In Praise of Narcissism

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Although undoubtedly a great humanitarian, Jonathan Swift was also capable of outbursts of spite. As evidence of which one cites his short essay Character of Primate Marsh, believed to have been written around 1710 (although only published thirty-five years later). In this piece of invective against the then-Archbishop of Armagh, Swift wrote ‘Marsh has the reputation of the most profound and universal learning; this is the general opinion, neither can it be easily disproved. An old rusty iron-chest in a banker’s shop, strongly lockt, and wonderful heavy, is full of gold; this is the general opinion, neither can it be disproved, provided the key be lost, and what is in it be wedged so close that it will not by any motion discover the metal by the clinking…No man will either be glad or sorry at his death, except his successor.’ Certainly following Marsh’s elevation to the primacy his successor in the archdiocese of Dublin William King was equally unkind, describing him as being ‘very dextrous at doing nothing.’ Of course unlike Swift and King, and despite being a Lord Justice of Ireland on six occasions, Marsh does not appear to have been particularly interested in politics and this could explain the two men’s dismissive remarks. Because despite what they might have thought and did write, Archbishop Marsh was far from being an ineffectual cleric and left a lasting and generous legacy through the establishment of the first public library in Ireland.

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Narcissus Marsh was born in Wiltshire in 1638 ‘of honest parents,’ as he wrote in his diary. His name, while unusual, was not so distinctive as that given to either of his two brothers who were christened Epaphroditus and Onesiphorus: all three derive from persons mentioned in St Paul’s Epistles. While an undergraduate at Oxford Marsh decided to take orders and soon after was offered a living in Swindon, only subsequently discovering that he was expected to marry a friend of the people responsible for his preferment. This he refused, having determined never to marry since he believed he could only serve the church while a bachelor.
Returning to Oxford he continued his studies until appointed Principal of St Alban Hall in Oxford by the first Duke of Ormond who was Chancellor of the University; it was presumably through this connection that in 1679 he came to Ireland to take up the Provostship of Trinity College in Dublin. One of his greatest achievements during this time was arranging for an Irish translation of the Old Testament (the New Testament having already been translated earlier in the century). He also employed, at his own expense, a former Catholic priest, Paul Higgins, to teach Irish to the students at Trinity College and to preach an Irish sermon once a month; seemingly both sermons and lectures were extremely popular.
Marsh was appointed Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in 1683 but following the accession of James II found himself much harassed and eventually retreated to England, only returning to this country after the Battle of the Boyne. In 1690 he was made Archbishop of Cashel and four years later moved to Dublin. Finally in 1703 he became Archbishop of Armagh and remained there until his death ten years later.

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It was while Provost of Trinity College that Marsh conceived the notion of establishing a new public library in Dublin. He had already undertaken work to improve the college’s own facilities, revising the library regulations, and insisting that when a keeper was appointed all the books in his care must be accounted for, either replacing or paying for any that had been lost. But Marsh also noticed how hard it was for potential scholars to use the college library, remarking that what rendered it inaccessible to the greater part of the population was that according to the institution’s statutes ‘no man, besides the Provost and Fellows is permitted to study there, unless carry’d up thither by one of them, who is bound to be present all the time the other stays in the library: and ‘twas this, and this consideration alone that at first mov’d me to think of building a library in some other place (than in the college) for public use, where all might have free access, seeing they cannot have it in the College; nor are our booksellers’ shops furnished anything tolerably with other books than new trifles and pamphlets, and not well with them also.’
Hence following his appointment to Dublin Marsh embarked on the creating a library which, while a place of scholarship, would also be open to everyone. To ensure its legal status, he wished the new foundation to be incorporated through an Act of Parliament. However, the bill he drew up for this purpose met with severe opposition from some of his fellow clerics, including Jonathan Swift. Because the new library was within the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Marsh proposed that its keeper also be the cathedral’s Precentor (that is, the clergyman in charge of organising liturgy and worship). Those against this move were concerned that property belonging to the Church of Ireland might be lost to the library, the board of which could come to exercise authority over the Precentor. A second point of complaint arose from Marsh’s intention to appoint as keeper a Huguenot refugee, Elias Bouhéreau (of whom more below) based on the latter’s commitment to donate his own collection of books to the library, a requirement allowing the opposition to claim the Archbishop had engaged in simony through what was effectively the sale of an ecclesiastical office. These matters may seem of small importance to us today, but they caused a great deal of trouble at the time and delayed the official establishment of the library. Ultimately Marsh was forced to abandon the link between Keeper and Precentor (although Elias Bouhéreau did take up his duties) and in 1707, by which time he had transferred to Armagh, he was able to see passed an act ‘for settling and preserving a Publick Library for ever.’

