Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick. Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.
The Irish saint Féichín is believed to have been born around 585 in County Sligo, descended from a line of chieftains. However he chose a more ascetic existence than his forebears and having studied under another saint, Náth Í of Achonry, he went on to found a succession of churches, including that which eventually became Ballysadare Abbey, County Sligo and Termon Féichín, County Louth. His most famous establishment was at Fore, County Westmeath. Here he built a church on a hill, its western doorway distinguished by a six-foot long, two and a half ton limestone lintel inscribed with a Greek cross. This stone is said to have been too heavy for workmen to lift into place but Féichín was single-handedly able to perform the task after engaging in prayer. The lintel-stone raised by the saint’s prayers is one of the seven Wonders of Fore, of which more anon. It is also said that Féichín attracted many followers so that the community at Fore eventually numbered some 300 monks and 2,000 students. According to the 17th century Annals of the Four Masters Féichín was one of a number of holy men who died after catching a plague raging in Ireland in the year 664.
A particular feature of the site at Fore is the presence of two rag trees. For readers unfamiliar with this phenomenon, rag trees are likely to be a remnant of some pre-Christian practice. They are often found next to a holy well and are Whitethorns. Pilgrims come to pray at the well and, having dipped a strip of cloth into the water, will tie it to the tree, the idea being that as the rag rots away, so the wish – be it relief from a medical condition or an improvement in personal circumstances – will come to pass. The rag trees at Fore are Ash. The first of them is beside a well known as Tobernacogany (from the Irish meaning ‘Well of the Kitchen’ and thus perhaps in some way associated with the adjacent former monastery) and the original tree had three branches growing over the water. The custom in this instance was for visitors to drive a coin edgeways into the bark and hope their prayers would be answered. It appears that ultimately the plant suffered from metal poisoning and died, but one branch survived and this is now loaded with rags and bits of cloth. Two of the other Wonders of Fore were associated with this spot: it was claimed wood from the tree would not burn, and water from the well – traditionally drunk as a cure for head- and toothache – would not boil. The second rag tree is closer to the ruins of the abbey. Known as Doaghfeighin it stands within a box-like structure built of large stone (the name means Féichín’s vat or bath). The well is now dry but was believed to have marked the spot where the saint, in an act of mortification to the flesh, would kneel in prayer. Delicate children were dipped into the well while prayers were said to Féichín. Though the water has gone, the habit of attaching rags to the tree remains.
Three of Fore’s seven ancient wonders have already been mentioned. Of the four remaining, the first is called The Monastery Built upon the Bog, and refers to the medieval abbey which was located in a boggy valley created by water flowing from Lough Lene. Much of this land has since been drained so it is no longer possible to appreciate how the building must once have appeared. The second wonder was the Mill without a Stream. There used to be a mill here, even though no water ran through the site. Instead it was powered by a number of springs and wells that bubble up in the vicinity: the ancient legend was that Féichín, after founding his establishment, caused the water to appear by striking the ground with his staff. The mill continued to operate until the last quarter of the 19th century. The third wonder was the Water that Flows Uphill, an optical illusion occurring when the water supposedly summoned by Féichín turns back on itself and therefore appears to climb upward. Finally mention must be made of the remaining wonder, the Anchorite in a Stone. This refers to a 15th century tower once occupied by hermits but subsequently transformed into a mausoleum for the Earls of Westmeath. The last hermit to live here was the 17th century Patrick Beglin who having entered his cell never left, relying on food and water brought to him by locals. Beglin died after taking a tumble on the premises and so fulfilled his vow never to leave the cell alive.
The foundation established by Féichín was attacked and burnt no less than a dozen times between 771 and 1169, and the site underwent regular rebuilding. The monastic remains seen in the valley today are a Norman creation, established at the end of the 12th century by Hugh de Lacy who had seized this part of the country. He chose the site for a community of Benedictine monks associated with the Abbey of St Taurin in Evreux: thus it now became the Abbey of SS. Taurin and Féichín, endowed by Hugh de Lacy’s son Walter and completed around 1220. With its strong fortified towers, the monastery looks as much like a castle as a religious establishment. This is owing to the struggles between France and England during the Hundred Years War when Fore’s links with Evreux left it deemed ‘alien property’ and vulnerable to attack. Such remained the case even after the monastery broke its overseas ties, the native Irish now becoming the enemy. As a result, in the fifteenth century gates and walls were constructed around the town that had sprung up beside the abbey, and successive priors added two bulky battlemented towers to the complex. But they were to no avail in the following century when all monasteries were dissolved and their occupants scattered. The lands of Fore were granted to Sir Christopher Nugent, sixth Baron Delvin whose descendants would later turn the old anchorite’s cell into a mausoleum. Fore fell into ruin, until a programme of restoration begun in the early part of the last century.
