A Brighter Future?



The former Town Hall in Loughrea, County Galway. Occupying the site of an earlier linen hall the building, seemingly designed by Samuel Usher Roberts, dates from c.1860 when erected on the instructions of Ulick de Burgh, Marquess of Clanricarde who then owned Loughrea. In 1928 Viscount Lascelles, future sixth Earl of Harewood, who had inherited much of the Clanricarde estate through his grandmother, donated the town hall to the local residents; it was thereafter used as a cinema on the ground floor with a dance hall upstairs. The building was closed down in the late 1980s and has stood empty ever since but of late thanks to persistent efforts by the citizens of Loughrea plans have got underway for its restoration and conversion into a cultural and community centre. With funds now secured and an architectural design team appointed, the hope must be that, after more than 30 years of wasteful neglect, this building finally has a brighter future.*



*P.S. According to a tourist information board opposite the building, it was ‘used as a cinema in the mid 19th century.’ Who knew films were being screened in County Galway so far ahead of anywhere else…

A Fine Past, A Sad Present


Alas, the dilapidated remains of Athcarne Castle, County Meath now indicate little of its distinguished history, which go back at least 900 years. The name of the place is thought to derive from either Ath Cairn (the Bridge/Fording Point at the Cairn) or Ard Cairn (High Cairn). Whichever is the case, this indicates that it was originally the site of a pre-Christian cairn, or burial mound: it may well be that the structure seen today rests on top of or adjacent to a cairn. For hundreds of years, the lands in this part of the country belonged to the Bathe family, descendants of Hugo de Bathe, and Anglo-Norman knight who, as his name explains, came from Bath and who arrived in Ireland with Hugh de Lacy in 1171. It may be that Hugo de Bathe built some kind of castle or defensive fort here but eventually this was succeeded by the tower house which still survives and constitutes the eastern portion of the building. Rising four storeys and presumably erected in the 15th or 16th century, the tower has large window openings on the upper levels which were clearly later than the original structure; those on the topmost floor are topped with stone mouldings and there is a buttress on the north-east corner.






Until the mid-17th century the Bathes were a prominent family in Ireland, with large landholdings in north County Dublin, where they built a number of other castles at places such as Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Three of them would serve as the country’s Lord Chief Justice while John de Bathe was Attorney General in 1564 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer 1577-86. Around 1590 his son William Bathe, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and then married (as his second wife) Janet Dowdall (as her third husband) built what, from a surviving engraving, appears to have been an Elizabethan manor house onto the west side of the old tower house; it may well have been around this time that the latter’s windows were enlarged. The couple’s respective coats of arms can be seen on a slim tower on the south-west corner of the present building, seemingly having been moved to this location in the 19th century. Despite remaining Roman Catholic, the Bathes appear to have survived and held onto their estates until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when, along with other landed families of the same faith, they rose in rebellion. And, like so many other landed families of the same faith, upon the arrival of the Cromwellian forces towards the close of the decade, they found themselves on the losing side. As a result, their considerable lands were forfeited and distributed to members of the English army, Athcarne being granted to one Colonel Grace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bathes sought the return of their property, but were unsuccessful, since it was now granted to Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II). Following further appeals, the duke returned Athcarne and surrounding 1,200 acres on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent: the rest of their former lands he retained. When James II came to Ireland, it is claimed that he spent the night before the decisive Battle of the Boyne at Athcarne Castle, which was, after all, only rented to the Bathes. In any case, soon after the start of the following century, the family had gone, James II was in exile in France, and Athcarne passed into the hands of another family, the Somervilles who in turn rented it on a long lease to the Garnetts.






Athcarne Castle remained occupied by successive generations of Garnetts until the early 1830s when it was acquired by the Gernons, once more a family of Anglo-Norman origin (mentioned here recently, see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete). It appears the Gernons were responsible for pulling down the Elizabethan manor house and replacing it with a new residence, the remains of which can still be seen. This is a castellated three-storey block originally two rooms’ deep. A modest, single-storey entrance porch was added on the south side (previously access to the building had been from the north). It was probably also around this time that the little tower in the south-west corner was constructed and the Bathe/Dowdall coats of arms, previously on the exterior of the manor house, placed there as a souvenir of the castle’s earlier history. By the last century, the Gernons, rather like their predecessors on the site, were in decline. The surrounding land was sold and finally in 1939 an auction of the contents was held; among the lots, apparently, was a bed dating from the 17th century, the bed in which James II had slept the night before the Battle of the Boyne. In May of that year, the Land Commission offered the castle and remaining 88 acres for sale. Left empty, the building was unroofed and left as a shell in the early 1950s and so it has remained ever since. 

 

Continental Influences



At a minor junction on a minor road in County Meath stands this rather fine stone cross, notable for being rather later in date than the many others found around the country. The monument was erected c.1675 by Cecilia Dowdall to mark the occasion of her marriage to Sir Luke Bathe who lived nearby at Athcarne Castle (of which more shortly). Standing some eight feet high, the cross’s east face features a high relief carving of the crucifixion, Christ’s arms raised above his head, and his feet resting on a skull. The west side has a shield containing the arms of the Dowdall and Bathe families and the instruments of Christ’s Passion, below which is a tender carving of the Virgin and Child which displays the influence of Renaissance art not previously seen in such work here in Ireland (Raphael’s Sistine Madonna immediately comes to mind). 


From Here to Beer


Formerly the entrance but now the garden front of Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. The house is believed to have been built c.1724 for the Rev. Arthur Price*, who was then the local rector (he later rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Archbishop of Cashel). Tall and somewhat austere, Oakley Park’s design is attributed to Thomas Burgh, also responsible for the Old Library at Trinity College, of which it is somewhat reminiscent. In the late 18th century, the house was acquired by Lady Sarah Napier, sister of Lady Louisa Conolly who lived nearby at Castletown, and Emily, Duchess of Leinster who lived at Carton. It appears thereafter to have changed hands regularly and at some date in the 19th century, the entrance was moved to the other side of the building (see below). Since 1953 the house and surrounding grounds have been used by the St John of God religious order who run a training centre here for disabled children and young adults.


*Arthur Price’s land steward in Celbridge was one Richard Guinness. On his death in 1752 he left £100 to Guinness and his son, Arthur – Price’s godson – who a few years later established a certain well-known and still flourishing brewery.

The Enkindled Spring


This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.



I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.



And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.


The Enkindled Spring by D.H. Lawrence
Photographs of Balrath House, County Meath (balrathcourtyard.com)

Elsewhere in Town…


Thanks to the presence of the Trench family at Garbally on the edge of the town, the historic centre of Ballinasloe, County Galway has handsomestreets lined with fine stone buildings dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Alas, many of them have fallen into poor condition, such as this dwelling on the corner of Duggan Avenue and Church Hill (and therefore at a crucial space facing the St Joseph’s Church of Ireland). Dating from c.1810, more than a decade ago it was cruelly, and crudely, stripped of the original render during an apparent renovation scheme long since abandoned. The building is notable for its carved limestone doorcase and remains of a leaded fanlight. Alas its immediate neighbour is in little better condition and the house directly opposite retains only its ground floor walls. Disappointing to see what could be an enchanting spot in the town allowed to remain in such neglect.

All Ranks and Religious Distinctions


Dating from 1840 and designed by George Papworth, this is the Le Poer Trench Memorial in Ballinasloe, County Galway. An open-sided monument of limestone, above a raised base it comprises a fluted Doric column set on the diagonal of each square column directly behind, the whole supporting a deep frieze above which is set a domed roof with urn finials on top of the projecting corners. In the centre of the base rests a stone coffin, as the memorial was erected to commemorate the Venerable Hon. Charles Le Poer Trench who for many years served as Vicar of Ballinasloe (he was also Archdeacon of Ardagh) and who died in 1839. The Ven.Hon. Charles was a son of the first Earl of Clancarty (of the second creation) and originally, owing to its position atop a high mound, the memorial would have been visible from the family’s seat, Garbally which is located on the outskirts of the town. According to an inscription on one side of the memorial, it was raised thanks to ‘subscribers of all ranks and religious distinctions.’ 


Preparing the Ground

One does not, as a rule, associate the late Knight of Glin with gardens (although his wife, Olda FitzGerald is a very fine gardener who has done much splendid work at Glin Castle). However, in 1976 with Edward Malins he co-authored a wonderful book called Lost Demesnes: Irish Landscape Gardening 1660-1845. The fact that an architectural historian should have been involved in this project draws attention to a crucial and often overlooked fact: that any examination of a country house needs to involve an exploration also if the building’s setting. Also, and just as importantly, it is extremely challenging to appreciate properly the layout of a country house demesne if the property which once stood at its centre – and indeed gave reason for its existence – no longer stands: one thinks of sites like Rockingham, County Roscommon and Heywood, County Laois which are like beautiful frames missing the picture which they once surrounded. Rather like books on country houses, both before and since, there have been publications looking at Irish gardens. A book of that name, for example, written by Edward Hyams, appeared in 1967. But this focussed on individual places, as have many of its successors. What set Lost Demesnes apart was that while naturally containing descriptions of many gardens – most of them, as the title indicates, long gone – the book contained a chronological account of the evolution of horticulture in Ireland across almost two centuries. And, as was so often was the case with the Knight’s work, underlying this scholarly investigation was a plea for better understanding and preservation of what country house gardens remained.