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One of the few 18th century buildings in Ireland still used for its original purpose, Marsh’s Library holds a collection of over 25,000 books and 300 manuscripts. There are eighty books printed before 1501, 430 books printed in Italy before 1600, 1,200 books printed in England before 1640 and 5,000 books printed in England before 1700. At the heart of all this material is the library assembled by Edward Stillingfleet, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London and from 1689 Bishop of Worcester. Following his death in 1699, there was much public interest in what would happen to Stillingfeet’s books, deemed to constitute the best private library in the British Isles. Efforts were made to keep it in England but in 1705 the entire printed collection of almost 10,000 books was purchased by Marsh for just over £2,000 and brought to Dublin where it has remained ever since. It contains works on diverse subjects including theology, history, the classics, law, medicine and travel, whereas Marsh’s own collection reflects his interest in oriental studies including Arabic and Hebrew books as well as his engagement with the Irish language: in 1695 he had bought a number of manuscripts belonging to the distinguished jurist and orientalist, Dudley Loftus (of whom Marsh wrote that he ‘never knew so much Learning in the Keeping of a Fool,’ although this did not stop him acquiring Loftus’ collection).
Then there are the books that originally belonged to the institution’s first librarian, Dr Elias Bouhéreau, a Huguenot doctor from La Rochelle who had left France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Bouhéreau’s collection contains many works relating to his native country and to the various religious controversies of the 17th century as well as medical texts. Finally a fourth major collection was bequeathed to Marsh’s library in 1745 by John Stearne, former Bishop of Clogher (who left his manuscripts to Trinity College, Dublin where he had earlier provided £1,000 to build a printing house). As former Keeper Muriel McCarthy has noted, ‘It is easy to forget that in the early eighteenth century Marsh’s would have been regarded as a modern library with the latest books and a modern classification system. To study and examine the books in Marsh’s is to explore a world which has been one of the hallmarks of Europe’s great cultural heritage.’

