A Spirit of Theatre

The origins of Dublin castle go back to the first decade of the 13th century, but this site – the highest spot in the immediate locality – was previously occupied by a fortress constructed around the first half of the tenth century after the Vikings settled here. More than two hundred years later the Normans arrived and took possession of Dublin, making it their centre of government in Ireland. Hence in 1204 King John commanded the erection of a large stone castle where the Viking fortification had previously stood. The result was a building of strong walls and good ditches designed to defend the city but also to serve as an administrative centre and to provide protection for the King’s treasury. The castle was largely completed by 1230 under the direction of Henry of London, then Archbishop of Dublin. It is only during the reign of King John’s son, Henry III that the first references are made to a chapel within the castle’s walls. Deeply religious (he maintained at least fifty chapels for his own and his household’s exclusive use), Henry was particularly devoted to the cult of St Edward the Confessor, to whom he was related (Edward’s mother had been a Norman princess) and whose remains he installed in a costly shrine in Westminster Abbey. Thus around 1242 when the king ordered that new windows be made for the chapel in Dublin Castle he had the building dedicated to Edward the Confessor. Situated to the immediate east of the circular Record Tower – today the most intact portion of the mediaeval castle – over the following centuries the chapel underwent the same vicissitudes as the rest of the site. Between 1358-61 its interior was extensively redecorated, with 600lbs of glass purchased for the windows, together with a new crucifix and rood and two devotional statues, one of the Virgin, the other of St Thomas the Martyr who now succeeded Edward the Confessor as the chapel’s patron. It would appear that in the 16th century further repairs and refurbishments were carried out by Sir Henry Sidney, then acting as Ireland’s Lord Deputy, and perhaps again in 1638 after a fire had damaged the upper floor of the building. Worse followed in 1684 after another fire broke out to the immediate west. In order to contain the conflagration, Lord Arran, son of the first Duke of Ormonde (then serving as Lord Deputy) ordered the chapel and a number of other adjacent structures be blown up.

It would appear that towards the end of the 17th century Sir William Robinson, then Surveyor General, rebuilt the chapel along with other portions of the castle in order to make the whole place more comfortable as a residence for the English crown’s representative in Ireland. But while such work continued over successive decades, the chapel remained a relatively modest property: a late 18th century painting shows it to have been of red brick and looking more domestic than religious in character. However, as 1800 and the Act of Union approached, the building underwent reappraisal and it was considered to be ‘little consistent with its attachment to a royal palace.’ In 1801 James Gandon was invited to submit plans for a new chapel. He produced seven designs, none of which survive so one can only speculate what this great advocate of neo-classicism might have created. After a further delay finally in 1807 Francis Johnston who two years earlier had been appointed architect to the Board of Works, embarked on the building one sees today. As Judith Hill has written, the result was intended to emphasize the role of the Church of Ireland in the governance of the country, symbolized by its location within the walls of the administration’s headquarters. It therefore had to provide public access, greater space ‘and an enhanced architectural presence within the castle precincts.’ As a result, the eventual chapel was double the size of its predecessor, with an organ and space for a choir to offer cathedral-standard services: like the viceroy, the chapel was expected to represent the royal presence in Ireland. Underlining its ancient links to the regime, access to the chapel for the castle’s residents was via the old Record Tower. This Johnston reworked in order to improve its appearance, increasing the tower’s height by the addition of another storey with tripartite windows and then topping the whole with machicolated battlements resting on tiered corbels.

Francis Johnston, who would soon move on to design the classical General Post Office on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, was equally at home working in the gothic mode, as he had already demonstrated with Charleville Castle, County Offaly (begun 1798). He adopted the same style for the new chapel in Dublin Castle, even if here it acts as decoration laid over classical symmetry. The exterior of cut limestone building is, as intended by Johnston, rather austere, north and south elevations being of six bays, their two-tiered windows flanked by stepped buttresses that finish in pinnacles. The west end is absorbed into the drum of the mediaeval Record Tower but that at the east, Judith Hill proposes, draws inspiration from the façade of Westminster Hall in London which had recently been cleared of later accretions. Buttressed towers stand guard on either side of a low door above which can be seen the window which lights the chancel within. Decorative flourishes come from the profusion of heads – 103 in total – found at the base of each pinnacle and ornamenting all doors and windows. These were carved by Edward Smyth, best-known today for his keystone heads personifying the rivers of Ireland that adorn Dublin’s Custom House. Here he was likely assisted by his son John. According to Johnston, some of the heads were intended to be historical ‘and some fanciful.’ Dean Swift, for example, can be found on the north elevation, where St Peter, clutching the keys of heaven, hovers over the main public entrance to the building. St Patrick and Brian Boru face each other on either side of the east end door, the window above featuring Faith, Hope and Charity. The same three virtues can be seen inside where John Smyth is believed to have been responsible for the greater part of the work (his father Edward died in 1812). It has been noted that Smyth the younger’s contribution is often flamboyantly baroque in character, a counterpoint to Johnston’s interpretation of Perpendicular Gothic. The stucco heads form part of a larger decorative programme in which a number of other craftsmen played a role, not least stuccodore George Stapleton who created the plasterwork tracery with which the body of the chapel is smothered.

