Back to Bessborough

Neale Bessborough

The above engraving of Bessborough, County Kilkenny is taken from John Preston Neale’s Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland published in six volumes between 1818-1824. It shows the house as originally designed by Francis Bindon around 1744 and without any of its later alterations and additions. As was mentioned last week, the Ponsonby family spent relatively little time on their Irish estate. When William Tighe published his Statistical survey of the County of Kilkenny in 1802 he observed ‘The principal absentee proprietor is the Earl of Bessborough, who possesses 17,000 acres in the county, about 2,000 of which are let forever…Though not inhabited for forty years, the house is kept in excellent order.’
It would appear that the second Earl of Bessborough, who while on his Grand Tour had travelled as far as Greece and Turkey in the company of the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard (who painted him in Turkish costume) preferred to live in England where he enjoyed a successful political career. At Roehampton outside London he commissioned a new house from Sir William Chambers which was then filled with an exceptional collection of classical statuary. Only after his father’s death in 1893 did the third earl visit Bessborough for the first time but he too was an infrequent visitor. When staying in the house with the latter’s heir in 1828 Thomas Creevey wrote that following the first earl’s death two years after building’s completion in 1755, ‘His son left Ireland when 18 years old and having never seen it more, died in 1792. Upon that event his Son, the present Lord Bessborough, made his first visit to the place, and he is not certain whether it was two or three days he staid here, but it was one or the other. In 1808, he and Lady Bessborough came on a tour to the Lakes of Killarney and having taken their own house in their way either going or coming, they were so pleased with it as to stay here a week, and once more in 1812, having come over to see the young Duke of Devonshire at Lismore, when his Father died, they were here a month. So that from 1757 to 1825, 68 years, the family was (here) 5 weeks and two days.’

IMG_7512

IMG_7519

In 1826 the fourth earl, when still going by the courtesy title of Lord Duncannon, came over to Ireland with his wife and eleven children and, astonishingly, remained here until his death twenty-one years later: during the year before this occurred he served as Lord Lieutenant, the first resident Irish landlord to hold that office for a generation. Creevey’s letters to his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord tell us a great deal about life in Bessborough at the time. Of Lady Duncannon he wrote, ‘Her life here is devoted to looking after everybody, and in making them clean and comfortable in their persons, cloaths, cottages and everything…I wish you could have seen us walking up Piltown [the local village] last Saturday. Good old Irish usage…is to place the dirt and filth of the house at the entrance instead of behind it, and this was reformed at every house but one as we walked thro’ and Duncannon having called the old woman out told her he would not have the filth remain in that place…to which she was pleased to reply, “Well, my dear, if you do but walk by next Tuesday not a bit of the dirt shall you see remaining”.’
One suspects that the Duncannons were what might be described as benign despots, ruling over their tenants with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Creevey reported ‘My Lady’s mode of travelling is on a little pony, she sitting sideways in a chair saddle; one of the little girls was on another pony. My Lord and I sauntered on foot by her side. She got off and went into different cottages as we went. She gives prizes for the cleanest cottages…She put her Cottagers in mind of it, but there is a simplicity and interest and kindness in every communication of hers with the people here, on their part a natural unreserved confidential kind of return…’
No doubt worn out by her efforts to improve the lives of those around her, Lady Duncannon died in 1834 at the age of 46. Three of her seven sons became successively Earls of Bessborough, the sixth earl chairing the 1880 commission which investigated the problems of landlord and tenant in Ireland. His younger brother, the seventh earl, had previously been a Church of England clergyman.

IMG_7393

IMG_7397

Although Bessborough was occupied more than had previously been the case, it was never a permanent home for the Ponsonbys who continued to spend much of their time in England. In Twilight of the Ascendancy (1993) Mark Bence-Jones reports that the family was in residence for eight weeks each summer and another four at Christmas, but while there they entertained extensively and on one occasion had Queen Victoria’s son the Duke of Connaught and his wife to stay. Bence-Jones notes that the royal party was treated to a concert during which another of the houseguests sang Percy French’s ballad ‘The Mountains of Mourne’; she was supposed to do so in her bare feet but instead wore bedroom slippers. During this period Bessborough was also notable for its amateur dramatic performances, a popular pastime in the Edwardian era; the future ninth Earl of Bessborough was a keen actor and even brought over a professional director from London.
Nevertheless, like his forbears he was inclined to spend the greater part of his time on the other side of the Irish Sea. Prior to his father’s death in 1920 he had qualified as a barrister and served as an MP as well as becoming a successful businessman (and in the early 1930s he would be appointed Governor General of Canada). When the War of Independence broke out in this country he organised to have much of the contents of Bessborough removed from the house and brought to England. It was a wise decision since in February 1923 during the Civil War Bessborough was gutted by fire, along with another house in the same county, Desart Court. The damage to Bessborough was estimated at £30,000.

