The roofline of a greenhouse in the walled garden at Tullynally, County Westmeath. Dating from around 1820, it has been built against a brick wall and facing south. Originally used for growing fruit such as peaches and grapes, the building retains its timber frame and fish-scale glass sheets, now something of a rarity in Ireland.
One of the most persistent myths in this country is that 17th and 18th century legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws was specifically anti-Irish. This was not the case. A similar series of laws was also passed by the Parliament in London and with the same aim: to place at disadvantage anyone, regardless of nationality, not a member of the Established (that is Anglican) Church. From the second half of the 17th century onwards in England, Wales and Scotland, as in Ireland, all non-conformists were excluded from civil and military office, and were not permitted to receive a degree from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. England’s Corporation Act of 1661, for example, obliged all municipal officials to take Anglican communion thereby ensuring non-conformists were unable to hold public office. The Act of Uniformity introduced the following year made the Anglican Book of Common Prayer compulsory at religious services (over 2,000 clergy found it impossible to comply with this obligation and accordingly resigned their positions). The Penal Laws were harsh towards denominations other than Roman Catholic. Presbyterians for example found it just as challenging to practice their faith and this explains why so many members of the sect (estimated to have been more than 400,000) having moved to Ulster in order to escape persecution, during the 18th century emigrated to colonial America where they were able to enjoy greater religious liberties.
It is true that for a long time Roman Catholics were looked upon with particular suspicion by successive British governments. This was at least in part because the Papacy forbade Catholics from taking the Oath of Supremacy which declared the English monarch to be rightful head of that country’s church; even without state legislation Catholics thus debarred themselves from holding public office since swearing the oath was a legal requirement for anyone wishing to do so. The Act of Settlement passed in 1701 by the English parliament remains in force to the present day, and continues to prevent a member of that country’s royal family from becoming or marrying a Catholic and still retaining rights of succession. The English, like the Irish, can have long memories: until the 19th century they would recall Regnans in Excelsis, the bull issued by Pius V in 1570 which declared Elizabeth I to be a heretic and released her subjects from allegiance to the queen, as well as summarily excommunicating anyone who had obeyed her orders. And even today they remember the Gunpowder Plot, the 410th anniversary of which falls in a few weeks’ time: that occasion in November 1605 when a group of Roman Catholics planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament by James I. Even though anti-Catholic legislation was gradually repealed or allowed to fall into abeyance, as late as 1780 hostility against Catholics was virulent in some quarters. In that year and in reaction to the Papists Act of 1778 the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots broke out in London; the resultant looting and destruction was more serious than any civil disturbance since seen in the English capital.
Despite the many disadvantages under which they suffered, not least grave financial penalties, some Roman Catholic families in England, Wales and Scotland continued to practise their faith and to hold onto their property. Known as Recusants owing to their refusal to attend Anglican services, the story of their survival was told by Mark Bence-Jones in his 1992 book The Catholic Families. This is by way of a preamble to noting that likewise in Ireland even in the face of the Penal legislation a number of old Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families somehow managed to hold onto both their religion and their land. The history of some of them can in turn be read in the 1997 book Grace’s Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-1800 by Charles Chenevix Trench (whose great-grandfather had been Anglican Archbishop of Dublin from 1863-1886). The Prestons, who as Lords Gormanston were bearers of the oldest vicomital title in Britain and Ireland retained their estate in County Meath, as did the Plunketts who as Earls of Fingall held the premier earldom in this country. Other untitled families likewise kept some, if not all of their former lands. The Hiberno-Norse Deases are known to have settled in what is now Westmeath in the second half of the 13th century. There they remained until the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries during which they were dispossessed on several occasions, yet kept returning to their ancestral estate. Throughout this and subsequent eras, and regardless of the rigour of the Penal Laws to which they like everyone else was subject, they also remained true to the Roman Catholic faith of their forebears. Among their number, Thomas Dease served as Catholic Bishop of Meath from 1622-51 having previously acted as rector of the Irish seminary in Paris.
In the first years of the 19th century the Deases built a new house on the site of an earlier property. Called Turbotstown this Greek-revival building’s design has long been attributed to the prolific Francis Johnston and indeed aspects of Turbotstown bear similarities to other examples of his work. The cut-limestone exterior is severe, of three bays and two storeys with a central Ionic columned porch marking the entrance: a first floor Wyatt window is of the same width as the half-glazed double doors beneath. To one side is a lower two-storey wing which then wraps around to incorporate a service yard: in part of this can be found the Deases’ former private chapel where presumably they worshipped prior to providing the land for the construction of a Roman Catholic church nearby. The main block has a dignified simplicity which emphasises the generous proportions of the high-ceilinged rooms. The house’s most striking feature is its inner hall, the centre of its ceiling opening to a first-floor circular gallery above which in turn rises an octagonal lantern which provides light for otherwise windowless areas. In an adjoining double-height space the cantilevered staircase lit by a large arched window on the return has decorative wrought-iron balusters supporting a mahogany handrail. Indeed space and grace are the two distinguishing features of Turbotstown. Although the Deases ceased to occupy the house in the last century and it passed for a period into other hands, eleven years ago it was bought back by descendants of the family. Since then the present owners have been engaged in the restoration of Turbotstown, a fitting tribute to an old Irish Roman Catholic family which remained in possession of its property throughout the dark days of the Penal Laws and beyond.
How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.
Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.
In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.
We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…
Driving along a road between Delvin and Mullingar, County Westmeath, one sees a spire rising above a clump of trees in the middle of a field. This is part of the now-disused Church of St John the Baptist built in 1798 with the aid of a loan from the Board of First Fruits. The surrounding graveyard has, like the church at its centre, mostly fallen into dereliction which is regrettable given that one tomb is associated with the famous eccentric Adolphus Cooke, who once tried a red setter for wandering from his estate, and treated a turkey-cock with particular favour as he believed it contained the soul of a forebear. A follower of the theory of reincarnation, Cooke had a large marble vault built and furnished to hold his remains, with instructions that a fire in the chamber be kept permanently lit. However on his death in 1876 the local rector refused to bury him in the vault and instead he was interred in a mausoleum constructed four decades earlier in the grounds of St John the Baptist. Also containing the remains of his father, this monument is unusual in being shaped like a beehive, with a low moat running around it. The Cooke mausoleum could do with a little reincarnation right now, as otherwise it risks succumbing to perpetual ruin.
‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’
‘But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern…’
‘We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’
‘But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm. What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left…’
‘”Ruinenlust” has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Ckude, Monsti Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.’
The above texts come from the concluding chapter (‘A Note on New Ruins’) of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. The photographs above show the interiors of a set of now-abandoned farmyard buildings in County Westmeath.
The former Market House in Killucan, County Westmeath. Dating from the late 1830s it was seemingly built by local stonemason Thomas Keegan. An architect called Patrick Keegan, listed as living in Dublin in the early 1820s, designed a gothick game larder for Knockdrin Castle which is not far from Killucan: might the two men have been members of the same family? In any case, the old Market House is today a sorry sight, despite occupying the most prominent position in the centre of this town and being sturdily constructed of dressed limestone on the ground floor with the remnants of a clock at the top of the pedimented breakfront centre bay. How to ensure the future of a place like Killucan: begin by restoring its historic core and bringing new purpose to old buildings.
In the stable yard of Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath, a two-storey worker’s house at the west gable end of the south range. Built c.1775, it possesses an advanced pedimented breakfront with ashlar detailing and round-headed niche to the centre of the ground floor flanked to either side by a square-headed window openings with a single square-headed opening to the centre of first floor.