The 15th century de Burgo tower house which forms the core of Tulira Castle, County Galway. This was one of a number of country houses acquired by new owners during the course of 2015, significant others including Bellamont Forest, County Cavan and Capard, County Laois. But many others remain on the market, such as Milltown Park, County Offaly, Newhall, County Clare, Kilcooley, County Tipperary and Furness, County Kildare, all of which have been discussed here on earlier occasions. Let us hope the coming year is kind to them and all of Ireland’s architectural heritage.
In early February 1779 the church at Coolbanagher, County Laois, an old building of rough stone with straw-thatched roof, was maliciously set on fire and reduced to ruin. That same year the Hon John Dawson succeeded his father as second Viscount Carlow (he would be created first Earl of Portarlington in 1785). A man of considerable cultural interests, Lord Carlow played a key role in encouraging James Gandon to come to Ireland. When the English architect did so in 1781 he was duly invited to his patron’s country residence, Dawson Court which lay close by Coolbanagher: Lady Carlow’s correspondence records Gandon being with the family over Christmas 1781, together with the local rector, her brother-in-law the Rev. William Dawson. The following spring work began on a new church at Coolbanagher, designed by Gandon. Work progressed relatively slowly. In November 1783 Lord Carlow wrote to his wife, then in London, ‘The church has been neglected but now gets on apace, and I believe I shall have the whole body of it fit for roofing before the winter sets in. I shall not, however, put on the roof till spring.’ A month later, he advised her, ‘I have concluded my work at the church for this season. It will make a very conspicuous object to the new house and to the whole province of Leinster.’ Further time passed before Lady Carlow wrote in March 1785 to her sister, a regular correspondent, ‘We are going to have great doings here next week. The new church is to be consecrated on Tuesday; the Bishop and all the clergy in the neighbourhood are to attend, besides all the country, I suppose, and Lord Carlow will ask them all to dinner both on that day and on the next, as there are races within three miles of us. I own I am sorry to begin with this sort of work so soon, but there is no help for it.’ Shortly afterwards Gandon also designed a mausoleum for his patron and this lies to the immediate south of the building (see Preparing for the End last Wednesday, December 23rd).
During a visit to Ireland in 1792 the English judge George Hardinge visited this part of the country and observed that Lord Carlow ‘has just built a most beautiful Church for his Parish upon his own Architecture and Wyatt himself might own it with pride as a work of his.’ Despite this mis-attribution, the church of St John the Evangelist in Coolbanagher has long been judged Gandon’s work, not least because a number of preparatory sketches from his hand survive which appear to show the evolution of ideas for the building. The initial concept suggests the entire church was intended as a kind of mausoleum, with a sarcophagus altar at the east end. This scheme was abandoned (and the more modest Portarlington Mausoleum erected immediately outside the building) and instead one adopted not unlike the courthouse concourse Gandon had designed for Nottingham a decade earlier. Everything from vestibule to vestry is contained within a single compact space, with the nave measuring a neat thirty feet wide by sixty feet long. This chamber is divided into three compartments articulated by alternate piers and niches, the former being carried up and across the barrel vaulted ceiling. Light is provided by Diocletian windows on the upper walls, these flanked by draped medallions. An arched and bow-fronted gallery at the west end was supported on slender Doric columns while presumably the altar table stood below a similar arch to the east. As Edward McParland has commented, stripped of all superfluous ornament, ‘when Coolbanagher was consecrated in 1785, there was no more nobly simple nor any more calmly grand church in the country.’ A view of the interior attributed to James Malton shows the building as Gandon intended (see above, the three figures in the foreground are supposed to represent the architect, Lord Carlow and the Rev. William Dawson).
