On the Nail


Now incorporated into the wall of the graveyard surrounding St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (see the recent post, A Significant Anniversary, July 2nd 2018): a row of Tuscan columns that once formed the ground floor arcade of the city’s Exchange building. Originally built in 1673, the original building was demolished in 1702 and rebuilt, with further building taking place in 1777-78. James Pain was paid £432.17s 5d for repairs and alterations to the structure in 1815 and his younger brother George Richard £182.1s 2½ d for more of the same four years later. By 1872 the Exchange was in use as a national school before being eventually demolished. Nearby in the city museum is preserved a limestone pillar with copper plate on top, known as the nail. Given to the Exchange in 1685 by Robert Smith, Mayor of Limerick, this was used by merchants to confirm transactions between themselves. It is often proposed that the phrase ‘payment on the nail’ derives from the Limerick monument, but it is found in texts from the previous century and there were similar nails in other mercantile cities such as Bristol.

Developments Awaited



The recent run of good weather in Ireland has turned everyone’s attention to gardens (if only to wonder, given a recent hose ban, how to keep them sufficiently watered). There has always been a strong public appetite for visiting gardens, especially those developed over a long period of time. One of the most popular in recent years has been Altamont, County Carlow, which offers the additional allure of free admission. Running to almost 100 acres, Altamont was developed around a house which, as so often in this country, has a complex and at times unclear history.






Originally known as Rose Hill, the present property at Altamont dates from the 18th century, although it has been proposed that the house incorporates an older dwelling, possibly a mediaeval religious establishment. Various dates are given for the core of the building, anything from 1720 to 1770 but during the earlier period a branch of the St George family was in residence and seems to have been responsible for its construction, including the polygonal bay on the east-facing façade. By the later part of the 18th century Altamont was occupied by the Doyles: curiously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, a mid-19th century illustrator and watercolourist, was called Charles Altamont Doyle. By that time, the place was owned by Dawson Borror whose father had been a landscape architect: it was he who initiated changes to the demesne and gardens to provide local employment in the aftermath of the Great Famine (not least the creation of the lake). Borror also extended the house, adding a wing on the north side for a library and other rooms, and then making further alterations in the early 1870s. Half a century later, Altamont came into the ownership of Feilding Lecky Watson: first he and then his daughter Corona North were largely responsible for giving the gardens their present appearance.






Following the death of Corona North in 1999 Altamont passed into the care of the Irish State, which through the Office of Public Works has continued to care for the gardens and keep them open to the public. Hitherto the house at the centre of the site remains closed. An article in the Irish Times in December 2007 noted that the building had been rated by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being of national importance and quoted then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government John Gormley as saying that the house would be ‘a very important tourist attraction in the Carlow area and a wonderful amenity for local families.’ The economic recession began soon afterwards and the building stayed shuttered. It also appears legal complexities delayed the formal handing over of the property to the OPW: this only occurred in January 2014 when then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Brian Hayes announced plans to open Altamont House to the public in the future. The following year a government press release reported that Simon Harris, then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works had visited Altamont where he explained his office ‘has already carried out vital remedial and maintenance works to the house and the entrance road and I am pleased to confirm that design work is at an advanced stage for the new Tearooms for which it is hoped to lodge planning permission very shortly.’ In December 2016 local media advised that work was ‘finally going to start in earnest into developing Altamont House into a place for visitors to the gardens to go.’ In February of last year the Carlow Nationalist reported that then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Seán Canney had visited Altamont and announced the organization was close to submitting planning permission for tea rooms in the building: ‘It’s a hugely ambitious project to renovate the house and it’s going to cost a substantial amount of money.’ Since then necessary repairs have been carried out on the roof. Further developments are awaited and, all being well, before too long the building at the heart of Altamont’s gardens will open its doors to the public.


Out of Work

An unrestored section of the former union workhouse at Donaghmore, County Laois. As with the majority of such buildings erected across the country from 1839 onwards, this one was designed by George Wilkinson, although the earlier neo-Tudor style he employed had long since been abandoned by the time work started here. Completed in September 1853, the project cost £4,750 with a further £775 spent on fittings. By the time it opened, the Great Famine had ended and thereafter workhouses gradually fell out of use: this one closed in 1886. For much of the last century the premises were used by local farmers for the Donaghmore Co-Operative Society. More recently a front portion of the site has been converted into a museum.

Sorrow in Sunlight


The graveyard of Grey Abbey, County Down. A Cistercian monastery was founded here in 1193 by Affreca, wife of John de Courcy and daughter of Godred Olafsson, King of the Isles after she had vowed to create such a house if given a safe passage across the Irish Sea. The abbey was closed down in 1541 and then the buildings burnt some thirty years later by the O’Neills to stop English colonists using them. On land directly behind the east end of the church the graveyard, where once monks had been buried, continued in use and is accordingly packed with tombstones tumbling one over the other. Particularly poignant is this stone erected to commemorate Isabella Green who died in December 1816 aged ten months.

On the Fringes of Europe


The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.





Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.





Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.

In need of TLC


The limestone doorcase of Abbeyfield House, Ennis, County Clare. Believed to date from c.1750, in the early 19th century the building was home to Matilda Crowe with whom Thomas ‘Honest Tom’ Steele, the friend and supporter of Daniel O’Connell, was passionately in love. He would sit on a rock on the other side of the river Fergus and gaze at Abbeyfield House in the hope of catching a glimpse of Miss Steele but to no avail: she ignored his overtures. Today the house is a police station and desperately in need of some of the love once lavished on its former chatelaine.

A Writer’s Haven



Dating from c.1800, this house in Banagher, County Offaly is described in http://www.buildingsofireland as being a striking feature of the streetscape ‘and one of the grandest structures within the town.’ The bowed breakfront with conical roof and the finely tooled stone doorcase is charming, as are the Wyatt windows on ground and first floor. In use as an hotel from the early 19th century onwards, two celebrated writers spent several years here: Anthony Trollope between 1841 and 1844 while working as a Post Office Surveyor’s Clerk (and writing his first published novel The McDermotts of Ballycloran) and James Pope-Hennessy in the early 1970s while writing biographies of both Trollope and Robert Louis Stevenson. Badly damaged in an arson attack in September 2012, damage to the building was not repaired which now looks in danger of being lost forever.