Built close to the shoreline of the river Shannon 210 years ago in 1812, only the three-stage tower remains of a little Church of Ireland church at Mount Trenchard, County Limerick. In the immediate grounds are the graves of Mary Spring Rice, a daughter of the second Lord Monteagle, who was among the group responsible for bringing a large number of rifles for the Irish Volunteers from Germany on board the Asgard in July 1914. Also buried here is her cousin, Conor O’Brien, grandson of William Smith O’Brien: a keen sailor, he also helped bring arms to Ireland at that time and then in 1923-25 circumnavigated the world in his yacht Saoirse. A plaque on the gateway into this peaceful little site records their names and those of others from the area involved in gun-running activities during the same period.
A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere.
‘Ireland is far more favoured by latitude than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish…The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds.’
The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed c.731 A.D.
‘The Irish climate is favourable to many plants which, though neglected, do better in Ireland than the countries from which they are imported.’
Dr Peter Lombard, De Regno Hiberniae Commentarius, 1600.
Across the centuries, observers have remarked on the kindly character of the Irish climate. While conditions vary somewhat from east to west, and from north to south, this island does not, as a rule, suffer from extremes of temperature: despite being on the same latitude as Newfoundland in Canada, our winters are generally mild (only dropping a few degrees below 0 °C) and our summers cool (even at their highest they seldom exceed 25 °C). Although winds are plentiful, they are rarely extreme and rainfall is abundant: the eastern half of the country averages 750-1,000 mm of rain per annum, that to the west 1,000-1,400 mm. These circumstances are further aided by the character of Irish soil, much of it rich and fertile. We enjoy a temperate climate perfect for the cultivation of a wide diversity of plants. And yet the cultivation of those plants and the creation of gardens in which to enjoy them, came relatively late to Ireland.
During the last century, in the aftermath of the First World War and the War of Independence, many Irish country house gardens were lost. The breaking up of the great estates, together with increased taxation and rising labour costs, combined to make the maintenance of these sites unfeasible for owners. Just as many country houses fell into dilapidation and ruin, so too did their surrounding demesnes and gardens. But it was not entirely a story of loss. From the late 19th century onwards, a number of Irish houses and estates had been taken over by Catholic religious orders, for use as schools, seminaries and so forth. Often the new owners sought to maintain the grounds of their property, thereby ensuring the survival of their predecessors’ work. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, growing public awareness and appreciation of our historic sites led to the establishment of a Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme. Grant-aided by the European Regional Development Fund and with a £4 million allocation, this scheme oversaw the restoration of some 24 gardens throughout the country.
Despite straitened circumstances, throughout the 20th century some country house owners continued to maintain their gardens and, in addition, a number of spectacular new ones were created. Across the millennia, gardening has been a passion exerting authority over some property owners and from which, as a rule, they never wish to be released. Happily, this remains the case in Ireland. And while, in the past, that passion might have been largely private, to be shared only with family and friends, today more and more of our finest gardens are open to the public, permitting all of us to revel in their outstanding qualities.
In Harmony with Nature:: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 is now open at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin and will continue to the end of July. For further information, please see In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)
Two doorcases in the entrance hall of Bellinter, County Meath, a house dating from c.1750 and designed by Richard Castle for John Preston. The two doors to the front of the room have the heaving lugging typical of this period but then atop a rectangular panel have caps studded with clusters of guttae. Meanwhile, the doorcase to the rear of the space has clearly been altered, probably in the early 19th century, but must always have concluded at a lower point in order to accommodate the plaster armory above. It’s all rather daft and completely wonderful.
In a small garden to the rear of Drumcondra House (now part of Dublin City University) can be found three much-weathered stone urns. Originally they stood on the parapet of the building’s south-facing front, thought to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: the east-facing Baroque facade of the same property has long been attributed to Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (see An Italian in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Photographs of Drumcondra House from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when it as All Hallows College (a training centre for Roman Catholic priests) show the urns still in situ, one in the centre and one at either end. At some date they were taken down, probably because of their condition but it is still possible to see their pedestals on top of the building.
