On Monday, the Irish Times carried a report noting that Ireland’s Health Service Executive owns hundreds of unused buildings across the state, some of which have been left vacant for decades (see: HSE owns hundreds of unused buildings, figures show (irishtimes.com)). This will not come as news to anyone who is concerned for the welfare of the country’s architectural heritage: the HSE is responsible for many historic sites, and a large number of them have been left not just vacant, but badly neglected, such as the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway (above). A vast range of buildings designed by William Murray and opened in 1833, it closed 180 years later and has stood abandoned ever since. The HSE is by no means the only offender in this respect. Columb (originally Wellington) Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath provided accommodation for troops from 1819 until 2011, when it closed down: owned by the Department of Defence, the site has since been left largely empty, a prey to vandalism and creeping decay. Last winter – a full decade after the last troops left – the Land Development Agency produced a report on the site, with the promise that further information would follow in due course. No doubt something will eventually happen here, but after 11 years nobody can be accused of rushing into hasty decision-making.
A few points need to be made about both these and many other such premises, the first of which is that they are owned by the people of Ireland: the relevant state bodies in whose care they remain, are supposed to be their custodians. These are national assets, and the abysmal failure to take due care of them is at a cost to everyone else: the more they fall into decay, the less they are worth, to the detriment of all of us. In addition, the two examples shown here, and many more besides, are often close to urban centres and therefore ideally suited to provide ample accommodation for those who unfortunately don’t have it at present. In recent days, for example, it has been reported that a tent village is being prepared for Romanian refugees in Gormanstown, County Meath. This is an extraordinary state of affairs: why should anyone have to sleep in a tent when the HSE, and other agencies, own so many vacant buildings. Furthermore, if the state is supposed to lead by example, what sort of example is set by the likes of the HSE and the Department of Defence? Why should private owners worry about neglecting their property, when state authorities do so on a much larger scale? A reminder: this is a shameful – and shameless – squandering of our assets, and we are the losers as a result.
‘The police station which lay on our road, and at which we stopped, was a new, neat, spacious building. At a short distance, it looked like a little strong castle; and the natives may probably look upon it as a fort Uri in miniature, to keep them in awe. It lay at the highest part of the mountain, just where the road again begins to descend. All round was a wilderness, and reminded me of the military stations so picturesquely situated in the wild regions of the Austrian frontier. The house contained eight men of the constabulary force, as it is called, and which is a military-armed police, now extended over the whole of Ireland, for the prevention of crime, the discovery and apprehension of criminals, the protection of property, and the preservation of the peace…The sergeant who had command of this station informed me that their district comprised the desolate mountains far and wide, but that there were only 220 inhabitants in it. Eight armed policement for 220 inhabitants – a large proportion in sooth!’
From Travels in Ireland by Johann Georg Kohl, published in 1844.
The former Royal Irish Constabulary Barracks at Derrycunnihy, County Kerry, a building seemingly burnt out over a century ago during the War of Independence and standing in ruin ever since.
The remains of an RIC Barracks at Islandeady, County Mayo. The building dates from the first half of the 19th century when constructed on a plot provided for the purpose by local landlord Sir William Palmer who lived at Castle Lacken, today also a ruin. Of two storeys and three bays, the barracks is a handsome structure, with the focus on its cut-limestone doorcase. There is a small yard to the rear with holding cell. It remained in operation until early 1920 when, like many other remote buildings held by the force, it was abandoned owing to the War of Independence. In June of that year, the barracks was gutted by fire, again a common circumstance, and has remained a ruin ever since.
Gort, County Galway is another Irish town absolutely bursting with unrealised – but realisable – potential for improvement. The streets are lined with tall, sturdy, solid houses fronted in local limestone, and everywhere one turns there is another part of the area’s history waiting to be discovered, and recovered. Here is a former army barracks block which dates from c.1820 when many such buildings were being erected across the country. According to Samuel Lewis in 1837, ‘Barracks have existed at Gort for a very long period, and £7000 have been lately expended in building houses for officers and store-rooms; they will now accommodate 8 officers, 88 men, and 116 horses.’ The ten-bay, three-storey property is at present serving as warehouse space for a local antique dealer, so at least it is being maintained, unlike many other former military sites around the country.
And today’s example of wasted public resources comes courtesy of Longford County Council. Dating from 1815, the former cavalry barracks in Longford town are believed to have been designed by John Behan, a measurer and architect (and timber merchant) employed by the Board of Works on such military properties. Historically, this is the most important area in the town, since it is where the dominant family, the O’Farrells built a castle (the last parts of which were demolished in the early 1970s: a shopping centre can now be found there instead). In the 17th century, Francis Aungier converted at least part of the site into a manor house with surrounding gardens, building a market house and square immediately adjacent. In 1774 his descendant sold the property to the British authorities for development as a military barracks. Post-Independence, these were occupied by the Irish army until 2009. Three years later, the buildings on some 5.1 hectares were bought by the county council for €450,000, since when the cavalry barracks has sat empty. A number of smaller ancillary blocks to the rear are used by local groups and there’s a large open field running down to the river Camlin. The same questions arise: why do local authorities purchase these places and then leave them unused for so long, meaning that whenever an eventual use is found, the relevant costs are higher? And what sort of example does this set to other owners of historic properties when the county council fails to take adequate care of an important building it owns? Only question always has the same answer. Who’ll eventually have to foot the bill? Answer: the Irish taxpayer.
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.
Further to a couple of recent features on finding fresh purpose for old barracks sites (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/02/17/mullingar-barracks and https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/03/02/clancy-barracks) this is Kickham Barracks in Clonmel, County Tipperary. Originally known as Clonmel Infantry Barracks (and later Victoria Barracks, the name Kickham being given to them following the establishment of the Irish Free State), they were built 1780-82 and remained in use until 2012. The greater part of the site has since sat empty, although a master plan for it was produced by Tipperary County Council five in 2015. This includes the creation of a new civic plaza and ‘the provision of new uses of the site to include education, cultural and civic uses together with commercial entities to include start-ups linked to the education providers and high value uses that would complement the principle uses and have the potential to extend activity on the site beyond traditional business hours.’ That’s a lot of ‘uses’ but five years on work has yet to begin. Last year announcements were made of funding to the tune of €2.89 million being awarded by central government, but still as almost a third of the present year has passed, the place remains as it has been since 2012: locked up and unused with inevitable consequences for the health of the historic buildings (and corresponding increased costs for their refurbishment). Official Ireland never shows itself to be in a hurry.
Two weeks ago, this page showed the present pathetic state of Columb Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/02/17/mullingar-barracks). Today another former barracks is featured here, this time showing what can be achieved when the task of finding a new purpose for old buildings is approached with sufficient flair and imagination. Dublin’s Clancy Barracks, formerly the Royal Artillery Barracks, was established in its present location on the south side of the river Liffey in 1798 after previous premises in nearby Chapelizod had become too small. Initially the barracks accommodated six officers, 87 non-commissioned officers and men, and eight gunners. In the early 1860s the complex was considerably enlarged so that it could house 18 officers, 589 other men and 435 horses. There was also a veterinary hospital (for the horses) until 1896 when the cavalry moved to another location in the city and this became a general barracks. Handed over to the Free State government in 1922, twenty years later it was renamed after Peadar Clancy, vice-commandant of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, killed in Dublin Castle during the War of Independence.
When the state decided to dispose of a number of military sites in 1998, Clancy Barracks was on the list of assets to be sold. However, it was not until June 2001 that the barracks and surrounding 13.65 acres of land went out to tender. The property was not to everyone’s taste, as much of it was in a dilapidated condition and there were eight 19th century buildings listed for preservation. In July 2002 Clancy Barracks was sold to a private development company for £25.4 million. Nothing happened (allowing the condition of the buildings to deteriorate further) until three years later when a planning application sought to demolish demolish three-quarters of the existing listed buildings on the site, construct some 900 apartments in 45 blocks and erect a hotel of 15 storeys. Although the local authority gave permission, the scheme was appealed to the planning authority, An Bord Pleanála. It too found the plans acceptable, but then the recession hit and the project stalled, with the former barracks instead being used as a set for a couple of seasons of the BBC 19th century drama Ripper Street. In 2013 the site was bought by an American property investment group Kennedy Wilson for €82.5 million.
When Kennedy Wilson bought what is now called Clancy Quay in 2013, only the first phase of the scheme to redevelop the former barracks had been completed; this comprised some residential 423 units and 36,000 square feet of commercial space. Since then the company has worked to complete the second and third phases with the same mix of residential and commercial use. Phases 2 and 3 includes an 8.5 acre site with planning permission for a mix of residential and commercial use. Although the southern section of the site is still a work in progress, what has been achieved to-date is refreshingly imaginative and attractive; in 2018 architects O’Mahony Pike deservedly won an RIAI Architecture Award for Housing thanks to its work on this project. While sections of the property are given over to blocks of apartments, a large number of the older buildings have been imaginatively reinvented as accommodation, such as three long two-storey ranges in rubble, brick and granite, built in 1862 as workshops, or the fine pedimented former barrack block which had stables on the ground floor and sleeping quarters above. Elsewhere on the development there are a handsome pair of semi-detached early 19th century houses, the former officers’ mess and a range of red-brick blocks that date from the 1940s. The materials used for all these buildings was diverse, and more have been introduced for newer elements on Clancy Quay, but there is a confident coherence to the scheme, helped by generosity of space; the parties behind the development have not greedily tried to cram too much onto the site but instead left ample room between the different blocks, all linked by smart landscaping. There are few such large-scale developments in Dublin, indeed in Ireland, undertaken with this degree of assurance and panache. If and when Mullingar’s Columb Barracks are given new purpose, let’s hope the same high standards are employed there.
In November 2011, former Labour TD Willie Penrose announced his intention to resign as a Minister of State as a result of the then-government’s decision to close Columb Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath the following year. At the time, the buildings were occupied by some 170 troops who were subsequently moved to the barracks in Athlone. Eight years have since passed without proper use being found for the premises.
Standing in the centre of Mullingar town and occupying some 26 acres of land, the main complex in Columb Barracks are over 200 years old, having been constructed in 1814, and first occupied in 1819, when it was called Wellington Barracks (the name was changed in 1922 in memory of Patrick Columb, a member of the National Army who had been killed in the town not long before). Designed to accommodate 1,000 soldiers, the barracks is U-shaped with a large parade ground at its centre. The three-storey blocks with roughcast rendered walls and cut limestone door- and window cases in each section of the building. The ranges are largely unaltered other than the unfortunate and universal insertion of uPVC windows at some relatively recent date and, on the southern range, openings being widened, apparently in 1980 when someone in authority decided to give them the all the flair of a provincial hotel, complete with porticos supported by spindly Corinthian columns. Even more unfortunate is a serious loss on the west side of the complex. Old photographs show that the centre of this featured a three-bay breakfront, its rusticated ground floor incorporating an arch above which was a tripartite window and, on the top level, a Diocletian window below a pediment. The entire section was swept away in 1966 to create a miserable-looking, single-storey concrete brick gateway marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising. Incidentally, the early photographs (from the French collection in the National Library of Ireland) also show how much better maintained the entire site used to be. Outside the main complex lie a range of other buildings, some in stone (including a chapel dating from 1855), others in brick, constructed over the course of the 19th century to provide facilities for the troops then in residence.
A year ago, thejournal.ie reported that during the previous three years the state had spent over €113,000 paying a private security firm responsible for looking after Columb Barracks in Mullingar. As today’s photographs show, there has been considerable damage to the site, some of the buildings have been badly vandalised while others are suffering from neglect, ultimately adding to the cost of their refurbishment. Almost 20 voluntary organisations – the likes of the local boxing and cycling clubs, a youth café, a men’s shed group and so forth – occupy portions of various premises, presumably on short-term leases and, it would seem, with little security of tenure. But even with their presence, the greater part of the barracks has been allowed to remain in limbo for the past eight years. When the state first embarked on closing down military bases around the country more than two decades ago, it sold a number of them to developers and private organisations. Indeed, some years ago Columb Barracks was placed on the market for sale, but then withdrawn following the establishment by government in September 2018 of a new organization called the Land Development Agency (LDA), the purpose of which is supposed to be the provision of affordable housing. Responsibility for the barracks lay with the Department of Defence, but this now appears to have been transferred to the LDA. A year ago the Department of Housing advised (in finest bureaucratic language) that the LDA was ‘carrying out a technical due diligence process on the Columb Barracks site to determine the development constraints and opportunities, which will take a number of months. Once this process is complete the LDA will determine a delivery strategy for the site.’ The following May then-Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy wrote in response to an enquiry from another TD that the LDA was in the process of advancing agreements with various state bodies in relation to a number of sites including Columb Barracks and furthermore ‘it should be noted that the LDA has commenced preparatory Professional work on each of the eight sites listed above and that the transfer process will not impact the ultimate delivery on those lands. The LDA performs a due diligence process on all sites, which includes an assessment of alternative use potential and development capacity and constraints.’ At the moment on its website (https://lda.ie) the LDA lists the current status of Columb Barracks as ‘Development feasibility study underway.’
Understandably, given its size and location, there has been considerable disquiet in Mullingar about the continuing neglect of Columb Barracks. A local body has been set up, Columb Barracks Restoration & Regeneration Committee (https://columbbarracks.ie) to champion the restoration and refurbishment of the site. It proposes that the former barracks could be transformed into a ‘vibrant community-owned and operated centre, providing education and other community services, based on renewable energy, zero waste and other environmentally sustainable and economically viable activities and practices; and capable of being an agent for the spreading of these practices and ideas, and for the transformation of Mullingar into a twenty-first century transition town.’ As well as the existing voluntary bodies using parts of the place, the committee suggests there could also be both short- and long-term accommodation, a museum, more sports facilities, a concert/theatre space, artists’ workshops, food markets and so forth. Not all of these ideas will necessarily come to fruition, but there are enough of them to give the barracks a real and viable future. Eventually something will be made of the site, but in the meantime eight years have passed during which these buildings, part of the country’s architectural heritage, have been allowed to deteriorate, with the inevitable result that whatever decisions are eventually made about intended purpose, these will cost more to implement because the site will require greater work. In Ireland the wheels of officialdom in Ireland can turn so slowly that they appear not to be moving at all. But surely, before the buildings here fall into further disrepair and suffer further vandalism, the time has come for the relevant state authorities to call a halt to ‘due diligence process’ and ‘assessment of alternative use potential and development capacity and constraints’. After eight years, there can be little left to discuss and analyse and consider and assess. Surely now is the moment instead to initiate action and bring Columb Barracks back into purposeful use?
Charles Fort outside Kinsale, County Cork has been discussed here before (see On the Defensive, May 29th 2017). Built between 1678-83 it stands on land to the south-east of the harbor. Directly across on a promontory to the south-west is an earlier fortification known as James Fort. Both structures were named after British monarchs, Charles Fort deriving its title from Charles II, James Fort from his grandfather James I. He had succeeded to the English throne in 1603, just over a year after the combined Irish and Spanish forces had been defeated at Kinsale by Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. The vulnerability of Ireland’s southern coastline to invasion led the crown authorities to initiate the construction of a fortress from which any approaching ships could be seen and the occupants of which could provide a defence of Kinsale Harbour.
Work began on the construction of James Fort even while James I predecessor, Elizabeth I, was still alive. Its advantageous position meant there had already been an earlier fortification on the site; known as Castle Ny-Parke this had been occupied for a time during the Siege of Kinsale by Spanish troops before they were displaced by Sir Richard Smyth, a brother-in-law of Richard Boyle, the future Earl of Cork. But there was a concern that the Spaniards could return, and in greater numbers, hence the decision to build anew. The fortress’s design came from a military engineer Paul Ive who in 1589 had published a treatise The Practise of Fortification. A few years later Ive was praised by Walter Raleigh for his ‘judgement, invention and industry’ so it is understandable he was given the commission of overseeing the construction of James Fort which cost £675. This is four-sided fortress at the centre of a pentagonal bastion; inside the fort’s walls are various other structures to provide accommodation for troops and so forth. The remains of a hexagonal blockhouse lies close to the water’s edge.
Developments in fortification design, especially the construction of increasingly sophisticated star-shaped bastions following the example of those created by the French Comte de Vauban, meant Ive’s work at James Fort quickly came to look old-fashioned. Hence the decision to build the larger and more modern Charles Fort on the other side of the harbour entrance. Before then James Fort had seen some action in the 1640s during the Confederate Wars but it suffered greater damage in the Williamite Wars towards the end of the 17th century when a gunpowder store exploded. Thereafter the building went into steady decline and by the 19th century was already described as being a ruin: it has remained in this condition to the present day.