The Secret of Kells

The Augustinian order has been mentioned here more than once. Like the Franciscans, Augustinian friars were responsible for building some of Ireland’s best-preserved mediaeval monastic settlements, and also like the Franciscans their presence was particularly encouraged by Anglo-Norman settlers. The first Augustinians are believed to have arrived in Dublin some time before 1280 (the non-mendicant congregation known as Canons Regular of St Augustine had earlier been introduced into the country by St Malachy) and were settled in several other places by 1300. During this period and almost until the end of the 14th century, Augustinian houses could be found almost exclusively in areas where the Normans had established a presence. The invaders wanted religious speaking their tongue to run schools and already-extant houses tended to teach in Gaelic. This explains why the Augustinians were slower than other religious orders (such as the Cistercians or, again, the Franciscans) to spread throughout the country and also why the Irish houses continued for so long to be governed by the English province. Eventually in the 1390s the Irish Augustinians rebelled against this control and were granted greater privileges of self-government. Further expansion followed, including the establishment of a further eight friaries in Connaught.

Spread over more than three acres, the Augustinian Kells Priory, County Kilkenny is today one of the largest surviving mediaeval religious settlements in Ireland. It was founded on the banks of the King’s River in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert; he had already established a church here a decade earlier. An Anglo-Norman knight, FitzRobert was married first to Basilia, sister of Richard de Clare (otherwise known as Strongbow) and then to Eve de Bermingham, widow of Gerald FitzMaurice, first Lord of Offaly (making her the forebear of the Dukes of Leinster). FitzRobert became known as Baron of Kells around 1204 when he was also appointed Seneschal (administrative officer) of Leinster. In his confirmatory charter to Kells Abbey he declared that he had founded the friary ‘for the salvation of my own soul and the souls of my predecessor and successors; for the honor of God and the Blessed Virgin; for the spiritual welfare of my Lord, William Marshall’ – who had advised the foundation and consented to it – and ‘at the desire and with consent of my wife Eva.’ In line with other Augustinian houses of the period, the first friars came from England, from Bodmin Priory in Cornwall.

One of the most notable events associated with Kells Priory was a Lenten visitation made to the establishment by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Offaly in 1324. An English-born Franciscan, de Ledrede had been appointed to his diocese seven years earlier by the Avignon Pope John XXII. The bishop appears to have been caught up in a family feud that chimed with his own wish to prosecute heretics. In the nearby city of Kilkenny, a wealthy merchant woman, the four-times married Alice Kyteler, had been accused by her third husband’s children of practicing witchcraft (cited as a heresy in a papal bull issued by John XXII the following year). Among the activities in which it was said she engaged were regular carnal relations with a demon. Alice’s son from her first marriage, William Outlawe was also named as being engaged in not dissimilar practices to those of his mother. The two were ordered to appear before de Ledrede and answer the charges brought against them. However, Alice went to Dublin where she sought support from the Chancellor of Ireland, one Roger Outlaw, presumably a relative of her late husband. Meanwhile her son William found help from the Lord of Kells, Arnold le Poer (tellingly, Alice Kyteler’s fourth husband was also a member of the le Poer family). Ignoring the consequences, Arnold le Poer arrested Bishop de Ledrede and imprisoned him in Kilkenny Castle for seventeen days, until the date for William Outlaw’s appointed appearance before the ecclesiastical court passed. What had begun as a trial for witchcraft now became a battle between the secular and religious authority: Arnold le Poer for example, described de Ledrede as ‘some vagabond from England.’ Ultimately, however, the so-called vagabond proved victorious. Alice Kyteler fled the country, her son confessed to heresy and was obliged to do penance, and a family servant, one Petronilla de Midia was flogged and burnt at the stake, the first person in Ireland to suffer this fate.

