In the mid-1780s, Ralph Smyth purchased the Gaybrook estate in County Westmeath from one John Gay (reputedly related to the earlier John Gay, whose 1728 ballad drama The Beggar’s Opera, produced by John Rich, was famously said to have made ‘Rich gay and Gay rich’). Advised by amateur architect, the Rev Daniel Beaufort, Smyth embarked on building a new residence for himself on the property, but the gates and lodges are of a later date, constructed by his younger son Robert who inherited the place in 1827. At the eastern end of the estate, the front elevation of this one, with a canted central bay, suggests the house was only on one level. However, examination of the rear indicates it was actually two storeys high. Dean, in his gazeteer of Leinster lodges, speaks of the octagonal entrance hall having ‘a delicately vaulted plaster ceiling’ but alas, no evidence of this now survives, in consequence of the lodge being long neglected. The house itself, having survived until the early 1970s, was subsequently demolished.
Dromdihy – otherwise Dromdiah – County Cork has featured here a couple of times, the first occasion almost eight years ago, when the building was in a very poor condition and looked as though it were destined to go the way of so many other abandoned Irish country houses: into oblivion (see pictures above). However, a couple of years later, the property was bought by a couple determined to bring it back to life and when the Irish Aesthete revisited in 2018 (see pictures immediately below) work had begun on clearing the site and parts of Dromdihy hitherto submerged in vegetation had re-emerged. The interior also, much of it previously inaccessible, was likewise visible and even possible to explore (albeit only at basement level, the upper floors having long-since been lost). Further progress was made, but then the pandemic intervened, putting something of a halt to proceedings. Now, however, work on the site has resumed and considerable changes occurred, as can be seen by the latest number of photographs (see bottom series). All being well, within another year or two, Dromdihy will habitable and once more be a family home.
As was noted here back in 2015, Dromdihy dates from the early 1830s when constructed for Roger Green Davis, agent for the absentee landlord Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke. A description of the house thirty years after being built noted that it ‘consists of a centre and two wings, ornamented with Doric columns and with a portico at the eastern end, by the hall is entered, and off which are hot, cold, vapour and shower baths. The first floor comprises five sitting-rooms; on the second floor are four best bedrooms, with dressing-rooms and water-closet…’ Evidently Green Davis spared no expense on the property: it is said that the stone was cut by craftsmen brought from Italy for the purpose. But if the design was admirable, its execution left something to be desired: seemingly from the start Dromdihy suffered from damp, the roof leaking and the interior manifesting both dry and wet rot. Green Davis’ son John, a barrister, sold the place to William Stopford Hunt, an Assistant Land Commissioner and well-known cricketer. He retained ownership of the estate until 1923, at which time the house and surrounding ninety acres were purchased by the O’Mahony family. They ran a manufacturing and timber business on the estate but by 1944 the house was deemed uninhabitable and its roof removed. It went into decline thereafter, one that until recently looked irreversible. But, as has already been mentioned and as these pictures demonstrate, provided sufficient determination and imagination exist, no building is beyond salvation. Dromdihy deserves to be held up as an example of what can – and should – be done in this country.
Unlikely to last much longer: a ruined tower house in County Tipperary known as Knigh Castle. The north-west portion of this four-storey building survives best, but much of the other walls has tumbled down, exposing the interior with its barrel-vaulted roof on the first floor. Despite occupying a prominent position on high ground beside a crossroads, little is known of Knigh Castle, and soon it threatens to become no more than a memory.
Portarlington, County Laois has featured here on a couple of previous occasions (see A Boarded Up Boarding School « The Irish Aesthete and On the Market « The Irish Aesthete). In both instances, astonishment was expressed that so many historic buildings in what could be a jewel of a town – and a magnet for tourism in Ireland’s Midlands – were being left to fall into ruin. In Andrew Tierney’s 2019 guide to Central Leinster, Portarlington is politely described as ‘once elegant’, thereby only gently suggesting the place’s chronic decay and shabbiness. As mentioned previously, the town takes its name from Sir Henry Bennett, Baron Arlington, who was granted land here in 1667 by Charles II and created a settlement on his property. However, it was only at the end of the 17th century, after Portarlington had passed into the hands of Henri de Massue, second Marquis de Ruvigny (subsequently Baron Portarlington and Earl of Galway) that the town really began to prosper. The marquis was a Huguenot and, like many other members of his faith, had fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Spending much time in this country, he encouraged his co-religious to move to Portarlington, which soon became an important centre, not just for trade, but also for education; a considerable number of schools were established in houses around the town. However, the schools have long-since gone, and so too has all evidence of the town’s prosperity.
