On 17th June 1765 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, wrote in his journal, ‘At seven I preached in the Market-house at Kilfinane [County Limerick]. Well nigh all the town, Irish, English and Germans, Protestants and Papists, presently gathered together. At first, most of the Papists stood aloof; and so did several of the genteeler people: but by degrees they drew in, and mixed with the congregation.’ Wesley returned to Kilfinane on several later occasions, each time preaching in the market house, of which these are now the sorry remains. Dating from c.1760 and of cut sandstone with three broad arches on its façade, the market house was described as ‘a large and commodious building’ by Samuel Lewis in 1837, having just been repaired the previous year. Having remained in use until the last century, how regrettable to see what was a part of the town’s history, and prosperity, for more than 250 years allowed to fall into such a shabby state.
For a long time based in what is now north County Cork, the O’Keeffe (in Irish Ó Caoimh) family used to claim descent from the Celtic goddess Clíodhna. She and another mythical woman Aibell were in love with the same man Caomh but Clíodhna triumphed by turning her rival into a white cat. Whatever about this legend, it is true that members of the family were Kings of Munster for several centuries but with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, they were driven from their original territory and obliged to settle a little further west, the senior branch having its seat at Dromagh, just a few miles east of the border with Kerry. Here a castle still stands as evidence of their former presence.
As it now exists, Dromagh Castle is thought to date from around the late 16th century when constructed by Art Ó Caoimh who in 1582 received a re-grant of his lands from the English authorities (a common device during this period, which not only ensures the loyalty of Irish chiefs to the crown, but also changed the nature of land ownership from collective to individual). The family seems to have stayed out of the conflict until the time of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s onwards, when Dromagh was until the control of Donal Ó Caoimh. The last great battle of this conflict took place a few miles away at Knocknaclashy in July 1651 and it is said that the leader of the Catholic Confederate forces, Donough MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry, marched out of Dromagh to face General Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, head of the Cromwellian forces. The latter’s victory on this occasion signalled the imminent end of Roman Catholic opposition to the English government. It appears that Dromagh Castle may have suffered some damage at this time, and was also taken from Ó Caoimh but following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the property was returned to the family. Its history thereafter seems unclear but the original owners may have supported the cause of James II at the end of the 1680s, after which they lost their lands for good. When next mentioned in the second quarter of the 18th century, Dromagh Castle was owned, or at least occupied, by a William Philpot whose daughter Christabelle married Henry Leader in 1741. The Leaders had arrived in Ireland in the middle of the previous century and acquired land in this part of the country, their seat being the now-ruined Mount Leader a few miles to the south-west. Through judicious marriage, the Leaders acquired not just Dromagh Castle but also other estates in the vicinity, and in the early 19th century established a number of profitable collieries. In the early 19th century, Nicholas Philpot Leader was a keen supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the cause of Catholic Emancipation, and as an MP criticized the lack of government measures to relieve the ‘mass of misery, distress and destitution’ in Ireland.
Given that they owned other houses not far away, the Leader family did not live in Dromagh Castle but instead farmed the land. They fitted out the interior courtyard with offfices and other buildings along the two longer walls, as well as a certain amount of accommodation in the circular corner towers. Much of what can be seen today is due to their work on the site. It is likely that here, as elsewhere, the centre of the space would have been occupied by a tower but this has long since vanished. The Leaders added battlements to the outer bawn walls and then raised the height of the corner towers, making them five storeys to the front and and three to the rear. The join between original and later sections can clearly be seen on the outside of the building. Battlements were again added, as they were to the small square towers flanking the main entrance fore and aft. The upper portions of the corner towers have thinner walls – and larger window openings – than the original lower parts, showing their purpose was more decorative than defensive. It had become, in effect, a pasteboard castle. Unfortunately this lack of substance has meant the towers are vulnerable if not maintained. Indeed a section of that in the south-east corner has already fallen down, and a large crack down the front of what still stands suggests more could soon follow suit. Dromagh Castle remained in use until the War of Independence when members of the IRA set fire to the property in March 1921. While some of the lower buildings inside the walls were subsequently used, in more recent years it has stood empty and gradually falling into decay. Perhaps some wealthy descendants of the original O’Keeffes might like to consider rescuing their former family seat?