IMG_7415

IMG_7422

IMG_7500

The year after Bessborough was burnt, the ninth earl bought Stansted Park in West Sussex and commissioned Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, an old friend from their days together at Cambridge, to carry out alterations to the house. Goodhart-Rendel was a gentleman architect who had inherited Hatchlands in Surrey, which he gave to the National Trust in 1945. Writing of him in October 1942, James Lees-Milne noted, ‘He told me the order of his chief interests in life is 1. the Roman Catholic Church, 2. the Brigade of Guards and 2. Architecture.’ It was thanks to Lees-Milne that Hatchlands came to be given to the NT and today the house is occupied by that wondrous Irish polymath Alec Cobbe in whose own family property Newbridge, County Dublin (now under the authority of the local council) hangs a portrait of his own ancestor Archbishop Charles Cobbe; this was painted by another gentleman-architect Francis Bindon, in turn responsible for the original design of Bessborough.
Completing this circle, after he had carried out the job at Stansted Park, Goodhart-Rendel was invited by the ninth earl to oversee the rebuilding of Bessborough, which he duly did from 1925 onwards. In an article on Stansted Park written for Country Life in February 1982, Clive Aslet quotes Goodhart-Rendel’s comment that Lord Bessborough, when it came to reconstructing his family house, ‘relied on my memory for the character of what new internal detail we were able to put in.’ In fact, it does not appear that the house benefitted from much internal detail since the rooms are noticeably plain, the only striking space being the double-height entrance hall with a large staircase that runs up to a screened corridor and has a first-floor gallery on the opposite wall (see the three photographs immediately above). One also has the impression that the central block alone was rebuilt and not the quadrants or wings.
The reason for this want of detail is most likely that the Ponsonbys never again lived at Bessborough and by the end of the 1930s they had entirely disposed of their County Kilkenny estate. Soon afterwards it was bought by a religious order, the Oblate Fathers who established a seminary there, adding large and aggressively workaday wings to either side of the house; understandably the architect of these extensions is unknown. In 1971 the estate was bought by the Irish Department of Agriculture and today Bessborough, now called Kildalton, serves as an agricultural college at the centre of a large working farm. Other than some fine planting in the immediate parkland, there is little to recall the house’s former existence, so let us end today as we did last week with a page from a visiting book. This one was kept by Lady Olwen Ponsonby who in 1901 married the third Lord Oranmore and Browne. The page below features signatures of guests at a house party at Bessborough in September 1909 and includes that of Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel immediately below a charming drawing he made of the front of the old house. Consider it serving as a memento mori not just for the old Bessborough but for many other such places in Ireland.

IMG_8831

In the Borough of Bess

0006

Believed to date from September 1908 this photograph, which has appeared on several sites of late, shows the indoor servants at Bessborough, County Kilkenny. The house lay at the centre of an estate owned by the Ponsonby family. The first of their number to settle in Ireland was yet another of those English soldier adventurers who came to this country in such abundance during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Originally from Cumberland, Colonel Sir John Ponsonby was a member of Oliver Cromwell’s army who found himself rewarded for military service here with a parcel of land. He subsequently acquired several more, the largest being an estate by the river Suir in the south of the county hitherto owned by the Anglo-Norman D’Altons after whom it was called Kildalton. Here he settled and having built himself a residence, he re-named the place Bessie-Borough, later Bessborough after his second wife Elizabeth Folliott.
Subsequent generations increased their landholdings in both Kilkenny and the neighbouring counties of Carlow and Kildare and by the mid-18th century were in possession of almost 30,000 acres. Furthermore, following the example of Sir John who had served as a local MP in the Irish Parliament and especially in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars (in which the Ponsonbys had been decisively opposed to the Roman Catholic James II) they became more engaged in politics. William Ponsonby, third son of Sir John, was created Baron Bessborough in 1721 and Viscount Duncannon two years later; in turn his son Brabazon Ponsonby became first Earl of Bessborough in 1739.

0010

0012

The main block of Bessborough as we see it today dates from c.1744 and was commissioned by the first Earl to mark his new status. Although it is known that Sir Edward Lovett Pearce wrote a memorial about the building’s setting some time before his death in 1733, the design is attributed to Francis Bindon, a gentleman architect from County Clare, also notable as a portraitist (he painted no less than four likenesses of his friend Dean Swift). Bindon was related by marriage to Pearce and collaborated with Richard Castle on several projects, so his credentials are admirable. Nevertheless, one must be honest and admit that Bessborough was never one of his best works, the handling of the central structure being somewhat heavy. Writing in The Beauties of Ireland (1825) John Norris Brewer pertinently observed ‘The mansion of Bessborough is a spacious structure of square proportions, composed of hewn stone, but the efforts of the architect were directed to amplitude, and convenience of internal arrangement, rather than to beauty of exterior aspect. The house extends in front 100 feet, and in depth about 80. Viewed as an architectural object, its prevailing characteristic is that of massy respectability.’
Likewise in an essay on Bindon published in the Irish Georgian Society Bulletin for spring 1967, the Knight of Glin, evidently struggling to find something good to say about Bessborough (he described the garden front as being ‘an uninspiring six-bay breakfront composition with a pair of Venetian windows clumsily adrift on the first floor’) commented ‘The redeeming architectural feature of the house is to be found in the fine handling of the shallow quadrants leading to the flanking pavilions…The facing sides of the pavilions have niches and surmounting lunettes.’ The photographs above show the front of the house before and after it was altered at the end of the 19th century when the double-staircase leading to the raised entrance was removed and the ground was lowered to permit access via a porte-cochere; this work was undertaken by architect Sir Thomas Manly Deane.

