A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere.
‘Ireland is far more favoured by latitude than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish…The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds.’
The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed c.731 A.D.
‘The Irish climate is favourable to many plants which, though neglected, do better in Ireland than the countries from which they are imported.’
Dr Peter Lombard, De Regno Hiberniae Commentarius, 1600.
Across the centuries, observers have remarked on the kindly character of the Irish climate. While conditions vary somewhat from east to west, and from north to south, this island does not, as a rule, suffer from extremes of temperature: despite being on the same latitude as Newfoundland in Canada, our winters are generally mild (only dropping a few degrees below 0 °C) and our summers cool (even at their highest they seldom exceed 25 °C). Although winds are plentiful, they are rarely extreme and rainfall is abundant: the eastern half of the country averages 750-1,000 mm of rain per annum, that to the west 1,000-1,400 mm. These circumstances are further aided by the character of Irish soil, much of it rich and fertile. We enjoy a temperate climate perfect for the cultivation of a wide diversity of plants. And yet the cultivation of those plants and the creation of gardens in which to enjoy them, came relatively late to Ireland.
During the last century, in the aftermath of the First World War and the War of Independence, many Irish country house gardens were lost. The breaking up of the great estates, together with increased taxation and rising labour costs, combined to make the maintenance of these sites unfeasible for owners. Just as many country houses fell into dilapidation and ruin, so too did their surrounding demesnes and gardens. But it was not entirely a story of loss. From the late 19th century onwards, a number of Irish houses and estates had been taken over by Catholic religious orders, for use as schools, seminaries and so forth. Often the new owners sought to maintain the grounds of their property, thereby ensuring the survival of their predecessors’ work. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, growing public awareness and appreciation of our historic sites led to the establishment of a Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme. Grant-aided by the European Regional Development Fund and with a £4 million allocation, this scheme oversaw the restoration of some 24 gardens throughout the country.
Despite straitened circumstances, throughout the 20th century some country house owners continued to maintain their gardens and, in addition, a number of spectacular new ones were created. Across the millennia, gardening has been a passion exerting authority over some property owners and from which, as a rule, they never wish to be released. Happily, this remains the case in Ireland. And while, in the past, that passion might have been largely private, to be shared only with family and friends, today more and more of our finest gardens are open to the public, permitting all of us to revel in their outstanding qualities.
In Harmony with Nature:: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 is now open at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin and will continue to the end of July. For further information, please see In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)
Two doorcases in the entrance hall of Bellinter, County Meath, a house dating from c.1750 and designed by Richard Castle for John Preston. The two doors to the front of the room have the heaving lugging typical of this period but then atop a rectangular panel have caps studded with clusters of guttae. Meanwhile, the doorcase to the rear of the space has clearly been altered, probably in the early 19th century, but must always have concluded at a lower point in order to accommodate the plaster armory above. It’s all rather daft and completely wonderful.
In a small garden to the rear of Drumcondra House (now part of Dublin City University) can be found three much-weathered stone urns. Originally they stood on the parapet of the building’s south-facing front, thought to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: the east-facing Baroque facade of the same property has long been attributed to Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (see An Italian in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Photographs of Drumcondra House from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when it as All Hallows College (a training centre for Roman Catholic priests) show the urns still in situ, one in the centre and one at either end. At some date they were taken down, probably because of their condition but it is still possible to see their pedestals on top of the building.
Described by William Butler Yeats as ‘the drunken man of genius’, architect William Alphonsus Scott was mentioned here earlier this year, with regard to his designs for the model village of Talbot’s Inch, County Kilkenny (see An Act of Philanthropy « The Irish Aesthete). Born in 1871, Scott was the son of an architect who established his own practice in Drogheda, County Louth; after finishing at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, Scott worked for a time in his father’s office, and then in that of Thomas Newenham Deane (where his father had also once worked). He spent a further six years with his father and in 1897 the two men won a commission to design the new town hall in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Scott then moved to London for several years, where he absorbed the influences of the arts and crafts movement, being particularly inspired by the work of Philip Webb and Charles Voysey (the latter apparent in his houses at Talbot’s Inch). Returning to Ireland, he spent a further brief time with his father before establishing his own practice and in 1903 was asked to design a new country house, Killyhevlin on the outskirts of Enniskillen. It appears to have been in consequence of this that Edward Martyn, a key figure in the Irish literary revival, heard of Scott and so recommended him to Martin Morris, future second Lord Killanin, who was seeking an architect to design a new Roman Catholic church in Spiddal, County Galway.
