Despite the best efforts of the city’s planners and developers to turn Dublin’s Upper Abbey Street into a representative example of late 20th century mediocrity, a couple of buildings survive to show what a splendid thoroughfare this once was. In particular, Nos. 124 and 125, originally domestic residences dating from c.1750 merit more than the passing glance they now typically receive from passers-by. At least the latter is being used, but No.124, at one time being used as a radio studio, has now been standing empty for some time, and is beginning to show inevitable evidence of neglect. At the time these properties were built, this area of Dublin was the most prestigious in the capital, yet all parties who might help to revive its fortunes appear determined not to do so.
Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and author of sundry celebrated works including Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, is associated with Fortgranite, a County Wicklow house, the contents of which are being sold tomorrow. The Swift family’s rise in fortune originated with an earlier cleric, the Rev Thomas Swift who in 1566 became vicar of St Andrew’s church in Canterbury, Kent and subsequently married the heiress daughter of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Thomas Godwin. The latter was recalled in the first name of the Rev Thomas’ eldest great-grandson, Godwin Swift, a lawyer who after 1660 served as Attorney General to the Viceroy the Duke of Ormonde, and was duly rewarded for his service with an estate in County Kilkenny, Swifte’s Heath. One of Godwin Swift’s younger brothers, Jonathan, also moved to Ireland but died within a year, aged only 27. He left a pregnant wife who seven months later gave birth to a son, also called Jonathan, the future dean. He benefitted from the support of his uncle Godwin (who incidentally had fifteen sons and four daughters by four wives), and then from the latter’s son Willoughby (Jonathan Swift’s cousin) who paid for his education and secured employment as secretary with Sir William Temple. His later clerical and literary careers are well known. What has any of this to do with Rockgranite? In 1711, Godwin Swift’s grandson Thomas Swift married Frances Dennis, heiress of a timber merchant from Kinsale, County Cork: the couple had two sons, the Rev. Meade Swift-Dennis and John Swift-Dennis. In 1782, these two men were joint beneficiaries of the substantial estate left by their late uncle, James Dennis, former Chief Baron of the Exchequer and first (and last) Lord Tracton. The only condition was that they adopt the arms and name of Dennis. They duly did so, the Rev. Meade Dennis subsequently acquiring the Fortgranite estate which was left to his son Thomas Stratford Dennis. As the latter’s middle name indicates, he was related to the Stratford family, his grandmother being a daughter of the first Earl of Aldborough, a name that has been discussed here more than once (see in particular Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017).
Fortgranite is a house originally dating from c.1730, although sections of the basement suggest that there might already have been a tower house on the site, a not-unusual circumstance. The house was built for one George Pendred, whose family may have been Cornish in origin. He married an heiress Cordelia Saunders, daughter of lawyer and politician Morley Saunders, who c.1716 built a splendid house in County Wicklow, Saunders Grove (burnt 1923). As elsewhere in this take, the son of George and Cordelia Pendred changed his surname to Saunders in order to benefit from a family legacy, and was called Morley Pendred Saunders. His daughter Delia married the Rev. Meade Swift (later Dennis) and in turn their eldest son Thomas Stratford Dennis married his cousin Katherine Saunders. Thus two generations of one family benefitted from marrying two generations of another. In turn Fortgranite appears to have gone through two remodellings in the 19th century, the first c.1810-15 following the marriage of Thomas Dennis to Katherine Saunders, the second undertaken by the couple’s eldest son Meade Dennis in the early 1870s, the last occasion when such enterprises were made before the onset of the Land Wars and consequent decline of Big House estates in the following decade. As a result of these two refurbishments, Fortgranite shows little evidence of its earlier manifestations, displaying the gravitas typical of a high-Victorian country house. Still, until recently the interior was filled with evidence of former eras, and of the diverse families who had both inherited the place and, through marriage and other connections, bequeathed items to it. All either now gone, or about to do so following tomorrow’s contents sale. With them are dispersed the collective links to Patrick Swift, to the Earls of Aldborough, to timber merchants of Cork and Anglican clergy of Westmeath, to an entire history of Ireland’s gentry. All scattered, never to be brought together again.
The church at Dunfierth, County Kildare dates from c.1500 and is associated with the de Bermingham family which at the time was still the dominant family in this part of the country. In 1548 a tomb to Walter de Bermingham was built inside the church, and this featured a number of fine carvings.