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Not only have the contents of Marsh’s library scarcely altered since originally assembled by its founder, but so too has its appearance remained much the same. Built at a cost of £5,000 the core of the building was designed 1701-3 by Sir William Robinson who for the previous three decades had acted as Surveyor General of Ireland and whose other extant works include the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. In 1710 Thomas Burgh, who had succeeded Robinson as Surveyor General, extended the library by adding another wing and also designed its entrance porch. Thereafter little happened structurally until the mid-19th century when, as part of the restoration work to St Patrick’s Cathedral underwritten by Benjamin Lee Guinness, a new entrance front and stair hall was built, as well as a Gothic gateway. At the same time the easterly churchyard elevation was clad in limestone, but the 18th century brick courtyard on the other side of the library survives, as do the original interiors.
The library proper is primarily composed of two first-floor galleries, the earlier (designed by Robinson) running sixty feet south-north, while that added by Burgh at right-angles to the north corner is linked by a librarian’s room and runs seventy-six feet west-east. At the latter end is a short further extension which originally provided direct access to the former Archbishop of Dublin’s Palace of St Sepulchre. This stretch is distinguished by having three enclosed alcoves known as ‘cages’, their carved timber tympana decorated with gothick tracery and finials: these spaces were intended to ensure the safety of the smaller, more valuable books since users could be locked inside. The main galleries are indebted for their appearance to Oxford’s 17th century Bodleian Library, with which Marsh was familiar from his time at that university, and which he cited in correspondence when discussing his own intentions; he wrote to a friend and fellow cleric Dr Thomas Smith that the Dublin building’s upper part ‘is contrived like the cross part of the Bodleyan Library.’ On either side of both galleries and at right angles to the windows are a succession of dark oak bookcases, the stack end of each treated as a pedimented pier with painted and gilded cartouches bearing classmarks while the top is surmounted by carved cartouches with mitre and stole finials. The uniformity of this design, and the fact that it has not been subject to alteration, helps to give the galleries their special character and to link today’s users to their 18th century precursors.
Marsh’s Library remains dedicated to its original purpose but in addition welcomes visitors and hosts temporary exhibitions (the next of which, Imagining Japan, 1570-1750, opens to the public on April 16th). It is one of our best and least changed bonds with the dynamism of Georgian Dublin, an era more often honoured in the breach than in observance of due respect for its achievements. But by remaining true to the founder’s original wishes Marsh’s Library both honours the past and bears witness to the erroneousness of Swift’s unkind remarks.

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With thanks to the staff, Governors and Guardians of Marsh’s Library. For more information, see: http://www.marshlibrary.ie

A Pale Reflection

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120 St Stephen’s Green is one of a pair of houses on the west side of the square designed by Richard Castle to look from the exterior like a single unit. Following Castle’s death in 1751, the development was sold by his executors to Richard Thwaites who by 1764 had completed and leased the houses. No. 120 is the finer, and more intact of the two and contains some delicious rococo plasterwork such as that seen here reflected in a mirror over the first-floor saloon chimneypiece.
More about 120 St Stephen’s Green in the coming weeks.

A Painterly Effect

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Two years ago the Irish public voted Sir Frederic William Burton’s 1864 watercolour The Meeting on the Turret Stairs the nation’s favourite painting. Burton, who eventually became director of the National Gallery in London, was born in this house, Clifden, County Clare in 1816. The Burtons were landowners in this part of the country: Sir Frederic’s grandfather was High Sheriff of Clare in 1780. The family seem originally to have lived in a house called Riverstown which Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) reported as being ‘now converted into a chief constabulary police station.’ It was presumably succeeded by Clifden, believed to date from c.1800 and a house of seven bays and two storeys over basement. The rendered façade is distinguished by the charming blind niche directly over the main entrance with its handsome cut limestone doorcase. The property has been recently and very sensitively restored.

Let the Door be Instantly Open, For There is Much Wealth Within…

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Some attention has already been paid here to the eccentricities of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, specifically the house he constructed at Downhill, County Derry (see It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013). Today the focus is on his other great building project in Ireland, one which attracted more attention at the time but is now largely forgotten, at Ballyscullion in the same county where work began around 1787/88 (that is, more than a decade after Downhill). As with the first house the architect credited for being responsible was Cork-born Michael Shanahan. He appears to have come to Hervey’s attention when, prior to his transference to Derry, he was serving as Bishop of Cloyne. Although Shanahan seemingly had trained as a stonecutter, he possessed a facility for drawing (he would teach this to the bishop’s son) and an interest in architecture. Hence he was taken up by Hervey and indeed taken to Italy in 1770-72 where time was spent in the Veneto, and specifically in Vicenza in May 1771. This is important because a key influence on Ballyscullion’s distinctive design is Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda (in turn derived from the Pantheon in Rome): one must assume it was seen by Hervey and Shanahan while they were in the area. A second influence, and one closer to home, is Belle Isle on Lake Windermere, Cumbria which was designed in 1774 by another self-taught architect, John Plaw. This is a circular building capped by a segmental dome and fronted by a full-height pedimented portico, all features shared with Ballyscullion. Since Plaw was based in London (and designed Belle Isle for a wealthy city merchant Thomas English) it is probable that Hervey and Shanahan would have seen his plans for the house even if they did not visit it.
Ballyscullion was never fully completed, and in its unfinished state was only intermittently occupied before being demolished a decade after the bishop’s death in 1803. Therefore imagination is required to grasp how it must have looked (aided by familiarity with Ickworth, Suffolk, the last of the bishop’s building schemes begun in 1795 and following a similar ground plan to that of Ballyscullion). However, the house was so curious in form and scale that many visitors were drawn there during its brief period of existence, and some of them left a record of what they found. A few of these now follow.