In 1950 Martin Morris’s nephew, the third Lord Killanin, published a long article in The Furrow about St Enda’s church in Spiddal, where his family owned a property. Until the start of the last century, this little town overlooking Galway Bay was just an impoverished hamlet. Nevertheless, as elsewhere across the country, the local Catholic people were determined to have their own decent place of worship; by the 1990s, the existing church was not only too small but in a bad state of repair. The parish priest embarked on a fund-raising campaign, with some £2,725 coming from parishioners, another £1,160 from supporters in the United States and almost £1,300 from the Morris family. Work on the site began in 1904 and was completed three years later; the eventual cost of the building was just over £5,580. As Bridget Hourican has noted in her entry on Scott in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, the architect’s designs ‘were simple, sparing of decoration, boldly executed, and often had a heavy monumental quality.’ These features are certainly apparent in St Enda’s. Constructed from granite with limestone used for the window dressings, the church draws influence from the early Irish Romanesque style, as is especially apparent in the door and window openings, but it is influence not imitation: Scott has borrowed elements from the likes of Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel without copying them. As was noted in an obituary following his early death in 1921, his ambition was ‘to strike out for himself a fresh and original type of design.’
Unlike many other Irish Catholic churches subjected to needless alteration in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, St Enda’s still retains much of the appearance it had when first finished 115 years ago. Writing even before that date, Robert Elliott in Art in Ireland wrote of the building ‘Mr. Scott, with his knowledge of good work, took into consideration I fancy (for I have not cared to ask him), the landscape, the material and the type of the people who will worship in his church; who tell beads, and pray simply rather than desire garish light to read bulky manuals of devotion. Necessary walls with a roof and a tower for bells, and a gallery for singing…’ Like Loughrea Cathedral, County Galway, where Scott would design many of the furnishings, St Enda’s is a repository of early 20th century Irish craftsmanship, with the stained glass windows designed in An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower), the cooperative established by Sarah Purser in 1903. The finest of these is one dedicated to the memory of Col. the Hon George Morris (father of the third Lord Killanin), killed in France in 1914 while commanding the Irish Guards. The Stations of the Cross, unusually in opus sectile, were designed in 1915 by Ethel Mary Rhind, also of An Túr Gloine. Since the church is in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) part of the country, the inscriptions beneath each station are in Irish.
It is likely that today the majority of visitors passing through Spiddal merely observe St Enda’s as another place of worship, such as are found in every town and village throughout Ireland. But it is something more than that: the church deserves to be seen and appreciated as one of the birthplaces of a new visual identity here, the manifestation of a wish to create a fresh and distinctive architectural language for the country. Whether that wish was ever completely fulfilled is a discussion for another time.
After Wednesday’s post, here is a somewhat larger memorial, found at Cregaclare, County Galway. This little Gothic mausoleum commemorates John Charles Robert Bingham, fourth Baron Clanmorris who lived in nearby Cregaclare House (since demolished) and who died in 1876. Dating from 1890 and set within the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the mausoleum was erected by Lord Clanmorris’s widow, Sarah Selina Persse who was also interred there following her death in 1907. The couple’s remains stayed inside the building until 1947 when removed to a graveyard in nearby Ardrahan.
For lovers of old funerary monuments: this one now set into the wall of St Mary’s Church in Magheraculmoney, County Fermanagh. The inscription reads as follows:’
Here lieth intered James Johnston late of Banagh Esq.