The spirit, if not the form, of baroque found in Smyth’s figurative work pervades what was henceforth known as the Chapel Royal. The interior fizzes with frothy energy thanks not only to the elaborate plasterwork but also the oak galleries carved by Richard Stewart, their fronts divided into panels, each containing the coat of arms of a different Lord Lieutenant surrounded by virtuosic foliate ornamentation. Some of the stained glass in the east window is 15th century French and was presented by Lord Whitworth (Lord Lieutenant at the time of the chapel’s inaugural service in December 1814) while that below was specially made by Joshua Bradley. Other windows contain later glass that bathes the interior in a kaleidoscope of colour. The theatricality of the building must have been even more apparent in its original incarnation when the altar table was concealed behind a large carved pulpit (now in nearby St Werburgh’s church, see: Simply Divine, May 27th 2013). The centre section of the first-floor galleries, that on the south side intended to be occupied by the Viceroy, that on the north by the Archbishop of Dublin, projects forward in the manner of an opera box. This impression was amplified when the Lord Lieutenant’s seat was surmounted by an elaborately carved baldacchino smothered in plush red drapes. The same rich fabric was used for seat coverings such as the benches made by the Dublin firm of Mack, Williams and Gibton. The total bill for their contribution came to over £1,593. Indeed eventual expenditure on the Chapel Royal reached £42,000 which was more than four times the original estimate of £9,532: this compares with the £50,000 spent on building Johnston’s near contemporaneous GPO which is a much larger building. Some of the chapel’s high cost can be ascribed to necessary structural work owing to the nature of a sloping site below which ran the river Poddle (as well as an old quarry). But much of it was due to Johnston’s determination to create a virtuosic building. The chapel retained its original interior until the two tenures of the seventh Earl of Carlisle as Lord Lieutenant between 1855 and 1864. One suspects that Lord Carlisle, a fervent Christian (his mother, to whom he was devoted, had been a keen evangelical) found the character of the Chapel Royal too frivolous for his taste. To improve the calibre of services, he had a new Telford organ installed at the west end, while at the east the old pulpit was removed to allow a clear view of the altar table (a new and smaller Caen stone pulpit was placed to the immediate north). The baldacchino over the Lord Lieutenant’s box came out too while the entire ceiling was painted azure with gold stars. Thankfully much of this Victorian redecoration was removed when the Chapel Royal was refurbished some thirty years ago and in so far as is possible it has now reverted to its appearance when first opened.


A visit to the Chapel Royal is now included in tours of Dublin Castle and is much recommended. In addition, an exhibition on the building called ‘Pinnacles, Pomp & Piety’ – featuring many of the original contents from the Chapel, such as furniture, silverware and historic drawings – can be seen in the State Apartments until March 6th 2016. This is accompanied by a terrifically informative book, ‘The Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, An Architectural History’ (Myles Campbell and William Derham, editors), to which today’s text is indebted and which will likewise enhance other readers’ knowledge both of the Chapel Royal, and the context in which it was built and decorated.

Two Centuries Later

On a road lined with mature beech trees and coming from the south into Borrisokane, County Tipperary can be seen a line of five houses, two pairs semi-detached and one free-standing. Whereas the former are three-bay, the latter is four but all are two storey over basement, with rendered fronts and reached by a flight of limestone steps. They all also share the same wide doorcases with fan- and sidelights. Undoubtedly the handsomest domestic buildings in the town and collectively known as the Terrace, they date from 1815 and testify to the prosperity of this part of the country exactly two centuries ago: in 1837 Samuel Lewis gave the population of Borrisokane as being 2,635, whereas today it is less than half that figure.


