The 15th century de Burgo tower house which forms the core of Tulira Castle, County Galway. This was one of a number of country houses acquired by new owners during the course of 2015, significant others including Bellamont Forest, County Cavan and Capard, County Laois. But many others remain on the market, such as Milltown Park, County Offaly, Newhall, County Clare, Kilcooley, County Tipperary and Furness, County Kildare, all of which have been discussed here on earlier occasions. Let us hope the coming year is kind to them and all of Ireland’s architectural heritage.
As was mentioned last week Kilcooley, County Tipperary stands on land formerly settled by Cistercian monks. The order established a house here c.1182 at the request of Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond and a thrice-great grandson of Brian Boru. It was one of no less than four Cistercian monasteries initiated by O’Brien and soon became a daughter house of Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny, established a couple of years earlier. Like so many other such properties, Kilcooley was subject to attack, especially during the fifteenth century when many religious establishments became caught up in feuds between rival families. Having already suffered from an assault in 1418, in 1445 it was reported the abbey had been burnt and almost completely destroyed by ‘armed men.’ This led to the construction of the present church, albeit largely on the footprint of its predecessor. The work was carried out under the direction of then-abbot Philip O’Mulwanayn whose burial slab was formerly sited in front of the main altar but is now suspended on the north wall of the chancel.
Access to Kilcooley Abbey is via a well-preserved entrance chamber, in effect the church’s north transept, composed of two bays the outer having a handsome traceried window on the east wall. The inner bay has retained its stone vaulting and to the south stands a carved stone baptismal font. One then enters the church, notable for flamboyant tracery windows at the east and west ends. The main body of the building has lost its roof but this remains over the oblong crossing which supports a hefty tower, and over the chancel. To the south a narrower two-bay, rib-vaulted transept – serving as a pair of small chapels – in turn leads to a succession of other rooms, as well as offering access to the night stairs, and to the cloister garth beyond: almost nothing of the last of these now remains other than outer walls. Several other buildings in the vicinity, such as chapter house and refectory, survive in various states of ruin.
The interior of Kilcooley is memorable for two features: the chancel tombs and the doorway leading from south transept to sacristy. With regard to the former, the finest tomb here is that against the chancel’s north wall erected in memory of Piers Fitzjames Oge Butler who died in 1526. This work is attributed to Rory O’Tunney, member of a County Kilkenny family responsible for carving a number of such tombs during the first half of the 16th century. Butler’s monument features the deceased lying on top of the tomb clad in a mixture of chain and plate armour and with a loyal dog at his feet. Below him runs an elaborate panel featuring ten apostles, each in his own niche. Passing through the south transept, one is confronted by a remarkable carved screen carrying a number of images seemingly scattered at random and on sundry dates. Yet as Roger Stalley has noted (in The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland, 1987) ‘this cannot be so as the stones have all been carefully cut to suit their present positions.’ However the impression of an ad hoc design remains: two tracery panels beneath the arch, for example, are smaller than their neighbours. Further down, panels are placed with no evident concern for their location. One shows a mermaid with comb and mirror being observed by two fish, another has an abbot inside an ogee arch, but not to the centre of it. A crucifixion scene above the door is likewise off-centre, sharing the space with St Christopher carrying the Christ child. The whole design appears simultaneously wilful and whimsical.