Visitors to Coolbanagher church can still gain a sense of Gandon’s design, although this has since been the subject of some alteration. During the 19th century evangelical revival, the building must have seemed rather too pagan in character: more Roman bath (those Diocletian windows) than place of Christian worship. There also appear to have been problems with the roof, since it had to be repaired in 1822 and again in 1827. Radical alteration occurred in 1865 when, working on plans commissioned from Thomas Drew, a decision was taken by the rector and vestry to create an enlarged semi-circular chancel accessed by railings and containing a pulpit, reading desk and altar; the arch was given some gothic-spirited carvings presumably at the same date. Out too went the theatre-box gallery, and the old box pews, supposedly ‘to afford increased accommodation in the Church, so as to leave the aisle clear – which is at present inconveniently crowded.’ Finally the barrel ceiling went for good, replaced by the present pitched roof with exposed wood beams. More recently and reverting to the site’s original spirit, the late Major Cholmeley-Harrison commissioned urns (which were designed by Gandon but may never have been made) to be placed in the nave niches. Today the building represents a clash of cultures (not helped by the present colour scheme) in which Enlightenment idealism does battle with religious dogma, neither emerging victorious. Even so, Coolbanagher church remains, as Lord Carlow intended, a ‘very conspicuous object’ to the whole province of Leinster, if not to the entire country.
In the depths of grey winter, a memory of six months ago, and a distant view of Kilcrea Castle, County Cork. This five storey tower house was completed by 1465 by Cormac Láidir Mór, then-head of the McCarthy clan. As Coyne and Wills wrote in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1841), ‘The ruins evince it to have been a place of considerable extent and rude magnificence.’ Although today on private land, the castle is regularly explored by visitors to the area, as testified by a well-worn path through the field.
Looking across the river Boyne, a view of Donaghpatrick parish church, County Meath. On an ancient site (as the name implies, the original church is said to have been founded by St Patrick), the building was extensively reconstructed in the 1860s by architect James Franklin Fuller but still incorporates a mediaeval tower. To the right can be seen the charming parish hall of 1890.
The Irish Aesthete wishes all friends and followers a very Happy Christmas.
On the south side of the chancel wall at the church of St John the Evangelist, Coolbanagher, County Laois: the Portarlington Mausoleum. Like the main building, this was designed by James Gandon for John Dawson, second Viscount Carlow, and from 1785 first Earl of Portarlington, a notable patron of the architect. The mausoleum carries the date 1788 but Lord Portarlington did not die until a decade later. An instance of being well prepared for when the end comes…
More on Coolbanagher and its church on Monday.
A week ago the national tourist board, Fáilte Ireland, announced that €60,175 in funding is to be made available to Castle Saunderson, County Cavan. Seemingly this money is part of the organisation’s ‘New ideas in Ancient Spaces’ Capital Grants Scheme for attractions within the Ireland’s Ancient East initiative. The latter scheme was launched by Fáilte Ireland’s last April and ‘seeks to build on the wealth of historical and cultural assets in the east and south of Ireland.’ Leaving aside the fact that Castle Saunderson could never be described as being located in either the east or south of the country (north-midlands might be the simplest summary) one wonders what will be the result of this expenditure. According to Fáilte Ireland, the money ‘will be used to enhance the “on the ground” visitor experience and present the story of Castle Saunderson through the ages. This will be achieved through the development of a new “easy to explore” heritage trail – The Castle Trail. Through interpretative displays, visual art and written interpretation, the story will imaginatively portray the dramatic history and transition of this place as part of Ireland’s Ancient East from free land, through conflict, plantation and the divisive advent of Unionism and the Orange Order to the peaceful coexistence of the present day.’ In other words, the money doesn’t appear to be going towards the restoration of a building on the site which has only fallen into dereliction in the past twenty years and which, with a hint more creativity and resourcefulness, could be restored to serve as a splendid base for the aforementioned ‘on the ground’ visitor experience.