Kells Priory is sometimes known as Seven Castles due to the tower houses found around its outer walls which give it a fortress-like appearance. The towers were probably constructed in the 15th century but would have been of more assistance earlier, since on three occasions the place suffered from assault. The priory was first attacked and burnt by William de Bermingham in 1252, then by a Scottish force under Edward Bruce in 1326, and the following year by another member of the de Bermingham family.
Now the site appears divided into two sections, a lower to the north and closer to the river, this being the priory proper. It was rightly dominated by a church opening off the central cloister although today the most powerful presence is that of the 15th century Prior’s Tower to the immediate east: this has been extensively reconstructed and re-roofed, and rises higher than any of the other surrounding structures. To the south and on higher ground a large enclosure with five towers was developed in the 15th century, presumably in response to increasing lawlessness in the area. Known as Burgess Court, this section was once thought to have contained a mediaeval lay settlement but that does not appear to have been the case. More likely it was used to protect lifestock, and indeed the occupants of the adjacent priory.
Visitors to Kells today often comment on how they find themselves alone, despite the proximity of Kilkenny city and the scale of the ruins. Intermittently efforts are made to encourage greater interest in the site, but a large part of its appeal would be lost were the place to be overly-frequented. Best to come and discover for yourself the secret of Kells.


Ray of Light

Kilrush 3
The inner hall of Kilrush, County Kilkenny. A branch of the St Georges settled here in the 17th century but for a long time the family lived in a late mediaeval tower house which was refurbished and enlarged. Finally in the second decade of the 19th century and following his marriage, Arthur St George commissioned a new residence from local architect William Robertson. Its most striking feature is the space shown here which looks as though it might have  been designed by Sir John Soane. Via a substantial staircase, the inner hall leads to the first-floor landing at the centre of which is a circular well-gallery surrounded by Doric columns and pilasters. Thanks to this being topped by a glazed dome the opening sends a broad pool of light into the hall below: notice the shadow of the gallery’s balusters thrown onto the far wall.

A Trans-Atlantic Connection


A mid-19th century lithograph showing the façade of Rossenarra, County Kilkenny. Dating from the early 1800s the house’s Palladian manner must have seemed rather anachronistic by the time of its construction. The architect responsible is sometimes claimed to be James Hoban, a local man who in the mid-1780s emigrated to the United States of America where he achieved considerable renown, not least for designing the White House in Washington. Rossenarra has other American connections, since in the last century it was home for a period to New York-born Richard Condon, author of such novels as The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.

The Butlers Did It


Ballyragget Castle, County Kilkenny is a late 15th century tower house originally built by a branch of the Butler family one of whom, Richard Butler became first Viscount Mountgarret in 1550; his mother, the spirited Lady Margaret FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond is said to have lived here. Butlers continued to occupy the building until 1788 when they moved into a house close by. Surrounded by a bawn wall and climbing four or five storeys high with fine crenellations and handsome cut stone windows, the castle could easily be put to good use, not least as a tourist attraction. Instead it stands on the edge of a farmyard, all doors and other points of ingress sealed by concrete breeze blocks. An admirable example of how to treat the country’s built heritage…


A Swift Connection


A crimson morocco case holding five George II steel forks due to be sold next Wednesday 25th February by Fonsie Mealy in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. The forks have stained ivory handles, each bearing the same initials and crest as those of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745. Might these therefore have belonged to him, and was it perhaps during his lifetime that the prongs of the left-most fork were first filed down, presumably because one of them broke or was bent? Before passing to the vendor’s family the set belonged to the 19th century archaeologist and antiquarian John Ribton Garstin, one-time President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. It is expected to make  €2,000- €3,000.


