Stripped Back

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There are advantages to seeing a house like Lambay Castle, County Dublin in the depths of winter. During the rest of the year, the handsome layout of the surrounding gardens is inclined to distract attention from the ingenuity of Edwin Lutyens’ early 20th century design, the manner in which he enfolded an older building into the larger property, melding the two so thoroughly that without awareness of his plans it is difficult to recognise where one ends and the other begins. Likewise, his clever integration of different floor levels on this site becomes clearer during the present period when plants are cut back and the eye can focus more clearly on the house’s structural rhythm.

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Simple Pleasures

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As a rule the focus of architectural heritage is on historic properties with a distinguished, and traceable, pedigree. An unintended consequence of this approach is that across the country the fate of many secondary, vernacular buildings is overlooked and they are permitted to fall into ruin. Many of these, however, have their own inherent beauty even if not always so obviously apparent. Here are two views of an old rubble stone barn in County Meath. Like thousands of others it is entirely functional, even mundane and yet possessed of a distinctive character that deserves to be cherished.

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A Diligent Divine

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Those early Irish saints seem to have been an astonishingly sedulous lot. When not rushing from one side of the country to another so as to convert any remaining pagans to Christianity, they were founding monasteries which, almost without fail, soon attracted thousands of followers. Such apparently was the case with Máel Anfaid (Mael the Prophet), a son of Cathal MacHugh, King of Munster and disciple of St Carthage, who in the first quarter of the sixth century like so many of his ilk diligently established a religious house. In this instance the spot chosen was an island called Dair Inis (Isle of the Oak) in the river Blackwater, County Waterford. Naturally the enterprise flourished and by the early 8th century Molana, as the island had been renamed, was a centre for the Céili Dé (the Servants of God), a reforming group determined to improve standards in the Irish church. Around the year 720 Molana’s Abbot, Ruben Mac Connadh in conjunction with Cu-Chuimne of Iona, produced the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis. This work laid out the rules of Canon Law, drawing on earlier texts and regulations, and was widely circulated throughout the rest of Europe over following centuries. Molana is also believed to have housed the first proper library in Ireland, although none of the original manuscripts is known to have survived. As usual, the Vikings were at fault: on their way upriver towards Lismore and other rich settlements they regularly caused havoc on Molana. By the 11th century these despoliations, plus flooding caused by the Blackwater being tidal at this stretch, had effectively obliterated Máel Anfaid’s once-thriving monastery.

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The island’s circumstances improved around the time of the arrival of the Normans. Nearby a castle was erected at Templemichael, possibly by the Knights Templar who would take care the adjacent monastery was not subjected to further attacks. Then this part of the country came under the authority of one of Strongbow’s knights, Raymond ‘le Gros’ FitzGerald, described by Giraldus Cambrensis as “very stout, and a little above the middle height…and, although he was somewhat corpulent, he was so lively and active that the incumbrance was not a blemish or inconvenience.’ Around this time the island was given to the Augustinian Canons who would remain there until the 16th century watching over the tomb of Raymond who died around 1186. The buildings were extensively reconstructed in the 13th and 14th centuries and once more the community thrived. However, again as was common throughout the country, the 15th century brought trouble, with the abbot John McInery accused of simony, perjury and immorality: Pope Nicholas V deposed him in 1450. By By 1462 it was reported that although the Augustinian friars were caring for many poor and sick their buildings were in poor condition. Perhaps for this reason that same year Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to pilgrims visiting Molana on certain feast days and offering forgiveness of sins to all who contributed towards its repair and upkeep. Come the 1540s and the Reformation, a crown report on the establishment stated it comprised a church, cloister and all that was necessary for the operation of agriculture including 380 acres of land, three weirs for catching salmon and a water mill, the whole having a value of £26 and fifteen shillings. Initially ownership of the island was given to James FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond but following the family’s rebellion against the English authorities it was reclaimed by the English authorities.
Molana was initially leased to an English sea merchant called John Thickpenny but a few years after his death in 1583 Queen Elizabeth granted it to Sir Walter Raleigh who owned adjoining land in Youghal. He in turn consigned it to his confidant, the astronomer, mathematician and ethnographer Thomas Hariot who it is sometimes said spent some time living on the island in what remained of the old monastery and working on various scientific theories. In 1601 Raleigh sold his entire Irish estate to that great adventurer Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork. A decade later Boyle gifted Molana and adjacent mainland of Ballynatray to his brother-in-law Captain Richard Smyth whose family would remain in residence there for some 350 years.

