When Salvation is at Hand

 

 

 

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The debt which Ireland owes to members of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, is insufficiently appreciated. Although always relatively small in number, members of their faith were often outstandingly industrious and possessed of exceptional foresight. One of the most notable among them was Anthony Sharp, born in Gloucestershire in 1643 before moving to this country in 1669 to escape religious persecution in England. He settled in Dublin where he became involved in the wool trade and quickly gained success: by 1680 he employed some 500 workers and eight years later the Weavers’ Guild elected him Master; he also became an Alderman of Dublin. As well as allowing him to acquire extensive property in the capital, Sharp’s business acumen provided him with the necessary funds to buy land elsewhere in Ireland, notably in what was then known as Queen’s County, now Laois. Around 1685 he purchased from Thomas Sharkey of Abbeyleix some 1,700 acres in Killinure based around a small dwelling house. Using the land to graze sheep and thus produce more wool, Sharp established a small community in Killinure which came to have the informal name Friends Town and it appears there were other buildings in the vicinity including mills. Even before buying the estate in Ireland Anthony Sharp had been one of the original shareholders in the purchase of West New Jersey in 1677 (in which William Penn, who had converted to Quakerism while in Ireland, was also involved). Likewise, when East New Jersey was bought by the Quakers in 1682 Sharp was an investor.  While he remained in Ireland, in late 1700 his eldest son Isaac Sharp moved to America where he settled in Salem County, New Jersey, naming the district Blessington after the County Wicklow town (the area in New Jersey is now known as Sharpstown).

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Anthony Sharp died in 1707 and was buried in Dublin. The bulk of his property was bequeathed to his son Isaac who at the time was still living in Salem County where he served as a judge and a colonel of the local militia; he would also be a member of the New Jersey General Assembly from 1709-21. In 1714 he married a local woman, Margaret Braithwaite, with whom he had six children. Thus although being the principal beneficiary of his father’s estate, he remained in America and only returned to Ireland around 1726, together with his eldest son Anthony. The latter thus inherited the Killinure property on his own father’s death in 1735 (he conveyed the East New Jersey lands to his younger brothers five years later). Anthony Sharp remained on the Killinure estate, now called Roundwood, until his death in 1781; he had two children, a boy and a girl but the former Isaac Sharp died while still a minor and the estate passed to the son of Anthony Sharp’s daughter Frances’ son, one Robert Anthony Flood who in accordance with the terms of his grandfather’s will assumed the surname Sharp. Soon after the family’s decline began, Robert Sharp taking out a mortgage in 1784, a year after his marriage to Mary Horan of Dublin, on all his properties in the capital. He died in 1803 leaving a one year-old heir William Flood Sharp under whom the deterioration of finances accelerated to such an extent that in 1835 the house and demesne of 1,680 acres were assigned to a Dublin attorney to cover the family’s debts. One of the witnesses to the deed of transfer was a first cousin once-removed William Hamilton of Peafield in the same county. Two years later Hamilton was shown to be in possession of Roundwood and his descendants remained there until 1968 when Major Maurice Chetwode Hamilton sold house and remaining 200 acres to the Land Commission.

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The Land Commission, as was ever that body’s wont, displayed no interest in the house which was left boarded up, its condition soon deteriorating. It might have been lost altogether had the Irish Georgian Society not stepped in to buy house and surrounding fourteen acres for £6,250 in the summer of 1970. There was no water supply or electricity but thankfully the building had not been vandalised and its chimneypieces and other features were intact. Brian Molloy, one of the IGS’s most spirited members at the time moved into Roundwood and aided by a band of volunteers set about rescuing Roundwood. A diary he kept during those first months indicates just how dilapidated the house had become and how much had to be done. In an entry for July 15th 1970, he notes that a 19th century extension to the rear of the house ‘was consumed with dry rot, wet rot and decay’ (it was soon demolished) and three days later, ‘Mr Maloney the electrician is coming on Tuesday, thank God. He gave an estimate of £218, very reasonable as it includes 47 thirteen amp sockets.’ Gradually the house was refurbished and decorated at a cost of just £15,000: the drawingroom’s Victorian chimneypiece was replaced with a fine 18th century example from Bert House, County Kildare but otherwise little was added to the building. Similarly the overgrown grounds and stable yard were cleared and tidied. The house was officially opened on June 6th 1971 after which Brian Molloy lived there while overseeing the restoration of the Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (for more on that property, see Bon Anniversaire, September 23rd 2013). Two years later it was bought from the society for £35,000 by one of the organisation’s keenest American supporters, John L Tormey of Akron, Ohio. He was happy that Brian Molloy should continue to live there as he did until his untimely death in 1978, after which John Tormey generously donated Roundwood back to the Society. It was then occupied for a time by Brian Molloy’s friend, the artist’s muse Henrietta Moraes before being leased from the IGS in 1983 by Frank and Rosemarie Kennan. Five years later they bought Roundwood from the society and today their daughter and son-in-law Hannah and Paddy Flynn live there and, like her parents, run the house as a family guesthouse.

