On the Town II

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The fortunes of Youghal, County Cork seem always to have been mixed. Writing of the town in 1748, the London bookseller and theatre manager William Rufus Chetwood commented, ‘Youghall, we are told, was formerly a place of good Trade; but I own, by the countenance it at present carries, it seems to be long in mourning for want of it. While our dinner was preparing, we took a walk through its long, wide, empty street without meeting ten people, even on the Quay itself…In short, my Lord, it seems a heartless, dejected place.’ On the other hand, by 1784 the Annals of Youghal could report that ‘In the summer months great numbers resort to Youghall, for the benefit of the salt-water…With respect to amusements, the town is not without its share. Such as wish to dip in the news and politicks, can at all times be furnished with the public papers, by resorting to the Mall House, while billards and bagammon afford ample entertainment to others…drums and assemblies are regularly held two or three times a week.’ When Henry David Inglis undertook his Journey Throughout Ireland in 1834 he found that in Youghal there were houses ‘seen in a ruined state, betokening, I fear, not antiquity only but decay,’ noting also the town’s ‘very considerable want of employment, and a large quantum of destitution.’ Yet just three years later, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland observed ‘Most of the houses in the principal streets are either new or have been modernised; many of the ancient houses have been newly fronted, but may still be distinguished by their gable ends fronting the street, and their pointed doorways of stone. The town is much frequented during the summer for sea-bathing, for which it is well adapted…’
And so it goes on, sometimes the reports are encouraging, on other occasions the implication is given that Youghal is in terminal decline. But attributes on which all commentators agree are the town’s ancient history and its outstanding collection of historic monuments.

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Wonderfully situated at the mouth of the river Blackwater, Youghal derives its name from the Irish Eochaill meaning ‘yew wood’ since these trees were once plentiful in the region. With the land rising steeply behind, the spot proved perfect for a Viking settlement in the middle of the ninth century but the town did not really grow until the arrival of the Normans some three hundred years later, after which it became an important port. Youghal received its charter of incorporation from King John in 1209, and immigrants from Bristol on the other side of the Irish Sea encouraged trade between the two countries. While some kind of defences existed already, it was in the thirteenth century that the town’s stone walls were built, of which large sections still remain. As an indication of its importance in the Middle Ages, when in 1301 Edward I required two boats from all English and Irish ports to support his fight against the Scots, he ordered that Youghal supply three vessels. Half a century later, the Freemen of Youghal were granted freedom to trade in different staples such as wool and leather throughout England and Wales. In 1462 it was created one of Ireland’s ‘cinque ports’ which ensured further trading privileges. In 1600 Youghal was elevated to the rank of ‘staple town’, receiving exclusive rights to carry on the wool trade with Bristol, Liverpool, Chester and Milford. By this time it had become one of Ireland’s greatest ports, more important than Cork Harbour which was described as ‘a port near Youghal.’
By then also, control of the area in which the town is located had changed several times, passing between the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and the Butler Earls of Ormond. It was sacked by the fifteenth Earl of Desmond in 1579 and following the suppression of his rebellion, a grant of some 40,000 acres including the towns of Lismore and Youghal was made to the English buccaneer Sir Walter Raleigh; his own residence Myrtle Grove remains in the town. However in 1602 he sold his Irish estate to another Elizabethan adventurer, Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork whose descendants retained ownership of their property for much longer. Youghal suffered badly during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, being under siege at one period and serving as Oliver Cromwell’s winter base at the end of the decade. However the town recovered in the 18th century, its trade expanding and population more than doubling. Although business in the port declined in the 19th century, Youghal’s fortunes improved with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s after which it became a major holiday resort.

