Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.
The remains of Tullaherin church and round tower, County Kilkenny. It is believed that a monastery was founded here by Saint Ciarán of Saigir. He died c.530 so presumably established a presence here at some date previous. Nothing survives of the original foundation, the present church being of two periods, the nave perhaps 10th century while the chancel is likely from the 15th century. In the aftermath of the Reformation, it continued to be used by members of the Established Church and was renovated in the early 17th century. However, by the 19th it had already fallen into ruin.
Like so many others around the country, the round tower at Tullaherin is missing its upper portion and capped roof: what remains rises almost 74 feet. Originally there were eight windows around the tower, the only other tower having so many being that at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly. The door is just over 12 feet above ground.
On the banks of Lough Ree, the remains of Rindoon Castle, County Roscommon built by Geoffrey de Marisco, Justiciar (or head of government) in Ireland from 1227-35. Located on a peninsula jutting out into the lake, the castle commanded views both north and south, and was a key feature of an Anglo-Norman settlement established immediately outside its walls.
Within decades of being completed, Rindoon Castle had been attacked by the native Irish who seized control of the entire site before the middle of the 14th century. Around this time the adjacent town was also abandoned, although sections of its walls remain standing. Some 200 years later the castle was rebuilt as part of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland but later once more abandoned and it has remained a ruin ever since.
Despite its French name, the concept of the ferme ornée is of English origin and is usually attributed to the garden designer and writer Stephen Switzer.* His 1715 book The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation criticized the overly elaborate formal gardens derived from French and Dutch examples, and proposed laying out grounds that were attractive but also functional: ‘By mixing the useful and profitable parts of Gard’ning with the Pleasurable in the Interior Parts of my Designs and Paddocks, obscure enclosures, etc. in the outward, My Designs are thereby vastly enlarg’d and both Profit and Pleasure may be agreeably mix’d together.’ In other words, working farms could be transformed into visually delightful places. One of the earliest examples of the ferme ornée was laid out by Philip Southgate who owned the 150-acre Woburn Farm, Surrey on which work began in 1727. ‘All my design at first,’ wrote Southgate, ‘was to have a garden on the middle high ground and a walk all round my farm, for convenience as well as pleasure.’ The fashion for such designs gradually spread across Europe as part of the adoption of natural English gardens: perhaps the most famous example is the ferme ornée is the decorative model farmy called the Hameau de la Reine created for Marie Antoinette at Versailles in the mid-1780s. The most complete extant example of this garden type in Europe is believed to be at Larchill, County Kildare.
*Incidentally, Stephen Switzer was no relation to the Irish Switzers: whereas his family could long be traced to residency in Hampshire, the Switzers who settled in this country in the early 18th century had come from Germany to escape religious persecution.
Larchill was created in the mid-18th century on part of an estate then owned by the Prentices, a Quaker merchant family whose adjacent country retreat, Phepotstown, still stands. As was typical with members of this sect, the house is very plain (the Quakers disapproving of unnecessary ornament) in striking contrast with the buildings on their farm. Here they followed the principles espoused by Switzer, Southgate and others, erecting structures both utilitarian and attractive around a gothick-style yard. However, it is across the surrounding farmland that the greatest, and most conspicuous, effort was expended. The focus of this enterprise is an eight-acre lake to the south of the farmyard. Several buildings are located around this stretch of water, while two others stand on small islands. That to the east is a small temple-like structure, its outer wall marked with decorative recesses, while inside a circle of columns surrounds an open space which may have been a well (the columns supporting a roof that directed rainwater into the centre of the site). A bridge, perhaps composed of pontoons, linked this island to the mainland. Meanwhile to the west, a larger island holds a miniature fort known as Gibraltar, the name deriving from an unsuccessful siege of the peninsula that ran for more than three and a half years from 1779-1783. The fort may have been erected to commemorate the fact that Gibraltar withstood this assault by Spanish and French forces. Between the two islands used to stand a statue of the ancient Greek hunter Meleager: more recently it has been replaced by a similarly-proportioned figure of Bacchus. here…
The statue of Meleager once found in the middle of the lake now has pride of place in the Larchill’s restored walled garden. The south-west corner of this space is occupied by a three-storey battlemented tower, the interior spaces of which – lit by arched gothic windows – have walls covered in shells, reflecting a fashionable pastime of the period such as can be seen inside the cottage decorated in a similar fashion during the same period by Emily, Duchess of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare which stands not far away. Further to the east of this wall is a three-arched loggia which once served as an ornamental dairy, the interior once lined with 18th century Dutch blue-and-white tiles. Like the rest of Larchill, the walled garden has been restored over the past twenty-years by its present owners. The Prentices, who had created the core of the ferme ornée were forced to sell the place, which was then bought by another family the Watsons who maintained and even added other features to the grounds such as the Fox’s Earth, a folly apparently built by Robert Watson, a well-known Master of Hounds who feared reincarnation as a fox (having been responsible for killing too many of them). However, during the 19th century it would seem the ornamental aspects of the parkland were neglected so that it returned to customary agricultural usage. The buildings fell into dereliction, the lake dried out, or was drained, and the special character of Larchill lost. Only after being purchased by the de las Casas family in 1994 did work begin to restore the site. Many of the buildings were carefully cleared of undergrowth and trees, the lake re-established and the distinctive character of this ferme ornée recovered. Thanks to their labours, today it is once more possible to emulate the precedent of Philip Southgate and to walk around Larchill ‘for convenience as well as pleasure.’here…
Larchill, County Kildare is open to the public. For further information, see: https://larchill.ie/
Looking positively Italianate in the early autumn sunshine, the west end of the garden front at Abbeyleix, County Laois. A series of terraces descend to a final series of circular stone steps, an architectural device highly reminiscent of similar work designed in 1906 by Edwin Lutyens for Heywood barely five miles away: might he have had a hand in this too? A sunken area immediately below contains what was once a swimming pool but more recently has been converted into a lily pond, at one end containing a bronze statue of a nude on horseback made by Irish sculptor Olivia Musgrave.
