Evening light falls on the remains of the ‘New Church’ by Lough Gur, County Limerick. Originally dating from the 15th century when built by the Earls of Desmond, in 1642 it was described as a ruin. However, the church was restored in 1679 when Rachel, Dowager Countess of Bath (whose late husband had inherited a large amount of land in the area) presented a chalice and patten to what she described as her ‘chapel-of-ease’ as well as an endowment of £20 to provide for a chaplain. By the 19th century it once again became a ruin but conservation work was undertaken in 1900 on the instruction of the seventh Count de Salis, whose forebears had inherited the Bath estates here. Today the church is once more a ruin. Tradition has it that the composer and harpist Thomas Connellan who died nearby in 1698 is buried here in an unmarked grave.
As its name indicates, Belle Isle is an island located at the very top of Upper Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. Inhabited since the 12th century, it was originally called Ballymacmanus an abode of the MacManus family from which they controlled fishing and trade on the lake. In the 15th century, one of their number Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa, who was not only a chief but also a cleric, was principal compiler of the Annals of Ulster (the original manuscript of which is now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin).
In 1610 Ballymacmanus was part of the estate granted to Paul Gore, a soldier who had come to Ireland some years earlier: in 1622 he was created a baronet. It was his great-grandson Sir Ralph Gore, fourth baronet, who built the core of the present house on the island and renamed the place Belle Isle in recognition of its natural beauty. The latter was much enhanced by his younger son the sixth baronet also called Ralph, who was born on Belle Isle in 1725. For much of his life a soldier, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General, in 1788 he became Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. Over the previous decades he had been created Baron Gore, Viscount Belle Isle and finally Earl of Ross. Between his military duties he found time to improve the island, employing Thomas Wright on the design of the grounds, and building a temple, a grotto and a thatched hermitage, described by Jonathan Fisher in his Scenery of Ireland (1795) as being ‘a handsome cottage with a kitchen and other conveniences, in a sweet retired part [of the demesne].’
Arthur Young had likewise been full of praise for the site, writing in August 1776, ‘To Belleisle, the charming seat of the Earl of Ross. It is an island in Loch Earne, of two hundred Irish acres, every part of it hill, dale, and gentle declivities; it has a great deal of wood, much of which is old, and forms both deep shades and open, cheerful groves. The trees hang on the slopes, and consequently show themselves to the best advantage. All this is exceedingly pretty, but it is rendered trebly so by the situation. A reach of the lake passes before the house, which is situated near the banks among some fine woods, which give both beauty and shelter. This sheet of water, which is three miles over, is bounded in front by an island of thick wood, and by a bold circular hill which is his lordship’s deer park; this hill is backed by a considerable mountain. To the right are four or five fine clumps of dark wood – so many islands which rise boldly from the lake; the water breaks in straits between them, and forms a scene extremely picturesque. On the other side the lake stretches behind wood in a strait which forms Belleisle. Lord Ross has made walks round the island, from which there is a considerable variety of prospect. A temple is built on a gentle hill, commanding the view of the wooded islands above-mentioned, but the most pleasing prospect of them is coming out from the grotto. They appear in an uncommon beauty; two seem to join, and the water which flows between takes the appearance of a fine bay, projecting deep into a dark wood: nothing can be more beautiful. The park hill rises above them, and the whole is backed with mountains.’
John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopedia of Agriculture of 1825 remarked that Belle Isle was ‘charmingly diversified by hills, dales and gentle declivities, which are richly clothed with old timber through which gravel walks are constructed, and a temple erected, from which a panoramic view is obtained, not only of this but all the other wooded islands of the lough.’ It is interesting to compare these observations with those made in by Jonathan Binns just over a decade later in The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (1837): ‘Belleisle, the property of the Rev. Gray Porter, is situated on the higher lake, and in addition to its beauty, is remarkable as being the first grant made in Ireland after the confiscation. It contains upwards of 300 acres, and was originally the property of a Lord Ross, who from this island took the title of Lord Belleisle. It descended by marriage to Sir H. Hardinge, who sold it to the present proprietor. The house, once famed for its hospitality, is now a ruin.’ An explanation for these circumstances is easily provided. The Earl of Ross had died in 1802, predeceased by his young heir. The estate accordingly passed to his only surviving child, an illegitimate daughter Mary who married Sir Richard Hardinge. The couple had no children and following the death of Lady Hardinge in 1824, and that of her husband two years later, the estate was left to the nephew of Sir Richard, the Rev. Sir Charles Hardinge of Tonbridge, Kent who seems to have had no interest in owning a property in Ireland. Accordingly in 1830, he sold the Belle Isle estate for £68,000 to another cleric, the Rev. John Grey Porter of Kilskeery, County Tyrone whose father had enriched himself while serving for over twenty years as the Anglican bishop of Clogher. Descendants of the Porter family would remain thereafter resident at Belle Isle until 1991.
