Vanishing into the Clouds

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Sufficiently spooky for Halloween: the spire of the former Presbyterian church in Clonakilty, County Cork. On a plot of land leased from the town’s then-owner the fourth Earl of Shannon, this dressed limestone building was completed in 1861. The tower is its most distinctive feature, the spire’s onset marked by a gargoyle at each corner. Since 1924 the site has served as Clonakilty’s post office.

Sinuosity and Swagger

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Often seen, seldom noticed: the lead statues above rusticated granite gateways flanking the Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle’s Upper Yard. Designed by John van Nost the Younger (d.1780) and dating from 1753, they represent Justice and Fortitude: the former, as was often noted by wags in the past, resolutely turns her back on the city. Both have all the sinuosity and swagger of the rococo era, Fortitude in particular might have stepped straight out of a Tiepolo canvas. They are especially precious as the only remaining examples of van Nost’s public art (other work, such as the equestrian statue of George II that once stood in the centre of St Stephen’s Green, having long since been blown up or removed).

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On the Town X

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Mountmellick, County Laois is typical of many Irish towns in possessing a more distinguished past than its present circumstances would suggest. Originally a 15th century settlement beside the Owenass river, it underwent expansion after the second half of the 17th century when a number of Quakers arrived in the area. In 1659 the founder of the Society of Friends in this country, a former soldier called William Edmundson came to live close to Mountmellick, soon followed by several other members of the same faith. As a result of their presence and their industry, the town flourished and expanded as a centre for diverse industries so that in the 18th century it came to be known as the ‘Manchester of Ireland.’ In the years prior to the Great Famine of the 1840s, Mountmellick’s population grew to more than 4,500 the majority of them working in tanning and textile businesses run by such Quaker families as the Goodbodys and Pims. At the start of the 19th century there were three large mills and five breweries in the town, and employment provided by these supported the local population. In the mid-1820s a lace-making cottage industry was also initiated in Mountmellick and enjoyed similar success. Needlework was already being taught to girls attending the Quaker school in the town. This had opened in the centre of Mountmellick in 1786 and provided education for both sexes, albeit with different curricula. A government report of 1858 declared the institution ‘deserved the utmost praise and was the most credible managed school of its kind in Ireland.’ Before the end of the 19th century however, boys were being sent instead to Newtown, County Waterford and in 1921 the girls school was sold to the Roman Catholic Presentation Order of nuns.

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Like most of the Quaker families which first brought them into existence, the industries encouraging Mountmellick’s original growth have long since disappeared. Yet evidence of the town’s former prosperity can be found in abundance, not least in the central O’Connell Square, formerly known as Drogheda Square after the Moore family, Earls of Drogheda who owned land in the area. This is lined with large houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries and testifies to Mountmellick’s commercial success. So too do many other buildings discovered on surrounding streets, such as the courthouse dating from 1839, a former town hall (now used as a parish hall) of some thirty years later and a Masonic Hall. The different religious denominations once found in the town are all recorded through their diverse properties including a Church of Ireland church which in its present form was built in 1828 to replace an earlier structure. In addition to the large Roman Catholic church, there is also a Methodist chapel, a former Presbyterian church (today a guest hostel), and naturally a large Quaker Meeting House. This however, has long since ceased to be used for its original purpose and is now a Church of Ireland Youth Hall. But the importance of the Quakers to Mountmellick’s development has not been forgotten, with a festival to their memory being held in the town last July. The local community clearly recognizes the benefits of living with such a distinguished history: preserving and celebrating its heritage surely represents one of Mountmellick’s best chances of enjoying a buoyant future. It is unlikely the industries of old will ever return and the town risks becoming a backwater while larger centres of population in the region like Portlaoise expand. Much of the old town remains – albeit in places falling into disrepair – and this ought to be promoted as a prime tourist destination for the Midland region. Compared with many other similar towns around the country Mountmellick is doing well but it has the potential to do even better.

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Apologies for this somewhat truncated On the Town: the Irish Aesthete has been on the road in the USA for the past week. Normal postings resume hereafter…

Vaulting Ambition

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Mention has been made recently of George IV’s visit to Ireland in 1821, and the time he spent with his mistress Lady Conyngham in Slane Castle, County Meath. Here is a view of the ceiling in the castle’s saloon on which – if any horizontal position was assumed during the time spent there – he likely gazed. The history of the building’s construction and decoration is complex, and seems to have involved a number of architects. It has been proposed that an amalgam of Francis Johnston and Thomas Hopper was responsible for the design of the saloon, its historically inaccurate but delightful Gothic dome from c.1813 featuring twenty miniature fan vaults which lie between the same number of ribs all leading to a central boss from which is suspended the single candelabra.

All in the Head

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Likely unspotted by most visitors to St Malachy’s in Hillsborough, County Down, beneath each window is inserted a sandstone head, each one different from the other . Seemingly the site of the present church has been used as a place of worship since 1636, with the outline of the present building dating from 1663. The church as seen today was reconstructed incorporating older walls by Wills Hill, first Marquis of Downshire between 1760 and 1772 before being open for worship the following year. Yet these heads, in a different stone from that used elsewhere and some of them well worn by the elements, suggest reuse from an even older church? No doubt a reader – perhaps someone who worships at St Malachy’s today – can provide an explanation.

