A Heartless Pastime

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Kilconnell Friary, County Galway

‘To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.’ From Italian Hours (1873) by Henry James.

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Tyrone House, County Galway

‘I salute you, lonely ruins. While your aspect repulses with a secret fear the gaze of the vulgar, my heart finds in contemplating you the charm of a thousand sentiments and thoughts. How many useful lessons and touching reflections do you not offer to the spirit which knows how to consult you!’
From Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791) by Constantin François Chasseboeuf, comte de Volney.

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Mount Shannon, County Limerick

‘I do love these ancient ruins
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here in this open court,
Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather, some men lie interr’d
Lov’d the church so well, and gave so largely to ’t,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till dooms-day. But all things have their end;
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death that we have.’
From The Duchess of Malfi (1612) by John Webster.

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Former Church of Ireland church, Rathcormac, County Cork

‘The ideas aroused within me by ruins are lofty. Everything vanishes, everything perishes, everything passes away, only the world remains, time alone endures. How old is this world! I walk between these two eternities…What is my ephemeral existence compared to that of this crumbling stone?’
From Denis Diderot’s Salon (1767).

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Duckett’s Grove, County Carlow

‘At fifteen I went with the army,
At fourscore I came home.
On the way I met a man from the village,
I asked him who there was at home.
That over there is your house,
All covered over with trees and bushes.
Rabbits had run in at the dog-hole,
Pheasants flew down from the beams of the roof.
In the courtyard was growing some wild grain;
And by the well, some wild mallows.
I’ll boil the grain and make porridge,
I’ll pluck the mallows and make soup.
Soup and porridge are both cooked,
But there is no one to eat them with.
I went out and looked towards the east,
While tears fell and wetted my clothes.’
Chinese poem by an unknown author, translated by Arthur Waley (1919).

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Belan, County Kildare

‘What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, ye
Whose agonies are evils of a day! A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay. . . .
Then let the winds howl on! Their harmony
Shall henceforth be my music, and the night
The sound shall temper with the owlets’ cry,
As I now hear them in the fading light…’
From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818) by Lord Byron.

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Dromore, County Limerick

‘Where rev’rend shrines in gothic grandeur stood,
The nettle, or the noxious night-shade spreads;
And ashlings, wafted from the neighboring wood,
Through the worn turrets wave their trembling heads.
I left the mantling shade in moral mood . . .
Sigh’d, as the mould’ring monuments I viewed.
Inexorably calm, with silent pace,
Here Time has pass’d What ruin marks his way!
This pile, now crumbling o’er its hallow’d base,
Turn’d not his step, nor could his course delay.’
From Poems chiefly Pastoral (1766) by John Cunningham.

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‘Fall’n, fall’n, a silent heap; her heroes all
Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp.
The throne of nations fall’n; obscur’d by dust;
Ev’n yet majestical; the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising Sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crush’d columns, rifled moles…’
From The Ruins of Rome (1740) by John Dyer.

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Downhill, County Derry

‘…Since first these ruins fell, how chang’d the scene!
What busy, bustling mortals, now unknown,
Have come and gone, as tho’ there nought had been,
Since first Oblivion call’d the spot her own.

Ye busy, bustling mortals, known before,
Of what you’ve done, where went, or what you see,
Of what your hopes attain’d to, (now no more,)
For everlasting lies a mystery.

Like yours, awaits for me that common lot;
‘Tis mine to be of every hope bereft:
A few more years and I shall be forgot,
And not a vestige of my memory left.’
From Elegy on the Ruins of Pickworth (1818) by John Clare

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Shane’s Castle, County Antrim

‘Amidst the gloom arose the ruins of the abbey, tinged with a bright ray, which discovered a profusion of rich Gothic workmanship; and exhibited in pleasing contrast the grey stone of which the ruins are composed, with the feathering foliage that floated round them. . . . The imagination formed it, after the vision vanished.’
From Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, etc. relative chiefly to picturesque beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770 (1782) by William Gilpin.