0007

0013

Others found Bessborough more appealing, certainly members of the Ponsonby family even though during the second half of the 18th century they were hardly ever there. The first time the third Earl of Bessborough, who had been raised in England, saw his inheritance was in the aftermath of his father’s death in March 1793. Four months later he wrote to his wife ‘I came here yesterday and am indeed very much pleased with the place…The mountains are beautiful over fine wood, and the verdure is the finest that can be seen…The house is large and very comfortable, but as you may suppose very old-fashioned. There are about 10 or 11 good bedchambers. You would make it very cheerful with cutting down the windows & I believe I should agree.’
His proposals were never carried out, not least because another fifteen years were to pass before Henrietta, Lady Bessborough – the beautiful sister of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – came to see her husband’s Irish home, although she was equally delighted with it then, writing ‘I like this place extremely; with a very little expense it might be made magnificent, and it is beautiful…’ Likewise when staying in the house in September 1828 with the next generation of Ponsonbys, that indefatigable diarist and letter-writer Thomas Creevey advised his step-daughter Elizabeth Ord, ‘This is a charming place. I ought to say, as to its position and surrounding scenery – magnificent.’ Above are two photographs of the garden front of the rear. Note the two-storey extension to the left of the main block, which may date from the same time as the alterations to the front. However, as the second picture shows, at the very start of the last century, this development was improved by the addition of a balustrade stone terrace with double steps leading down to the garden.

IMG_8517

IMG_8521

We have relatively little information about the interiors of Bessborough, although they were, as both the largely absentee third countess and Thomas Creevey duly noted, certainly magnificent. The entrance hall – which became a sitting room after Deane’s alterations – featured a screen of four Ionic columns of solid Kilkenny marble each ten and a half feet tall. Sadleir and Dickinson’s 1915 Georgian Mansions in Ireland includes a couple of photographs of the saloon or drawing room, both shown above. One features a detail of the splendid rococo plasterwork with which the ceiling was decorated. The other shows the chimney piece, a design supposedly taken from William Kent although Sadleir and Dickinson propose the female herms in profile are portraits of the second earl’s two daughters, the Ladies Catherine and Charlotte Ponsonby who married the fifth Duke of St Albans and the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam respectively.
Even though the house was not much occupied during this period, it was well-maintained. When staying at Curraghmore, County Waterford in 1785 Lady Portarlington wrote, ‘Another day we went to Bessborough, which is a charming place, with very fine old timber and a very good house with some charming pictures, and it felt as warm and comfortable as if the family had left it the day before, and it has not been inhabited these forty years.’
There remains a great deal more to tell about Bessborough, its destruction, reconstruction and subsequent history, so rather in the manner of Country Life, today’s piece finishes with the words: To be concluded next week.
Meanwhile, below is a photograph of Bessborough with surrounding signatures of members of a house party there, taken from a visiting book kept by one of the Mulholland family (of Ballywalter, County Down) at the start of the last century.

IMG_8559

When Nature Imitates Art

image

It is said that above his drawing board, the great French landscape architect André Le Nôtre hung a sign on which was written ‘To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost.’ Today we would consider the Le Nôtre style of gardening so to interfere with nature that its true beauty is impossible to discern and at very considerable cost: the jardin à la française, exemplified by those created by Le Nôtre for Louis XIV at Versailles, is a thing of wondrous artifice.
While the taste for such gardens reigned across Europe for at least a century, as always a reaction against them emerged, inspired at least in part by philosophical speculation on the character of man’s interaction with nature. Thus in 1757, Edmund Burke published his treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful which sought to explain our emotional and aesthetic responses to natural phenomenon such as mountain ranges. As proposed by Burke and his followers the sublime induces extreme passion, most notably terror. This differs from the simultaneously powerful but gentler feelings induced by another aesthetic experience which was first analysed in the 18th century and would have a profound effect on taste in gardening: that of the picturesque.
As the word implies, the picturesque is associated with painting (it derives from the Italian term ‘pittoresco’ meaning ‘in the manner of a painter’). It was thus used by a key figure in the evolution of the concept William Gilpin who in his 1768 Essay on Prints defined picturesque as being ‘expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.’ Essentially the picturesque as proposed by Gilpin and others offers an aesthetic experience between the extremes of the sublime (which induces an emotion akin to terror) and the beautiful which relies on symmetry and a calm-inducing order. The inspiration for landscapes that might be classified as picturesque came from artists of the previous century, most notably Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Poussin. In Ireland one of the most perfect expressions of this kind of landscape design can be found at Kilfane, County Kilkenny where theories of the picturesque were put into practice with enchanting results.

