One of Ireland’s most famous abandoned country houses: Woodlawn, County Galway. The original building was just the central, three-storey block, constructed for the Trench family, raised to the peerage in 1800 as Barons Ashtown. In 1859 the second Lord Ashtown had the house much enlarged by the addition of two-storey wings on either side, the whole then refaced in an Italianate manner: this work was undertaken by the local County Surveyor James Forth Kempster, who was also much employed by another branch of the Trench family, the third Earl of Clancarty. Woodlawn was eventually sold by the fourth Lord Ashtown in 1947 and has had a somewhat chequered history ever since. Part of the building was badly damaged by a fire in the 1970s although the roof was subsequently repaired. However, for much of the past 50 years the house has sat empty and a prey to vandals, with anything of worth in the interior long since gone.
Towards the close of Annabel Davis-Goff’s rather marvelous 2003 novel, The Fox’s Walk, set in Ireland in 1916, a British army officer invites a couple of women to take a drive with him in his open-topped motorcar. ‘“You,” Captain Blaine said to Mrs. Coughlan, “will sit here” – he indicated the back seat – “like the Vicereine”.’ Within a few years, such a simile would become redundant, since in this country the role of vicereine ceased to exist but for at least two and half centuries previously, the title had been employed to describe a succession of women who, to varying degrees, had left a mark on Ireland.
Until the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, and the appointment a year later of the first Duke of Ormond as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the crown was only intermittently represented in this country. And even for a century thereafter, the holders of the office might only spend short times in Ireland. Under those circumstances, the presence of their wives here could not be assured. It was only in 1767 that permanent residency was made obligatory for anyone appointed Lord Lieutenant, and spouses were thereafter more than likely to accompany them. Throughout much of this period, Lords Lieutenant were almost invariably English: there was no Irishman in the position between the appointment of the Duke of Tyrconnell (1687) and that of the fourth Earl of Bessborough (1846). Thus their wives were also non-native. Likewise, after the time of the Duke of Tyrconnell, no Roman Catholic held the viceregal office until the last man to do so: Lord FitzAlan of Derwent (April 1921-December 1922). In 1825 there had been a considerable disquiet in Dublin official circles when the then-Lord Lieutenant, Richard, Marquess Wellesley, had married the beautiful American widow Marianne Paterson (née Caton) who was Roman Catholic. As representatives of the British government both Lords Lieutenant and their spouses were required to be conservative (even if they were members of the Liberal party) and certainly not to espouse any radical causes. Inevitably, this hampered even the most intrepid of vicereines and confined their activities to those assured to cause least offence (although, even in the days before Twitter, there were always some observers of the viceregal court who relished taking umbrage at even the most innocuous behaviour).
Just like royal consorts, vicereines were expected to take their cue from their husbands. As the late R.B. McDowell wrote, ‘the vicereine was often an energetic and influential patroness of good causes in her own right’ but some were more active than others. During her husband’s second term (1905-15), the Countess of Aberdeen, for example, was an ardent promoter of Irish crafts (also of Home Rule, for which she was much criticised). She also campaigned indefatigably for the eradication of Tuberculosis in Ireland. Not everyone appreciated her efforts: in 1914 Arthur Griffith wrote that it was Lady Aberdeen rather than ‘the babbling creature who wears the title’ who was the real Lord Lieutenant. However, more usually it tended to be in more genteel areas such as the encouragement of indigenous decorative arts and fashion that vicereines found an outlet for their energy. They could always guarantee personal popularity by ‘dressing Irish’. So, in May 1779 the Countess of Buckinghamshire (who had been born a Conolly of Castletown), announced her intention of dressing exclusively in Irish fabrics at a charity ball. Four years later, her successor Mary, Marchioness of Buckinghamshire requested that guests attending a ball in Dublin Castle would dress solely in Irish fabrics. At the start of the 19th century, The Countess of Hardwicke ordered a quantity of patterned calico from a Mr Clarke of Palmerston to use as wall covering in the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin’s Phoenix Park: some thirty years later, she published a book The Court of Oberon with engravings by Irish artist John Samuel Templeton, to raise funds for the poor and distressed of this country. In 1880 Queen Victoria presented the Duchess of Marlborough with an award to acknowledge the latter’s work in creating a fund to alleviate ‘extreme misery and suffering among the poor.’ Charity work of one kind or another was perhaps the most consistent characteristic of successive vicereines, although some engaged more actively than others: in 1704 for instance, the second Duchess of Ormond was responsible for establishing the first workhouse in Dublin (on the site of the present St James’s Hospital). The challenge for them was to make an impact – and ideally a difference – without overshadowing the authority of their spouses. Regardless of gender, anybody married to someone in a position of power will testify that remains a difficult task.
