Silent Witness


Considering the impact he had on this country, it is surprising that the name of architect George Wilkinson is not better known here. Born in Witney, Oxfordshire in 1814, and the eldest of six children, Wilkinson’s background was modest: his father was a carpenter and builder. There is little known of his education or training but he soon began to win contracts for work and in 1839 – when still not yet 25 – was appointed architect to the Irish Poor Law Commission, of which more below. Wilkinson thereafter spent the greater part of his life in Ireland, only returning to England a few years before his death in 1890. While living here, aside from his work for the commission, he was responsible for designing many other buildings, not least railway stations, perhaps the most celebrated of these being that on Harcourt Street in Dublin, as well those in Cavan and Sligo towns, Bray, County Wicklow, Athlone, County Westmeath, and Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, among many others. He designed the fine redbrick offices for the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and district lunatic asylums in Castlebar, County Mayo, Letterkenny, County Donegal, and both Carlow and Limerick. His practice in Ireland was extremely and consistently busy but it began with a large number of buildings which continue to have a notoriety here: workhouses.






In Ireland, workhouses are today associated with the catastrophe of the Great Famine and its aftermath. However, as institutions they neither originated in this country, nor were they intended to deal with such a disaster. The workhouse was essentially an English construct, arising out of successive Poor Law Acts and specifically dating back to the 1720s when legislation was passed allowing a local parish either to purchase or rent a property ‘for the Lodging, Keeping and Employing of poor Persons.’ Here in Ireland, and some twenty years earlier, a ‘House of Industry’ was established by act of Parliament in St James’s parish, Dublin ‘for the employment and maintaining of the poor thereof’: in 1729, it also became a Foundling Hospital. Operational costs were covered by, among other things, a tax on sedan chairs and hackney coaches. In 1773 a similar House of Industry was set up across the other side of the Liffey, on what is now North Brunswick Street. Others followed in a number of Irish cities and towns including Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford and so forth. Like their English equivalents, these buildings were never supposed to be an attractive option: they were intended to be places of last resort for those who were destitute and prepared to suffer what could be a harsh regime (in England the running of many workhouses was contracted out to third parties: shades of direct provision centres in this country at present). Circumstances, both in England and here, began to change in 1832 when the Westminster Parliament established a Royal Commission, chaired by the Bishop of London, to look at the administration of existing Poor Laws, some of them going back to 1601, and see how these might be improved. A report delivered two years later led to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which created a new administrative framework for providing relief to the poor, operated by a Poor Law Commission. One of the latter’s first tasks was to disband the old parish-level system of support and replace it with a nationwide series of organisations called Poor Law Unions, each run by a locally elected Board of Governors. Each union was to have its own workhouse, funded by a local poor rate. Workhouses were deeply unpopular in England and Wales, where they were first constructed, and often subject to attacks; some were even threatened with arson. Nevertheless, a similar system was proposed for Ireland by the government and in 1833 another commission, this one chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin, was set up to look into the matter. The commission’s report, delivered in 1836, did not recommend that the English system be replicated in Ireland: the problem here being lack of work rather than any unwillingness on the part of the local population to take up employment (which was thought to be one of the primary causes of poverty in England). More jobs, better housing, the drainage of bogs and improvements in agriculture: these were among the Irish commission’s recommendations. Unhappy with these proposals, the government in London sent over one of the English Poor Law Commissioners, George Nicholls, to investigate. Nicholls, who had never been here before, spent a mere six weeks traveling through the country, after which he returned home and declared that the English workhouse system was the best remedy for Ireland’s distinct issues. Despite violent opposition to the idea, the government proceeded with a Bill ‘for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ which passed into law in July 1838. Under this legislation, the country was divided into 130 Unions, each of which was to have its own workhouse (during the years 1848-50 some of these unions were split, with the creation of a further 33, thereby increasing the final figure). In early 1839 George Wilkinson, who had already designed a number of workhouses in England and Wales, arrived in Ireland with the brief of producing plans for all of them here.






