Does any reader know more about this little Tudorbethan house located on a prominent junction in Callan, County Kilkenny. It appears to date from the third quarter of the 19th century and is stoutly built of limestone ashlar with a charming arched window inserted into the upper floor of the pedimented centre breakfront. When recorded for http://www.buildingsofireland.ie in 2004 it was still inhabited but has since been allowed to fall into the present dilapidated condition. To the immediate rear stand the shells of an abandoned Celtic Tiger-era housing development: a planning application for the completion of work here is dated August 2018 but nothing appears to have happened. Meanwhile, this building is at risk, despite being included on the local authority’s current list of protected structures.
Milltown Castle, County Louth is thought to date from the early 15th century when built for the Anglo-Norman Gernon family, who long held land in this part of the country. In many respects it is a typical tower house of the period, but made unusual by having rounded corners and a couple of semi-circular towers. Of four storeys, it underwent the usual alterations across the centuries but remained in use as a residence until relatively recently; a 19th century photograph shows buildings attached on either side, including a two-storey house, but these have since been demolished and today it stands in a farm yard (guarded by a pair of rather aggressive dogs, hence no closer pictures…)
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round
For many centuries Kells, County Meath – like Kells, County Kilkenny – was the location of a substantial religious establishment, but in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Meath town came under the control of the Taylour family, who lived close by at Headfort (and eventually became Marquesses of Headfort). Not surprisingly therefore, the focal point here, a wide thoroughfare has the name of Headfort Place and is lined with a sequence of handsome and substantial houses, evidence of the area’s prosperity in the late 18th/early 19th century. A short terrace of three-bay properties, constructed c.1780 and given identical pedimented limestone doorcases, occupies a stretch of the north side of Headfort Place. These buildings are all in excellent condition, and offer a contrast to what can be seen on the other side of the street. Here a detached house of slightly later date (note its starkly plain limestone doorcase) stands empty and in poor condition.
The shell of St Kieran’s church in Kells, County Kilkenny. Standing adjacent to the ruins of the better-known former priory (see The Secret of Kells « The Irish Aesthete), this little single-cell building is thought to have been established long before the arrival here of the Augustinians at the end of the 12th century. In the aftermath of the Reformation, it was adapted for use by the local Church of Ireland community, services being held on the site until 1844 when a new church opened for worship not far away. Since then it has stood empty, although the surrounding graveyard appears still to be in use.
In Ireland, when anyone asks ‘Have you looked at Bence-Jones?’ or begins a sentence with the words, ‘Well, Bence-Jones says…’, the reference is to a specific book: Burke’s Guide to Country Houses Volume 1. Ireland. Published in 1978 and featuring almost 2,000 properties, this was intended to be the first in a series of works covering all such properties in Britain and Ireland. As the publisher announced at the time, successive volumes would include ‘the standing and the demolished, the important and the “illustrious obscure” with the result being a series that would be ‘uniquely comprehensive’ and break new ground in the stressing family connections with individual houses. In fact, only a handful of further volumes appeared before the project ran out of steam, but that covering Ireland was so successful – it ran to six editions – that a decade later the book was republished, this time with a supplement that described an additional 130 houses, as well as additional information on some of those which had already been included in the original work. It also, very helpfully, included an index of family names and which houses were associated with them. Today, more than three decades later and despite all the published research that has appeared over the intervening period, ‘Bence-Jones’ as the author’s gazetteer has come to be known, remains just as important as ever
Mark Bence-Jones was born in England in 1930, his father the younger son of a family which had formerly owned Lisselane, an estate in County Cork (it was sold the year of Mark B-J’s birth). At the age of four he moved to India, his father Colonel Philip Bence-Jones having been appointed head of the engineering school in Lahore. The colonel’s wife May Thomas was a Roman Catholic and at the time of their marriage he had converted to her faith: their son was also an ardent Catholic. In 1945 the family returned to Ireland and four years later bought a property in north County Cork, Glenville which was Mark Bence-Jones’s home thereafter (for more on Glenville, please see: Glenville Park « The Irish Aesthete). After schooling at Ampleforth, he read history at Cambridge and then attended the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, before coming back to live at Glenville and over the next eight years wrote three novels. However, fiction was not to be his natural metier. In 1966 he published The Remarkable Irish, an amusing if somewhat skewed examination of the country at the time (‘Dior and dog’s dinners go hand in hand’ was a typical sentence, along with ‘Old ladies are the chief occupants of roofless country houses’). He produced three books about India, including one on its Viceroys, and another on English Recusant families, but Ireland and specifically her country houses and their owners, was the subject with which he was most comfortable and assured. First published in 1987 Twilight of the Ascendency was especially and rightly popular. An account of the declining years of pre-Independence Ireland’s ruling class, the book includes an abundance of anecdotes which Bence-Jones had gathered on his travels around the country; he was always a keen house guest. What emerges from Twilight is the impression of a fundamentally decent but doomed cadre, out of its depth in a changing world and, with only a few exceptions, unable or unwilling to move with the times. Bence-Jones’s entertaining and sympathetic prose ensured that the book became a best-seller and, like his guide to country houses, established something of a precedent; thereafter what might be summarised as Anglo-Irish social history became a popular subject.
