In New Hands

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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.

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A Very Conspicuous Object

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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).

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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).

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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.

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A Path Through the Fields

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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.

Seasonal Greetings

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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.

Preparing for the End

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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.

Scouting Around for a Saviour

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Made Better by their Presents III

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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.

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Irish Demesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 by Vandra Costello is published by Four Courts Press, €50.