Rising from the Dead

Anyone driving south-east from Durrow, County Laois on the N77 cannot fail to notice a striking ruin on a rise just outside the town. This is Knockatrina, yet another Irish house with unclear origins. The land here was owned by the Flower family, created Viscounts Ashbrook in 1751, whose main residence was nearby at Castle Durrow. The fifth Lord Ashbrook had three sons, the youngest of whom, Lt-Colonel Robert Flower is known to have been living in Knockatrina by the late 1860s following his marriage to Gertrude Hamilton: with no expectations of inheriting the main property, this would have been as much as he could expect to receive. And as the youngest of the family, he had to earn his living which he proved admirably capable of doing since he had a strong interest in engineering. He was responsible for a number of inventions, including a handloom for the unskilled and a latch-hook needle for faster weaving: these devices would be put to use by his neighbour the fifth Viscount de Vesci who in 1904 opened a carpet factory in Abbeyleix. Two years later Robert Flower became eighth Viscount Ashbrook, neither of his elder brothers having had male heirs (in 1877 the sixth Lord Ashbrook had divorced his wife Emily on the grounds of adultery with a Captain Hugh Sydney Baillie). As a result he came into possession of Castle Durrow but by that time the family finances were in poor condition and three years after his death in 1919 the ninth viscount was obliged to sell Castle Durrow.






Knockatrina was inherited by the eighth Lord Ashbrook’s eldest daughter the Hon Frances Mary Flower who in 1893 married Henry White, the younger son of a neighbour. As early as 1908 she and her husband were in trouble for failure to pay debts yet somehow they managed to hang on. Following her husband’s death in 1923, Frances White continued to farm and train horses, despite being declared bankrupt in 1928. It was only in 1946 that she finally moved out of Knockatrina and into a nursing home in Kilkenny where she died the following year aged eighty.
Knockatrina meanwhile had been bought by Mary Mooney who acted as housekeeper and companion to another local woman, Amy Mercier (Mary Mooney would be the beneficiary of the latter’s will). It seems Ms Mooney acquired Knockatrina as an investment rather than a residence since in 1958 her agent, a farmer in the vicinity, arranged to have the house stripped of all removable fittings and unroofed (this was the period when any such building with a roof was liable to domestic rates, hence many of them had the slates removed). Left a shell, Knockatrina quickly deteriorated and the land on which the remains stand was subsequently sold.






As is so often the case, no records appear to exist offering information about when Knockatrina was built or who might have been its architect. It has been proposed that Robert Flower was responsible for the house’s construction but this seems unlikely, not least because by the time he moved there the family was already burdened by debt. More importantly, on the basis of design it looks to belong to the group of medium-sized country houses including Rathwade, Wykeham and Mount Leinster Lodge. There were all in nearby County Carlow and built during the 1830s to the designs of the prolific (and – like the Flowers – permanently indebted) Daniel Robertson in a loosely Tudor Gothic style. If Knockatrina belongs to the same group, and indeed was designed or inspired by the same architect, this means it would have been erected during the lifetime of the fourth Viscount Ashbrook, whose first wife Deborah Friend was a considerable heiress. Given its proximity to Castle Durrow, Knockatrina would then have served as either a dower house or an agent’s residence. However neither would have been required by the late 1860s, so handing it on to a younger son made sense. Inevitably given that the house has been unroofed for almost sixty years almost nothing of the interior survives (other than some tiles on the entrance hall floor). Fortunately, as can be seen in the photographs above, the present owner does not wish for the building to fall into further disrepair. On the contrary, he is keen to undertake a programme of restoration over the coming years and return Knockatrina to residential use. All being well it won’t be long before the view from the N77 offers passers-by not a ruin but once again a fully functioning house.

Playing to the Gallery


The extraordinary first-floor gallery at Crom Castle, County Fermanagh. Designed by Edward Blore, the present house dates from the mid-1830s to replace an earlier castle destroyed by fire: ironically sections of this one suffered the same fate soon after completion and had to be reconstructed. The core of the castle is given over to an inner hall that features a bifurcating staircase composed of wood and plaster and in late-Perpendicular style. It rises to the generous gallery screened by a run of arches at either end, the whole lit by an immense octagonal roof lantern.

