Celestial Heights

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A cherub hovers on the edge of an oval frame, one hand clutching a ribbon from which in turn is suspended a basket of fruit and flowers. Part of a ceiling now in one of the rooms on south-east range of Dublin Castle it was originally created for Mespil House situated on what were then the outskirts of the city in the early 1750s. The ceiling is attributed to the stuccadore Bartholomew Cramillion, best-remembered for his work in the chapel of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. When Mespil House was demolished in 1951, the ceiling and two others were rescued and subsequently installed in Dublin Castle. As the further detail below demonstrates, this is one of the most glorious examples of rococo plasterwork found in the country. The Irish Aesthete wishes all readers a Happy New Year and hopes you will reach such celestial heights in 2015.

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Looking Back

IMG_5969Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.

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Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.

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Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.

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There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.

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It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.

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Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.

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A Little Gem

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The main house may have gone at Loughcrew, County Meath (eventually demolished in 1968 after suffering three fires over the previous 100 years) but the lodge remains. Designed in the early 1820s by Charles Cockerell it boldly stands on the opposite side of the road from the estate entrance gates. Of limestone and in pure Greek Doric style, the lodge is probably more attractive than was ever the house, the latter described by its own architect as ‘very plain, too bald.’

Misjudging a Book by its Cover

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Readers are asked not to become too despondent at the sight of the photograph above: this is a case of appearances being deceptive. Beyond the unprepossessing façade lie some quite marvellous interiors, albeit these are – like the outside – in need of reparative attention. What you see is Glasnevin House, today a small portion of a conventual site belonging to the Holy Faith order but once a free-standing private residence set in renowned gardens.
Now a suburb of the capital, Glasnevin – from the Irish Glas Naíon meaning ‘stream of the infants’ although it is also proposed the name derives from Glas Naedhe meaning ‘stream of O’Naeidhe’ after an ancient chieftain – lies some three miles north of central Dublin on the banks of the river Tolka. The earliest settlement is believed to have been a monastery founded in the early sixth century by St Mobhi but by the early 800s the land had become a farm for Christ Church Cathedral and remained such until the sixteenth century Reformation with the accompanying dissolution of monasteries, after which Glasnevin’s monastery fell into ruin.

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The upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries saw the lands of Glasnevin pass in and out of the control of Christ Church Cathedral until their ownership returned to government. Finally in 1703 a large portion of Glasnevin was bought by the wealthy merchant and politician Sir John Rogerson, whose name is commemorated by the quay on the south bank of the Liffey. Born c.1648 in Holland (whence his father had followed the future Charles II into exile), Rogerson initially lived in London but by 1674 had moved to Dublin where he was listed as a parishioner of St Andrew’s church off Dame Street. The following decade he became an Alderman and in 1693 was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin, acquiring a knighthood in the same year. The reason for his riverside commemoration is that in 1712 Rogerson, by that date also an MP, leased 133 acres along the south banks of the Liffey and there constructed a wall and quay stretching as far as the mouth of the Dodder, making it the largest and most important privately funded development in the embankment of the city. Of more interest to us, some ten years earlier Rogerson was already sufficiently affluent to buy land at Glasnevin where, on the outskirts of a hamlet that had grown up in the vicinity of the old monastery, he built a country retreat called The Glen or Glasnevin House.

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At least some of the residence built by Sir John Rogerson likely survives within the walls of the present Glasnevin House but long subsumed into a larger property. It has been proposed on more than one occasion that the architect of this building, commissioned by the wealthy merchant’s son, another John Rogerson (later Lord Chief Justice of Ireland for fourteen years until his death in 1741) was Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Mention of Pearce has been made here more than once (most recently, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th last). In the 2001 edition of the Irish Arts Review, Jeremy Williams argued strongly that Glasnevin House was designed by Pearce who extended a small farmhouse on the site. The farmhouse would have been in the eastern wing (that is, to the right-hand in the first photograph), which was raised by a storey. Unfortunately this portion of the building was reconstructed more than half a century ago. However originally it would have matched the wing to the west. Between these is a recessed three-bay entrance dominated by a monumental pedimented doorframe (it was changed to a window when modifcations were made to the building by the Holy Faith nuns around 1874). On the other side of the building, Williams argued, a similar arrangement prevailed, again presenting the building as being of two-storeys over basement. Side elevations reveal a third mezzanine floor between ground and first, just as can be found at Bellamont Forest, County Cavan, which has long been attributed to Pearce. And like Bellamont, Glasnevin enjoys a lofty entrance hall with coved ceiling (the green painted room above).

