The garden front of Gurteen le Poer, County Waterford. The present house was completed in 1866 to designs of Samuel Ussher Roberts, great-grandson of the 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts. It was built for Edmond de la Poer, created a papal count after serving as Private Chamberlain to Pope Pius X. Count de la Poer was a descendant of Roger la Poer who had accompanied Strongbow to Ireland and was then granted land here by Henry II in 1177. This particular branch of the family remained Roman Catholic and supporters of James II, and after being attainted in 1691 they were denied both the title of Baron la Poer and the main estate at Curraghmore. For the past twenty years Gurteen le Poer has been home to Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein and his family who are at present restoring the gardens.
The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.
One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.
The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.
The round tower at Kilree, County Kilkenny. A religious settlement is supposed to have been established here by St Brigid but no buildings from the early Christian period survive. Situated in the south-west corner of the former enclosure, the tower is believed to date from the 11th century and features a door and seven windows. It rises some twenty-nine metres to a battlemented top now missing its cap, thereby allowing views of the sky from the interior.
The only full-length statue by French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac can be found in Armagh Cathedral. It represents the doctor and philosopher Sir Thomas Molyneux, Physician General to the Army in Ireland and Regius Professor of Physic at Trinity College, Dublin who died in 1733. The work was commissioned some years later by his son Sir Capel Molyneux and after arriving in Ireland in 1752 was removed to the family seat, Castle Dillon, County Armagh where it was placed in a wood beneath a temporary wooden shelter, the idea being that a more permanent structure would be erected in the grounds. When this failed to materialise, the statue was moved to the vaults beneath the house. Finally when Castle Dillon was rebuilt in the early 1840s the statue was presented to Armagh Cathedral and placed in its present position. The plaque beneath the figure depicts a physician attending a bed-ridden patient, thereby emphasising Molyneux’s medical career. The inscription advises that he was ‘greatly distinguished in his generation for professional skill, varied learning and private worth.’
The story of Castle Ward, County Down is well-known. Wonderfully sited on a rise above Strangford Lough the house dates from the mid-1760s when an older residence was replaced by something more à la mode. The problem was that Bernard Ward and his wife Lady Anne (née Bligh) had very different ideas about what they wanted. Mr Ward (created Baron Bangor in 1770, and then Viscount Bangor in 1781) preferred the classical style, whereas his wife fancied Gothick. As Mrs Delany wrote around this time, ‘Mr Ward is building a fine house, but the scene about is so uncommonly fine it is a pity it should not be judiciously laid out. He wants taste, and Lady Anne is so whimsical that I doubt her judgment. If they do not do too much they can’t spoil the place, for it hath every advantage from nature that can be desired.’ Ultimately a compromise was reached whereby Mr Ward had his way on the entrance front, and Lady Anne hers on the side overlooking Strangford Lough. Internally the same division was agreed so that the ground floor rooms are quaintly split between the two decorative styles. The architect responsible for organising this curious arrangement is unknown, although it has been proposed that, like the stone used for the exterior, he came from Bath or else Bristol (the names of both James Bridges and Thomas Paty have been mentioned). Nevertheless the arrangement was not enough to hold the Ward marriage together and soon after Castle Ward was finished Lady Anne, who complained of being bullied, decamped first to Dublin and later to Bath where she died in 1789, eight years after her husband.
It may be that the Wards’ differences extended beyond just architecture. In an article published in 2000, Professor Sean Connolly discussed the relationship that existed between Lady Anne and an older woman, Letitia Bushe. Born in County Kilkenny in the first decade of the 18th century, Letty Bushe was a gentlewoman of modest means whose life was spent either in rented rooms in Dublin or staying with friends in the country. A talented amateur watercolourist, she was also known for the brilliance of her conversation (as well as her good looks before these were marred by smallpox). Among her closest friends was the aforementioned Mrs Delany who, when still Mrs Pendarves and visiting Dublin in November 1731 wrote to her sister, ‘I eloped for an hour or two to make a visit to a young lady who is just recovered of the small-pox. I think I never saw a prettier creature than she was before that malicious distemper seized her – a gay, good-humoured, innocent girl, without the least conceit of her beauty; her father has been dead about six months, a worthless man that has left a very uncertain fortune; she paints delightfully.’ The two women remained friends and regular correspondents until Letty Bushe’s death in 1757. But for a period she had a closer and much more intense relationship with Lady Anne. It appears they met in 1739, when the latter was just twenty-one and Miss Bushe in her mid-thirties. On July 31st 1740 she wrote to her younger friend, ‘This Day twelvemonth was the Day I first stay’d with you, the night of which you may remember pass’d very oddly. I cannot forget how I pity’d you, & how by that soft road you led me on to love you. I feared many things for you, & my compasion by degrees rose into esteem.’ Later again she would write of ‘two whole years of thoughts, tenderness, stuff and nonsense’. All of which indicates this was more than just a standard friendship.