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Roundwood has often and rightly been described as having the appearance and character of a doll’s house and is certainly one of the prettiest such properties remaining in Ireland. The building must date from before 1741 which is when the name Roundwood first appears in registered deeds instead of Killinure. One can therefore presume it was built by Anthony Sharp shortly after he came into his inheritance in 1735. The main elevation is of five bays and three storeys with a break front, the central projecting bay crowned with a pediment. There is only a part-basement and unusually the kitchen has always been on the ground floor behind the dining room. The entrance doorcase is Gibbsian, flanked on both sides by narrow windows and composed of limestone, unlike the rest of the facade which is of sandstone with side and back being rendered. The design of the house has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon but what might be described as the clumsiness of certain elements make this unlikely. It has been noted, for example, how the detailing of the first floor Venetian window lacks sophistication and its coursing differs from that of the quoins. As Maurice Craig wrote in 1976, ‘I prefer to believe it was just put together by somebody: master-builder or even owner.’ One suspects this was often the case in 18th century provincial Ireland.
The greater part of the interior remains unaltered, the rooms still with their carved timber architraves to window openings, lugged doorcases and panelled wainscotting, as well as some primitive rococo plasterwork in the former study. All the chimney pieces remain except, as already mentioned, that in the drawing room which came from Bert, County Kildare, a house of similar date. But the great delight of Roundwood is its double-height entrance hall with a bow-fronted first-floor gallery once described as swelling out like a pair of opera boxes, their balustrades made of distinctive Chinoiserie fretwork. No matter how many times one visits Roundwood, the sight of its entrance hall lifts the spirits up and beyond the ceiling’s stucco foliate centrepiece. Forty-five years ago the future of this house looked decidedly uncertain and many others of its ilk were lost then and in the intervening years. Thankfully in this instance salvation was at hand in the nick of time. Roundwood has survived and now serves as an wonderful example of how such properties can be both a family home and financially viable.


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Elevation and sectional drawings by architect John O’Connell.
Roundwood welcomes guests. For more information, see: http://www.roundwoodhouse.com

On the Town I

During 2015 the Irish Aesthete will visit an Irish town once a month and comment on the state of its architectural heritage. January’s town is Drogheda, County Louth.

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As has often been pointed out the name Droichead Átha – meaning Bridge of the Ford – indicates Drogheda is the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea. This made the place strategically important. Although St Patrick is said to have landed here and Viking raiding parties wintered in the area, Drogheda was only founded, as two separate towns on either side of the Boyne, in the late 12th century when Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey in the Millmount area. For two centuries rival corporations faced each other across the river but were united as one in 1412. As evidence of its prosperity, Drogheda was subject to raids by both the Scots and the native Irish, leading to the construction of walls some twenty feet high and with a circumference of more than one and a half miles. These defences were strong enough to repulse an attack in 1315-16 by Edward the Bruce’s Scottish army in 1316-16. The most visible remnant today is St Laurence’s Gate on the eastern side of the old town. While the medieval religious establishments were closed during the Reformation, otherwise Drogheda continued to blossom until caught up in the wars of the 1640s. In November 1641 the Irish Confederate army under Sir Phelim O’Neill laid siege to the town and three times attempted to take it, without success; eventually the following spring relief forces from Dublin forced O’Neill to retire. Seven years later the town was again besieged, this time by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army which after three days gained possession and slaughtered many of the citizens. But Drogheda recovered from this terrible event and thanks to a revival of trade enjoyed something of a golden age in the 18th century when some of its finest extant buildings were constructed. Commercial decline began in the second half of the 19th century and has continued ever since; with improved transport links, such as the arrival of the railway and then the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin (less than 35 miles) has been to its disadvantage. The consequences of this are evident to anyone visiting the place.

