The so-called abbey in Mungret, County Limerick. There had been a monastery here, supposedly founded in the mid-sixth century by Saint Nessan, but due to frequent assault and despoliation over subsequent centuries, no trace of the original buildings survives. Instead, what can be found here dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1179 Donal Mór O Brien, King of Leinster granted the monastery and its lands to the Bishop of Limerick, and this subsequently became a parish church for Augustinian Canons Regular. The building is divided into three sections, the oldest part at the east end being the chancel, followed by the nave and then, at the west end, a square tower added in the 15th century and incorporating living quarters for a priest. Following the 16th century Reformation, the building continued to be used by the Church of Ireland until replaced by a new church designed by the Pain brothers in 1822 and located a short distance to the west of the older structure. The Pains’ work – which took the form of a Greek cross – did not survive long, since falling numbers of parishioners meant the new church at Mungret closed just 55 years later in 1877, before being unroofed in 1900, with much of the stone then reused to build a parochial house in nearby Raheen.
‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech-owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’
‘…But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern. We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’
‘…But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm* What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left.’
Extracts from Pleasure of Ruins by Rose Macaulay (1953). Photographs show Ballymorris, County Laois, a house believed to date from c.1760 and which appears to have been occupied until some 15 years ago but has since fallen into its present sad condition.
One of Dublin’s best-known – and most visible – public monuments: the Wellington Testimonial in the Phoenix Park. Originally conceived in 1813 (in other words, two years before the Battle of Waterlook), this enormous obelisk faced in granite ashlar measures 220 feet from base to apex and is 120 feet square at the base. Designed by Sir Robert Smirke, funds of £20,000 for the monument were raised by public subscription. Work began in 1817 and was completed three years later, albeit without the three pedestal bas-reliefs. Finally unveiled in 1861, these represent, on the west, the 1799 Siege of Seringapatam (actually overseen by Wellington’s elder brother Richard Wellesley who was then Governor-General of India), on the south a celebration of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation (achieved while Wellington was Prime Minister) and on the north, the Battle of Waterloo. The east face carries a laudatory inscription to Wellington in Latin and English. The original intention was for an equestrian statue of the duke flanked by guardian lions to be placed in front of this side of the monument, but although the pedestals were erected, the figures never materialised.
Last weekend marked the centenary of the final burning of a big house in County Kerry during the War of Independence/Civil War period, the property in question being Ballycarty, which lay to the south-west of Tralee and had been occupied by the Nash family since the third quarter of the 18th century. In total, 15 such houses in the county were destroyed during the period 1920-23, a list of these appearing in the recently published The Big House in Kerry: A Social History edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe. Amid the 18 properties examined in individual chapters by different authors, four of them are among those lost at the time: Kilmorna (burnt April 1921 and its occupant Sir Arthur Vicars killed), Ballyheigue Castle (burnt May 1921, see Particularly Commodious « The Irish Aesthete), Ardfert Abbey (burnt August 1922) and Derryquin (burnt August 1922).
In a fascinating chapter at the start of The Big House in Kerry, historian John Knightly looks at ‘The Destruction of the Big House in Kerry 1920-23’ and the various reasons for these properties being burnt. He proposes that the destruction of two houses was due to suspicions that they might be used by British forces, seven were burnt as a result of land agitation, and six the consequence of looting. It is clear that in the aftermath of the First World War and the economic depression that followed, a large number of agricultural workers found themselves in dire circumstances, leading to agrarian unrest. Initially much of this took place in north Kerry with attacks made on large farms, popularly known as ‘ranches.’ The persons involved sought for these land holdings to be broken up and divided into small parcels for distribution among the local populace. By this time, taking advantage of schemes such as the 1903 Wyndham Act, many estate owners had sold the greater part of their land and only held onto the immediate demesne. Some owners, in the face of threatened or actual attacks on their property, sought to sell up and leave, although given the real or incipient violence, purchasers were not easy to find. A number of owners simply decided to leave. In north Kerry, Rose Trent-Stoughton, last owner of Ballyhorgan, who had already sold much of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, organised for the house’s contents to be auctioned in April 1919. Since she, by then an elderly woman, was living in England, the building was vulnerable to theft: in March 1920 two men were charged at Listowel District Court for removing boards, door frames and a gate from Ballyhorgan. Two months later, the house, dating from the 1750s, was set alight and left a shell: the first of such arson attacks in Kerry. The remains were later demolished and nothing now remains. Glenbeigh Castle, otherwise known as Winn Towers, was next: like Ballyhorgan, it was unoccupied but in this case rumours had spread that the building was due to be taken over by a British regiment. Having stood empty for some time, the castle, designed by Edward Godwin in the 1860s, did not burn easily. The leader of those responsible for its destruction later wrote ‘after sprinkling twelve tins of petrol over the floors, it refused to light, and at dawn I was faced with a problem. It was damp, old and much of it stonework. I noted a lot of shrub nearby, and sent the men to collect and fill up one room with it…’ And so it went on, often in waves, with a series of attacks in spring 1920, another during the same period the following year, a third in summer/autumn 1922 and then, closing the sequence, Ballycarty in January 1923.
