On the Town IX

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.

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.

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.

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.


A Mere Shell

Above is a photograph taken some time ago of Cloverhill, County Cavan. The original house was built by a branch of the Saunderson family in 1758 but then extended from 1799 onwards to a design by Francis Johnston. It is his work which can be seen here: a two-storey, three bay house with east-facing breakfront entrance bay focussed on a pedimented Ionic portico: on the south side was a bow with Wyatt windows. In 1958 the property was sold by a descendant of the original owners and has since been allowed to fall into ruin. As can be seen below, it is now a roofless shell, the portico seemingly removed more than two decades ago and moved to a house in County Wexford.


The Age of Austerity

The Irish countryside: so littered with the remnants of once-fine houses. Now their walls, if these still stand, are smothered in ivy, their interiors providing a shelter for species of trees and shrubs formerly permitted only in the garden, and a habitat for wildlife which would never have been allowed indoors. Here runs a tumbling line of estate wall, there the suggestion of a former gate lodge, across the fields can be seen the remains of a stableyard, closer to hand lifestock grazes in what was clearly once a landscaped demesne. Until recently, and aided by fictional accounts such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, a widespread belief persisted that the majority of these properties were burnt during the upheavals of the 1920s. We now know this was not the case, that while a number of significant country houses were destroyed in the course of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War, many more survived. Their ruin came later, when the Land Commission had taken away the surrounding acreage necessary to sustain their upkeep, when rates grew too high, and the cost of employing sufficient workers too great. Unable to afford maintenance, owners departed their houses, sold up the contents, watched a new owner to remove chimneypieces and other fittings, saw the roof taken off and accepted the inevitable: yet another ruin to add to Ireland’s already substantial number. Such was the fate of Dromdihy, County Cork.

Dromdihy, sometimes called Dromdiah, stands on raised ground with superlative views for many miles north-eastwards as far as the Irish Sea close to Youghal. The original owner was one Roger Green Davis who acted as land agent for Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke, an absentee landlord. Despite his surname, de Capell-Brooke’s family was actually of Irish origin. The first of their number had probably come to the country with the Normans when they were called de la Chappelle, Des Chapelles or De Capella. This was later hibernicised to Sheapallh and then converted in English to Supple. There were many Supples in East Cork but the majority of them lost their lands during the 17th century. One branch however, through familial association with the Boyles, Earls of Cork and by converting to the Anglican church, retained an estate based around the town of Killeagh. In the mid-18th century Richard Supple married Mary Brooke,of daughter of Arthur Brooke, of Great Oakley, Northamptonshire. In 1797 their son, Richard Brooke Supple inherited the English estate from his great-uncle Wheeler Brooke in obedience to whose wishes he assumed the surname Brooke, at the same time adding the orignal surname of his own family: six years later he was created a baronet. His heir Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke was an explorer who travelled through Scandinavia and published several books about what he had seen. When not engaged in these activities, he lived in Northamptonshire, hence the need for an agent to look after his Irish estate.

One wonders how much attention Sir Arthur paid to his property in Ireland since Roger Green Davis, who had inherited the position of agent from his own father William, was able to build up a landholding of more than 2,250 acres in County Cork, albeit some of it rented from the de Capell-Brooke estate. Thus the need to build a residence befitting his status, which Dromdihy was intended to proclaim. Completed in 1833 according to Samuel Lewis, the architect responsible for the house’s design is unknown: in some accounts it is attributed to Roger Green Davis. If so, he must have been a man of austere taste since Dromdihy demonstrates a predilection for the most distilled form of neo-classicism. The central block, of five bays and two storeys over basement, is rendered with cut limestone employed for parapets and cornices, quoins and window surrounds, varying treatment of the window’s architraves relieving what might otherwise be a monotonous facade. On either side of this are single-storey wings, that to the left (now entirely submerged in overgrowth) having Doric columns flanking a window and concluding in a bow. At the other end of the building, the wing served as entrance to the house, approached via a flight of steps and accessed through a pedimented portico with four fluted Doric columns, all in crisp limestone. The design is so pared back, so devoid of extraneous ornament, so uncompromisingly faithful to the ideology of Greek Revivalism it might have come from the hand of a Schinkel or von Klenze.

