Very Plain, Too Bald


The limestone portico of Loughcrew, County Meath re-erected, at least in part. This singularly unlucky house was thrice burnt within a century and twice re-constructed. But after the third fire the building was demolished and Greek Ionic portico lay in pieces on the surrounding ground until partially reassembled a few years ago. Loughcrew was a neo-classical house designed by Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s for the Naper family. It was always an exceptionally severe looking building, and as has been noted, recalled a courthouse rather than a residence. Even its architect judged the finished work ‘very plain, too bald’, whereas what remains of the portico is wonderfully evocative and might almost serve as a symbol for all the other ruined country houses in Ireland.

A Melancholy Centenary



Not all anniversaries are necessarily cause for celebration. Today marks the centenary of the burning of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, one among the first wave of Irish country houses to be burnt during the War of Independence, followed by many more over the course of the Civil War. Dating from the mid-18th century, Mount Shannon was originally built for the Oliver family but by 1765 it had been acquired by John FitzGibbon, who had converted from Roman Catholicism to the Established Church in order to practice law. This move ultimately also converted him into a wealthy man, so understandably the same profession was also followed by his son, another John FitzGibbon, who became known as ‘Black Jack’ for his hostility to the faith of his forebears and his advocacy of the 1800 Act of Union. Prior to that event, he served as last Lord Chancellor of Ireland and was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Earl of Clare in 1795. While he improved Mount Shannon and the surrounding demesne, it was his son the second earl who did most work on the place, not least by enhancing the façade with the addition of its great Ionic portico, designed by architect Lewis William Wyatt. Thanks to a pension secured by his father, he was also able to fill the interior with furniture and works of art collected during his travels in Europe, and from time spent in India as Governor of Mumbai (then called Bombay). Having no children, when he died in 1851 both title and estate passed to a younger brother.





The third Earl of Clare did not benefit from a government pension such as that enjoyed by his late brother, nor did he lead as charmed a life; in 1854 his son and heir, 25-year old Viscount FitzGibbon, was reported missing, presumed dead, after leading his troop of Royal Irish Huzzars at the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. His body was never recovered. So, when the third earl in turn died a decade later, Mount Shannon passed to the youngest of his three daughters, Lady Louisa FitzGibbon who likewise suffered various misfortunes: her first husband died, as did her son, and then her second husband – a Sicilian marchese – proved to be as just as impoverished as was she. Already in debt, the onset of the Land Wars finished off her prospects and in 1888 Lady Louisa’s creditors forced a sale of Mount Shannon and its contents. The house had two more owners before its eventual destruction, the first being Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor. He lived at Mount Shannon for less than a decade because in 1902, exactly a century after the first Earl of Shannon had died following a fall from a horse, Mr Nevins suffered the same fate. His wife followed him a few years later, and Mount Shannon was back on the market. Most of the land was divided up between local farmers and in 1915 the house and immediate surroundings were bought for £1,000 by one David O’Hannigan, who already owned a fine property some thirty miles to the south, Kilbolane House, County Cork (since demolished). However, he was unable to enjoy his new home for very long because on the night of June 14th 1920 Mount Shannon was set on fire by a local band of the IRA, leaving the building completely gutted; it is believed flames from the blazing site could be seen in Limerick city more than five miles away. What remains of the house has stood a ruin ever since. Over the next three years, there will be many more such centenaries to recall.


You can see and hear more about Mount Shannon on the Irish Aesthete’s new YouTube channel:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcrlzLgMnNA
and
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRPj6b6KCss

And a longer history of the house was published here in January 2014: https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/01/20/a-spectacular-fall-from-grace

What Might Have Been


South Hill, County Westmeath is a house of five bays and three-storeys over basement, believed to date from c.1810 and perhaps designed by Dublin architect William Farrell. The building’s most notable feature is a long, single-storey limestone pavilion attached to the facade and centred on a pilastered porch with wide fanlight. Constructed for a branch of the Tighe family, South Hill was then inherited by the Chapmans of Killua Castle, a few miles away; in 1870 Thomas Chapman became owner of the estate, following the death of an older brother. Chapman, who would later become Sir Thomas, seventh and last baronet, had four daughters with his wife, an ardent evangelical Christian. The couple hired a governess for the children, Sarah Lawrence and in 1885 she became pregnant, giving birth to a son. Chapman was the father, and when his wife discovered this, he left the family home and moved with Sarah Lawrence to Wales, where a second son, Thomas Edward, was born; having settled in Oxford, the couple would have several further sons. They and their four half-sisters appear never to have met each other.