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Folly at Bellevue, County Galway

To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale

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‘The further I advanced, the more gloomy did the scene become. Not a human being crossed my path – no herds of cattle – no flocks of sheep were to be found in the rank pastures, and no sound broke in on the almost unnatural stillness save the hoarse croakings of an ill-boding raven. The air was oppressive. Heavy clouds, surcharged with rain, hovered over my head and among the distant mountains was again heard the voice of the mighty thunder. I hurried forward. The path was scarcely perceptible, for the grass was long and rank, and wet with the preceding rains. At length, within the deep recesses of a grove of huge trees, I could trace the roofless gables of an ancient building. I paused, for it was a singular scene of utter desolation: it was manifest that no part of this ancient establishment had escaped destruction, save portions of the church. Looking upon the place in all its solitary wildness, it was difficult to conceive that it had ever been the abode of living men; and that the busy scenes of life, for such even a monastery presents, had ever been enacted here. The aspect of this spot was as if it were not only totally deserted, but unknown. With a feeling of awe I approached nearer the ruins. The dark clouds and the thick foliage cast an unwonted gloom over the place. Around the roofless building were many graves unfenced from the inroads of cattle or other animals. Many a cross of wood or stone was there – many a sculptured head-stone, overgrown with moss, rose from amid the green mounds, beneath which slept the mouldering remnants of many generations.
Cautiously picking my way, I at length gained the other side of the ruin, and stood in front of the ancient porch. It had been once handsome, and bore many marks of skilful workmanship; but the hand of destruction as well as of time had been busy here. The entrance was half choked with rubbish and masses of disjointed stonework. The noisome nettle and the henbane luxuriated, and out of the deep fissures in the walls grew masses of ivy and the spreading branches of an elder tree. Turning from the building, the view was still wild and solitary, but beautiful and unexpected. The waters of Lough Mask washed a pebbly strand not far from the spot where I stood. Two wooded islands cast their deep shadows on the lake ; and far to the left, bounding the broad expanse, rose the mountains of Kilbride and the towering cliffs of Glenbeg. As I gazed, heavy drops of rain began to fall, the clouds seemed heavy with mischief, and rolled onwards in long dark masses. In vain I looked around for some cottage or shed, into which I might hasten for shelter; the rain began to fall heavily, and a flash of lightning, succeeded rapidly by a clap of thunder, which reverberated awfully among the rocks and woods, drove me at once through the half choked porch into the interior of the ruins, perchance some friendly corner might there present itself. I found myself in the nave of the ancient conventual church. No portion of the roof was left: a large ash tree grew in the centre, luxuriating in the rich accumulations around and over the side walls thick masses of ivy clustered, affording me a precarious shelter…
My blood ran cold as my eye pierced the gloom and rested upon objects the most abhorrent and disgusting. Large stones thrown from the walls were scattered around and among them were the sad relics of bodies once instinct with life. I counted no less than sixty skulls! To remain was impossible. Though vivid flashes of lightning threw a momentary glare around, and loud and continued bursts of thunder proclaimed the tempest at its height, I hastily left the spot, and as I gained the open glades of the park, felt much relieved that this my first and probably last visit to the old abbey of Ross was achieved.’
From The Saxon in Ireland, or the Rambles of an Englishman in Search of a Settlement in the West of Ireland, by the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth, 1851.