A description of Dromdihy in the 1860s noted that it ‘consists of a centre and two wings, ornamented with Doric columns and with a portico at the eastern end, by the hall is entered, and off which are hot, cold, vapour and shower baths. The first floor comprises five sitting-rooms; on the second floor are four best bedrooms, with dressing-rooms and water-closet…’ Evidently Green Davis spared no expense on the property: it is said that the stone was cut by craftsmen brought from Italy for the purpose. But if the design was admirable, its execution left something to be desired since seemingly from the start Dromdihy suffered from damp, the roof leaking and the interior manifesting both dry and wet rot. Roger Green Davis’ son John, a barrister, sold the place to William Stopford Hunt, an Assistant Land Commissioner and well-known cricketer. At the start of the last century, he had let the place to Lieutenant-General Sir Lawrence Parsons (a cousin of the Earls of Rosse) whose daughter Nora Robertson would later write the memoir Crowned Harp. However Stopford Hunt retained ownership of the estate until he sold up in 1923 at which time the house and surrounding ninety acres were purchased by the O’Mahony family. They ran a manufacturing and timber business on the estate but by 1944 the house was deemed uninhabitable and its roof removed. Dromdihy has been in steady decline ever since, an empty shell high on the rise visible to anyone travelling south from Youghal.


Eccentric Even in Death


Driving along a road between Delvin and Mullingar, County Westmeath, one sees a spire rising above a clump of trees in the middle of a field. This is part of the now-disused Church of St John the Baptist built in 1798 with the aid of a loan from the Board of First Fruits. The surrounding graveyard has, like the church at its centre, mostly fallen into dereliction which is regrettable given that one tomb is associated with the famous eccentric Adolphus Cooke, who once tried a red setter for wandering from his estate, and treated a turkey-cock with particular favour as he believed it contained the soul of a forebear. A follower of the theory of reincarnation, Cooke had a large marble vault built and furnished to hold his remains, with instructions that a fire in the chamber be kept permanently lit. However on his death in 1876 the local rector refused to bury him in the vault and instead he was interred in a mausoleum constructed four decades earlier in the grounds of St John the Baptist. Also containing the remains of his father, this monument is unusual in being shaped like a beehive, with a low moat running around it. The Cooke mausoleum could do with a little reincarnation right now, as otherwise it risks succumbing to perpetual ruin.



On the Town VIII


Bank Holiday Monday morning and a coach pulls into the main square of Macroom, County Cork. The passengers step gingerly down, a few of them take photographs outside the former castle’s entrance but most wander about for a few minutes looking bewildered. Then they all climb aboard again and the bus departs. It doesn’t help that in the middle of a town which promotes itself as the tourism gateway to West Cork and South Kerry not a single premises is open for the visitors. No chance of getting a cup of coffee, or buying a postcard, or bringing home a souvenir of Macroom. Nothing to look at but shuttered shops and the residue of Sunday night’s revelry on the streets. No wonder the bus didn’t linger.

Deriving its name from the Irish Maigh Chromtha, believed to refer to a crooked oak that once stood in what is now the main square, Macroom was of some significance in pre-Christian Ireland. However, its modern history really begins with the construction of a castle above the river Sullane, probably first begun in the 12th century by the O’Flynns who then controlled this part of what was the Kingdom of Muskerry. The McCarthys subsequently became the dominant family and at various dates they both enlarged and improved Macroom Castle. The building suffered a series of assaults in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1602 Cormac McDermot Carthy, Lord of Muscry was arrested by the government authorities and the castle besieged, during which time it caught fire. Then in 1650 Boetius MacEgan, Bishop of Ross who was a leading figure in the Confederate camp (and clearly not a pacifist) assembled a force at the castle which was set on fire rather than allow it fall into the hands of the approaching English Commonwealth army led by Roger Boyle Lord Broghill. In an ensuing battle the bishop was captured but promised his freedom if he persuaded the garrison of Carrigadrohid Castle to surrender: instead he exhorted those inside the castle to ‘Hold out to the last’ and was accordingly hanged from a nearby tree. Seemingly Macroom Castle was then burnt again by the New Model Army’s General Henry Ireton, presumably prior to his death after the Siege of Limerick in 1651. Macroom next passed briefly into the hands of Admiral Sir William Penn of whose son, the Quaker convert William Penn, would found the state of Pennsylvania in America in the 1680s. Meanwhile following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Macroom had been restored to the McCarthys who renovated the castle before losing it again in 1691 owing to their allegiance to James II. The need for the English government to pay troops who had fought in Ireland led to the castle being sold at auction in 1703 when it was bought by that speculative entity the Hollow Sword Blade Company. In turn this organization resold it to lawyer and politician Francis Bernard (popularly known as Judge Bernard after he became a Judge on the Irish Court of Common Pleas). By the middle of the 18th century Macroom Castle was occupied by the Hedges Eyre family who acquired the building outright in the 19th century. When Robert Hedges Eyre died childless in 1840, Macroom was inherited by his cousin, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White who, following the death of his elder brother twenty-eight years later, became third Earl of Bantry. In 1850 his eldest daughter, Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born in Macroom Castle which she eventually inherited.