The greater part of ‘Bence-Jones’ is given over to an alphabetical listing of houses both standing and lost, but the book opens with a substantial bibliography (which now, more than 40 years later, would have to be much longer) and then an architectural glossary. These are followed by an introduction that gives a brief history of the evolution of Irish country houses across the centuries before turning into a passionate advocacy for their preservation: as the author noted, even during the decade before the book’s appearance a number of the important properties had been lost. Bence-Jones believed all such houses were worthy of consideration, even those ‘of no particular architectural merit’ because ‘they have their own charm and character and the patina of age; while their contents, even if not of much interest to the connoisseur of art, is almost always fascinating to the social historian. One can also truthfully say that they have no counterpart anywhere else in Europe.’ This argument retains its validity but, regrettably, seems still not to have been learnt by the relevant authorities in this country who could still help to ensure a viable future for this part of our national heritage.
Then the reader moves onto the main body of the book which rewards repeated exploration, as there always seems to be another house to discover (even if only on the page since the building in question has long since disappeared). Sometimes the focus is on the architecture of a house, on other occasions the author paid more attention to the history of the owners or to stories associated with the building. So the book, as so often with Bence-Jones, is as much social history as anything else. The text is accompanied by an abundance of photographs, many of them drawn from historic sources, others contemporary with the publication. But in so many cases even since then circumstances have changed. Adare Manor, County Limerick for example was still occupied by the Wyndham-Quins when the first edition appeared; just a few years later, the family had to sell the property, and many of its contents were dispersed at auction. Today Adare Manor is an hotel. Similarly, look at the images of a few pages above. One of them shows Marlfield, County Tipperary which, again, was sold by the Bagwell family a few years later (it is currently back on the market). On a more positive note, Bence-Jones also included the early 17th century Portumna Castle, County Galway which was then in a state of near-total ruin. Now the place has been reroofed and extensively restored, thanks to the Office of Public Works. So this is not entirely a story of loss.
With the passage of time, in addition to its many intrinsic merits, ‘Bence-Jones’ has become an important historic document because, as mentioned, so much has since happened within the world of the Irish country house, both good and bad. It could be argued that the book’s contents have been superseded by more recent, and in some instances more scholarly work. In the interim, for instance, a number of volumes in the Pevsner Buildings of Ireland series have been published, but after 40 years there are only six of these (at most one-third of the country). In addition, they cover all built structures, not just country houses and usually mention only in passing places that have since been lost. A number of online resources have also emerged in recent years and deserve to be mentioned, such as Buildings of Ireland: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage and Landed Estates, NUI Galway both of which contain much useful information. Nevertheless, ‘Bence-Jones’ occupies a special place in the canon and continues to be indispensable. It will remain so until someone tackles the task of producing a new edition for the 21st century.
After Wednesday’s post about the Denis Kelly’s round tower at Killeroran, County Galway, it is worth pointing out that at the opposite end of the graveyard stands his the former mausoleum of the family which used to occupy the now-demolished Castle Kelly. On one side of the entrance is a handsome tombstone, erected to the memory of John Kelly who was interred here in March 1813. As was ever the case, his death is recorded as being ‘universally lamented.’