Demonstrating that a laissez-faire attitude towards building without first securing the relevant permission is no recent phenomenon in Ireland: Burrishoole Priory, County Mayo. This Dominican house was established in 1469 by Richard de Burgo, who then resigned his secular position as Lord of Turlough and entered the priory where he remained until his death four years later. Unfortunately neither he nor the friars had thought to seek Papal approval before settling at Burrishoole, an omission that could have resulted in excommunication. However in 1486 Innocent VII instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to pardon their presumption and the occupants were allowed to remain in situ. They continued to do so even after the Reformation , a certain number of Dominicans recorded as remaining at Burrishoole into the 18th century on the site. It was only in 1793 that the church roof collapsed, thereby ensuring it became the ruin seen today.
‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’
‘But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern…’
‘We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’
‘But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm. What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left…’
‘”Ruinenlust” has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Ckude, Monsti Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.’
The above texts come from the concluding chapter (‘A Note on New Ruins’) of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. The photographs above show the interiors of a set of now-abandoned farmyard buildings in County Westmeath.
The remnants of Castlecuffe, County Laois its height exaggerated by distinctive Jacobean chimney stacks. The house was built in the early years of the 17th century by Sir Charles Coote, perhaps around 1610 to mark his marriage to Dorothea Cuffe from whom the property takes its name. The land on which Castlecuffe stands had previously belonged to the O’Dunnes and in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s it came under attack and was so badly damaged as to be rendered uninhabitable. The Cootes, on the other hand, thrived and diverse branches of the family established their presence around the country, as can still be seen in the fine houses still extant at Ballyfin, County Laois and Bellamont Forest, County Cavan.
The Augustinian order has been mentioned here more than once. Like the Franciscans, Augustinian friars were responsible for building some of Ireland’s best-preserved mediaeval monastic settlements, and also like the Franciscans their presence was particularly encouraged by Anglo-Norman settlers. The first Augustinians are believed to have arrived in Dublin some time before 1280 (the non-mendicant congregation known as Canons Regular of St Augustine had earlier been introduced into the country by St Malachy) and were settled in several other places by 1300. During this period and almost until the end of the 14th century, Augustinian houses could be found almost exclusively in areas where the Normans had established a presence. The invaders wanted religious speaking their tongue to run schools and already-extant houses tended to teach in Gaelic. This explains why the Augustinians were slower than other religious orders (such as the Cistercians or, again, the Franciscans) to spread throughout the country and also why the Irish houses continued for so long to be governed by the English province. Eventually in the 1390s the Irish Augustinians rebelled against this control and were granted greater privileges of self-government. Further expansion followed, including the establishment of a further eight friaries in Connaught.
Spread over more than three acres, the Augustinian Kells Priory, County Kilkenny is today one of the largest surviving mediaeval religious settlements in Ireland. It was founded on the banks of the King’s River in 1193 by Geoffrey FitzRobert; he had already established a church here a decade earlier. An Anglo-Norman knight, FitzRobert was married first to Basilia, sister of Richard de Clare (otherwise known as Strongbow) and then to Eve de Bermingham, widow of Gerald FitzMaurice, first Lord of Offaly (making her the forebear of the Dukes of Leinster). FitzRobert became known as Baron of Kells around 1204 when he was also appointed Seneschal (administrative officer) of Leinster. In his confirmatory charter to Kells Abbey he declared that he had founded the friary ‘for the salvation of my own soul and the souls of my predecessor and successors; for the honor of God and the Blessed Virgin; for the spiritual welfare of my Lord, William Marshall’ – who had advised the foundation and consented to it – and ‘at the desire and with consent of my wife Eva.’ In line with other Augustinian houses of the period, the first friars came from England, from Bodmin Priory in Cornwall.
