Two country houses, both in County Meath and both now hotels. Today, Bellinter which dates from c.1750 and was designed by Richard Castle for brewer and M.P. John Preston, whose son would become first (and last) Baron Tara. Since Castle died in 1751, he is unlikely to have overseen the work, which is vigorous but somewhat unsophisticated in execution, as demonstrated by the ceiling of the ground floor saloon. Its exuberant baroque plasterwork looks indebted to the Lafranchini brothers but probably executed by lesser hands.
Clontuskert Priory, County Galway is a little-known religious site which yields ample pleasures for the traveller who troubles to find it. The present ruins date from the 15th century, but it is claimed that originally a monastic settlement was founded here around 800AD by Saint Baedán. If this were the case, no trace of that establishment survives. Later, probably towards the close of the 12th century, the prominent Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) family invited members of the Arrouasian order – a particularly austere division of the Augustinian canons – to found a house here, the Priory of St Mary. The Ó Ceallaighs remained closely associated with this establishment, which became one of the richest in this part of the country. Members of the family were consistently appointed to the position of Prior, even though, on a number of occasions, they were illegitimate (in the medieval church, illegitimacy was a barrier to holy orders or the holding of a benefice, so papal dispensation had to be sought). In 1444 Eoghan O’Kelly, then-Prior of Clontuskert was slain in a battle with a rival family, the McCoughlans. There were several instances when corruption seems to have been rampant: in 1463, for example, Thady O’Kelly, a canon in the priory, reported to Rome that the Prior, John O’Kelly was guilty of immorality, perjury and simony. Thady O’Kelly then in turn became Prior, after which another canon, Donatus O’Kelly accused him of killing a layman. Donatus next became Prior, after which he was accused by another canon Donald O’Kelly, of scattering the priory’s goods, keeping a concubine and committing homicide. And so it went on.
In 1404 Clontuskert Priory was struck by lightning and set alight, destroying the buildings and their contents. A Papal order was subsequently issued offering ten-year indulgences for those who contributed to the cost of its rebuilding. So what we see on the site today are the remains of a 15th century priory. The O’Kellys seem to have continued to be associated with the Priory up to the time of the Reformation in the 1540s, a number of them holding benefices under the control of the house. In the mid-16th century the lands hitherto owned by Clontuskert passed into the hands of the de Burgos, Earls of Clanricarde, in 1570 the second earl receiving a grant from the government of the priory. However, the family remained Catholic and the Augustinian canons remained on site, even though they had lost their possessions. A keystone inserted into the doorway leading from nave to choir is dated 1633 indicates they were still there then. But by the end of the 17th century the de Burgos had converted to the Established Church and it would appear that thereafter Clontuskert Priory was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
While portions of Clontuskert Priory’s cloister survive, the main interest of the site lies in the church. Here the east wall, with its beautiful traceried window, collapsed in 1918 but the pieces were saved, allowing for reconstruction in the early 1970s. Much further restoration work was undertaken on the site in the previous decade. The north and south walls of the choir feature a number of fine tombs. The choir itself is accessed via a substantial arcaded stone rood screen, one of the features reconstructed some decades ago. Originally there would have been no end wall, so that the arches would have offered a view through to the choir where services were taking place. However, a wall was built at the east end of the rood screen (when the aforementioned door with the date 1633 was inserted) thereby fundamentally changing the appearance of the space. But the most attractive aspect of Clontuskert Priory is its west doorway, which carries the following inscription: ‘Matheu : Dei: gra : eps : Clonfertens : et : Patre’ oneacdavayn : canonie’ esti : domine : fi’ fecert : Ano : do : mcccclxxi’ (Matthew by the grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made. Anno Domini 1471). The exterior of the doorway is covered with carvings, including the figures of the Archangel Michael carrying a sword and scales (for weighing souls), Saints John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and, it is thought, Augustine of Hippo; they are flanked by smiling angels each holding a shield. Stones on either side are carved with the likes of a pelican feeding her young, a pair of mythical beasts, two ibexes with intertwined necks, and a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. Just inside the door is a water stoup, again bearing two figures believed to be, again, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Largely bereft of visitors, Clontuskert Priory is something of a hidden gem, but one definitely worth discovering.
A bit battered and bruised, but still in place: Hamill’s on Bridge Street in Ardee, County Louth. Dating from around 1900, the two-storey building has a pub on the ground floor with an exceptionally attractive – and exceptionally rare – commercial façade. This features encaustic tiles above, below and around the central entrance and its flanking curved display windows. The fascia is especially charming, with floral festoons interwoven with the lettering: notice how another swag of flowers, this time in a terracotta panel, has been placed midway between the two windows. The building’s design appears to be by Peter William Cahill, an engineer and architect then living and working in the area. Somehow, despite being on a main traffic artery and subject to almost ceaseless pollution from passing vehicles, Hamill’s has survived, albeit with a certain amount of damage to the façade.