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In August 1799 the Rev William Bisset, then Rector of Loughgall, Co Armagh (and later Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal) travelled along the Ulster coast with his brother George. He kept a journal of the trip from which the following is taken:
‘Aug. 13_ at 7 O’Clock in the morning We left a very indifferent Inn, and sending our Baggage by the direct road to Coleraine, turned out of our way to gratify a curiosity which the name and character of Lord Bristol excited, to see his House at Ballyscullion. I was not disappointed for I expected something singular, and assuredly I found it_ the Singularity however did not please me_ his Lordship has put himself to great expence to produce a
very bad Effect_ at a distance One cannot imagine what extraordinary thing it is that stands so staringly in the Landscape_ a large black Dome raised high in the Air, without anything that seems proportioned or connected with it; no Trees, or dressed ground of any sort_ A gigantic Mass presents itself upon the naked Plain, and though I was so far prepared as to be actually going to see a large house, and one too that I expected would be in some respect or other singular, yet it did not occur to me that the Object I had in view long before I reached the Village of Ballaghy about a mile distant from it, could be the Mansion we were looking for_ such however it was; and upon a nearer approach we perceived it to be a large round house with a small Corinthian Portico, and surrounded by fluted Pilasters of the same Order_ Above these is a Frieze and Cornice, and upon the whole a high Attic Story with another Cornice bearing a ponderous Roof; every part of which is not only visible, contrary to the general Taste in Architecture, but is so strikingly conspicuous that I found it difficult to turn my Attention to anything else…
…I must observe however that the Plan of this House is not completed_ it is intended to connect it by a Colonnade with other buildings, and probably it will be less disagreeable to the Sight, when relieved in that manner_ The Hall appeared to me to be small, but I did not measure it, and as it is at present filled with Casts of the Laocoon, Centaurs, &c the dimensions may be more considerable than they now appear_ I could not mistake in observing that the Staircase is dark, and from the Figure of the house which is nearly circular, the fantastic Shape of the Rooms, at least of many of them may be supposed, and could not well be avoided_ The Eating room is a handsome one, and the Drawing room corresponding throughout, and the Pictures though not of the first Masters are such as one should like to have_ I am told there are no Originals, but the Person who shewed the house not having a Catalogue I could not make a memorandum of particulars_ Many of them were very pleasing to me_there is a beautiful Portrait of the present unfortunate Pope, a Death of Wolfe, the Departure of Regulus, and indeed a great number if not of the best and highest Character, certainly of sufficient merit to captivate an unskilful Person_ The Whole Taste of the Furniture is vicious; one should imagine it had been chosen by the Neapolitan Lady whose Portrait you are shewn, and who is said to have been a Favourite of his Lordship. Nothing can be more gawdy and effeminate, nothing less suitable to a Bishop, or agreeable to a manly taste_ the Library is almost without Books, a fault which cannot be remedied, as there are no places made to receive them_upon the whole I must confess, I am led to form as low an Opinion of the noble Owners proficiency in matters He seems to have devoted himself to, as his public conduct obliges me to form of his Character in those higher points to which his Rank and Profession have in vain demanded his Attention…’