Employed on an annual salary of £500, Wilkinson was instructed by the Poor Law Commissioners to visit and inspect all proposed sites before coming up with a proposal for workhouses ‘intended to be of the cheapest description compatible with durability; an effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded.’ Within a couple of months, Wilkinson had come up with a design model which was almost universally applied in the construction of Irish workhouses. Built of stone in a suitably unadorned Tudoresque style and capable of holding on average up to 800-1,000 persons, each site was entered through a relatively small porters’ block, where prospective inmates were admitted and where the local guardians would hold their meetings. Behind and to either side of this were separate recreation yards for boys and girls, divided by a small central garden. Then came the main accommodation block, separated into dormitories for men and for women (and for boys and girls above), behind which were two further recreation yards, once more divided by gender and kept apart by a long building running down the spine which held the chapel and dining room. Finally, the top of the workhouse site would be occupied by the kitchens, a laundry, a mortuary and what was usually described as a ‘ward for idiots.’  Because they all followed the same model, workhouses soon began to spring up across the country: as early as April 1843, Wilkinson was able to report that 112 of them were finished, and another 18 nearing completion. But they remained deeply unpopular, among all classes. Those who had to pay for them resented doing so: in Westport, County Mayo, for example, although the workhouse was ready for use in November 1842, it took three years – and a change of Board of Guardians – for the necessary operating funds to be collected through poor rates. Meanwhile, nobody wanted to be admitted to places known for their harsh regime, poor diet and miserable living conditions: even in the summer of 1846, many workhouses were only half-full. Then came the worst years of the Great Famine when suddenly there was no alternative. Buildings never intended to meet such demand struggled to accommodate many more inmates than had been planned, disease, such as typhus, became rife, and large numbers of Unions sank into debt as they struggled to provide any kind of assistance to the starving local community. No wonder that the image of the Irish workhouse is forever tainted. And quite a few of them survive to the present day, either in part or whole, and often pressed into service for other uses, not least as hospital complexes: Wilkinson, it appears, met his brief to make them durable. The workhouse shown here, in Bawnboy, County Cavan, is one of those established in the post-Famine period. Simpler in style than the earlier models, it was built at a cost of £4,900 (plus £945 for fixtures and fittings) and opened in November 1853 when 52 inmates from its equivalent in Cavan town were transferred here. Designed to hold 500 residents, it never seems to have reached that figure: in 1855, 172 persons lived here and by 1901 there were just 70. Following the workhouse’s closure in 1921, the buildings were used for various purposes, some of them serving as a vocational school, while another section became a dancehall. Services were held in a Roman Catholic chapel as late as 1979. Then no new function could be found them, and a long, slow decline appears to have begun, despite local recognition of the site’s significance and efforts to save the buildings. This is how they are today, derelict and empty, silent witnesses to a particularly grim period of Irish history.

Prize Winning



This weekend, it is announced that the latest recipient of the Historic Houses of Ireland/O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize is Clonalis, County Roscommon. Today home to the 27th generation of the O’Conor family since their forebear was the last High King of Ireland in the 12th century, the present house at Clonalis dates from the late 1870s but occupies a site associated with the O’Conors for hundreds of years, and is filled with historic material linking them with significant events in this country. The library, for example, contains over 7,000 volumes and is one of the finest such collections in Ireland.
The Historic Houses of Ireland/O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize is an initiative devised by the Irish Aesthete to acknowledge the importance of our privately-owned heritage properties and to recognise the invaluable work by their owners. For this reason, the prize is being presented in association with Historic Houses of Ireland, a charity established in 2008 to promote the immediate and long-term future of the country’s privately owned historic properties. All HHI members are owners of such buildings and they understand better than anyone the sector’s particular problems, especially over the past year. Worth €5,000 and adjudicated by a small group of assessors, the prize is generously sponsored by the O’Flynn Group has already shown itself keenly aware of the importance of providing a viable future for historic buildings, as can be seen in the company’s own redevelopment of the early 19th century former barracks site in Ballincollig, County Cork. The Irish Aesthete congratulates Clonalis and its owners on being very worthy recipients of the prize. 


