The coffered and vaulted ceiling of the entrance hall at Westport House, County Mayo. Designed around 1731 for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont, it is a rare surviving example of an interior design by Richard Castle.
The former Market House in Killucan, County Westmeath. Dating from the late 1830s it was seemingly built by local stonemason Thomas Keegan. An architect called Patrick Keegan, listed as living in Dublin in the early 1820s, designed a gothick game larder for Knockdrin Castle which is not far from Killucan: might the two men have been members of the same family? In any case, the old Market House is today a sorry sight, despite occupying the most prominent position in the centre of this town and being sturdily constructed of dressed limestone on the ground floor with the remnants of a clock at the top of the pedimented breakfront centre bay. How to ensure the future of a place like Killucan: begin by restoring its historic core and bringing new purpose to old buildings.
Cistercian monks first appeared in Ireland in 1142 with the foundation of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth on the instructions of St Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh. The Cistercians were a reforming order established in Cîteaux, Burgundy at the very end of the previous century to counter what was perceived to be the decadence of the Benedictines in houses like Cluny. Cistercian monks sought to live in remote sites far from existing settlements and their buildings reflected the same desire for austerity: as a rule the order’s monasteries were designed to be simple and utilitarian, and devoid of superfluous decoration. The same was also true of their churches where ornamentation might distract the monks from prayer and reflection. In a much-quoted and influential passage from his Apologia written in 1124 St Bernard of Clairvaux denounced the overly-elaborate religious buildings of the period: ‘But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen?…In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.’ The outcome was that Cistercian abbeys remained notable for the purity of their architecture such as can still be seen in the ruins of the former house at Boyle, County Roscommon.
Under its abbot Maurice O’Duffy the monastery at Boyle was the first successful Cistercian settlement in Connaught, the monks from Mellifont arriving on the site in 1161. Several efforts had been made in the years immediately preceding to establish a house elsewhere in the area but to no avail. Fortunately the Boyle monastery received support from the MacDermots, Lords of Moylurg who governed over this part of north Roscommon. Nevertheless, even before the building’s completion Boyle Abbey was sacked by the Anglo-Norman adventurer William de Burgo in 1202. Twenty-five years later, the abbey had become involved in a religious dispute known as the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont.’ In essence, this was an argument between Irish monks and those from France and England about what form the cloistered life should take. Whereas the latter wished to impose uniformity of practice among members of the order, the Irish appear to have retained some of their own traditions, such as monks occupying individual cells rather than participating in communal living. Eventually in 1228 Stephen of Lexington, abbot of Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire (and future abbot of Clairvaux) was sent by the Cistercian General Chapter on a visitation to Ireland with the intent of ensuring obedience. Several abbots, including that of Boyle, were removed from their position (and often sent to houses in England or France) and Boyle itself was affiliated to Clairvaux rather than Mellifont so as to ensure it did not slip back into the old ways. A mere seven years later, the monastery was was attacked and plundered by forces under the command of the Lords Justices including Maurice FitzGerald; this army took possession of the premises, seized all goods, vestments and chalices, and stripped the monks of their habits in the cloister. There were further attacks in the later Middle Ages when Boyle became caught up in feuds between the warring MacDermot and O’Conor clans.
Boyle Abbey exemplifies mediaeval Cistercian architecture while in some respects differing from it. In addition, owing to the length of time taken to construct the church, this building includes elements of both the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles: it was only in 1218, almost sixty years after the monks first settled on the site that the church was solemnly consecrated. The monastery was laid out according to the usual Cistercian plan, around a central cloister garth. To the immediate north of this lies the church, with the chapter house and abbot’s parlour on the east side, and the kitchen and refectory on the south. and the dormitory a church on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area, with a chapter house for meetings of the monks on a second side, and a kitchen and a refectory on the third (with access to clean water from the river immediately behind this range). The gatehouse lay on the west side, as did public access to the church. The last of these remains the best preserved part of the complex. It features a barrel-vaulted 12th century chancel with 13th century lancet windows above the crossing. To the west of this, the main body has a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a pair of chapels on the east wall. A massive tower at the crossing rises to some sixty feet. In the nave the most striking feature is the difference between the piers on the south and north sides. The former are squatter with rounded arches, the latter’s pointed. And contrary to Cistercian disapproval of ornament, many of the corbels and capitals, especially those to the west end of the church, are carved with elaborate designs, some featuring humans and animals.
