Being in the Service of the Lord

As was mentioned last week Kilcooley, County Tipperary stands on land formerly settled by Cistercian monks. The order established a house here c.1182 at the request of Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond and a thrice-great grandson of Brian Boru. It was one of no less than four Cistercian monasteries initiated by O’Brien and soon became a daughter house of Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny, established a couple of years earlier. Like so many other such properties, Kilcooley was subject to attack, especially during the fifteenth century when many religious establishments became caught up in feuds between rival families. Having already suffered from an assault in 1418, in 1445 it was reported the abbey had been burnt and almost completely destroyed by ‘armed men.’ This led to the construction of the present church, albeit largely on the footprint of its predecessor. The work was carried out under the direction of then-abbot Philip O’Mulwanayn whose burial slab was formerly sited in front of the main altar but is now suspended on the north wall of the chancel.

Access to Kilcooley Abbey is via a well-preserved entrance chamber, in effect the church’s north transept, composed of two bays the outer having a handsome traceried window on the east wall. The inner bay has retained its stone vaulting and to the south stands a carved stone baptismal font. One then enters the church, notable for flamboyant tracery windows at the east and west ends. The main body of the building has lost its roof but this remains over the oblong crossing which supports a hefty tower, and over the chancel. To the south a narrower two-bay, rib-vaulted transept – serving as a pair of small chapels – in turn leads to a succession of other rooms, as well as offering access to the night stairs, and to the cloister garth beyond: almost nothing of the last of these now remains other than outer walls. Several other buildings in the vicinity, such as chapter house and refectory, survive in various states of ruin.

The interior of Kilcooley is memorable for two features: the chancel tombs and the doorway leading from south transept to sacristy. With regard to the former, the finest tomb here is that against the chancel’s north wall erected in memory of Piers Fitzjames Oge Butler who died in 1526. This work is attributed to Rory O’Tunney, member of a County Kilkenny family responsible for carving a number of such tombs during the first half of the 16th century. Butler’s monument features the deceased lying on top of the tomb clad in a mixture of chain and plate armour and with a loyal dog at his feet. Below him runs an elaborate panel featuring ten apostles, each in his own niche. Passing through the south transept, one is confronted by a remarkable carved screen carrying a number of images seemingly scattered at random and on sundry dates. Yet as Roger Stalley has noted (in The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland, 1987) ‘this cannot be so as the stones have all been carefully cut to suit their present positions.’ However the impression of an ad hoc design remains: two tracery panels beneath the arch, for example, are smaller than their neighbours. Further down, panels are placed with no evident concern for their location. One shows a mermaid with comb and mirror being observed by two fish, another has an abbot inside an ogee arch, but not to the centre of it. A crucifixion scene above the door is likewise off-centre, sharing the space with St Christopher carrying the Christ child. The whole design appears simultaneously wilful and whimsical. 