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Ballyscullion capital

Not long afterwards a more sympathetically-inclined Anglican clergyman visited Ballyscullion. This is taken from the Rev. George Vaughan Sampson’s Statistical Survey of The County of Londonderry published in 1802:
‘The house of Ballyscullion is so uncommon as to plan, that even the following imperfect sketch may be desirable to lovers of architecture.
The ground plan is an oval, whose greatest diameter is 94 feet, the shorter is 84 feet; around the building are disposed 20 fluted Corinthian pilasters of two feet nine inches in diameter; the intermediate spaces are faced with stone, quarried in the neighbouring mountains, in colour resembling the Portland stone. On the frieze are the following lines in gold letters, which encircle the house.
”Hic viridi in campo, templum de marmore ponam,
Propter aquam, tardis ingens ubi flexibus errat
Bannius, et tenui praetexit arundine ripas.”
Of these lines, the literal translation is: “Here is a verdant plain; I will place a temple of marble beside the waters, where the vast Bann strays in sluggish windings, and clothes his banks with tender reed.”
…The northern face presents a stately portico, supported by six pillars, similar to the pilasters as to order and dimension. On the frieze of the portico the following Greek verses are inscribed in large gold letters…”Immediately open ye doors, for much wealth is within, and, with that wealth, fresh-springing benevolence.”
Over a neat entablature is raised an attic storey, 12 feet in height; the building is crowned by a dome, in which is an elegant sky-light. The hall is in measurement 24 by 22½ feet, ornamented by admirable statues of the Apollo Belvedere, and the Vatican Mercury; the busts of Cicero, Demosthenes, Seneca and Pericles, of fine statuary marble, are placed in niches. The great stair-case is constructed geometrically, in the centre of the house; it is of cut stone, carrying with it a back stair-case, occasionally communicating; these form a kind of double spiral and both are lighted from above. A number of busts and statues are placed in niches, along the stairs and lobbies.
The drawing and dining-rooms are on the first floor; each of these is a segment of an ellipse, 36 feet long, 24 feet wide and 18 feet high: both rooms are ornamented with fine paintings. The library is 70 by 22½ feet. The upper rooms are sleeping chambers, each being the section of an ellipse.
From a small room on either side of the hall, a coridore (sic) is extended, which coridores are intended to conduct towards two large galleries, one for the paintings of the Italian, the other for those of the Flemish school: these galleries are to be 82 feet by 25.
Two large squares of offices, each 110 feet, are to be ranged in front of the galleries. All these are to be faced with cut stone, from the quarries near Dungiven. When completed, the line of building in front will extend nearly 350 feet.’

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In October 1807, four years after Hervey’s death, the restless Rector of Navan, County Meath, the Rev. Daniel Beaufort made a tour of the north of the country (one wonders, did none of the period’s Anglican clergymen ever think to stay put in their parishes?). He was accompanied by his wife Mary and their youngest daughter Louisa. The latter was the first woman to be made an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and here is her account of the family’s visit to Ballyscullion:
’2 miles brought us to Balaghy a tolerable village, church repairing, it has good spire, some very nice houses with flower gardens & shrubs before them. In the middle of the town was a very high pole, on the top of which was a board painted blue & orange, one person said it was a weather cock, another a free masons sign.
Here we turned off to Ballyscullen, whose ruin’d magnificence shew at once the taste & Madness of Ld. Bristol – it is circular in the Corinthian stile, built of well color’d free stone – brought from Ballinascreen, the pediment of the Portico white Marble veined with pale grey on which Ld Bs & the See Arms were carved in Italy, the Collumnes seem too slender for their height – the staircase is very light & handsome, all the work seems to have been uncomly well executed, as much of the handsome stucco, still remains tho’ all the windows have been taken out & sold, as were the floors, doors & every thing that could be got at, it is expected that Ld O’Neal will buy the staircase – the rooms were numerous shapes very pretty & well contrived – the lead from the roof has been sold, so that in a few years the weather will compleat what Avarice has so well begun.
The house was built on a gentle eminence which forms a small peninsula in Lough Beg, the view from it extensive & rendered pleasing by Church Island & It might have been made a very fine place, by plantings, the small groves that are there seem to grow extremely well.’

