Built on a small island in the river Deel, Askeaton Castle, County Limerick dates from 1199 when built by the Norman settler William de Burgo. It subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond but while surviving assault during that family’s rebellions against the English crown in the 16th century the castle was eventually dismantled around 1650 by the regicide Colonel Daniel Axtel when he was crushing opposition to Cromwell’s forces in this part of the country. Even as a ruin, its remains continue to dominate the surrounding landscape.
Some attention has already been paid here to the eccentricities of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, specifically the house he constructed at Downhill, County Derry (see It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013). Today the focus is on his other great building project in Ireland, one which attracted more attention at the time but is now largely forgotten, at Ballyscullion in the same county where work began around 1787/88 (that is, more than a decade after Downhill). As with the first house the architect credited for being responsible was Cork-born Michael Shanahan. He appears to have come to Hervey’s attention when, prior to his transference to Derry, he was serving as Bishop of Cloyne. Although Shanahan seemingly had trained as a stonecutter, he possessed a facility for drawing (he would teach this to the bishop’s son) and an interest in architecture. Hence he was taken up by Hervey and indeed taken to Italy in 1770-72 where time was spent in the Veneto, and specifically in Vicenza in May 1771. This is important because a key influence on Ballyscullion’s distinctive design is Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda (in turn derived from the Pantheon in Rome): one must assume it was seen by Hervey and Shanahan while they were in the area. A second influence, and one closer to home, is Belle Isle on Lake Windermere, Cumbria which was designed in 1774 by another self-taught architect, John Plaw. This is a circular building capped by a segmental dome and fronted by a full-height pedimented portico, all features shared with Ballyscullion. Since Plaw was based in London (and designed Belle Isle for a wealthy city merchant Thomas English) it is probable that Hervey and Shanahan would have seen his plans for the house even if they did not visit it.
Ballyscullion was never fully completed, and in its unfinished state was only intermittently occupied before being demolished a decade after the bishop’s death in 1803. Therefore imagination is required to grasp how it must have looked (aided by familiarity with Ickworth, Suffolk, the last of the bishop’s building schemes begun in 1795 and following a similar ground plan to that of Ballyscullion). However, the house was so curious in form and scale that many visitors were drawn there during its brief period of existence, and some of them left a record of what they found. A few of these now follow.
In August 1799 the Rev William Bisset, then Rector of Loughgall, Co Armagh (and later Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal) travelled along the Ulster coast with his brother George. He kept a journal of the trip from which the following is taken:
‘Aug. 13_ at 7 O’Clock in the morning We left a very indifferent Inn, and sending our Baggage by the direct road to Coleraine, turned out of our way to gratify a curiosity which the name and character of Lord Bristol excited, to see his House at Ballyscullion. I was not disappointed for I expected something singular, and assuredly I found it_ the Singularity however did not please me_ his Lordship has put himself to great expence to produce a
very bad Effect_ at a distance One cannot imagine what extraordinary thing it is that stands so staringly in the Landscape_ a large black Dome raised high in the Air, without anything that seems proportioned or connected with it; no Trees, or dressed ground of any sort_ A gigantic Mass presents itself upon the naked Plain, and though I was so far prepared as to be actually going to see a large house, and one too that I expected would be in some respect or other singular, yet it did not occur to me that the Object I had in view long before I reached the Village of Ballaghy about a mile distant from it, could be the Mansion we were looking for_ such however it was; and upon a nearer approach we perceived it to be a large round house with a small Corinthian Portico, and surrounded by fluted Pilasters of the same Order_ Above these is a Frieze and Cornice, and upon the whole a high Attic Story with another Cornice bearing a ponderous Roof; every part of which is not only visible, contrary to the general Taste in Architecture, but is so strikingly conspicuous that I found it difficult to turn my Attention to anything else…