Fragments


Herewith the surviving fragments of the once-might Morett Castle, County Laois. It was a late-medieval tower house, built by the Fitzgerald family towards the end of the 16th century. During the wars of the 1650s the building came under attack and was then forfeited by the Fitzgeralds, although they were able to regain possession of it during the following decade. Then, in 1690, it was threatened again, this time by the O’Cahills, who claimed ownership of the land on which it stood. The owner at the time, Stephen Fitzgerald, made the mistake of taking a stroll in his garden, and was promptly captured by the attackers, who threatened to kill him unless the castle was surrendered. According to Sir Jonah Barrington (who was her great-nephew), the prisoner’s wife Elizabeth declined the offer, declaring ‘Elizabeth Fitzgerald may get another husband but Elizabeth Fitzgerald may not get another castle; so I’ll keep what I have; and if you don’t get off faster than your legs can readily carry you, my warders will try which is hardest, your skull or a stone bullet.’ She was as good as her word and the castle remained in her possession. The unfortunate Stephen Fitzgerald, on the other hand, was soon seen dangling from a gibbet: his widow did at least have the consideration to wake and bury him. Barrington recounts the sundry other attempts to seize the castle from her, all unsuccessful and ends his tale by informing readers that his great-aunt remained in occupation ‘to a very late period in the reign of George the First.’ The place must have been abandoned not long afterwards because by 1792 Francis Grose could show it in ruins (albeit with more surviving than is now the case). 

Quite Mad


Loughgall, County Armagh is an exceptionally handsome and well-preserved village, laid out in the 18th century by the Cope family, who were resident landlords. It comprises one long street lined on either side with residences other than at one point where an extraordinary set of gates and gate houses announce entry to the Cope estate. The family had come to this part of the country in 1611, after land here was either granted by the crown or purchased by Sir Anthony Cope of Oxfordshire. He passed the property onto one of his younger sons, also called Anthony but the latter then sold part of the estate called Drumilly to a brother, Richard Cope, so that there were two branches of the same family living adjacent to each other. Drumilly was an exceptionally long house, its facade running to 228 feet, and comprised a central, two storey-over-basement block linked to similarly scaled pavilions by lower, six-bay wings; when Maria Edgeworth visited in 1844, she thought it ‘one of the most beautiful places I think I ever saw.’ Not long afterwards, a vast conservatory with curved front was added to the entrance. In the middle of the last century, the house and land came into the ownership of the Ministry of Agriculture and Drumilly was used as a grain store, with the result that it fell into disrepair. A contents auction was held in 1960 and six years later, the building was demolished; the Belfast MP Roy Bradford described this as ‘a Philistine Act of the most heinous irresponsibility embarking on a reckless course of artistic nihilism.’ Today nothing remains of the place, meaning only Loughgall survives to represent the former presence of the Copes in the area. 





It is difficult, if not impossible, to miss the entrance to the Loughgall estate. The architect responsible is unknown, although the design has been attributed to William Murray who had spent many years working with Francis Johnston and succeeded as architect at the Board of Works. Over a period of 15 years, Murray was involved in the construction of nine district lunatic asylums and indeed, there is something a little mad about the Loughgall entrance. Set back from the road, it begins with sweeping, semi-circular stone balustrades sitting on top of polygonal rubble walling and topped with stocky urns. This is duly terminated by pairs of square piers on either side of the actual entrance, their form alternating prismatic and vermiculated bands before concluding in fleur-de-lys from which emerge fire-breathing dragons. The wrought-iron wicket and double-carriage gates are signed and dated ‘R.Marshall, Caledon 1842’ and above the latter once rose an overthrow at the centre of which hung a lantern; seemingly this was hit by a lorry in the 1960s and not restored. Beyond the gates are a pair of identical lodges, equally fanciful and looking like miniature Jacobethan mansions.  In fact, these L-shaped buildings are single-storey and only held two rooms: it didn’t help that so much space was given up to the porch supported by a tapering pier. Constructed of more polygonal rubble, the two most prominent walls have oriel windows below fanciful gables featuring a series of steps topped by finials: the apex finials originally had carved animals but these have since gone. Inside each gable can be seen the Cope quarterings and the motto ‘Equo adeste animo.’ All this work was undertaken by Arthur Cope in the years immediately prior to his death at the age of 30 in 1844, when the estate was inherited by a cousin, Robert Wright Cope Doolan, who duly changed his surname to Cope. 