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As has been mentioned before, the Earl-Bishop spent his last years in Italy where he died in July 1803; taken ill on the way to Albano he could only find sanctuary in the outhouse of a peasant who refused to admit a heretic into his cottage. An equally degrading fate awaited his great house at Ballyscullion. Along with the rest of his Irish property, this was left to yet another Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Henry Hervey Bruce whose great-grandfather had been the first Earl of Bristol. In 1786 his rich kinsman settled on him a yearly income of £400 and the incumbency of Tamlaghtfinlagan, County Derry. In addition Hervey Bruce became the Bishop’s steward at Downhill, assuming responsibility for both managed the estate and the diocese during the older man’s increasingly long absences from Ireland.
On coming into his inheritance, Hervey Bruce (who was created a baronet in 1804) removed the greater part of Ballyscullion’s contents to Downhill where he preferred to live. Ballyscullion was left to moulder: Louisa Beaufort’s observations reveal that even by 1807 it had begun to fall into decay. What could be sold out of the building was offered to buyers: the great staircase caught the attention of Lord O’Neill and went to Shane’s Castle where regrettably it too was lost in the great conflagration there in 1816 (see Fascination Frantic in a Ruin that’s Romantic, February 17th last).
But not everything perished. For example, Ballyscullion’s portico with its four towering Corinthian columns was bought by Dr. Nathaniel Alexander, then-Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Connor and presented by him to the rebuilt St. George’s Church in High Street, Belfast; supposedly the stones were first brought by horse and cart to Lough Neagh and from there travelled by the first cargo barge to make the journey to Belfast on the new Lagan Canal. Photographs of the facade of St George’s, incorporating the Ballyscullion portico, can be seen above.
For his own residence in Portglenone, Dr Alexander bought other items from Ballyscullion including chimneypieces and a pair of scagliola columns with corresponding pilasters (curiously this house has since become a Roman Catholic Cistercian monastery). Other pieces of Ballyscullion were acquired by diverse house owners and remain in some of these properties to the present time (see various pictures above). But within ten years Hervey’s great building was largely gone and today almost nothing remains other than the outline of the main block’s foundations and the partial walls of one of the galleries, all of it surrounded by thick woodland.
There is still a house on the Ballyscullion estate: in 1840 Sir Charles Lanyon designed a handsome new residence – see below – for Admiral Sir Henry Bruce (a younger son of the Rev. Sir Henry Hervey Bruce) who at the age of 13 had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and went on to command the British fleet in the Pacific. Ballyscullion Park remained in the possession of the Bruce family into the last century before being sold in 1938 to the Hon. Sir Harry Mulholland, first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont. Sir Harry’s grandson Richard and his wife Rosalind live in the house today and maintain the property with every respect and appreciation for its distinguished and colourful history. The Bishop’s Ballyscullion may have gone but its memory is duly cherished.

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For more information on Ballyscullion Park, see: http://www.ballyscullionpark.com

Head to Head

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When Thomas Conolly married Lady Louisa Lennox in 1758, Castletown, County Kildare which had been built by his great-uncle William from c.1722 onwards still lacked a main staircase. The young couple undertook to address this want and within a year of their wedding seem to have employed the Swiss-born stuccadore Filippo Lafranchini to work on the plasterwork decoration. The result, as Joseph McDonnell has written, ‘evokes, like little else in the country, the spirit and grandeur of the grotesque decoration of Imperial Roman interiors…’ Yet in the midst of the grandeur one also finds domesticity, not least in the profile portraits inserted by Franchini into the stairhall walls and believed to represent members of the Conolly and Lennox families. This is especially true when one reaches the landing and encounters a pair of heads facing each other across a now-empty stucco frame. These are depictions of Tom and Louisa who together did so much to enhance the beauty of Castletown.