…I must observe however that the Plan of this House is not completed_ it is intended to connect it by a Colonnade with other buildings, and probably it will be less disagreeable to the Sight, when relieved in that manner_ The Hall appeared to me to be small, but I did not measure it, and as it is at present filled with Casts of the Laocoon, Centaurs, &c the dimensions may be more considerable than they now appear_ I could not mistake in observing that the Staircase is dark, and from the Figure of the house which is nearly circular, the fantastic Shape of the Rooms, at least of many of them may be supposed, and could not well be avoided_ The Eating room is a handsome one, and the Drawing room corresponding throughout, and the Pictures though not of the first Masters are such as one should like to have_ I am told there are no Originals, but the Person who shewed the house not having a Catalogue I could not make a memorandum of particulars_ Many of them were very pleasing to me_there is a beautiful Portrait of the present unfortunate Pope, a Death of Wolfe, the Departure of Regulus, and indeed a great number if not of the best and highest Character, certainly of sufficient merit to captivate an unskilful Person_ The Whole Taste of the Furniture is vicious; one should imagine it had been chosen by the Neapolitan Lady whose Portrait you are shewn, and who is said to have been a Favourite of his Lordship. Nothing can be more gawdy and effeminate, nothing less suitable to a Bishop, or agreeable to a manly taste_ the Library is almost without Books, a fault which cannot be remedied, as there are no places made to receive them_upon the whole I must confess, I am led to form as low an Opinion of the noble Owners proficiency in matters He seems to have devoted himself to, as his public conduct obliges me to form of his Character in those higher points to which his Rank and Profession have in vain demanded his Attention…’
Not long afterwards a more sympathetically-inclined Anglican clergyman visited Ballyscullion. This is taken from the Rev. George Vaughan Sampson’s Statistical Survey of The County of Londonderry published in 1802:
‘The house of Ballyscullion is so uncommon as to plan, that even the following imperfect sketch may be desirable to lovers of architecture.
The ground plan is an oval, whose greatest diameter is 94 feet, the shorter is 84 feet; around the building are disposed 20 fluted Corinthian pilasters of two feet nine inches in diameter; the intermediate spaces are faced with stone, quarried in the neighbouring mountains, in colour resembling the Portland stone. On the frieze are the following lines in gold letters, which encircle the house.
”Hic viridi in campo, templum de marmore ponam,
Propter aquam, tardis ingens ubi flexibus errat
Bannius, et tenui praetexit arundine ripas.”
Of these lines, the literal translation is: “Here is a verdant plain; I will place a temple of marble beside the waters, where the vast Bann strays in sluggish windings, and clothes his banks with tender reed.”
…The northern face presents a stately portico, supported by six pillars, similar to the pilasters as to order and dimension. On the frieze of the portico the following Greek verses are inscribed in large gold letters…”Immediately open ye doors, for much wealth is within, and, with that wealth, fresh-springing benevolence.”
Over a neat entablature is raised an attic storey, 12 feet in height; the building is crowned by a dome, in which is an elegant sky-light. The hall is in measurement 24 by 22½ feet, ornamented by admirable statues of the Apollo Belvedere, and the Vatican Mercury; the busts of Cicero, Demosthenes, Seneca and Pericles, of fine statuary marble, are placed in niches. The great stair-case is constructed geometrically, in the centre of the house; it is of cut stone, carrying with it a back stair-case, occasionally communicating; these form a kind of double spiral and both are lighted from above. A number of busts and statues are placed in niches, along the stairs and lobbies.
The drawing and dining-rooms are on the first floor; each of these is a segment of an ellipse, 36 feet long, 24 feet wide and 18 feet high: both rooms are ornamented with fine paintings. The library is 70 by 22½ feet. The upper rooms are sleeping chambers, each being the section of an ellipse.
From a small room on either side of the hall, a coridore (sic) is extended, which coridores are intended to conduct towards two large galleries, one for the paintings of the Italian, the other for those of the Flemish school: these galleries are to be 82 feet by 25.
Two large squares of offices, each 110 feet, are to be ranged in front of the galleries. All these are to be faced with cut stone, from the quarries near Dungiven. When completed, the line of building in front will extend nearly 350 feet.’
