Ballyragget Castle, County Kilkenny is a late 15th century tower house originally built by a branch of the Butler family one of whom, Richard Butler became first Viscount Mountgarret in 1550; his mother, the spirited Lady Margaret FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond is said to have lived here. Butlers continued to occupy the building until 1788 when they moved into a house close by. Surrounded by a bawn wall and climbing four or five storeys high with fine crenellations and handsome cut stone windows, the castle could easily be put to good use, not least as a tourist attraction. Instead it stands on the edge of a farmyard, all doors and other points of ingress sealed by concrete breeze blocks. An admirable example of how to treat the country’s built heritage…
The fortunes of Youghal, County Cork seem always to have been mixed. Writing of the town in 1748, the London bookseller and theatre manager William Rufus Chetwood commented, ‘Youghall, we are told, was formerly a place of good Trade; but I own, by the countenance it at present carries, it seems to be long in mourning for want of it. While our dinner was preparing, we took a walk through its long, wide, empty street without meeting ten people, even on the Quay itself…In short, my Lord, it seems a heartless, dejected place.’ On the other hand, by 1784 the Annals of Youghal could report that ‘In the summer months great numbers resort to Youghall, for the benefit of the salt-water…With respect to amusements, the town is not without its share. Such as wish to dip in the news and politicks, can at all times be furnished with the public papers, by resorting to the Mall House, while billards and bagammon afford ample entertainment to others…drums and assemblies are regularly held two or three times a week.’ When Henry David Inglis undertook his Journey Throughout Ireland in 1834 he found that in Youghal there were houses ‘seen in a ruined state, betokening, I fear, not antiquity only but decay,’ noting also the town’s ‘very considerable want of employment, and a large quantum of destitution.’ Yet just three years later, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland observed ‘Most of the houses in the principal streets are either new or have been modernised; many of the ancient houses have been newly fronted, but may still be distinguished by their gable ends fronting the street, and their pointed doorways of stone. The town is much frequented during the summer for sea-bathing, for which it is well adapted…’
And so it goes on, sometimes the reports are encouraging, on other occasions the implication is given that Youghal is in terminal decline. But attributes on which all commentators agree are the town’s ancient history and its outstanding collection of historic monuments.
Wonderfully situated at the mouth of the river Blackwater, Youghal derives its name from the Irish Eochaill meaning ‘yew wood’ since these trees were once plentiful in the region. With the land rising steeply behind, the spot proved perfect for a Viking settlement in the middle of the ninth century but the town did not really grow until the arrival of the Normans some three hundred years later, after which it became an important port. Youghal received its charter of incorporation from King John in 1209, and immigrants from Bristol on the other side of the Irish Sea encouraged trade between the two countries. While some kind of defences existed already, it was in the thirteenth century that the town’s stone walls were built, of which large sections still remain. As an indication of its importance in the Middle Ages, when in 1301 Edward I required two boats from all English and Irish ports to support his fight against the Scots, he ordered that Youghal supply three vessels. Half a century later, the Freemen of Youghal were granted freedom to trade in different staples such as wool and leather throughout England and Wales. In 1462 it was created one of Ireland’s ‘cinque ports’ which ensured further trading privileges. In 1600 Youghal was elevated to the rank of ‘staple town’, receiving exclusive rights to carry on the wool trade with Bristol, Liverpool, Chester and Milford. By this time it had become one of Ireland’s greatest ports, more important than Cork Harbour which was described as ‘a port near Youghal.’
By then also, control of the area in which the town is located had changed several times, passing between the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and the Butler Earls of Ormond. It was sacked by the fifteenth Earl of Desmond in 1579 and following the suppression of his rebellion, a grant of some 40,000 acres including the towns of Lismore and Youghal was made to the English buccaneer Sir Walter Raleigh; his own residence Myrtle Grove remains in the town. However in 1602 he sold his Irish estate to another Elizabethan adventurer, Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork whose descendants retained ownership of their property for much longer. Youghal suffered badly during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, being under siege at one period and serving as Oliver Cromwell’s winter base at the end of the decade. However the town recovered in the 18th century, its trade expanding and population more than doubling. Although business in the port declined in the 19th century, Youghal’s fortunes improved with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s after which it became a major holiday resort.