Who died April 15, 1757 aged 66 Years’
Originally from Scotland, the Johnston family had settled in this part of the country at the start of the 17th century and came to own over 7,000 acres in Fermanagh.
Last January Drogheda, County Louth was named one of the dirtiest towns in Ireland in the annual Irish Business Against Litter report – placed 39 out of 40 locations surveyed, only Dublin’s north inner city was judged to be even filthier. Although obviously not an achievement worth celebrating, this information will come as no surprise to anyone who has been visiting Drogheda over recent years and watched the place sink further and further into degradation. In 1993, the Pevsner Guide to this part of the country, written by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey, observed that ‘As is too often the case, the 20th century has not been kind to Drogheda. However, the problems of the town lie not so much in the lack of quality in its new architecture as in the neglect and lack of concern for its historic buildings.’ That was almost 30 years ago: the situation has only grown worse over the intervening decades.
In contrast to its shameful present, Drogheda has a proud past: at the end of the 17th century, one visitor thought it a handsome, clean town ‘and the best I have seen in Ireland.’ Its location at the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea (the name Drogheda derives from Droichead Átha, meaning Bridge of the Ford) indicates strategic importance and from the Viking period onwards there was an important settlement here. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, lived here rather than in his titular seat, and six national parliaments were convened in the town between 1441 and 1494. A terrible disaster befell Drogheda in 1649 when it was captured and ransacked by members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the beginning of the following century it was once again booming and many of the town’s finest buildings were erected over the next 100 years. Commercial decline had already begun by the middle of the 19th century. When Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term still appropriate 180 years later. Over the past century, with improved transport links, not just the railway but even more the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin, which is less than 35 miles away, has only added to its problems.
There are many reasons why Drogheda should no longer enjoy the same prosperity as was once the case, but no reason whatsoever why the town should have been allowed to become such a sad, neglected, shabby mess. Everywhere one turns, there are empty buildings falling into ruin, historic properties which, in other countries, would be repaired and put back into use. Instead, no apparent effort has been made to preserve Drogheda’s outstanding architectural heritage. What could, for example, be a significant tourist destination – and therefore a source of revenue for the local community – is being wilfully ignored. At the moment, no visitor coming to Ireland could be directed to Drogheda, except to see how not to care for the urban environment. The local authority, Louth County Council, seems supremely indifferent to the condition of the town, showing absolutely no sense of pride in what should be one of the region’s finest assets. If there’s no sense of pride, there’s clearly no sense of shame either. Otherwise this situation would not be allowed to continue. Further words are redundant: the pictures shown today are sufficiently eloquent. Welcome to Drogheda, where the streets have no shame.
The very grand entrance into what appears to have been the yard attached to an adjacent house in the little village of Rostellan, County Cork. Seemingly dating from the mid-19th century, the high rubble stone walls are broken up by limestone ashlar pilasters and framed rectangular panels, while the centre is dominated by a large carriage entrance set into a Grecian-Revival arch. It all seems rather more substantial than would be expected on such a site: perhaps originally constructed for the nearby – but now lost – Rostellan Castle? (See Final Traces « The Irish Aesthete). During the spring/summer months, the yard operates as a local coffee and chocolate shop.
One of a number of gateways providing access to the four-acre walled garden at Barmeath Castle, County Louth. A map dating from the mid-1770s and drawn up by the surveyor Charles Frizell shows this area of the demesne to be a shrubbery with no evidence of enclosure, indicating the walled garden, like so many others, was only created in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Unusually, all the walls are lined in brick, whereas, as a rule, it was only the south-facing wall that received this treatment since brick retains the heat longer than does stone. The entrances are also distinguished by being given rather grand, pedimented, breakfront gateways. The walled garden here has been restored in recent years and is now open to the public. Readers with no interest in matters horticultural should be warned that the Irish Aesthete is at present curating an exhibition devoted to the history of the Irish country house garden (opening at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House in Dublin on May 19th) and therefore this subject is likely to feature heavily in the coming weeks.