The gate lodge on the south-west corner of St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. This was designed c.1880 by James Franklin Fuller, the Kerry-born architect much employed by Sir Arthur Guinness, raised around this time to the peerage as Baron Ardilaun: the latter paid for the 22-acre park to be landscaped and opened to the public (hitherto access was only available to keyholders). The lodge is an endearing hodge-podge of gables, dormer windows, mullions and bays constructed in brick, sandstone and timber (including ornamental bargeboards on the gables) and terracotta fish-tail tiles. The total cost was £2,256, much higher than was usually expended on such buildings.
In Donizetti’s 1830 opera Anna Bolena, the unhappy queen tells her erstwhile admirer Henry Percy, future sixth Earl of Northumberland, ‘Ambiziosa, un serto io volli’ e un serto ebb’io di spine’ (Ambitious, I wanted a crown, and got a crown of thorns). She came from an ambitious family. Originally of East Anglian yeoman stock, the Boleyns gradually improved their economic and social circumstances during the 15th century: Anne’s great-grandfather Sir Geoffrey Boleyn had been a London merchant who prospered to such an extent that he was elected Lord Mayor of the city, received a knighthood and bought Hever Castle in Kent. His son William married Lady Margaret Butler, a daughter and co-heiress of the seventh Earl of Ormond: this is the origin of the Boleyns’ links with Ireland. Sir William and Lady Margaret’s eldest son Sir Thomas Boleyn further scaled the social ladder by marrying Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk. A skilled diplomat and courtier, Sir Thomas lay claim to the Butler title following the death without male heirs of his grandfather, the Earl of Ormond in 1515. This was disputed by an Irish claimant, Piers Butler but once Henry VIII became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, he persuaded Butler to renounce the Ormond title (he was created Earl of Ossory instead). Accordingly in 1529 Sir Thomas Boleyn became not just Earl of Ormond, but also Earl of Wiltshire, his claim to the latter also coming through familial ties with the Butler family. Meanwhile his only surviving son George received the courtesy title Viscount Rochford. Following the downfall and execution of both Anne and her brother in 1536, their ambitious father lost his position at court and retired to the country. The year before his death, the Ormond title was restored to Piers Butler: his grandson, Thomas Butler the tenth earl, was a cousin of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I who is said to have called him her ‘black husband’ and certainly made him Lord Treasurer of Ireland.
In 1803, a limestone slab measuring eight by four feet is said to have been discovered close to Clonony Castle, County Offaly. This is recorded as bearing the following inscription: ‘Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.’ Understandably there has been much popular speculation about the stone and its words. George Boleyn, as mentioned, was Anne’s only brother: he was executed two days before her in May 1536 on a trumped-up charge of incest. George was as ambitious for advancement as the rest of his family: he had been introduced to the English court at the age of ten and not long afterwards became one of the king’s pageboys. From the mid-1520s onwards, as his sister’s star rose, he became a favourite of Henry VIII receiving a series of ever-more significant grants and offices from the crown. Around this time he married Jane Parker, daughter of the wealthy and well-connected tenth Lord Morley. Following her husband’s disgrace and death in 1536 she retired temporarily from court but then returned and served Henry VIII’s successive wives until February 1542 when, because of her links with Catherine Howard, she too was beheaded. Although they were married for more than a decade, there is no record of George and Jane Boleyn having had any children, either male or female, and no heirs for the couple are known. This is why the stone found at Clonony so curious: it claims his two great-granddaughters were buried there. But since he had no offspring, the matter is open to conjecture.
Clonony Castle is a tower house, probably built at the start of the 16th century by the MacCoghlan family who were hereditary chieftains in this part of the country. They remained in situ until the aftermath of the Nine Years War when dispossessed of much of their land. At the start of the 17th century Clonony had been acquired by an English official Roger Downton and in 1612 he sold it to Matthew de Renzi. The latter was a German-born cloth merchant who, having run up substantial debts in London, moved to Ireland in 1606. The funds to buy Clonony and 100 surrounding acres probably came from his first wife’s dowry. De Renzi is a fascinating character, not least because, a keen linguist who already spoke six languages, he learnt to write and speak both colloquial and classical Irish and composed an Irish grammar. The intention was to help him as he struggled to establish his presence in the Midlands, fiercely resisted by the MacCoghlans whose head, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, told everyone in the locality to neither buy from nor sell to de Renzi (except at excessive rates), and to ignore the boundaries of his territory. Soon he faced such intimidation that he thought it best to spend the winter at the County Roscommon home of his second wife, a daughter of Sir Oliver St John, writing ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’ Nevertheless, by the end of the following decade he had increased his landholding to over 1,000 acres, after which he sold Clonony, moved to Dublin, became a government official and was knighted in 1627, dying seven years later.
Clonony, de Renzi discovered, was not an especially comfortable residence, tall and narrow with very small windows so that little light penetrated the interior. In form it remains a typical tower house, some fifty feet high over three storeys, the greater part of each floor being given over to a single vaulted chamber. Clonony was restored as a private house in the 19th century when repairs were carried out on the bawn wall and, one suspects, larger windows inserted into the tower. The present owner has carried out further repairs and restoration, while retaining the essential character of the place. Incidentally, a 1533 proclamation of forbidding criticism of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was repealed by the Irish government three years ago in July 2015.