Sir Thomas Chapman never returned to Ireland, although he continued to receive an annuity from the estate. His second son, who would become famous as Lawrence of Arabia, was aware of his Irish ancestry and of the fact that his father had lived in South Hill; in later years he considered acquiring land in the area, but this didn’t happen before his early death. Eventually the property was sold to an order of nuns and became an educational establishment. Today South Hill is surrounded by institutional buildings of outstanding architectural mediocrity.

Going Green


A 19th century greenhouse in the gardens of Muckross House, County Kerry. The estate was owned by the Herbert family for several hundred years until indebtedness required its sale in 1899 when bought by Lord Ardilaun (whose wife was related to the former owners). The reason for the Herberts’ financial problems is often said to have been the expense incurred in entertaining Queen Victoria when she stayed with them for a few days in 1861, but this rather seems to be an instance of seeking a scapegoat. Long before Victoria thought of coming to the area, the family had demolished their previous residence and built a large new one, plus spent lavishly on their gardens, including the provision of many greenhouses such as this one, so the suspicion arises that even without a royal visit they would have eventually come a cropper.

Kept in Repair


Although the second-largest town in County Kilkenny, Callan has a charmingly sleepy atmosphere, much of its centre blessedly free of contemporary intervention, or dereliction. Many of the shops still retain their original frontages, such as O’Brien’s, a delightful old-fashioned menswear business where visitors can borrow a key giving access to St Mary’s church on the other side of Green Street. The church, like the town in which it stands, is thought to have been founded by the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, at the start of the 13th century (although other accounts attribute the construction of St Mary’s to Hugh de Mapilton, Bishop of Ossory in c.1250). The great square tower to the west is all that survives of that original building today.






Other than its tower, the older St Mary’s was demolished in the 15th century and the present church built in its place, consisting of a nave with aisles 15 feet wide each with four-arch arcades, and a long – almost 60 feet – rectangular chancel. Like all such buildings, it suffered badly during the religious and civil upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, passing back and forth between Roman Catholic and Established Church authorities until finally the latter gained the upper hand. Thereafter it served the local Church of Ireland community which here, as elsewhere, was not large enough to require such a substantial building, only the chancel being used for services. As a result, as early as 1731 the Bishop of Ossory noted that ‘Callan Church, next to St Canice’s, the largest in the diocese; west end needs repairing.’ By the end of the century, it was reported that the nave was ‘now a ruin, but the chancel is kept in repair and used as the parish church.’






Perhaps because the Callan Union was a relatively wealthy parish, no funds for the restoration or refurbishment of St Mary’s was provided by the Board of First Fruits (it may be that no financial assistance, either as grant or loan, was sought). However, in 1837 the board’s successor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, provided £393 for the restoration of the chancel, in particular the re-roofing of this portion of the building. Little then happened until almost the middle of the last century when the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for the main body of the building. Once services were discontinued in the chancel in 1974, it too passed into the care of the same body which subsequently carried out various structural repairs, necessary because the nave had long been used as a burial site which resulted in subsidence. Many handsome tombs survive inside the church but regrettably this is not accessible, so only the exterior may be examined, its finest features being the limestone doorcases at the western end of the north and south aisles; both carry carvings of angels and other decorative designs (that on the north side features the head of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress).

A Study in Contrasts


The doorcase of a house standing on the north side of The Square in Durrow, County Laois. It is one of a number of properties developed here in the late 18th century by the Flower family, Viscounts Ashbrook, the entrance to whose estate lies to the immediate west of the terrace, adjacent to the Church of Ireland church. This house, of five bays and three storeys, has the finest doorcase, with carved limestone pilasters and entablature below the fanlight. Another in the same group can be seen below with its contrasting Gibbsian doorcase approached via charming wrought iron railings.

