A Call to Action

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Last November the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a document called An Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership. In her Introduction Minister Heather Humphreys observed that these properties ‘are an important part of our social, cultural and architectural heritage,’ as well as being ‘an essential thread of our national story and a great source of local community pride.’ Furthermore historic houses are ‘a vital attraction for both local and foreign visitors and they play an important role in stimulating economic development, particularly at community level.’
Last Thursday members of the Browne family announced that Westport House, County Mayo where they and their forebears have lived for almost 350 years, is to be placed on the open market. The financial difficulties faced by the Brownes, arising from a bank loan (and its attendant guarantees) taken out in 2006 by the late Jeremy Sligo, have been well known for some time. (Incidentally, they demonstrate yet again how in this country while a borrower can be penalised for making an ill-advised decision, the relevant lender suffers no such retribution). Westport’s predicament demonstrates how fragile is Ireland’s remaining stock of historic properties, how vulnerable to the vagaries of shifting circumstance, precisely because so few safeguards or supports exist to ensure they can weather past and future storms.
Westport House perfectly conforms to Minister Humphreys’ designation of the Irish historic property being a source of local pride, an attraction for domestic and overseas visitors and a key player in stimulating regional economic development. A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found the house and grounds attracted 162,000 visitors annually and contributed €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing the Browne family home as their main reason for visiting Mayo. It is vital to the well being of the area, and the Brownes deserve applause for making this so.
Over the past year there have been plenty of reports, meetings, analyses and consultations over Westport’s plight. The time for talk has now come to a close. Decisive action needs to take place, the estate and house ought to be preserved, and the values espoused in its recent document by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made manifest. Otherwise, yet again, we will witness the diminution of Ireland’s heritage, and the loss of another ‘essential thread of our national story.’

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A Triumphal Entrance

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Cloverhill House, County Cavan was shown here some months ago (see A Mere Shell, 9th September 2015), a ruin well on the way to vanishing altogether. Happily its entrance is in better condition, a slim, unadorned ashlar triumphal arch flanked by pedestrian gates. The residnce to which it originally gave access was extended by Francis Johnston in 1799, so one imagines the arch dates from the same period. The side gates need to be cleared of overgrowth if they are not to go the way of the old house.

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Man Proposes, But…

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Reference was made here some weeks ago to the Board of First Fruits (see Made Better by Their Presents II, December 12th 2015). Although it had a considerable impact on the Irish landscape in the 18th and early 19th century, this organization is today little known. To reiterate briefly, the board was established in 1711 to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. First funded by a tax on clerical incomes from 1778 onwards it received grants given by the Irish Parliament, after 1785 this being a yearly sum of £5,000. Following the Act of Union, this country’s Anglican clergy became absorbed into the newly-formed United Church of England and Ireland and thereafter the amount of money made available to the Board of First Fruits rose: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808, soared to £60,000 between 1810-16 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. As a result of this money, the Church of Ireland was able to embark on a building spree: in the first quarter of the 19th century almost 700 churches were either newly constructed or renovated, along with 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. While the entire country benefitted from this programme, there were regional variations depending on the level of engagement by whoever was then in charge of a diocese. Among the most committed to the scheme was Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath for a quarter-century (1798-1823). O’Beirne is a fascinating character. Born into a Roman Catholic family in County Longford, initially he studied for the Catholic priesthood at the Jesuit seminary in St Omer, France: his younger brother Denis was there at the same time and completed his studies (the siblings would later serve in the same parish of Templemichael, Longford, Thomas as rector and Denis as parish priest). A breakdown in health led Thomas to England where he converted to Anglicanism and attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Highly intelligent, industrious and devotedly loyal to the Church of Ireland, he was appointed first to the Diocese of Ossory in 1795 before being transferred to Meath three years later. During his long episcopate, he embarked on an improvement of both clergy and buildings in the diocese, a schedule of work which has been thoroughly investigated by Mary Caroline Gallagher in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the subject.