One of the most notable events associated with Kells Priory was a Lenten visitation made to the establishment by Richard de Ledrede, Bishop of Offaly in 1324. An English-born Franciscan, de Ledrede had been appointed to his diocese seven years earlier by the Avignon Pope John XXII. The bishop appears to have been caught up in a family feud that chimed with his own wish to prosecute heretics. In the nearby city of Kilkenny, a wealthy merchant woman, the four-times married Alice Kyteler, had been accused by her third husband’s children of practicing witchcraft (cited as a heresy in a papal bull issued by John XXII the following year). Among the activities in which it was said she engaged were regular carnal relations with a demon. Alice’s son from her first marriage, William Outlawe was also named as being engaged in not dissimilar practices to those of his mother. The two were ordered to appear before de Ledrede and answer the charges brought against them. However, Alice went to Dublin where she sought support from the Chancellor of Ireland, one Roger Outlaw, presumably a relative of her late husband. Meanwhile her son William found help from the Lord of Kells, Arnold le Poer (tellingly, Alice Kyteler’s fourth husband was also a member of the le Poer family). Ignoring the consequences, Arnold le Poer arrested Bishop de Ledrede and imprisoned him in Kilkenny Castle for seventeen days, until the date for William Outlaw’s appointed appearance before the ecclesiastical court passed. What had begun as a trial for witchcraft now became a battle between the secular and religious authority: Arnold le Poer for example, described de Ledrede as ‘some vagabond from England.’ Ultimately, however, the so-called vagabond proved victorious. Alice Kyteler fled the country, her son confessed to heresy and was obliged to do penance, and a family servant, one Petronilla de Midia was flogged and burnt at the stake, the first person in Ireland to suffer this fate.
Kells Priory is sometimes known as Seven Castles due to the tower houses found around its outer walls which give it a fortress-like appearance. The towers were probably constructed in the 15th century but would have been of more assistance earlier, since on three occasions the place suffered from assault. The priory was first attacked and burnt by William de Bermingham in 1252, then by a Scottish force under Edward Bruce in 1326, and the following year by another member of the de Bermingham family.
Now the site appears divided into two sections, a lower to the north and closer to the river, this being the priory proper. It was rightly dominated by a church opening off the central cloister although today the most powerful presence is that of the 15th century Prior’s Tower to the immediate east: this has been extensively reconstructed and re-roofed, and rises higher than any of the other surrounding structures. To the south and on higher ground a large enclosure with five towers was developed in the 15th century, presumably in response to increasing lawlessness in the area. Known as Burgess Court, this section was once thought to have contained a mediaeval lay settlement but that does not appear to have been the case. More likely it was used to protect lifestock, and indeed the occupants of the adjacent priory.
Visitors to Kells today often comment on how they find themselves alone, despite the proximity of Kilkenny city and the scale of the ruins. Intermittently efforts are made to encourage greater interest in the site, but a large part of its appeal would be lost were the place to be overly-frequented. Best to come and discover for yourself the secret of Kells.
At some date between 1202 and 1216 Alexander FitzHugh, Anglo-Norman Lord of Castletownroche, County Cork settled a group of Augustinian Canons Regular on the western bank of the Blackwater: the Augustinians had already been popular with reformers of the Irish church over the previous decades. To ensure the occupants of Bridgetown Priory would flourish FitzHugh provided them with thirteen carucates of woodland, pasture and arable land. A carucate was a mediaeval unit of land approximating the amount of ground a plough team of eight oxen could till in an annual season and is reckoned to have been the equivalent of 100-120 acres: therefore FitzHugh’s gift covered some 1,300-1,500 acres. In addition he gave the canons a third of the revenue from his mills and fisheries, and all income from tolls collected on the bridge that once crossed the river here. The first canons came from two existing Augustinian houses, those at Newtown Trim, County Meath and at the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr in Dublin, both of which were wealthy establishments. Although Bridgetown Priory was never as affluent, in the Papal Taxation rolls for 1306 the house was reckoned to have the substantial value of £40.
By this time responsibility for the place had passed into the hands of the Roche family from which nearby Castletownroche derives its name. The Roches were descendants of Richard FitzGodebert who had come to Ireland with Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow in 1170. Like him, the FitzGodeberts had a castle in Pembrokeshire, in their case built on an outcrop of stone. As a result they became known as FitzGodebert de la Roch, a name eventually abbreviated to Roche. An early 15th century altar tomb in the chancel of Bridgetown Priory testifies to the authority of the Roches: carved on its west side is an upside-down shield featuring a fish, one of the Roche devices (the inverted shield indicates its bearer is now dead). Despite the support of this powerful family and although Bridgetown Priory may have housed as many as three hundred persons at its height, decline had already set in during the 14th century. This seems to have had less to do with internal problems and more with the state of the country. Widespread warfare and economic stagnation left its mark on this, as well as many other religious houses, and Bridgetown Priory’s fortunes never recovered. When closed in 1541 its buildings, including a ‘church with belfry, domitory, hall, buttery, kitchen, cloister, and cellar,’ were already largely in ruins and the site valued at just £13. The last Prior was pensioned off and Bridgetown granted to an English solder, Robert Browne.