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As already mentioned, the most tangible attestation of Drogheda’s medieval defences is St Laurence’s Gate. The print at the top of this page, taken from John D’Alton’s History of Drogheda and its Environs (1844) shows how the gate, with its little toll houses on either side, looked in the first half of the 19th century looking eastwards up St Laurence Street with the old grammar school (of which more below) to the north and a series of handsome houses to the south. Originally built in the 13th century and St Laurence’s Gate survives but is difficult to inspect or appreciate, both because surrounded by a jumble of telegrath wires and other clutter, and because it is used by traffic as a point of entry from this side of the town. Immediately to the south on Featherbed Lane is a section of the old walls with its series of elliptical arches: both the walls and the lane are in poor condition and look as though little has been done for many years to improve their state. Moving northwards and to the periphery of the old town one reaches the Magdalene Tower, all that remains of the Dominican Friary founded by Lucas de Netterville, Archbishop of Armagh in 1224. It is likely to be of a later date, the upper windows judged to be from the early 14th century. At the end of the same century it was here that the Ulster chiefs acknowledged their submission to Richard II. Today it stands isolated amid housing estates. The Magdalene Tower’s environment is considerably better than that of Drogheda’s other medieval ecclesiastical remains, those of the Abbey and Hospital of St Mary d’Urso, aptly described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan in 1993 as ‘a perfect expression of the State’s lackadaisical attitude towards its historic buildings.’ More than two decades later, nothing has changed. Found at the end of Abbey Lane, despite its central location the tower is surrounded by derelict buildings, rubbish and graffiti: an apt metaphor for how Drogheda treats its architectural heritage

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After the depredations of the 17th century, much of Drogheda had to be rebuilt. But in addition the town’s regained prosperity encouraged something of a building boom as affluent citizens wished to live in better premises than had their forebears. One of the most notable additions of the period was Barlow House on Drogheda’s western perimeter. The building dates from 1734 when Alderman James Barlow married Althemia Leigh, daughter of another alderman and merchant; its prominence even at the time is attested by an appearance on Joseph Ravell’s map of the town which was produced in 1749. The architect is unknown but it has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon. Of three storeys over basement, and five bays wide with a stone eaves cornice, the focus of the house’s facade is a pedimented Gibbsian doorcase with the first-floor window above flanked by scrolled volutes topped by a segmental pediment. In the mid-19th century the building became a police station and continued being used as such until 1997. In 2000 a three-year restoration programme began and the house is now used as a venue by the local arts centre. Some thirty years after James Barlow began building his new residence and as evidence of the town’s mercantile prosperity, in 1765 Drogheda Corporation ordered the demolition of the old wooden tholsel and the construction of a new replacement. Completed in five years, this was designed by George Darley and faces onto two thoroughfares with a plain four-bay front on Shop Street and an entrance front around the corner on West Street. With an exaggeratedly high first floor this rises just two storeys before being crowned by a cupola tower ending in an octagonal belfry and dome. The Tholsell was converted into a bank in 1890 and continued as such until a few years ago: it is now a tourist office. Between them, the Barlow House and the Tholsel reflect the confidence and ambition of Drogheda’s citizens in the 18th century, qualities that are much less apparent in the town today.