In October 1807, four years after Hervey’s death, the restless Rector of Navan, County Meath, the Rev. Daniel Beaufort made a tour of the north of the country (one wonders, did none of the period’s Anglican clergymen ever think to stay put in their parishes?). He was accompanied by his wife Mary and their youngest daughter Louisa. The latter was the first woman to be made an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and here is her account of the family’s visit to Ballyscullion:
’2 miles brought us to Balaghy a tolerable village, church repairing, it has good spire, some very nice houses with flower gardens & shrubs before them. In the middle of the town was a very high pole, on the top of which was a board painted blue & orange, one person said it was a weather cock, another a free masons sign.
Here we turned off to Ballyscullen, whose ruin’d magnificence shew at once the taste & Madness of Ld. Bristol – it is circular in the Corinthian stile, built of well color’d free stone – brought from Ballinascreen, the pediment of the Portico white Marble veined with pale grey on which Ld Bs & the See Arms were carved in Italy, the Collumnes seem too slender for their height – the staircase is very light & handsome, all the work seems to have been uncomly well executed, as much of the handsome stucco, still remains tho’ all the windows have been taken out & sold, as were the floors, doors & every thing that could be got at, it is expected that Ld O’Neal will buy the staircase – the rooms were numerous shapes very pretty & well contrived – the lead from the roof has been sold, so that in a few years the weather will compleat what Avarice has so well begun.
The house was built on a gentle eminence which forms a small peninsula in Lough Beg, the view from it extensive & rendered pleasing by Church Island & It might have been made a very fine place, by plantings, the small groves that are there seem to grow extremely well.’
As has been mentioned before, the Earl-Bishop spent his last years in Italy where he died in July 1803; taken ill on the way to Albano he could only find sanctuary in the outhouse of a peasant who refused to admit a heretic into his cottage. An equally degrading fate awaited his great house at Ballyscullion. Along with the rest of his Irish property, this was left to yet another Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Henry Hervey Bruce whose great-grandfather had been the first Earl of Bristol. In 1786 his rich kinsman settled on him a yearly income of £400 and the incumbency of Tamlaghtfinlagan, County Derry. In addition Hervey Bruce became the Bishop’s steward at Downhill, assuming responsibility for both managed the estate and the diocese during the older man’s increasingly long absences from Ireland.
On coming into his inheritance, Hervey Bruce (who was created a baronet in 1804) removed the greater part of Ballyscullion’s contents to Downhill where he preferred to live. Ballyscullion was left to moulder: Louisa Beaufort’s observations reveal that even by 1807 it had begun to fall into decay. What could be sold out of the building was offered to buyers: the great staircase caught the attention of Lord O’Neill and went to Shane’s Castle where regrettably it too was lost in the great conflagration there in 1816 (see Fascination Frantic in a Ruin that’s Romantic, February 17th last).
But not everything perished. For example, Ballyscullion’s portico with its four towering Corinthian columns was bought by Dr. Nathaniel Alexander, then-Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Connor and presented by him to the rebuilt St. George’s Church in High Street, Belfast; supposedly the stones were first brought by horse and cart to Lough Neagh and from there travelled by the first cargo barge to make the journey to Belfast on the new Lagan Canal. Photographs of the facade of St George’s, incorporating the Ballyscullion portico, can be seen above.
For his own residence in Portglenone, Dr Alexander bought other items from Ballyscullion including chimneypieces and a pair of scagliola columns with corresponding pilasters (curiously this house has since become a Roman Catholic Cistercian monastery). Other pieces of Ballyscullion were acquired by diverse house owners and remain in some of these properties to the present time (see various pictures above). But within ten years Hervey’s great building was largely gone and today almost nothing remains other than the outline of the main block’s foundations and the partial walls of one of the galleries, all of it surrounded by thick woodland.