image

image

The Cantwells were Lords of Kilfane until the 17th century when they were banished to Connaught. Then their lands passed into the hands of Colonel John Bushe who was granted Kilfane in 1670 and whose descendants remained there for the following century. In the late 1700s, a certain John Power came to live in the country at Ballynahinch and soon after married Harriet Bushe whose brother Henry Amias Bushe then lived at Kilfane. Eventually John Power took a lease in perpetuity on the property from his brother-in-law, and carried out many improvements on the estate, as we shall see.
John Power, known as Captain Power after he held that position in the local yeomanry during the 1798 Rebellion (he would be created a baronet in 1836) was the son of a County Tipperary landowner who had served with the British army in India where he had been aide-de-camp to Clive during the Battle of Plassey. It would appear at least one explanation for his move to County Kilkenny was because of his interest in hunting: he constructed kennels at Ballynahinch for his pack of hounds and in 1797 established the Kilkenny Hunt Club. It was said at the time that the land in this part of Ireland was so unenclosed that Captain could follow his hounds all the way to the bridge at Waterford without jumping a single fence. The first of its kind in Ireland, the Kilkenny Hunt Club would meet in the evenings in Kilkenny City at what had hitherto been called Rice’s Hotel (James Rice having been house steward to Captain Power) but soon became known as the Club House, as it is to this day
The Club House was also much frequented by participants and supporters of the amateur theatricals organised by members of local families, not least Captain Power’s brother Richard who was an ardent thespian. So ardent indeed that he was the driving force behind the founding in 1802 of a theatre in Kilkenny called The Athenaeum which thereafter hosted annual seasons of plays until 1819, in all of which Richard Power took a leading role.

image

image

It will be apparent from the above that the Powers were an exceptionally enterprising family, and this is further demonstrated by the creation at Kilfane of a romantic private garden embodying the picturesque ideals of the period. As is so often the case in Ireland, we do not know the precise date for the site’s creation or indeed who was responsible for its design (perhaps the Powers themselves, since the main house contained a famed library and they were likely to be familiar with the theories of Gilpin, along with those of other proponents of the picturesque such as Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight). In any case, Kilfane possessed certain natural advantages: on the edge of the estate there existed an area of woodland where the land dropped away to reveal a rock face thirty feet high descending to an open vale dramatically strewn with boulders. Imbued with potential this spot was greatly enhanced by the Powers’ intervention, not least a waterfall which was fed by a mile-long canal specially created for the purpose.
At the base of the cliff, the water drops into a pool before winding its way across a wide grassy lawn and from thence flowing along a stream that tumbles hither and thither beneath a dense blanket of trees and that can be crossed by a number of mossy stone bridges. The effect is picturesque in the extreme, and was greatly enhanced within the natural amphitheatre at the base of the waterfall by the construction of a thatched cottage orné. The building was essential for the success of the enterprise, not just because it gave a focus to the scene, and a destination for visitors, but also because advocates of the picturesque argued that such landscapes needed a humanising focus in the same way as did the paintings which had inspired them. There had to be a central point to which the eye was drawn, in this instance a charming cottage which might be ‘discovered’ and explored.

image

image

A description of the waterfall and glen at Kilfane in their original state has come down to us in a letter written in 1819 by the botanist and antiquarian Louisa Beaufort to Sophy Edgeworth (whose father Richard Lovell Edgeworth had married Louisa’s sister as his fourth wife) in which she reported, ‘Wednesday Mr. B, Pa Ma and I in the inside jaunting car and Richard on horseback all went to Kilfayne, Mr. Power’s, a very pretty place…All the beginning of the walk very ugly, latter part very pretty by a stream …rushing over large beds of rocks, the beeches high and well planted and the ground blue with harebells the cottage is prettyish, somewhat of a has-been but stands in a tiny lawn near the stream and opposite to a cataract which rushes down the opposite rock…’
So it continued to look for some time thereafter, but later generations of the Power family lost interest in maintaining the site, or perhaps did not have the funds to do so. Gradually the whole place fell into decay, the cottage becoming a ruin, the grassy lawn and surrounding paths overgrown, the woodlands surrendered to laurel and rhododendron (with consequent loss of more delicate ground cover) and the waterfall dried up as the canal was breached and broken. Such might have remained the case to the present but for the discovery and rescue of this delightful spot by its present owners who more than twenty years ago embarked on a complete restoration of the place. Thanks to their admirable diligence the grounds today look much as they did when first created over two centuries ago.
Reverting to Le Nôtre’s maxim – ‘To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost’ – one can see how applicable are those words to the glen and waterfall at Kilfane. Here is a landscape every bit as artificial as any designed by the Frenchman. In this instance, however, thanks to theories on the picturesque artifice has been concealed and nature encouraged to imitate art rather than the other way around.

image

For more information on the Kilfane Glen and Waterfall, see: http://www.kilfane.com

For One Knight Only

IMG_7380

The 13th century church at Kilfane, County Kilkenny is now a fine ruin, notable for its adjacent castellated presbytery and also for being home to a stone effigy known as the Cantwell Fada. Carved from a single slab of limestone is a knight looking decidedly dapper in his suit of chain mail. One leg daintily crosses over the other not in demonstration of a mediaeval dance step but, it is believed, to indicate the knight’s participation in a crusade. His large shield bears the arms of the Cantwell family and it is therefore presumed the figure commemorates Thomas de Cantwell who died in 1319 and whose family, of Norman origin, were once Lords of Kilfane. Most likely the carving was the lid of a sarcophagus since lost. Over two metres high, it is the tallest such effigy in Ireland or Britain.

IMG_7375

I shall be writing more about Kilfane and its picturesque Glen and Waterfall in a few weeks’ time.