Around the middle of the 17th century the land on which Castle Saunderson stands passed into the hands of one Robert Sanderson whose father, Alexander Sanderson, had come to Ireland as a soldier and settled in County Tyrone. Robert Sanderson had been a Colonel in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and in 1657 served as High Sheriff of County Cavan. On his death in 1675, the estate passed to his eldest son, another Colonel Robert who sat in the Irish House of Commons and married Jane Leslie, a daughter of the Right Rev John Leslie, Bishop of Clogher. The couple had no children and so Castle Saunderson passed to a nephew, Alexander Sanderson. It was the latter’s grandson, another Alexander, who changed the spelling of the family name to Saunderson as part of an ultimately fruitless effort to claim the Castleton peerage of the Saundersons of Saxby, Lincolnshire (the first and last Earl Castleton having died unmarried in 1723). It is his son Francis who is credited with having built the core of the present house. Staunchly anti-Catholic, he is said to have disinherited his eldest son for marrying a member of that faith (or it could have been because she was the daughter of a lodge keeper at Castle Saunderson). So the estate of over 12,000 acres went to a younger son, Alexander. He likewise disinherited his first-born son because he was crippled, and another son who proved rebellious, instead leaving Castle Saunderson to the fourth son, Colonel Edward James Saunderson who, like his forbears, was a Whig politician, and in Ireland leader of the Liberal Unionist opposition to Gladstone’s efforts to introduce some measure of home rule. It appears to have been after the death of his eldest son Somerset Saunderson in 1927 that the family moved out of the house, although they did not sell the property until half a century later.
As has been mentioned, at the core of Castle Saunderson is a classical house built by Francis Saunderson probably around the time of his marriage to Anne White in 1779. In the mid-1830s the building was extensively remodeled in a version of Elizabethan gothic for his son Alexander Saunderson. In December 1835 Nathaniel Clements wrote to Lady Leitrim that he had called by Castle Saunderson where the owner was ‘altering and castellating his house, so I was quite in my element’ The architect responsible for this work is now considered to be George Sudden, who was employed elsewhere in the area, at Lough Fea, County Monaghan and Crom Castle, County Fermanagh, Castle Saunderson displaying certain similarities with the latter (where the original design had been by Edward Blore). This intervention resulted in a bit of a mongrel, the east-facing, two-storey former entrance front retaining long sash windows to either side of a central three-storey castellated tower, its octagonal turrets echoed by lower, square ones at either end of the facade. The north and south fronts are asymmetric, the former having an octagonal entrance tower placed off-centre, the latter featuring a four-bay loggia between two further towers, as well as a substantial service wing at right angles that once incorporated a single-storey orangery. Although unoccupied by the Saundersons, the property was not sold by the family until 1977 when it was bought by a businessman who undertook restoration work. For a period it then became an hotel before being sold again in the 1990s after which fire gutted the house. In 1997 Castle Saunderson and its grounds were acquired by what is now called Scouting Ireland which initially appeared to show interest in restoring the building but eventually chose to construct a new centre elsewhere in the grounds at a cost of some €3.7 million. Meanwhile the old castle has continued to deteriorate: it looks unlikely Fáilte Ireland’s recently-trumpeted initiative will change this situation.
