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.

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.


All the Saints

Inside the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, Duleek, County Meath, a 17th century box tomb bearing the arms of four families once prominent in the region: the Plunketts, Bellews, Prestons and St Lawrences. At either end four panels contain figures. Those above are, from left to right, St Patrick, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Thomas à Becket and St Peter. Those at the other side are less well preserved and therefore more difficult to identify but they appear to include an Archangel (perhaps Gabriel), a Crucifixion scene and, furthest right, St George slaying the dragon. Who might be swinging a thurible to his immediate left?


When Nobody Cried Stop

How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.

Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.

In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.

We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…


Towering Above

The round tower at Meelick, County Mayo. Once part of a religious foundation attributed to St Broccaidh, the tower is believed to date from the 10th century. It stands 21.5 metres high and has lost its conical cap but retains a doorway some 3.5 metres above the present ground level. Attached to the base is a likely contemporaneous tombstone with interlaced cross and border, and the inscription OR DO GRIENI (‘A prayer for Griene’).


A Mere Shell

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