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‘The ruins of the Franciscan convent at Ross, near Headford, in the county Galway, are popularly styled the Abbey of Ross. In the early records this convent receives the name Ross-Errily or Ross-Traily, which is a corruption of the Irish name Ross-ne-threallagh. It was delightfully situated on the south bank of the Black river, in the parish of Kilursa; and its ruins still attest its former magnificence. The Four Masters and Luke Wadding register its foundation in the year 1351; and the latter adds that it was a most retired and lonely spot, surrounded on all sides with water, and approachable only by a narrow path which was formed of large blocks of stone.
Before the close of the fifteenth century it attained special eminence among the many Franciscan institutions of the kingdom; and its property comprised the townlands of Ross, Cordara, and Ross-duff, amounting to about thirteen hundred statute acres. It was from the hallowed precincts of this monastery that a colony went forth to found the convent of Donegal, so famous in our annals. A provincial chapter of the Franciscan order had assembled in Ross-Errily to deliberate on matters of private interest, when Nuala O’Connor, daughter of O’Connor Faily, and wife of Hugh Roe O’Donnell, hereditary chieftain of Tirconnell, came, accompanied by a goodly array of gallow-glasses, to present an humble memorial. This petition of the Lady Nuala set forth the anxious desire of the faithful of Tirconnell to have amongst them some religious of the order of St. Francis to be their guides in their heavenward journey by precept and example. The favour was soon granted, and before the close of 1474 the foundations were laid of the far-famed monastery whose ruins are still met with at the head of the lovely bay of Donegal.
In 1538 the convent of Ross-Errily shared in the storm of persecution with which the reckless monarch Henry the Eighth assailed the church of our fathers. Indeed the Franciscans were in a special manner exposed to the rage of the English monarch. They had energetically opposed his wished-for divorce, and now they should pay the penalty of their zeal. Two hundred Franciscans were thrown into prison; thirty-two of them were bound with chains, and exposed to every insult; others were banished, and some, too, were put to death.
New trials awaited the convent of Ross-Errily in the reign of Elizabeth. In an inquiry which was made in the commencement of her reign, it was found that “the site of the monastery of Ross-Errilly or Ross-Railly was one acre of land; that it contained a church, a cloister, a hall, dormitories, chambers, and cellars; a cemetery, three small gardens, and a mill, which for want of water, could work only in winter”. By royal patent the tithes attached to the church were granted to the portreve and burgesses of Athenry; whilst the monastery, with its property, was allotted to Richard Burgh, Earl of Clanrickarde. This nobleman, however, whose family had long been the patrons of the Franciscan convent, privately restored it to its owners. The crown, finding the friars in 1584 again in possession of the monastery, made a grant of it to an English courtier, who plundered it of its library, monuments, and books, and expelled the religious. He was soon, however, anxious to part with his ill-acquired property, and two years later we find it once more purchased by Clanrickarde and restored to the children of St. Francis. The close of the century saw Ross-Errily transformed into an English garrison which was destined to curb the Western chieftains, and prevent them from joining the ranks of O’Neill and O’Donnell in the north.’
From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. V, No. I, October 1868

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‘In 1617, two Irish Franciscans, Fathers Purcell and Mooney, were resident at Louvain, where they and their Order had, after their expulsion from Ireland, been protected by Albert and Isabella, then joint sovereigns of the Netherlands. Fr. Mooney, at that time Provincial, and far advanced in years, had been in early life a soldier, and served in the Desmond wars. Purcell was a man of great learning; and, from materials supplied him by his superior, wrote, partly as a dialogue, a Latin history of his Order, so far as it related to their Irish establishments. This interesting MS., the original of which is in the Burgundian Library at Brussels, the Rev. C. P. Meehan, of Dublin, has translated and published. Fr. Mooney’s recollections of this monastery are thus afforded by his ancient scribe and modern commentator:
“Never was a more solitary spot chosen for the habitation of a religious community than that one on which Rosserilly stands; for it is surrounded by marshes and bogs, and the stillness that reigns there is seldom broken, save by the tolling of the church bell, or the whirr of the countless flocks of plover and other wild birds that frequent the fens which abound in that desolate region. Another remarkable feature of the locality is, that the monastery can only be approached by a causeway, paved with large stones, over an extent of fully two hundred paces, and terminating at the enclosure, which was built in 1572 by Father Ferrall Mac Egan, a native of Connacht, and then Provincial of the Irish Franciscans.He was, in sooth, a distinguished man in his day, far-famed for eloquence and learning, and singularly fond of Rosserilly, which he used to compare to the Thebaid, whither the early Christians fled for prayer and contemplation. He died in our house of Kilconnell, where he made his religious profession, and there he awaits the resurrection – peace to his memory! As to the church of Rosserilly, it is, indeed, a beautiful edifice; and the same may be said of the monastery, which, although often garrisoned by the English troops during the late war, is still in excellent preservation. Cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapter house, library, and lofty bell tower, have all survived the disasters of that calamitous period; but, in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Elizabeth, the friars were forcibly expelled from their beloved retreat.”
The friars, however, soon returned, and remained in quiet possession for long after, till Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy, directed O Donnell, or Daniel, Archbishop of Tuam, to turn them out; but that good and learned Protestant sent them word privately of his intention, and they saved themselves and their effects by flight. One good turn deserved another; and this kindness was repaid in 1641, when, after the massacre at Shrule, Father Brian Kilkelly, then Guardian of Rosserilly, hearing of the atrocities which were enacting within a few miles of him, hastened to the spot, succoured the wounded, and brought the Bishop of Killala’s wife and children to his monastery, and treated them with the greatest kindness.’
From Lough Corrib: Its Shores and Islands by Sir William Wilde, 1867.