From Galignani’s Messenger 1819: ‘Athlone, Nov.2. Mr Henry St. George, who lived at Ballydangan, dined on Sunday last with his brother Sir Richard, in the Wood at Mount Equity, where were some other friends. On leaving his brother’s, the Steward saw him out of the gates, locked the last one, and had not proceeded more than a few yards when he heard a shot, and a loud scream followed. The night was so uncommonly light he easily discovered that Mr. Henry St. George was dismounted near the gate; he ran quickly and found him almost lifeless, lying over a man who was in a fainting fit; then hastened to a near cabin, and sent off for St Richard, who, with another Gentleman, came up, but only to see him expire without uttering a word.’
In 2005 two doctors bought a former orthopedic hospital in the small County Westmeath village of Coole, with the intention of turning it into a substantial medical facility, borrowing substantial sums of money from Ulster Bank to do so. As sometimes happens, the two partners disagreed over the development of the site, as plans came to include provision not only of a medical centre and ancillary facilities, but also a number of residential units (the entire country was then entering peak-Celtic Tiger era when housing schemes were ubiquitous). One of the pair accordingly exited the scheme, and the other remained involved. Then, as so often happened, in the aftermath of the economic crash, the entire project foundered and in 2012 the property went into receivership. Two years later the original Ulster Bank loan was transferred to a large investment company called Promontoria (Aran) Limited (a subsidiary of the American private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management). In 2017 Promontoria sought to recover some of its money by offering the place for sale. A medical centre still operates from the site.
The core of what became St Joseph’s Orthopaedic hospital dates from 1897 and was developed by Teresa Dease whose family lived close by in a house called Turbotstown (see https://theirishaesthete.com/tag/turbotstown/). The Deases were resolutely Roman Catholic, never wavering from the faith of their forebears even during the years of Penal legislation, yet managing to hold onto their ancestral lands. It was here, on a site adjacent to the church built by her grandfather, that Teresa Dease established what was initially intended to be a school to train young girls for a life in domestic service by teaching them such skills as housekeeping, cookery, needlework and laundry work. However, after a number of years, she closed the school and in 1916 passed responsibility for the building to an order of nuns, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, who ran the place as an orthopaedic hospital for boys. It continued in operation until 1981, and thereafter the buildings sat empty and deteriorating until acquired in 2005 by the aforementioned pair of doctors. In the aftermath of its closure, and the revelation of widespread abuse in institutions run by religious orders, a great deal of disturbing information emerged about practices in St Joseph’s Hospital although here – as elsewhere – the relevant documentation disappeared, making it difficult for those who deservedly sought recognition and compensation for what they experienced to pursue their claims.
As mentioned, a medical centre operates on part of the site formerly occupied by St Joseph’s Hospital, from a range constructed for this purpose. But the ambition of the intended development is visible in other buildings left incomplete, roads leading nowhere, and in particular the condition of the original property erected in 1897 and, it appears, used as the nuns’ residence. Old photographs show this was formerly linked to other parts of the hospital, in particular a chapel in Hiberno-Romanesque style built in the mid-1930s. This still stands but many of the other extensions were taken down, seemingly at the onset of the redevelopment. The interior of the convent building was completely gutted, with only the old staircase surviving in a partially mangled state. And then the enterprise stalled, and the place was abandoned. And so it has remained ever since; a reminder more than a decade later of how not all Celtic Tiger ambitions were realized.
In the centre of Navan, County Meath and on the banks of the river Blackwater, the unsalubrious remains of a mid-19th century mill that once helped bring prosperity to the town. The building dates back to 1851 when erected by William Morgan to provide flour for his bakery elsewhere in Navan. It continued to serve this purpose until early in the last century when converted into a sawmill, remaining in operation until 1999 when the enterprise closed down. Since then the property has stood empty, being seriously damaged by arsonists in July 2007. Two years ago the local authority turned down the planning application from a local developer to demolish the mill, and erect on the five-acre site a 186-bedroom nursing home and 40 apartments.
