The Fertile Rock

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‘The quest for earthly solitude was the chief motive behind the foundation of Citeaux in 1098 and the statutes of the order later insisted that “monasteries should not be built in cities, castles or towns but in places far removed from the conversation of men.” Hidden in the quiet of the countryside, the monks could pursue without distraction their search for spiritual union with God. The advantages of rural retreat were beautifully summarised by the English abbot, Aelred as he described the attractions of Cistercian life: “everywhere peace, everywhere serenity and a marvelous freedom from the tumult of the world”.’ From Roger Stalley’s The Cistercian Monasteries of Ireland (1987)

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The Cistercian abbey at Corcomroe, County Clare is believed to have been founded towards the end of the 12th century at the behest either of Domnall Mór Ua Briain, King of Thomond or of his son Donnchadh Cairprech. The location is curious since as a rule the Cistercians always chose a spot beside running water. Here however there is no evidence or either a river or stream but perhaps it existed then and has since disappeared. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the monastery’s Latin name was ‘Petra Fertilis’ or Fertile Rock, suggesting the land was sufficiently well watered at the time. Work began on the site around 1205 and it is clear from the eastern end of the church nave that the monks held high ambitions for this monastery: as Stalley writes, ‘those in charge intended to produce the finest looking Cistercian church in Ireland.’ The chancel arch is of finely dressed limestone with the capitals well carved: inside is some handsome ribbed vaulting. There are well carved sedile on the north and south walls of the chancel, the former also features a wall plaque depicting an abbot and directly below him the tomb of the founder’s grandson Conor na Siudane Ua Briain, who died in 1267. It shows the deceased lying recumbent and wearing a crown decorated with fleur de lys, his left hand holding a sceptre, his right a reliquary suspended from the chain around his neck. On either side of the chancel are single transept chapels each approached via its own arch with beautifully carved colonettes featuring floral and animal motifs.

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Changing circumstances put paid to the monks’ architectural ambitions. The Annals of Connacht would later record of 1227: ‘Famine throughout Ireland this year, and much sickness and death among men from various causes: cold, famine and every kind of disease.’ Political unrest before and after the catastrophe further added to the monastery’s problems and as a result the high standard of workmanship seen at the eastern end of the church was abandoned. Undressed stone was used for the rest of the building and the arches of the nave are arranged in haphazard fashion, suggesting the main intent was to finish work rather than worry about decoration or polish. Numbers of monks would later drop and eventually the church itself was foreshortened by the insertion of a wall surmounted by a bell turret halfway down the nave: the windows below this point look then to have been blocked up. In the aftermath of the Reformation, the monastery was granted in 1554 to Murrough O’Brien, Earl of Thomond, a descendant of the original founder. Although John O’Dea was named titular abbot as late as 1628 long before that date the place had ceased to be occupied by the Cistercians.

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Take a Bow

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While much excitement – and publicity – was generated by a house contents sale conducted by Mealy’s Auctioneers at Lotabeg, Cork for some of us the building proved as interesting as what it held. Dating from c.1800 Lotabeg is a relatively late work by Abraham Hargrave, an English-born architect who appears to have come to Ireland in 1791 to supervise the construction of St Patrick’s Bridge over the river Lee in Cork. He then stayed on and was responsible for work on a number of other country houses in the vicinity, including Fota and Castle Hyde, in both cases making alterations/additions to the original structure. Lotabeg on the other hand is entirely by Hargrave, its most notable feature being the large bow on the north-facing seven-bay entrance front. Behind this lies the house’s finest internal space: an immense circular domed entrance hall, around the walls of which snakes a cantilevered timber staircase up to the first floor gallery with access to a series of bedrooms.

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Above the Law

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The grand rear entrance to the King’s Inns, Dublin. This complex of buildings, designed in 1800 by James Gandon with a view towards Constitution Hill, backs onto the top of Henrietta Street and it was here that Francis Johnston, who took over the project after Gandon’s death, placed a triumphal arch in 1820 to obscure the obtuse-angled elevation beyond. Note the coat of arms surmounting the entrance: this work is usually attributed to the sculptor Edward Smyth although he died in 1812, eight years before the arch was built.