The Cistercians remained at Boyle Abbey until the 16th century when the turmoil experienced some three hundred years earlier befell them again. Although Henry VIII introduced legislation in the Irish Parliament in 1537 for the the dissolution of the country’s monasteries, his authority did not actually run throughout Ireland and so the majority of houses continued as before. However, Boyle became caught up in a family dispute among the MacDermotts and in 1555 the abbey was burnt, followed by further assaults in the following years. In 1569 the abbey as granted by the English crown to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardstown, County Meath although ostensibly there was still an abbot of Boyle, Tomaltach MacDermot. In fact its last abbot was Glaisne O Cuilleanain, executed in Dublin in 1584. Five years later it was granted to William Ussher on a lease of twenty-one years and six years after that the old abbey was besieged by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone with a force of some 2,300 men. In 1603 Boyle was leased to two English soldiers, John Bingley and John King, the latter finally taking possession of the property, along with more than 4,000 acres in 1617: the Kings remained a dominant presence in the area until the last century. As for the abbey, now renamed Boyle Castle it became a military barracks and accordingly suffered further, with much of the stone of the cloisters being dismantled and recycled elsewhere. Only the main body of the church remained relatively immune to deprecation, hence its condition today. Boyle Abbey is now in the care of the state and in recent years has benefitted from an extensive programme of restoration, although the large glass corridor built along the north side of the church will not be to everyone’s taste. Resembling a bloated greenhouse it is supposed to protect the building from the elements. However given the rest of the site has no such covering the protection on offer is rather limited. Ignore this latest addition and revel in the superior taste of the Cistercians.
Two windows on the south wall of the former St Catherine’s church in Louisburgh, County Mayo. The building dates from 1828 and in design is typical of churches erected during this period with support from the Board of First Fruits. It has been out of use for religious services for more than two decades.
On Main Street, Doneraile, County Cork a three-storey, three bay house dating from c.1810. Typical of the domestic buildings in this handsome town, for a long time it served as parochial house for the Roman Catholic priest. The property’s most famous residence was the Reverend Patrick Sheehan who occupied the premises from the time of his appointment to the parish in 1895 until his death in 1913. It was here that he wrote the novels such as My New Curate and Glenanaar, once found in many Irish homes but now more likely to be discovered in second-hand bookshops.
It is impossible to miss the castle in Cahir, County Tipperary, and nor should it be missed. Most likely the town – the name of which derives from the Irish ‘an Chathair’ meaning stone ringfort – would not exist but for the castle. Occupying a rocky island in the river Suir the present building’s core dates from the 13th century when it was constructed by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond most probably on the site of an earlier native fortification. In 1375 as a reward for his loyalty to the English crown the castle was granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond and remained in possession of branches of this family for almost six centuries. Henry VIII created Thomas Butler Baron Cahir in 1543. It was during the lifetime of his great-nephew Thomas Butler, second Lord Cahir (of the second creation) that the castle was besieged and then captured in 1599 by a force of 18,000 under the command of the Earl of Essex. However since Lord Cahir surrendered, he received a pardon and was able to hold onto his lands. Cahir Castle was once more threatened with a siege in 1647, this time by Murrough O’Brien, sixth Baron Inchiquin but its occupants quickly surrendered, as they did also in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell advised ‘If I be necessitated to use my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremities usual in such cases.’ Capitulation thereby saved the castle from a potentially ruinous assault. It remained in use, although not always by its owners, until the 19th century: in the second half of the 18th century the Butlers built for themselves a classical residence in the town (today the Cahir House Hotel). But they maintained the old castle and even carried out some restoration on the property in the 1840s. Following the death of the last member of the family in 1961 Cahir Castle was acquired by the state and is now open to the public.
The town of Cahir largely owes its present appearance to two men, Richard Butler, tenth Lord Cahir who was created first Earl of Glengall in 1816, and his son also called Richard, the second earl. To the first of these Cahir is indebted for such charms as the Swiss Cottage (of which more on another occasion) and the Anglican St Paul’s Church, the former attributed to John Nash, the latter certainly designed by him 1816-18. It replaced an older church, the ruins of which can still be seen, as can those of an Augustinian priory founded in the 13th century. The former Erasmus Smith School adjacent to St Paul’s and now used as local authority offices is likely by Nash also. In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, the author notes that Cahir ‘owes its rise to the late earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl whose seat is within its limits; it is pleasantly situated on the river Suir, is well built and of handsome appearance, and now consists of 588 houses.’ His words were echoed by other visitors to the town during this period, and especially after 1843 when, the majority of leases issued in the previous century coming to term, the second earl embarked on an extensive programme of rebuilding which saw Castle Street and the Square, as well as various approach roads, assume their present form. The architect responsible was the Clonmel-based William Tinsley who gave the place a coherence rarely found in this country. As G.H. Bassett commented in his 1888 publication County Tipperary: A Guide and Directory, ‘The houses of Cahir devoted to business as well as residential purposes, are superior to those found in most country towns in lreland.’ Remodelling Cahir was estimated to have cost Lord Glengall in the region of £75,000. Unfortunately as a consequence of this and other expenditure on the eve the Great Famine, and despite marriage to an heiress, Cahir’s owner found himself heavily indebted and the family’s fortunes never recovered from his expenditure on Cahir. In 1853 the town was sold on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court.