A Baby Sister

The east-facing garden front of Corravahan, County Cavan. Dating from c.1840 the building shares many characteristics with the slightly earlier and considerably larger See House at Kilmore in the same county (see See and Believe, September 14th last). This is hardly surprising as both were designed by the same architect, William Farrell. Just as importantly whilst Corravahan was commissioned by then-local rector, the Rev. Marcus Gervais Beresford, the See House had been built on the instructions of his father, George de la Poer Beresford, Bishop of Kilmore. Ultimately Marcus Beresford would succeed to the same bishopric (by then united with the See of Ardagh) before being appointed Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1862. His immediate predecessor in this position was a cousin, Lord John George de la Poer Beresford: one might almost suspect nepotism was a feature of the 19th century Anglican church in Ireland. The present owners of Corravahan, who have spent recent years restoring the house, believe the ground floor bay window to the left is a later addition, perhaps added by a subsequent owner, the Rev. Charles Leslie or a member of his family.

Lo Arthur Leary

In Ireland the term Abbey is often applied to any mediaeval religious ruin. Thus the friary at Kilcrea, County Cork is often called an abbey, even though it was established by the Observant Franciscans. On the other hand, the site – or at least a spot close to it – was originally settled by St Cere or Cyra. An early Irish Christian, she founded a nunnery here and it is from her that the friary’s name derives: Cill Chre (Cell of Cyra) which was anglicized to Kilcrea. The Franciscan friars only arrived in 1465 at the request of Cormac Láidir Mór, Lord of Muskerry (as this part of Cork was anciently called). A branch of the great MacCarthy Mor dynasty, this family later became Viscounts Muskerry and Earls of Clancarty before being dispossessed of their lands and attainted in the late 17th century. But they were at the height of their power when Kilcrea Friary was established, as is testified by the nearby castle built around the same time: Cormac Láidir Mór was also responsible for building the castles at Blarney and Dripsey (otherwise known as Carrignamuck). However in 1494 he was killed by his brother and nephew at the latter location, and was interred in the centre of Kilcrea’s choir.

Kilcrea friary was dedicated to St Brigid of Kildare and for more than a century appears to have thrived under MacCarthy patronage even after religious houses were officially suppressed in 1541. During the Elizabethan era circumstances changed, especially following the appointment of John Perrot as President of Munster in 1570. During his tenure in office Thomas O’Herlihy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ross was imprisoned in the Tower of London and only released after almost four years on the surety of Cormac MacDiarmuid MacCarthy, then Lord of Muskerry: following O’Herlihy’s death in 1579 he too was buried at Kilcrea. Five years later the friary was sacked by English soldiers and thereafter it was subject to several assaults and changes of ownership. In Joseph Stirling Coyne and Nathaniel Willis’s The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1841), it is written that Kilcrea Friary’s ‘principal interest arises from the melancholy contemplation of the gloomy and neglected aisles, where the dust of prince and peasant lie mingled in undistinguishable contusion beneath the ruinous tombstones, which are scattered over every portion of the church and convent. Most of these stones bear the names of the old families and septs of the district: McCarthy, M’Swiney, and Barrett, are the most numerous. There are doubtless many interesting monuments to be found here; but the accumulation of mould, bones, and other relics of mortality within the precincts of the ruins, renders it impossible to discover them without considerable labour…’

One of the monuments at Kilcrea Friary so summarily dismissed by Stirling Coyne and Willis is the tomb of Art Ó Laoghaire or O’Leary, whose widow Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (an aunt of Daniel O’Connell) wrote a famous lament following her husband’s death in 1773 at the age of just twenty-six. A former captain in the Huzzars Regiment of the Austrian Imperial army O’Leary had, following his return to Ireland six years earlier, become involved in a dispute with a neighbour, Abraham Morris, High Sheriff of County Cork. Following his refusal to sell a horse to Morris for £5 (as Roman Catholics were obliged to do under the Penal Laws of the time) O’Leary was declared an outlaw and on being discovered by Morris and a group of men was shot dead at Carrignanimma: Morris would die two years later, his life shortened, it was believed, after he had in turn been shot by O’Leary’s brother. Meanwhile Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill composed her remarkable Caoineadh, a 390-line lament in which she mourned her husband’s death and called for revenge on his killers; for long remaining part of the country’s oral tradition, the words were only written down many years later. Art O’Leary was initially buried elsewhere before being interred in Kilcrea Friary where his tomb can be seen with an inscription believed to have been also composed by his widow: ‘Lo Arthur Leary, Generous, Handsome, Brave/Slain in His Bloom lies in this Humble Grave.’
After passing through diverse hands, since 1892 Kilcrea Friary has been in the care of the Office of Public Works.