In 1815 the de Berminghams had long since gone from the area, and the Hamilton family constructed a vaulted mausoleum inside the former chancel of Dunfierth church. This incorporated a number of carvings from the older tomb, such as a Crucifixion scene, and bands of ‘keeners’ on either side of the structure. Inside the rear wall features the carving of an armoured knight, only really visible if the natural light is sufficiently good. There are other fine pieces of work elsewhere on the site, such as this window on the south wall.
Tucked behind trees and shrubs in the Phoenix Park, and therefore often overlooked, this is Rose Cottage. Traditionally occupied by the Head Deer Keeper, the picturesque, octagonal building dates from c.1800 before being remodelled around 1830 when presumably the veranda was added. It was during the latter period that Decimus Burton was responsible for carrying out various improvements in the park and designing many of the lodges at its gates, so most likely he was responsible for the work here too. The cottage was occupied up to a few years ago, but now appears empty and in need of some attention (those gutters won’t clear themselves…)
The involvement of Irish families in the Caribbean slave trade was discussed here some weeks ago when considering Monasterboice House, County Louth (see Dirty Money, March 11th 2019). The same source of revenue appears to have played a part in funding extensive work in the early 19th century at Kilwaughter Castle, County Antrim. The original house here is believed to date from 1622, a fortified dwelling built by Sir Patrick Agnew who around that time had purchased the land on which it stands from Sir Randall MacDonnell, first Earl of Antrim. Successive generations lived here until William Agnew died in 1776, leaving the property to his grandson Edward Jones, then still a boy, with the proviso that the latter take the surname Agnew. He was a younger son of Valentine Jones, who was extensively involved in slave trading in the West Indies, as was his eldest son (another Valentine) who lived in the Caribbean for some 33 years and, two years before Edward inherited Kilwaughter, was elected a member of the House of Assembly in Barbados. Unfortunately the next generation of Valentine Jones disgraced the family by misappropriating funds and colouring rum to give it the appearance of age: in 1809 he was found guilty of fraud and peculation, and sentenced to three years in Newgate Prison.
Edward Jones Agnew was only a child when he inherited Kilwaughter, and for the next 12 years the estate was administered by agents while he attended Harrow and then Trinity College Dublin. It was only in the late 1780s that he came to County Antrim and took responsibility for Kilwaughter, accompanied by his younger sister Margaret. Seemingly they arrived to find the house almost entirely stripped of its contents: ‘there was not so much as a tablecloth, or a spoon or a knife or fork for them to take their dinner with.’ By this date the old building was neglected, and out-of-date, so its young proprietor decided to embark on a an extensive programme of refurbishment and enlargement. The architect chosen for this task was John Nash, who from 1801 onwards was engaged in designing Killymoon Castle, County Antrim for the Stewart family, cousins of the Agnews. Beginning in 1806, Nash transformed Kilwaugher into an elaborate castle, adding a vast wing to the immediate east of the original fortified house. The focal point of his design is a castellated tower in the south-east corner, its sandstone window sills carved with elaborate abstract decorations. From here, a range of reception rooms ran northwards to a narrower but taller polygonal tower, with views over the parkland towards a newly created lake covering more than five acres. While his land holdings were substantial and could have borne much of the expense involved (Killymoon Castle is supposed to have cost £80,000), might Edward Jones Agnew have benefitted from the estate of his slave-trading father Valentine Jones who died in 1805, just a year before work began at Kilwaughter? The enquiry seems not unreasonable to make.