There is still a house on the Ballyscullion estate: in 1840 Sir Charles Lanyon designed a handsome new residence – see below – for Admiral Sir Henry Bruce (a younger son of the Rev. Sir Henry Hervey Bruce) who at the age of 13 had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and went on to command the British fleet in the Pacific. Ballyscullion Park remained in the possession of the Bruce family into the last century before being sold in 1938 to the Hon. Sir Harry Mulholland, first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont. Sir Harry’s grandson Richard and his wife Rosalind live in the house today and maintain the property with every respect and appreciation for its distinguished and colourful history. The Bishop’s Ballyscullion may have gone but its memory is duly cherished.
For more information on Ballyscullion Park, see: http://www.ballyscullionpark.com
The uppermost section of the archway located on the southern wall of a former monastery at Dysert O’Dea, County Clare. The original religious settlement here is said to have been established by Saint Tola in the 8th century. However, the remains seen today mostly date from four centuries later. Among the building’s most notable features is this elaborately carved Romanesque doorway, which is ringed with nineteen human and animal heads, the one serving as keystone being notably narrower than any of its neighbours.
Shane’s Castle, County Antrim is located at the north-east corner of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Britain and Ireland. The building was originally known as Edenduffcarrick (from the Irish meaning ‘The Brow of the Dark Rock’) and first appears in the late 15th century Annals of Ulster as the town of Conn O’Neill; a settlement of houses remained around the lakeshore until swept away towards the end of the 18th century to create an open parkland, much of which still happily remains as designed at the time. In 1490 there are references to a castle on the site which was attacked and demolished, but another such structure is mentioned in 1535 as being under assault and in 1596 it was reported that ‘on the edge of Lough Neagh standeth a runiated pile called Edendow Carreck, which, being made wardable, could be converted into a store for provisioning Blackwater and Coleraine in case of sea storms.’ Having suffered repeated attacks and changes of ownership, in 1607 the Castle and surrounding lands were settled by James I on Shane McBrian O’Neill. The name Shane’s Castle probably derives from this man whose descendants have lived on the estate ever since.
The oldest part of Shane’s Castle probably dates from the late 15th or early 16th century but the building was subject to so many assaults and reconstructions during this period, and such radical alteration later that it is now difficult to discern what might be original. Looking at the remains today, with their confusion of stone and brick, and comparing this with surviving paintings it becomes clear the structure was considerably extended and aggrandised in the 17th and more especially the 18th century. The eventual Shane’s Castle, which sat at right angles to the shores of Lough Neagh with the main symmetrical entrance facing east, was of three storeys over basement. It’s rendered exterior had a battlemented parapet and hipped roofs, the west front featuring projecting circular end bays while that to the east was centred on a large curved bay and closed with projecting rectangular bays. In the 1793 engraving after William Ashford immediately above it can be seen these east bays are pedimented but other images from previous decades show differently, an indication of how the building was subjected to repeated revisions reflecting changes in architectural taste during the course of the 18th century. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s make reference to some features of the structure which no longer exist, mentioning a sculptured coat of arms ‘said to have been erected over one of the principal entrances of the castle’ and also noting ‘none of the floors and only a small portion of a beautiful spiral stair of cut stone now remain.’
We are fortunate to possess a number of descriptions of Shane’s Castle in full opulence. As a young woman, the 18th century’s most celebrated actress Sarah Siddons had met and been befriended by Henrietta Boyle, judged one of the loveliest women of her generation, who subsequently married John, first Viscount O’Neill. Hence in 1783 when Mrs Siddons was performing at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre she travelled to County Antrim to spend time with her friends at Shane’s Castle. In her memoirs she recalled the visit: ‘I have not words to describe the beauty and splendour of this enchanting place; which, I am sorry to say, has since been levelled to the earth by a tremendous fire. Here were often assembled all the talent, and rank, and beauty of Ireland. Amongst the persons of the Leinster family whom I met here was poor Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the most amiable, honourable, though misguided youth, I ever knew. The luxury of this establishment almost inspired the recollections of an Arabian Night’s entertainment. Six or eight carriages, with a numerous throng of lords and ladies on horseback, began the day by making excursions around this terrestrial paradise, returning home just in time to dress for dinner. The table was served with a profusion and elegance to which I have never seen anything comparable. The sideboards were decorated with adequate magnificence, on which appeared several immense silver flagons, containing claret. A fine band of musicians played during the whole of the repast. They were stationed in the corridors which led to a a fine conservatory, where we plucked our dessert from numerous trees of the most exquisite fruits. The foot of the conservatory was washed by the waves of a superb lake, from which the cool and pleasant wind came, to murmur in concert with the harmony from the corridor.’