In the Vernacular

IMG_6887

The Irish Aesthete usually features houses that are somewhat larger than average but this week, by way of change, we turn our attention to a building of decidedly modest proportions. The townland of Ballilogue in County Kilkenny enjoys likewise humble status, located down a laneway with seemingly little to distinguish it from thousands of similar spots across the country. Also like so many other places, it was once more densely populated than is now the case. The 1901 national census records twenty-two houses in the townland, presumably all of them simple dwellings unremarkable except for the number of occupants. In one of these properties, for example, Cornelius Meaney, then aged 59 and one imagines a widower, lived alone. Not far away dwelt another member of the family John, together with his wife Bridget and their two sons, James and John aged two and one respectively. Ten years later, when the next census was taken, the household of Cornelius (now listed as being 70) had grown considerably: his 74-year old sister, another Bridget, lived with him, as did the younger Bridget by then the mother of seven children, the eldest (James) being twelve and Mary the youngest just three. Either her husband John had died in the meantime or had gone elsewhere in search of work to support his family. So the house where Cornelius lived alone in 1901 had eleven occupants in 1911, since the census also records the presence of a 29-year old servant called Michael Dunne, presumably a farmhand.

IMG_6938

IMG_6947

By the 1911 census the number of occupied dwellings in Ballilogue had halved to eleven, with sixty-eight people living in the townland. A number of them were further members of the extended Meaney family, including 54-year old Patrick, together with his wife Mary, their five children and Edward Flynn who, although aged just fourteen, was already listed as being a ‘servant.’ All eight lived in the house shown here, the origins of which are believed to date back to the 1700s although subject to many changes since. In her truly excellent 1993 book on Irish Country Furniture, Claudia Kinmonth notes ‘By the nineteenth century in Ireland, the term cottage was used disparagingly, mainly by visiting English. The term is not used in this text as it was considered derogatory by country people, who called their homes houses, regardless of size and status.’ Accordingly we shall here refer to the Meaney House, not least because so it remained until only ten years ago, inhabited by successive generations of the same family before being acquired by the present owners.

IMG_6898

IMG_6902

To quote from another splendid book, A Lost Tradition: The Nature of Architecture in Ireland written by Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin in 1989, typical Irish houses in the vernacular style ‘have a familiar character, cramped, linear spaces set out on a line of doors without beginning or end – in the manner of a Baroque palace with its rooms en enfilade.’ That link between Baroque palaces and humble Irish dwellings may seem fanciful, yet it is often the case that even the most unpretentious of houses derives inspiration from a grander type. McCullough and Mulvin continue by observing how these little buildings ‘have a natural classic balance in the arrangement of simple materials and structure, in the proportion of gables, the relationship between thick white walls and small square windows, in the heavy oversailing roofs and primitive trabeaten doorways.’ This perfectly describes the character of the Meaney House, which is typical of the dwellings occupied by the majority of this country’s population for hundreds of years, although compared to many of the others it can be considered relatively large and well-appointed.

IMG_6913

IMG_6911

Traditional house types differed somewhat across Ireland, not least according to whatever materials were available for their construction, and how prosperous was the region. With regard to this part of the country, the Meaney House displays some familiar features of the Irish domestic dwelling, beginning with an entrance placed at the centre of the front and given a small porch in order to shield the interior from the worst effects of our weather. One then steps straight into the main space which, as was almost always the case, is dominated by a large hearth. This was used for cooking purposes (note the crane which allowed kettles and pots to be swung over the fire) but also provided a focal point for sociability: residents and visitors alike gathered here and the large recess beneath a hooded canopy supported by a massive beam running the width of the house allowed everyone to enjoy additional warmth. Immediately behind this is the house’s best room, the equivalent of a parlour, often kept for use only on special occasions and in the Meaney House distinguished by having a cast iron chimneypiece. On the other side of the central room are two bedrooms, with a ladder staircase in one providing access to another sleeping chamber immediately beneath the roof.

IMG_6926

IMG_6946

Another common feature of these houses was the versatility of their furnishings. Because space was at a premium and occupancy levels high, very often items served several purposes. The most obvious example of this is the settle bed, which acts as a bench during the day but then at night the seat can be opened, the bedlinen stored inside spread out and a place for sleep thereby created. Dressers, on which china, kitchen and dining utensils would be kept, might have a lower section open except for a series of bars: chickens would be kept here at night to keep them save from predators. A side effect of this was that hens, benefitting from the warm environment, continued to lay eggs all winter.
Inside the Meaney House, as these pictures show, recesses in the walls were also used for storage, the doors’ interiors lined with pieces of patterned paper: those close to the hearth would often hold food that needed to be kept dry, such as tea, sugar and salt. The utilisation of every available space emphasised utility and frugality, but also a desire to maximise comfort in our relatively harsh climate.

IMG_6950

IMG_6953

Today the Meaney House is part of a larger agglomeration of buildings restored and developed by the present owners as a retreat where guests may come to stay. When they acquired the house, it still held the greater part of the former owners’ possessions and a decision was taken to retain them in situ and to preserve the interior as an example of how most of our forebears lived until relatively recently. As little as possible was done to disrupt the building’s character or to alter its accumulated patina. For example the corrugated roof, certainly a 20th century intervention under which the older thatch still survives, was not changed. Similarly inside the house the concrete floor – again probably laid at the start of the last century as it would previously have been just compacted earth – has not been touched. The old pieces of furniture remain in place, as do most of the household goods and so forth. Some pieces previously kept out of sight are now on show: plates and platters have been arranged on one of the bedroom walls while pieces of broken china discovered in the immediate vicinity are arranged in a circle and framed. Likewise an assortment of abandoned footwear found outside has been placed on the shelves of an old pine hanging cupboard. These pieces, literal objets trouvés, further enhance the experience of visiting this little house and improve our understanding of its former residents. The Meaney House demonstrates that despite their poverty our ancestors could build with superior taste and a better understanding of the Irish environment than is usually the case today.