The Past in Need of a Future

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While claims are made of 12th century origins, in its present form Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary is an example of the later Irish tower house. These defensive dwellings were built from the 15th to early 17th centuries, and it would appear that Lackeen was constructed for Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn, chieftain of Ormond, who died in 1588. Cinneide is the Irish word for ‘Helmeted Head’, it being said that the Ua Cinneides were the first people in this country to wear helmets when going into battle against the Vikings. The name was later anglicised to Kennedy and the family remains widespread in this part of north Tipperary. Although Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn’s son Donnchadh further fortified the castle, in 1653 it surrendered to English forces. Nevertheless his descendants regained possession of the property and were in occupation in the 18th century. Lackeen is of particular interest since it forms part of a group of buildings constructed within a bawn wall, considerable parts of which also survive. The tower house is of four storeys, and contains the remains of several chimneypieces as well as two flights of stairs, initially a straight run to the first floor, and then a spiral staircase to the upper levels concluding in a large open space which was once roofed and would have held the main living chambers.

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As mentioned, the original owners of Lackeen had regained possession of the site by the 18th century. In 1735 John O’Kennedy who was then undertaking work on the tower house discovered an ancient manuscript hidden inside one of its walls. Known as the Stowe Missal the work was written in Latin in the late eighth or early ninth century but in the mid-11th century had been annotated and some additional pages written in Irish. By that date the manuscript seems to have come into the safe keeping of a monastery at nearby Lorrha where it would have remained until the dissolution of such establishments in the mid-16th century; most likely the manuscript was then concealed for safekeeping at Lackeen Castle. Following its rediscovery the missal entered the collection of the Irish antiquarian Charles O’Conor, the O’Conor Don. In 1798 his grandson, a Roman Catholic priest also called Charles O’Conor, was invited to become chaplain to the first Marchioness of Buckingham, and to organize and translate a collection of historic material kept at her husband’s house, Stowe in Buckinghamshire. On moving to England, the younger O’Conor brought with him fifty-nine of his grandfather’s manuscripts including the missal found at Lackeen. Along with the others, this remained at Stowe until the entire collection was sold to the fourth Earl of Ashburnham in 1849: in turn his son sold all the manuscripts to the British government which returned Irish-related material to this country. The Stowe missal is now in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy.

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Adjacent to Lackeen Castle and on the edge of the bawn wall is a group of domestic buildings which look to be from the 17th and early 18th centuries: it would seem at least some of this cluster was erected in the aftermath of 1660 when peace, for a time, returned to Ireland. The most striking, and most intact, of the group is a two-storey, five-bay farmhouse, one-room deep, with a single living space on either side of the entrance hall. The latter is interesting because on coming through the front door one faces a pair of panelled doors, that to the left leading to the staircase (now in part collapsed) that to the right being a cupboard. This decorative flourish, together with simple plasterwork on the ceilings of the ground floor rooms suggest aspirations towards gentry status on the part of the earliest occupants, and make Lackeen House all the more important since such buildings are now relatively rare. In the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, the building’s association with the adjacent tower house is described as being ‘of great importance and illustrates the development of this site for domestic use over several centuries.’ Photographs taken only a few years ago show the house unoccupied but still in reasonable condition. Unfortunately such is no longer the case: there are holes in the roof where slates have slipped, resultant water ingress has led to partial ceiling collapse, a portion of the stairs has given way and the signs are that Lackeen House will soon be just an empty shell. This is a s0-called ‘Protected Structure’ but once again the term is meaningless as no protection is being offered to the house. Time is running out fast here: unless an intervention occurs soon a nationally important collection of historic buildings is set to be lose one of its key elements.

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Levels of History

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The staircase in Ashbrook, County Derry, one of the oldest continuously occupied houses in this part of the country. The land on which it sits was granted to General Thomas Ash by Elizabeth I in the 1590s as a reward for his aid in quashing the O’Neill Rebellion during the Nine Years War and the family (later Beresford-Ash) has remained there ever since. The rear section of Ashbrook is a 17th century house but in the 1760s a new section was added to the front providing ground floor rooms with higher ceilings than had hitherto been the case. As a result, upper floor levels had to be altered resulting in the present arrangement, seen below, whereby a single flight of stairs leads from a top-lit gallery to bedrooms at the front of the house.