Four years after Mrs Siddons, the Rev. Daniel Beaufort, a sociable Anglican clergyman and amateur architect who succeeded his father as rector of Navan, County Meath, likewise paid a visit to Shane’s Castle and again was deeply impressed by what he saw there. In his journal he wrote: ‘Drawing room adorned with magnificent mirrors, off breakfast room is rotunda coffee room, where in recesses are great quantities of china, a cistern with a cock and water, a boiler with another, all apparently for making breakfast; a letter box and round table with four sets of pen and ink let in for everybody to write. Conservatory joins house, fine apartment along lough, at end alcove for meals, from it a way to h & c bathing apartments with painted windows. On other side of house, pretty and large theatre and magnificent ballroom 60 X 30, all of wood and canvas painted, and so sent ready made from London.’ The theatre Beaufort mentions reflected Lady O’Neill’s interest in the performing arts and it is believed that Mrs Siddons acted there during her stay.
It must be recorded that other visitors to Shane’s Castle were less impressed by what they found there. In 1806 the English antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare (who more than twenty years before had inherited Stourhead from his grandfather) made a tour of Ireland, publishing an account of his trip the following year. In this he observed that Shane’s Castle was ‘placed immediately on the shores of the lake, whose waves beat against its wall; it is an old castle modernised, or rather a modern mansion attached to an old fort; its situation is bold; but its architectural design far from picturesque or appropriate. Improvements, both in gardening and farming, are advancing here most rapidly; a fine kitchen garden, with all its luxurious and glassy appendages, and very extensive and commodious offices have lately been erected.’ Perhaps Charles O’Neill, the second viscount (who had become first and last Earl O’Neill in 1800) took Hoare’s criticisms of his house to heart, since soon after he engaged the services of architect John Nash to make improvements to Shane’s Castle and render it more gothic in character.
Had circumstances been otherwise, Shane’s Castle would feature prominently in any consideration of Nash’s oeuvre. It appears that the architect was consulted on alterations to the building in the early 1800s although work only began in the second decade of the century. Accounts of visitors like those mentioned above all indicate a terrace to the south already existed along with a conservatory linked by a passage to the main building. The terrace was now extended further out into the lough, the conservatory replaced with one to Nash’s design and from this, a suite of reception rooms planned eastwards with views directly across the water. All the foundations had been put in place, and the new conservatory erected, when in 1816 fire broke out in the old house, seemingly originating in a dressing or bedroom chimney where rooks had built a nest (although local legend preferred to believe that a banshee, for whom accommodation was always left vacant, took umbrage when a full house party meant her traditional quarters were occupied and so she started the conflagration).
The result was devastation and cessation of the proposed Nash adjunct. In fact Lord O’Neill abandoned the site occupied by his forbears and moved into part of the estate’s offices and outbuildings some distance to the west. Here in the 1860s a new house was built by the Belfast firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon: in turn it was burnt by the IRA in May 1922.
Today Shane’s Castle forms a striking sequence of ruins, with the outer walls of diverse sections of the old house surviving largely unconnected to each other. Then in the midst of these hollow shells one comes across Nash’s conservatory which has long served as a camellia house and was meticulously restored by the present Lord O’Neill and his son a few years ago after suffering damage in a storm. Sitting on top of an extensive vaulted undercroft, the building has thirteen arched openings filled with panes of scalloped glass, each of these windows opening on a central pivot in order to allow circulation of air on warm days.