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The Smyths first built a castellated house but this was destroyed during the rebellion of 1641 and half a century later a Dutch-gabled building was erected on the same site. That was in turn replaced by the present house during the last decade of the 18th century. Designed by Alexander Dean of Cork the building is of eleven bays and two storeys over basement. Its situation with superlative views down river explain why at the start of the 19th century the Smyths decided to undertake work on Molana. First of all a causeway was constructed linking the island was to the mainland. This allowed ease of access to the picturesque ruins where certain structural changes were made, notably the insertion of a pointed arch entrance on the north side of the church. The building rightly dominates the site, measuring more than 55 feet with an undivided nave and chancel, the former being the oldest part of the building (12th century) and possibly incorporating an earlier church here. The 13th century chancel has ten large lancet windows, six to the south and four to the north, all almost thirteen feet high and concluding at the east end with a large window which still preserves fragments of the original decorated embrasure. To the immediate north is what remains of a two-story building, likely the prior’s residence, with a pointed doorway and spiral staircase. To the south-west lie the remains of the cloister at the centre of which a sculpture representing the monastery’s originator was erected. A plaque on the plinth below reads ‘This statue is erected to the memory of Saint Molanfidhe who founded this abbey for Canon Regular A.D. 501. He was the first Abbot and is here represented as habited according to the Order of Saint Augustine. This Cenotaph and Statue are erected by Mrs. Mary Broderick Smyth A.D. 1820.’ Elsewhere on the site and beneath a window another plaque was installed reading ‘Here lies the remains of Raymond le Gros, who died Anno Domini 1186.’ Old photographs show a funerary urn on the ledge above but this is no longer in place. Ballynatray – including Molana – has since changed hands on a couple of occasions but it is still possible to understand the place’s charm, not least when standing inside the house and looking upstream towards this romantic reminder of an ancient Irish saint’s sedulousness.

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Getting Ahead

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We are fortunate that so much of the interior decoration has survived in Powerscourt House, Dublin designed in the first half of the 1770s by Robert Mack for Richard Wingfield, third Viscount Powerscourt. The interior of the house has rightly been called ‘schizophrenic’ by Christine Casey owing to a rich and eclectic style derived from a number of hands. The stair hall was decorated by James McCullagh assisted by Michael Reynolds and for work here and in a number of other rooms in the building his bill ran to over £730. An exuberant mélange of arabesque scrolls, urns, acanthus leaves, palms and portrait medallions, the stair hall is one of the city’s most madcap pieces of ornamentation. Unfortunately it is also one of the most difficult to examine, being excessively cluttered with signage and retail bric-a-brac…

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A Triumphal Entrance

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Cloverhill House, County Cavan was shown here some months ago (see A Mere Shell, 9th September 2015), a ruin well on the way to vanishing altogether. Happily its entrance is in better condition, a slim, unadorned ashlar triumphal arch flanked by pedestrian gates. The residnce to which it originally gave access was extended by Francis Johnston in 1799, so one imagines the arch dates from the same period. The side gates need to be cleared of overgrowth if they are not to go the way of the old house.

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Man Proposes, But…

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Reference was made here some weeks ago to the Board of First Fruits (see Made Better by Their Presents II, December 12th 2015). Although it had a considerable impact on the Irish landscape in the 18th and early 19th century, this organization is today little known. To reiterate briefly, the board was established in 1711 to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. First funded by a tax on clerical incomes from 1778 onwards it received grants given by the Irish Parliament, after 1785 this being a yearly sum of £5,000. Following the Act of Union, this country’s Anglican clergy became absorbed into the newly-formed United Church of England and Ireland and thereafter the amount of money made available to the Board of First Fruits rose: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808, soared to £60,000 between 1810-16 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. As a result of this money, the Church of Ireland was able to embark on a building spree: in the first quarter of the 19th century almost 700 churches were either newly constructed or renovated, along with 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. While the entire country benefitted from this programme, there were regional variations depending on the level of engagement by whoever was then in charge of a diocese. Among the most committed to the scheme was Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Bishop of Meath for a quarter-century (1798-1823). O’Beirne is a fascinating character. Born into a Roman Catholic family in County Longford, initially he studied for the Catholic priesthood at the Jesuit seminary in St Omer, France: his younger brother Denis was there at the same time and completed his studies (the siblings would later serve in the same parish of Templemichael, Longford, Thomas as rector and Denis as parish priest). A breakdown in health led Thomas to England where he converted to Anglicanism and attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Highly intelligent, industrious and devotedly loyal to the Church of Ireland, he was appointed first to the Diocese of Ossory in 1795 before being transferred to Meath three years later. During his long episcopate, he embarked on an improvement of both clergy and buildings in the diocese, a schedule of work which has been thoroughly investigated by Mary Caroline Gallagher in her 2009 doctoral thesis on the subject.