Vicereines of Ireland: Portraits of Forgotten Women is an exhibition continuing at Dublin Castle until September 5th . The show has been curated by Myles Campbell, who also wrote the excellent accompanying catalogue.
In the second decade of the 19th century, a new Church of Ireland church dedicated to the Holy Trinity was built in Castlerea, County Roscommon with the aid of a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Replacing an older building which had hitherto been used for services, the second Holy Trinity opened for services in 1819 when the local doctor, Thomas Wills Wilde (grandfather of Oscar Wilde) acted as the Church Warden. Later Douglas Hyde, whose father was a clergyman, would be baptised here. The building is of standard design for the period, of cruciform shape with a two-bay nave and a three-storey entrance tower at the west end. It closed for worship in late December 1997 and then stood empty for many years before being rescued by a local voluntary group who restored the premises for use as a multi-purpose arts and community centre: the group is currently running a gofundme page to ensure the property can continue to serve this purpose. It might also like to consider raising money to landscape the immediate surrounds, because at the moment this rather already somewhat bleak, cement-rendered building sits in an unappetising ocean of tarmacadam and gravel.
The remains of the early 18th church of the Holy Trinity in Castlerea, County Roscommon. This building, and surrounding graveyard, stand in what had been part of the demesne owned by the Sandfords, who owned much of the land in this part of the country. The church ruins are notable for an exceptionally fine limestone Venetian window set into the building’s east gable. The graveyard is the burial place of Oscar Wilde’s grandfather Dr Thomas Wills Wilde, who practised medicine in the town and whose father, Ralph Wilde, acted as land agent for Lord Mount Sandford. The church was abandoned in the early 19th century when a new one was built on higher ground in the town.
At some date in the future, research will probably be undertaken into the consequences of the near-wholesale disappearance of Roman Catholic religious orders from Ireland during the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years, they had been a dominant presence across the country, every town of any consequence having at least one, more often several, large building complexes occupied by various orders who would have been responsible for the area’s education and, as we have discovered of late, other less savoury activities. By and large, the persons responsible for running those institutions have disappeared, primarily due to the fact that since the 1970s fewer and fewer individuals have been prepared to become nuns or monks and so forth. But the buildings remain, still dominating many a neighbourhood, even though their intended residents have departed. Sometimes the properties have found a new purpose, more often they now stand empty, their decaying presence serving as testament to an authority that once erroneously believed itself invincible. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they proclaim ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.’ So, aside from the physical manifestations, what have been the consequences of this ebbing of a once-powerful tide? What effect has it, will it have, on the national psyche? That remains to be investigated, but when such work begins, perhaps those responsible might like to consider how we have been here before, that we went through a similar experience back in the second half of the 16th century.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ballindoon Priory, County Sligo was a late-comer to the company of Ireland’s religious houses. A Dominican foundation, it was established on the banks of Lough Arrow in 1507 by one Thomas O’Farrell under the patronage of the McDonaghs, who were then the most powerful family in the area. The interior of the church is dominated by a remarkable two-storey, triple-vaulted archway. The arches on the ground floor are all the same height but only the centre one provides access from nave to chancel, those on either side probably once holding altars (that to the south has since been blocked). The central arch above is much higher than its neighbours and may once have contained a cross or crucifix although it also has a hole in the ceiling to allow the suspension of a bell rope from further up the tower. This floor, effectively a gallery, is lit by exceptionally tall, narrow windows set into the north and south walls. Reached by an unusual external staircase, the top of the tower is thought once to have contained accommodation for whoever lived on the site, since no domestic ranges were ever constructed around the church (the land to the immediate south of the church drops steeply down to the lakeshore). Both the east and west ends of the church have splendid traceried windows
Ballindoon Priory was almost the last such religious house to be established in Ireland, although Eóghan O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien founded a Franciscan friary at Creevelea, County Leitrim a year later, in 1508. At the time both these buildings were erected, it must have seemed as though little would change, that the Roman Catholic church would continue to have a dominant presence throughout the country, and its properties enjoy a secure future. Just a few decades later, Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the church in his dominions, which included Ireland, and ordered the dissolution of all religious houses. One by one, they were closed down, their occupants sent away, their possessions confiscated and frequently granted or sold to supporters of the English crown. An entire way of life disappeared, leaving the Irish countryside littered with the decaying remains of what had once seemed an immutable authority. This must have been a unsettling experience for the entire population, who over the space of some 50 years witnessed the loss of the familiar and with it the sense of comforting security. Sound familiar? History has an uneasy way of repeating itself.
