Another Commemoration 

After Monday’s post about St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath, here is an image of another monument in the same part of the world: the obelisk in the grounds of Killua Castle. It was erected in 1810 by Sir Thomas Chapman to honour the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh who supposedly first introduced the potato into Ireland in 1589; the Chapmans originally came to this country thanks to the support of Raleigh who was a maternal first cousin.

Community Spirit

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The word community is now much bandied about: it has become the easy-to-reach generic term whenever a group of people needs to be described collectively. And perhaps as a result, the concept behind community – the notion of a number of persons sharing not just the same space but also the same social values and sense of civic responsibility – can be overlooked. Today readers are offered an example of community spirit put into action, and an opportunity to participate in this.

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St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath dates from c.1790 when it was built with funds provided by Sir Benjamin Chapman who lived nearby in Killua Castle. (Note that the last Chapman baronet, Sir Thomas, was the father of T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’). Lying at the end of a long, tree-lined avenue off the main street of the village and in the middle of a graveyard, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a neat structure with a handsome spire.’ Some two years earlier it had been repaired at a cost of £251 granted by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The spire admired by Lewis has long been lost but otherwise the church, at least externally, remains much as he would have seen it. The raised east end suggests the present structure may have been erected on the site of an earlier one, as was often the case. Designed in the simple hall style found throughout the country, the north side of its nave, which is first seen on approach, is completely plain whereas that on the south has three pointed-arch windows retaining remnants of latticed glass. So too does the east end triple-light window while at the west end smaller windows flank the tower in which a door provided access for parishioners. The castellated tower is of dressed limestone whereas the main body of the church was built of rubble formerly covered in render.

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St John’s Church remained in active use for 200 years until taken out of service by the Church of Ireland in 1990 when most of its fittings were removed (the altar table was subsequently moved to the Church of Ireland in Ballee, County Down). St John’s and its surrounding land were sold in 1997 but the new owner seems to have done little work on the building which thereafter fell into disrepair. A few years ago the family which has long been engaged in restoring Killua Castle also bought St John’s and began work to ensure this key feature of the local heritage was not lost. At some date the exterior had been covered in cement render which did not allow the building to breathe and encouraged damp, as did the loss of slates from its roof. The entire roof has since been restored, using old slates, while the walls were stripped of their cement. Internally some of the plasterwork also had to be removed due to damage, and the ceiling has been repaired.
All this work was done from the family’s own funds, and using the same workmen they have employed at Killua Castle. Their motive was to save St John’s. But what of its future? The present owners propose to complete the task of restoration of the building both inside and out, as well as the surrounding graveyard. They will then offer it free of charge to people in the area for use as an exhibition gallery, meeting hall and any other purpose for which it might be needed, since no such venue currently exists in or near Clonmellon. This philanthropic gesture truly represents what is meant by community spirit, encapsulating civic engagement and an active wish to better the area in which one lives. The owners are committed to finishing what they have started but understandably would like others to share their spirit and have opened a kickstarter fund for this purpose. Anyone can contribute and in doing help to counter the prevailing notion that rural Ireland has no future. Now is the chance to demonstrate a full understanding of the word community.

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Anyone interested in assisting with the restoration of St John’s Church can do so by visiting https://kickstarter.com/projects/1429745501/st-john-s-church-clonmellon before April 15th next.

An Anniversary

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As many readers will be aware, this weekend Ireland marks the centenary of the Easter 1916 Rising, the event deemed to mark the onset of the country’s drive towards independence from its neighbouring isle. The Easter Rising was marked by destruction, not least of human life: there were 485 fatalities, more than half of them hapless civilians who had the misfortune to find themselves caught up in the affair. There was also huge destruction of buildings in the centre of Dublin, most especially around the section of O’Connell Street closest to the river Liffey, since the rebels chose to centre themselves inside the General Post Office. This building, designed by Francis Johnston in 1814, was entirely gutted while another casualty was the Royal Hibernian Academy on adjacent Lower Abbey Street which the architect had not only designed but also funded in 1824.
An exhibition currently running at the Irish Georgian Society premises, 58 South William Street, Dublin unfolds the architectural history of O’Connell Street from its origins as Drogheda Street, through a long period as first Sackville Street, to its more recent incarnation. In many respects the show is unintendedly melancholy, since it forces the visitor to reflect on the thoroughfare’s steady decline from a heyday in the mid-18th century to today’s gimcrack circumstances in which O’Connell Street is predominantly given over to fast-food outlets and slot-machine emporia. Several of the photographs featured are of what was perhaps the finest property on the street known as Drogheda House. Filled with superlative rococo plasterwork, this was originally built in the 1750s for wealthy banker Richard Dawson before being bought in 1771 by Charles Moore, sixth Earl (and later first Marquess) of Drogheda from whence came the building’s name. Sold again after his death in 1822, the house was by the end of the 19th century divided in two, becoming respectively the Hibernian Bible Society and the Dublin United Tramways Company. Drogheda House stood sufficiently high up O’Connell Street to survive the Easter Rising, but this area was then caught up in fighting during the course of the Civil War in 1922: the building was entirely gutted, and later demolished. Over the course of this anniversary weekend, it is worth recalling what was (often unnecessarily) lost, as well as what was won.

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Ireland’s Main Street, 1625-1925: An Architectural History runs at the Irish Georgian Society until May 15th.

Recalling the Family

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An avenue leading from Castle Saunderson, County Cavan brings the curious to a small church likely dating from the 1830s and designed by George Sudden but either incorporating or replacing an older place of worship on the same site. This was built by and for the Saundersons who owned the estate on which the church still stands, and as if to underline that point above the door inside the west end is a sandstone plaque, believed to date from the 17th century, featuring the family coat of arms. Outside at the east end the ground, in which are set 17th century gave slabs, drops away to provide access to what used to serve as the Saunderson’s vault.

