Spiralling into Oblivion

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A stone spiral staircase leading from first-floor reception rooms to the bedchambers above in Dromore Castle, County Limerick. The exterior of this building, designed by Edward Godwin in the late 1860s, has featured here before (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013). Next Monday’s page will be devoted to exploring what remains of Dromore’s quite extraordinary interiors.

Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres*

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In a book of his photographs published the year he died (2011) architectural historian Maurice Craig included the image above of Gaulstown, County Westmeath which he had taken in 1975. He recalled seeing the house then for the first time and commented, ‘It looked a bit neglected, but it seemed to be all there, especially the roof. I saw a new house only a few yards away (out of frame on the left) and drew the obvious conclusion: that my pet would soon be bundled away. I was wrong.’
In fact Maurice was wrong on two counts. Firstly there never was a new house only a few yards away, it is actually hundreds of yards away and completely invisible from Gaulstown. And of course its construction did not mean the loss of the old house which continues to stand almost four decades after it was noted by Maurice.

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As is unfortunately all too often the case, we know little about the origins of Gaulstown. It bears similarities to a pair of similarly miniature Irish villas, Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (1735) and Ledwithstown, County Longford (1746) both of which are attributed to Richard Castle. Both are also larger and more refined in their details, and one has a sense that Gaulstown, the earliest of the trio (dating from c.1730) was something of a trial run for the other two. Casey and Rowan propose that it might have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce or perhaps his associate William Halfpenny. Maurice Craig was inclined to agree with this assessment but it seems too grand an attribution for such a modest dwelling. Might not Gaulstown instead have been the work of an amateur, perhaps even the original owner, a member of the Lill family generations of which lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries (although they would change their name to de Burgh for the sake of an inheritance)? Without wishing to disparage its considerable charms and its importance Gaulstown has the appearance of a building containing a variety of architectural motifs borrowed from books but, as the interior layout reveals, without these being necessarily completely understood or interpreted.

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Casey and Rowan describe Gaulstown as being of only one storey over raised basement and with an attic, but this is not really the case since it possesses a trio of reasonably substantial floors. The roughcast rendered exterior is rigorously plain of three bays, that in the centre of the south-facing facade projecting forward. A long flight of steps leads to the substantial cut-limestone doorframe, which is an adapted Venetian window above which floats a small Diocletian window beneath the pediment: the only other openings on the front are windows on either side of the entrance, so that the building has an ascetic rigour that is most appealing.
Inside the main floor was originally divided (just like ancient Gaul) into three parts. The centre space formed one room running south to north for the full, albeit not terribly considerable, depth of the house. However at some date, probably for reasons of greater comfort and warmth, a partition wall was inserted dividing it into entrance hall with drawing room behind: the latter has a Venetian window mirroring that used for the entrance. To the east is a dining room, to the west the staircase and, behind it, a small boudoir or office. The stairs are lit by a large window on the return and they lead to a surprising number of bedrooms. Meanwhile the basement is also more generously spacious than would superficially appear to be the case.

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‘This appealing structure,’ comments the author of Gaulstown’s assessment in www.buildingsofireland.ie ‘was designed with obvious architectural aspirations and is extremely well-proportioned, having instant visual appeal. It is strangely imposing for a structure built on such a small scale and this is down to the quality of the massing.’ This is an admirable summary of the house, which further benefits from its setting, being reached at the end of a long straight drive and surrounded by open countryside. To the immediate west are the remains of the old brick-walled garden, behind is a still-working farmyard. These elements enhance the impression that Gaulstown was always intended as the residence of a gentleman farmer even though Casey and Rowan rightly refer to it possessing ‘an aristocratic or cultivated rusticity.’