In his Foreword to Lost Demesnes, Desmond Guinness noted that ‘the life expectancy of a garden is short, shorter by far than that of the buildings in whose shadow it may chance to lie. And memory of it is shorter still, for if those who described Irish country houses are few and far between, fewer still are those who had anything at all interesting to say about their gardens.’ What makes Lost Demesnes both so significant, and engaging, was precisely that it gathered together all surviving fragments of memory and knowledge, and for the first time presented them to the reader in a coherent narrative. The text is also complemented by an abundance of illustrations (and this is where, one suspects, the Knight played a leading role) that further help when it comes to understanding the specific characteristics of the Irish country house garden and how this evolved over time.
In 1980, four years after Lost Demesnes had appeared, a companion volume was published, Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830, again involving Edward Malins as one of the co-authors but this time working with garden historian Patrick Bowe. The second book was intended to continue the story begun by its predecessor, as the two writers make plain in their introduction, bringing the story of Irish gardens up to what was then the present day but is now more than 40 years ago. Indicative of how quickly circumstances can change, the book closes with a discussion of four ‘modern’ gardens largely created in the second half of the last century by private individuals. These are Birr Castle, County Offaly; Malahide Castle, County Dublin; Glenveagh Castle, County Donegal; and Mount Congreve, County Waterford. Of this quartet, only one remains in private ownership (Birr Castle), the other three now being in the care of either the state or the relevant local authority. And as Malins and Bowe noted, such ‘majestic paradises of concentrated immensity’, displaying singular vision and grit in their creation, would likely ‘never again be made by private individuals if taxation continues at the present penal level.’ 





At least part of the fascination of Lost Demesnes and its successor lies in discovering places which have since disappeared, which of course is implied in the former work’s title. The earliest, Baroque-style gardens have fared especially poorly in this country, with only a handful surviving, of which the one in Killruddery, County Wicklow is the most notable example, although fragments of others remain in places like Antrim Castle, County Antrim. Otherwise we must rely on a variety of sources, such as contemporary topographical paintings of the likes of Howth Castle, County Dublin, Carton, County Kildare, Stradbally Hall, County Laois and Mount Ievers, County Clare, all of which show what was later swept away as fashions in garden design changed. Another fascinating resource, especially for famous but now vanished gardens such as that created by Viscount Molesworth at Breckdenstown, County Dublin, is John Rocque’s map of County Dublin produced in 1757, Another invaluable resource, much cited by garden historians, is Mrs Delany’s correspondence; it helps that she was herself a keen gardener at Delville (another sadly lost demesne) and an excellent draughtsman, so that she provides both verbal and visual descriptions of sites around the country. Later, painters and engravers began to produce their own images of Irish gardens and once photography became reasonably common in the 19th century, these places were also widely recorded, not least because by that time gardening was of interest to a wider section of society than had earlier been the case. So the Malins/Bowe volume is replete with photographs from c.1860 onwards offering us an idea of how those great Victorian gardens looked at a time when labour was cheap: included, for example, are two pictures taken in the 1890s of the parterre and terrace gardens at Woodstock, County Kilkenny which demonstrate the enormous work required to maintain such spots in pristine condition. The singular combination of interest and effort are required both to establish and sustain a garden, and this is what makes them so vulnerable to loss, especially in Ireland where our temperate climate means Nature will quickly reclaim any ground she has surrendered to a gardener. Lost Demesnes and Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830 were both pioneers in the field, and since then much more research has been undertaken, and published, on the subject of Irish garden history, not least by Drs Finola O’Kane and Vandra Costello. But here, as in other fields of study, it is always worth noting trailblazers who prepared the ground for those who followed.


All today’s photographs taken from Lost Demesnes: Irish Landscape Gardening 1660-1845 and Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830

Little Known

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.


With rounded edges


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…)