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Exhibiting the customary fervour of the convert, O’Beirne believed incumbents ought to be resident in their parishes (not something which had hitherto been universally the case) and services should be held in churches that were structurally sound and, appropriately designed and maintained. Hence his keen interest in improving both clergymen’s homes and places of worship. He was fortunate in his timing, his period as Bishop of Meath coinciding with the Board of First Fruits having most money to distribute, commonly through a mixture of grants and loans to parishes (which on occasion had the effect of saddling parishioners with long-term debt). Today we look at two Meath churches that underwent redevelopment in O’Beirne’s time. The first of these (top and above) is St Patrick’s at Castletown-Kilpatrick. There was a mediaeval church on this site and parts of it were incorporated into the newer building, in particular over the east window a portion of what is believed to be a 15th century tomb stone showing a woman in prayer. There are also two old arched windows on the second floor of the belltower and a stone head that projects from the wall of the church. These were presumably rescued by the man responsible for the building’s refurbishment, whose name features in a stone plaque over the doorcase (which also looks to be older than the main body of the church). The plaque reads ‘This Church was Rebuilt by Order of The Rigt. Honb. & Rt. Revd. Th. Lewis Lord Bishop of Meath. The Revd. Robt. Longfield Rector. Henry Owens Esqr. & Henry Liscoe, ChurchWardens. Robt. Wiggins Builder. A.D; 1820.’ The cost of the project was £467 and four years later a glebe house was also constructed to the immediate south at a cost of £1,107, this work financed by a Board of First Fruits loan. Declining numbers of worshippers meant that by the third quarter of the last century it had become difficult to sustain the church, which closed for services in the mid-1960s. The glebe house had already been sold and demolished around 1945.

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Just a few miles south of Castletown-Kilpatrick stands St Sinch’s, Kilshine (above and below). According to legend St Abbán, whose father was a king of Leinster, founded a convent here and placed at its head a holy virgin called Sinche or Sineach, the church being called Cill-Sinche (thus the Anglicised name Kilshine). By the 18th century this building had fallen into poor repair and so a new church was built in 1815 at a cost of £1,600 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits. As at St Patrick’s the occasion was commemorated with a plaque: ‘The rebuilding and restoring of this Parish Church, after it had laid in ruin for upwards of a century, were the effects of the pious exertions of that excellent Prelate, the Right Honourable and Most Reverend Father in God, Doctor Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Lord Bishop of Meath, who in the conscientious discharge of the functions of his high and important office not only caused many other churches in this Diocese to be rebuilt and restored, but procured for that most respectable Body, the Reverend the Parochial Clergy, residences and glebes within their respective Livings, suitable as far as it was possible to their situations, thereby enabling them duly to discharge the duties of Resident Protestant Clergymen, and to dispense to their parishioners of that persuasion the invaluable comforts of Our Blessed Religion. Aided by a pecuniary grant of 1,600 from the Board of First Fruits obtained through the intercession of His Lordship the Bishop of Meath.’ Let it not be thought the work of Bishop O’Beirne went unrecorded. But once more declining attendance numbers meant St Sinch’s had closed for services by 1958 after which its monuments were removed: today both here and St Patrick’s, Castletown-Kilpatrick are united with the church at Donoughpatrick where services continue to be held. Meanwhile tangible evidence of the efforts of Thomas Lewis O’Beirne and the Board of First Fruits to ensure the Church of Ireland had a long-term future looks to be irreparably vanishing. It seems only a matter of time before both these churches, and many more beside, vanish from the countryside altogether. Truly as Thomas à Kempis advised ‘Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.’