Throughout the town centre it is hard to miss evidence of Youghal’s venerable past. Among the most significant monuments to its history is the Collegiate Church of St Mary, which claims to be the oldest site of unbroken Christian worship in Ireland. The church’s origins may go back to St Declan in the fifth century but roof timbers of the nave have been carbon-dated to around 1170. A rebuilding programme was undertaken in the early part of the following century, and then in 1464 under the auspices of the seventh Earl of Desmond it became a collegiate church, with the establishment of a neighbouring college accomommodating a warden overseeing clergy and singing clerks: since the Reformation, the church has been used for Anglican services while at the start of the 17th century the college became a private residence for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. His immense tomb, featuring not just the earl but his wives and children, dominates the south transept and is one of the most splendid 17th century funerary monuments in the country. Many more can be found in the surrounding graveyard which is bordered by sections of the old town walls and overlooks the grounds of both the college and Myrtle Grove, once residence to Sir Walter Raleigh. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told that a household servant once threw water over him believing Raleigh to have caught fire: in fact, he was smoking tobacco which he is credited with introducing to these islands (as it was long thought he likewise did the potato). The abiding presence of Boyle can also be seen in a cluster of six almshouses he founded in 1601 on the corner of North Main and Church Streets. Nearby rises Tynte’s Castle, a 15th century tower house built by the Walsh family but subsequently owned by Sir Robert Tynte, an ally of the Earl of Cork and after 1612 married to his cousin Elizabeth (widow of the poet Edmund Spenser). Further south on Main Street one reaches the Red House, an early 18th century two-storey over basement seven-bay residence with pedimented three-bay breakfront, its design attributed to a Dutch architect named Claud Leuvethen. Built for the Uniackes, a local merchant family, the house’s name derives from the brick facade now covered by paint. Some distance down from this are remains of a mid-14th century Benedictine priory now incorporated into a house, and thence one reaches Youghal’s landmark Clock Gate, designed by local architect William Meade and completed in 1777.
For any visitor the delights of Youghal include not just the town’s architectural history but also the visible efforts made to preserve and present this to best advantage. Landmark buildings are well sign-posted and marked with informative plaques. Litter is kept down, and planting kept up. In many respects Youghal can serve as a role model for other heritage towns in Ireland.
Nevertheless, the place has problems, some of its own making, others outside its control. In 1834 Henry David Inglis wrote, ‘The suburbs of Youghal are large and bad: they extend in every direction up the hill, behind the old town wall, and contain many very miserable cabins.’ That description remains true today, albeit that the cabins have been replaced by poor quality housing. The approaches to Youghal and general development beyond the old town boundaries are equally incoherent, displaying this country’s customary lack of planning and foresight; the result is that anyone arriving on the outskirts would feel little incentive to venture into the town centre where so much deserves to be seen. Meanwhile, within that centre although significant monuments have been cherished the more general stock of building has just as often not; quite a lot of it today is in poor condition and/or suffering from cack-handed intervention, like the widespread replacement of old timber windows with uPVC frames. Buildings erected on vacant sites in recent decades are shockingly mediocre, and too much space is given up to tarmac, not enough to grass and trees.
All of these issues can, should and probably will be addressed by interested townspeople. But they face other challenges less easily overcome. Youghal is the victim of changing economic and social circumstances. It is no longer a port of any significance, its local industries have all gone, its role as a seaside resort of little import since the advent of cheap air travel, even its position as a market town undermined by the ability of consumers to travel to larger urban centres: hence too many premises in the centre now stand empty. Today Youghal’s greatest asset looks to be its history and how terrific so many citizens recognise this and are engaging in diverse ways to ensure it has a future as glorious as its past.
For hundreds of years the Prestons were one of the most significant land-owning families in County Meath, their name deriving from the town of Preston in Lancashire whence they moved to Ireland in the early 14th century. Originally merchants, one of their number, Roger de Preston studied law, was appointed Justice in the Court of Common Pleas in 1327 and four years later became a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench. His son Robert likewise was a successful lawyer, becoming Irish King’s Serjeant around 1348 and Attorney General for Ireland in 1355. A few years afterwards rebellion against the crown erupted in Leinster, led by the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose O’Byrne forebears in alliance with the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs: in the ensuing war Robert de Preston served as lieutenant to Edward III’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and was duly knighted for his efforts. Subsequently created Baron Gormanston, the title taken from lands he bought in Meath, he ended his career as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer. His great-grandson Sir Robert Preston further improved the family’s circumstances, being appointed Deputy both to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and to the Lord Lieutenant Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. In 1478 he was created Viscount Gormanston: his descendant the 17th Viscount is bearer of the oldest vicomital title in Ireland and Britain. Inevitably the Gormanstons were involved in the political and religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Remaining true to their Roman Catholic faith and to Kings Charles I and James II (the seventh Viscount fought on the latter’s side at the Battle of the Boyne and then defended Limerick), they saw their lands forfeited by both the Commonwealth government and that of William III. Yet the ninth Viscount managed to regain possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under the terms of the 1691 Treaty of Limerick, even if his right to a title was not recognised (that feat was only achieved by the twelth Viscount in 1800). As a result, the family returned to live in Meath where the main residence was Gormanston Castle. By the second quarter of the 18th century their position was sufficiently secure and their income sufficiently great for the tenth Lord Gormanston to build himself a hunting lodge in another part of the county at Whitewood.