Likely because of its links with the Butler family, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries Kilcooley became the property of the Earls of Ormonde. In 1636 the twelfth earl (and future first Duke of Ormonde) sold the estate to Norfolk-born judge Sir Jerome Alexander for £4,200. On his death in 1670, Kilcooley was inherited by his daughter Elizabeth who married another English-born lawyer, William Barker. In 1676 he became the first of four successive baronets bearing the same name, the last of whom built a new house on the estate around 1770. Prior to that date the Barkers may not have spent much time at Kilcooley and when they were present they lived in the old abbey which had been modified to serve as a private residence: this helps to explain why it is better preserved than many other mediaeval monasteries in Ireland. Following the death without direct heir of the last Sir William Barker in 1818 the estate was inherited by his nephew, Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby on condition he adopted the surname Barker. When he in turn died in 1834 Kilcooley passed to his eldest son, William Ponsonby-Barker some of whose idiosyncrasies were discussed last week. Again he died without leaving a son, so the next owner was his brother, Captain Thomas Ponsonby, known as ‘Damnation Tom’ owing to his habit of using the expletive in every sentence. But he only lived a further three years before dying in 1880. His son Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby, married to Mary Plunkett, sister of Sir Horace Plunkett, went to the United States with the intention of buying land there and selling Kilcooley, but died during his return journey across the Atlantic in 1884. The estate passed to six-year old Thomas Brabazon Ponsonby, whose guardian was the aforementioned Horace Plunkett, pioneer of agricultural cooperatives in Ireland. Imbued with his uncle’s idealism, Thomas Ponsonby was a progressive farmer, establishing many new enterprises on the estate including a cheese factory, a large pig enterprise and saw mills. Narrow gauge railway lines served the pigs, and this line extended to a hill where timber was felled and loaded onto bogies which would roll downhill to the saw mill. Likewise he and his wife Frances Paynter modernized the main house, with central heating installed throughout the building including the basement, the whole fired by a large coal boiler below ground in the north yard, and the water circulated by thermo-syphon. The boiler house had a glass roof, so that if there was an explosion, the force of the blast would go straight up.
Kilcooley remained in the ownership of the Ponsonbys until some ten years ago, since when it has experienced what could best be described as mixed fortunes in various hand. It recently came on the market at the centre of an estate running to more than 1,200 acres. Given its fascinating history and exceptional collection of buildings – of which not all have been described here – one can only hope that it soon finds a new custodian, one who proves as sympathetic to the place as were the Ponsonbys.
‘Therefore his servants said to him, “Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm”.’ (1 Kings 1:2).
William Ponsonby-Barker of Kilcooley, County Tipperary was an ardent evangelical Christian and in the years prior to his death in 1877 he would habitually emulate the example of King David in the Old Testament, and take a young woman to bed with him – strictly for the purposes of keeping his elderly body warm. The human hot water bottle would, it is said, be chosen from among the housemaids lined up after evening prayers. In his book Twilight of the Ascendency (1987) Mark Bence-Jones tells that on one occasion, the maid selected by Ponsonby-Barker ‘offended his olfactory sensibilities, so he sprinkled her liberally from a bottle which he took in the dark to contain eau de cologne but which in fact contained ink!’ Of course it may be that the owner of Kilcooley was following the strictures of his late mother. According to the American Quaker Asenath Nicholson who recorded a visit to the estate in her 1847 book Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger, ‘the pleasure of walking over these delightful fields is enhanced by the knowledge that his tenants are made so happy by his kindness. To every widow he gives a pension of £12 a year; and to every person injuring himself in his employment, the same sum yearly, as long as the injury lasts. His mother was all kindness, and her dying injunction to him was, “To be good to the poor”…His mother, whom he ardently loved, was buried in a vault on the premises; and his grief at her death was such that he left the domain for twelve months. He supports a dispensary for the poor, who resort to it twice a week, and receive medicine from a physician who is paid some sixty pounds a year for his attendance.’
From the 12th century onwards Kilcooley belonged to the Cistercian order which built a fine abbey there. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the land passed into the possession of the Butlers, Earls of Ormonde. In 1636 the twelfth earl (and future first Duke of Ormonde) in turn sold Kilcooley to the Norfolk-born judge Sir Jerome Alexander for £4,200. Following his death in 1670, the estate was bequeathed to a daughter Elizabeth Alexander, on the condition that she did not marry an Irishman. In the event her husband was another lawyer, William Barker who had been born in Essex: he had already been granted 3,300 acres in Limerick in 1667 and received a further 1,300 acres in Tipperary in 1678; three months prior to his marriage in June 1676 he was made a baronet, the first of four all confusingly bearing the same first name. Successive Sir William Barkers lived in the mediaeval Kilcooley Abbey, adapted as a private residence. However, each of them also seems to have considered the notion of building a new residence, only the last of the line doing so. On succeeding his father at some date on or before 1719, the second baronet thought to construct both an alternative house and an adjacent market town but in the event did neither. Following the marriage of his heir in July 1736 to Mary Quin of Adare Sir William wrote of plans to build ‘as fine and elegant a private gentleman’s seat as any in Europe and inland market as ye country could afford, instead of botching it now about old Abbey walls not proper adapted to be anything called polite’. But nothing happened either then or until around the time the last Sir William inherited Kilcooley on the death of his father in 1770. Ten years earlier he had married Catherine Lane and around this time was handed responsibility for the estate. A stone in the stable yard bearing the date 1762 certainly suggests work was done on the property then, so perhaps the core of the present house dates from the same period.