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Scouting Around for a Saviour

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A week ago the national tourist board, Fáilte Ireland, announced that €60,175 in funding is to be made available to Castle Saunderson, County Cavan. Seemingly this money is part of the organisation’s ‘New ideas in Ancient Spaces’ Capital Grants Scheme for attractions within the Ireland’s Ancient East initiative. The latter scheme was launched by Fáilte Ireland’s last April and ‘seeks to build on the wealth of historical and cultural assets in the east and south of Ireland.’ Leaving aside the fact that Castle Saunderson could never be described as being located in either the east or south of the country (north-midlands might be the simplest summary) one wonders what will be the result of this expenditure. According to Fáilte Ireland, the money ‘will be used to enhance the “on the ground” visitor experience and present the story of Castle Saunderson through the ages. This will be achieved through the development of a new “easy to explore” heritage trail – The Castle Trail. Through interpretative displays, visual art and written interpretation, the story will imaginatively portray the dramatic history and transition of this place as part of Ireland’s Ancient East from free land, through conflict, plantation and the divisive advent of Unionism and the Orange Order to the peaceful coexistence of the present day.’ In other words, the money doesn’t appear to be going towards the restoration of a building on the site which has only fallen into dereliction in the past twenty years and which, with a hint more creativity and resourcefulness, could be restored to serve as a splendid base for the aforementioned ‘on the ground’ visitor experience.

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Around the middle of the 17th century the land on which Castle Saunderson stands passed into the hands of one Robert Sanderson whose father, Alexander Sanderson, had come to Ireland as a soldier and settled in County Tyrone. Robert Sanderson had been a Colonel in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and in 1657 served as High Sheriff of County Cavan. On his death in 1675, the estate passed to his eldest son, another Colonel Robert who sat in the Irish House of Commons and married Jane Leslie, a daughter of the Right Rev John Leslie, Bishop of Clogher. The couple had no children and so Castle Saunderson passed to a nephew, Alexander Sanderson. It was the latter’s grandson, another Alexander, who changed the spelling of the family name to Saunderson as part of an ultimately fruitless effort to claim the Castleton peerage of the Saundersons of Saxby, Lincolnshire (the first and last Earl Castleton having died unmarried in 1723). It is his son Francis who is credited with having built the core of the present house. Staunchly anti-Catholic, he is said to have disinherited his eldest son for marrying a member of that faith (or it could have been because she was the daughter of a lodge keeper at Castle Saunderson). So the estate of over 12,000 acres went to a younger son, Alexander. He likewise disinherited his first-born son because he was crippled, and another son who proved rebellious, instead leaving Castle Saunderson to the fourth son, Colonel Edward James Saunderson who, like his forbears, was a Whig politician, and in Ireland leader of the Liberal Unionist opposition to Gladstone’s efforts to introduce some measure of home rule. It appears to have been after the death of his eldest son Somerset Saunderson in 1927 that the family moved out of the house, although they did not sell the property until half a century later.

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As has been mentioned, at the core of Castle Saunderson is a classical house built by Francis Saunderson probably around the time of his marriage to Anne White in 1779. In the mid-1830s the building was extensively remodeled in a version of Elizabethan gothic for his son Alexander Saunderson. In December 1835 Nathaniel Clements wrote to Lady Leitrim that he had called by Castle Saunderson where the owner was ‘altering and castellating his house, so I was quite in my element’ The architect responsible for this work is now considered to be George Sudden, who was employed elsewhere in the area, at Lough Fea, County Monaghan and Crom Castle, County Fermanagh, Castle Saunderson displaying certain similarities with the latter (where the original design had been by Edward Blore). This intervention resulted in a bit of a mongrel, the east-facing, two-storey former entrance front retaining long sash windows to either side of a central three-storey castellated tower, its octagonal turrets echoed by lower, square ones at either end of the facade. The north and south fronts are asymmetric, the former having an octagonal entrance tower placed off-centre, the latter featuring a four-bay loggia between two further towers, as well as a substantial service wing at right angles that once incorporated a single-storey orangery. Although unoccupied by the Saundersons, the property was not sold by the family until 1977 when it was bought by a businessman who undertook restoration work. For a period it then became an hotel before being sold again in the 1990s after which fire gutted the house. In 1997 Castle Saunderson and its grounds were acquired by what is now called Scouting Ireland which initially appeared to show interest in restoring the building but eventually chose to construct a new centre elsewhere in the grounds at a cost of some €3.7 million. Meanwhile the old castle has continued to deteriorate: it looks unlikely Fáilte Ireland’s recently-trumpeted initiative will change this situation.

