Awaiting the Saviour

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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.

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Spirituality as Spectacle

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Pinnacled Protection

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The Gothic Revival mausoleum of the St George family at Drumacoo, County Galway. Dating from 1830, it was incorporated into the remains of a thirteenth century church on the site in order to receive the body of Lady Harriet St George, daughter of the second Earl of Howth.
In Ireland with Emily, first published in his 1945 collection New Bats in Old Belfries, John Betjeman wrote of the building,
‘There in pinnacled protection
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover
Graves of spinster, rake and lover
Whose fantastic mausoleum
Sings its own seablown Te Deum
In and out the slipping slates’

Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs

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‘Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.’
From Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard (1750)

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‘…Now, fond Man!
Behold thy pictur’d Life: pass some few Years,
Thy flow’ring SPRING, thy short-liv’d SUMMER’s Strength,
Thy sober AUTUMN, fading into Age,
And pale, concluding, WINTER shuts thy Scene,
And shrouds Thee in the Grave — where now, are fled
Those Dreams of Greatness? those unsolid
Hopes Of Happiness? those Longings after Fame?
Those restless Cares? those busy, bustling Days?
Those Nights of secret Guilt? those veering Thoughts,
Flutt’ring ‘twixt Good, and Ill, that shar’d thy Life?
All, now, are vanish’d! Vertue, sole, survives,
Immortal, Mankind’s never-failing Friend,
His Guide to Happiness on high…’
From James Thomson’s The Seasons, first part Winter (1726)

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‘Those Graves, with bending Osier bound,
That nameless heave the crumbled Ground,
Quick to the glancing Thought disclose
Where Toil and Poverty repose.
The flat smooth Stones that bear a Name,
The Chissels slender help to Fame,
(Which e’er our Sett of Friends decay
Their frequent Steps may wear away.)
A middle Race of Mortals own,
Men, half ambitious, all unknown.
The Marble Tombs that rise on high,
Whose Dead in vaulted Arches lye,
Whose Pillars swell with sculptur’d Stones,
Arms, Angels, Epitaphs and Bones,
These (all the poor Remains of State)
Adorn the Rich, or praise the Great;
Who while on Earth in Fame they live,
Are sensless of the Fame they give. ‘
From the Rev. Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death (1722)

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‘Dull Grave! Thou spoil’st the dance of youthful blood,
Strik’st out the dimple from the cheek of mirth,
And every smirking feature from the face;
Branding our laughter with the name of madness.
Where are the jesters now? The men of health
Complexionally pleasant? Where the droll,
Whose every look and gesture was a joke
To clapping theatres and shouting crowds,
And made even thick-lipp’d musing Melancholy
To gather up her face into a smile
Before she was aware? Ah! sullen now,
And dumb as the green turf that covers them.’
From Robert Blair’s The Grave (1743)

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All the pictures shown here were taken in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, Kilkenny. Located to the immediate west of High Street, it was already sufficiently well established by 1205 for Hugh de Rous, Bishop of Ossory to convene an ecclesiastical court on the premises. The church was substantially rebuilt in 1739 and much of its present form dates from that period. It was deconsecrated in the 1950s and has since been used for various uses; there are now plans for its restoration and conversion into a civic museum.
The establishment of a graveyard here seems to be contemporaneous with the church, and it was always a burial place for the rich mercantile families of Kilkenny such as the Rothes and Shees. Within its original boundaries are probably the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments, a reflection of the affluence of the citizens who commissioned them.

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Such Dedication

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The porch of St Lachtain’s church in Freshford, County Kilkenny. St Lachtain was born in County Cork at some date in the sixth century and even as an infant is credited with performing miracles. As a teenager he travelled to St Comgall’s monastery in Bangor, County Down where St Molu was his teacher. He was subsequently sent out to found religious houses including that at Freshford the establishment of which is therefore believed to date to before 622 when St Lachtain died. The porch, of honey-toned sandstone and now set into a much later facade, is from the 12th century. It comprises four orders of ornamented arches, the innermost one uniquely preserving a dedication in old Irish script that translates ‘Pray for Gilla Mocholmoc O Cennucain who made it. Pray for Neim [Niamh], daughter of Curc and for Mathgamain O Chiarmeic, for whom this church was made.’ Because the porch is on the west end of the church and faces onto a busy street, it receives relatively little notice from passers-by (but is obviously subject to much pollution).

‘A Man of Gravity and Virtuous Conversation’

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A pair of figures on the tomb of Walter Wellesley, penultimate Prior of Great Connell, County Kildare, a religious house belonging to the Augustinian canons. Judged a man of both exceptional learning and political wisdom, Wellesley, who became Bishop of Kildare in 1529, had sufficient influence with Henry VIII to ensure the survival of Great Connell during the following decade when other religious houses were being suppressed. When he died in 1539 this tomb was erected in his memory but the following year the priory was closed down and its occupants dispersed. The buildings subsequently passed into other hands and in the early 19th century much of the original masonry was used to construct a military barracks in Newbridge. At that time surviving fragments of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb were incoporated into the wall of a graveyard at Great Connell where they remained until 1971 when removed to St Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare. There they remain in the south transept although portions of the tomb have never been recovered.

On the Tiles

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The greater part of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin dates from the first half of the 13th century but six hundred years later much of the structure had fallen into disrepair. Therefore the dean and chapter were extremely grateful when in 1860 the wealthy brewer Benjamin Lee Guinness wrote offering to underwrite a complete restoration of the building, the only condition being that he be subject to no interference: the project took five years and cost £150,000. One of the alterations made by Guinness was raising the floor of the nave to the same height as that of the choir. In the process, new tiles were laid down, of which these are an example, based on mediaeval designs and covering the entire nave.