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Exhibiting the customary fervour of the convert, O’Beirne believed incumbents ought to be resident in their parishes (not something which had hitherto been universally the case) and services should be held in churches that were structurally sound and, appropriately designed and maintained. Hence his keen interest in improving both clergymen’s homes and places of worship. He was fortunate in his timing, his period as Bishop of Meath coinciding with the Board of First Fruits having most money to distribute, commonly through a mixture of grants and loans to parishes (which on occasion had the effect of saddling parishioners with long-term debt). Today we look at two Meath churches that underwent redevelopment in O’Beirne’s time. The first of these (top and above) is St Patrick’s at Castletown-Kilpatrick. There was a mediaeval church on this site and parts of it were incorporated into the newer building, in particular over the east window a portion of what is believed to be a 15th century tomb stone showing a woman in prayer. There are also two old arched windows on the second floor of the belltower and a stone head that projects from the wall of the church. These were presumably rescued by the man responsible for the building’s refurbishment, whose name features in a stone plaque over the doorcase (which also looks to be older than the main body of the church). The plaque reads ‘This Church was Rebuilt by Order of The Rigt. Honb. & Rt. Revd. Th. Lewis Lord Bishop of Meath. The Revd. Robt. Longfield Rector. Henry Owens Esqr. & Henry Liscoe, ChurchWardens. Robt. Wiggins Builder. A.D; 1820.’ The cost of the project was £467 and four years later a glebe house was also constructed to the immediate south at a cost of £1,107, this work financed by a Board of First Fruits loan. Declining numbers of worshippers meant that by the third quarter of the last century it had become difficult to sustain the church, which closed for services in the mid-1960s. The glebe house had already been sold and demolished around 1945.

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Just a few miles south of Castletown-Kilpatrick stands St Sinch’s, Kilshine (above and below). According to legend St Abbán, whose father was a king of Leinster, founded a convent here and placed at its head a holy virgin called Sinche or Sineach, the church being called Cill-Sinche (thus the Anglicised name Kilshine). By the 18th century this building had fallen into poor repair and so a new church was built in 1815 at a cost of £1,600 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits. As at St Patrick’s the occasion was commemorated with a plaque: ‘The rebuilding and restoring of this Parish Church, after it had laid in ruin for upwards of a century, were the effects of the pious exertions of that excellent Prelate, the Right Honourable and Most Reverend Father in God, Doctor Thomas Lewis O’Beirne, Lord Bishop of Meath, who in the conscientious discharge of the functions of his high and important office not only caused many other churches in this Diocese to be rebuilt and restored, but procured for that most respectable Body, the Reverend the Parochial Clergy, residences and glebes within their respective Livings, suitable as far as it was possible to their situations, thereby enabling them duly to discharge the duties of Resident Protestant Clergymen, and to dispense to their parishioners of that persuasion the invaluable comforts of Our Blessed Religion. Aided by a pecuniary grant of 1,600 from the Board of First Fruits obtained through the intercession of His Lordship the Bishop of Meath.’ Let it not be thought the work of Bishop O’Beirne went unrecorded. But once more declining attendance numbers meant St Sinch’s had closed for services by 1958 after which its monuments were removed: today both here and St Patrick’s, Castletown-Kilpatrick are united with the church at Donoughpatrick where services continue to be held. Meanwhile tangible evidence of the efforts of Thomas Lewis O’Beirne and the Board of First Fruits to ensure the Church of Ireland had a long-term future looks to be irreparably vanishing. It seems only a matter of time before both these churches, and many more beside, vanish from the countryside altogether. Truly as Thomas à Kempis advised ‘Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.’

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Attention to Detail

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Viewing an old building, one is often so engaged absorbing the totality that details of design can be overlooked. How many visitors to Ballyvolane, County Cork, for example, pay much attention to the stairs? This house, originally built in 1728 by Sir Richard Pyne, was extensively modified in the second half of the 1840s by a descendant, Jasper Pyne. Evidently a new staircase was one of his additions but note how on the side of every tread is affixed a cast-iron putto in each of whose fists can be found a nail holding one of the balusters in place.

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