Located in the north-west corner of County Westmeath, this is Wilson’s Hospital, a secondary school which in 2011 celebrated its 250th anniversary. The school’s founder was one Andrew Wilson who, the year before his death in 1725, made a will stipulating that if there were no direct male heirs to his estate, then this should be transferred to the Church of Ireland for the establishment of a hospital for elderly Protestant men and a school for impoverished Protestant boys. After a few decades had passed and no male heir had appeared (and a family dispute over the will resolved), work began on the building, its design sometimes attributed to the little-known Dublin architect Henry Pentland. From the front Wilson’s Hospital looks like a Palladian country house, since to the rear of the main block (shown here) are quadrants leading to two-storey wings. And the façade features a two-storey-over-basement limestone breakfront, the three centre bays stepped forward and with fine Venetian windows on the extreme first-floor windows. The institutional nature of the place is indicated by the clock tower visible above the roofline, and, immediately behind the front, by an arcaded, three-storey courtyard that recalls that of the earlier Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, albeit on a smaller scale. Elderly Protestant men are no longer accommodated here, but boys (and for the past 50 years, also girls) continue to be educated at Wilson’s Hospital.
The pictures above suggest this might be the entrance to an Irish country house, built in the mid-19th century when the fashion for a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic was at its height here. In fact, it is the centre block of the former Convent of Mercy in Ardee, County Louth. Built in the mid-1850s, the convent was designed by John Neville, then County Surveyor for Louth (a position he held for 46 years, thereby ensuring plenty of work for his office in the area). The three-storey block built of coursed rubble features cut limestone for quoins, and window surrounds as well as for the three-bay, single-storey porch in Perpendicular style. And the facade is saved from what might be dull uniformity by the two-storey canted bay to the immediate right of the entrance. Further buildings, including a chapel, were added to left and right of the convent. As in so many other towns, the nuns have now departed and the ten-acre site has been on the market since last autumn. What might its future be?
Situated at a strategic crossing point of the river Shannon, Lanesborough (originally called Béal Átha Liag) derives its present name from the Lane family, and specifically Sir George Lane who in the second half of the 17th century did much to improve the place. The son of Sir Richard Lane of Tulsk, County Roscommon, Sir George was a faithful royalist and had followed Charles II into exile. So when the king returned to the throne in 1660, he duly rewarded Sir Richard with additional grants of land in Ireland, as well as a number of high offices; in 1664 he was appointed to the Irish Privy Council, and the following year was made Secretary of State for Ireland, a position he held until his death in 1683. In 1676 he was created first Viscount Lanesborough.
Sir Richard’s primary residence in Ireland stood just a few miles south of Lanesborough, at Rathcline Castle, today a spectacular ruin. The lands here originally belonged to the Quinn or O’Quinn family who may have been responsible for constructing the original tower house here in the 15th or early 16th century. During the latter period, it had passed into the possession of the O’Farrells, but by 1620 Rathcline belonged to Sir Thomas Dutton, an English soldier granted some 2,000 acres by the crown as part of the plantation of Ireland. At least some of what remains here was due to Dutton but after he died, his son also called Thomas, sold Rathcline and the surrounding lands to Sir George Lane. In 1724 following the death of his son, the second Viscount Lanesborough without a son, the place was inherited by the latter’s nephew George Fox, who duly changed his surname to Fox-Lane. His heirs in due course sold the Longford estate to Luke White, who amongst other properties also owned Luttrellstown Castle on the outskirts of Dublin.