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At least both the Barlow House and the Tholsel survive. The fate of Drogheda Grammar School provides a salutary instance of how easily a town’s architectural heritage can be lost. This institution occupied what had been Mr Clarke’s Free School on St Laurence Street (founded 1669) and the neighbouring Singleton House. The former building begun in 1728 was attributed to Michael Wills who at the time worked as an assistant to Thomas Burgh. The latter, possibly designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, was built circa 1740 as a residence for Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland; it contained one of the finest oak-panelled interiors in Ireland including a magnificent staircase. Both were used by the grammaer school until it moved to modern premises in 1975. Thereafter the two houses stood empty for several years until 1978 when a consortium of local businessmen set up a company called DGS Ltd. This acquired the old Grammar School for £70,000 and looked for an opportunity to demolish the buildings even though they had been listed since 1967 as ‘worthy of preservation.’ A small group of civic-minded local residents established the Drogheda Grammar School Preservation Committee in an effort to counter DGS Ltd’s systematic neglect, a policy based on the expectation that eventually the site would be deemed irreparably dilapidated. To add insult to injury in April 1980 the company claimed £12,500 from Drogheda Corporation for vandalism to the old Grammar School, a property the DGS Ltd had done nothing to protect. Indeed the local authority, while insisting it wanted the old Grammar School to survive and discussing the possibility of the buildings’ use as a public library, signally failed to utilise its statutory powers compelling the owners to safeguard listed properties. Over the next decade a series of court cases followed, during which the condition of the buildings continued to deteriorate. Then one Sunday morning in July 1989 a demolition contractor hired by DGS Ltd moved onto the site and proceeded to knock down the old Grammar School. The local preservation committee immediately went to the High Court in Dublin where the presiding judge issued an order preventing any further demolition or the removal of building materials and requiring the protection of the remains of the building. It proved to be a Pyrhhic victory, as the damage done during the unauthorised work was so great not even the original facade could be salvaged. Eventually a replica of this was built behind which DGS Ltd developed its intended shops and offices. This is what one sees today. What should have been a valuable tourist asset to all Drogheda and the surrounding region was obliterated so that a handful of speculators might gain.

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Drogheda’s former prosperity deserted it some time ago: when Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term that would not be out of place today: last week in the annual nationwide survey of towns organised by Irish Business Against Litter Drogheda had fallen to 35th place out of 40. The links between urban decay and litter, together with such associated problems as graffiti, are too well known to need repeating here. What really shocks a visitor to Drogheda is the flagrant neglect of the town’s historic fabric, the fact that so many old buildings are being permitted to fall into desuetude. There is scarcely a street in the centre which does not have several houses in advanced stages of the decay cited by Thackeray, and the consequences are inevitable: the property is not treated with respect, becomes subjected to vandalism, slips further into ruin and likely drags neighbours with it. After all, who wants to live or conduct a business in an area on its way down?
To pick one example of many possible, Fair Street, which has many fine 18th century townhouses and should be cherished, is today anything but fair in appearance despite the former Francis Johnston-designed Cornmarket having housed the local authority since the end of the 19th century: if those in charge don’t see the problems on their doorstep, what hope anyone else will? Likewise while Barlow House has been restored, many other buildings in the vicinity are in an advanced stage of decay, giving a very poor impression of the western entrance to the old town. With its enviably rich architectural history, Drogheda has the potential to rival Kilkenny in terms of becoming a popular tourist destination. It needs both literally and metaphorically to clean up its act and start appreciating the advantages it has been bequeathed. But at the moment, the town is failing to reap the benefits of its heritage, preferring instead to squander them. When explanations are sought as to why Irish towns should be in seemingly inexorable decline, Drogheda can provide a ready and regrettable explanation.

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An Incomplete Project

Dublin print

A view from Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge looking south. This was one of twelve topographical images of the city executed in watercolour and pencil by Samuel Brocas and then engraved by his brother Henry between 1818 and 1829. The caption reads ‘Published July 1st, 1820, by J. Le Petit, Printseller,  20 Capel Street, and Bell and Wright, Duke Street, Bloomsbury, London.’ The print was to be part of an intended Book of Views of Ireland which never materialised, probably due to lack of sufficient support but it gives us a wonderful idea of how Dublin looked two centuries ago, and how successful had been the work of the Wide Street Commissioners. Imagine a similar view taken today, and how little of the coherence of design and intelligence of layout visible here still remains.

