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?
It is impossible to miss the castle in Cahir, County Tipperary, and nor should it be missed. Most likely the town – the name of which derives from the Irish ‘an Chathair’ meaning stone ringfort – would not exist but for the castle. Occupying a rocky island in the river Suir the present building’s core dates from the 13th century when it was constructed by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond most probably on the site of an earlier native fortification. In 1375 as a reward for his loyalty to the English crown the castle was granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond and remained in possession of branches of this family for almost six centuries. Henry VIII created Thomas Butler Baron Cahir in 1543. It was during the lifetime of his great-nephew Thomas Butler, second Lord Cahir (of the second creation) that the castle was besieged and then captured in 1599 by a force of 18,000 under the command of the Earl of Essex. However since Lord Cahir surrendered, he received a pardon and was able to hold onto his lands. Cahir Castle was once more threatened with a siege in 1647, this time by Murrough O’Brien, sixth Baron Inchiquin but its occupants quickly surrendered, as they did also in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell advised ‘If I be necessitated to use my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremities usual in such cases.’ Capitulation thereby saved the castle from a potentially ruinous assault. It remained in use, although not always by its owners, until the 19th century: in the second half of the 18th century the Butlers built for themselves a classical residence in the town (today the Cahir House Hotel). But they maintained the old castle and even carried out some restoration on the property in the 1840s. Following the death of the last member of the family in 1961 Cahir Castle was acquired by the state and is now open to the public.
The town of Cahir largely owes its present appearance to two men, Richard Butler, tenth Lord Cahir who was created first Earl of Glengall in 1816, and his son also called Richard, the second earl. To the first of these Cahir is indebted for such charms as the Swiss Cottage (of which more on another occasion) and the Anglican St Paul’s Church, the former attributed to John Nash, the latter certainly designed by him 1816-18. It replaced an older church, the ruins of which can still be seen, as can those of an Augustinian priory founded in the 13th century. The former Erasmus Smith School adjacent to St Paul’s and now used as local authority offices is likely by Nash also. In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, the author notes that Cahir ‘owes its rise to the late earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl whose seat is within its limits; it is pleasantly situated on the river Suir, is well built and of handsome appearance, and now consists of 588 houses.’ His words were echoed by other visitors to the town during this period, and especially after 1843 when, the majority of leases issued in the previous century coming to term, the second earl embarked on an extensive programme of rebuilding which saw Castle Street and the Square, as well as various approach roads, assume their present form. The architect responsible was the Clonmel-based William Tinsley who gave the place a coherence rarely found in this country. As G.H. Bassett commented in his 1888 publication County Tipperary: A Guide and Directory, ‘The houses of Cahir devoted to business as well as residential purposes, are superior to those found in most country towns in lreland.’ Remodelling Cahir was estimated to have cost Lord Glengall in the region of £75,000. Unfortunately as a consequence of this and other expenditure on the eve the Great Famine, and despite marriage to an heiress, Cahir’s owner found himself heavily indebted and the family’s fortunes never recovered from his expenditure on Cahir. In 1853 the town was sold on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court.
From the 18th century on Cahir thrived thanks to lying at the centre of a prosperous agricultural region, witnessed by a large market house erected in the 1770s on the north side of the square facing Cahir House. The town’s prosperity was further increased by the establishment of a number of large mills on the banks of the Suir, including the Manor Mills on the Bridge of Cahir, the Suir Mills (Cahir Bakery), and the Cahir Abbey Mills. These buildings still exist and are a dominant presence in the town, although redundant and badly in need of alternative use. When Henry D Inglis travelled through Ireland in 1834 he visited the town and after remarking on the beauty of its situation he observed that ‘Cahir is rather an improving place. The flour trade is pretty extensively carried on, both in grinding, and in carrying to Clonmel. Very extensive cornmills have recently been erected; and they are in full employment.’ The mills were mostly run by the town’s substantial Quaker population, their significance evident by the fine Meeting House in the town, dating from the early 1830s. Almost directly opposite is a terrace of exceptionally large houses erected during the same period, another testament to Cahir’s former importance in the area, as is a similar terrace of four, three-storey over basement residences called the Mall close by the castle. In the 1820s the second earl leased the land on which they stand to a Dr Thomas Beale specifically for the purpose of building an hotel and a row of townhouses, the first three of which were completed by 1830, two of them serving as the Cahir Castle Hotel. The advent of famine in the 1840s put paid to the completion of this scheme and others similar planned for the town.