An Incomplete Story


In recent years there has been some discussion about when the Franciscan Order first arrived in Ireland. A long-standing tradition had it that the earliest friars here established a house in Youghal, County Cork in 1214 (twelve years before the death of Francis of Assisi). However, the earliest contemporaneous account of an Irish Franciscan house dates from 1233, and refers to a property in Dublin which was evidently well-established by then since mention is made of the need to repair a church and house. Whatever the facts, the Franciscans proved highly popular and over the course of the thirteenth century, some 45 friaries had been set up across the country, usually at the behest – and with the funding – of an important local family. Such was the case with the house at Ardfert, County Kerry established in 1253 by Thomas FitzMaurice who would be buried in the church close to the altar following his death in c.1280.






The remains of Ardfry Friary indicate it was a substantial building. The wide body of the church concludes in a five-lancet window. As was usual with mendicant houses, the church had no side aisles but in the 15th century a transept was added on the southern side. This has a handsome nine-lancet window removed from the building in 1670 and installed in nearby Ardfert Cathedral before being returned to its original location in the second decade of the 19th century. To the north of the church lie the remains of the cloister, only the eastern side being still intact. In the 15th century a six-storey tower was added to the complex at the western end of the church, presumably to provide secure accommodation for the friars during a period of considerable internal turmoil when even religious establishments were not safe from attack. Ultimately, like all other such houses, Ardfert Friary was closed down in the 16th century, after which it passed into the control of Colonel John Zouche, an English soldier at the time based in Munster. By the 1630s the property had passed into the possession of the Crosbie family with whom it remained until the last century.






Ardfert Friary today stands in the middle of what was once a landscaped park, with the religious house serving as a romantic ruin. It is hard to appreciate this now because the former Crosbie residence has gone. The family, originally called Mac an Chrosáin, were bards in Laois who in the 16th century moved to Kerry. There Sean Mac an Chrosáin changed his name to John Crosbie, converted to Anglicanism and in 1601 became Church of Ireland Bishop of Ardfert. It was his descendants who occupied the site of the old friary and who towards the end of the 17th century built themselves a new residence, named Ardfert Abbey. Surviving photographs give an idea of what the building looked like with the main block, its breakfront centre pedimented, flanked by two ranges that came forward to create an open forecourt (further outbuildings ran on either side). Internally the most striking room was the hall, its panelling painted in monochrome with a series of classical figures running around the walls. But there was also a fine early-18th century staircase and handsome early classical reception rooms. All survived intact until Ardfert Abbey was burnt in August 1922, the remains being subsequently demolished. As a result, visitors to the friary today only see part of the site’s history and can easily misread the setting in which the building stands. An important part of Ardfert’s history has been forever swept away so that what now remains tells only part of the tale.

 

The Passing of a Pioneer


A view of the south front of St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, County Waterford drawn by Jonas Blaymire and engraved by J Haydon in 1739. At that date the building still assumed the appearance given after an extensive programme of restoration work undertaken by Sir William Robinson from 1769 onward. Robinson rightly features prominently in A Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 published in 1981. Sadly its author, Rolf Loeber, who thanks to the Hon Desmond Guinness was able to live in Castletown, County Kildare during the book’s preparation, died in Pittsburgh earlier this week. Although a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology, Loeber had a life-long passion for Ireland’s architectural history, first inspired when as a student in Amsterdam in the 1960s he had read a copy of Maurice Craig’s Dublin 1660-1860. Beginning with an article on Irish Country Houses and Castles of the Late Caroline Period: An Unremembered Past Recaptured (Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society XVI, 1973), he published extensively on the subject, often breaking fresh ground and often in collaboration with his wife Magda (together they produced A Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900 which appeared in 2006). His knowledge and passion will be much missed by everyone interested in Ireland’s built heritage.