The remains of Rathcline Castle date from several different periods, beginning with the original three-storey tower house with battered base which stands on the south-east corner of the site. At the north-east corner is another tower, of also of three-storeys but rectangular and projecting eastwards; this looks to be of a slightly later date. At some point, perhaps in the 17th century, a long range was built linking the two towers, and forming one wall of an enclosed courtyard behind. It had a sequence of large window openings, long since blocked up. Sir George Lane apparently intended to carry out extensive improvements on the property, perhaps inspired by his links with the Duke of Ormonde who did undertake major work on his residence, Kilkenny Castle. In 1664 plans for Rathcline were secured from John Westley, a Dublin-based lawyer and amateur architect married to the daughter of John Webb (Inigo Jones’ pupil); incidentally, Westley also devised plans for Phoenix House, the royal lodge near Dublin, and proposed himself to undertake the construction of new buildings in Dublin Castle. Whether his scheme for Rathcline Castle was carried out even in part is unknown, but in a description of this part of the country written in 1682, Nicholas Dowdall called the building ‘A very noble and spacious house’ which was ‘very pleasant and well Improved with Orchards, Gardens, Fishponds and a Deer Park.’
Whatever it once looked like, as can be seen from within the courtyard, Rathcline Castle was never very deep, perhaps going back no further than a single, admittedly substantial, room: what survives of a great moulded limestone chimneypiece can be found on the first floor of the north wall. Elsewhere in the courtyard the ruins of a range of farm buildings, perhaps erected in the 19th century, occupy one section of the west wall. Otherwise the space stands empty, and evidently much pillaged for stone over 100s of years: it appears that Rathcline Castle suffered badly during the Williamite Wars and may never have been occupied thereafter. The most arresting feature of the site is a limestone classical archway inserted into the south wall, although it too is incomplete, since there were evidently free-standing columns on either side. A second carved limestone archway also survives on the west side. The design of this looks earlier than the classical arch and, given that it occupies the base of a gable wall, suggests this was the public entrance to a chapel on the site. Given its long-term neglect, trying to understand much more about the layout of the castle is a challenge.
The main house at Loughcrew, County Meath – or at least its re-erected portico – was shown here last week (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/06/17/loughcrew) . The Naper family estate was once ringed with a number of lodges, one of which also featured on this site some time ago (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2016/09/05/cursed). Formerly in a poor state of repair, that building is now undergoing restoration and should yet be occupied once again. Not far away stands another lodge, alas in a poor state of repair, and while not plain it is now rather bald. Perhaps someone might like to undertaken a similar rescue of what, even in its present state, remains a very handsome and sturdy little building?
The Irish Aesthete has recently been discussing tower houses on YouTube* so here is a fine example rising above the flat landscape of County Louth. The four-storey Roodstown Castle is believed to date from the 15th century although it may be later.
The building has projecting square turrets diagonally opposite each other, one of which contained the garderobe, the other a staircase leading from the usual vaulted entrance space to the upper floors. There is a murder hole just inside the door, and formerly a machicolation outside it but this has since disappeared.
As has been mentioned on this site more than once, Ireland is a country replete with ruins; indeed, scarcely a week or month seems to pass without additions to their number. It is perhaps the sheer quantity of decay and dereliction that has made us, if not indifferent then certainly unsurprised to the fact that so many buildings across the country are in various stages of decline. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be startled by an example of neglect, such as that found in Liscarton, County Meath, where a range of structures are seemingly of interest today only to the livestock grazing on the adjacent land.