While much work had been carried out on the island’s grounds over the previous century, the house bought by the Rev. Porter remained predominantly the modest two-storey lodge built in the early 1700s by the fourth Gore baronet. At some point during the brief Hardinge era a bow-fronted drawing-room had been added to the left-hand end of the original range, and a new staircase added to its rear, lit by an octagonal lantern. John Grey Vesey Porter, who inherited the estate on his father’s death, added the stable courtyard in 1856 and at some date in the 1880s further extended the house and altered its appearance to resemble what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; producing a gabled entrance front with mullioned windows, a projecting porch and a tall church-like, battlemented tower.’ Meanwhile, inside ‘arches were opened up between the staircase hall and the rooms on either side of it…and oak staircase with barley-sugar balusters replaced the original stairs; the walls were panelled in oak or decorated with half-timbering.’ Yet more work was undertaken in the first decade of the last century when the architect Percy Richard Morley Horder was employed to extend the entrance front with a wing in the Tudor style; this holds a long high chamber with timbered roof, elaborate chimneypiece and overmantel, and a minstrels’ gallery, the balustrade of which it has been suggested contains woodwork dating from the late 17th century or early 18th century woodwork and brought from elsewhere. Thus as seen today Belle Isle represents an amalgam of the tastes of some three centuries, harmoniously brought together within its setting. Twenty-five years ago the last of the Porters to live here, Lavinia Baird, sold the estate to the fifth Duke of Abercorn who with his wife has since undertaken an extensive programme of refurbishment to house and grounds alike, with different sections serving as a cookery school or available for weddings, sporting activities, events and self-catering holidays. Today Belle Isle amply lives up to the name bestowed on it by an earlier owner.
For more information on the estate, see http://belle-isle.com
At some date in the late fifth or early sixth century a monastery was founded at Grangefertagh, County Kilkenny by Saint Ciaran of Saighir. This religious house was raided by the Vikings in 861 and it was presumably after that incident that the monks built a round tower to protect them in the event of another attack. It proved unfit for purpose however, since in 1156 it was burnt by Murtagh McNeale, with the monastery’s lector inside. Somehow the tower survived (even if the lector did not) and remains the only remnant of the pre-Norman building, although as can be seen the greater part of its conical roof is lost. In the 13th century a priory of Augustinian Canons Regular was established here, and a portion of its ruined church remains: in the last century part of it was converted for use as a handball alley (not an unusual occurrence). A chapel to one side contains the double tomb of John MacGillapatrick and his wife, carved c.1540 by Rory O’Tunney.
Bowelk, County Monaghan is one of a number of houses built by the Jackson family, members of which developed the linen industry in this part of the country from the last quarter of the 18th century onwards. The business’s prosperity allowed them to buy land and construct residences such as this one which according to surviving evidence in the house dates from the 1850s. Bowelk has been carefully restored in recent years by new owners keen to preserve features such as the main doorcase with its elliptical fanlight and side lights filled with ornamental leadwork. Not yet restored but still intact is a thunderbox tucked into one corner of the adjacent walled garden, the door of which retains its decorative fretwork.
‘From Artramont, I proceeded to the castle of Carrick, by Edmond, the seat of Mr. Bell, Mount Anna, that of Colonel Hudson, and Sanders’-court, the once respectable residence of the late Earl of Arran. When I arrived within view of the splendid arch and lodges, which, on an elevated position above the public road, form a grand outpost to this concern, and through which, though never carried into effect, an approach was meditated by the late Earl, my mind became unexpectedly introduced into a train of reflection on the ruinous consequences to this country, of that absentee system, which since our union with England has become so much the fashion. This splendid portal, with the degraded state of the mansion-house and offices, (now wholly deserted by the proprietor and his family,) and which form a striking contrast to each other, were well calculated to impress this subject upon the mind…I felt my heart impelled by a sentiment of sympathy; a feeling not likely to be obliterated, by the neglected and ruinous aspect of Sanders’-court, no longer the seat of nobility, nor of that munificence and national hospitality of which it was so eminently remarkable.’ From A. Atkinson’s The Irish Tourist (1815).