Johnstown, County Kildare derives its name from a now-ruined church dedicated to St John and believed to have been built in late-Medieval period by the Knights Hospitallers (now otherwise known as the Knights of Malta). The centre of the building is now dominated by a large High Cross commemorating Richard Bourke, sixth Earl of Mayo who was assassinated in 1872 while serving as Viceroy of India; his home was at nearby Palmerstown. An earlier owner of this property was the Flatesbury family, and set into the north wall of the church is a grave slab featuring their coat of arms and those of the Wogans, below an eight-armed cross. This carries the date 1289 although the slab is thought to date from the 15th century.
In 1650 Captain Theophilus Sandford, who came from the town of Audenshaw, a few miles east of Manchester, sailed from Liverpool to Ireland at the head of 80 horsemen, and joined the English army then suppressing the Irish uprising. Following the end of hostilities, Captain Sandford was rewarded for his services with a large grant of land, formerly held by the O’Conor family, in County Roscommon. To this he added further lands by purchase, as did his heir Henry Sandford in the aftermath of the Williamite wars. The Sandfords were based in Castlerea where on the edge of the town they erected a substantial house in the early 18th century, of seven bays and three storeys over basement. The centre block of this building was seriously damaged by fire in 1895 and replaced by a single storey, prefabricated house linking what survived of the two wings. Following the departure of the family from the area in the aftermath of the First World War, and the division of their former estate by the Land Commission, Castlerea House was demolished and nothing now remains of the property.
Through marriage and a seat in parliament the Sandfords rose to become respectable members of the Landed Gentry and, in 1800, Henry Sandford was rewarded with the title Baron Mount Sandford. Having no children, he was succeeded by his nephew, another Henry Sandford who in June 1828 at the age of only 23 met an unfortunate end. He and some friends stopped in Windsor on their way to Ascot for the races and observed a drunken brawl taking place on the street. Lord Mount Sandford was attacked by one of the brawlers who knocked him down and then kicked him in the head; he died from his injuries nine days later. An elderly uncle then inherited but he had no children, so eventually the estate was jointly inherited by the first baron’s two daughters, one of whom married a Pakenham (and her eldest son Henry married Grace Mahon, heiress to another Roscommon estate, Strokestown). The other sister Mary married William Robert Wills who also had an estate, Willsgrove, not far from Castlerea but the couple and their children lived in the old Sandford home and changed their name to Wills-Sandford. Their great-grandson Thomas George Wills-Sandford was the last of the family to occupy Castlerea House, while his younger brother Edward lived a few miles west of the town in the property seen here today, Cashlieve.
It is difficult to date the origins of Cashlieve which may have begun in the 19th century as a hunting lodge. However, the building was most likely enlarged following Edward Wills-Sandford’s marriage to Amy Guinness in 1889; the couple would have two daughters. The manner in which the entrance is wedged in a canted bay between the main block and a long wing, seems to suggest the latter was added to an earlier structure. Inside a handsome hallway contains the main staircase lit by a glazed dome and doors to the main reception rooms on one side; the single storey canted bays in both dining and drawing room in this portion of the building appear to be later additions and between them is a little vestibule which was clearly the original entrance before the whole site was turned around. Speculation about, and research into, Cashlieve’s history will need to occur soon, because it looks set to meet the same fate as Castlerea House before long. As was the case there, the surrounding lands were sold by the Land Commission and the property then seems to have been owned by a number of different persons. It has now stood empty for a number of years and much of what can be taken from a house – such as chimneypieces – has been taken, in a rather cack-handed fashion. Another house, one suspects, soon destined to be known only through old photographs.
Last week, the Irish Aesthete featured the former Convent of Mercy in Ardee, County Louth, which is now for sale. Today, here are some pictures of the former St Joseph’s School which was run by the same order in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo; the main block may have been designed by busy Dublin architect William Henry Byrne who was certainly responsible for the adjacent convent. St Joseph’s School opened in October 1901, and closed in July 2012. Since then the property appears to have stood empty on a large site in the centre of the town and left to fall into its present decay. Not only does this make the centre of the town look unsightly, it is also gratuitous waste of sound building stock.
On 17th June 1765 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, wrote in his journal, ‘At seven I preached in the Market-house at Kilfinane [County Limerick]. Well nigh all the town, Irish, English and Germans, Protestants and Papists, presently gathered together. At first, most of the Papists stood aloof; and so did several of the genteeler people: but by degrees they drew in, and mixed with the congregation.’ Wesley returned to Kilfinane on several later occasions, each time preaching in the market house, of which these are now the sorry remains. Dating from c.1760 and of cut sandstone with three broad arches on its façade, the market house was described as ‘a large and commodious building’ by Samuel Lewis in 1837, having just been repaired the previous year. Having remained in use until the last century, how regrettable to see what was a part of the town’s history, and prosperity, for more than 250 years allowed to fall into such a shabby state.