The later history of Kilwaughter is not especially happy. Edward Jones Agnew never married (nor did his sister Margaret with whom he lived) but had several children with the daughter of a tenant farmer: she and other members of her family were later sent to Baltimore, Maryland with the promise of an annual stipend. When Agnew died in 1834, the estate was inherited by his illegitimate son William who, together with his sister, were then cared for by their aunt Margaret. However, following her death and William Agnew becoming an adult, he moved to Paris and spent most of the next 40 years there, dying unmarried in 1891 and, it seems, leaving sundry debts for the payment of which a mortgage of £30,000 had to be raised. A niece, Mary Maria Augusta Simon (daughter of his sister) next inherited the estate but by this time she was married to an Italian count Ugo Balzani, and living between his family home near Bologna and Oxford. For some thirty years Kilwaughter was rented to John Galt Smith, an Irish linen exporter and distant relative of the Agnews, and his socially ambitious American wife Bessie who modernised the building and entertained extensively; he died in 1899 but she remained there until 1922 before returning to her native country. By now, the castle was surrounded by very little land and when the Second World War broke out it was seized by the government as ‘alien’ property (the Balzani family being Italian and therefore deemed to be enemies of the state). For a period it was occupied by American troops but then stood empty before being sold by the Northern Irish government to a Belfast scrap metal company which stripped off the lead, thereby leading to the roof giving way. What remained was handed back to the Balzani family, and understandably they decided to sell the property: this finally occurred in 1982. Since then efforts have been made to ensure the security of the building, and ideally its restoration: some of the walls are literally in need of support. The present owners, and a number of local people are valiantly battling to save Kilwaughter from total ruin (a task not helped by the presence of lime quarries in the immediate vicinity). As these photographs make plain, those involved in the project face a substantial challenge and deserve all possible assistance.
Much of the information here came from a most interesting article, The Agnews of Kilwaughter by Jacqueline Haugseng-Agnew in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, No.32, 2016.
For more on Kilwaughter Castle and work being undertaken to secure its future, please see https://www.kilwaughtercastle.com
Another often overlooked building in central Dublin: the Printing House in Trinity College. It was designed in 1734 by Richard Castle to conclude an allée at the other end of which was the Anatomy House built in 1711 to a design by Thomas Burgh (and long-since demolished). The building’s most notable feature is its pedimented Doric portico with rusticated façade behind, all of Portland stone, which suggests this is a classical temple rather than a more mundane printing house. Nevertheless it was here that the first book in Ireland entirely in Greek (an edition of Plato’s Dialogues) was produced, followed by many other works. A plaque in Latin above the doorway indicates the building is dedicated to the Anglican clergyman John Sterne, Bishop of Clogher, who in 1726 provided £1,000 for its construction; on his death in 1745 he left his considerable collection of manuscripts to the college library. At the moment, this part of the campus is rather a mess owing to building work, not least student accommodation on a site to be called Printing House Square: when this finishes, one hopes due attention will be paid to the building whence the development derives its name.
‘GOLDEN, a village and post town, in the parish of Relickmurry, barony of Clanwilliam, county of Tipperary, and province of’ Munster, 3½ miles (W.) from Cashel (to which it has a sub post-office), and 82 (S.) from Dublin, on the road from Cashel to Tipperary. containing 114 houses and 648 inhabitants. It is a neat and improving village, situated in what is called “the Golden Vale,” and is divided into two parts by the river Suir, over which is a stone bridge. on which King William signed the Charter of Cashel, and near it is an old circular stone tower. Here are flour and oat meal-mills, and constabulary police station fair are held on May 18th, Aug. 26th, Oct. 26th, and Dre. 15th, and petty sessions once a fortnight The parochial church was erected here in 1808, and a tower was added by aid of a loan of £700 from the late Board of First Fruits, in 1812. There is also a large R.C. chapel.’
From Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837)
In the last census (taken April 2016) the village of Golden, County Tipperary had a population of 267, a drop of some 9 per cent on what it had been a quarter of a century earlier, and barely 40 per cent of the figure given by Lewis 180 years ago. The ongoing and seemingly unstoppable decline of Ireland’s rural towns and villages has been the subject of much debate in recent years. At least part of the explanation for this phenomenon lies in the fact that these smaller urban centres now rarely generate much economic activity and employment, Golden appearing typical in this respect. Such was not always the case: the buildings shown here are what remain of a larger mill complex, dating from the early 19th century when a considerable number of these industrial complexes were developed in response to improved agricultural practices, and increased demand for corn and other grains. The majority of these mills closed fifty or more years ago because they were no longer economically viable, but the evidence of their presence – and the important role they once played in the commercial prosperity of a village like Golden – remain, at least for the moment. In the middle of last month, a large and splendid mill complex in the heart of Drogheda, County Louth was gutted by fire. It had been allowed to stand empty and neglected for many years, and accordingly the building’s eventual destruction was entirely predictable. The loss is considerable and unnecessary, and means that part of Drogheda’s history has disappeared. Looking around the detritus in Golden’s old mill, it would seem a similar fate awaits here, even though the building is (like that recently burnt in Drogheda) listed by the relevant local authority as a Protected Structure. When that happens part of the area’s collective memory will be forever lost.