Today’s pictures show the former Rectory on Portarlington’s Main Street. Although a considerable part of the town’s population in the 18th century was Huguenot, the Church of Ireland also had a presence here, as evidenced by this building, constructed around 1780, although somewhat altered a century later. Of five bays and two storeys over basement, its significance is indicated by the fact that the house has been slightly set back from the road, the door approached by a flight of stone steps. At some date, either late 19th or early 20th century, a small pavilion or kios, was erected in front of and linked to the southern part of the building. In due course, the rectory was used as offices while the kiosk served as a local branch of Allied Irish Bank, until it was closed down in October 2012. Since then, it would seem that the entire site has sat empty and left to fall into its present state of appalling dereliction; part of the rear of the old rectory has collapsed, its condition not helped by the demolition of the adjacent building to the immediate north. Last year, the former rectory was placed on the derelict sites list and this may have been responsible for the owners, a County Monaghan-based development company, to apply for conversion of the property into a series of flats, with the additional construction of a three-storey block to the rear. On the other hand, the same company was previously granted permission for almost the same conversion in June 2019, and since then things have only grown worse. A death of Main Street: this is a sad state of affairs, but one now typical of Irish cities and towns in the 21st century.
The former gate lodge to Flesk Castle, County Kerry, both now in ruinous condition. Of two storeys over basement, the brick-and rubble rendered lodge takes the form of an octagonal tower with castellated roofline and Tudoresque hood mouldings over the door and windows, the former having quatrefoil-decorated spandrels. It would appear there was only one room per floor, and with no signs of an internal staircase, J.A.K Dean (in his gazeteer of Munster gate lodges) suggests access between different levels must have been via an external staircase. Flesk Castle was designed by and built for owner John Coltsman in the second decade of the 19th century, so presumably he was also responsible for this building.
The first St Johns to come to Ireland were of Anglo-Norman origin and settled here in the 13th century, many of them in what is now County Tipperary. It is, therefore, not surprising to find one of the places in which they established themselves came to be called St Johnstown, or that this now contains the remains of what was once a substantial tower house: St Johnstown Castle.
St Johnstown Castle dates from some time in the later 15th/early 16th century when many such edifices were being constructed. While the precise year remains unknown, the man responsible for commissioning the building does not, since inserted above the main entrance on the east side of the building is a large carved panel, the centre of which is occupied by a shield divided into quarters: two sets of six scallop shells diagonally face two sets of three fishes. Around the shield, and onto the surrounding wall, raised lettering carries the following inscription ‘Robert De Sero Johe Ons De Cualeagh, Lismoynan, Scadanstown Et socius Illuis Plebis Fecit.’ (Robert St John, Lord of Cooleagh, Lismoynan, Scadanstown, and a friend of his people had me built). Of rough-hewn limestone from a local quarry, the now-roofless, five-storey tower house is some 60 feet high and measures 35 feet from east to west, and a little over 29 feet from north to south. There are chimney stacks on the north and south sides, and substantial bartizans wrapping around the north-east and south-west corners. While the lower floors have only narrow slits to let in light, more substantial window openings exist on the upper levels
It would appear that at some date during the upheavals of the 17th century the St Johns were displaced from this property, which then passed into other hands; by the second half of the 18th century, it was owned by one Matthew Jacob, whose only daughter and heiress, Anne, in 1782 married the M.P. Richard Pennefather of New Park. St Johnstown Castle was subsequently inherited by one of the couple’s sons, Matthew Pennefather but by 1837 Samuel Lewis could refer to it as being ‘the property of James Millet Esq who has a modern house in its immediate vicinity.’ Millet died in 1850, after which there does not seem to be much information about what happened to the place. But the ‘modern house’ mentioned by Lewis is of interest, since it looks to be a late 18th/early 19th century building with pretensions towards grandeur: lying to the immediate north of the tower house, it is of seven bays and two storeys with one bay, single-storey wings to either side. Although the site is now accessed via the yard behind the house, originally there was a drive that swept through the parkland to the south and then arrived at the main, east-facing main entrance, with a fine carriage arch leading to the aforementioned yard on one side. While the tower house has long since been abandoned, the same is not the case for the later building, albeit this now rather dilapidated. A fascinating example of a site that, while undergoing alterations, has remained in use since the Middle Ages.