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‘Although there is nothing in the town [of Headford, County Galway] of interest, yet the tourist should by all means pay a visit to Ross Abbey, about 1½m. distant, one of the most extensive and beautiful buildings in Ireland, built at the close of the 15th cent. by Lord Granard for Observantine Franciscans and granted to the Earl of Clanrickarde at the suppression of religious houses. Including the religious and domestic buildings, it covers a very large space of ground on the banks of the Black river, and overlooking a considerable tract of bog. It is the cemetery of many good Connaught families and probably contains more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.
The ch. has a nave, choir and S. transept, with a slender and graceful tower arising from the intersection. Attached to the nave are N. and S. aisles, and a chapel running parallel with the S. transept. The latter, together with the S. aisle, are separated from the nave by round-headed arches with octangular piers. Two round arches also divide the transept from the aisles, and two blocked ones from the chapel on the E. In the W. chapel of the S. aisle is a small monument of the O’Donnells, 1646. The nave is shut off from the choir by a broad-headed segmental arch. The latter part of the ch. is lighted on S. by 4 double-light trefoil windows; and on the S. side of the altar is a double-arched niche used as an ambry. The E. window is dec. with very delicate tracery, and is worth notice as is also the moulding of the W. door, close to which is the stoup for holy water. To the N. of the nave are the cloisters, which are in good preservation. The area is small and surrounded by 10 beautiful pointed arches about 3 ft. high, the entrance of the passage within being under round-headed arches…
From the N. of the choir runs a long chapel lighted by E. Eng. windows, those of the N. side having ogee heads. A projecting building also on the N. of the choir was probably the Abbot’s residence, and beyond the N. transept is the kitchen with ample fireplace and spout for carrying the water away, also a stone reservoir and pipe connecting it with the river, probably used as a fish vivarium. On the E. side of the kitchen is the guesten-hall, in which there is an aperture communicating with the kitchen for the entrance of the viands. Probably there is no ruin in the kingdom showing the domestic arrangements to greater advantage than Ross, which on this account deserves to be attentively studied.’
From A Handbook for Travellers in Ireland, John Murray, 1866.

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‘Besides the common quantity of these remains tossing all about, there was an immense heap lying outside the church, and as these bones seemed to have accumulated for ages, and as the place from the vicinity of the river was very damp, this immense “ossarium” if I may so name it, was covered with all sorts of verdure, mosses, lichens, sedums, saxifrages, and wild strawberries just showing their fruit between jaw-bones. It was curious to see skulls like wrens’ nests, and thigh bones as green as cabbage-stalks; the dry bones had, as it were, assumed a new mode of existence, and again served as the basis of a new life. It really was a scene on which a person might ponder and phrenologise; and I confess no collection of human bones I ever saw interested me more – no not even that far-famed congeries which at Cologne assumes to be the remains of St. Ursula’s eleven thousand virgins.
The cloisters of Ross are quite perfect – as perfect as those of Muckruss or Quin; but they have not the picturesque accompaniment, like those at Killarney, of a magnificent yew-tree in the centre. The dormitories, the chapter-house, the cellars and kitchens, are all (as far as walls go) perfect. There the friars, living in a damp and low situation, had need of fires, and they took care to have them. I never saw such huge fire-places. The kitchen hearth would not disgrace the largest at Oxford or Cambridge. In one of the corners of a huge apartment, which seemed to be a scullery, there is a circular excavation, cased with cut stone, too large for a well, in all likelihood a place for holding live fish, which taken out of the adjoining river, no doubt were kept here for ready use.
Altogether this abbey seems to have formed a little town in itself, having no entrance but the one, and its walls high and thick; it was a sort of stronghold and, no doubt, in the lawless times before the reformation, afforded an asylum for the weak and persecuted, as well as a sanctuary for the criminal. If any one wishes to see an Irish monastery in perfection, with all its “menage“, they will before passing on to Cong, and before visiting the western highlands of Ireland, take a view of Ross Reilly which was founded by Lord Granard in the fifteenth century, and was placed under the rule of the Franciscans. It, like many others, was repaired by the Roman Catholic clergy in 1604.
On leaving this abbey, I could not resist the desire I had to bring away one of these moss-bewigged skulls in order to show it to some phrenological friends in Dublin, and as we had no means of secreting it, and justly apprehended that if we returned the way we came through the field where the people were working we might be ill treated (as perhaps we deserved) as robbers of the dead, we had to keep along the margin of the river, and not only disentangle ourselves from its windings, but leap over, as best we could, the numerous and wide drains that lay in our way, with no small fear of being caught and well beaten. We, however, effected our retreat to our jaunting car, and secreted our skull, which may be seen in all its verdant beauty in the library of the Royal Irish Academy.’
From A Tour in Connaught, by the Rev. Caesar Otway, 1839.

