See and Believe

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One of the lesser-known episodes of Irish history is the Tithe Wars of the 1830s. Tithes, a payment to support the religious establishment and its clergy, had existed in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church but from the 16th century onwards, this obligatory contribution went to the Church of Ireland even though its members were always in a minority of the population. The tithe payment was expected to represent ten per cent of the value of certain kinds of agricultural produce. Prior to the Tithe Composition Act of 1823 it was possible to pay tithes in kind instead of in cash. To complicate matters further, a tithe was not payable on all forms of land, and there was even variation from place to place on the types of land subject to tithes. After legislation passed in 1735, for example, pasture (usually held by landowners rather than tenants) was deemed exempt, while tillage land was not. Likewise only certain produce was judged taxable: potatoes, the most widely grown crop for the majority of the population, could be subject to a tithe in one part of the country and not in others. Following the Composition Act tithes were required to be monetary and surveys were carried out in each parish to assess its likely income. Understandably tithes were much resented, and not just by the majority non-Anglican population. Therefore following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 (popularly known as Catholic Emancipation) it was inevitable the payment of tithes would come under attack.

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In the aftermath of the 1829 act, and with a rise in numbers of Roman Catholic clergy and the construction of many new churches throughout the country – both of these funded by local communities – opposition to the payment of tithes grew. Opposition was further stimulated by the publication of lists of defaulters and orders being issued collection for the seizure of goods and chattels, most often livestock. The first open resistance occurred in March 1831 in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny where the civil authorities unsuccessfully attempted to seize 120 cattle from the local parish priest Fr Martin Doyle: he had arranged for the people of the area to place their livestock in his care. He had the support of a cousin James Warren Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin who famously wrote of the Irish people to Thomas Spring Rice (then-Secretary of the Treasury), ‘An innate love of justice and of indomitable hatred of oppression is like a gem on the front of our nation which no darkness can obscure. To this firm reality I trace their hatred of tithe. May it be as lasting as their love of justice.’ The revolt against tithes soon spread and led to several ugly incidents: in June 1831, for instance, the Irish Constabulary fired on a crowd resisting the seizure of cattle in Bunclody, County Wexford, killing a number of them (the figure cited seems to vary from twelve to eighteen). Three years later in Rathcormac, County Cork a similar incident occurred (over the non-payment of a tithe valued at 40 shillings) which resulted in at least twelve deaths. Eventually in 1838 the Tithe Commutation Act for Ireland was passed. This reduced the amount payable directly by about a quarter and made the remainder payable in rent to landlords who would then pass on the funds to the relevant authorities. In effect, tithes thus became another form of rental payment but the outcome was an end to open confrontation. Tithes were not abolished until the Irish Church Act of 1869 which disestablished the Church of Ireland.

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Astonishingly it was during this troubled period that George de la Poer Beresford, who had been Bishop of Kilmore, County Cavan since 1802, decided to embark on the construction of a new residence for himself and his successors. A bishop’s palace already existed close to the site of the present building; when John Wesley visited in 1787 he declared the earlier house, dating from the early 18th century, ‘is finely situated, has two fronts and is fit for a nobleman.’ But apparently not fit enough for Bishop Beresford who in the mid-1830s commissioned its replacement from the Dublin-born William Farrell. In 1823 the latter had been appointed the Board of First Fruits architect for the Church of Ireland ecclesiastical Province of Armagh (a position he held until 1843) and in this capacity designed a number of churches and other buildings in the region. Accordingly even if Beresford’s wish for a new house seems odd, it made sense for him to use Farrell. One suspects at least part of the reason for this expensive enterprise was so that the bishop could commemorate himself: the tympanum of the façade’s pediment carries the Beresford coat of arms. Writing in 1837, Jonathan Binns harshly passed judgement: ‘The Bishop has lately erected a palce in lieu of the old one. The new palace is built in the Grecian Doric style and covered with Roman cement. It appears too lofty and in other respects is not well proportioned.’ Apparently always known as the See House the building is unquestionably stark, of three storeys over semi-raised basement, its three-bay front is relieved a large limestone porch and flanking Wyatt windows on the ground floor. The garden front is asymmetrical owing to the insertion of an off-centre bay window with another tripartite window to one side but not the other. There are two fine yards, separated by a block with a clock tower.