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Throughout the town centre it is hard to miss evidence of Youghal’s venerable past. Among the most significant monuments to its history is the Collegiate Church of St Mary, which claims to be the oldest site of unbroken Christian worship in Ireland. The church’s origins may go back to St Declan in the fifth century but roof timbers of the nave have been carbon-dated to around 1170. A rebuilding programme was undertaken in the early part of the following century, and then in 1464 under the auspices of the seventh Earl of Desmond it became a collegiate church, with the establishment of a neighbouring college accomommodating a warden overseeing clergy and singing clerks: since the Reformation, the church has been used for Anglican services while at the start of the 17th century the college became a private residence for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. His immense tomb, featuring not just the earl but his wives and children, dominates the south transept and is one of the most splendid 17th century funerary monuments in the country. Many more can be found in the surrounding graveyard which is bordered by sections of the old town walls and overlooks the grounds of both the college and Myrtle Grove, once residence to Sir Walter Raleigh. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told that a household servant once threw water over him believing Raleigh to have caught fire: in fact, he was smoking tobacco which he is credited with introducing to these islands (as it was long thought he likewise did the potato). The abiding presence of Boyle can also be seen in a cluster of six almshouses he founded in 1601 on the corner of North Main and Church Streets. Nearby rises Tynte’s Castle, a 15th century tower house built by the Walsh family but subsequently owned by Sir Robert Tynte, an ally of the Earl of Cork and after 1612 married to his cousin Elizabeth (widow of the poet Edmund Spenser). Further south on Main Street one reaches the Red House, an early 18th century two-storey over basement seven-bay residence with pedimented three-bay breakfront, its design attributed to a Dutch architect named Claud Leuvethen. Built for the Uniackes, a local merchant family, the house’s name derives from the brick facade now covered by paint. Some distance down from this are remains of a mid-14th century Benedictine priory now incorporated into a house, and thence one reaches Youghal’s landmark Clock Gate, designed by local architect William Meade and completed in 1777.

 

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For any visitor the delights of Youghal include not just the town’s architectural history but also the visible efforts made to preserve and present this to best advantage. Landmark buildings are well sign-posted and marked with informative plaques. Litter is kept down, and planting kept up. In many respects Youghal can serve as a role model for other heritage towns in Ireland.
Nevertheless, the place has problems, some of its own making, others outside its control. In 1834 Henry David Inglis wrote, ‘The suburbs of Youghal are large and bad: they extend in every direction up the hill, behind the old town wall, and contain many very miserable cabins.’ That description remains true today, albeit that the cabins have been replaced by poor quality housing. The approaches to Youghal and general development beyond the old town boundaries are equally incoherent, displaying this country’s customary lack of planning and foresight; the result is that anyone arriving on the outskirts would feel little incentive to venture into the town centre where so much deserves to be seen. Meanwhile, within that centre although significant monuments have been cherished the more general stock of building has just as often not; quite a lot of it today is in poor condition and/or suffering from cack-handed intervention, like the widespread replacement of old timber windows with uPVC frames. Buildings erected on vacant sites in recent decades are shockingly mediocre, and too much space is given up to tarmac, not enough to grass and trees.
All of these issues can, should and probably will be addressed by interested townspeople. But they face other challenges less easily overcome. Youghal is the victim of changing economic and social circumstances. It is no longer a port of any significance, its local industries have all gone, its role as a seaside resort of little import since the advent of cheap air travel, even its position as a market town undermined by the ability of consumers to travel to larger urban centres: hence too many premises in the centre now stand empty. Today Youghal’s greatest asset looks to be its history and how terrific so many citizens recognise this and are engaging in diverse ways to ensure it has a future as glorious as its past.

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That’s Amore

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A white marble statue of Amorino commissioned in Rome from Antonio Canova in 1789 by John La Touche. Scion of Ireland’s wealthiest banking family, La Touche was then on a year-long Grand Tour through Italy, during which he was taken to Canova’s studio by the Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton. There he saw two versions of the same figure, one of which is now in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. Not long before leaving Rome and returning home, La Touche requested his own copy which was duly delivered to Dublin in the summer of 1792. It remained in the family’s possession until the last century but both artist and provenance were forgotten until the statue was rediscovered in the back garden of an English house in 1996. It was then bought by the Bank of Ireland, appropriately since John La Touche’s father David had been that institution’s first governor, and presented to the National Gallery of Ireland.
The Irish Aesthete wishes a happy Valentine’s Day to all readers.

Sheer Delight

 

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A section of the cut-sandstone entrance centrepiece at Kilshannig, County Cork. Set against a facade of red brick, this comprises Doric pilasters with moulded capitals and plinths, these supporting an entablature with alternating bucrania and fruit and flowers metopes set between triglyphs. Kilshannig was built c.1765 for Abraham Devonsher, a local banker and Member of Parliament to the design of Davis Duckart. Its interior features some of the Lafranchini brothers’ finest stuccowork.
More on Kilshannig in the coming weeks.