When writing of Waterford architect John Roberts here on Monday, notice was made that his death occurred in 1796 when, at the age of 84, he fell asleep in the city’s unfinished Roman Catholic cathedral – which he had designed – and caught a chill. Four years earlier, Waterford Corporation had been presented with a petition from members of that faith requesting that a plot of land be provided so that a suitable place of worship might be built, more than three and a half decades before all Penal legislation was reformed. The site given was that already occupied by a Catholic chapel, but the new cathedral occupied much more space than had its predecessor. As mentioned, Roberts was the architect responsible, as he had been 20 years before for the Church of Ireland’s new cathedral in the same city. The two buildings share certain characteristics, borrowed from James Gibbs, such as the great line of Corinthian columns running down the nave. Also like Christ Church, it has been subject to alterations (not least the addition of a new facade in the late 19th century) and no longer looks exactly as Roberts intended, but these two cathedrals are unique in having been designed by the same architect, the father of two siblings whose common characteristics cannot be denied.
‘The new church in this city is a very beautiful one, the body of it is in the same stile exactly as that of Belfast already described; the total length 170 feet, the breadth 58. The length of’the body of the church 92, the height 40, breadth between the pillars 26. The isle (which I do not remember at Belfast) is 58 by 45.
A room on one side the steeple space for the bishop’s court, 24 by 18; on the other side a room of the same size for the vestry, and 28 feet square left for a steeple when their funds will permit. The whole is light and beautiful, it was built by subscription and there is a fine organ bespoke at London.’
Description of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford from Arthur Young’s A Tour in Ireland, 1776-1779.
There has been a Christian place of worship on the site of Christ Church Cathedral since the 11th century and famously in 1170 this was the venue for the marriage of Strongbow (Richard de Clare, second Earl of Pembroke) and Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurrough. In 1210, the original building was replaced by a new cathedral which survived until the 18th century when the city’s corporation expressed a desire to erect a modern structure. However, the bishop of the time, Richard Chevenix, was reluctant to allow the old cathedral’s destruction so, according to local legend, it was arranged that one morning, as he walked past the building, a quantity of rubble and dust would be dropped from the roof onto his path, thereby encouraging him to agree with the corporation’s proposal. The first plans for a new cathedral were drawn up in 1739 by William Halfpenny (to whom the design of the original hunting lodge at Castlecor, County Longford is also attributed, see: A Worthy Recipient « The Irish Aesthete) but these were not carried out. In 1773 Dublin architect Thornas Ivory was asked to report on the condition of the cathedral and recommended that it be rebuilt. Nevertheless, he did not get the commission, this going instead to a local man, John Roberts.
John Roberts was born in Waterford in either 1712 or 1714, son of architect and builder Thomas Roberts whose own father, also called Thomas and described as ‘a Welshman of property and beauty’ had settled in the city in 1680. It is believed that as a young man, John Roberts spent some time in London, although nothing is known of what he did there and to whom, if anyone, he was apprenticed. Returning to Waterford around 1744, he fell in love, and eloped, with Mary Susannagh Sautelle, daughter of a well-to-do Huguenot family who did not approve of the relationship; as a result, she was disinherited and the couple’s first couple of years were difficult (they were, on the other hand, very happy together and went on to have 22 children, of which eight survived to adulthood). In 1746 the aforementioned Bishop Richard Chenevix, who knew both the Roberts and Sautelle families, gave the young architect his first great opportunity, inviting him to complete the episcopal palace, originally designed by Richard Castle but left unfinished at the time of the latter’s death. Thereafter, other commissions followed, although not all of them can be confirmed. Among those outside Waterford city which have been attributed to Roberts are the great forecourt at Curraghmore (see Now Available « The Irish Aesthete) and Cappoquin (see Risen from the Ashes « The Irish Aesthete), both in County Waterford, as well as Tyrone House, County Galway (see A High House on High Ground « The Irish Aesthete) and Moore Hall, County Mayo (see When Moore is Less « The Irish Aesthete). Within and in the immediate vicinity of Waterford city, Roberts – who took a long lease on the old bishop’s palace beside the cathedral – designed several other buildings such as the Assembly Rooms and Playhouse (1783), a new Leper Hospital (1785, now an apartment complex), Newtown House (1786, now Newtown School) and a private residence for William Morris (1795, today the Chamber of Commerce). Famously, 20 years after designing Christ Church, in 1793 he was commissioned to design a second cathedral in Waterford: dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, this was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in Ireland since the Reformation. The commission also proved to be the death of Roberts. Accustomed to rising daily at 6am, one morning he mistakenly got up at three and, going to inspect work at the cathedral, he found the place empty: sitting down, he fell asleep and as a result caught a serious chill that resulted in his demise in May 1796 at the age of 84. Popularly known as ‘Honest John Roberts’, it was later written that ‘to all in his employment he was especially kind and thoughtful, He was in the habit of paying half the wages to the wives on Saturday rnorn:ing, that they might purchase to advantage at the early market and he always gave to each the exact money and thus to some extent prevented a visit to the publichouse for change.’ He was also the founder of a remarkable dynasty, two of his sons being the artists Thomas Roberts and Thomas Sautelle Roberts, a grandson being Abraham Roberts, a general in the East India Company, and the latter’s son being Field Marshall Frederick Roberts, first Earl Roberts.