Cahir now suffers from the same problems as so many other Irish towns, not least the disappearance of the industries that once provided employment. Today it gives the impression of existing because it did so in the past. Those substantial mills, in their shabby vacancy, are witness to changing circumstances that have not been to the advantage of the town and testify to the departure of former prosperity. On the other hand, Cahir enjoys benefits not enjoyed by many other Irish towns, having a splendid castle and attractively laid-out streets. In other words, Cahir has an opportunity to exploit its potential as a tourist magnet, and to some extent already does so. The castle clearly attracts tourists and has an attractive and well-maintained park to one side. But on the other, close to the centre of the town, is a vast car and bus park. One understands the importance of offering visitors somewhere to leave their vehicles, but to create a desolate expanse of tarmac right beside the castle seems self-defeating: why not conceal it behind buildings that follow the original line of the street, or engage in extensive planting that would soften the prospect and avoid conflict with Cahir’s principal attraction? The same failure better to exploit opportunities is found throughout the town. In the main square, for example, far too many properties are vacant, an inevitable consequence of planning authorities permitting supermarkets to be constructed on the outskirts. But the square’s appearance is not helped by the former Butler residence, the 18th century Cahir House Hotel with its fine first-floor Venetian window, being disfigured by the insertion of uPVC windows, as are so many other properties in the area: does nobody see what damage this does to the perception among visitors of Cahir as a supposed heritage town? On the other side of the square, another significant building, the 18th century former Market House, underwent a grotesque ‘renovation’ in the 1980s when original arched openings were replaced with over-sized plate-glass windows, thereby destroying the integrity of the design. Visiting Cahir one is conscious of missed opportunity and a failure to exploit potential, with inevitable consequences for the town and surrounding region. Not very different to anywhere else in the country so.
Kinelagh Castle, County Tipperary is likely to have begun as an O’Carroll tower houses built in the 15th century. In 1655 the land on which it stands was granted to an English solder, Colonel Thomas Sadleir who renamed the building Sopwell Hall after his family home in Hertfordshire. He doubled the size of the property by adding the section to the right, and also appears to have inserted at least some of the cut-stone windows and the corbelled corner turrets. The Sadleirs remained in residence until c.1745 when a smart new house, also called Sopwell Hall, was built a short distance away.
Lying in the shadow of the Knockmealdown Mountains, Castle Grace, County Tipperary is believed to have been built by the de Bermingham family around the mid-13th century. Its substantial square keep originally had a tower at each corner but only two circular ones remain. The castle’s ruins now serve as a walled garden for an adjacent Georgian house, the upper sections of stone and brick interior at present smothered in cascades of wisteria.
In 1970 the early 18th century Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary stood empty and unused, and plans were announced to demolish the building; the local authority intended to replace the house with an amenity centre comprising swimming pool, car park, playground and civic centre. North Tipperary County Council chairman Tom Shanahan justified this proposal with the argument that as long as the house stood, ‘it reminds the Irish people of their enslavement to British rule’ and dismissed objectors to the scheme as ‘a crowd of local cranks.’ The notion that Damer House represented the outstanding qualities of Georgian craftsmanship, or that it might be a major tourist attraction for the area clearly never occurred to Mr Shanahan.
Both these factors have since come to be understood, but four decades ago, the building’s inherent worth was grossly under-appreciated. Damer House dates from the 1720s and is believed to have been built for John Damer soon after he bought the town of Roscrea in 1722. Damer’s uncle, Joseph Damer, originally from Dorset, settled in Ireland in the aftermath of Charles II’s restoration in 1660 and prospered as a Dublin moneylender, to the extent that he was able to purchase estates in North Tipperary. Having no children of his own, he brought over his nephew John both to assist him in the business and to inherit his wealth.