An Appalling Vista

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For hundreds of years the Prestons were one of the most significant land-owning families in County Meath, their name deriving from the town of Preston in Lancashire whence they moved to Ireland in the early 14th century. Originally merchants, one of their number, Roger de Preston studied law, was appointed Justice in the Court of Common Pleas in 1327 and four years later became a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench. His son Robert likewise was a successful lawyer, becoming Irish King’s Serjeant around 1348 and Attorney General for Ireland in 1355. A few years afterwards rebellion against the crown erupted in Leinster, led by the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose O’Byrne forebears in alliance with the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs: in the ensuing war Robert de Preston served as lieutenant to Edward III’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and was duly knighted for his efforts. Subsequently created Baron Gormanston, the title taken from lands he bought in Meath, he ended his career as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer. His great-grandson Sir Robert Preston further improved the family’s circumstances, being appointed Deputy both to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and to the Lord Lieutenant Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. In 1478 he was created Viscount Gormanston: his descendant the 17th Viscount is bearer of the oldest vicomital title in Ireland and Britain. Inevitably the Gormanstons were involved in the political and religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Remaining true to their Roman Catholic faith and to Kings Charles I and James II (the seventh Viscount fought on the latter’s side at the Battle of the Boyne and then defended Limerick), they saw their lands forfeited by both the Commonwealth government and that of William III. Yet the ninth Viscount managed to regain possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under the terms of the 1691 Treaty of Limerick, even if his right to a title was not recognised (that feat was only achieved by the twelth Viscount in 1800). As a result, the family returned to live in Meath where the main residence was Gormanston Castle. By the second quarter of the 18th century their position was sufficiently secure and their income sufficiently great for the tenth Lord Gormanston to build himself a hunting lodge in another part of the county at Whitewood.

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Among the collection of Gormanston papers now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland is a folio of architectural drawings including one showing plans for Whitewood in c.1735. This features not just the house and ancillary structures but also elements of the surrounding landscape as either intended or executed. The drawing is signed ‘By J. Sheridan’ but the identity of this person remains unknown. He may simply have been a draughtsman since the design of Whitewood has for long been attributed to Richard Castle, based on similarities with other houses from his practice, and to certain stylistic traits it shares with the likes of Gormanston Castle and Hazelwood, County Sligo. Whitewood, of course, is much smaller than either of these properties, as would befit its status as a secondary residence.
Constructed from cut limestone, the building has an east-facing three-bay facade of two storeys over raised basement. A shallow parapet partially conceals the hipped roof and two central chimneys. The north and south fronts are likewise of three bays while that to the west, which has a superlative view down to Whitewood Lake, is of five bays. The dominant feature of the exterior is a stone staircase which extends far out to the front, initial flights to north and south meeting to create what is almost like a viewing platform before they ascend over an arch and thereby reach the relatively modest door with plain fanlight. Inside the decoration is likewise devoid of superfluities. The main floor layout is symmetrical, with rooms to left and right of the narrow entrance passage, the stair hall behind likewise having spaces on either side. There are simple cornices, Kilkenny marble chimney pieces, fielded panels to the woodwork, flagged floors and well-worn limestone steps leading up and down. There is no pretension to grandeur here; this is a functional building.

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The significance of Whitewood lies not just in its being a rare survival of an Irish 18th century hunting lodge, but even more in its unique setting. The house lies at the centre of a meticulously selected and improved landscape not found anywhere else. Whitewood is set on top of a rise with spectacular views particularly to east and west: as has already been mentioned, the latter offers a prospect down to the lake. The view to the east is of equal consequence, dominated by a long, straight avenue leading to the entrance gates, beyond which the ground once more gently rises to woodland closing the horizon. On an axis with the house, the avenue appears on early maps of the area, suggesting it was most likely part of the original design of the property. This would be in keeping with taste of the time, such long straight approaches being in fashion for parkland design from the second half of the 17th century onwards. Usually of course they led to a substantial palace whereas the house at Whitewood is of modest proportions. Nevertheless a lot of effort was expended on its avenue which is a man-made construction, a raised earthwork some sixty-two feet wide with ditches supported by low stone walls on either side. One wonders if perhaps it was a relief work undertaken to give local employment during the great freeze and famine of 1740-41: this would explain why such a very substantial project was undertaken at Whitewood. A section of grass flanking the central drive is in turn closed by matching lines of Beech and other trees. Visitors arriving at the gates are thus introduced to an Arcadian park uninterrupted until it terminates in the remote distance with the house on raised ground. The impression is given at the gates that the avenue continues directly to the front door. In fact, while continuing much of the way, it then swings to the north, so that an open lawn protected by ha-ha immediately in front of the building offers its occupants an unspoilt outlook. Meanwhile the diverted route passes by a lodge and sundry buildings which would have been used in the management of this pocket estate.