The town of Macroom effectively grew up around, and in order to service the needs of, the castle at its centre. However the advantageous location at a river crossing on the main route from east to west also helped to encourage development as a centre for commerce: seemingly the original market house was erected here by the McCarthys in 1620 (its sandstone successor, now the Town Hall, dates from two centuries later). Writing in 1837 Samuel Lewis described Macroom as consisting ‘of one principal street, nearly a mile in length, and towards the western extremity having a wider space, in which is the newly erected market-house, forming one side of a square, of which the opposite side is occupied by the hotel and the castle gateway: the inhabitants are supplied with water from springs and public pumps recently erected by subscription…There are no fixed sources of public amusement, but the town is frequently enlivened by the lovers of field sports and steeple chases, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated. There are two flour-mills and two tanyards at present in operation; and there were formerly a distillery and saltworks, which have been discontinued. The principal trade is in corn, which is brought into the town daily by the farmers, and purchased on account of the Cork merchants; the quantity sold during the year 1835 exceeded 39,000 barrels. The market is on Saturday, and is abundantly supplied with butchers’ meat, vegetables, and provisions at a moderate price; and from January till May there is a weekly market for pigs, many of which are slaughtered here and afterwards sent to Cork. From May till the end of the year, cattle fairs are held on the 12th of every month alternately in the town and at the village of Masseys-town, the property of Massey Hutchinson Massey, Esq., a little to the southwest.’
Masseytown mentioned above is a district to the immediate west of the Sullane that includes a particularly charming terrace of houses dating from the early 1860s; these are overlooked by the fine limestone courthouse with central Venetian window. The building probably dates from the 1820s, as does the Church of Ireland across the river which was designed by George Pain. Most of the houses in the immediate vicinity likewise were erected in the first half of the 19th century when the mud cabins hitherto occupied by many of Macroom’s residents were replaced by the present structures.

Nothing better represents Macroom’s current state than the condition of its castle remains. The building which had already survived so much damage over the previous centuries, was burnt one last time by Anti-Treaty forces in 1922 and two years later the castle and demesne were sold by the widowed Lady Ardilaun (previously Lady Olivia Hedges-White) to a group of local businessmen. The structure survived until the 1960s but so poorly supported that the greater part of it then had to be demolished. What remains is a section of the western wall with a three-stage square tower at its north-west corner, the whole perched above the river and providing a dramatic view from the other side of the bridge, not dissimilar to that at Lismore with the castle above the Blackwater. But unlike Lismore what remains of Macroom Castle appears as insufficiently maintained, and as vulnerable to demolition, as what has already been lost. So too do the buildings directly below it, several of which are now vacant (a not uncommon condition throughout the town). Likewise the early 19th century Church of Ireland directly across the road to the castle: this is now boarded up and its stained glass windows in perilous condition (several have already been broken). Two years ago the National Roads Authority controversially tacked a pedestrian crossing onto the old stone bridge: while such a facility was obviously necessary, its siting and design (or want of same) took no account of the historical context. The same is true elsewhere in the town. Visitors passing through the old castle gates on the square will not find open parkland but a series of ugly buildings developed from the 1930s onwards as a secondary school: again no doubt an important facility for the townspeople but the location is ill-chosen, particularly when in the background can be seen the remnants of the castle falling into irreparable decrepitude. An opportunity to exploit the castle’s significant history, not least to American visitors thanks to a link with William Penn, remains grossly unexploited. But this is the case throughout Macroom, a town that markets itself as a tourism destination and then does little to encourage tourists to linger. No wonder those bus passengers soon climbed back onboard and drove away.


Reflections of the Past

A view of White’s Castle in Athy, County Kildare originally built in 1419 by then-Viceroy of Ireland Sir John Talbot in order to protect passage across the adjacent bridge over the river Barrow. The castle then passed into the hands of the FitzGeralds, Earls of Kildare (and subsequently Dukes of Leinster) before being sold in the last century to its long-time tenants. Sold again at the height of the economic boom for some €1.3 million, three years ago it was included in an auction of distressed properties and fetched a more modest €195,000. Reports at the time indicated that the castle would be restored as a family residence but it remains in poor condition and needing remedial attention, a sad state for the most important building in this town.

Market Day

The former Market House in Killucan, County Westmeath. Dating from the late 1830s it was seemingly built by local stonemason Thomas Keegan. An architect called Patrick Keegan, listed as living in Dublin in the early 1820s, designed a gothick game larder for Knockdrin Castle which is not far from Killucan: might the two men have been members of the same family? In any case, the old Market House is today a sorry sight, despite occupying the most prominent position in the centre of this town and being sturdily constructed of dressed limestone on the ground floor with the remnants of a clock at the top of the pedimented breakfront centre bay. How to ensure the future of a place like Killucan: begin by restoring its historic core and bringing new purpose to old buildings.