Damer House is unusual in that it stands in the centre of a 13th century castle on which work commenced during the reign of King John although the present structure is of a slightly later date; it survives largely intact, not least the immense gate tower rising more than 90 feet with walls some eight feet thick. This castle was under the control of the Butler family, if only sometimes theoretically, until 1703 when the second Duke of Ormonde sold his Roscrea territory to the King’s Hospital in Kilmainham; less than twenty years later the place was sold again, this time to John Damer whose uncle had since died and left him extremely wealthy. Given that peace had only recently come to the country, one can understand why Roscrea’s latest owner might have thought it best to build his new residence within the protective walls of the castle, but he and his descendants do not seem to have spent much time there, since they also developed a large estate elsewhere in the county and, following John Damer’s own death without direct heirs, his nephew – another Joseph Damer – preferred to live in England where in 1792 he was created first Earl of Dorchester; in the following century Damer House passed into the hands of another branch of the family, the Dawson-Damers who were Earls of Portarlington and whose main seat was Emo Court, County Laois. Meanwhile the house in Roscrea became an army barracks, then at the start of the last century successively a school, a tuberculosis sanatorium and a local library.
Of three storeys over basement and with unusually tall narrow windows spread across nine bays, the pre-Palladian Damer House has a large annexe to one side, probably added during its time as a military barracks. Internally the finest extant feature is a carved pine staircase, in style not dissimilar to that of the slightly later Cashel Palace. Whatever other decorative features the Damers may have commissioned did not survive changes of use, but the building retains a purity of form that makes it of enormous importance in the history of Irish architecture.
Yet by the early 1970s Damer House was suffering from the consequences of long-term neglect, hence the local authority’s proposal to sweep it away rather than engage in a programme of restoration. Fortunately at this point the Irish Georgian Society then intervened and offered to take over the building on a lease and assume responsibility for its salvation. Work on this project began in August 1974 and was overseen by one of the IGS’s most industrious and committed members, Brian Molloy whose death four years later is still to be regretted. Much of the work was undertaken by volunteers who cleared away accumulated rubbish and debris, and removed unsightly additions to the house such as partition walls while professionals worked on repairing the roof and so forth. In 1976 the early 18th century carved pine staircase, which was coated in centuries of paint, was cleaned and restored to its original splendour and the following year the house was officially opened to the public.
With aid from a number of public bodies, the house’s annexe was next restored for use as a heritage centre; the first of its kind in Ireland, this opened to the public in 1983 and shortly afterwards won a special award from the adjudicators of European Museum of the Year. At the end of that year, control of Damer House was handed over to the Roscrea Heritage Society which later in turn leased the premises to the Irish State; by this means Damer House’s future has been secured. During the 1990s more work was completed not just on the house, but also on Roscrea Castle and its gardens. Today the entire complex has been refurbished and welcomes visitors.
Aside from its evident merits, Damer House is personally special because in 1983 my first job after university was to act as curator of the building, contentedly living in a first-floor flat on the premises (those two windows furthest right on the first floor were my bedroom) and gaining knowledge that has proven invaluable ever since; this month marks the thirtieth anniversary of my taking up that position.
Meanwhile this week marks the first anniversary of the advent of The Irish Aesthete. It has been a fascinating year in which I have likewise learnt an enormous amount (and become something of a proselytiser on behalf of social media). I should like to thank all those who have been following the site for the twelve months past and hope that you will continue to do so for the twelve ahead during which there will be abundant opportunities to explore further Ireland’s architectural heritage. Comments and enquiries are always welcome, as are suggestions of where else might be discussed; every writer needs readers and I am most appreciative of anyone who has taken the trouble to participate in and engage with The Irish Aesthete since September 2012.
It is also worth noting that The Irish Aesthete has been short-listed for the 2013 Ireland Blog Awards in two categories: Best Arts and Culture and Best Newcomer. Finalists will be announced next week.
In conclusion, today provides an opportunity to remember Brian Molloy the twenty-fifth anniversary of whose death fell recently and whose dedication to the causes many of us hold dear remains an inspiration.