Today the word ‘mall’ is usually applied to shopping centres with pretensions to grandeur, but historically malls were outdoor urban spaces in which the local population would stroll and socialise. No doubt originally The Mall in Wicklow town was intended to perform just such a function. Situated on ground steeply rising above the point where the Vartry river flows into the Irish Sea ,and therefore overlooking the harbour, The Mall is separated from Main Street immediately below by a retaining wall built of local granite and dating from c.1875. A double flight of steps links the two areas and to go from one to the other pedestrians pass under a wrought-iron arch centred on a glazed lantern. There ends whatever charm The Mall has today, since much of it is now a muddle of traffic congestion and neglected buildings, not least the former Bayview Hotel which occupies a particularly prominent spot. Originally constructed as a private residence around 1810 and called Bellevue, the property became a library in 1925 and later an hotel. Before the economic recession, there had been plans that it form part of a shopping centre complex but this never happened and it has been in decline since then. A year ago, the building, along with its neighbours, was sold for €903,000. One must hope the new owners have plans to improve the prospects not just of this site but the entire area. A stroll along The Mall ought to be a pleasure.
Anyone approaching Sligo town from the south cannot fail to see a large range of rock-faced limestone buildings rising to the immediate east. Erected in 1890-91, this was Summerhill College (or, more correctly, The College of the Immaculate Conception), a secondary school for boys designed by local architect Patrick Kilgallin on the instructions of then-Roman Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Lawrence Gillooly. Further additions to the site were made early in the last century and again in the 1930s. However, ten years ago a new school was built on an adjacent site and the old buildings offered for sale. In 2016, the Diocese of Elphin announced it had sold the property to a Liverpool-based company Eastview Limited for an undisclosed sum (believed to be in the region of €400,000). Nothing further happened until in April 2020 when Eastview sold the former school to another company, RIPL Strandhill Ltd for €1.6 million. However, it appears the agreement was never finalised and last April legal proceedings were initiated by lawyers acting on behalf of Eastview to ensure completion of the sale. At the same time, a fire broke out in the building, believed to have been started by arsonists and inflicting serious damage to the upper storeys. Meanwhile, the rest of the site is being left to deteriorate.
‘We are situated on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula of the Ards… The House faces almost due south and is but a stone’s throw away from the salt water Lough Strangford…The eastern shore of the Ards is on the Irish Sea and Belfast Lough sweeps right round the northern shore far inland. So narrow is the space between the head of Strangford Lough and that of Belfast Lough that Mount Stewart…experiences island conditions. The climate is sub-tropical…in hot weather we always have extremely heavy dews at night. We do not have an excessive rainfall…we get all the sun of the east coast with its drier conditions…the Gulf Stream running up the Irish Sea washes the shores all round the promontory.’
From a Foreword to The Mount Stewart Garden Guide Book written by Edith, Lady Londonderry, 1957.
In the care of the National Trust since the mid-1950s, Mount Stewart, County Down contains one of the most famous, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic, gardens in these islands. The land on which this stands were first purchased by Alexander Stewart in 1744. Both house and owners were gradually aggrandised, the latter eventually becoming Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry. Thanks to their ownership of collieries in County Durham, they became fantastically rich in the 19th century, with Mount Stewart being just one of many properties they owned, the best-known being Londonderry House on London’s Park Lane. Mount Stewart was thus only intermittently occupied by the family and Edith, seventh Marchioness would recall that when she first visited there at the start of the last century ‘the dampest, darkest, and saddest place I had ever stayed in, in the winter. Large Ilex trees almost touched the house in some places and sundry other big trees blocked out all light and air.’ She would be responsible for transforming the site into the extraordinary gardens that can be seen there still today. Although her own designer, she was ably assisted in the enterprise by a small team, not least Mount Stewart’s head gardener Thomas Bolas, who had trained at Chatsworth and who, as she noted was ‘able and willing to carry out designs from the roughest plans, and together he and I have worked out the designs, whether of buildings, walls or flower-beds, on the actual sites.’ It was Bolas who understood the particular climate conditions in this part of the country – ample sunshine and not too much rainfall – and knew how best to exploit them. As Neil Porteous – who has been responsible for a sensational restoration of the gardens in recent years, thanks to the mild climate, Edith Londonderry and her team were able ‘to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.’ Bold and exuberant might be a polite term for eccentric, since Mount Stewart is quite unlike any other garden and yet, like all true eccentrics, convinces thanks to the courage of its own convictions. But before these could be put into effect, the place first had to be made ready. Fortunately when this transformation got underway in the years following the end of the First World War, Edith Londonderry was able to provide work for the demobilised locals who would otherwise have faced unemployment, and she thus found the ample manpower needed to embark on such a large-scale project.