Likely because of its links with the Butler family, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries Kilcooley became the property of the Earls of Ormonde. In 1636 the twelfth earl (and future first Duke of Ormonde) sold the estate to Norfolk-born judge Sir Jerome Alexander for £4,200. On his death in 1670, Kilcooley was inherited by his daughter Elizabeth who married another English-born lawyer, William Barker. In 1676 he became the first of four successive baronets bearing the same name, the last of whom built a new house on the estate around 1770. Prior to that date the Barkers may not have spent much time at Kilcooley and when they were present they lived in the old abbey which had been modified to serve as a private residence: this helps to explain why it is better preserved than many other mediaeval monasteries in Ireland. Following the death without direct heir of the last Sir William Barker in 1818 the estate was inherited by his nephew, Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby on condition he adopted the surname Barker. When he in turn died in 1834 Kilcooley passed to his eldest son, William Ponsonby-Barker some of whose idiosyncrasies were discussed last week. Again he died without leaving a son, so the next owner was his brother, Captain Thomas Ponsonby, known as ‘Damnation Tom’ owing to his habit of using the expletive in every sentence. But he only lived a further three years before dying in 1880. His son Chambre Brabazon Ponsonby, married to Mary Plunkett, sister of Sir Horace Plunkett, went to the United States with the intention of buying land there and selling Kilcooley, but died during his return journey across the Atlantic in 1884. The estate passed to six-year old Thomas Brabazon Ponsonby, whose guardian was the aforementioned Horace Plunkett, pioneer of agricultural cooperatives in Ireland. Imbued with his uncle’s idealism, Thomas Ponsonby was a progressive farmer, establishing many new enterprises on the estate including a cheese factory, a large pig enterprise and saw mills. Narrow gauge railway lines served the pigs, and this line extended to a hill where timber was felled and loaded onto bogies which would roll downhill to the saw mill. Likewise he and his wife Frances Paynter modernized the main house, with central heating installed throughout the building including the basement, the whole fired by a large coal boiler below ground in the north yard, and the water circulated by thermo-syphon. The boiler house had a glass roof, so that if there was an explosion, the force of the blast would go straight up.
Kilcooley remained in the ownership of the Ponsonbys until some ten years ago, since when it has experienced what could best be described as mixed fortunes in various  hand. It recently came on the market at the centre of an estate running to more than 1,200 acres. Given its fascinating history and exceptional collection of buildings – of which not all have been described here – one can only hope that it soon finds a new custodian, one who proves as sympathetic to the place as were the Ponsonbys.


À la française

The remains of the former Franciscan Friary in Waterford City. It is believed to have been founded c.1241 by Sir Hugh Purcell (the belltower with its stepped battlements was added in the late 15th century) and remained in use for its original purpose for three centuries until the time of the Reformation. The site was subsequently granted by Henry VIII to a local merchant, Henry Walsh with a charter to convert part of it into an almshouse. This building has long been known as the French Church, having been used by Huguenots after they settled in Waterford towards the end of the 17th century.

It is entirely coincidental that today’s post – written a fortnight ago – should have a French theme. But the atrocities in Paris last night emphasise more than ever how we all have a duty to cherish our shared European heritage.

A Spirit of Theatre

The origins of Dublin castle go back to the first decade of the 13th century, but this site – the highest spot in the immediate locality – was previously occupied by a fortress constructed around the first half of the tenth century after the Vikings settled here. More than two hundred years later the Normans arrived and took possession of Dublin, making it their centre of government in Ireland. Hence in 1204 King John commanded the erection of a large stone castle where the Viking fortification had previously stood. The result was a building of strong walls and good ditches designed to defend the city but also to serve as an administrative centre and to provide protection for the King’s treasury. The castle was largely completed by 1230 under the direction of Henry of London, then Archbishop of Dublin. It is only during the reign of King John’s son, Henry III that the first references are made to a chapel within the castle’s walls. Deeply religious (he maintained at least fifty chapels for his own and his household’s exclusive use), Henry was particularly devoted to the cult of St Edward the Confessor, to whom he was related (Edward’s mother had been a Norman princess) and whose remains he installed in a costly shrine in Westminster Abbey. Thus around 1242 when the king ordered that new windows be made for the chapel in Dublin Castle he had the building dedicated to Edward the Confessor. Situated to the immediate east of the circular Record Tower – today the most intact portion of the mediaeval castle – over the following centuries the chapel underwent the same vicissitudes as the rest of the site. Between 1358-61 its interior was extensively redecorated, with 600lbs of glass purchased for the windows, together with a new crucifix and rood and two devotional statues, one of the Virgin, the other of St Thomas the Martyr who now succeeded Edward the Confessor as the chapel’s patron. It would appear that in the 16th century further repairs and refurbishments were carried out by Sir Henry Sidney, then acting as Ireland’s Lord Deputy, and perhaps again in 1638 after a fire had damaged the upper floor of the building. Worse followed in 1684 after another fire broke out to the immediate west. In order to contain the conflagration, Lord Arran, son of the first Duke of Ormonde (then serving as Lord Deputy) ordered the chapel and a number of other adjacent structures be blown up.