It is a poignant survivor of the otherwise lost ‘Arabian Night’s entertainment’ so keenly remembered by Mrs Siddons. To give a sense of what has gone, below is an imagined view of what the completed Nash design might have looked like, as painted for Lord O’Neill in 1988 by Felix Kelly.
Writing of Askeaton, County Limerick in 1841, the unflagging Mrs Hall commented that ‘the object of principal interest here is the abbey. It stands at the opposite side of, and adjacent to, the river, and is a pile of very considerable extent and in tolerable preservation. It was founded in 1420 by James, seventh Earl of Desmond for conventual Franciscans, and was reformed in 1490, by the Observantine friars. James, the fifteenth Earl, died and was buried here, in 1558. In 1564 a chapter of the order was held within it. At the suppression of monasteries, towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth, after the destruction of Desmond’s power, this structure shared the general fate; but an abortive effort at its restoration was made in 1648, by the confederate Catholics; since then it has been gradually, though slowly, progressing to its present state. The church stands in the midst of the conventual buildings. It is a long oblong, from which a transept branches off at the north side, at the intersection of which formerly stood a tower, the ruins of which lie around in solid masses.’
Mrs Hall continued, ‘The east window is a broad and lofty opening of five lights, the mullions forming intersecting tracery at head. The transept opens into the church by two fair, broad and lofty arches. It is divided in its length by a range of three similar arches springing from plain pillars, and forming a lateral aisle. This portion of the building also contains some old tombs. The cloister, which lies at the south side of the church, is not the least beautiful portion of this interesting ruin. It is an area encompassed by low arched ambulatories, opening on a central square in a succession of small, neatly executed, pointed arches, twelve to each side. An old white-thorn occupies the centre. The refectory, dormitories, hospital, and other offices are all in fair preservation and, meet haunts as they are for “musing melancholy,” are not without their due attraction to detain the footsteps of the curious visitor.’
Evidently Mrs Hall (and presumably her husband too) was greatly taken with the remains of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary, since she devoted more attention to the site than was often the case in the course of the couple’s diligent investigations, and more than she did to anything else in the immediate area. And why not, since the former religious house is one of the most attractive mediaeval ruins in the entire country, and the greater part of it has survived in exceptionally good condition.
The town of Askeaton lies to the west of Limerick city and is sited on the river Deel which a couple of miles further north flows into the Shannon estuary. Its situation gave the place strategic importance and hence at the very end of the 12th century Hugo de Burgo established a castle here: it subsequently became a stronghold for the FitzGeralds, Earls of Desmond, the dominant family in this part of Munster. They remained in possession until the late 16th century and the castle itself suffered extensive damage in 1652. Now under the care of the Office of Public Works it has been undergoing interminable repairs for far too many years and remains closed to the public, thereby ill-serving the local community.
Although Mrs Hall was accurate in most of her commentary, her crediting the seventh Earl of Desmond with the foundation of Askeaton’s Franciscan friary appears to have been incorrect. Since its origins are generally dated to c.1389, the man responsible would be the poetically-inclined Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond. But let us not become too pedantic, especially since hard and fast evidence is unavailable. What matters more is that the buildings are evidence of how the decorative arts flourished in late-mediaeval Ireland and were put to use in the ornamentation of religious buildings.
The friary having been completed in the early fifteenth century then enjoyed 100 years of undisturbed occupancy before the disruption of the Reformation, the Desmond Rebellion, the upheavals of conquest and resettlement which so much of the rest of the country also underwent from the 1540s onwards. In 1579, for example, Sir Nicholas Malby, then Lord President of Connacht, having failed to take the neighbouring Desmond castle, instead attacked the friary and apparently slaughtered several of its occupants. But those Franciscans were a hardy bunch and repeatedly returned to their house; during the confederate wars of the 1640s, for example, it was repaired and re-occupied. Seemingly members of the order remained in the locale well into the 18th century and part of the site was used for Roman Catholic services until the construction of a new chapel in 1851.