IMG_6892

For more information about the Meaney House and the many other marvellous facilities at Ballilogue, see: http://www.ballilogueclochan.com

Around the Ring

IMG_6805

Spotted recently on a minor road in County Kilkenny, this handsome pedimented arch which is flanked on either side by gates. These in turn lead to quadrants terminating in large cut-stone posts. The whole is most arresting despite being in a sad state of disrepair, and appears once to have been the entrance to an estate called Ringwood. In the 18th century, Ringwood was owned by members of the Agar family and the core of a still-extant house nearby was most likely built in the late 1730s by James Agar whose political ambitions were blighted by a long-standing dispute with one of the leading orators of the period, Henry Flood. The two men fought a duel in 1765 and then a second one four years later using pistols. Agar fired first and missed, he shouted ‘Fire, you scoundrel,’ and was promptly shot dead: although the deceased’s family brought a case against Flood for murder, he was found guilty of manslaughter in his own defence and freed. James Agar’s son George had a happier political career than his father, and was eventually ennobled as first (and last) Lord Callan. His prelate nephew Charles Agar became Archbishop first of Cashel and later of Dublin before likewise receiving a peerage as first Earl of Normanton. The Normanton seat today is Somerley, Hampshire which lies just a couple of miles away from a market town called Ringwood.

IMG_6807

Casting Light on the Subject

IMG_3153

An elaborate late-Gothic window with double trefoil arch below a quatrefoil at the east end of the south aisle of St Mary’s, Gowran, County Kilkenny. The core of the present building dates from around 1275 when it was erected on the site of an earlier monastery. St Mary’s was a collegiate church, meaning it was placed under the care of a “college” of clerics who lived in a community without submitting to any specific monastic rule. Since the 19th century the chancel and central tower have served as the local Church of Ireland church while the main body has remained a picturesque ruin. The play of patterned sunlight seen here comes from the great west window at the nave end.

Majestic Though in Ruin

IXSMBURCOHJONBP-03b5704419b1465c8a20e1614a7b13aa

IXSMBURCOHJONBP-4c3e2e2438904107bb6fb651f07ff123

On August 29th last, the Irish Times reported that the portico of a small 18th century lodge in County Kilkenny had collapsed. Not, one might reasonably think, a matter of great import, certainly not as momentous as the disintegration of other buildings reported by the Irish Aesthete over the past year. But this is to ignore the architectural significance of the structure in question, and what its neglect over the past decade says about our failure to care for the built heritage.
The temple or columnar lodge stands within the grounds of Belline, an estate not far from Piltown. In the second half of the 18th century Belline was occupied by Peter Walsh (d. 1819), whose family appear to have been agents for the Ponsonbys, Earls of Bessborough whose Irish seat Bessborough House was in the same part of the country. Walsh may well have been a tenant of the Ponsonbys; it is known that Lady Caroline Lamb, daughter of the third Lord Bessborough, stayed at Belline with her husband William (the future Lord Melbourne and future Prime Minister at the time of Queen Victoria’s accession) in September 1812 in the aftermath of her highly-publicised affair with Lord Byron.
Whatever Peter Walsh’s precise status, he was regarded in Ireland as an improving landholder, much given to agricultural improvements and to bettering the circumstances of less-fortunate residents in the region. Of particular relevance to the subject under consideration here is the fact that he was also an ardent antiquarian, commissioning and collecting architectural drawings of Ireland’s ancient monuments, and keen to preserve the relics of our history, some of which have since passed into national collections. Both during his lifetime and after his death Walsh was held in high regard; James Norris Brewer in his Beauties of Ireland (1825) declared ‘we are well convinced that every reader, to whom he was known, will join in the warmth of our admiration and the sincerity of our regret; so general was the esteem created by his unassuming virtues!’