Last January Drogheda, County Louth was named one of the dirtiest towns in Ireland in the annual Irish Business Against Litter report – placed 39 out of 40 locations surveyed, only Dublin’s north inner city was judged to be even filthier. Although obviously not an achievement worth celebrating, this information will come as no surprise to anyone who has been visiting Drogheda over recent years and watched the place sink further and further into degradation. In 1993, the Pevsner Guide to this part of the country, written by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey, observed that ‘As is too often the case, the 20th century has not been kind to Drogheda. However, the problems of the town lie not so much in the lack of quality in its new architecture as in the neglect and lack of concern for its historic buildings.’ That was almost 30 years ago: the situation has only grown worse over the intervening decades.
In contrast to its shameful present, Drogheda has a proud past: at the end of the 17th century, one visitor thought it a handsome, clean town ‘and the best I have seen in Ireland.’ Its location at the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea (the name Drogheda derives from Droichead Átha, meaning Bridge of the Ford) indicates strategic importance and from the Viking period onwards there was an important settlement here. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, lived here rather than in his titular seat, and six national parliaments were convened in the town between 1441 and 1494. A terrible disaster befell Drogheda in 1649 when it was captured and ransacked by members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the beginning of the following century it was once again booming and many of the town’s finest buildings were erected over the next 100 years. Commercial decline had already begun by the middle of the 19th century. When Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term still appropriate 180 years later. Over the past century, with improved transport links, not just the railway but even more the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin, which is less than 35 miles away, has only added to its problems.
There are many reasons why Drogheda should no longer enjoy the same prosperity as was once the case, but no reason whatsoever why the town should have been allowed to become such a sad, neglected, shabby mess. Everywhere one turns, there are empty buildings falling into ruin, historic properties which, in other countries, would be repaired and put back into use. Instead, no apparent effort has been made to preserve Drogheda’s outstanding architectural heritage. What could, for example, be a significant tourist destination – and therefore a source of revenue for the local community – is being wilfully ignored. At the moment, no visitor coming to Ireland could be directed to Drogheda, except to see how not to care for the urban environment. The local authority, Louth County Council, seems supremely indifferent to the condition of the town, showing absolutely no sense of pride in what should be one of the region’s finest assets. If there’s no sense of pride, there’s clearly no sense of shame either. Otherwise this situation would not be allowed to continue. Further words are redundant: the pictures shown today are sufficiently eloquent. Welcome to Drogheda, where the streets have no shame.
The very grand entrance into what appears to have been the yard attached to an adjacent house in the little village of Rostellan, County Cork. Seemingly dating from the mid-19th century, the high rubble stone walls are broken up by limestone ashlar pilasters and framed rectangular panels, while the centre is dominated by a large carriage entrance set into a Grecian-Revival arch. It all seems rather more substantial than would be expected on such a site: perhaps originally constructed for the nearby – but now lost – Rostellan Castle? (See Final Traces « The Irish Aesthete). During the spring/summer months, the yard operates as a local coffee and chocolate shop.
This week marks the first anniversary of the death of architect and garden designer Angela Jupe at her home at Bellefield, County Offaly, where the Irish Aesthete had paid a visit just a few weeks before that unhappy event. After graduating from university, she worked for a number of architectural firms before heading up a design team at the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). But by the mid-1980s she had established her own practice and begun to follow her personal passion for gardening. She created two businesses, the Traditional Gardening Company which specialised in garden design and construction, and the Garden Furnishing Company, a retail outlet.
As the name of her garden design business indicates, Angela Jupe loved old-fashioned gardens: an obituary in the Irish Times quoted her observation that ‘Some modern landscape architecture feeds only the eyes and forgets that we have noses for scent and hands for touch…Not only is there too much hard landscaping but it leads to plants that grow into a little circle requiring no pruning, care or attention.’ The first country garden she created for herself was at Fancroft Millhouse, County Tipperary which had stood empty and neglected for 12 years before she bought it in 1997 and embarked on a thorough restoration, not just of the grounds but also the house and outbuildings. Then in 2004 she took on a fresh challenge, moving to Bellefield, where the stables and walled garden had stood unused for the previous three decades.
Bellefield is a charming small gentleman’s residence dating from the first years of the 19th century. A keen believer in conservation and architectural salvage, Angela Jupe filled the house with decorative items brought from other buildings, as she also did when restoring the stableyard to the rear. And in the two-acre walled garden, which again benefitted from her attention and experience, she constructed both a charming little onion-domed folly and a large glasshouse from various pieces of salvage. The garden itself, formerly completely overgrown, displays her various passions, not least for snowdrops, of which there are more than 300 different varieties, one of the largest such collections in Ireland. In addition, there is an abundance of old French roses, rare daffodils, Chinese peonies and old fruit trees. Following her unexpected death, it emerged that she had left the Bellefield, the house and its garden, to the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) of which she had been a long-standing supporter and board member. The process of transfer of ownership is still ongoing, but the RHSI is currently maintaining the site and hopes to open it to the public next year.