As built by the fourth Barker baronet, Kilcooley conformed to the Palladian style then beginning to go out of fashion; this certainly suggests an earlier date than c.1790 which was traditionally given. Owing to alterations made in the 19th century after a fire, it is difficult to see the original form of the house. Looking towards a lake created in 1789 at the cost of just over £442 the entrance front is of seven bays and two storeys over elevated basement. Arched links on either side lead to pedimented pavilions and these in turn link to quadrants giving access to service yards: rubble-filled niches and oculi visible beneath later render hint at the building’s earlier form. The garden front looks across parkland towards the romantic ruins of the old abbey. On this side, the house has a central breakfront of three bays broken up by four giant Ionic limestone pilasters and ending in a parapet supporting eagles and urns. Access on this side, as on the entrance front, is via a double flight of balustraded stone steps. Single bays on either side lead, again as on the other side of the house, to pedimented pavilions and thence to a further run of buildings, including a pretty hexagonal model dairy. The aforementioned fire – of which more below – gutted the central block of the house (Asenath Nicholson specifically mentions the loss of a fine library) but appears to have spared the wings. Thus it is possible to gain a sense of the interior of Kilcooley in these sections of the building. On one side, for example, there is a fine cantilevered stone staircase which looks to be 18th century (and although intended for use by servants is actually handsomer than that used by the owners). At the other end of the house are a couple of rooms with tall lugged doorcases and coved ceilings. One of these still retains its arabesque rococo stuccowork, as well as a tall, slender marble chimneypiece.
The strict Christian beliefs of William Ponsonby-Baker may have led to the fire that destroyed the central block of Kilcooley. One day in 1839 a woman arrived at the house with a small child who, she said, had been fathered by the butler, a Mr Ashby. So shocked was Ponsonby-Barker by his employee’s behaviour that he immediately fired Ashby: as the house maids had already discovered, there were consequence to being in service at Kilcooley. In revenge, Ashby packed the chimney in the library with paper and set it alight. As a result, the building was gutted and as Asenath Nicholson commented ‘An elegant library was lost’ along with many of the other contents. Kilcooley’s owner set about rebuilding the house, where work was completed in 1843. Certain alterations were made at this time to both exterior and interior. Regarding the latter, canted bay windows were inserted on the ground floor of both the entrance and garden fronts (originally those on the main facade were bows), and a second storey with balustrade loggias added to the links between main block and wings, as a result of which the building gained space but lost some of its lightness. Internally, a new main cantilevered stone staircase was created to one side, lit by an arched window on the return. An enfilade of reception rooms overlooks the mediaeval abbey on the garden side; these appear to be following the original house’s ground plan, although a portion of the central room was shaved off to create an antechamber. Meanwhile to the front one finds the dining room and library: both of these are half-paneled in oak, as is the entrance hall between them. This last is unquestionably Kilcooley’s most striking feature, an enormous double-height space with first floor gallery, the whole lit by a glazed dome: interestingly hot water pipes run around the base of the dome, evidently in an effort to ensure the gallery wasn’t too cold. Below runs a vast basement, with a central passage providing access to a wealth of storage and staff rooms, including in one of the wings a lofty kitchen, again probably part of the original building as it still has a central octagon through which smoke would once have escaped.
More on Kilcooley next Monday…
On a road lined with mature beech trees and coming from the south into Borrisokane, County Tipperary can be seen a line of five houses, two pairs semi-detached and one free-standing. Whereas the former are three-bay, the latter is four but all are two storey over basement, with rendered fronts and reached by a flight of limestone steps. They all also share the same wide doorcases with fan- and sidelights. Undoubtedly the handsomest domestic buildings in the town and collectively known as the Terrace, they date from 1815 and testify to the prosperity of this part of the country exactly two centuries ago: in 1837 Samuel Lewis gave the population of Borrisokane as being 2,635, whereas today it is less than half that figure.
One of the side gates leading into the grounds of the former Quaker Meeting House in Cahir, County Tipperary. Designed by an unknown architect and built of sandstone, the complex was completed in 1834 at a cost of £838 and three shillings. At the time the area’s resident Quaker population numbered some 80 persons but thereafter went into decline and towards the end of the 19th century meetings attracted just a handful of individuals. The building was first leased to the Presbyterian Church authorities and then sold to them in 1897; it continues to be maintained and used for services by this denomination.
In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Nenagh, County Tipperary is described as being ‘a market and post town’ and so it remains today. The second largest urban centre in the county, Nenagh owes its origins to the family which for centuries dominated this part of Ireland: the Butlers. This territory was originally under the control of the O’Kennedys but it was granted to Theobald Walter after he accompanied Prince John (subsequently King John) to the country in 1185. Walter was also appointed Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had held the same office in England) from whence his descendants’ name derives. Theobald Walter began to build a circular stone keep here, completed by his son (also called Theobald). With walls five metres thick at its base and a diameter of 17.5 metres, it rises some thirty metres although the crenellations and windows beneath were added in the 19th century when a Roman Catholic cleric entertained notions of turning the keep into the bell tower of a never-built cathedral. The Butlers remained in occupation of the keep – once part of a larger castle with a ring of walls and large gatehouse – until the end of the 14th century when they moved first to Gowran and then to Kilkenny Castle which remained their base thereafter. During the 16th and 17th centuries the keep, and rest of the castle, changed hands many times but while other parts of the complex were lost it somehow survived: the keep even continued to stand in 1760 when a farmer detonated gunpowder at the base in order to get rid of sparrows ruining the local crops.
Nenagh’s keep is by no means the only evidence of the town’s distinguished past. There are also the ruins of a couple of ancient religious settlements within the town, their presence inevitable once the Butlers had established a base there. The most significant of these was the Franciscan friary, possibly founded by Theobald Butler but more certainly associated with Donal O’Kennedy, Bishop of Killaloe. It became the chief house of the Irish custody within the province, with a provincial synod held on the site in 1344. A work known as the Annals of Nenagh, principally concerned with obituaries of notable families in the district, was compiled here over the period 1336 to 1528. At the time of the Reformation, it was ostensibly shut but a more serious assault came in 1548 when the O’Carrolls burnt Nenagh, including the friary. Despite later efforts to remove them, the Franciscans pluckily lingered on, the last only dying in 1817. Today the main evidence of this important foundation are the walls of the former church, some forty-three metres in length and ten in width with a triple lancet window at the east end and a run of fifteen windows along the north wall. Nearby are other ecclesiastical ruins, this time of an Anglican church built c.1720: its square bell tower and adjacent lobby are another of Nenagh’s landmarks. Then there is the remarkable complex of judicial buildings designed around 1840 by John Benjamin Keane and including the courthouse, gaol, governor’s house (now a local heritage centre and museum) and gatehouse. The penitential element of this must have been especially fine when first completed: entering through the rusticated stone triumphal arch gatehouse, visitors advanced towards the three-storey governor’s house from which radiated a series of prison blocks. Unfortunately only one of these remains and it has been permitted to fall into a state of dereliction.
The name Nenagh derives from the Irish words ‘an’ (meaning the) and ‘aenagh’ (meaning fair), a reference to the ancient Fair of Ormond which was held here. Lewis’ description of the place as a market town remains true, and it continues to act as a commercial centre for the surrounding agricultural hinterland. When compared with many other similar Irish towns it seems to be performing well, not least thanks to the presence of several high-quality specialist shops. The food outlet Country Choice, run by Peter and Mary Ward since 1982, offers an inspirational example of what can be done by retailers with the right mix of imagination and industry. As a result of their persistence, other similar premises have emerged and all of them help to attract custom to Nenagh. The layout of the town centre reflects its reconstruction from the late 17th century onwards, with wide streets faced with substantial properties, the majority of which are still in place (aside from a few recent interventions such as the irredeemably ugly Allied Irish Bank building on a key site at the junction of Pearse and Kickham Streets). And the town has retained many of its old shop fronts, of The kind sadly lost elsewhere. Their retention raises the notion that perhaps Nenagh could establish itself as a national centre for traditional retail design, and thereby encourage more visitors, not least tourists. One has only to reflect on what a draw the village at Bunratty has proven to recognize the charms of our retail heritage should not be underestimated. Nenagh is situated on the main route from Dublin to Limerick/Shannon and could easily capitalize on its assets to lure some of that traffic into the town. Well-designed shop exteriors and interiors can be a powerful magnet (just look at the success of the ersatz traditional Kildare Village closer to the capital). Nenagh still has much of the real thing, ripe for discovery by a broader public.
Of course, there are problems here. The usual empty buildings can be found mouldering into ruin. There is a disgracefully decaying shopping centre right at the entry point coming from Roscrea (the old warehouse opposite also badly needs attention) and in the very centre a major site on the corner of Pearse and Mitchel Streets (its groundfloor poorly refaced some years ago) lies vacant, along with a neighbour: both appear to be suffering potentially lethal water damage due to unattended gutters. On almost every street businesses have closed (although, again, fewer than is the case in equivalent centres elsewhere). The appearance of a town always has repercussions on how it is perceived by locals and visitors alike: who wants to spend time in a run-down location?
At least some of the problems could be resolved by action on the part of the local authority. For example, why has the remaining block of Nenagh Gaol been allowed to fall into such a poor state? There exists a widespread interest in the nation’s penal history and here is a building which offers testimony to that aspect of our past. Yet instead of being utilized for educational purposes, it is sitting unused and neglected, and right next to the Courthouse. To the east of the town, official negligence is exemplified by the fate of the old military barracks. The complex was built in 1832 and occupied by members of the British army for the next ninety years, after which it was handed over to the new Irish state. Seemingly the property continued to be used for various purposes until some thirty years ago, since when it has sat empty and steadily sliding into the present parlous condition. A report in the local Tipperary Star newspaper in March 2010 commented ‘There have since 1981 been numerous reports and proposals geared towards preserving the barracks but no physical works have ever been carried out, leading to concerns that parts of the building are now irredeemable and that the structure will be allowed to succumb to the ravages of time.’ The following year then-Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter, in response to a parliamentary question, advised that the site ‘vested in the Minister for Finance but in the administration of the Department of Defence’ had been offered to the local authority in 2009 but this proposal was turned down. Mr Shatter added that the barracks would be ‘disposed of taking account of market conditions.’ That was four years ago, and in the interim the property has further deteriorated, making it proportionately less valuable to any potential purchaser. The state seems indifferent to the protection and maintenance of our collective patrimony, or the consequences of its blatant neglect. Many of Nenagh’s residents display admirable engagement with their town and its well-being; what a shame local and national authorities cannot do likewise.
St Paul’s in Cahir, County Tipperary was built c.1816-18 to a design by John Nash, one of only two churches from this architect in Ireland. Commissioned by Richard Butler around the time he was created first Earl of Glengall, the building cost £2,307 and is in the early Gothic Revival style with a plasterwork vaulted ceiling and the original pine box pews. On either side of the west front entrance are these carved heads, presumably representing Irish historic characters (note the shamrock on the breast of the crowned figure below). Might anyone know who they are meant to be?