From the gates, the drive runs straight, lined by limes and first dropping before rising sharply to Loughgall Manor. Designed by Dublin architect Frederick A Butler, this was built in the mid-1870s for Francis Robert Cope. After the flair of the entrance, the house is something of a disappointment, a relatively modest, two-storey Tudor revival block with only an irregular west-facing gabled facade providing any visual interest. Old photographs suggest that originally the building was not painted white but instead left with the cut stone exposed. At present, the bleak forecourt, devoid of grass or any planting, only adds to the disappointment. A gabled porch is fronted in sandstone and the hoodmoulded arch concludes in a pair of heads, one of which may represent the house’s then-owner (but if so, who is the woman, since he was unmarried at the time). The house and estate at Loughgall remained in private ownership until 1947 when it was sold by Field-Marshall Sir Gerald Templer, a descendant of the Copes. It was then bought, like Drumilly, by the Ministry of Agriculture, although in this instance the buildings were not demolished but are used as office space by a division of that body. 

A Class Fine



-After last Wednesday’s post about a boarded-up church in County Louth, here is a more secular example of similar neglect, this one in Greenore, County Louth. Some 15 years ago, this little seaside village lost its most significant piece of architectural heritage – the Railway Hotel, designed by James Barton and constructed in 1875 for the London and North Western Railway – which was demolished by the port company in order to build a storage warehouse. This smaller building stands close to the beach, and as can be seen once served as a local cafe but has stood boarded up for some time. A Dangerous Structure notice from the local authority can be seen on the facade instructing the owner to carry out repairs to the guttering and slates within 14 days or else risk having to pay a Class C Fine (which is to say, a sum not exceeding €2,500). The notice has been in place since February 2021.

A Sorrowful Sight



A sorrowful sight: one of the few Penal era Roman Catholic churches left to moulder. This Holy Trinity in Kildoagh, County Cavan, a rare surviving example of such barn-style places of worship more often associated with the Presbyterian faith. A stone plaque on the front notes in Latin that it was constructed in 1796 by the Reverend Father Patrick Maguire. At that time, the building would have had a thatched roof, but this was replaced by slate in 1860 when an additional bay was added and the facade refenestrated. There are separate entrances for men and women, who were also seated in separate galleries on either side of the altar. The church was closed for services in the late 1970s and seemingly suffered from vandalism, hence its present boarded-up condition.