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Court Out

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The main entrance to the former Court House in the county town of Antrim. A popular venue for markets and fairs since the first patent to do so was granted in 1605, inevitably there was a certain amount of disruption whenever these took place. Hence the citizens of Antrim felt the need to have a court house where miscreants could be tried and punished. In the early 18th century, the County Antrim Grand Jury granted £150 ‘towards building and carrying on a Session House in the town of Antrim in and for said county.’ Dating from 1726, the court house is of two storeys, that on the lower level originally having an open arcade where mercantile activity could take place even while justice was being administered upstair. By 1836, the ground floor had been converted into an enclosed yard
for prisoners attending trial and for confining drunkards
and rioters. The building continued to serve as a courthouse until 1994 since when it has been extensively restored by the local authority. Commendable work, although one must regret the installation of such commonplace light fittings and metal grills.

When New Becomes Old

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In early June 1765 Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported that the former M.P. Francis Bindon had ‘died suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ before going on to descrive him as having been ‘one of the best Painters and Architects this Nation has ever produced,’ as well as ‘a most Polite, wellbred gentleman and an excellent scholar which he improved by his Travels abroad.’
We know a certain amount about Bindon but some facts elude us, such as the date of his birth although this must have been around the end of the 17th century. He was the fourth of five sons and three daughters born to David Bindon, M.P. for Ennis and Dorothy Burton, whose family controlled the Ennis Parliamentary borough. Based at Clooney, County Clare, an estate they acquired in the 1660s, the Bindons were substantial landowners in that county and in neighbouring Limerick. Among Francis’ siblings, two brothers Henry and Thomas studied at Trinity College Dublin, the former becoming a barrister-at-law, the latter Dean of Limerick. The other two brothers David, who wrote on trade and commerce, and Samuel both served as M.P. for Ennis as indeed did Francis after 1761: even in the 18th century Irish politics was a family affair. However, of especial interest to us here is the fact that in 1716 Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Coote Hill aunt of the distinguished architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce.

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Bindon was a successful gentleman amateur sans pareil: family wealth and connections meant he did not have to earn a living, yet he appears to have been highly productive throughout his life. It would seem he spent some time studying abroad: he is recorded as having been in Padua with his cousin Samuel Burton of Burton Hall, Co. Dublin, in October 1716. He is also believed to have attended the Academy of Painting run by Sir Godfrey Kneller in London between 1711-16. Returning to Ireland and settling in Dublin where he spent the greater part of his time thereafter, Bindon built up a substantial practice as a portraitist, no doubt aided by his family’s political links. Sitters included the Viceroy, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset painted in 1734 and Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral painted four times by Bindon between 1735 and 1740. Many other well-connected clerics sat for him like Dean Patrick Delaney, Archbishop Hugh Boulter and Archbishop Charles Cobbe. Bindon was a member of the Dublin Society in 1733 (two years after its foundation) and that same year was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke in Dublin (the city’s Corporation of Painter-Stayners). By 1758 failing eyesight had forced him to give up painting and the following year he drew up a will, leaving most of his possessions in Dublin and an annuity of £75 for life to Francis Ryan, a house painter of Dublin, who had lived and worked with him for many years.

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In addition to working as a portraitist, Bindon was also an architect, his ties by marriage with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce being of use in gaining commissions. It appears that he collaborated on at least two projects with Richard Castle, who following Pearce’s death in 1733 had become as the country’s premier designer of country houses. The first of these was the now-ruined Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013), and the second Russborough, County Kildare where Bindon is considered to have been responsible for the interiors following Castle’s own death in 1751. A number of houses in his native County Clare are attributed to him including Carnelly, Newhall and Castlepark as well as two once fine residences in County Kilkenny: Woodstock (see Of Wonderous Beauty did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and Bessborough (see In the Borough of Bess and Back to Bessborough, November 25th and December 2nd 2013). As an architect, Bindon was certainly not of the first rank, his work being derivative and dependent on a handful of leitmotifs. As the Knight of Glin wrote in an assessment of Bindon’s output, examined collectively ‘one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naive and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.