From the 18th century on Cahir thrived thanks to lying at the centre of a prosperous agricultural region, witnessed by a large market house erected in the 1770s on the north side of the square facing Cahir House. The town’s prosperity was further increased by the establishment of a number of large mills on the banks of the Suir, including the Manor Mills on the Bridge of Cahir, the Suir Mills (Cahir Bakery), and the Cahir Abbey Mills. These buildings still exist and are a dominant presence in the town, although redundant and badly in need of alternative use. When Henry D Inglis travelled through Ireland in 1834 he visited the town and after remarking on the beauty of its situation he observed that ‘Cahir is rather an improving place. The flour trade is pretty extensively carried on, both in grinding, and in carrying to Clonmel. Very extensive cornmills have recently been erected; and they are in full employment.’ The mills were mostly run by the town’s substantial Quaker population, their significance evident by the fine Meeting House in the town, dating from the early 1830s. Almost directly opposite is a terrace of exceptionally large houses erected during the same period, another testament to Cahir’s former importance in the area, as is a similar terrace of four, three-storey over basement residences called the Mall close by the castle. In the 1820s the second earl leased the land on which they stand to a Dr Thomas Beale specifically for the purpose of building an hotel and a row of townhouses, the first three of which were completed by 1830, two of them serving as the Cahir Castle Hotel. The advent of famine in the 1840s put paid to the completion of this scheme and others similar planned for the town.
Cahir now suffers from the same problems as so many other Irish towns, not least the disappearance of the industries that once provided employment. Today it gives the impression of existing because it did so in the past. Those substantial mills, in their shabby vacancy, are witness to changing circumstances that have not been to the advantage of the town and testify to the departure of former prosperity. On the other hand, Cahir enjoys benefits not enjoyed by many other Irish towns, having a splendid castle and attractively laid-out streets. In other words, Cahir has an opportunity to exploit its potential as a tourist magnet, and to some extent already does so. The castle clearly attracts tourists and has an attractive and well-maintained park to one side. But on the other, close to the centre of the town, is a vast car and bus park. One understands the importance of offering visitors somewhere to leave their vehicles, but to create a desolate expanse of tarmac right beside the castle seems self-defeating: why not conceal it behind buildings that follow the original line of the street, or engage in extensive planting that would soften the prospect and avoid conflict with Cahir’s principal attraction? The same failure better to exploit opportunities is found throughout the town. In the main square, for example, far too many properties are vacant, an inevitable consequence of planning authorities permitting supermarkets to be constructed on the outskirts. But the square’s appearance is not helped by the former Butler residence, the 18th century Cahir House Hotel with its fine first-floor Venetian window, being disfigured by the insertion of uPVC windows, as are so many other properties in the area: does nobody see what damage this does to the perception among visitors of Cahir as a supposed heritage town? On the other side of the square, another significant building, the 18th century former Market House, underwent a grotesque ‘renovation’ in the 1980s when original arched openings were replaced with over-sized plate-glass windows, thereby destroying the integrity of the design. Visiting Cahir one is conscious of missed opportunity and a failure to exploit potential, with inevitable consequences for the town and surrounding region. Not very different to anywhere else in the country so.
The castle from which Castlemartyr takes its name was likely built in the middle of the 15th century when the lands in this part of the country passed into the control of the FitzGeralds of Imokilly. For more than 100 years from 1580 it was subject to successive sieges and assaults; in 1581, for example, Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond captured the building and hanged the ancient mother of John Fitzedmund FitzGerald from its walls. Castlemartyr became part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s estate which he then sold to Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork in 1602. It is likely that the Boyles built the two-storey manor with tall gable-ended chimney stacks that runs behind the older castle. But the property had to withstand attack again during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and once more in 1690, after which it was finally abandoned to become a picturesque ruin while a new residence went up on a site to the immediate west.