Saunderscourt, County Wexford derives its name from Colonel Robert Saunders who came to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell and was apppointed Governor of Kinsale, County Cork. However, he is said to have quarreled with Cromwell and having supported the restoration of Charles II was allowed to keep his grant of 3,700 acres in Wexford. In 1730 the Colonel’s great-granddaughter Jane Saunders, an only child, married Arthur Gore, later first Earl of Arran and thus Saunderscourt passed into the ownership of this family. It was the couple’s son, the second Earl of Arran whose decease (in 1809) was lamented by Atkinson since his heir abandoned the place which soon fell into ruin, as described above. Interest in the estate revived following the succession of the fourth earl in 1837, after which work was undertaken on the demesne by noted landscape gardener James Fraser. However, eventually Saunderscourt was sold c.1860 to an Arthur Giles who undertook restoration work on the main house. Believed to date from the second half of the 18th century, this was a two-storey, seven-bay property described following its refurbishment as being ‘a fine courtly building of considerable extent that displays its rich and handsome façade consisting of a centre and characteristic wings to the south-west.’ Saunderscourt changed hands again before the end of the 19th century and the main house was soon after demolished so that no trace of it remains today.
What survives at Saunderscourt is the ‘splendid arch’ and adjacent lodges that so moved Atkinson to eloquent reflection in 1815. Tucked down a quiet country road, this building appears to have been constructed during the time of the second Earl of Arran and, as is mentioned, was intended to be the start of a new approach to the house but this never happened. Thus it would seem always to have stood in glorious isolation, a monument to unrealised ambition. Attributed recently to Waterford architect John Roberts (who certainly worked in the area on a number of properties), the entrance, as can be seen, consists of a towering triumphal arch with the same treatment to both front and rear: engaged Tuscan columns support a triangular pediment, while a semicircular arch with moulded architrave is supported on Tuscan piers. This all executed in limestone although the greater part of the structure is of brick. The same material is also used for the single-storey quadrants and lodges. The former, which each have a pair of round-headed niches, are interesting because – like the arch itself – they are identical on either side. The effect is to create concave spaces which acted as yards for the lodges, with their Gibbsian door- and windowcases in limestone. The whole effect is tremendously grand, although somewhat incongruous in its present setting, shared with a series of cow sheds. The Saunderscourt arch has of late benefitted from attention paid to its welfare by the Irish Landmark Trust but that organisation’s limited resources have meant work has not progressed beyond stabilization and certain key repairs, particularly to roofs and drainage. Provided the necessary funds are forthcoming, no doubt further remediation will be undertaken and the property fully restored so that it can begin generating an income (and thereby better secure its future).
Mention was made here last week to Edward Synge, one-time Bishop of Elphin. His immediate predecessor in that diocese was Robert Howard whose eldest son Ralph in the early 1750s made the customary Grand Tour to Italy. While wintering in Rome in 1750-51 the younger Howard (who in due course became Baron Clonmore and then Viscount Wicklow) had his portrait painted by the city’s most fashionable artist Pompeo Batoni. The picture was brought back to Ireland and hung in the Howard’s seat, Shelton Abbey where its presence is recorded in an inventory of the house’s contents conducted by Bennett’s in July 1914: at that date the work was valued at £210.
Sadly Ralph Howard’s descendant, the eighth Earl of Wicklow was unable to maintain Shelton Abbey and accordingly in October 1950 a great sale of the house’s contents was held, an event so substantial that it lasted almost a fortnight. Among the lots was number 1740, the Batoni portrait, although by then its sitter seems to have been forgotten, since he is simply listed as a ‘gentleman in crimson with fur-edged coat.’ In addition, the work’s value had significantly decreased since 1914, as it only fetched £90. Today it hangs in the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
I shall be discussing the Shelton Abbey sale, and several others, next Thursday at 7pm in Lismore Castle, County Waterford during the course of a talk called ‘Art in Historic Irish Houses: Its Collection and Dispersal.’ For further information, see: http://www.lismorecastlearts.ie/events
The upper yard of Crocknacrieve, County Fermanagh, described in 1833 as being ‘the seat and fee farm of John Johnston, Esq., and comprehends a nice new built house on the summit of a noble elevation, standing above a demesne of about 100 Irish plantation acres, beautifully dressed and planted.’ The following year, an ordinance survey report called Crocknacrieve ‘a neat and handsome building of modern architecture…It was built and the demesne laid out in 1817…The offices, which are attached to the house are very commodious.’ As they remain to the present day.