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When the second John Rogerson died in 1741, since he had no sons his estate was divided between daughters with the elder, Elizabeth – wife of Abraham Creighton, first Lord Erne – inheriting Glasnevin. By 1748 the house was occupied by John Putland, a keen bibliophile who would serve as treasurer of the Dublin Society. How long Putland remained in residence is open to question because a couple of decades later Glasnevin House passed into the hands of banker and politician Hugh Henry Mitchell. At some point during this period the building underwent major structural changes, most likely both extended and redecorated at the same time. A cantilevered mahogany staircase was inserted into the west wing and on the ground floor two large reception rooms created looking southwards across gardens that dropped to the Tolka (Mitchell was a noted horticulturalist). It is the redecoration then undertaken that engages us now since despite severe subsequent modifications to the exterior Glasnevin House’s mid-18th century interiors have survived intact. And the preservation of its sumptuous plasterwork is especially gratifying because this is now attributed to the St Peter’s Stuccodore discussed here a fortnight ago (see Spirituality as Spectacle, December 8th last). The entrance and stair halls, upper landing, a small first-floor room and most notable the two ground floor reception rooms show the hand of a master craftsman at work. To quote from An Insular Rococo (Timothy Mowl and Brian Earnshaw, 1999), ‘thick, swirling slices of rocaille loop and bend in an assertive symmetry of hard, serrated arcs. Sometimes, always in twinned balance, these sprout acanthus leaves to assert an organic life, but here the rocaille outnumbers the acanthus in a ratio of five to one…To take the place of the usual linking acanthus there are flower trails of daisies and roses linking and dangling from the rocaille extremities in florist’s shop profusion…here the plasterwork enriches, it does not overwhelm, it has become heavyweight Rococo, not transitional Baroque.’

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Although by the same hand, the decoration of each space is treated differently. This is most apparent in the smaller of the two reception rooms where the ceiling has been compartmentalised ‘with ribs of paterae and guilloche,’ to cite Mowl and Earnshaw again. They continue, ‘A few of the compartments have flower swags but all the stress of the room is on its divisions.’ Here and elsewhere in the house the plasterwork is dated to around 1760 but already by that date it was anachronistic, especially so close to Dublin where fashionable taste already preferred a lighter touch. Thus the decoration of Glasnevin House is a last spirited flourish of the European Baroque spirit, confident even in the face of defeat. The vast cartouche-like panels found on the walls of the stair hall are out of proportion for the space but executed with an irrepressible exuberance that somehow overcomes – or perhaps overwhelms – all spatial handicaps.
There were once many more such houses found in the greater Dublin area – Delville, the home of Dr Patrick and Mrs Delany stood on an adjoining site – but almost all of them have been lost (Delville was demolished in 1951). This makes the preservation of Glasnevin all the more remarkable, and precious. In the early 19th century the property was acquired by the Rev. Charles Lindsay, Anglican Bishop of Kildare whose heirs sold it to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1853. Twelve years later Glasnevin House passed into the ownership of the Holy Faith nuns who have have remained there ever since. The fluctuating needs of the order, which has run novitiates and schools on the site, required additional buildings and as a result severely compromised the original house. Yet somehow the greater part of its interior remains, an unexpected and remarkable example of Irish 18th century craftsmanship. Glasnevin House demonstrates that superficial appearances can be deceptive.

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Awaiting the Saviour

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This little gem of Greek Revival architecture looks as though Scotland should be its natural habitat. In fact the building can be found in central North Dublin on Sean McDermott (formerly Lower Gloucester Street) and was originally built as a Presbyterian church. The architect responsible, Duncan C Ferguson, is thought to have been of Scottish origin, which would explain the choice of style since its date of construction – 1846 – is rather late for Greek Revival. The granite façade features a tetrastyle pedimented portico with four fluted Doric columns below a frieze with Greek lettering. On either side are single-storey wings with tapered square-headed doors (see below). The church does not appear to have served its original purpose for long and by 1900 had been converted into a flour store. Thereafter it underwent further changes of use before being left to dereliction and once the interior was gutted by fire (seemingly in the 1980s) all but the façade was demolished. About ten years ago another structure devoid of architectural interest was erected to the rear. Since then the remains of Ferguson’s work have languished in an area where few instances of good design can be found; somehow it has survived and still awaits a saviour.

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For the Present III

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In 1972 Mariga Guinness claimed that Ireland ‘has more follies to the acre than anywhere else in the world.’ The assertion has yet to be verified (has anyone actually traversed every acre of the country in search of follies?) but we certainly have our ample share of these whimsical edifices. Some research on the subject has been published but usually of an academic nature and with no spirit of the playfulness which inspired the typical folly’s construction. For surely the essence of such a building’s character lies in its name, with the implication of common sense being absent and fun gaining the upper hand.
What a treat, therefore, to find a book which celebrates the irrational, glorifies the absurd and encourages the downright nonsensical. Fabulous Follies of Ireland is a collaboration between author William Laffan and illustrator Nesta FitzGerald. It explores fifteen of the country’s follies, some of them like the Casino at Marino (shown above) widely known, others such as McDermott’s Castle at Rockingham, County Roscommon insufficiently appreciated. And it does so with just the right balance of erudition and wit, ensuring readers are as much entertained as informed. The book is published by the Irish Georgian Society, the emblem of which – the Conolly Folly, County Kildare – can be seen below. It costs €7.50, making this a fabulous folly anyone can afford.

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