Among the collection of Gormanston papers now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland is a folio of architectural drawings including one showing plans for Whitewood in c.1735. This features not just the house and ancillary structures but also elements of the surrounding landscape as either intended or executed. The drawing is signed ‘By J. Sheridan’ but the identity of this person remains unknown. He may simply have been a draughtsman since the design of Whitewood has for long been attributed to Richard Castle, based on similarities with other houses from his practice, and to certain stylistic traits it shares with the likes of Gormanston Castle and Hazelwood, County Sligo. Whitewood, of course, is much smaller than either of these properties, as would befit its status as a secondary residence.
Constructed from cut limestone, the building has an east-facing three-bay facade of two storeys over raised basement. A shallow parapet partially conceals the hipped roof and two central chimneys. The north and south fronts are likewise of three bays while that to the west, which has a superlative view down to Whitewood Lake, is of five bays. The dominant feature of the exterior is a stone staircase which extends far out to the front, initial flights to north and south meeting to create what is almost like a viewing platform before they ascend over an arch and thereby reach the relatively modest door with plain fanlight. Inside the decoration is likewise devoid of superfluities. The main floor layout is symmetrical, with rooms to left and right of the narrow entrance passage, the stair hall behind likewise having spaces on either side. There are simple cornices, Kilkenny marble chimney pieces, fielded panels to the woodwork, flagged floors and well-worn limestone steps leading up and down. There is no pretension to grandeur here; this is a functional building.
The significance of Whitewood lies not just in its being a rare survival of an Irish 18th century hunting lodge, but even more in its unique setting. The house lies at the centre of a meticulously selected and improved landscape not found anywhere else. Whitewood is set on top of a rise with spectacular views particularly to east and west: as has already been mentioned, the latter offers a prospect down to the lake. The view to the east is of equal consequence, dominated by a long, straight avenue leading to the entrance gates, beyond which the ground once more gently rises to woodland closing the horizon. On an axis with the house, the avenue appears on early maps of the area, suggesting it was most likely part of the original design of the property. This would be in keeping with taste of the time, such long straight approaches being in fashion for parkland design from the second half of the 17th century onwards. Usually of course they led to a substantial palace whereas the house at Whitewood is of modest proportions. Nevertheless a lot of effort was expended on its avenue which is a man-made construction, a raised earthwork some sixty-two feet wide with ditches supported by low stone walls on either side. One wonders if perhaps it was a relief work undertaken to give local employment during the great freeze and famine of 1740-41: this would explain why such a very substantial project was undertaken at Whitewood. A section of grass flanking the central drive is in turn closed by matching lines of Beech and other trees. Visitors arriving at the gates are thus introduced to an Arcadian park uninterrupted until it terminates in the remote distance with the house on raised ground. The impression is given at the gates that the avenue continues directly to the front door. In fact, while continuing much of the way, it then swings to the north, so that an open lawn protected by ha-ha immediately in front of the building offers its occupants an unspoilt outlook. Meanwhile the diverted route passes by a lodge and sundry buildings which would have been used in the management of this pocket estate.