A Labour of Love


Running to some 62 acres, Powerscourt, County Wicklow is unquestionably Ireland’s most famous – and most photographed – country house garden, but what can be seen here today is of relatively recent origin. The building around which it was created has origins in a medieval tower house constructed by the de la Poers, whence derives the site’s name. In the 1730s, this structure was encased in a large Palladian house designed for Richard Wingfield, first Viscount Powerscourt by the architect Richard Castle. But the surrounding landscape remained largely unadorned, the ground behind the building dropping down to a large, irregular stretch of water called Juggy’s Pond, beyond which the vista was closed by the distant Sugarloaf Mountain. Only in the 19th century did the scene begin to change, initially thanks to the sixth Viscount who in 1843 employed architect and landscape designer Daniel Robertson to produce plans that would divide the sloping ground into a series of Italianate terraces, supposedly inspired by those at the Villa Butera (now Trabia) in Sicily. In a book about the estate that he published in 1907, the seventh viscount remembered being brought from his schoolroom one October morning to lay the first stone of this scheme. He also recalled how Robertson, who was forever in debt, would periodically have to hide in one of Powerscourt’s domes when the Sheriff’s officers came to arrest him. As for the gardens, Robertson, who found himself better able to work after sufficient quantities of alcohol had been consumed, in consequence suffered from gout. As a result, he ‘used to be wheeled out on the Terrace in a wheelbarrow, with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct the workmen, but when the sherry was finished, he collapsed and was incapable of working till the drunken fit evaporated.’ However, in 1844 the sixth viscount, who had travelled to Italy to buy vases and sculptures for the intended garden, died of consumption before reaching home. Work on the site stopped during his young heir’s minority and it was not until the latter had reached adulthood in 1858 and assumed responsibility for the estate that the garden once more began to receive attention. 





By the time the seventh Viscount Powerscourt started taking an active interest in the gardens of his country house, Daniel Robertson had died. However, the estate’s owner took a keen interest in finishing the incomplete job, visiting a number of key sites in Europe, such as the gardens at Versailles as well as those around the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna and the Schwetzingen Palace near Mannheim. He also consulted a number of landscape gardeners such as James Howe and William Brodrick Thomas. The second of these was also employed by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham in Norfolk. In the end, however, it was largely Lord Powerscourt himself and his Scottish head gardener, Alexander Robertson (no relation of the previously mentioned Daniel) who drew up their own scheme. Robertson, described by his employer as a very clever man with ‘more taste than any man of his class that I ever saw’ died in 1860 but by then the main outlines of the project had been agreed, and work started, not least on creating the terraces, on which it seems 100 men laboured for ten years. Lord Powerscourt reported that one of the difficulties faced was that because the ground had once been part of a glacier moraine, water kept coming to the surface of the ground and threatening to wash away the work; Robertson proposed thatbefore anything else was done, holes be dug at the back of each terrace so that the water inside, on coming to the surface ‘should fall down through the holes into the next stratum and disappear. This was done and we had no more trouble.’ Similar feats of engineering had to be undertaken to transform what had hitherto been Juggy’s Pond into the basin seen today: inspired by Bernini’s Triton Fountain in Rome, it has a central jet which can reach 100 feet. Another key feature added during this period is the Perron, a terrace situated part of the way down the central walk to the basin, designed by the English architect and astronomer Francis Penrose. This was intended to offer a viewing platform to what lies beyond, but also to break the monotony of the descent. The Perron has elaborate geometric mosaic paving, finished in 1875 and made from different coloured pebbles collected on the nearby beach at Bray. Meanwhile, Lord Powerscourt had continued to add to the collection of statuary and urns begun by his father, buying old pieces and commissioning new ones: the pair of figures representing Victory and Fame were made for him in 1866 by Hugo Hagen in Berlin: the same sculptor was also responsible for the pegasi down by the basin’s edge.





Lord Powerscourt never stopped adding new features to the grounds of Powerscourt, which extend much further than is indicated here. It is said that he did so because for a long time he and his wife had no children, and he did not want to leave anything for his somewhat disreputable younger brother Lewis Wingfield (and then, after 16 years of marriage, Lady Powerscourt had five children in succession).  After he died in 1904, the family struggled to maintain the estate and eventually, in 1961 it was sold to the Slazenger family, which owns it still although, as is well known, the house was tragically gutted by fire in 1974. But the gardens remain much as they were during the seventh viscount’s time and draw large numbers of visitors. The pictures shown today were taken on a rare occasion when the grounds were entirely empty, allowing the Irish Aesthete to have the place to himself. In style, they are intended as a homage to those taken by Eugene Atget a century ago in the Parc de Saint-Cloud outside Paris.