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The dominant feature of the See House’s interior is height: the ground floor ceilings must rise to some twenty feet. Beyond the porch, a square entrance hall has a circular ceiling supported on pendentives. Then comes the staircase hall from which open a series of reception rooms, all characterized by their severity and scale. Doors and chimneypieces shrink to insignificance in these spaces, as do the ceilings’ modest plasterwork and cornicing. The current empty condition of the building exacerbates this feature but it must always have been an echoing barn. The bifurcating staircase further emphasizes the See House’s overblown proportions, rising to a return lit by a vast round-headed window before climbing up to the spacious landing off which run a succession of bedrooms. The top floor, reached via stone service stairs is equally substantial, its centre gallery lit by a wonderful octagonal lantern. One of the rooms on this level, presumably used as a nursery or schoolroom, has walls painted with trees. Otherwise here, as elsewhere in the building, decoration is minimal. The See House appears to have been occupied by Bishops (since 1841 of the combined dioceses of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh) until the beginning of the present century. It is now in private hands and although not at present occupied has been well maintained. Perhaps the last episcopal residence built by an Anglican cleric in Ireland, the See House is an example of the purpose to which at least some of those much-hated tithes were put.

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26 comments on “See and Believe

  1. Michael says:

    Thank you, as always.
    The Palace, Kilmore was occuppied as the See House ( the slide towards the use of the latter designation in preference to the former appears to have been an early manisfestaion of post -independence lack of nerve ) by successive Anglican Bishops until about fifteen years ago when book-keeping trounced romance.

  2. Sheila Robinson says:

    This is so interesting, Thankyou.
    I was thinking, as I was examining the photographs, of the incredible craftsmanship of the joiners, the carpenters and the stonemasons. They would, I presume, have been local to the area. It must have been a wonderfully noisy industrious creative site to be for a craftsman. Raising a building like this from the ground. I wonder how long it would have taken. And where would all the timber have come from?

    • Thank you for your comments. Yes, the craftsmen involved in a building’s construction are often given insufficient credit in Ireland. So it is right that you draw attention to their work. Most of the materials would have come from the immediate environment: there are, for example, fine trees and woods in the vicinity of Kilmore capable of providing the necessary timber.

      • Ian Elliott says:

        In a tender document issued (sometime after 1843) to prospective contractors for the carrying out of extension works to Ballykilcavan House, Co. Laois, Wm Farrell & Son Archts. specify “Memel timber to be provided for all roofing, lintels, external door frames, sash frames and ground joists. The joisting, tassels and flooring of dining room and principal bedrooms over ditto may be of best red pine timber, the sashes to be cut out of Memel plank, and the flooring of bedrooms of St. John’s deals, and also the corridors. The joiners’ work generally throughout the building may be of white Norway boards, the mouldings and linings of yellow pine.” From the latter half ofthe eighteenth-century, the Baltic ports prospered from the export to Britain and elsewhere of their fine pitch pine timbers. It would appear that the wooden materials selected for the See House, matching those of the Beresford’s sister house at Corravahan (1840), are identical imported timbers.

  3. Thanks, yes I do plan to write on other episcopal palaces (I have given several talks on this subject in the past) as it is a subject of great interest to me. As and when the opportunity to visit and inspect arises…

  4. James Canning says:

    Great piece. One wonders what the palace of the lord bishop looked like, that Beresford replaced.

  5. Andrew McCarthy says:

    To my eye this house is extremely interesting, as it resembles in several aspects the work of James Hoban, the Irish-born architect of the White House.

    Like the See House at Kilmore, Hoban’s initial 1792 design for the White House was three storeys tall, and featured a decreasing 5-4-3 vertical pattern of panes in the fenestration. It also had ceilings 19 feet high on the entry floor, a quirk which was originally meant to keep the best rooms cool in the Maryland summer heat.

    The Imperial stair lit by a tripartite window is common to both designs as well, as are the external flat window heads with their rather Georgian console brackets.

    James Hoban may have returned to Ireland in the 1820s, when he designed Rossenarra House near Kilmoganny. Since Hoban died in 1831, I wonder if it’s possible that William Farrell was in this case executing plans that had been already drawn up.