In Loving Memory


Inside Christ Church, Ballymartle, County Cork dates from 1866 when it replaced an earlier building, the ruins of which can be seen close by. Several funerary monuments were moved from the latter, including this touching memorial to William Meade erected by his parents, Sir John Meade and his wife the Hon Elizabeth Butler, a daughter of the second Viscount Ikerrin: their grandson, also called John, would be created first Earl of Clanwilliam in 1776. But William had long since departed this world since, as the inscription notes, having been born in 1689 he died in 1702, less than a fortnight before what would have been his thirteenth birthday.

In Search of Fresh Purpose


As an area of both study and preservation, the relative neglect of ancillary buildings on Irish country estates has been mentioned here before. While the main house may be – scrutinised, the surrounding structures which did so much to sustain it – is often overlooked. Take the substantial range of buildings shown here today, which lie adjacent to Coolure, County Westmeath. Despite their scale and evident quality of finish, they pass unremarked in Casey and Rowan’s 1993 volume on the Buildings of North Leinster. This is not an unusual circumstance but one that deserves rectification: at the moment if we often know too little about who was responsible for designing and constructing many Irish country houses, we know even less about the origins of their outbuildings.
At least some of those at Coolure must date from the same period as when work began on the house proper c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. It was extended in the 1820s, probably to accommodate their substantial family, and the yards may have been proportionately increased in size then also. Finally a number of buildings, not least a vast and now roofless two-storey barn, were erected in the 1850s, thereby completing the ensemble.





Changing circumstances along with improved technology, the break-up of large estates, better methods of agriculture, alternative means of transport: all have played their part in making country house outbuildings mostly redundant. Who now needs lines of stables (one set occupied by horses required for riding and carriages, one for animals used about the farm) and coach houses, or piggeries and dovecotes? But the buildings once deemed essential for these purposes, and many others beside, still stand, testament to how rural Ireland operated for centuries. The ranges at Coolure are especially fine, and a credit to the family responsible for their erection. Some have been converted to residential use, and some adapted as storage space or to provide temporary shelter for livestock. But what – to pick a single example from many – can now be done with a hen house, its interior specifically designed to contain rows of niches in which eggs could be laid (and from which they were then conveniently collected)? Buildings such as these demonstrate how an estate with sufficient resources would become an almost self-contained world, producing the foodstuffs required by those living there. Surviving account books from the 18th and 19th centuries reveal just how little needed to be bought, other than wine and spirits (beer could be brewed on site), tobacco and a handful of other luxuries. The fields yielded up their harvest to be stored in barns, livestock provided meat, ponds held fish, walled gardens and orchards were filled with fruit and vegetables. No wonder the outbuildings at Coolure are so substantial: they played a critical role in ensuring the estate functioned smoothly.





Deprived of their purpose, buildings such as those at Coolure can slip into decline, although they are perforce so sturdy that frequently they survive longer than the house they were intended to support. Built of rubble and cut limestone, and with slate roofs, these ranges are carefully planned to perform their task with maximum efficiency. Now that job is no longer required, the question needs to be asked: can a fresh purpose be found for them? In recent years an annual series of grants to encourage the preservation of traditional farm buildings has been provided by the Department of Agriculture through GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme) and administered by the Heritage Council. This is intended ‘to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Although admirable, the scheme suffers from two drawbacks when it comes to outbuildings such as those at Coolure. Firstly the grants offered, while obviously much appreciated, are not enormous: between €4,000 and €25,000. Secondly, according to the Heritage Council, ‘the key conservation principle of minimum intervention should apply, that is, carrying out a repair to fix what is wrong but not setting out to do too much work. Works which are, in the opinion of the Heritage Council, restoration works, are very unlikely to be supported with grant aid.’ So outbuildings that need to be restored in order that they can find a new function would seem not to qualify. Perhaps another scheme might be established for this purpose? Fine, well-designed and solidly constructed buildings like those at Coolure merit help in finding a new lease of life.