Whitewood remained part of the Gormanston estate until the last century, many of its residents being employees. Such was the case with the present owner’s family: his forebears were already living in the house when the Land Commission offered it for sale: with customary crassness, the same state organisation also proposed demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a bungalow. Thankfully the family which had, and continues to have, a deep attachment to the house, turned down this proposal. Thereafter they maintained Whitewood at the centre of what today continues to be a working farm. In a report on the property compiled in 2010, garden consultant Finola Reid observed that Whitewood is a rare surviving example of a small country house framed within its original demesne: ‘The creation of its designed landscape enabled the house to be experienced within an appropriate context and setting. The exceptional quality of taste and execution in the various built structures associated with the house, complemented by the carefully considered arrangement of tree plantings, plantations, and the long straight avenue directly connects the designed and natural landscape with the Palladian house at the core. There are few other surviving Irish 18th century landscapes contemporary with Whitewood and those that do survive are themselves highly significant and recognized as worthy of preservation.’
The present owner is well aware of his responsibilities as the present generation’s custodian of this significant part of Ireland’s architectural and landscape heritage. As well as undertaking a programme of conservation work on the main building, he has engaged in replanting the historic woodland and at present is restoring the original lodge. And yet the integrity of Whitewood and its setting is now threatened by a proposal to erect a series of wind turbines in the immediate vicinity. The scheme, submitted by a private company called Cregg Wind Farm Ltd, would see the installation of half a dozen such structures each up to 150 metres high. These would be located on land beyond, but directly in front of, Whitewood, towering over the entire region and thereby destroying a prospect unspoiled for centuries. Standing on the steps of the building, one would no longer see an idyllic natural landscape but six vast edifices.
Thankfully this grotesque proposal was refused by the Meath County Council last December. However the company has now appealed to the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, and submissions in relation to the appeal will be accepted until later this week. Finola Reid rightly described Whitewood as ‘a rare survivor and worthy of the highest level of protection.’ That protection must extend to the wider environment in which the house is located. The context in which the house and other elements exist needs to be fully understood and cherished. This site was not chosen at random: it was singled out and developed because of the outstanding character of the broader landscape in the area. Should that landscape be violated as Cregg Wind Farm Ltd proposes, then the fundamental character of Whitewood would be forever destroyed. And that would be an appalling vista.
Line drawing by Liam Mulligan and watercolour by Jeremy Williams.
Since last Monday’s post about Carstown, County Louth excited some interest (see: A Lamentable Waste, January 26th), readers might like to know that ownership of this house and its history have been better chronicled over the past few centuries than is the case for many other such places. Above is a map drawn up in December 1774 by cartographer Charles Frizell Jr. who performed a similar service for estates across Ireland. At that time Carstown was owned by Edward Smith-Stanley, future Earl of Derby (and originator of the annual race at Epsom Downs that bears his name) whose mother, the heiress Lucy Smith, had inherited the property. Her forebear was Erasmus Smith who in the previous century had endowed a number of schools including that in Drogheda so shamefully demolished in 1989 (see: On the Town I, January 12th last). Ten years after Lord Stanley sold the estate to Miles Chester, for whose descendant Miss Henrietta Chester another map was published in 1856 (see below) at which date it was part of an estate running to 1,962 acres inherited from her father who had died the same year. Henrietta Chester lived until 1913 after which Carstown was inherited by her great-nephew, Edward Ryan whose family lived at Inch, County Tipperary: eight years after he died in 1939 his widow Rita sold the house and contents; the first photograph in Monday’s post was taken not long before that occurrence.
For a variety of reasons, some of which have been discussed here before, Ireland possesses a disproportionately small number of domestic dwellings from the 16th and 17th centuries. One might expect therefore that any remaining examples of architecture of this period would be especially cherished. The case of Carstown Manor, County Louth demonstrates the fallacy of such a supposition. As will be shown below, much about Carstown’s origins are, as so often, unclear. However, two pieces of on-site evidence help to date the building even if not exactly in the form it has today. These are a pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door. Although differing in shape, they carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. These stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, who came from Galtrim, County Meath. Both families were long settled in this part of the country, Oliver being the grandson of another Oliver Plunkett, first Baron Louth and also related to the slightly later Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh who was executed in 1681 and canonised in 1975. The alliance between the Plunketts and the Husseys was thus one linking two important dynasties of the Pale. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind at Carstown.