Professor Connolly chronicles the relationship’s ups and downs, in part caused by Lady Anne’s regular visits to England where her father, John Bligh, first Earl of Darnley, had extensive estates. Letty Bushe suffered agonies in her absence. In the spring of 1740 Lady Anne crossed the Irish Sea, and by August of that year Miss Bushe was confessing, ‘About the time you left Ireland, I hardly slept at nights, and such a wizened pale old hag I grew.’ This appears not to have been an exaggeration because Mrs Ann Preston, with whom Letty Bushe was then staying in County Meath, in turn wrote to Lady Anne, ‘What has your Ladyship said to poor Miss Bushe? For since your last letter she has neither eat, drank, slept or spoke one chearfull sentence. In short she is so very unlike herself that I scarce know her. I beg you will say something to her to raise her spirits.’ The following month Miss Bushe wrote to her inamorata, ‘You make some of the sweetest moments of my life in reflection, & were it not for bitter absence I think you wou’d do so in reality. Tho I live & eat & sleep & laugh, yet I am often surprized at my self, well knowing I seldom am without your Idea, & the cruel sence of being separated from you.’ So it went on for several years, even after the marriage of Lady Anne in September 1742 to Robert Hawkins Magill of Gill Hall, County Down (he died less than three years later). We can only guess at the tone and content of Lady Anne’s letters because it appears that at some date she made off with her side of the correspondence and destroyed it. But she preserved the letters received from Letty Bushe and they provide both an insight into their relationship and a possible explanation for the failure of her marriage to Mr Ward. Despite the couple having three sons and four daughters prior to her departure for Dublin, it was perhaps more than just his architectural judgement she found disagreeable.
Today sees the start of this year’s National Heritage Week, the aim of which according to the Heritage Council (which coordinates the event) ‘is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.’ This is a laudable aspiration and merits everyone’s support. Heritage Week has encouraged some valuable initiatives. As of today, for example, St Lawrence’s Gate, a thirteenth century barbican originally built as part of the defences of Drogheda, County Louth (seen above) is to be permanently closed to vehicular traffic – something which should have happened many years ago – thereby ensuring its better protection. All counties in Ireland participate with enthusiasm in Heritage Week but once the seven days are over, many of our historic buildings revert to a condition of vulnerability. Below is a photograph of the former Church of Ireland church at Castlehyde, County Cork. Originally constructed in 1809 it further benefitted from the attention of George Pain in 1830. Having been closed for services, it has sat empty for some time and is now in imminent danger of collapse. This building is as much part of our heritage as St Lawrence’s Gate, and although likewise listed for protection has been allowed to slip into its present state. It would be beneficial if the goodwill engendered by Heritage Week were put to advantage to ensure more historic properties were given the support required to ensure their long-term future. Obvious ways to do so would be to use this high-profile annual event to highlight specific buildings at risk, and to campaign that local authorities enforce the law regarding protection of listed structures, something that with rare exceptions they currently fail to do so. As the state of the church in Castlehyde shows, until our legislation is matched by implementation every week needs to be Heritage Week.
A summer morning at Ballyfin, County Laois. When the house and demesne were restored some years ago, this cascade and pool were added by gardener Jim Reynolds on rising ground immediately behind the main building. In the foreground a river god reclines on a plinth while the vista is closed by a Doric temple designed for the site by architect John O’Connell.