On January 17th 1774 the committee of Christ Church Cathedral met to consider the best method of either taking down and reconstructing or repairing the building. The members agreed that ‘the plain plan omitting the rustik work laid before the committee by Mr. John Roberts for re-building the cathedral appears to be the most eligible of any as yet produced to us. Estimate 23,704- 5s-6d. The old steeple to be taken down and the bells placed in the French church.’ (Evidently Roberts’ original design suggested a degree of rustication on the exterior of the cathedral, its exclusion being most likely on the grounds of cost). Work soon began and most of it was completed by 1779 at a cost of £5,397, somewhat higher than the original estimate, and even as late as 1783 subscriptions were still being raised for the steeple. Built using as much stone as was possible from its demolished predecessor, the new Christ Church’s design is much indebted to the churches of James Gibbs which Roberts would have seen during his time in London as a young man. Here, for example, as in the case of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the limestone spire rises at the west end of the building, directly behind the portico, graduating from a square base in three stages up to the octagonal steeple; much of the detailing here is indebted to Gibbs’s spire for St Mary le Strand. Unlike the portico of St Martin-in-the-Fields with its six great Corinthian columns, that of Christ Church has just four of the Doric order, thereby making less of an impact than might otherwise be the case, but the side elevations and arrangement of windows clearly borrows from the London church. So too does the interior, even after being considerably re-ordered in the late 19th century. Entering through the west end portico, the visitor first steps into an open ante-chapel, separated from the main body of the cathedral by a screen supporting the organ; in this space, some funerary monuments salvaged from the old cathedral were installed (including a rather fine one to the brothers Nicholas and John FitzGerald by John van Nost). Beyond the screen, the nave, 80 feet long, is separated from the aisles by a splendid line of Corinthian columns supporting the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The checkerboard floor of white marble and black limestone is original, as is the reredos at the east end with its pedestalled Corinthian columns and pilasters on either side of a centre panel with sunburst. The reredos was once topped by a line of urns, but these have since gone, along with other elements of Roberts’s scheme. We know how the interior once looked thanks to a print published in 1806. This shows that the nave was lined on either side by galleries resting on rusticated pedestals supporting the Corinthian columns; at ground level, there were the customary box pews. The ceiling decoration was somewhat different to that seen today, owing to a fire in October 1815, ‘occasioned by the neglect of some persons who were employed to attend a stove placed in the organ loft, for the purpose of airing it.’ Not only were the organ and surrounding woodwork destroyed but the ceiling so badly damaged that it had to be redecorated, but the result is unquestionably splendid. In 1889-91, the architect Thomas Drew carried out extensive alterations to the interior, including the galleries’ removal, new choir fittings, pulpit, lectern, the addition of architraves & mullions to windows, and the closing up of lower windows (the absence of galleries rendering these redundant). In addition, the rusticated column pedestals were taken away and replaced with others of red Cork marble and carved Caen stone. So this is what we see today: a somewhat bastardised version of John Roberts’s design but still one beautiful enough to merit Mark Girouard’s 1992 description of Christ Church Cathedral as ‘the finest 18th century ecclesiastical building in Ireland.’