Carstown is a south-facing five-bay single-storey house over raised basement, the attic lit by gabled dormer windows believed to have been inserted at some date later than the main building’s construction. The façade is notable for a number of oddities, among them the substantial protruding chimneystack on the west gable: that on the east is incorporated into the house. The raised doorway, reached by a flight of stone steps projecting some twenty-four feet out from the house, is off-centre, closer to the east than the west. Add the intermittent use of brick and the fact that some of the dormers are taller than others and it is easy to see why all these anomalies have encouraged speculation into the origins of Carstown, the lands of which appears to have been in Plunkett ownership long before 1612. The most common explanation for the building’s unusual appearance is that it began as a late 15th/early 16th century tower house which stood on the site of the two eastern bays. This theory is strengthened by the existence of a cut-stone arch surviving in the north-west corner of this part of the basement, suggesting it was the tower house’s entrance; a curve in the wall immediately to the north would also propose this was where the spiral staircase began. Throughout the country there are examples of similar buildings being modernised by incorporation into later structures, the whole often then rendered so as to conceal where the old work ended and the new began. Clearly at Carstown the latter started fairly early because the internal plaque of 1612 serves as keystone of a chimneypiece measuring almost nine feet wide and five feet high; this would have heated a space serving as the house’s great hall. Additional work carried out in either the late 18th century or early decades of the 19th century – when it seems most of the fine yard buildings were erected – have further muddled matters, not least because at that time a three-bay, three-storey extension was added behind the main block, thereby giving Carstown a T-shaped plan.
In 2011 Michael Corcoran published a paper proposing an alternative narrative for Carstown. Based on evidence from other contemporaneous buildings in Ireland and England, he suggests the core of the structure could be a late-mediaeval house dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. It would have been a relatively modest gabled rectangular domestic residence but not so greatly different from what can be seen today. The main floor would already have been over a raised basement with attic space above, accessed as now through a door approximately two-thirds along the front towards the eastern end. ‘It is uncertain whether the original entrance would have been elevated, accessed by a staircase for which the current one is a replacement. It is quite possible that the original entrance was at ground-level, possibly through the opening beneath the current stairs. The building would have been heated by at least three ﬁreplaces, one at each gable end and another – the largest – along the back wall of the house, possibly serving a great hall.’ Thus, Corcoran submits, Carstown most likely underwent a remodelling around 1612, with the two stones carrying this date being inserted to mark that occasion, as well perhaps as the marriage of Oliver Plunkett and Katherine Hussey. Jacobean taste would have led to the insertion of larger windows and perhaps the gabled dormers were added at the same time, both to increase light and to provide additional living space. ‘It is at this point, also, that we see probably the earliest appearance of brick at the site, which was used in carefully selected places such as at the tops of the chimneys and in a thin course beneath the eaves of the roof. It is likely that the building remained in this form up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which there were successive periods of remodelling and extending.’
If Michael Corcoran’s hypothesis about Carstown’s origins holds up under further investigation, then as he writes, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’ The likelihood of that further investigation taking place grows slimmer by the day because Carstown is now in perilous condition. The house was occupied until relatively recently (the photograph top was taken in the 1940s) and it still has electricity; there is even a television aerial on the roof indicating occupancy in the not-too distant past. But as always in our damp climate, lack of constant residency rapidly takes its toll on a building, not least because it then becomes vulnerable to vandalism. This clearly happened at Carstown, so the present owners took the step of blocking up all openings with cement blocks, although limited access to the interior is still possible. Limited because it is no longer safe to venture above the basement and therefore impossible to know the condition of 18th century joinery and plasterwork still in place less than twenty years ago, not to mention the great chimneypiece with its keystone carrying the date 1612. At some point in the past six months lead was stripped from the roof, along with a set of gates beyond the yard, probably by metal thieves. This has exacerbated the house’s decline as large numbers of slates have come free, leaving the floors below exposed to the elements. Time is running out for Carstown, a house that in other jurisdictions would be cherished for its rarity. Unless intervention occurs within the coming year the building is likely to slip into irreversible decline. All those who could and should play a part to ensure its survival, not least the owners and the local authority, need to understand that by failing to act now they are not only diminishing the nation’s architectural heritage but depriving future generations of better understanding our complex history. Take a good look at that date stone: it could soon be replaced by another marking the demise of Carstown.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
An older set of stables on the former Dartrey estate in County Monaghan has already been shown here (see Now Unstable, October 1st 2014). While the rapidly deteriorating condition of that structure renders it most likely beyond redemption, the same is not true of the 19th century block shown above. Although sections of the slating have gone, the walls are very solidly constructed and the entire site could easily be restored and converted into handsome offices or homes. Such is the norm elsewhere for buildings no longer required for their original purpose but capable of adaptation. Not to take such an approach with these stables is to squander a resource. All that is needed is the kind of imagination far too seldom seen in this country…