It is important to note that while their destruction should be lamented, only 15 Kerry country houses were burnt in the years 1920-23. In another, introductory chapter, John Knightly observes that at the start of the last century there were some 115 properties in the county. These varied in size and age, and the amount of land holdings differed considerably. Three families – the Petty-FitzMaurices, Brownes and de Moleyns – owned estates running to almost 100,000 each, but others might have a few hundred acres. Inevitably, most of them were members of the Church of Ireland but a few, not least the Earl of Kenmare, were Roman Catholic: interestingly in 1913/14 the local president of the Irish Unionist Alliance – formed to oppose home rule – was the aforementioned Lord Kenmare. Knightly estimates that out of a county population of 160,000 in 1911, perhaps between 700 and 1,000 were members of this landed elite. The situation soon began to change, the burnings of 1920-23 being just one factor in this transformation. As Knighty comments, ‘Ultimately, the Land Commission and the Irish State were responsible for more big houses than the War of Independence and Civil War combined. The process begun in 1879 at the start of the Land War was thus completed over 100 years later. High taxes, high rates and falling incomes did the rest.’ Typical in this respect is Flesk Castle, abandoned in the 1940s (although now happily being brought back to use). Knightly notes that today only four Kerry houses remain in the hands of the family responsible for their construction. But others happily survive, such as Beaufort (subject of a chapter by Donald Cameron), a picture of which can be seen below.
The Big House in Kerry: A Social History, edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe is published by Irish Life and Lore (€39.00)
After last Monday’s fake castle, here is the real thing. Now situated on the north bank of the Grand Canal (which would not have existed at the time of its construction), this is the four-storey Srah Castle, County Offaly which dates from 1588 when built by Andrew Briscoe and his wife Eleanor Kearney. As was typical of tower houses of the period, it has a battered base, machiolation directly above the single, round-headed entrance, a series of gun-loops and a bartizan on the south-west corner (its match on the north-east has since collapsed, leaving a large hole in the structure). To the immediate west are the remains of a large hall, of which little other than one gable end survives. Seemingly the castle was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars and never recovered, the Briscoes moving elsewhere in the county.
Despite Ireland being a relatively small country, it can often be difficult to discover information about many of our historic buildings, the precise details of their origin and development lost to local fable. Such is the case with Gortkelly Castle, County Tipperary, about which surprisingly little is known. Samuel Lewis, for example, did not include the place in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) nor, more than a century later, does it appear in Mark Bence-Jones’s Guide to Irish country houses (1978), or indeed in any other relevant publication. Yet this is hardly a modest cottage, so the absence of documentation is strange, although by no means unusual.
It appears that for at least two centuries, Gortkelly was home to a branch of the Ryan family. In 1746 John Ryan received a lease for 31 years of the land on which the house stands. The lease was given by one Daniel Ryan: despite the same surname, the two men are not thought to have been related. Based at Inch, a few miles to the east of Gortkelly, Daniel Ryan was that relatively rare individual in the mid-18th century: a Roman Catholic who had held onto a large estate. Six years before granting the lease, he had employed John Ryan as an agent, to oversee the management of his property, collect rent from other tenants and so forth. Presumably John Ryan had proven competent in the position, and this explains why he was leased several hundred acres at Gortkelly. The lease was renewed in 1781 to Andrew Ryan and then in 1814 to John Ryan. In the 1870s, another Andrew Ryan of Gortkelly Castle, Borrisoleigh, owned 906 acres in County Tipperary. This estate was advertised for sale in December 1877 but the family seems to have remained in residence, since one Patrick Ryan is listed as dying there in 1937.
As already mentioned, almost no information exists about the building now known as Gortkelly Castle. www.buildingsofireland.ie proposes that the core of the house dates from c.1800 with alterations made to its external appearance some 30 years later. However, given that John Ryan received his lease on the land here in 1746, the original construction date could be earlier. On high ground facing almost due east, the building clearly began as a classical house of five bays and three storeys; an extensive range of outbuildings, presumably from the same period, still stand to the immediate south. From what remains of the interior, it appears there were four reception rooms on the ground floor, with the central space to the rear occupied by a staircase hall lit by a tall arched window on the return. At some subsequent period, the decision was taken to modify the exterior – of rubble limestone – so as to give the house the appearance, if only superficially, of a castle. Accordingly, a crenellated parapet was added to the front and side elevations, slender octagonal towers placed on corners of the facade, and the entrance dressed up with a projecting polygonal tower climbing above the roofline to a belvedere which must have offered wonderful views across the surrounding countryside. These elements are of brick, the whole building then rendered and scored to look as though of dressed stone. These decorative flourishes are so shallow that they must be early 19th century, certainly before the Gothic Revival movement demanded a more authentic historical approach. Whoever was responsible for this work is now unknown. Seemingly Gortkelly Castle was unroofed around 1940 (in other words, a few years after the death of Patrick Ryan) and then left to fall into the striking ruin that can be seen today, another part of Ireland’s architectural history wrapped in mystery.
Located on the summit of Carrick Wood, County Laois, this is Ireland’s other – and older – Spire. A circular folly crowned with an immensely tall stone conical roof, the date of its construction is uncertain. Writing in 1801, Sir Charles Coote proposed that the spire had been erected ‘to give employment to the poor in the year of the great frost’ (namely 1740-41). On the other hand, in 1814 William Shaw Mason wrote that it had been built ‘by the late Lord Viscount Carlow, grand-father of the present Earl of Portarlington’. Since the Carlow viscountcy was only created in 1776, this suggests a later period of construction. Another notion is that the building was originally a windmill, later converted into a folly. Restored in 2005, it remains in good condition although, alas, marred by the inevitable – and inevitably unimaginative – graffiti.