A 17th century tower built into the western end of the church at Bridgetown Priory indicates the site was still occupied in the post-Reformation period. But given its semi-ruinous condition then, the property soon became derelict thereafter although still used for local burials as various tombstones testify. When Cork antiquarian John Windele visited Bridgetown in the 1830s he noted the remains were ‘low, covered with ivy and afford no picture.’ On the other hand, they were not entirely without occupants: for the two previous years an elderly woman and her cats had been living in a tomb vault and supplied with food by kind local people. In 1905 local parish priest the Rev Michael Higgins commented the existing remains would likely fall to pieces in a short time and that Bridgetown Priory ‘will be but a memory.’ Just over a decade later the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society remarked ‘Alas! That it must be recorded, 20th century vandalism, aided by the corroding tooth of Time, has rendered the ruins of the Priory an object of pity to the antiquary.’ Fortunately those ruins survived and in the 1970s were cleared of vegetation by the local authority so that they might continue to be enjoyed. Not easily found, Bridgetown Priory receives few visitors but that makes it even more alluring to those who do find their way there and are able to experience the place alone.
On a wall of the now-roofless 17th century church at Kilcommock, County Longford can be seen this elaborately carved limestone funerary monument which would appear to date from the early 1700s. Unfortunately the central plaque is missing and it is therefore now impossible to know in whose memory it was originally erected. Might some reader have the answer?
From the Dublin Penny Journal, December 13th 1834:
‘Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds. Passing onward through the avenue, the road, which is perfectly level, leads through a beautifully romantic wood, neatly planted with all varieties of fir, and other forest timber; and is naturally enriched by a limpid mountain stream, which, after passing over some very considerable rocks, and gliding over the glen, falls immediately into the Blackwater; over this stream, which in winter is often very rapid, stands the bridge of which the prefixed engraving is a correct representation, consisting of three gothic arches, surmounted with richly embrazured battlements. A group of towers, embracing almost every shape and style of Gothic architecture, is erected at either end of the bridge; and the roadway leads under two very pretty obtuse Gothic arches. The greatest novelty in the whole is a round tower, erected on one of the arches. The stone used in the building has an agreeable reddish tint, and is all vermiculated, or, in other words, is a rusticated structure, which gives it somewhat the appearance of antiquity; this and the gate-house, was designed and built under the instruction of Mr John Smyth. Almost adjoining the bridge is a pretty tunnel, through which a road is conducted from the town to the upper grounds; and the avenue, which leads onward to the house, has nothing more to boast of than a continuation of neatly disposed wood and shrubbery.’
At some date in the late 18th or early 19th century land running to some 8,500 acres around Ballysaggartmore, County Waterford was bought from George Holmes Jackson of Glenmore by John Kiely (also sometimes spelled Keily or, in the Dublin Penny Journal, Keiley). On his death in 1808, this property passed to a younger son, Arthur. The best part of the Kiely estates went to Arthur’s elder brother , also called John Kiely, who inherited Strancally, further down the Blackwater river. There he commissioned the building of a new castle from the brothers George and James Pain. John Kiely junior had apparently visited Lough Cutra, County Galway (see Domat Omnia Virtus, January 27th 2014) built a few years earlier by the Pains and accordingly ordered something similar for himself, even though advised that owing to the nature of Strancally’s site it would be necessary ‘to move a mountain in order to make the ground high enough.’ Seemingly it took forty men two years to achieve this enterprise. Arthur Kiely meanwhile, on returning from the Napoleonic Wars in which he had fought, built himself a house in the grounds of Ballysaggartmore. Old photographs indicate this property looked not unlike a great many others of the period, being of two storeys with a bow at one end and a three-storey belvedere over the entrance. According to a later occupant, the building’s principal fault was a lack of internal corridors, meaning it was necessary to pass from one room to the next in order to move about the house. Nevertheless, one has the impression that Arthur Kiely was a man of social aspirations since in 1843 he changed his surname to Kiely-Ussher. (The Usshers were a long-established family in the area to whom the Kielys were related through their mother). This may have been at the instigation of his wife Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, County Galway (a great-aunt of the author Violet Martin). It has always been proposed that the elaborate building programme upon which Arthur Kiely embarked in the 1830s was driven by his wife’s ambition to outstrip her in-laws at Strancally. Of course she might also have been inspired by Lismore Castle where extensive work had already been initiated by the sixth ‘Bachelor’ Duke of Devonshire.