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And there is one piece of work that is rather special, namely that shown here today: Bindon’s design for John’s Square, Limerick. Work on this began in 1751, meaning it predates by a couple of years the earliest of similar developments in Dublin, Rutland (now Parnell) Square. John’s Square was a speculative scheme undertaken by two local men, John Purdon and Edmond Sexton Pery (future speaker of the Irish House of Commons) on a site in Limerick’s Irishtown which had never recovered from an assault by Williamite troops during the siege of the city in August 1690. Members of the local aristocracy and gentry when visiting Limerick had nowhere fashionable to stay, and New Square as it was originally called, was created to address this need. Eight houses (with a further two subsequently added) were built on three sides of the square, the fourth easterly side being occupied by the church of St John which still remains, although rebuilt in the mid-19th century and no longer in use for services.

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Built at a cost of £630, John’s Square as designed by Francis Bindon consists of two L-shaped blocks of limestone-fronted houses each one identical to its neighbour and sharing certain features such as brick-lined oculi. Eight of the houses are three-bay, three-storey over basement, those at the extreme end of the north and south sides being larger and running to five bays. When the square was completed, Pery and Purdon both took a property, the other houses being let at £32 per annum. Original tenants included Vere Hunt from Curraghchase, William Monsell of Tervoe and Pery’s brother, the Rev. William Cecil Pery, later Bishop of Limerick.
In her 1991 book The Building of Limerick Judith Hill, having noted that the development of John’s Square ‘was Limerick’s first taste of fashionable urban architecture’ goes on to report that a surviving building account made by Pery for the scheme and dating from 1751 to 1757 ‘gives an insight into the materials used and the construction process at this date. Pery appears to have paid each worker separately, a role taken today by the building contractor. He not only paid those on the city site but also quarrymen, stone-cutters and turf carriers presumably operating locally but at a distance. Brick also seems to have been burnt locally for Pery paid for turf “in nine boats” and “the emptying of the boats and casting of turfs into the green brick yard”. He paid men for attending the fire, he paid for reeds for their shelter and for the loading, carriage and landing of kiln-loads of brick at Mardyke. … Brick was used in John’s Square for floors to the kitchen and the passage, the vaulting to the cellars, the internal partitions, as a dry lining to the exterior walls and as an infil for the stone oculi on the facades. There was sufficient faith in the strength and integrity of locally produced bricks to give them a significant structural role.’



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Following the demolition of the old city walls, in 1765 Edmond Sexton Pery commissioned the Italian engineer Davis Ducart to design an urban plan for land he owned to the immediate south of Limerick: this became known as Newtown Pery. Its emergence spelled trouble for John’s Square as wealthy residents preferred to move to the newer quarter: typically both Pery and his brother the bishop acquired alternative residences on Henry Street.
Meanwhile John’s Square began going into decline. For example, one Sam Dixon opened a dye works to the immediate rear of his residence at the extreme end of the south side. On the opposite side there appears to have been a brewery established (behind what is today a butcher’s shop). In the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the houses became tenements, although No. 3 on the north side remained the residence of the rector of St John’s Church until 1922 (it is distinguished from all the other houses by a wider doorway with fanlight which one assumes was inserted in the late 1700s). By the 1960s many of the properties were vacant and there was talk of demolishing the entire square. Fortunately this did not come to pass and instead extensive restoration work was carried out in 1975 to coincide with European Architectural Heritage Year. Further improvements were undertaken more recently with the local authority laying down granite paving, upgrading lighting and introducing traffic calming measures.
Even if it never returns to fashionability, the future of John’s Square is now secure, although after all the money spent improving the area’s appearance it is a disappointment so many of the houses have inappropriate uPVC windows and other ill-considered alterations. Nevertheless, considering what might have happened here, one should rejoice this very important example of 18th century urban improvement still stands. To end, a photograph of John’s Square taken probably in the 1950s when its survival looked much less certain than it does today.

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