Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.
In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.
As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere.
Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013): its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.
Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass.
Among the splendid ecclesiastical remains of Cong [County Mayo], the twelfth century advocates may revel, and defy us to prove an earlier date for their erection than that of the introduction of the Augustinian Order into Ireland, even if their ornamentation and design did not afford ample data for judging their age. These ruins would scarcely have held together to the present day, had not Sir B. L. Guinness restored several of the dilapidations, cleared out much of the rubbish which had accumulated within and around them, and rendered the burial ground sufficiently decent for the interment of Christian people. We enter the abbey from the village by a very beautiful doorway, which, although it has been often figured, we would here present to our readers, but that we know it is of the “composite order,” having been made up some years ago of stones taken from another arch in this northern wall. Within it, we find ourselves in the great abbey church, one 140 feet long, entirely paved with tombstones; facing the east window, with its three long, narrow lights, and having in each side wall of the chancel a slender window looking north and south. The chancel walls are perfect, but the northern wall of the nave no longer exists. Underneath the chancel window the guides and village folk maintain that Roderick O’Conor was buried, when, after fifteen years’ retirement within this abbey, he died here in 1198. But this we know from history to be incorrect, for the Donegal Annals distinctly state that “Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, King of Connacht and of all Ireland, both the Irish and English, died among the canons at Cong, after exemplary penance, victorious over the world and the devil. His body was conveyed to Clonmacnois, and interred to the north of the altar.” But, although Roderick himself was not buried here others of his name and lineage were. Thus we read that in 1224, “Maurice the Canon, son of Roderick O Conor – the most illustrious of the Irish for learning, psalm-singing and poetical compositions – died and was interred at Cong.” It is probably his tomb which is pointed out as that of the king. “A.D.1226, Nuala, daughter of Roderick O’Conor, and Queen of Ulidia, died at Cunga Feichín, and was honourably interred in the church of the canons.” And in 1274, Finnuala, daughter of King Roderick, died at, and was probably buried at Cong. But although the dust of the last monarch is not beneath our feet, that of chieftains, warriors, and prelates remains and especially that of the abbots, down to the days of James Lynch, whose decorated tomb is dated 1703; and even later, for the Rev. Patrick Prendergast who was always styled “The Lord Abbot,” was interred here in 1829.’
‘The O’Duffys were distinguished ecclesiastics in this locality, and the Annals contain many entries concerning them. Thus we read that in “A.D. 1150 Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, Archbishop of Connacht, chief senior of all Ireland in wisdom, in chastity, in the bestowal of jewels and food, died at Cunga on the 16th of the month of May, on the festival of St. Brénainn, in the 75th year of his age.” His name is inscribed on the great processional “Cross of Cong,” made in 1123. “A.D. 1168, Flannagán Ua Dubhthaigh, bishop and chief doctor of the Irish in literature, history, and poetry, and in every kind of science known to man in his time, died in the bed of Muireadhach Ua Dubhthaigh, at Cunga.” Cadhla or Catholicus O Duffy, and several of the name, attained to the see of Tuam; in 1136, we read of the death at Clonfert, of Donnell O Duffy, “Archbishop of Connacht and successor of Cíarán, head of the wisdom and piety of the province”; and Cellach O Duffy was Bishop of “Mayo of the Saxons” in 1209. But none of these died abbots of Cong, and the only Abbot of the name referred to in the Annals is the one described by the Four Masters in the following quotation, under the year 1223: Dubhthach ua dubhthaigh abb Conga decc. “Duffagh O Duffy, Abbot of Cong, died”.’
‘The original plan of this abbey is not easily made out at present. Through an arched doorway in the southern wall we pass into a low vaulted apartment, and thence into a large open space containing the principal stairs, which lead up to the second story of the great tower, the upper portion of which, however, no longer exists. The space to the east and south of this, which was formerly occupied by the monastery, is now a graveyard, and the site of the Roman Catholic chapel, and is divided by a high screen wall, the western facade of which forms the present great architectural feature of this splendid pile…It measures 80 feet in length, and contains a doorway and two windows, with circular arches; and two large and most elaborate ornamented lancet-headed doors, with undercut chevrons along the deep moulding of the arches, which spring from clustered pillars, the floral capitals of which – all of different patterns – present us with one of the finest specimens of twelfth-century stone-work in Ireland. Several stones have been inserted in these doorways, which now present us with some of the finest and most enduring specimens of carved limestone in this or any other country. Above the string course appear some narrow lights probably those of the dormitories. To the west of this wall stood the open cloisters, which were probably so low as not to obscure the decorated front represented on the foregoing page. From this point the ground slopes gradually to the river, where, according to tradition, the friars of old had a fish house – the walls of which are still standing – so constructed that, when the salmon or trout got into the crib below, it touched a wire, that rang a bell, to inform the providore or cook of its arrival.’
Given their association with the terrible years of famine in the 1840s, workhouses in Ireland have few admirers. Yet it is often not realised that they followed a model already introduced in Wales and England where 350 such premises were constructed in the mid-1830s. George Wilkinson was responsible for the design of some of these buildings and following the introduction of legislation in 1838 Ireland’s Poor Law Commissioners appointed him their architect, requesting he devise plans for 130 workhouses here. There is a certain generic quality to Wilkinson’s work, reliant on an interpretation of the Tudor domestic idiom which gives the resultant properties a gentle appearance at odds with their purpose. But they are often handsome, sturdily-constructed buildings and, where still standing, have proven capable of adaption for alternative use. Such is the case in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan where the main block of the old workhouse – completed in 1842 at a cost of £5,000 (plus £977 for fittings) – was restored in 2002 and now provides premises for a variety of local social and educational groups.
During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.
Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.
It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.