Mount Stewart is divided into a series of compartments (they really are too large for the currently fashionable word ‘room’ to be applicable here) each with its own distinctive character. Outside the west side of the house and approached across a generous flagged terrace is the sunken garden, laid out in the early 1920s and in some respects the most traditional part of the site. A pergola runs around three sides of the lawn reached via flights of stone steps, with the corners shaved off to provide densely planted beds of flowering plants. Beyond the sunken garden one begins to get a better sense of Edith Londonderry’s highly distinctive approach to horticultural design. This is the Shamrock Garden, centred on a 14 foot high topiary harp in yew. The space is enclosed within a hedge of similar height, the top of which featured a range of fantastical topiary creatures, since lost although there are plans to recreate many of them. Meanwhile, laid out on the ground in annual bedding plants is a giant red hand of Ulster. Moving to the rear of the house, one reaches the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by those Edith Londonderry had seen on visits to such Renaissance sites as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and those at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Immediately below is the Spanish Garden, the source of its inspiration being the Moorish palaces of Andalusia; one of the most distinctive features here are the flanking arcades of cypress, evoking memories of the ancient world’s aqueducts. The break between Italian and Spanish Gardens is marked by a number of herms, also inspired by those found in classical and Renaissance gardens but in this instance featuring the faces of Circe, the mythological sorceress who bewitched sailors and turned them into the animals – also portrayed here. In 1915 Edith Londonderry and her husband had founded the private Ark Club, its membership composed of friends and admirers who would meet weekly in their London house. As a result of the power she exerted over this group, Edith came to be known as Circe, hence her presence in the grounds of Mount Stewart. Similarly, the other participants in the club were given names, and they are likewise found around the gardens in these whimsical guises, especially on the Dodo Terrace which was developed to the east of the Italian Garden. Here can be seen many well-known figures of the inter-war years. among them, Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill Winston the Warlock, while Lady Lavery became Hazel the Hen, John Buchan John the Buck and Sir Philip Sassoon Philip the Phoenix. All of them were portrayed by another of the Mount Stewart team, Thomas Beattie, a local stonemason who in this instance used an early form of cast concrete for his work. The employment of such a material rather than something more orthodox unlines the decidedly unconventional, and yet successful, character of Mount Stewart.
In the centre of Slane, County Meath stands the Square, which is actually an octagon and was laid out by the Conyngham family in the mid-18th century. Four of the sides are occupied by almost identical houses dating from c.1760, all being of three bays and three storeys over basement and fronted in the same limestone, with brick chimneystacks at either gable and hipped roof. Only the doorcases display modest differences in design, that above (on the north-east corner) featuring engaged columns while that below (south-east) corner has pilasters. The latter house is currently for sale.
Daingean, County Offaly was formerly called Philipstown, the name given to it in the mid-16th century in honour of her husband (Philip II of Spain) after whom this part of the world was also given the nomenclature King’s County. Philipstown was intended to be the county town (like Maryborough – now Portlaoise – in neighbouring Queen’s County – today County Laois). However, even before the end of the 18th century, the place was being eclipsed by Tullamore and never recovered its status. A couple of buildings survive to show Philipstown’s municipal ambitions, not least the courthouse which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced an earlier building. This one, with a large market square in front, is of five bays and two storeys, the two outer ones pedimented with relieving niches beneath and limestone urns above. The slightly recessed three centre bays are rusticated on the ground floor, and divided by limestone pilasters on the first (seemingly there were once windows between these). The building has had a chequered history, intermittently allowed to fall into poor condition, and it does not appear to be in great shape at present, despite some work being undertaken there a few years ago. In his excellent Pevsner Guide to Central Leinster, Andrew Tierney politely describes the courthouse as being ‘disheveled at the time of writing.’ Others might opt for stronger language.