The crisp carving of a pair of capitals on the eastern side of the porch of University Church, Dublin. The building was commissioned in 1855-56 by John Henry Newman from John Hungerford Pollen – like Newman a convert to Roman Catholicism – and occupies the former gardens of its neighbour, 87 St Stephen’s Green. The little porch was an afterthought and added a few years later, most likely as a means of giving the churcsh some presence on the square. Its most distinctive feature are the capitals, carved with the emblems of the Evangelists (those of SS. John and Luke seen above) which are then linked by an abacus decorated by winged angels. Who was the sculptor responsible for this work? Like a medieval craftsman, his name seems not to have been recorded…
Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.
Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.
Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.
There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.
It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.
Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.
On the northern side of the chancel arch in the ruins of St Fechin’s Church, County Westmeath can be found a carving of a seated monk, hands resting on his knees as he grins contentedly at the world. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a very Happy Christmas and hopes you will enjoy as much seasonal cheer as this little fellow.
This little gem of Greek Revival architecture looks as though Scotland should be its natural habitat. In fact the building can be found in central North Dublin on Sean McDermott (formerly Lower Gloucester Street) and was originally built as a Presbyterian church. The architect responsible, Duncan C Ferguson, is thought to have been of Scottish origin, which would explain the choice of style since its date of construction – 1846 – is rather late for Greek Revival. The granite façade features a tetrastyle pedimented portico with four fluted Doric columns below a frieze with Greek lettering. On either side are single-storey wings with tapered square-headed doors (see below). The church does not appear to have served its original purpose for long and by 1900 had been converted into a flour store. Thereafter it underwent further changes of use before being left to dereliction and once the interior was gutted by fire (seemingly in the 1980s) all but the façade was demolished. About ten years ago another structure devoid of architectural interest was erected to the rear. Since then the remains of Ferguson’s work have languished in an area where few instances of good design can be found; somehow it has survived and still awaits a saviour.
The picture above was painted by the Drogheda, County Louth artist Bernard Tumalti in 1844. It shows the interior as it then was of the town’s principal church, St Peter’s and therefore serves as an invaluable record of how the building looked before it was subjected to a number of changes later in the century. Among the most significant of these was the removal of the box pews in 1865 and the insertion of stained glass in many of the windows, not least that the great east window which dates from the following decade. At some point also the handsome line of hanging brass candelabra shown by Tumalti were also lost, another misfortune. As a result of these and other alterations to the church, its original character is no longer as easily discernible, not least the element of baroque theatricality that was manifestly intended as part of the design and which must have transformed services into performances.
St Peter’s has likely been the site of worship for as long as there has been a settlement in Drogheda. Situated just three miles from the mouth of the river Boyne, this is said to be the place where St Patrick landed in c.432 and a little over 850 years later the Norman knight Hugh de Lacy built a motte and bailey on the existing Viking fort. Not far away St Peter’s was established by de Lacy and given to Welsh Augustinian canons. It subsequently grew – as did Drogheda – to be one of the largest churches in the country and although various changes were made to the structure, St Peter’s survived relatively intact until the town was besieged by Oliver Cromwell in September 1649. Many citizens took refuge inside the church, but to no avail as it was set on fire and, after the occupants had been massacred, subjected to looting. Nevertheless enough of the medieval St Peter’s survived for it to continued in use as a centre of worship for another century.