Vanishing into the Clouds

Sufficiently spooky for Halloween: the spire of the former Presbyterian church in Clonakilty, County Cork. On a plot of land leased from the town’s then-owner the fourth Earl of Shannon, this dressed limestone building was completed in 1861. The tower is its most distinctive feature, the spire’s onset marked by a gargoyle at each corner. Since 1924 the site has served as Clonakilty’s post office.

Sinuosity and Swagger

Often seen, seldom noticed: the lead statues above rusticated granite gateways flanking the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard. Designed by John van Nost the Younger (d.1780) and dating from 1753, they represent Justice and Fortitude: the former, as was often noted by wags in the past, resolutely turns her back on the city. Both have all the sinuosity and swagger of the rococo era, Fortitude in particular might have stepped straight out of a Tiepolo canvas. They are especially precious as the only remaining examples of van Nost’s public art (other work, such as the equestrian statue of George II that once stood in the centre of St Stephen’s Green, having long since been blown up or removed).


On the Town X

Mountmellick, County Laois is typical of many Irish towns in possessing a more distinguished past than its present circumstances would suggest. Originally a 15th century settlement beside the Owenass river, it underwent expansion after the second half of the 17th century when a number of Quakers arrived in the area. In 1659 the founder of the Society of Friends in this country, a former soldier called William Edmundson came to live close to Mountmellick, soon followed by several other members of the same faith. As a result of their presence and their industry, the town flourished and expanded as a centre for diverse industries so that in the 18th century it came to be known as the ‘Manchester of Ireland.’ In the years prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Mountmellick’s population grew to more than 4,500 the majority of them working in tanning and textile businesses run by such Quaker families as the Goodbodys and Pims. At the start of the 19th century there were three large mills and five breweries in the town, and employment provided by these supported the local population. In the mid-1820s a lace-making cottage industry was also initiated in Mountmellick and enjoyed similar success. Needlework was already being taught to girls attending the Quaker school in the town. This had opened in the centre of Mountmellick in 1786 and provided education for both sexes, albeit with different curricula. A government report of 1858 declared the institution ‘deserved the utmost praise and was the most credible managed school of its kind in Ireland.’ Before the end of the 19th century however, boys were being sent instead to Newtown, County Waterford and in 1921 the girls school was sold to the Roman Catholic Presentation Order of nuns.

Like most of the Quaker families which first brought them into existence, the industries encouraging Mountmellick’s original growth have long since disappeared. Yet evidence of the town’s former prosperity can be found in abundance, not least in the central O’Connell Square, formerly known as Drogheda Square after the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda who owned land in the area. This is lined with large houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and testifies to Mountmellick’s commercial success. So too do many other buildings discovered on surrounding streets, such as the courthouse dating from 1839, a former town hall (now used as a parish hall) of some thirty years later and a Masonic Hall. The different religious denominations once found in the town are all recorded through their diverse properties including a Church of Ireland church which in its present form was built in 1828 to replace an earlier structure. In addition to the large Roman Catholic church, there is also a Methodist chapel, a former Presbyterian church (today a guest hostel), and naturally a large Quaker Meeting House. This however, has long since ceased to be used for its original purpose and is now a Church of Ireland Youth Hall. But the importance of the Quakers to Mountmellick’s development has not been forgotten, with a festival to their memory being held in the town last July. The local community clearly recognizes the benefits of living with such a distinguished history: preserving and celebrating its heritage surely represents one of Mountmellick’s best chances of enjoying a buoyant future. It is unlikely the industries of old will ever return and the town risks becoming a backwater while larger centres of population in the region like Portlaoise expand. Much of the old town remains – albeit in places falling into disrepair – and this ought to be promoted as a prime tourist destination for the Midland region. Compared with many other similar towns around the country Mountmellick is doing well but it has the potential to do even better.


Apologies for this somewhat truncated On the Town: the Irish Aesthete has been on the road in the USA for the past week. Normal postings resume hereafter…