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A Fitting Tribute to the Past

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One of the most persistent myths in this country is that 17th and 18th century legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws was specifically anti-Irish. This was not the case. A similar series of laws was also passed by the Parliament in London and with the same aim: to place at disadvantage anyone, regardless of nationality, not a member of the Established (that is Anglican) Church. From the second half of the 17th century onwards in England, Wales and Scotland, as in Ireland, all non-conformists were excluded from civil and military office, and were not permitted to receive a degree from the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. England’s Corporation Act of 1661, for example, obliged all municipal officials to take Anglican communion thereby ensuring non-conformists were unable to hold public office. The Act of Uniformity introduced the following year made the Anglican Book of Common Prayer compulsory at religious services (over 2,000 clergy found it impossible to comply with this obligation and accordingly resigned their positions). The Penal Laws were harsh towards denominations other than Roman Catholic. Presbyterians for example found it just as challenging to practice their faith and this explains why so many members of the sect (estimated to have been more than 400,000) having moved to Ulster in order to escape persecution, during the 18th century emigrated to colonial America where they were able to enjoy greater religious liberties.

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It is true that for a long time Roman Catholics were looked upon with particular suspicion by successive British governments. This was at least in part because the Papacy forbade Catholics from taking the Oath of Supremacy which declared the English monarch to be rightful head of that country’s church; even without state legislation Catholics thus debarred themselves from holding public office since swearing the oath was a legal requirement for anyone wishing to do so. The Act of Settlement passed in 1701 by the English parliament remains in force to the present day, and continues to prevent a member of that country’s royal family from becoming or marrying a Catholic and still retaining rights of succession. The English, like the Irish, can have long memories: until the 19th century they would recall Regnans in Excelsis, the bull issued by Pius V in 1570 which declared Elizabeth I to be a heretic and released her subjects from allegiance to the queen, as well as summarily excommunicating anyone who had obeyed her orders. And even today they remember the Gunpowder Plot, the 410th anniversary of which falls in a few weeks’ time: that occasion in November 1605 when a group of Roman Catholics planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament by James I. Even though anti-Catholic legislation was gradually repealed or allowed to fall into abeyance, as late as 1780 hostility against Catholics was virulent in some quarters. In that year and in reaction to the Papists Act of 1778 the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots broke out in London; the resultant looting and destruction was more serious than any civil disturbance since seen in the English capital.

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Despite the many disadvantages under which they suffered, not least grave financial penalties, some Roman Catholic families in England, Wales and Scotland continued to practise their faith and to hold onto their property. Known as Recusants owing to their refusal to attend Anglican services, the story of their survival was told by Mark Bence-Jones in his 1992 book The Catholic Families. This is by way of a preamble to noting that likewise in Ireland even in the face of the Penal legislation a number of old Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman families somehow managed to hold onto both their religion and their land. The history of some of them can in turn be read in the 1997 book Grace’s Card: Irish Catholic Landlords 1690-1800 by Charles Chenevix Trench (whose great-grandfather had been Anglican Archbishop of Dublin from 1863-1886). The Prestons, who as Lords Gormanston were bearers of the oldest vicomital title in Britain and Ireland retained their estate in County Meath, as did the Plunketts who as Earls of Fingall held the premier earldom in this country. Other untitled families likewise kept some, if not all of their former lands. The Hiberno-Norse Deases are known to have settled in what is now Westmeath in the second half of the 13th century. There they remained until the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries during which they were dispossessed on several occasions, yet kept returning to their ancestral estate. Throughout this and subsequent eras, and regardless of the rigour of the Penal Laws to which they like everyone else was subject, they also remained true to the Roman Catholic faith of their forebears. Among their number, Thomas Dease served as Catholic Bishop of Meath from 1622-51 having previously acted as rector of the Irish seminary in Paris.

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In the first years of the 19th century the Deases built a new house on the site of an earlier property. Called Turbotstown this Greek-revival building’s design has long been attributed to the prolific Francis Johnston and indeed aspects of Turbotstown bear similarities to other examples of his work. The cut-limestone exterior is severe, of three bays and two storeys with a central Ionic columned porch marking the entrance: a first floor Wyatt window is of the same width as the half-glazed double doors beneath. To one side is a lower two-storey wing which then wraps around to incorporate a service yard: in part of this can be found the Deases’ former private chapel where presumably they worshipped prior to providing the land for the construction of a Roman Catholic church nearby. The main block has a dignified simplicity which emphasises the generous proportions of the high-ceilinged rooms. The house’s most striking feature is its inner hall, the centre of its ceiling opening to a first-floor circular gallery above which in turn rises an octagonal lantern which provides light for otherwise windowless areas. In an adjoining double-height space the cantilevered staircase lit by a large arched window on the return has decorative wrought-iron balusters supporting a mahogany handrail. Indeed space and grace are the two distinguishing features of Turbotstown. Although the Deases ceased to occupy the house in the last century and it passed for a period into other hands, eleven years ago it was bought back by descendants of the family. Since then the present owners have been engaged in the restoration of Turbotstown, a fitting tribute to an old Irish Roman Catholic family which remained in possession of its property throughout the dark days of the Penal Laws and beyond.

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Fragmentary Evidence

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An 18th century door sidelight currently to be seen on the premises of Bonhams at 31 Molesworth Street, Dublin. It is one of a number of items of architectural salvage collected by conservationist and painter Peter Pearson who for decades has been assiduously saving such fragmentary evidence from historic properties which would otherwise have been demolished or allowed to fall down without any record being kept of their decoration. For his work in this field, Mr Pearson is himself something of a national treasure, albeit one far too insufficiently appreciated. The show in Bonhams (which continues until next Wednesday, October 21st) features a number of his own fine architectural pictures alongside many more rescued artefacts, not least the diversity of 18th century dado rails shown below.

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