IXSMBURCOHJONBP-25bc5ea9a8fe4a4597a32546dce94af4

IXSMBURCOHJONBP-b15c7f1626f34d30a1dd3370337507d9

IXSMBURCOHJONBP-4630672feba4472ebbd0f6298141de97

Dating from around 1770, Belline House was built by Peter Walsh who then went on to construct a number of other splendid edifices in the surrounding grounds, the majority of which survive to the present day. These included a detached gallery, known as the ‘Drawing School’ since according to Brewer, it ‘was constituted as a sort of academy for students by the active liberality of the late Mr Walsh…several children of the peasantry in this neighbourhood have lately evinced a considerable degree of genius for drawing. Such as were of greatest promise, Mr. Walsh took under his immediate protection, and supported in the pursuit of the art to which they aspired.’ Then there was ‘a most admirable pattern for a farm house; it is an octagon of two stories, inclosing a yard in the centre; below is a dairy, a residence for the dairy-man, cow-house, stable, and other offices, above is a loft for corn, extended over the whole building.’ And in addition there is a pair of circular pavilions behind Belline House, each three storeys high, the top floors serving as pigeon houses, and a pair of octagonal stone gate lodges (one still standing) at the southern entrance to the demesne.
Finally we come to the smallest but perhaps most remarkable of Peter Walsh’s buildings: the temple lodge. Comprising portico, front room and two rear chambers, its precise date of construction and purpose are unclear; standing in the midst of the estate and not beside an entrance it was unlikely to have been a gate lodge but might have been intended as a summer pavilion or model dairy. But what is most important is that Belline’s temple lodge has been judged the earliest known example in Britain and Ireland of the 18th century ‘rustic hut’ inspired by theories on the origins of man-made structures expounded first in 1753 by the French Jesuit and philosopher Marc-Antoine Laugier in his Essai sur l’architecture (translated into English in 1755) and then by Sir William Chambers in A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759). In fact it has sometimes been proposed that the Belline lodge was designed by Chambers since it shares similarities with a drawing he made in 1759 for just such a building. The identity of the architect responsible may never be known but we can be confident that the Belline lodge is an important expression of the 18th century’s interest in exploring the past, and that its composition reflects the ideas proposed by Laugier and Chambers. Hence the building is intentionally ‘primitive’ incorporating tree trunks bound with ropework on every side and a pedimented portico to the front below the gabled roof that extends beyond the walls to end in stone blocks.

Recent 3

Recent 2

Recent 1

By the mid-19th century Belline had reverted to the Bessboroughs and remained in their ownership until 1934 after which the estate changed hands a number of times until being bought ten years ago for €3 million by businessman James Coleman. Managing director of a company called Suirway Forklifts based in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary Mr Coleman has in the past declared himself a passionate enthusiast of motor rallying and indeed his business has sponsored a number of events for this sport. On the other hand, he seems less keen to support and sustain the national heritage, since over the past decade Belline’s temple lodge has fallen into such dilapidation that, as was reported by the Irish Times less than a fortnight ago, the building’s portico has now collapsed.
It is inconceivable that the lodge’s deteriorating condition was unknown to its owner: there have been two reports on the building and its importance, one compiled by architect John Redmill in 2005, the other by chartered surveyor Frank Keohane earlier this year. Furthermore the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage designated the lodge as being of architectural interest under the Categories of Special Interest. On the other hand as Frank Keohane noted in his report, to which I am much indebted, until now the lodge has not been designated a protected structure in its own right but rather ‘deemed to be protected owing to its being located within the cartilage of Belline House which is a protected structure.’ Clearly this has proven inadequate.
Keohane wisely makes the point that the lodge at Belline must be regarded as of international importance both in its own right and as part of a planned 18th century demesne in which diverse complementary elements contributed to the resultant whole. As he writes, ‘The temple lodge is not an artefact to be appreciated in isolation. It is in fact an important element in a group of related structures within the demesne.’ Destroy one of those related structures and you disrupt the entire picture: it is not unlike cutting a section out of a painting.
According to the Irish Times, John McCormack who is a Director of Services at Kilkenny County Council with responsibility for heritage said the authority had served a planning enforcement notice on Mr Coleman in May 2012 ‘for failing to undertake works to prevent this protected structure from becoming or continuing to be endangered.’ Legal proceedings commenced the following October and since then ‘there have been four separate court appearances in relation to this prosecution while the council sought to negotiate with the owner. A full hearing of the case is listed for October 7th next at Carrick-on-Suir District Court.’
One waits to see what will happen in four weeks’ time since not only is the survival of Belline’s temple lodge at stake but the forthcoming hearing represents something of a test case. If owners of protected structures can ignore their responsibilities with impunity, then still worse misfortunes lie ahead for our architectural heritage. The national patrimony is at risk in a way that would, one imagines, have appalled Peter Walsh.
The first two photographs show Belline’s temple lodge as it looked in the 19th century, note how at one time the building was thatched. The next three show the lodge in 2005, already with its slates removed from the roof, followed by another three photographs taken earlier this year. Finally below is a picture of the lodge as shown in the Irish Times with its portico in ruins.

image

The Irish Aesthete Recommends IV

Melo L-C

Anyone who has read Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond will be familiar with its opening lines: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon who owned a Levantine hotel near Palmyra.’
Those words always remind me of Melosina Lenox-Conyngham who, like the narrator’s aunt Dot was an inveterate and fearless traveller until her death almost two years ago. Melo, seen above wheeling her bicycle through the gates of Lavistown Cottage, County Kilkenny where she lived, wrote and broadcast many articles about her journeys, her low voice (Melo might have been short for Melodious) recounting all sorts of adventures with terrific gusto and humour. In one of these pieces, she described riding on a camel to Timbuktu, the silence of the desert reigning absolute until ‘it was broken by a familiar jingle, and Mahomet extracted from his long blue robes a mobile telephone that he poked into the folds of his turban.’
Back in Ireland, Melo entertained frequently – I remember an abundance of cobwebs but also very good home-made biscuits each topped with a blanched almond – and told still more tales of where she had been and what she had done. Between trips she served as indefatigable secretary of the Butler Society and did much to encourage interest in the history of this part of Ireland and its architectural heritage.
One greatly misses Melo but now a terrific selection of her writings A Life in Postcards has been published by the Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie). The book perfectly captures the author’s wry tone and is definitely to be recommended if you would like to know more about this very special woman and her distinctive outlook on life.