A view of the formal gardens at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, lying directly below the building’s north face. The hospital’s minutes in 1695 note, ‘The garden walls to be arranged so the garden may lie open to the north part…for the greater grace of the house.’ Although the design here is a 20th century reconstruction, it gives an idea of the style of classical garden once common in Ireland but now rarely seen. A recently published book by Vandra Costello, Irish Desmesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 gives an idea of what has been lost, as well as what remains. She rightly chooses 1660 as her starting date, since that was the year Charles II was restored to the throne and his supporters, including James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, returned from mainland Europe. During their years in exile, these royalists had observed the French fashion for gardening epitomised by the work of André Le Nôtre and in due course introduced these ideas to their own countries. These gardens, as Costello observes, were guided by the principle of utile et dulci: the notion that landowners, in addition to following contemporary fashion and devising idealised landscapes in which to enjoy themselves ought at the same time ‘to make their fruit growing endeavours, timber plantations and parklands economically profitable and sustainable as well as aesthetically pleasing.’ Thus the garden at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – the building of which had been initiated by the Duke of Ormond – was expected to provide not just elegant surroundings for the main structure but also produce for its occupants. In the course of her highly informative and elegantly written book, Costello also explodes a few well-cherished myths, such as the notion that the 17th century formal gardens at Kilruddery, County Wicklow, the finest such example remaining in this country, were designed by a Frenchman called Bonnet, possibly a pupil of Le Nôtre himself: this error, she points out, has arisen from confusion over a reference in the papers of Sir William Petty. And she discusses how it was that the classical garden fell out of favour with Irish landowners in the 18th century, noting the process was less attributable to politics – it is often proposed that Tories liked formality while Whigs preferred the ‘natural’ – than to straightforward changes in taste. In her garden at Delville, County Dublin Mrs Delaney, who was unquestionably a Whig, incorporated many elements of the formal style including a bowling green, terrace walk, parterre and orangery. As so often in Irish history, the simple interpretation is rarely correct. A terrific read, and definitely worth adding to every library.
Last Saturday’s post featured the former Church of Ireland place of worship at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny. Immediately adjacent to this are the remains of a large tower house dating from the 15th century. Burnchurch Castle is believed to have been built by a branch of the FitzGerald family and remained in their hands until the mid-17th century when it passed into the possession of the Cromwellian soldier Colonel William Warden. Subsequently owned by the Floods, it remained in use as a residence until the second decade of the 19th century. Rising six storeys, the main building well preserved, although an adjacent great hall has long since disappeared. However, close by is a remnant of the former bawn wall that used to surround the site: a now-free standing castellated turret.
The Irish saint Brendan of Clonfert, otherwise known as Brendan the Voyager, is believed to have been born around 484 near what is now Tralee in County Kerry. Following his baptism, he spent five years studying under St Ita, ‘the St Brigid of Munster’ before being ordained a priest by St Erc in 512. Between that date and 530 he travelled around Ireland preaching, and established monastic foundations at Ardfert and in Shanakeel at the foot of Mount Brandon. He also began to undertake longer journeys, visiting the Arran Islands where he founded another monastery, Brittany and, it is related, Hinba an island of now unknown location off the Scottish mainland where he met St Columcille. His legendary longer boat journey is discussed below, but supposedly on returning from this Brendan was still restless and accordingly went to Wales, and thence to Iona and several other places. After three years’ missionary work in Britain he returned to Ireland, and spent time in the province of Leinster. Thence to Connaught where he founded yet another monastery in Annaghdown, as well as a convent for his sister Briga: here he died in 577. However, concerned lest followers would try to keep his remains, he arranged before death that his corpse be secretly carried away concealed in a luggage cart. He was subsequently buried at Clonfert, County Galway, another religious house he had founded.
St Brendan is known as ‘the Voyager’ owing to a journey he is said to have made with a number of companions, one that took seven years and brought them across the Atlantic to the shores of North America. References to an account of this voyage occur as early as the ninth century although extant texts of the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot) are somewhat later. These describe the journey in considerable detail, outlining how the saint and his intrepid fellow passengers construct a vessel not unlike the Irish curragh (otherwise known as a coracle) and after forty days of prayer and fasting set off in search of a promised land. En route they experience a series of adventures: on one occasion the boat was ‘raised up on the back of sea monsters’, while the group are also recorded as passing by ‘crystals that rose up to the sky’ and being ‘pelted with flaming, foul smelling rocks by the inhabitants of a large island on their route.’ Finally they reached a beautiful land they named the Promised Land of the Saints. After exploring this as far as a great river that divided the land they turned back and slowly returned to Ireland. The Navigatio was well-known in the Middle Ages and cartographers of the period in their attempts to map the world included a place called ‘St Brendan’s Island.’ Following the voyages of Columbus and other seafarers, the story of St Brendan lost veracity, but almost forty years ago in 1976 the explorer Tim Severin determined to see whether such a passage across the Atlantic was feasible. Having constructed a replica of the boat described in the Navigatio, he likewise set off and over the course of more than a year underwent not dissimilar trials before arriving at Newfoundland. Along the way, he and his crew saw icebergs (‘crystals that rose up in the sky’), the volcanoes of Iceland (‘flaming, fold smelling rocks’) and whales (‘sea monsters’), thereby demonstrating the story of St Brendan’s journey to North America was not so fanciful after all.