As can be seen, the glory of Askeaton friary is its cloister, unusually located to the south of the church and remarkably intact considering the assaults the building underwent in earlier centuries. Again reverting to Mrs Hall for guidance, we note that each of its four vaulted sides feature twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with richly moulded capitals; the ancient whitethorn bush standing in the centre of the courtyard to which she referred, and which was much commented on by other observers in the 19th century, has since been removed and the space looks rather bleak without it. All of the arch pillars are original save two which were stolen in the 19th century and have since been replaced. A column on the north-east corner of the cloisters features a medieval carving of St. Francis of Assisi displahing his stigmata. The face is more worn than the rest of the figure because it used to be believed kissing it would cure toothache.
Given its excellent condition, proximity to Limerick city and inherent beauty, one might expect Askeaton friary to be a popular destination for visitors. In fact visitors to the ruin are unlikely to find anyone else there. Should this be a cause for lamentation? Of course it is important that the national heritage be duly appreciated and celebrated, Yet experiencing Askeaton friary alone allows one to engage in what might be described as a Thomas Gray moment, an opportunity to revel in that ‘musing melancholy’ to which Mrs Hall so rightly referred. And who could resist that cloistered self-indulgence?
Passing through the village of Kilconnell, County Galway one sees an extensive range of ruins to the immediate west of the main street. Here in a field grazed by sheep who look blithely impervious to the architectural glories around them stand the remains of a former Franciscan friary.
There has been some discussion about the precise date of the building’s foundation, perhaps because it is proposed to be on the site of an earlier religious settlement established in the sixth century by St Conal, or Conall (of whom there seems to have been more than one). Hence the Irish placename Cil Chonaill, meaning Conall’s church. In any case, if monks did live here before the Franciscans arrived no evidence of their presence remains. It is most commonly suggested the friars established their house around 1414 at the request of and with assistance from William O’Kelly, Lord of Uí Maine – one of the oldest and largest kingdoms in Connacht that included much of this part of the country – who died in 1420.
Kilconnell Friary is more elaborate than most such Franciscan establishments. The original body of the church consisted, as was always the case with this religious order, of a single long nave continuing into a choir of similar proportions. A cloister to the immediate north of the church then ran east to a two-storey domestic range that held offices below and a dormitory above. Only the east and part of the south range of the cloister arcades survive but these are notable for the variety of stonemason’s marks carved into them.
Later in the 15th century, and rather unusually, a large square tower was erected at the central point and running the full width of the church; it still rises three storeys higher than the former roof line and can be sighted across the surrounding countryside. It has very handsome vaulting the piers beneath which sport a couple of delicate carvings of an angel and an owl. Around the same period a south aisle was joined to the nave by an arcade as well as a south transept accessible from both nave and choir, with a small chapel added to the immediate east in the 16th century. These adjuncts make Kilconnell larger and finer than the majority of its sister houses in Ireland.
What further distinguishes Kilconnell Friary from other such churches is its exceptionally impressive collection of niche tombs found lining the walls of both nave and choir. The former holds the most elaborate of all, located just inside the west entrance on the north wall. The upper section is dominated by an ogee canopy with flamboyant stone tracery and capped by a carved panel containing two figures widely believed to represent St Patrick and St Francis. The base of this monument is given over to a long slab featuring six further figures, each identified by name: St John the Evangelist, St Louis of Toulouse, the Virgin, St John the Baptist, St James Major and St Denis of Paris. There has been some speculation why two French saints should appear on this tomb, but perhaps the explanation lies with the family responsible for its erection; unfortunately it is unknown who that might have been.
Another similarly flamboyant gothic tomb, albeit without the carved figures, can be found on the north wall of the choir, this one associated with the O’Daly family and another on the opposite side is an O’Kelly tomb of marginally less splendour. The main windows are also particularly good, including those in the south aisle and transept but best of all, and probably latest, is that on the west wall.