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Gaulstown apparently changed hands on a number of occasions before being acquired by the current owner’s grandfather. Today it is a family home, the present generation of occupants keenly aware of the building’s need for some remedial work: damp is something of a problem on the gable walls and, as these pictures make clear, the fenestration could be improved. Yet these issues are not insuperable, and one of the pleasures of the house is that it looks to have retained so many of its original features such as the panelled doors and shutters with their chunky lugging, the plain but deep cornicing, the understated stair balustrades and so forth. It could, and ought to, be restored to better condition and the aspiration is that this will happen before too long. A little gem like Gaulstown deserves to be preserved, not least because today there are too few of its kind left in Ireland.

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*Readers who studied Latin will no doubt recall the observation in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars ‘Gallis est omnis divisa in partes tres’ (Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts).

Completely Floored

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Two sections of the marquetry floors in the saloon at Ballyfin, County Laois. Dating from the 1820s and designed by the Morrisons père et fils, the house was built for Sir Charles Coote, premier baronet of Ireland. As such it was intended to reflect his status and was decorated with unusual lavishness and with inspiration from diverse sources: the floor here seemingly derives from Southern Spain’s Moorish architecture and is the most exotic in the country.

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Much more on Ballyfin in the coming weeks.

Dogged by an Unanswered Question

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The main entrance to Killinardrish, County Cork. In 1837 Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland describes the house as being ‘an elegant Italian lodge, lately built by R. J. O’Donoghue, Esq.’ While still in the hands of Mr O’Donoghue’s children, late 19th and early 20th century photographs show the entrance without its present limestone pedimented and pillastered frame which clearly dates from the 1700s. It must therefore have been added after the death of the last member of the O’Donoghue family in January 1934, but when and by whom? The house was subsequently occupied for a period by one of the Ryes whose own home just a few miles away, Ryecourt, was burnt out in 1921 like so many others in this part of the country. Might the door surround have been salvaged from 18th century Ryecourt and installed at Killinardrish? Any assistance with solving this puzzle would be much appreciated.

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.

another view

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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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Modest Lodgings

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The gate lodge at Rockview, County Westmeath. It must date from around the same period as the main house, built in the early years of the 19th century for a branch of the Fetherston-Haugh family. With just a couple of rooms, the lodge is a more humble residence but its exterior has been aggrandised by the presence of arched recesses framing the mullioned window. A pair of very slender wrought-iron columns support the eaves and add further interest to this side of the building.

Going Up the Chimney

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A splendid example of Irish 18th century craftsmanship, this George III chimney piece of white marble, Spanish brocatello and scagliola features a frieze inlaid with foliage, rosettes and husk swags centred on a similarly-framed rectangular tablet while carved trophies on either side sit above jambs with tapering panels each inlaid with a nightingale atop a pole wrapped with flowering rose stems. It is believed to have come from 4 Parnell Square, Dublin, a house built in 1754 by Henry Darley, one of a family of stone cutters and developers who was responsible for several other properties in this part of the city. A year later he sold it to Ralph Howard, later first Viscount Wicklow who was presumably responsible for much of the interior decoration including rococo plasterwork attributed to Robert West. No. 4 subsequently passed into the hands of the County Clare Vandeleur family before becoming a residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishops of Dublin. Since 2000 the building has been occupied by a primary school, Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire.
Evidently at some date in the last century the chimneypiece which stands just a few inches shy of five feet, was removed from the premises since after being purchased from a Dublin dealer it entered a London collection in the late 1960s. Later this week it comes up for auction in Dorchester where the expected price is £20-40,000. The likelihood of the piece returning to its original location seems remote, but one never knows…
See: http://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/dukes/catalogue-id-2896743/lot-20953363?searchitem=true

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 displaying 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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Keep It Clean

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The ceiling of the former dining room at Townley Hall, County Louth, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture designed by Francis Johnston c.1794 for his well-informed patron Blayney Townley Balfour. Very spare, very pure, this is design at its most ascetic and at the same time most refined. (For more information on Townley Hall, and especially its matchless staircase, see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté*, June 10th 2013)