A relic of Ireland’s industrial past, this is the Suir Mills, standing on the eastern side of the river just outside the town of Cahir, County Tipperary. Dating from the last years of the 18th century, like many other such premises, it was developed by members of the Society of Friends: excluded by law from many other activities, Quakers soon established themselves as millers in Ireland. This particular property is both substantial and compact and, as always, with such buildings, very sturdily constructed. Unfortunately, despite its sturdiness, many years of neglect in our post-industrial age have taken their toll on the mill, not least its roof, so that the whatever about the past, its future looks questionable.
‘Clifden is situated at the head of one of the most picturesque of the many bays of Connemara. It is about four miles from the ocean, but vessels of large tonnage can be brought up within a short distance of the town. The town is protected from the westerly gales by a range of lofty hills. It has been laid out in broad streets, and with some degree of regularity. It is favourably situated for drainage, and has from its situations various other local advantages.
It is mainly to the late John D’Arcy, Esq., of Clifden Castle, that Clifden is indebted for its existence. By granting liberal leases, frequently upon lives renewable forever on payment of small fines, that gentleman induced individuals to lay out their money in buildings of a decent class to such an extent as to form a town. The place now contains nearly 250 dwelling-houses, among which are several tolerable shops. There are also two inns, a large catholic chapel, a protestant church, a dispensary, a corn-store and several flour-mills. Antecedent to the famine, there was a growing export grain trade from this place; and as much as a thousand tons of oats have been shipped here in one year. From the mode in which Clifden was originally let, the amount of rental to its proprietor in no degree represents the value of the town. It produces, under existing leases, little more than £200 per annum. This, however, may be regarded in the light of a ground rent, and the whole of it under every state of circumstances is necessarily well secured.’
‘The D’Arcys of Clifden, who have been referred to as the proprietors of this town, are one of the most ancient and honourable families in Ireland. As their name indicates, they are of Norman extraction. There are said to be more peerages in abeyance in this family, than in any other in the empire. They boast of two baronies in abeyance, of a third forfeited, of three others extinct, and of an earldom, that of Holdernesse, which also expired by want of direct descendants. The first D’Arcy who settled in Ireland, came to the country in 1330. James D’Arcy was Vice-President in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and his son was one of the most distinguished members of the Catholic Convention in Ireland, in 1641. The original lands of the D’Arcys were lost by forfeiture; this, their latest wild possession, was obtained, it is stated, by a female of the family, as a reward of an act of generous heroism in protecting the lives of some English soldiers.’
‘The Clifden estate comprises, in addition to the town, the mansion and demesne of Clifden Castle, numerous islands in the bays and on the coast, and a large extent of territory on the peninsula, on which a reference to the map will show the reader that the town of Clifden stands. Clifden Castle itself is about two miles westward from the town. It stands at the head of a little bay of its own, protected by a semicircle of hills from the winds and storms which sometimes devastate the coast. There are plantations of twenty or thirty years’ growth about the house, which also minister to its protection. The edifice itself is a castellated villa. There is nothing about it which is at all magnificent; but its appearance from all points affords an idea of good taste, and even of refinement. The views from Clifden Castle extend to the ocean, over an expanse of bay, studded with rocky islands, and protected both upon the north and south by a long projecting range of headland. The aspect is wild and varied, and to the lover of marine scenery most striking. The shores are bold and rocky, though not generally lofty. Happy would it be were they more generally visited!’
Text from The Encumbered Estates of Ireland by W.T.H., 1850.
Dating from 1815, as mentioned above, Clifden Castle was built by John D’Arcy who a few years earlier had founded the nearby town of the same name: the architect responsible is unknown. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, his son was obliged to sell house and estate, its new owners – the Eyre family from Bath – buying both for £21, 245. They remained in possession of the place until 1917 when it was controversially sold to a local butcher. A few years later the castle and adjacent land was acquired by a cooperative and in the mid-1930s the building was stripped of all saleable materials and left the ruin still seen today.