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Whitewood remained part of the Gormanston estate until the last century, many of its residents being employees. Such was the case with the present owner’s family: his forebears were already living in the house when the Land Commission offered it for sale: with customary crassness, the same state organisation also proposed demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a bungalow. Thankfully the family which had, and continues to have, a deep attachment to the house, turned down this proposal. Thereafter they maintained Whitewood at the centre of what today continues to be a working farm. In a report on the property compiled in 2010, garden consultant Finola Reid observed that Whitewood is a rare surviving example of a small country house framed within its original demesne: ‘The creation of its designed landscape enabled the house to be experienced within an appropriate context and setting. The exceptional quality of taste and execution in the various built structures associated with the house, complemented by the carefully considered arrangement of tree plantings, plantations, and the long straight avenue directly connects the designed and natural landscape with the Palladian house at the core. There are few other surviving Irish 18th century landscapes contemporary with Whitewood and those that do survive are themselves highly significant and recognized as worthy of preservation.’
The present owner is well aware of his responsibilities as the present generation’s custodian of this significant part of Ireland’s architectural and landscape heritage. As well as undertaking a programme of conservation work on the main building, he has engaged in replanting the historic woodland and at present is restoring the original lodge. And yet the integrity of Whitewood and its setting is now threatened by a proposal to erect a series of wind turbines in the immediate vicinity. The scheme, submitted by a private company called Cregg Wind Farm Ltd, would see the installation of half a dozen such structures each up to 150 metres high. These would be located on land beyond, but directly in front of, Whitewood, towering over the entire region and thereby destroying a prospect unspoiled for centuries. Standing on the steps of the building, one would no longer see an idyllic natural landscape but six vast edifices.
Thankfully this grotesque proposal was refused by the Meath County Council last December. However the company has now appealed to the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, and submissions in relation to the appeal will be accepted until later this week. Finola Reid rightly described Whitewood as ‘a rare survivor and worthy of the highest level of protection.’ That protection must extend to the wider environment in which the house is located. The context in which the house and other elements exist needs to be fully understood and cherished. This site was not chosen at random: it was singled out and developed because of the outstanding character of the broader landscape in the area. Should that landscape be violated as Cregg Wind Farm Ltd proposes, then the fundamental character of Whitewood would be forever destroyed. And that would be an appalling vista.

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Line drawing by Liam Mulligan and watercolour by Jeremy Williams.

 

Regal Sanctity

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A stained glass window in the family chapel at Glenville Park, County Cork. Designed by Stanley Tomlin, the window was commissioned by Colonel Philip Bence-Jones, a convert to Roman Catholicism, after he had bought the estate in 1949: he created the chapel by knocking together three small rooms. This portion of the window features six saints, none of them of humble origin. From left in the upper row can be seen St Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, St Margaret Queen of Scotland and St Edward the Confessor, King of England. Below them, again from left, are St Ferdinand, King of Castile, León and Galicia, St Louis King of France and St Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel.
For more on Glenville Park and the Bence-Jones family, see A Life’s Work in Ireland, November 10th 2014.

 

On the Plain of Oaks

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Yesterday was the Feast of St Brigid, one of Ireland’s three patrons, the others being St Patrick and St Columba. It is the last of these that concerns us today since he was the founder of several important monastic settlements in the country, not least that at Durrow, County Offaly. Columba is said to have been born in 521, a descendant of the fifth century Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. His original name was Crimthann, meaning Fox which might be a reference to red hair or to a wily character. In any case, later he was known as Columcille, which means Dove of the Church, or just Columba. He came from the province of Ulster and it was there having completed his training that he established the first of over twenty-five monasteries, on a site that was given the name Doir Colum Cille, the Oak Tree of Columcille: from this derives Derry because the city occupies the same spot. Raphoe in County Donegal followed, as did Kells, County Meath and Swords, County Dublin. But he was a quarrelsome man who engaged in more than one pitched battle and as a result he went in exile to Scotland where he worked to convert the Picts and established a great monastery on the island of Iona, where he died in 597. His hagiography, the Vita Columbae, was written a century later by Adomnán,  ninth Abbot of Iona. It helped to perpetuate his memory in Ireland and ensure that religious houses continued to flourish, not least that at Durrow.