    • Thank you for your observations which are terribly interesting; I had not thought to make the connections between the See House and the White House.
      With regard to Rossenarra, the link to James Hoban is often made but I wonder on what evidence this is based? Perhaps you know and can advise? In its concept Rossenarra is extremely old-fashioned for the date of its construction, really a throw-back to early 18th century Palladianism, hence the curiosity about who might have been responsible for the design…

      • Andrew McCarthy says:

        Re Rossenarra: besides the traditional attribution, stylistic evidence points to Hoban as the architect. The fenestration style of the See House is found there as well, as you know, but there are more similarities as well.

        Rossenarra has a projecting entry porch at ground level, but the rear facade has a row of full-height Doric pilasters. This use of markedly contrasting orders, for a small entry porch and a much larger portico or pilaster range at back, is a feature of many of Hoban’s houses in the US built after 1800.

        The back of Rossenarra also has a highly unusual odd number of pilasters — five! This trait too shows up from time to time in Hoban’s work, as at Oak Hill in Loudoun County, Virginia, built for ex-President James Monroe.

        The odd (and therefore ‘incorrect’) number of pilasters at Rossenarra is a striking manifestation of a stylistic mannerism which runs throughout Hoban’s work. Edward McParland has made much of this trait in James Gandon’s architecture, and Hoban’s references given to George Washington state that he assisted in the building of Gandon’s Custom House.

        As far as mannerism at the See House — what strikes me about the building is the mis-aligned oval at the rear facade, which is none the less quite elegant.

        Indeed, the rear of the See House could serve just as well as a side front, while the east front would make a passable garden facade; it’s likely a manneristic inversion of sorts. The irregular west front, meanwhile, is another sort of back side: the one not meant to be seen at all by visitors.

        Also, regarding the See House’s bow-ended north front as really the “side” of the building would suggest a kinship with the solitary side bow at Leinster House, whose connection to the White House is well known.

      • My apologies for not replying sooner: I have, not unusually, been travelling. All most informative and helpful, and I much appreciate this additional information. The off-centre rear bow appears to be something of Farrell’s work, since a few years later he did the same thing at nearby Corravahan, built for Bishop Beresford’s son.

  6. charles scott says:

    very interesting thank you. A wonderful building and let us hope that the new owners have deep pockets and will be able to restore it

  7. Such a beautiful house! Are there any plans for it?

  8. Mark Gillespie says:

    This is a fascinating piece – thank you! I visited the See House (we were told it was called the Bishop’s Palace) in the early 1980s as a boy with my family shortly after Bishop Wilson had been installed there.

    My recollection was of a truly vast building, which seems to have been accurate; what with 20′ ceilings on the ground floor!

    The pump in one of the yards was still working at that time. I was probably less than 10 years old when we visited but my sisters who were a little older than me told me afterwards (out of my parents’ earshot!) that one of the bishop’s sons had taken them up onto the roof and they had walked up and down the sills over the tympanum! I was jealous then / not so sure I would be now.

  9. Denis Bergin says:

    As someone familiar with the Hoban achievement, I would greatly doubt that he had anything to do with Rossenarra House, or indeed another residence, the Glebe House at Kells (c. 1830) for the rector of the established church, attributed to him in the Buildings of Ireland database. Rossenarra was, incidentally, the 20th. century home of the author Richard Condon, who wrote a choleric book on its renovation ‘And then we moved to Rossenarra’ (1973). By the 1820s there were many architects available to Kilkenny men of property who wished to build a mansion, and, apart from a few essays in design for his friends, and ongoing work on The President’s House, there is no evidence that Hoban had any continuing connections, commissions or ambitions in the architectural field, locally or internationally. As we now know he was born in 1755 (not 1758 or 1762), he would have been in his late 60s by this stage and not looking for new challenges.

    • Thank you for getting in touch and for your remarks. You will see from an earlier exchange that I asked what evidence existed to link Rossenarra to Hoban, since I am not sure that by this date stylistic similarities are sufficient – even if communications were not as sophisticated in the early 19th century as is now the case, the ability to communicate and share information (and therefore to share new fashions, as much in architecture as anything else) had greatly increased, making it harder to isolate specific design traits as belonging to one person. In other words, I am inclined to share your scepticism…

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