It would seem that the Kielys’ ambitious building works of the early 1830s stretched their financial resources. Thus although there were plans to rebuild the main house in an equally lavish fashion, this did not come to pass. Once the new lodges and castellated bridge were finished, a programme of ‘improvement’ began on the estate, mostly involving the clearance of existing tenants and their modest cottages. And then came the following decade’s years of famine during which remaining tenants were unable to pay rents and found themselves treated harshly by their landlord. Arthur Kiely did not suspend reduce or suspend rent, as had others in his position around the country, but used non-payment as a justification for eviction and the demolition of any dwelling. In May 1847 a reporter from the Cork Examiner arrived in the area to see how people were faring. ‘Arriving at Ballysaggartmore,’ he wrote, ‘an awful sight was before my eyes, I found twelve to fourteen houses levelled to the ground. The walls of a few were still standing but the roofs were taken off, the windows broken in, and the doors removed. Groups of famished women and crying children still hovered round the place of their birth, endeavouring to find shelter from the piercing cold of the mountain blast, cowering near the ruins or seeking refuge beneath the chimneys. The cow, the house, the wearing apparel, the furniture, and even in extreme cases the bed clothes were pawned to support existence. As I have been informed the whole tenantry, amounting with their families to over 700 persons, on the Ballysaggartmore estate, are proscribed.’ By contrast, John Kiely at Strancally Castle was described in the same newspaper as displaying liberality to the local poor ‘commensurate with his extensive property. He has, at present and for the last season, employed the people, is busily and solely engaged in diffusing comfort and plenty among them…’ Understandably, Arthur Kiely’s behaviour at Ballysaggartmore inflamed opinion in the district and soon afterwards an attempt was made to shoot him as he entered the estate through the gates of that smart new lodge: the would-be assasin failed in his mission and fled on foot. A group of local gentry then offered a reward of £100 to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest of the parties responsible. Seven men were tried, found guilty and deported to Tasmania. If the Kielys were already unpopular in the area, this incident only made them even more so. While circumstances for the country gradually began to improve, the same was not the case for this particular household.
In the aftermath of the famine, the Kielys’ fortunes never recovered, not least because there were no tenants left to provide them with an income. By 1854 Ballysaggartmore was being offered for sale through the Encumbered Estates Court but failed to find a new owner: one suspects the place’s unhappy history deterred potential purchasers. Finally in 1861 it was put on the market again and the main house and surrounding land were bought by William Morton Woodroofe: Arthur Kiely-Ussher died, not much mourned, the following year. The Woodroofes remained at Ballysaggartmore until the early years of the last century when the property was sold to the Hon Claud Anson, a younger son of the second Earl of Lichfield. Hitherto a rancher in Texas, in 1901 the Hon Claud married Lady Clodagh de la Poer Beresford, daughter of the fifth Marquess of Waterford and it is most likely for this reason that the couple chose to settle in her native county. However, they were not to enjoy the place for long because in 1922 Ballysaggartmore House was destroyed by fire. In any case by then the Ansons’ funds had likewise run out, according to Patrick Cockburn (a godson of their daughter) owing to ‘Claud’s overenthusiastic investment in Russian bonds prior to the Revolution.’ The house stood empty and derelict until pulled down some decades later. The front lodges, however, remained occupied, seemingly until the 1970s, after which they too were abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Now Ballysaggartmore is a public park, with walkways through the woodlands, and all that remains of the Kielys’ architectural and social pretensions are the buildings celebrated in December 1834 by the Dublin Penny Journal. Today they serve as a monument to misplaced ambition.