissioned officers and private foot soldiers, as well as a 30-bed hospital and stabling for horses. Following Independence, the building continued to serve the same purpose for members of the Free State Army until the 1960s when King House passed into private hands and was used as a store and fuel depot. Its condition quickly deteriorated and by the 1970s tenders were invited for the building’s demolition to make way for a car park. I remember first seeing the place at that time, when the chances of its survival looked slim. Thankfully in 1987 King House was acquired by Roscommon County Council with a full programme of restoration work beginning two years later.

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Today King House is a public amenity, a museum and a facility used for various purposes, from wedding receptions to library services. Given its chequered history, the building’s want of interior ornamentation does not come as a surprise. The 1788 fire, followed by conversion for use as a barracks helps to explain the lack of an elaborate staircase, for example, and also the absence of much plasterwork embellishment. The most striking extant feature is the gallery found running the length of the house on each floor and lit at either end by the aforementioned Venetian windows. That on the groundfloor retains a splendid stone flagging and two immense baroque chimneypieces of Kilkenny marble. The vaulted ceilings of red brick are unusual since this is customarily only found in basements. Seemingly the notion was that vaulting would prevent the spread of fire, a theory soundly disproved by the conflagration of 1788. Elsewhere some rooms have decorative cornicing but overall the impression is of refined purity.
Or at least that would be the case if those responsible for King House would allow the building to speak for itself. Loath as one is to speak ill of any organisation prepared to ensure a future for the country’s architectural heritage, what a shame that in this case the relevant authorities have shown scant confidence in the house’s inherent qualities. The restoration work has been exemplary but rather than allow the interior’s handsome proportions to make an impression, everywhere is filled with furniture, display units, information panels, mannequins and assorted bric-a-brac relating to a disparate variety of topics. The place is so busy one is constantly denied an opportunity to assess architectural merit (or, incidentally, to take a decent picture). A dissapointment as the building is of such rare merit it deserves to be cherished as and for itself, and not treated as the setting in which much less interesting material is shown. The current style of presentation is unquestionably to the building’s detriment. King House dominates not just Boyle but much of the surrounding region since nothing else can begin to approach its resplendence. Accordingly nothing else ought to be required. Here is an instance where less would achieve more.

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This last is an old photograph of King House when still a military barracks (and, by the looks of it, already in poor shape).

A (Ros)common Problem

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Like the majority of Irish towns, Roscommon is a bit of a mess, the historic core displaying a lack of coherent civic vision for either its maintenance or improvement. And there seems little will to change the situation. The tourist office, for example, closes during the key lunch period: wasn’t that kind of wilful indifference to visitors’ needs supposed to have disappeared around the same time as the manually operated telephone exchange?
Clearly it wasn’t always thus. Signs of Roscommon’s currently-indiscernible vibrancy can be found in the free-standing limestone structure closing the vista of Main Street and dominating the Square – which, but of course, is actually oval-shaped. This is the town’s former court and market house, built in the early 1760s to replace an previous structure which had collapsed more than forty years before ‘killing and wounding at least 200 persons.’

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It took a while for the local populace to regain confidence after that traumatic event. Then they acted with gusto, commissioning a splendid new structure from fraternal architects John and George Ensor. These brothers both enjoyed successful careers, although George was twice dismissed from government posts for taking bribes; there is some kind of perverse comfort to be derived from knowing the offence has such a long, and dishonourable, history in Ireland. John Ensor, the older and apparently more law-abiding of the pair, was responsible for a number of private houses in the capital including sections of what is now Parnell Square, also Hume Street, Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green. In other words, the citizens of Roscommon displayed foresight and taste alike when they invited the Ensors to design their town’s most prominent public edifice.
What they got was a splendid, two-storey rectangular building, the core of which survives although it has been subject to subsequent alteration. By the third decade of the 19th century the court/market house had already begun to show signs of neglect and following the repeal of the Penal Acts in 1829 the local Roman Catholic priest took over the premises and converted them into a church, with additions built front and rear. So it remained until 1903 when a new Catholic place of worship in full Triumphalist Gothic opened to serve the needs of the Roscommon congregation.
The older structure then underwent another transformation into Harrison Hall, a meeting place used for dances and social gatherings, as well as acting as a cinema and theatre. Forty years ago it was sold to the Bank of Ireland and continues to operate as a local branch. Having changed functions so often, the interior retains little of interest, although the main banking hall occupies an airy, double-height space with gallery running along one side.
The exterior is more distinguished, the 19th century additions – including an octagonal cupola over the main entrance – fully in sympathy with the central block erected almost 100 years before. Overall it looks well-maintained, although one worries about plant life flourishing directly above the pedimented facade (someone needs to pay more attention to the gutters).

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At the moment it’s hard to appreciate the architectural merits of Roscommon’s finest historic monument. The surrounding square is a shambles of parking spaces and street signage, meaning an unimpeded view can never be found. See how much more handsome it looks in the old photograph above, without a press of vehicles on every side. Clear away the clutter and let the building breathe. It could then come into its own, Roscommon would acquire a fine public space and the local population might rediscover the appeal of their town centre: an example to other towns suffering from the same problems.
Another important old property close by suffers similar disadvantages. This is the former town gaol, dating from c.1740 and locally attributed to German-born architect Richard Cassels (usually anglicised to Castle); he was responsible for a number of houses in the region, including Strokestown (extant) and French Park (unroofed 1953, subsequently demolished). Like the neighbouring court/market house, Roscommon’s old gaol has had what, in most accounts of the building, is called a chequered career; the same description could probably have been applied to its earliest inmates. After housing miscreants for a century – and being famous for employing the country’s only hang-woman (seemingly she took the job to save herself from the noose) – it became a lunatic asylum, then a ‘refuge for smallpox sufferers’, a market house and a private house. Only the facade with advanced end bays and unusual mid-18th century castellation now remains: since 1999 the building has been a drab shopping centre. From one grimly utilitarian function to another…

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