 

Looking Back

IMG_5969Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.

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Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.

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Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.

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There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.

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It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.

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Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.

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A Little Gem

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The main house may have gone at Loughcrew, County Meath (eventually demolished in 1968 after suffering three fires over the previous 100 years) but the lodge remains. Designed in the early 1820s by Charles Cockerell it boldly stands on the opposite side of the road from the estate entrance gates. Of limestone and in pure Greek Doric style, the lodge is probably more attractive than was ever the house, the latter described by its own architect as ‘very plain, too bald.’

Misjudging a Book by its Cover

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Readers are asked not to become too despondent at the sight of the photograph above: this is a case of appearances being deceptive. Beyond the unprepossessing façade lie some quite marvellous interiors, albeit these are – like the outside – in need of reparative attention. What you see is Glasnevin House, today a small portion of a conventual site belonging to the Holy Faith order but once a free-standing private residence set in renowned gardens.
Now a suburb of the capital, Glasnevin – from the Irish Glas Naíon meaning ‘stream of the infants’ although it is also proposed the name derives from Glas Naedhe meaning ‘stream of O’Naeidhe’ after an ancient chieftain – lies some three miles north of central Dublin on the banks of the river Tolka. The earliest settlement is believed to have been a monastery founded in the early sixth century by St Mobhi but by the early 800s the land had become a farm for Christ Church Cathedral and remained such until the sixteenth century Reformation with the accompanying dissolution of monasteries, after which Glasnevin’s monastery fell into ruin.

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The upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the lands of Glasnevin pass in and out of the control of Christ Church Cathedral until their ownership returned to government. Finally in 1703 a large portion of Glasnevin was bought by the wealthy merchant and politician Sir John Rogerson, whose name is commemorated by the quay on the south bank of the Liffey. Born c.1648 in Holland (whence his father had followed the future Charles II into exile), Rogerson initially lived in London but by 1674 had moved to Dublin where he was listed as a parishioner of St Andrew’s church off Dame Street. The following decade he became an Alderman and in 1693 was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, acquiring a knighthood in the same year. The reason for his riverside commemoration is that in 1712 Rogerson, by that date also an MP, leased 133 acres along the south banks of the Liffey and there constructed a wall and quay stretching as far as the mouth of the Dodder, making it the largest and most important privately funded development in the embankment of the city. Of more interest to us, some ten years earlier Rogerson was already sufficiently affluent to buy land at Glasnevin where, on the outskirts of a hamlet that had grown up in the vicinity of the old monastery, he built a country retreat called The Glen or Glasnevin House.

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At least some of the residence built by Sir John Rogerson likely survives within the walls of the present Glasnevin House but long subsumed into a larger property. It has been proposed on more than one occasion that the architect of this building, commissioned by the wealthy merchant’s son, another John Rogerson (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland for fourteen years until his death in 1741) was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Mention of Pearce has been made here more than once (most recently, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th last). In the 2001 edition of the Irish Arts Review, Jeremy Williams argued strongly that Glasnevin House was designed by Pearce who extended a small farmhouse on the site. The farmhouse would have been in the eastern wing (that is, to the right-hand in the first photograph), which was raised by a storey. Unfortunately this portion of the building was reconstructed more than half a century ago. However originally it would have matched the wing to the west. Between these is a recessed three-bay entrance dominated by a monumental pedimented doorframe (it was changed to a window when modifcations were made to the building by the Holy Faith nuns around 1874). On the other side of the building, Williams argued, a similar arrangement prevailed, again presenting the building as being of two-storeys over basement. Side elevations reveal a third mezzanine floor between ground and first, just as can be found at Bellamont Forest, County Cavan, which has long been attributed to Pearce. And like Bellamont, Glasnevin enjoys a lofty entrance hall with coved ceiling (the green painted room above).