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The Rockford Files

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The handsome coachhouse entrance in the stableblock at Rockford, County Tipperary. This is part of a late 18th century complex originally built by the Kingsley family which subsequently passed by marriage to a branch of the Wolfes of County Kildare. In the second half of the 19th century, the latter built a new residence for themselves nearby and perhaps at that time these buildings were given their present appearance, including a series of pointed niches with brick surrounds that flank all the doors.

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Lip Service 

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As is still remembered, legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws meant that for much of the 18th century Roman Catholics under the authority of the British government found it hard to practice or express their faith publicly. It is worth pointing out that these laws were as much an affliction in England, Wales and Scotland as they were in Ireland, but the numbers of Catholics here were proportionately far greater than in those other countries. only in the late 1700s/early 1800s was the legislation gradually relaxed, ultimately leading up to the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which created full emancipation for members of this faith. But even prior to that date, Catholics had begun to embark on the construction of what at the time were always called chapels, buildings in which they could gather to hold their services. The great age of Catholic church building came in the post-emancipation era, which makes these early buildings all the more precious since relatively few of them still survive. They tended to be simple in form and design, not least because the costs involved in putting them up were borne by the local population, few of whom would have been wealthy. Weekly collections among the faithful led to the creation of a fund which was then used to pay for construction costs: Thackeray’s account of visiting various chapels during his tour of Ireland in 1842 make plain that the majority of those in attendance were the poorest of the poor.

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St Brigid’s in Portumna, County Galway dates from 1825, and was therefore constructed a few years before full Catholic Emancipation had been achieved. A basic T-plan in form, it has a three-bay nave leading up to a pair of wide single-bay transepts, this simple design being a reflection of the limited resources then available. In 1858 a three-bay wide and one-bay deep porch was added to the west end, rising two storeys before being topped by a square-plan tower drum. It may be around this time that the exterior of St Brigid’s received its neo-gothic ornamentation such as the crenellated parapets and towers, and corner buttresses, thereby dressing up the original structure. In this form it remained in use for the next century. However in the late 1950s a new St Brigid’s was built on the adjacent former market square, using stone from the Portumna Castle which had been built in the 1860s and gutted by fire in 1922: evidently the local community felt their old church was no longer good enough for services. The now redundant church was converted into a sports hall, and served as such for some time before being deemed unfit for that purpose also. Since then it would appear the building (transferred into private ownership) and an adjacent abandoned convent, has sat empty, a prey to the elements and to vandalism.

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How, one wonders, might the generation which contributed often very tiny sums of money judge what has become of St Brigid’s church in our own age? Would they consider the shillings and pence they could scarcely have afforded to hand over well-spent on a building which their descendants seem willing to leave fall into dereliction? Would they be satisfied that this is how their legacy, the hard-earned – and hard-paid for – right to free and open expression of faith, should be treated in such a fashion? Asking these questions is not intended to offend or to criticise the burghers of Portumna. The present circumstances of St Brigid’s are by no means unique: they are replicated in towns right across the country and are symptomatic of a greater problem.  Like so many other historic properties in Ireland, this one is listed by the local county council as being a ‘protected structure’ but one wonders what protection it is being offered. According to information provided by the Citizens Information Board, ‘A protected structure is a structure that a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view. If you are the owner or occupier of a protected structure, you are legally obliged to prevent it becoming endangered, whether through damage or neglect.’ That legal obligation is meant to be enforced by the relevant local authority: there is no evidence of enforcement here but again that is hardly unusual. Last week, after two months’ negotiation between political parties, this country finally got a new government. When the various ministerial portfolios were announced, there was no reference to anyone being responsible for the department of heritage: apparently it comes under the remit of the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht but is of so little consequence that the name wasn’t even judged worthy of inclusion in this long-winded title. Too often the excuse offered for neglect of the country’s architectural heritage is that it represents the interests or legacy of alien others: this is the explanation customarily proffered to explain the wasteful abandonment of our country houses, for example. Nothing could more truly be representative of the national narrative than St Brigid’s, raised by and for the local population to serve their needs and to express their beliefs. Its neglect, like the title of new government ministries and the manner in which legislation regarding protected structures fails to be enforced, accurately express Ireland’s attitude towards our heritage: we may pay lip service to the visible evidence of our past but really we don’t care what becomes of it.

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