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For more on Castle Saunderson, see Scouting Around for a Saviour, December 21st 2015.

Forgotten Virtuosi

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The stuccowork found in Irish houses is rightly renowned for its exceptional combination of vivacity and virtuosity. Yet the attention given to this field of design has focussed primarily on practitioners in the 18th century, with little notice paid to those who came later. It is curious that this should be the case: in the decades between the 1800 Act of Union and the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s several waves of house building occurred across the country, and many of these properties were elaborately decorated. By this date plasterwork was no longer created ‘free-hand’ on site but instead frequently made elsewhere in sections and then installed under supervision. But who were the people who carried out this work? While we often know who was responsible for the architecture, the names of firms and craftsmen who created the interiors seen today seem to be unknown, or at least not to have excited scholarly interest. The three houses featured today demonstrate that more could be done to honour and celebrate these virtuosi who did so much to enhance the properties on which they were employed.

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Although a much older property existed on this site, Borris House, County Carlow was comprehensively redesigned for the McMorrough Kavanaghs in the second decade of the 19th century by Sir Richard Morrison (see An Arthurian Legend, November 4th 2013). In terms of decoration, the finest room in the building is the one seen first by visitors: the entrance hall. We believe Morrison was responsible for every element of the design here, ceiling plasterwork, scagliola columns, doorcases and chimney piece. Although the room is almost square it appears to be a circular space due to a radiating ceiling and the carefully proportioned screen of paired columns forming a ring around the perimeter wall. On the ceiling eight beams emanate from a central coffered section to meet florid plaster embellishment that includes festoons of fruit, flowers and leaves resting on masked heads, sheaves of wheat and the crescent moon, and a sequence of immense eagles, their heads thrusting into space beyond outstretched wings. The capitals on top of the columns display equal creativity, as they do not correspond to any of the classical orders but are of Morrison’s own design, incorporating a band of lion heads. The skill involved in carrying out this programme of work is outstanding – but who did Morrison employ to transform his ideas on paper into a three-dimensional reality?

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Emo Court, County Laois has been discussed here on a couple of recent occasions (see Seen in the Round, February 1st last and Of Changes in Taste, March 14th last). Designed in the 1790s by James Gandon, the house’s interiors were only gradually completed over the next seventy years. One of the first spaces to be completed was the dining room, decorated in the early 1830s under the supervision of London architect Lewis Vulliamy. It is likely that Gandon would have proposed a spare, neo-classical scheme here but Vulliamy came up with something altogether more sumptuous, especially on the ceiling which has been divided into a series of sections centred on a rectangle containing a highly elaborate rose (looking more like a chrysanthemum) from which a chandelier would have been suspended. On either side thick bands running the length of the ceiling are filled with ribboned hexagons from which overflow vine leaves and bunches of grapes: this same motif is used again on the perimeter of the ceiling. Meanwhile a pair of demi-lunes immediately above and below the chandelier rose contain an eagle standing on a rippling band of ribbon, its wings stretching beyond crown of oakleaves encircling the bird. Closer again to the edge bare-breasted maidens are flanked by spirals of foliageputti stand on either side of ornamental urns and pairs of doves flutter within floral coronets. Extravagantly absurd and yet executed with such assurance and aplomb somehow the whole scheme comes together. Who deserves the credit for this feat?

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Ballyfin, County Laois (see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014) has been superlatively restored in recent years and now functions as an hotel that sets a standard for all others in this country and beyond. Ballyfin was designed for the Coote family in the early 1820s by Sir Richard Morrison, on this occasion partnered by his son William Vitruvius. The entire house is an exercise in opulent splendour of the kind John Nash was then creating for George IV at Buckingham Palace. Nowhere is this more manifest than the saloon which at either end has screens of green scagliola columns beneath rich Corinthian capitals. These lead the eye up to the coved ceiling over which once more ornament has been incited to run riot. Here panels contain figures of bare-breasted maidens surrounded by scrolled foliage so similar to those found on the dining room ceiling at Emo Court that both must have been executed by the same craftsmen. Likewise in the corners of the saloon ceiling in Ballyfin are pairs of putti, in this instance jointly supporting a lyre. The bordered runs of vine leaves and grapes seen at Emo are here replaced by long garlands of flowers but the spirit and style are consistent between the two houses. The most striking difference can be found on the Ballyfin’s ceiling entablature where snarling lions (or perhaps leopards) face each other separated by a crowned mask. It’s both deft and daft, and above all thrilling to realise craftsmanship of this calibre was available to patrons in 19th century Ireland. Time surely to celebrate the persons responsible, and to ensure their names and contribution to our heritage no longer remain unknown.

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House of Stone

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Duleek, County Meath derives its name from the Irish words daimh liag meaning house of stone and is, it seems, the oldest known reference to such a church being made from stone rather than wood. A monastery was founded here in the fifth century by St Cianán, a disciple of St Patrick, but the ruins of St Mary’s Augustinian priory seen here date from the 12th and 13th centuries, with the large tower at the west end erected in the 15th century at a time when churches and monasteries were subject to attack. An adjacent early 19th century Anglican church no longer serves its intended purpose but has been converted into a restaurant.

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For the Day That’s In It

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In the grounds of Down Cathedral on the Hill of Down is this slab of Mourne granite believed to mark the spot where St Patrick was brought for burial following his death on this day in either 461AD or perhaps in 493; there appears to be no universal agreement on the year. The Irish Aesthete wishes all friends and followers a happy St Patrick’s Day.