An Irishman’s Home is His Tower House

image

All across Ireland can be seen buildings commonly known as castles but which ought more correctly be called tower houses. The tower house is not exclusive to this country, similar structures being found along the Scottish Borders. However, the sheer quantity of these edifices make them one of the most distinctive features of the Irish landscape: it has been estimated that between 1400 and 1650 in the region of 3,000 tower houses were constructed.
A statute issued by Henry VI in 1429 declared, ‘It is agreed and asserted that every liege man of our Lord, the King of the said Counties, who chooses to build a Castle or Tower House sufficiently embattled or fortified, wither the next ten years to wit 20 feet in length, 16 feet in width and 40 feet in height or more, that the commons of the said Counties shall pay to the said person, to build the said Castle or Tower ten pounds by way of subsidy.’ It is often proposed that this piece of legislation, with its financial incentive, did much to encourage the popularity of tower houses, and also their uniformity of design.

image

image

There is some dispute whether the tower house’s primary purpose was defensive or residential; one suspects it varied according to geographic and political circumstances. Typically the building is rectangular and constructed of irregular stones, the walls in excess of four feet thick at base level and rising four or five storeys high. A single arch doorway offered admission with the large arched ground floor devoted to diverse purposes including storage of foodstuff and livestock. Above the entrance was an opening called the Murder Hole, through which boiling liquids or arrows could be directed in the event of an attack. Windows at this level were little more than slits although they were larger further up. The family lived on the tower’s top storeys, but levels of comfort were pretty minimal.
Various descriptions of life in a tower house have come down to us and none of them make it sound especially luxurious. For example the Spaniard Cuillar wrote in 1588 ‘The Irish have no furniture and sleep on the ground, on a bed of rushes, wet with rain and stiff with frost…’ Half a century later the French traveller, M. de la Bouillaye le Gouz observed ‘The castles of the nobility consist of four walls, extremely high and thatched with straw but to tell the truth, they are nothing but square towers without windows or at least having such small apertures as to give no more light than a prison. They have little furniture and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in Summer and straw in Winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.’

image

image

In many respects Kilbline Castle, County Kilkenny is a typical Irish tower house. Rising five storeys high, it has round bartizans or wall-mounted turrets at each corner of the east front and a slender chimney-stack between them. The surrounding bawn wall survives in part but some sections were demolished in the last century to permit the erection of modern farm sheds. Kilbline is usually dated to the 14th/15th centuries but a large limestone chimneypiece on the first floor carries the date 1580 so it is possible that was when the building was completed. On the other hand, there is reference to Kilbline Castle being forfeited by one Thomas Comerford of Ballymac in 1566 so perhaps the chimneypiece was inserted into the tower by its subsequent owner.
That person may have been a member of the Shortall family of Rathardmore Castle in the same county. Thomas Shortall of Rathardmore died in 1628 and not long after his heir Peter moved to the castle of Kilbline, where he subsequently lived. His estates, which ran to some 1,500 acres were declared forfeited by the Cromwellian government in 1653 and his sons ordered to be sent to Connaught, although one of them seems to have returned to Kilbline, perhaps after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Nevertheless, Kilbline once more changed hands during this period.

image

image

Originally from Newcastle in Northumberland, William Candler is believed to have served as an officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army during the Irish wars of 1649-53. As a reward for his endeavours, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and granted lands in County Kilkenny, including those on which stands Kilbline Castle. He and his wife Anne Villiers had two sons, the younger of whom John is known to have lived at Kilbline. John Candler had a single son Thomas who, in turn, had only the one child, Walsingham; he never married and so that line of Candlers came to an end.
To return to Lt.Col. Candler, his older son Thomas who lived at Callan Castle had four sons, the youngest of whom Daniel caused a rumpus within the family by marrying an Irishwoman, possibly a Roman Catholic, called Hannah and as a result was obliged to leave first County Kilkenny and then Ireland. Around 1735 Daniel and Hannah Candler moved to the America Colonies, initially settling in North Carolina before they moved to Bedford, Virginia. Their great, great, great-grandson was Asa Griggs Candler, the entrepreneur who in 1888 bought the formula for Coca Cola and made himself fabulously rich as a result.

image

image

Kilbline Castle continued to be occupied until just a few decades ago. At some point, probably in the 19th century, a two storey three-bay house was added on the west end of the tower house and a further single storey structure abuts this. The interior of the house remains relatively intact and suggests a degree of affluence on the part of the occupants.
However, the most architecturally significant feature of Kilbline is a wonderful panelled room on the south-east corner of the ground floor. Most likely of oak (it was hard to tell with certainty) this looks to date from the late 17th or early 18th centuries and must therefore have been created while the building was occupied by the Candlers. Although the ceiling is now covered in tongue-and-groove boards, all the wall panelling is intact, as is the old chimneypiece (the latter marred only by a shelf added at some later date). This rare instance of early Irish interior decoration is some 300 years old and given that the house has been empty for some time it remains in remarkably good condition, as can be seen in the pictures above. The present owners, although they do not live in the building, are aware of its importance and would dearly love to restore Kilbline and ensure its future.

image