Three Lost Beauties



Anyone familiar with the Irish Georgian Society will know that the original organisation of that name was established in 1908 with the specific intention of creating a record of the country’s 18th century domestic architecture. Five volumes were produced over successive years, the first four devoted to Dublin while the last, which appeared in 1913, made an attempt to provide an overview of country houses. Two years later, another work, Georgian Mansions in Ireland, appeared. This book, written by barrister and genealogist Thomas U. Sadleir and architect Page L. Dickinson, both members of the now-dissolved Irish Georgian Society, was intended to correct what they believed to have been a problem with the earlier work: namely that its compilers ‘laboured under a disadvantage, for they had but slight knowledge of the existing material.’ The two authors proposed that whereas the compilers of the Irish Georgian Society volumes were well informed about historic buildings in Dublin, ‘as regards the country districts, their number, their history and their situation were alike unknown.’ For Sadleir and Dickinson, writing almost a century ago, the contrast between historic properties in Dublin and the rest of the country could not have been more stark. The former’s large houses, ‘so far from being, as they once were, the residences of the rich, are too often the dwellings of the poor; at best, hotels, offices or institutions. But the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rackrent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with the treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
It is unlikely the authors would have been able to write such words even a decade later, and certainly not today. ‘Irish houses seldom contain valuable china,’ they advised, ‘but good pictures, plate, and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon. How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni, or that fashionable Irish artist Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Below are three houses featured in Georgian Mansions in Ireland, with a selection of the pictures included in the book. The line drawings are by the architect Richard Orpen, who had been in partnership with Dickinson before the outbreak of the First World War.
Platten 5Platten 2Platten 1Platten 3Platten Hall, County Meath dated from c. 1700 and was built for Alderman John Graham of Drogheda: Maurice Craig proposed the architect responsible was Sir William Robinson. Built of red brick and with a tripartite nine-bay facade, it was originally three-storied but the uppermost floor was removed in the 19th century. Alderman Graham’s son William Graham married the Hon. Mary Granville, second daughter of George, Lord Lansdown and cousin of the inestimable Mrs Delaney who visited Platten on several occasions during her first marriage (when she was known as Mrs Pendarves). Sadleir and Dickinson quote one of her letters from January 1733, in which she described a ball given in the house: ‘we began at seven;  danced thirty-six dances, with only resting once, supped at twelve, everyone by their partner, at a long table which was handsomely filled with all manner of cold meats, sweetmeats, creams, and jellies. Two or three of the young ladies sang. I was asked for my song, and gave them “Hopp’d She”; that occasioned some mirth. At two we went to dancing again, most of the ladies determined not to leave Plattin till daybreak, they having three miles to go home, so we danced on till we were not able to dance any longer. Sir Thomas Prendergast is an excellent dancer – dances with great spirit, and in very good time. We did not go to bed till past eight; the company staid all that time, but part of the morning was spent in little plays. We met the next morning at twelve (very rakish indeed), went early to bed that night, and were perfectly refreshed on Saturday morning. …’ As for Platten when they knew it, Sadleir and Dickinson comment: ‘Like all early Georgian houses, the main entrance is on a level with the ground; it opens into the imposing hall, which contains a handsome grand staircase in three flights, supported by six Ionic columns, the floor being paved in black and white marble. The walls are panelled, and there are other symptoms of early construction; there is some tasteful decoration, the frieze being very richly carved, and displaying tiny figures, quite Jacobean in treatment. Note, too, the gallery, which we also illustrate, with its handsome balustrading, with ramps at the newels. Below the gallery the panels are in plaster.
Platten once afforded considerable accommodation, but one wing has been allowed to fall into disrepair, as its bricked-up windows show, and the excellent rooms in the basement are no longer utilized…the dining-room, a large apartment panelled in oak, which is to the right as we enter the hall; it has handsome high doors with brass locks, and the wainscot is ornamented with boldly carved fluted pilasters. There is a curious, probably early Georgian, mantel in white and grey marble.’
Platten Hall was demolished in the early 1950s.
Turvey 1Turvey 2Turvey 3Turvey 4
The core of Turvey, County Dublin was built in the 16th century by the lawyer Sir Christopher Barnewell and the property thereafter passed down through various branches of the family across some 400 years. In the late 17th century the property was converted into a house of nine bays and two storeys with a gabled attic: the latter became an attic storey with a parapet and three lunette windows towards the middle of the following century. Turvey had an interesting Baroque entrance door with semi-circular pediment and urns. Inside there was excellent early Georgian panelling and a splendid rococo ceiling in the library.