It would appear that towards the end of the 17th century Sir William Robinson, then Surveyor General, rebuilt the chapel along with other portions of the castle in order to make the whole place more comfortable as a residence for the English crown’s representative in Ireland. But while such work continued over successive decades, the chapel remained a relatively modest property: a late 18th century painting shows it to have been of red brick and looking more domestic than religious in character. However, as 1800 and the Act of Union approached, the building underwent reappraisal and it was considered to be ‘little consistent with its attachment to a royal palace.’ In 1801 James Gandon was invited to submit plans for a new chapel. He produced seven designs, none of which survive so one can only speculate what this great advocate of neo-classicism might have created. After a further delay finally in 1807 Francis Johnston who two years earlier had been appointed architect to the Board of Works, embarked on the building one sees today. As Judith Hill has written, the result was intended to emphasize the role of the Church of Ireland in the governance of the country, symbolized by its location within the walls of the administration’s headquarters. It therefore had to provide public access, greater space ‘and an enhanced architectural presence within the castle precincts.’ As a result, the eventual chapel was double the size of its predecessor, with an organ and space for a choir to offer cathedral-standard services: like the viceroy, the chapel was expected to represent the royal presence in Ireland. Underlining its ancient links to the regime, access to the chapel for the castle’s residents was via the old Record Tower. This Johnston reworked in order to improve its appearance, increasing the tower’s height by the addition of another storey with tripartite windows and then topping the whole with machicolated battlements resting on tiered corbels.

Francis Johnston, who would soon move on to design the classical General Post Office on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, was equally at home working in the gothic mode, as he had already demonstrated with Charleville Castle, County Offaly (begun 1798). He adopted the same style for the new chapel in Dublin Castle, even if here it acts as decoration laid over classical symmetry. The exterior of cut limestone building is, as intended by Johnston, rather austere, north and south elevations being of six bays, their two-tiered windows flanked by stepped buttresses that finish in pinnacles. The west end is absorbed into the drum of the mediaeval Record Tower but that at the east, Judith Hill proposes, draws inspiration from the façade of Westminster Hall in London which had recently been cleared of later accretions. Buttressed towers stand guard on either side of a low door above which can be seen the window which lights the chancel within. Decorative flourishes come from the profusion of heads – 103 in total – found at the base of each pinnacle and ornamenting all doors and windows. These were carved by Edward Smyth, best-known today for his keystone heads personifying the rivers of Ireland that adorn Dublin’s Custom House. Here he was likely assisted by his son John. According to Johnston, some of the heads were intended to be historical ‘and some fanciful.’ Dean Swift, for example, can be found on the north elevation, where St Peter, clutching the keys of heaven, hovers over the main public entrance to the building. St Patrick and Brian Boru face each other on either side of the east end door, the window above featuring Faith, Hope and Charity. The same three virtues can be seen inside where John Smyth is believed to have been responsible for the greater part of the work (his father Edward died in 1812). It has been noted that Smyth the younger’s contribution is often flamboyantly baroque in character, a counterpoint to Johnston’s interpretation of Perpendicular Gothic. The stucco heads form part of a larger decorative programme in which a number of other craftsmen played a role, not least stuccodore George Stapleton who created the plasterwork tracery with which the body of the chapel is smothered.