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Ross Errilly Friary is today under the care of the Office of Public Works; the skulls once littering its precincts (and sometimes taken away as souvenirs) are no longer to be seen…

Hanging Gardens

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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 two circular ones remain. The castle’s ruins now serve as a walled garden for an adjacent Georgian house, the upper sections of stone and brick interior at present smothered in cascades of wisteria.

A Lost Palace

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Today an unremarkable suburb of Dublin, Tallaght was for many centuries a frontier settlement, marking the edge of the Pale beyond which the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose ancestors were inclined to engage in assault and pillage. A monastery had been established here in the eighth century by St Maelruan but it was sacked by the Vikings in 811 and suffered sundry other attacks thereafter. However, the religious link meant that when Tallaght came under the authority of the Archbishop of Dublin in 1179, a castle was built and this in turn became an archiepiscopal retreat. The old castle having fallen into dilapidation, it was largely rebuilt soon after 1729 by then-Archbishop John Hoadly but within a century this property too was deemed no longer suitable for habitation: in 1821 Archbishop Lord John Beresford disposed of the property by act of parliament and it passed into private hands. Another programme of rebuilding followed before the place was acquired in 1856 by members of the Dominican order whose St Mary’s Priory remains on the site still, incorporating a single tower of the original castle.
The engraving above shows the archiepiscopal palace not long before it ceased to serve this function and was largely demolished. A contemporaneous account by James Norris Brewer offers fascinating information about its appearance, the palace described as being ‘a spacious, but long and narrow, building, composed of the grey stone of the country, and is destitute of pretensions to architectural beauty. The interior contains many apartments of ample proportions but none that are highly embellished.’ These included a hall measuring twenty-one foot square and lit by two tiers of windows, and a drawing room thirty-three feet wide and twenty-one feet wide. All now long gone and recalled only by a handful of images such as this one.

On a Clare Day

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The tower of the church at Quin Friary, County Clare seen through one of its transept windows. Another of the outstanding Franciscan houses in Ireland, Quin Friary was established in the mid-14th century by members of the local MacNamara family. However, it was built on the site, and incorporated parts, of a castle built in 1280 by the Norman Richard de Clare in an unsuccessful attempt to subdue the same family: six years later this structure was attacked and burnt by Cuvea MacNamara who slaughtered most of its occupants. The subsequent friary had an equally bloody and incendiary history. In 1584, for example, Donough Beg O’Brian, having been half-hanged from a cart and his bones broken with the back of an axe was strung up while still alive from this same tower by Sir John Perrot; a few years later the building was again set alight by another of the O’Brians. Somehow, and with intermittent breaks, Franciscan friars continued to live on the site, the last resident only dying in 1820. Today there is little evidence of the friary’s turbulent past.

A Slim Silhouette

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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.

Let the Door be Instantly Open, For There is Much Wealth Within…

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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.

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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…’

coat of arms from Ballyscullion

Ballyscullion capital

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.’

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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.’

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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.

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For more information on Ballyscullion Park, see: http://www.ballyscullionpark.com

You Go to My Head

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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.

Fascination Frantic in a Ruin that’s Romantic

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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.

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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.’

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Cloistered World

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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.’

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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?

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