Kilconnell Friary’s prominence, apparent in its size and decoration, remained long after other religious establishments were closed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s. Although occupied by English troops in 1596, twenty-one years later it was claimed that the buildings were intact and still in use, with a community of six friars. Their lands were granted by James I to the Norfolk-born judge Charles Calthorpe in 1616 and in 1667 Matthias Barnewall, 8th Baron Trimlestown, who on Oliver Cromwell’s orders had been transplanted to Connacht from his family estate in County Meath was interred inside the friary, as commemorated by an armorial tablet set into the wall of the former sacristy.
There were still friars on the site in 1709 and a few remained until 1766. Seemingly the last one, who had been acting as a parish priest, only left in 1801. Long before that date, however, the buildings had become ruinous: an engraving included in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland published in 1791 shows the church roofless, its walls already half-smothered in foliage (in fact the image suggests the structure was in poorer condition then than is the case today).
In his Tour of Connaught (1839) the Rev. Caesar Otway wrote ‘The shell of the abbey is as picturesque as can be, where there are neither hills, rock, lake nor river, and but a few distant trees to improve the scenery; perhaps its ivy-mantled tower and time-tinted roofless gables, with all their salient angles, producing the happiest effects of light and shadow, are better in keeping with the waste and desolation that preside over the place, destitute as it is of any modern improvement or decoration whatsoever.’ So it remains to this day, a monument to the glories of late-mediaeval Ireland still unadorned by modern improvements and still mostly frequented only by a flock of disinterested sheep.
An elaborate late-Gothic window with double trefoil arch below a quatrefoil at the east end of the south aisle of St Mary’s, Gowran, County Kilkenny. The core of the present building dates from around 1275 when it was erected on the site of an earlier monastery. St Mary’s was a collegiate church, meaning it was placed under the care of a “college” of clerics who lived in a community without submitting to any specific monastic rule. Since the 19th century the chancel and central tower have served as the local Church of Ireland church while the main body has remained a picturesque ruin. The play of patterned sunlight seen here comes from the great west window at the nave end.
The former main entrance to Donadea Castle, County Kildare. Donadea was granted to the Aylmer family in 1597 and remained in their possession until the death in 1935 of the last descendant, a Miss Alymer, who bequeathed the estate to the Church of Ireland. That body sold on the place and in the 1950s the main house was unroofed. Since 1981 the demesne, much of it woodland, has been a public park. It is unknown who was the architect for this fine gateway, the lodge echoing the design of Donadea Castle which has at its core an early 17th century tower house. It may have been Sir Richard Morrison who in the early 1800s was employed by Donadea’s then-owner Sir Fenton Aylmer; the latter’s wife was a Freke of Castle Freke, County Cork which Morrison castellated around 1807. Donadea Castle is now a shell and its main entrance not much better; the unsightly rubbish bin in this photograph is explained by a modern residence on the other side of the gatewway.
Lying in the shadow of the Knockmealdown Mountains, Castle Grace, County Tipperary is believed to have been built by the de Bermingham family around the mid-13th century. Its substantial square keep originally had a tower at each corner but only the two seen here remain. Today the ruins serve as a walled garden for an adjacent mid-19th century house, about which more later in the spring.
If Castle Grace looks familiar, this is because it appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s incomparably beautiful 1975 film Barry Lyndon. The relevant scene: after our eponymous anti-hero has fled his home, been robbed at gunpoint and forced by penury to join the army, he camps here and engages in a bare-knuckle fight with one of his fellow soldiers.
About a mile north-east of Navan, County Meath lie the remains of the once-important monastic settlement of Donaghmore. A witness to Christmas for more than 1,500 years, it was supposedly founded by St Patrick; he later passed on responsibility for the site to his disciple St Cassanus. All that remains of the monastery is this round tower, believed to date from the 12th century. Next to it are the ruins of a former parish church probably early 16th century, with a double bell cote on the west gable.