It appears there was a church at Liscarton at least by the beginning of the 14th century, since in 1305 there is a reference to the building in the ecclesiastical taxation register of Pope Nicholas IV. Seemingly dedicated to St Nicholas, the church may then have been reconstructed in the following century but little is heard of it until 1622 when James Ussher, created Bishop of Meath the previous year, described it as being in reasonable repair. A further report some 60 years later confirms that it was still standing and evidently in the 18th century alterations were undertaken, since large, round-headed windows were then inserted on both the north and south sides. When it fell out of use and into disrepair is unclear, but this was evidently the case by the time Sir William Wilde came to write The Beauties of the Boyne, and its tributary, the Blackwater (1849) in which he notes ‘the church is remarkable for the extreme beauty of its eastern and western windows, each of which consists of one great light, divided by a shaft branching off on a level with the spring of the arch into two members, which join the arch-head about the centre of the curve. An exquisite variety of tracery, in the decorated style of gothic architecture, fills the head of both windows, and the mouldings are deep and well executed. Upon the exterior face may be observed well carved human heads projecting from the dripstone.’ The carved heads, of a king, a queen and a bishop, can still be seen decorating the hood of the western window, but its equivalent at the east end is threatened by ivy and other vegetation, and the entire site risks falling ever-further into ruin.
A short distance to the east of the church stand what remains of a pair of adjacent towers; just 40-odd feet apart, at one time they were linked by a great hall. Believed to date from the 15th century, the property is recorded in 1633 as having been held by Sir William Talbot (owner of what is now the Carton estate in County Kildare) and, in the following decade by his elder son Robert: Sir William’s youngest son Richard Talbot, was one of the most ardent supporters of James II, who created him Lord Deputy of Ireland and Duke of Tyrconnell. In the second half of the 17th century, the lands and castle of Liscarton passed into the possession of the Cadogan family: it is supposed to have been the birthplace of General William Cadogan, first Earl Cadogan, second only to the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Cadogans appear to have remained at Liscarton until at least the middle of the 18th century (Richard Pococke refers to it being in their hands in 1752) but at some date thereafter it was occupied by the Gerrard family, whose main estate was not far away at Gibbstown, of which more in the coming weeks. In 1841 the Gerrards gave a lease for the lands of Liscarton, including a ‘dwelling house, corn mill, kilns, water courses and stores’ to three brothers, James, Michael and Thomas Cullen. Incidentally, another of the siblings was Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh and the first Irish cardinal, a key figure in the country during the mid-19th century. It is known that he spent time at Liscarton Castle, since its address appears on a number of his letters. By this time the larger of the two towers, rising three storeys, had fallen into picturesque ruin but the smaller, two-storey building and adjacent hall remained sound and, as can be seen in an old postcard, were attractively thatched. A large collection of yard buildings and stables were built, probably in the 18th century, behind the larger tower and some of these remain in various states of repair. However, like so many other old buildings, the castle site was abandoned in the last century and left to decay. It seems extraordinary that there should be so little interest in or concern for a site connected with successive aspects of Irish history, whether the Duke of Tyrconnell or Cardinal Cullen. But seemingly not. This looks like another part of the country’s collective heritage – and memory – destined to be lost forever.
The three-storey, octagonal dovecote at Mosstown, County Longford. Believed to date from the mid-18th century, it once stood inside the walled garden of Mosstown, an estate that for a long period belonged to the Newcomen baronets. At some date in the 17th century they built Mosstown, a long house of at least 11 bays and two-storeys with dormered attics and double gables. It passed into other hands in the 19th century but was still occupied until the 1930s, after which the property stood empty until regrettably demolished in 1962. Now sharing a field with a number of horses, this dovecote is one of the few remaining buildings to recall the estate’s existence. The two upper levels, with blind round-headed openings on the first floor and blind oculi on the second, had an interior housing pigeons but the ground floor is a single open space with handsome domed brick ceiling.
The limestone portico of Loughcrew, County Meath re-erected, at least in part. This singularly unlucky house was thrice burnt within a century and twice re-constructed. But after the third fire the building was demolished and Greek Ionic portico lay in pieces on the surrounding ground until partially reassembled a few years ago. Loughcrew was a neo-classical house designed by Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s for the Naper family. It was always an exceptionally severe looking building, and as has been noted, recalled a courthouse rather than a residence. Even its architect judged the finished work ‘very plain, too bald’, whereas what remains of the portico is wonderfully evocative and might almost serve as a symbol for all the other ruined country houses in Ireland.