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Still Standing Proud

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The free-standing tower at Donadea Castle, County Kildare. Presumably this is the oldest part of the building, erected by the Aylmer family on the site of an earlier mediaeval residence and completed in 1624. Later a larger house was constructed immediately adjacent to the tower, and the whole property Gothicised in the early 19th century (this work is often attributed to Sir Richard Morrison). Now at the centre of a national park, Donadea was unroofed in the 1950s but somehow traces of its former state survive, not least the wooden window frames and shutters. A shame these have never been rescued, rather than being allowed to fall into decay.

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Fragmentary Evidence

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An 18th century door sidelight currently to be seen on the premises of Bonhams at 31 Molesworth Street, Dublin. It is one of a number of items of architectural salvage collected by conservationist and painter Peter Pearson who for decades has been assiduously saving such fragmentary evidence from historic properties which would otherwise have been demolished or allowed to fall down without any record being kept of their decoration. For his work in this field, Mr Pearson is himself something of a national treasure, albeit one far too insufficiently appreciated. The show in Bonhams (which continues until next Wednesday, October 21st) features a number of his own fine architectural pictures alongside many more rescued artefacts, not least the diversity of 18th century dado rails shown below.

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On the Town IX

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In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Nenagh, County Tipperary is described as being ‘a market and post town’ and so it remains today. The second largest urban centre in the county, Nenagh owes its origins to the family which for centuries dominated this part of Ireland: the Butlers. This territory was originally under the control of the O’Kennedys but it was granted to Theobald Walter after he accompanied Prince John (subsequently King John) to the country in 1185. Walter was also appointed Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had held the same office in England) from whence his descendants’ name derives. Theobald Walter began to build a circular stone keep here, completed by his son (also called Theobald). With walls five metres thick at its base and a diameter of 17.5 metres, it rises some thirty metres although the crenellations and windows beneath were added in the 19th century when a Roman Catholic cleric entertained notions of turning the keep into the bell tower of a never-built cathedral. The Butlers remained in occupation of the keep – once part of a larger castle with a ring of walls and large gatehouse – until the end of the 14th century when they moved first to Gowran and then to Kilkenny Castle which remained their base thereafter. During the 16th and 17th centuries the keep, and rest of the castle, changed hands many times but while other parts of the complex were lost it somehow survived: the keep even continued to stand in 1760 when a farmer detonated gunpowder at the base in order to get rid of sparrows ruining the local crops.

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Nenagh’s keep is by no means the only evidence of the town’s distinguished past. There are also the ruins of a couple of ancient religious settlements within the town, their presence inevitable once the Butlers had established a base there. The most significant of these was the Franciscan friary, possibly founded by Theobald Butler but more certainly associated with Donal O’Kennedy, Bishop of Killaloe. It became the chief house of the Irish custody within the province, with a provincial synod held on the site in 1344. A work known as the Annals of Nenagh, principally concerned with obituaries of notable families in the district, was compiled here over the period 1336 to 1528. At the time of the Reformation, it was ostensibly shut but a more serious assault came in 1548 when the O’Carrolls burnt Nenagh, including the friary. Despite later efforts to remove them, the Franciscans pluckily lingered on, the last only dying in 1817. Today the main evidence of this important foundation are the walls of the former church, some forty-three metres in length and ten in width with a triple lancet window at the east end and a run of fifteen windows along the north wall. Nearby are other ecclesiastical ruins, this time of an Anglican church built c.1720: its square bell tower and adjacent lobby are another of Nenagh’s landmarks. Then there is the remarkable complex of judicial buildings designed around 1840 by John Benjamin Keane and including the courthouse, gaol, governor’s house (now a local heritage centre and museum) and gatehouse. The penitential element of this must have been especially fine when first completed: entering through the rusticated stone triumphal arch gatehouse, visitors advanced towards the three-storey governor’s house from which radiated a series of prison blocks. Unfortunately only one of these remains and it has been permitted to fall into a state of dereliction.