Such was the fame of St Brendan that the monastery he founded and where he was buried at Clonfert soon became a place of pilgrimage and a centre of study under the authority of an abbot-bishop: at one time, it is claimed, the resident population of monks numbered some three thousand. None of the buildings in which they would have worked and lived now survives. Like many other religious settlements, wealthy but vulnerable, Clonfert was subject to regular attack first by the Vikings and then by Irish chiefs. Nevertheless it continued to thrive: in 1392 the Bishop of Clonfert paid three hundred florins to the Papal Treasury on his appointment, compared to the two hundred florins expected of the Archbishop of Tuam. Following the suppression of the monasteries in the 16th centuries, the cathedral church was retained for worship by the Anglican community (as is still the case) but it has since much shrunk in size and now measures just fifty-four by twenty-seven feet; the Romanesque north transept is in ruins and a Gothic south transept entirely gone. What remains is an enchantment. Inside the building, the most notable feature are the early 13th century east windows and the limestone chancel arch inserted in the 15th century, the latter decorated with various figures including angels and a mermaid holding a mirror. The glory of Clonfert Cathedral is its late 12th century west door, often considered the finest example of Hiberno-Romanesque workmanship extant. Of sandstone, it is in six orders and is densely carved with an extraordinary selection of motifs including foliage, and animal and human heads: the innermost order was added in similar style in the 15th century. Above the doorway, a triangular hood has ten human masks enclosed within small triangles which alternate with other small triangles. Below is a blind arcade of five arches each of which has a human head within it. A wonderful survivor in a part of the midlands of Ireland now little visited, the doorway of Clonfert Cathedral, like the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, serves as testimony to the imagination of the Irish people more than a millennium ago.
Although the Board of First Fruits is no longer much remembered, for more than a century it was an important organization in this country. Established in 1711 during the reign of Queen Anne, the board was devised to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. Initially funded by a tax on clerical incomes, from 1778 onwards the body benefitted from grants given by the Irish Parliament, the amount varying until 1785 after which it received an annual sum of £5,000. Following the abolition of the country’s parliament in 1800, just as Ireland’s elected representatives were more closely bound to their English equivalents, so too were Irish Anglican clergy, thanks to the creation of the United Church of England and Ireland. One consequence of this merger was a substantial increase in money available to the Board of First Fruits: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808 and then climbed to a remarkable £60,000 between 1810-26 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. This largesse led to a massive building boom, with almost 700 churches either constructed or renovated, as well as 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. Of course the Church of Ireland population was never large (just over 10 per cent in the 1831 census) and has steadily declined (today it is less than three per cent), rendering increasing numbers of these buildings surplus to need. Over the past century, parishes have been amalgamated and properties let go, with many churches falling into dereliction. Readers may already be familiar with photographer Tarquin Blake’s previous books including two featuring Abandoned Mansions of Ireland. Now he has produced a new volume Abandoned Churches of Ireland, which contains accounts of 82 properties spread across twenty-five counties. In varying stages of decline, they represent the Church of Ireland’s history from dominant faith – in authority if not in numbers – to minority denomination. Blake’s pictures and text eloquently tell the story of churches like that at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny (seen above and below), its present form dating from 1810 when the Board of First Fruits provided the parish with a grant and loan for this purpose. Built on the site of an older church, it remained in use until 1961 and is now a roofless shell.