Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.
The former Castle Strange in County Roscommon derived its name from a family who held this land in the late Middle Ages, called L’Estrange. There seems some confusion about whether they were of Norman origin, or whether this was an Anglicised version of an old Irish name. In Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) the author proposes that the L’Estranges in County Westmeath had originally been called Mac Conchoigcriche, meaning border hound. Was this also true of the family of the same name in Roscommon? In any case, by the second half of the 17th century the L’Estranges, like so many other old families, had been driven out of their territory, the land in this instance passing into the hands of one Thomas Mitchell, a Scottish soldier sent to Ireland by General Monck in 1659 and seven years appointed by then-Lord Lieutenant James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, to serve as Cornet to a troop of horse under the command of Captain Nicholas Mahon. Mitchell subsequently settled in this part of the country and married, producing a large family, generations of which would live at Castle Strange. In the 19th century, successive members served in the British army, John Wray Mitchell rising to the rank of Major-General, while his son Edward became a Colonel. But further information about them, and their home, is not easy to find.
The first two photographs shown here show what remains of Castle Strange today: little other than sections of the two gable ends with portions of their chimney stacks. Seemingly built in the 1830s (after the estate was inherited General Mitchell’s father, another Edward), there appears to be nothing on record about its appearance when still intact and occupied, nor how it came to be in its present state (should anyone have such material, do please share). Meanwhile, the nearby yard to the east is in much better condition, in that at least the outer walls and sections of the roof remain in place. This very large, U-shaped block is constructed of limestone ashlar and, older images indicate, features a carved coat of arms above the central carriage arch, now impossible to see due to the thickness of ivy covering the building. The scale of this development indicates the affluence of the Mitchell family at the time, as do further ranges of farm buildings to one side. The other building of architectural interest is the now-derelict east lodge, again thought to date from the early 1830s and an exercise in romantic Gothic, with arched windows on either side of a central two-bay canted projection with a door on one side. Like so much else on this site, information about the building is scarce, making it another instance where a place’s history has been almost entirely obliterated. All very strange.
The façade of Oak Park, County Carlow, designed by William Vitruvius Morrison in the early 1830s for Colonel Henry Bruen. The building incorporates an earlier house and was originally a grand villa, of two storeys and five bays, one on either side of the giant tetrastyle portico. The latter, featuring four Ionic columns with wreaths in the frieze above, is almost identical to that at Ballyfin, County Laois and can also be seen at Barons Court, County Tyrone and Mount Stewart, County Down, on all of which buildings the Morrisons, father and son, worked. Oak Park was greatly extended in the 1870s and also extensively restored after a fire in 1902, but some of the original interior decoration survives, notably in the entrance hall and the former library. The last of the Bruen family to live in the house died in 1954; some time earlier his wife had run away with an impoverished Montenegran prince, Milo Petrovic-Njegos. After various legal disputes and changes of ownership had occurred, Oak Park and several hundred acres was acquired by the Irish State; today it serves as the headquarters of Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority.