Patrick Hennessy’s 1957 portrait of Elizabeth Bowen presides over a room dedicated to her memory in Doneraile Court, County Cork (her own home, nearby Bowen’s Court, was irresponsibly demolished in 1961). After being closed to the public for the past 25 years, Doneraile Court has once more been taken in hand by the Office of Public Works and officially reopens today. The decoration and furnishing of the ground floor rooms displays terrific flair, with a wonderful mixture of items, some in state ownership, others on loan from private collections, all blended together with aplomb. Having woken from its quarter-century slumber, Doneraile Court proves to be the sleeping beauty of Irish country houses: visits are strongly urged.
Yet another of Ireland’s pocket cathedrals can be found at Ardmore, County Waterford. A religious settlement is said to have been established here by local saint Declan, one of a small number of missionaries who are supposed to have preached the Christian message before the arrival of Saint Patrick. An 8th century oratory is supposed to be Declan’s burial place. The cathedral stands immediately adjacent to it, and dates from the 12th century.
The remains of Ardmore Cathedral look much like those of other Irish Romanesque churches, but the surprise lies on the west gable. A long blind arcade here features various Biblical scenes, and although some of these are well-worn, or now blank, it is still possible to work out certain images, such as those showing Adam and Eve on either side of the Tree of Knowledge, and the Judgement of Solomon. The same site also contains one of the country’s tallest Round Towers, of the same date as the cathedral.
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
The town of Portarlington, which straddles the border between Counties Laois and Offaly, dates from the mid-1660s when founded by Henry Bennet. An ardent supporter of Charles II, he was rewarded by the king with large grants of land in this part of Ireland, and sought to make the most of this gift by establishing a new settlement. Since he had been created Baron Arlington in 1665 (and made Earl of Arlington the following decade), he decided to call the town Port-Arlington, hence its name. The original English colony was not a success but at the start of the 1690s, a number of Huguenot families, religious refugees from France, came to Portarlingon and thereafter the town flourished. Dating from 1697, Arlington House, on French Church Street, was one of the first buildings to be erected by a Huguenot settler, Daniel Le Grand Chevalier Seigneur du Petit Bosc who lived here until his death in 1737. He was responsible for the rear section of the house, to which a new front with pedimented façade and first-floor Diocletian window was added in the mid-18th century. It later became a boarding school, one of the pupils who attended there being Edward Carson. In more recent years, despite its history and importance to the town, Arlington House has stood empty and allowed to fall into the present state of near-total ruin. It is, naturally, listed by the local authority for protection.
The rusticated limestone gate posts that once led to Ballintober House, County Cork. An old print shows these situated on another site, high above the now-lost house which had been built in the mid-to-late 17th century by the Meade family. Of Gaelic origin, the Meades were long-established in the Cork region, their name sometimes spelled Meagh or Miagh. Adapting and prospering according to changing circumstances, they became considerable landowners and by the early 18th century had been created baronets. In 1765 Sir John Meade, 4th Bt of Ballintober married one of the richest heiresses of the period, Theodosia, daughter of Robert Hawkins Magill of Gill Hall, County Down: eleven years later he became the first Earl of Clanwilliam. He later sold Ballintober and other lands in the area to a cousin, but the Meades remained in the area until the 1940s, after which the house here was demolished. Believed to date from c.1720 these gate posts and a few other remnants in the vicinity survive to indicate the importance of the Ballintober estate.
A midsummer visit to the cathedral in Ardfert, County Kerry took place on what in Ireland is known as a ‘soft day.’; In other words, it was teeming with rain, which made the experience hard going. A village of some 750 persons, there is some discussion about what are the origins of the name Ardfert. It could mean a place on an eminence, or perhaps Ardfert derives from ‘Ard Ert’, meaning the high place of Ert or Erc, since a 5th century saint called Erc supposedly made this the seat of a bishopric, hard to imagine today in such a small spot. But the size of the cathedral remains testify to Ardfert’s former importance, as do the nearby substantial ruins of the former Franciscan friary (see An Incomplete Story, https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/11/13/ardfert).
One of Ireland’s most famous saints, Brendan is said to have founded a monastery in Ardfert in the 6th century. Believed to have been born about six miles south of here, at the age of 26 Brendan was ordained a priest by the aforementioned Saint Erc. As well as Ardfert, he established monasteries in a number of other locations but most famously his restless spirit is said to have led him, accompanied by 16 followers, across the Atlantic Ocean to the ‘Isle of the Blessed’ (what is today North America): the earliest known account of this epic journey was written around the year 900. Hence the saint is known as Brendan the Voyager. More information on his life and travels can be found in a piece written here four years ago (see The Traveller’s Rest, https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/12/14/clonfert).
Although the present cathedral at Ardfert was begun in the 11th century, the greater part of it dates from the 13th century, with battlements added to the exterior walls two centuries later again. An important surviving feature is the doorway at the west end of the building: it is a fine example of Hiberno-Romanesque decoration, with outward pointing chevrons around the doorcase flanked on either side by paired blind arches in the same style. Similar features can be found in what remains of Temple-na-hoe, a small church to the immediate north-west of the cathedral. Those battlements added in the 15th century indicate how turbulent were the times, and so it remained for almost 200 years. During the Desmond Rebellions of the 1570s and ‘80s, the building was attacked and severely damaged, but appears still to have been used for services. However, in 1641 during the Confederate Wars, the cathedral was gutted by fire and temporarily abandoned. Some thirty years later, the south transept was restored and used by the Church of Ireland congregation for services until 1871 when a new church was built in the village. Ardfert cathedral is now under the care of the Office of Public Works, with the south transept used as a visitor centre and display area for some items found on the site. It also provides welcome shelter on a soft day…
Rathangan, County Kildare was once a prosperous market town and according to Samuel Lewis in the early 1830s, some 2911 people lived in the area (in the 2016 census, that figure was 2,611). Evidence of its former affluence can be seen in the many handsome houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries that line Main Street and Bridge Street. However, as is the case with so many towns around the country, while Rathangan’s outskirts are now ringed with new housing estates, much of the old centre has been allowed to fall into decay. One of the most visible victims of this neglect is the town’s largest and most prominent house, Rathangan Lodge.
The central block of Rathangan Lodge probably dates from c.1800 and is of five bays and three storeys over basement, the whole centred on doorcase with wide fanlight and sidelights. The sides of the building were hung with slates for additional insulation. It has been proposed that the house was originally built as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Leinster (who at the time owned much of the land around here) but more likely the first owner was a successful merchant. At some subsequent date, perhaps around 1840. seven-bay, two-storey wings were added on either side, each of them having a central entrance. The building appears to have been occupied, or at least used, until relatively recently but has now been permitted to fall into serious decay. It is of course listed for protection in the current Kildare County Development Plan, but none seems to be forthcoming. The neighbouring house, of slightly later date, has clinging to its gates a planning application from 2005, but no work looks to have been untaken here and the building is likewise now in near-derelict condition.
The name Athclare derives from the Irish Áth Cláir, meaning Ford on level land, and here in County Louth stands a mid-16th century tower house originally built for the Barnewell family, who were then prominent landowners in this part of the country. The building is of four storeys and, as was usual for such structures, has just an arched entrance on the ground floor, the sole point of access. A stone spiral staircase in the south-east corner leads to the upper levels, with a large hall on the first floor. Here can be found an enormous limestone chimneypiece, the border of which is decorated with fantastical animals amid trailing floral garlands.
Athclare Castle subsequently passed into the possession of the Taafe family who may have added the substantial wing to the east of the original building. The house was then acquired by London merchant Erasmus Smith who supplied provisions to Oliver Cromwell’s army and used the funds received to buy various parcels of land until eventually he owned over 46,000 acres. On his death, he left a trust arising from ‘the great and ardent desire which he hath that the children inhabiting upon any part of his lands in Ireland should be brought up in the fear of God and good literature and to speak the English tongue.’ The Erasmus Smith Trust went on to establish five grammar schools in Dublin, Tipperary, Ennis, Galway and Drogheda.
From the exterior, the Church of the Ascension in Timolegue, County Cork looks a typically modest product of the early 19th century. The original place of worship here is first mentioned in 1291, and in the Middle Ages much of the land in this part of the country was under the control of the Barrys, subsequently Earls of Barrymore. The notoriously spendthrift habits of the final holders of this title obliged them to sell their property, which then passed into the possession of the Tonsons, the first of whom had been granted land in Ireland in the mid-17th century. They too were eventually ennobled as Baron Riversdale, and it was the second holder of that title who in 1811, with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, commissioned a new church in Timoleague as the old one had become dangerously dilapidated. The third and last Lord Riversdale died in 1861, by which time the Travers family, who lived beside the church in Timoleague House, were involved with the building. No doubt the interior was still relatively plain, because around this date some controversy arose when, as part of additions to the church – including a new chancel and vestry – a large stained glass window designed by the firm of William Warrington was installed above the altar. Opposed to graven images, the then-Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, William FitzGerald refused to consecrate the chancel unless the window was first covered with a cloth. One suspects he would not have cared for work subsequently undertaken inside the church.
In 1894 Robert Augustus Travers commissioned the decoration of the church’s chancel in memory of his wife Alice. What makes this work exceptional is that it is all in mosaic, supposedly thanks to Italian craftsmen who first laid out each section on the lawns of Timoleague House. The latter building was burnt in December 1920 during the War of Independence, and material relating to the chancel decoration was probably then lost. As a result, today the designer is unknown, but the late Jeremy Williams proposed William Henry Hill of Cork who had earlier served as Diocesan Architect for Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and therefore would have been well-known in Church of Ireland circles. Whoever was responsible displayed tremendous flair. The walls are mostly covered in abstract and floral patterns, with the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega set in oval frames on either side of the East window and elsewhere the Paschal Lamb. Meanwhile the ceiling is likewise decorated, this time a set of eight painted panels each featuring an angel carrying an appropriate text of mourning. In most churches, this might have been deemed sufficient, but more was to follow in due course.
Following the death of Robert Augustus Travers in 1904, the Timoleague estate was inherited by his elder son, another Robert. He decided to continue the decoration of the Church of the Ascension, initially in memory of his father. However, in August 1915 his son Spenser, a Lieutenant in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, was killed at Gallipoli, and so he too is commemorated in a mosaic frieze running beneath stained glass windows on the south wall. Much of the rest of the space is filled with further geometric shapes, along with stylised plants and flowers. As has been widely noted, only on the west wall does the design falter. Here above the entrance door a large panel depicts the Ascension of Christ, eleven Apostles gathered below him and a view of Jerusalem and its Temple shown behind. Both in colour and form, the result is somewhat insipid, a contrast with the boldness found everywhere else in the building. However, all the work might not have been realised, had it not been for assistance from an Indian Maharajah.
Born in 1876, Sir Madho Rao Scindia was ten when, on the death of his father, he became fifth Maharajah of Gwalior. As an adult, one of his closest friends was a man born in the Timoleague area, Aylmer Martin Crofts. The latter studied at what is now University College Cork and became a doctor before joining the British army where he saw service in Afghanistan and Egypt, finally settling in India. For the last twenty years of his professional life, Surgeon-General Crofts acted as chief medical officer for the state of Gwalior, hence his links with the Maharajah. Crofts died in 1915, and it was in memory of his ‘faithful and devoted’ friend that Madho Rao Scindia paid for the remaining decoration of the Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. Work here only finished in 1925, the year in which the Maharajah himself died. A section of the mosaic on the north wall of the nave provides testimony of his support, and the reason he gave it. His involvement helps to explain why much of the semi-abstract floral designs found in the main body of the church is reminiscent of Mughal art. As Jeremy Williams rightly noted, the building is a monument to ‘a living friendship that is being recorded in an extraordinary blend of the European and the Islamic – a hidden masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland.’ It is one which ‘transcended the sectarian divide between Irish Catholic and Protestant, The Indian Muslim and Hindu, personal friendship breaking up distinctions of caste and colour.’
Buried in woodland managed by Coillte, the national forestry commission, this gazebo was once part of the parkland of Emo Court, County Laois. As James Howley noted in his book on The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland (1993), the structure bears similarities to the William Kent-designed Worcester Lodge on the Badminton estate in England. It dates from 1746, whereas the Emo Court gazebo is slightly later, believed to be c.1760. The rusticated base takes the form of a triumphal arch, with extensions on either side, one of which would have held a service room and the other a staircase. The latter provided access to the octagonal first floor, its cut-limestone exterior featuring alternating windows and arched niches with oculi above them all. Here presumably meals were taken on occasion and views across the demesne appreciated. The dome crowning the building has long since been lost, and some of the stonework looks in perilous condition.