According to the Vestry Minute Book, ‘In the Year one thousand seven hundred and Forty Eight, The old Parisk Church of Saint Peters Drogheda being in ruinous Condition and in danger of falling was Order’d to be pulled down which was done accordingly and a New Church begun to be Built in the room of the old one the same Year and Carry’d on ‘till finish’d by the Several Contributions Subscribed and pay’d by the undernamed Persons, And a Cess [levy] of Three Hundred Pounds only lay’d upon the said Parish.’ The new St Peter’s is believed to have been designed by Hugh Darley, member of a family which across more than two centuries worked as builders, stone cutters and architects. Hugh Darley’s best-known building is Trinity College Dublin’s Dining Hall erected in the early 1760s to replace Richard Castle’s earlier hall which had twice collapsed during construction and was eventually demolished after its vaults fell in while an adjacent kitchen was being built. The entry on St Peter’s in The Buildings of North Leinster by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, having described the church as one of the best of its kind from the 18th century notes the handsome Palladian facade. This is of ‘three bays and two storeys of limestone ashlar, horizontally channelled, with a broad eaves pediment broken by the great central tower rising above it through two storeys. The tower is expressed as a giant round-headed entrance, a terse Diocletian window in the first floor and in the belfry stage corner pilasters, a round-headed opening, and above a Gibbsian bracketed oculus. Above all this rises a Gothic steeple added by Francis Johnston in the 1780s.’ The exterior of St Peter’s is austere and devoid of superfluous decoration. This makes the extravagance of its interior all the more surprising.
The interior of St Peter’s is classical in design, a long hall with galleries along the west, north and south sides carried on octagonal oak piers: these are continued on the upper level as Ionic columns. The surprise comes when one looks east to the chancel, the walls of which are smothered in elaborate plasterwork featuring garlands of fruit and flowers, cornucopiae, clouds and hovering above it all birds (possibly intended to represent eagles) with their wings spread wide. More late baroque than rococo in spirit, the chancel’s north and south walls are embellished with intricate plasterwork frames surrounding a pair of funerary monuments, one to Alderman Francis Leigh (d.1778), the other to the Rev. John Magee (d.1837). Both were evidently inserted some decades after the decoration had been completed and it remains a matter of conjecture who might have been responsible for this piece of bravura craftsmanship. Stylistic comparisons have been made between the plasterwork of St Peter’s and that in the drawing and dining rooms of Russborough, County Wicklow. Other parts of that house, most notably the saloon, have always been attributed to the Swiss-born Lafranchini brothers, Paolo and Filippo, who from the late 1730s onwards worked extensively in Ireland. However the character of Russborough’s drawing and dining rooms is more robust than that of the saloon, and it was art historian Joseph McDonnell in his 1991 book Irish Eighteenth Century Stuccowork and its European Sources who drew attention to the similarities between the decoration of these spaces and the church in Drogheda. McDonnell came up with the concept of ‘the St Peter’s stuccodore’ and more recently the same individual has also been credited with the plasterwork found in Glasnevin House, County Dublin. Across all these buildings the same vigorous ebullience is on display, suggesting the hand of someone who, like the Lafranchinis, came here from continental Europe.
The chancel’s plasterwork indicates little concern with the religious and indeed seems more suited to a domestic setting: while it lifts the spirits, they are not necessarily raised above the temporal. A certain effort has been made to remind the congregation that it is present for devotional purposes: in the plasterwork above the east window is a small panel bearing an inscription in Hebrew from Isaiah and translated as ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts’ and the open volumes that feature on either side are presumably intended to represent the gospels or some other scriptural text. But St Peter’s, in its original incarnation, must have borne more than a passing resemblance to the theatre: this is religion as drama, with the chancel substituting for stage and the main body of the building for auditorium. At least one of the other funerary monuments celebrates this ambiguity, that to the immediate south which celebrates Henry Singleton, Lord Chief Justice of Ireland and Master of the Rolls who died in 1759: his memorial features an oval plaque in which a woman weeps over an urn, putti supporting an inscription and a portrait bust of the man himself sculpted by Thomas Hickey. As though conscious of the possibility for confusion between the sacred and profane, Hugh Darley designed the great east window in the gothic idiom, thereby leading the mind back to matters devotional. And that aspect was further accentuated by the reordering of the church over the course of the second half of the 19th century, notably the removal of the box pews (not unlike theatre boxes) and the insertion of stained glass into many of the windows. The effect was to play down the secular element, even if this was to the detriment of the decoration. St Peter’s remains a wonderful building and unquestionably among the very best churches erected here in the post-Reformation era. But imagine how much better it must have looked when painted by Bernard Tumalti in 1844.