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Durrow Abbey was founded on a site given to Columba by a local chief. Its name comes from Dearmach, Plain of Oaks, as already mentioned a tree also associated with Derry but this should be no surprise as ancient Ireland was densely covered in oak forest. Some of these still survive at Durrow. The monastery flourished for many years after its originator’s departure: in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People completed around the year 731, the Venerable Bede called it a ‘monasterium nobile.’ Although it received patronage of successive kings, at least one of whom was buried on the site, the monastery also engaged in arguments with other such establishments, not least nearby Clonmacnoise; a battle between the two in 764 left two hundred monks from Durrow dead. Worse was to follow. Durrow’s fame and wealth left it vulnerable to attack and between the ninth and twelfth centuries the monastery was burnt and plundered on more than a dozen occasions. In 1095, for example, its famous library was burnt. By this time the original buildings, which would have been made from some of the oak on the site, had been replaced by stone structures: the earliest reference to a church in this material comes in 1019 when it was recorded ‘the stone-church of Dermagh was broken open by Muirchertach, grandson of Carrach.’ Greater changes came in the middle of the twelfth century when ecclesiastical reform led by St Malachy of Armagh saw the establishment of Augustinian houses of regular canons and nuns at Durrow. Then in 1175 the whole area was laid waste by the Anglo-Normans whose head Hugh de Lacy had a large earthen motte erected on the site. This was unwise since it caused indignation among some of the local population: in 1186 while surveying the newly-completed motte, de Lacy was attacked and killed with an axe by a youth of Meath. Thereafter the violence that had marked Durrow for so long came to an end and the Canons enjoyed their quiet reflection until the closure of all monasteries in the 16th century.

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Durrow Abbey is renowned for having long housed two remarkable objects. The first of these is a book of gospels produced at some point between the years 650 and 700, making it a century older than the more famous Book of Kells. Whether the Book of Durrow was created in the monastery’s own scriptorium or in another, perhaps in Northumbria or Columba’s foundation on Iona, has never been resolved. However, it was certainly in Durrow since the time of Flann Sinna, King of Ireland (877-916) since he made a cumdach or metalwork reliquary adorned with a silver cross to hold the work: this container was lost in the 17th century but a note about it written in 1677 is bound into the book. Comprising 248 vellum folios, the Book of Durrow is one of the earliest known manuscripts to devote entire pages solely to ornamentation. These ‘carpet pages’ are filled with elaborate interlaced patterns, filled with spirals and other curvilinear decoration ever since synonymous with Celtic design. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the first half of the 16th century the book passed into private ownership: at one time part of it was immersed into a well by a farmer to provide holy water for his cattle. Eventually it was presented to the library of Trinity College, along with the Book of Kells, by the 17th century Bishop of Meath Henry Jones. The other object associated with Durrow remains on site, albeit recently moved to a new location. Measuring some eleven and a half feet high, the ninth century cross formerly stood at the western end of the graveyard. Its head, arms and shaft are carved from a single block of sandstone and an inscription on the north face may commemorate Maelsechnaill, the Uí Néill high-king of Ireland, who succeeded to the kingship of Tara around the year 846: he was father of Flann Sinna who later made the cover for the Book of Durrow. Despite weathering caused by centuries of exposure to the elements and a resultant loss of detail, it is still possible to make out many of the cross’s carved forms. The west features scenes of Christ’s Passion on the shaft, and the Crucifixion above it. On the east side the head carries a version of the Last Judgment above Christ flanked by apostles and the Sacrifice of Isaac from the Book of Genesis. Further scenes from Old and New Testaments can be found on the narrower north and south sides.

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Following the monastery’s dissolution in the 1540s the land on which it stood was first leased and then bought from the Crown by Nicholas Herbert whose descendants later purchased it outright to create an estate.   In the late 17th century the old church was recorded as being in reasonable condition with shingled roof, two glazed windows, a clay floor, a reading desk, a pulpit and an unrailed communion table. However, following the death of Sir George Herbert in 1712 Durrow was inherited by his sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox. A report of the diocese made in 1733 noted that the church at Durrow had been in poor repair, ‘but ye said Mrs Fox pulled it down and rebuilt it at her own expense.’ This is a charmingly simple building, almost like a Quaker meeting house, its only distinctive feature being the limestone square-headed door with keystone and scroll brackets supporting a cornice surmounted by three urns. The church now stood within the landscaped demesne known as Durrow Park, close to a classical seven-bay residence which in the early 19th century was bought by the Toler family, one of whom, the second Earl of Norbury was killed by an unknown assailant on the estate in 1839. The church had repaired in 1802, with a gift of £450, and a loan of £50, from the Board of First Fruits and was used for services until the 1880s when it was supplanted by a new Church of Ireland church in the local village: its graveyard was closed in 1913. The Durrow estate passed through various hands in the second half of the last century and at the start of the present one an application was lodged to turn it into an hotel with the dreadful ancillary elements that would have necessitated. To prevent this happening, in 2003 the state acquired church, graveyard and surrounding acreage and undertook a programme of  restoration which included moving the High Cross inside the building. Located at the end of a long, well-wooded drive it seems to welcome relatively few visitors and thereby retains the meditative atmosphere which must first have drawn St Columba.

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