The spirit, if not the form, of baroque found in Smyth’s figurative work pervades what was henceforth known as the Chapel Royal. The interior fizzes with frothy energy thanks not only to the elaborate plasterwork but also the oak galleries carved by Richard Stewart, their fronts divided into panels, each containing the coat of arms of a different Lord Lieutenant surrounded by virtuosic foliate ornamentation. Some of the stained glass in the east window is 15th century French and was presented by Lord Whitworth (Lord Lieutenant at the time of the chapel’s inaugural service in December 1814) while that below was specially made by Joshua Bradley. Other windows contain later glass that bathes the interior in a kaleidoscope of colour. The theatricality of the building must have been even more apparent in its original incarnation when the altar table was concealed behind a large carved pulpit (now in nearby St Werburgh’s church, see: Simply Divine, May 27th 2013). The centre section of the first-floor galleries, that on the south side intended to be occupied by the Viceroy, that on the north by the Archbishop of Dublin, projects forward in the manner of an opera box. This impression was amplified when the Lord Lieutenant’s seat was surmounted by an elaborately carved baldacchino smothered in plush red drapes. The same rich fabric was used for seat coverings such as the benches made by the Dublin firm of Mack, Williams and Gibton. The total bill for their contribution came to over £1,593. Indeed eventual expenditure on the Chapel Royal reached £42,000 which was more than four times the original estimate of £9,532: this compares with the £50,000 spent on building Johnston’s near contemporaneous GPO which is a much larger building. Some of the chapel’s high cost can be ascribed to necessary structural work owing to the nature of a sloping site below which ran the river Poddle (as well as an old quarry). But much of it was due to Johnston’s determination to create a virtuosic building. The chapel retained its original interior until the two tenures of the seventh Earl of Carlisle as Lord Lieutenant between 1855 and 1864. One suspects that Lord Carlisle, a fervent Christian (his mother, to whom he was devoted, had been a keen evangelical) found the character of the Chapel Royal too frivolous for his taste. To improve the calibre of services, he had a new Telford organ installed at the west end, while at the east the old pulpit was removed to allow a clear view of the altar table (a new and smaller Caen stone pulpit was placed to the immediate north). The baldacchino over the Lord Lieutenant’s box came out too while the entire ceiling was painted azure with gold stars. Thankfully much of this Victorian redecoration was removed when the Chapel Royal was refurbished some thirty years ago and in so far as is possible it has now reverted to its appearance when first opened.


A visit to the Chapel Royal is now included in tours of Dublin Castle and is much recommended. In addition, an exhibition on the building called ‘Pinnacles, Pomp & Piety’ – featuring many of the original contents from the Chapel, such as furniture, silverware and historic drawings – can be seen in the State Apartments until March 6th 2016. This is accompanied by a terrifically informative book, ‘The Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, An Architectural History’ (Myles Campbell and William Derham, editors), to which today’s text is indebted and which will likewise enhance other readers’ knowledge both of the Chapel Royal, and the context in which it was built and decorated.

Lo Arthur Leary

In Ireland the term Abbey is often applied to any mediaeval religious ruin. Thus the friary at Kilcrea, County Cork is often called an abbey, even though it was established by the Observant Franciscans. On the other hand, the site – or at least a spot close to it – was originally settled by St Cere or Cyra. An early Irish Christian, she founded a nunnery here and it is from her that the friary’s name derives: Cill Chre (Cell of Cyra) which was anglicized to Kilcrea. The Franciscan friars only arrived in 1465 at the request of Cormac Láidir Mór, Lord of Muskerry (as this part of Cork was anciently called). A branch of the great MacCarthy Mor dynasty, this family later became Viscounts Muskerry and Earls of Clancarty before being dispossessed of their lands and attainted in the late 17th century. But they were at the height of their power when Kilcrea Friary was established, as is testified by the nearby castle built around the same time: Cormac Láidir Mór was also responsible for building the castles at Blarney and Dripsey (otherwise known as Carrignamuck). However in 1494 he was killed by his brother and nephew at the latter location, and was interred in the centre of Kilcrea’s choir.