Well Weathered


A church at Cannistown, County Meath is thought to have been founded by St Finian of Clonard in the sixth century. However, the present structure, dedicated to St Bridget, was erected some 600 years later, probably by the Nangle family, granted land in this part of the country by the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy. Much of it was rebuilt in the 15th/16th centuries but thereafter it quickly fell into a poor condition: in 1612 George Montgomery, then-Bishop of Meath, wrote of Cannistown church ‘the chancel was repaired, but the church in ruins.’ So it has remained ever since.



The building’s most notable feature is its substantial chancel arch, which has decorative carvings at its base (above the pilasters on either side). Both well-worn and somewhat damaged, that on the north depicts three dogs attacking another animal, while the one to the south show three men and is thought to represent the Taking of Christ. There are also carved corbel stones above the, which would originally have supported the roof.

On a Prominence


Despite occupying such a prominent position overlooking the town, Millmount in Drogheda, County Louth is relatively little known. According to Irish legend, this site was the burial place for Amhairghin, a poet for the Milesians, supposedly the last race to settle in Ireland, at least until the Normans arrived. However, it seems more likely that the latter constructed a fort here, Drogheda being one of their most important settlements. Here in the 1180s, on a bluff overlooking the river Boyne, they constructed a motte and bailey, probably on the instructions of Hugh de Lacy; his son Walter would grant the town which grew up around the fort its first charter during the following decade. A stone castle was later built in the same place.




None of the buildings on the site today are of medieval origin. The original fortifications were all demolished in the first decade of the 19th century when the present Martello Tower was constructed on the highest point; this was the time of the Napoleonic Wars when fear of a potential invasion by the French (as had happened in 1798) led the government to develop a series of such fortifications around the coast. By this time, the area below the old castle had been developed into a centre for the British army, named Richmond Barracks. A range of two-storey accommodation blocks for soldiers, dating from c.1720 survives here, along with a number of other, larger buildings such as a Governor’s House and the officers’ quarters, both erected around the same time as the tower.




The buildings of Richmond Barracks survived into the last century, and were among the first to be vacated by the British Army, who handed over the premises to the Free State authorities in January 1922. However, a few months later, members of anti-Treaty forces occupied Millmount. In July, the Free State army shelled the place, thereby forcing its occupants to retreat but leaving the tower seriously damaged. It remained in this condition until the late 1990s when finally restored in time for the Millennium and opened as a museum. Meanwhile, a number of the houses below have also been refurbished and are now used for diverse purposes, some of them providing space for small businesses, workshops and retail outlets. A large area to the immediate west of this complex remains derelict and would benefit from attention by the local authority.

A Waste of Resources



Boarded up and falling into dereliction: the former administration block of the workhouse in Mullingar, County Westmeath. Many of the other buildings that were part of this complex have since been given fresh purpose by the Health Service Executive (albeit with the introduction of uPVC windows: when will official Ireland ever provide a lead here?). However, this handsome house, which is at the entrance to the site, is in a wastefully poor state, only saved from total ruin by being constructed in sturdy limestone. Dating from 1841 and built in the Tudor-Gothic style to the design of architect George Wilkinson, the building’s present state is a shameful waste of state resources.


Getting High



Another week, another cross, this one found in Killamery, County Kilkenny. A monastery was founded here in the 7th century by St Gobhan, and the High Cross is thought to date from the late 8th/early 9th century. Although there are scenes with figures (now well-worn) around the cross itself, the shaft is decorated with abstract patterns, those of the western front featuring a floral motif; seemingly a much-weathered inscription on the base reads OR DO MAELSECHNAILL, ‘A Prayer for Máel Sechnaill’ who was High King of Ireland 846-862. The capstone, which takes the form of a gabled roof, used to be touched by visitors as a cure for headaches.
The High Cross stands in the grounds of a graveyard close to the ruins of a former Church of Ireland place of worship dedicated to St Nicholas. Dating from 1815, it was constructed with assistance from the Board of First Fruits but services ceased to be held here less than 90 years later, and it has since fallen into its present state.