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When the second John Rogerson died in 1741, since he had no sons his estate was divided between daughters with the elder, Elizabeth – wife of Abraham Creighton, first Lord Erne – inheriting Glasnevin. By 1748 the house was occupied by John Putland, a keen bibliophile who would serve as treasurer of the Dublin Society. How long Putland remained in residence is open to question because a couple of decades later Glasnevin House passed into the hands of banker and politician Hugh Henry Mitchell. At some point during this period the building underwent major structural changes, most likely both extended and redecorated at the same time. A cantilevered mahogany staircase was inserted into the west wing and on the ground floor two large reception rooms created looking southwards across gardens that dropped to the Tolka (Mitchell was a noted horticulturalist). It is the redecoration then undertaken that engages us now since despite severe subsequent modifications to the exterior Glasnevin House’s mid-18th century interiors have survived intact. And the preservation of its sumptuous plasterwork is especially gratifying because this is now attributed to the St Peter’s Stuccodore discussed here a fortnight ago (see Spirituality as Spectacle, December 8th last). The entrance and stair halls, upper landing, a small first-floor room and most notable the two ground floor reception rooms show the hand of a master craftsman at work. To quote from An Insular Rococo (Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw, 1999), ‘thick, swirling slices of rocaille loop and bend in an assertive symmetry of hard, serrated arcs. Sometimes, always in twinned balance, these sprout acanthus leaves to assert an organic life, but here the rocaille outnumbers the acanthus in a ratio of five to one…To take the place of the usual linking acanthus there are flower trails of daisies and roses linking and dangling from the rocaille extremities in florist’s shop profusion…here the plasterwork enriches, it does not overwhelm, it has become heavyweight Rococo, not transitional Baroque.’

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Although by the same hand, the decoration of each space is treated differently. This is most apparent in the smaller of the two reception rooms where the ceiling has been compartmentalised ‘with ribs of paterae and guilloche,’ to cite Mowl and Earnshaw again. They continue, ‘A few of the compartments have flower swags but all the stress of the room is on its divisions.’ Here and elsewhere in the house the plasterwork is dated to around 1760 but already by that date it was anachronistic, especially so close to Dublin where fashionable taste already preferred a lighter touch. Thus the decoration of Glasnevin House is a last spirited flourish of the European Baroque spirit, confident even in the face of defeat. The vast cartouche-like panels found on the walls of the stair hall are out of proportion for the space but executed with an irrepressible exuberance that somehow overcomes – or perhaps overwhelms – all spatial handicaps.
There were once many more such houses found in the greater Dublin area – Delville, the home of Dr Patrick and Mrs Delany stood on an adjoining site – but almost all of them have been lost (Delville was demolished in 1951). This makes the preservation of Glasnevin all the more remarkable, and precious. In the early 19th century the property was acquired by the Rev. Charles Lindsay, Anglican Bishop of Kildare whose heirs sold it to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1853. Twelve years later Glasnevin House passed into the ownership of the Holy Faith nuns who have have remained there ever since. The fluctuating needs of the order, which has run novitiates and schools on the site, required additional buildings and as a result severely compromised the original house. Yet somehow the greater part of its interior remains, an unexpected and remarkable example of Irish 18th century craftsmanship. Glasnevin House demonstrates that superficial appearances can be deceptive.

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For the Present III

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In 1972 Mariga Guinness claimed that Ireland ‘has more follies to the acre than anywhere else in the world.’ The assertion has yet to be verified (has anyone actually traversed every acre of the country in search of follies?) but we certainly have our ample share of these whimsical edifices. Some research on the subject has been published but usually of an academic nature and with no spirit of the playfulness which inspired the typical folly’s construction. For surely the essence of such a building’s character lies in its name, with the implication of common sense being absent and fun gaining the upper hand.
What a treat, therefore, to find a book which celebrates the irrational, glorifies the absurd and encourages the downright nonsensical. Fabulous Follies of Ireland is a collaboration between author William Laffan and illustrator Nesta FitzGerald. It explores fifteen of the country’s follies, some of them like the Casino at Marino (shown above) widely known, others such as McDermott’s Castle at Rockingham, County Roscommon insufficiently appreciated. And it does so with just the right balance of erudition and wit, ensuring readers are as much entertained as informed. The book is published by the Irish Georgian Society, the emblem of which – the Conolly Folly, County Kildare – can be seen below. It costs €7.50, making this a fabulous folly anyone can afford.

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