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The name Nenagh derives from the Irish words ‘an’ (meaning the) and ‘aenagh’ (meaning fair), a reference to the ancient Fair of Ormond which was held here. Lewis’ description of the place as a market town remains true, and it continues to act as a commercial centre for the surrounding agricultural hinterland. When compared with many other similar Irish towns it seems to be performing well, not least thanks to the presence of several high-quality specialist shops. The food outlet Country Choice, run by Peter and Mary Ward since 1982, offers an inspirational example of what can be done by retailers with the right mix of imagination and industry. As a result of their persistence, other similar premises have emerged and all of them help to attract custom to Nenagh. The layout of the town centre reflects its reconstruction from the late 17th century onwards, with wide streets faced with substantial properties, the majority of which are still in place (aside from a few recent interventions such as the irredeemably ugly Allied Irish Bank building on a key site at the junction of Pearse and Kickham Streets). And the town has retained many of its old shop fronts, of The kind sadly lost elsewhere. Their retention raises the notion that perhaps Nenagh could establish itself as a national centre for traditional retail design, and thereby encourage more visitors, not least tourists. One has only to reflect on what a draw the village at Bunratty has proven to recognize the charms of our retail heritage should not be underestimated. Nenagh is situated on the main route from Dublin to Limerick/Shannon and could easily capitalize on its assets to lure some of that traffic into the town. Well-designed shop exteriors and interiors can be a powerful magnet (just look at the success of the ersatz traditional Kildare Village closer to the capital). Nenagh still has much of the real thing, ripe for discovery by a broader public.

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Of course, there are problems here. The usual empty buildings can be found mouldering into ruin. There is a disgracefully decaying shopping centre right at the entry point coming from Roscrea (the old warehouse opposite also badly needs attention) and in the very centre a major site on the corner of Pearse and Mitchel Streets (its groundfloor poorly refaced some years ago) lies vacant, along with a neighbour: both appear to be suffering potentially lethal water damage due to unattended gutters. On almost every street businesses have closed (although, again, fewer than is the case in equivalent centres elsewhere). The appearance of a town always has repercussions on how it is perceived by locals and visitors alike: who wants to spend time in a run-down location?
At least some of the problems could be resolved by action on the part of the local authority. For example, why has the remaining block of Nenagh Gaol been allowed to fall into such a poor state? There exists a widespread interest in the nation’s penal history and here is a building which offers testimony to that aspect of our past. Yet instead of being utilized for educational purposes, it is sitting unused and neglected, and right next to the Courthouse. To the east of the town, official negligence is exemplified by the fate of the old military barracks. The complex was built in 1832 and occupied by members of the British army for the next ninety years, after which it was handed over to the new Irish state. Seemingly the property continued to be used for various purposes until some thirty years ago, since when it has sat empty and steadily sliding into the present parlous condition. A report in the local Tipperary Star newspaper in March 2010 commented ‘There have since 1981 been numerous reports and proposals geared towards preserving the barracks but no physical works have ever been carried out, leading to concerns that parts of the building are now irredeemable and that the structure will be allowed to succumb to the ravages of time.’ The following year then-Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter, in response to a parliamentary question, advised that the site ‘vested in the Minister for Finance but in the administration of the Department of Defence’ had been offered to the local authority in 2009 but this proposal was turned down. Mr Shatter added that the barracks would be ‘disposed of taking account of market conditions.’ That was four years ago, and in the interim the property has further deteriorated, making it proportionately less valuable to any potential purchaser. The state seems indifferent to the protection and maintenance of our collective patrimony, or the consequences of its blatant neglect. Many of Nenagh’s residents display admirable engagement with their town and its well-being; what a shame local and national authorities cannot do likewise.

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