Sadleir and Dickinson wrote of the building: ‘This mansion, situated in County Dublin, close to the village of Donabate, is probably one of the oldest houses now standing in Ireland. It is a plain building, having, like Platten Hall, suffered in appearance through the removal of its gabled roof. As it stands it is a seventeenth-century house, though part of an earlier structure which occupied the site would appear to have been incorporated. The original plan consisted of a centre block, in which was the entrance, with wings at right-angles to it at either side. But one of these, has been entirely removed, and the rest of the building considerably altered, apparently in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, to which most of the fire-places and nearly all the joinery, including the principal staircase, may be ascribed. There is another staircase, now disused, Jacobean in plan, with twisted balusters and a central well. Here and there are specimens of seventeenth- century panelling, but the panels in the reception-rooms are early Georgian. Formerly the house had three gables in front, but…these gables have had the spaces between them filled in, and the present parapet added. The semicircular windows belong to the same transformation. The size and position of the old gables and windows can be clearly traced in the attics, which are unusually large and really fine rooms, though for some reason never finished. The Georgian roof is carried in a single span over the main roof; it is supported by huge quern post trusses. In front of the house the ground-level has been raised; and, as we have seen in other houses altered at the same period, the hall-door is on what was originally the first floor. There is a secret room, the windows of which have been built up, which was apparently reached from a sliding-panel on the old staircase; but as the opening was blocked when the panelling was removed, there is now no way of access.’
Turvey was demolished, amid some controversy, by property company the Murphy Group in 1987.
Desart 1Desart 2Desart 3Desart 4
Desart Court, County Kilkenny was built c.1733 for John Cuffe, first Lord Desart, its design attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. An example of Irish Palladian architecture, the house rose two storeys over basement and was linked to two-storey wings by niched quadrants. The centre block of seven bays was distinguished by a central feature of four superimposed engaged Doric and Ionic columns and a rusticated doorway beneath a first-floor rusticated niche; the garden front followed a somewhat similar pattern but only had engaged Ionic columns on the first storey. The interiors were notable for elaborate plasterwork ceilings in the entrance hall and drawing room, and for a pair of staircases with carved scroll balustrades.
Sadleir and Dickinson were understandably impressed with Desart Court, noting, ‘The three reception rooms facing south, of which the centre is the drawing-room, all communicate, that to the left being the boudoir. The drawing-room, a wellproportioned and nicely lighted apartment, has an elaborate rococo ceiling displaying much originality of design, and doubtless contemporary with that in the hall. Heads are introduced at intervals as well as masks; the latter an unusual feature, which we also found in the attic story at Florence Court. The colouring is cream, picked out with of the joinery has been renewed, though the window-seats remain. We cannot overlook the beautiful inlaid walnut cabinet of English or Dutch manufacture. The view from this room is particularly extensive. Another fine piece of furniture, but of Irish workmanship, is in the adjoining boudoir, which contains a Georgian mantel in Siena and white marble.
To the right of the hall lies the Library, containing some old-fashioned bookcases enriched with fluted pilasters, while to the left is the dining-room, a lofty, almost square, apartment ; neither retains any Georgian features. Desart Court is singular in its two handsome grand staircases situated at either end of the house, and corresponding in detail. Other houses, such, for instance, as Sopwell Hall, and possibly Cashel Palace, possessed this feature, but in no case in Ireland have we found the handsome carved scroll-work in oak, in lieu of balusters, such as we have here. In each case there is a dado of oak, but the decoration above is in plaster panels of early type. A lofty corridor, lighted by a lantern, gives access to the bedrooms, which, like those at Cashel, have high, narrow doors.’
Desart Court was burnt out by the IRA in February 1923 and its superlative contents all lost. Although the house was subsequently rebuilt under the supervision of Richard Orpen, this was razed to the ground in 1957.



Don’t Bank On It

From an old photograph album, a view of New Park, County Kilkenny. Situated high above the river Suir on the opposite bank to the City of Waterford and with parkland running down to the water, the house was built in the second half of the 18th century by Simon Newport, who established the region’s largest and most important bank, Simon Newport and Sons: at the time there was a common expression in Waterford, ‘as good as Newport’s notes.’ Unfortunately in 1820 the bank failed and the founder’s younger son William Newport who was then responsible for its affairs committed suicide. Although he repudiated any personal liability Simon Newport’s elder son, Sir John Newport, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who was then an M.P. in London, contributed at least £5,000 towards numerous local compensation claims. On his death in 1843, New Park was inherited by Sir John’s only surviving nephew, the Rev. John Newport and when he died sixteen years later, the estate was sold to Fitzmaurice Gustavus Bloomfield whose mother had been heiress to the Castle Caldwell estate in County Fermanagh. New Park remained with the Bloomfield family until the house was destroyed by fire in 1932: below is a photograph of its appearance after the conflagration.