Kilcrea friary was dedicated to St Brigid of Kildare and for more than a century appears to have thrived under MacCarthy patronage even after religious houses were officially suppressed in 1541. During the Elizabethan era circumstances changed, especially following the appointment of John Perrot as President of Munster in 1570. During his tenure in office Thomas O’Herlihy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ross was imprisoned in the Tower of London and only released after almost four years on the surety of Cormac MacDiarmuid MacCarthy, then Lord of Muskerry: following O’Herlihy’s death in 1579 he too was buried at Kilcrea. Five years later the friary was sacked by English soldiers and thereafter it was subject to several assaults and changes of ownership. In Joseph Stirling Coyne and Nathaniel Willis’s The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1841), it is written that Kilcrea Friary’s ‘principal interest arises from the melancholy contemplation of the gloomy and neglected aisles, where the dust of prince and peasant lie mingled in undistinguishable contusion beneath the ruinous tombstones, which are scattered over every portion of the church and convent. Most of these stones bear the names of the old families and septs of the district: McCarthy, M’Swiney, and Barrett, are the most numerous. There are doubtless many interesting monuments to be found here; but the accumulation of mould, bones, and other relics of mortality within the precincts of the ruins, renders it impossible to discover them without considerable labour…’

One of the monuments at Kilcrea Friary so summarily dismissed by Stirling Coyne and Willis is the tomb of Art Ó Laoghaire or O’Leary, whose widow Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill (an aunt of Daniel O’Connell) wrote a famous lament following her husband’s death in 1773 at the age of just twenty-six. A former captain in the Huzzars Regiment of the Austrian Imperial army O’Leary had, following his return to Ireland six years earlier, become involved in a dispute with a neighbour, Abraham Morris, High Sheriff of County Cork. Following his refusal to sell a horse to Morris for £5 (as Roman Catholics were obliged to do under the Penal Laws of the time) O’Leary was declared an outlaw and on being discovered by Morris and a group of men was shot dead at Carrignanimma: Morris would die two years later, his life shortened, it was believed, after he had in turn been shot by O’Leary’s brother. Meanwhile Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill composed her remarkable Caoineadh, a 390-line lament in which she mourned her husband’s death and called for revenge on his killers; for long remaining part of the country’s oral tradition, the words were only written down many years later. Art O’Leary was initially buried elsewhere before being interred in Kilcrea Friary where his tomb can be seen with an inscription believed to have been also composed by his widow: ‘Lo Arthur Leary, Generous, Handsome, Brave/Slain in His Bloom lies in this Humble Grave.’
After passing through diverse hands, since 1892 Kilcrea Friary has been in the care of the Office of Public Works.


Vanishing into the Clouds

Sufficiently spooky for Halloween: the spire of the former Presbyterian church in Clonakilty, County Cork. On a plot of land leased from the town’s then-owner the fourth Earl of Shannon, this dressed limestone building was completed in 1861. The tower is its most distinctive feature, the spire’s onset marked by a gargoyle at each corner. Since 1924 the site has served as Clonakilty’s post office.

All in the Head

Likely unspotted by most visitors to St Malachy’s in Hillsborough, County Down, beneath each window is inserted a sandstone head, each one different from the other . Seemingly the site of the present church has been used as a place of worship since 1636, with the outline of the present building dating from 1663. The church as seen today was reconstructed incorporating older walls by Wills Hill, first Marquis of Downshire between 1760 and 1772 before being open for worship the following year. Yet these heads, in a different stone from that used elsewhere and some of them well worn by the elements, suggest reuse from an even older church? No doubt a reader – perhaps someone who worships at St Malachy’s today – can provide an explanation.


At Rest

A detail of the monument to John Butler, second Marquess of Ormonde in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. In September 1854, Lord Ormonde had been bathing with his children off the coast of Wexford when he was, according to a contemporary newspaper report, ‘seized with a fit of apoplexy, and no medical assistance being at hand, he expired in a few hours.’ He was aged 46. The marble monument to his memory was carved the following year by English sculptor Edward Richardson and shows the deceased lying recumbent in his robes as a Knight of the Order of St Patrick.