On with the Dance

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How fitting that this week’s funeral of Captain Sir John Leslie, otherwise universally known as Jack, should have taken place in glorious sunshine, the same kind he shed on so many peoples’ lives. Jack died last Monday just eight months shy of reaching his centenary, having been born in December 1916. Over the course of ten decades he witnessed many changes in the world but somehow still behaved as though it was much the same as that into which he had emerged: I remember on the first occasion we met our conversation turned to the Romanian author Princess Marthe Bibesco, and he produced a book she had given and signed to him. His own memoirs, Never a Dull Moment, written ten years ago are full of entertaining reminiscences and suggest a personal history untouched by setbacks or misfortune. Of course this was not the case, as evidenced by Jack’s experience during the Second World War. Commissioned in the Irish Guards, he and his platoon crossed to France in May 1940 where they were almost immediately captured by the German army: Jack spent the next five years in a Bavarian Prisoner of War camp with all its attendant privations.
Although he returned to Ireland on his release and was expected to assume responsibility for Castle Leslie, within a few years Jack left again, eventually settling in Rome where he occupied a small palazzo in the Trastevere district, as well as embarking on the restoration of an ancient monastery outside the city, the Badia di San Sebastiano di Alatri. Some twenty years ago he finally came back to Castle Leslie, by this time in the care of his niece Sammy Leslie, and settled down as resident guide and anecdotalist, always delighted to engage with visitors and explain the history of his family and their property.
In later years Jack also became well-known for his fondness for nightclubs where he would energetically dance to what he liked to call ‘boom boom’ music. I accompanied him on these expeditions more than once, initially in the self-appointed role of chaperone. However, like everyone else I discovered he was invariably received with wild enthusiasm, and would soon be surrounded by a coterie of solicitous admirers, on average only a quarter of his age. But there were other instances, notably a tea held in his honour some years ago at Bellamont Forest, where Jack demonstrated older forms of dancing: supported by a sixteen-piece band, that afternoon he gave a lively demonstration of the Black Bottom. So one likes to remember him, light of heart and light of foot. Wherever you may now be Jack: on with the dance.

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Lost and Found

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Like many words in the English language, ‘lost’ is open to diverse use. It can, for example, mean missing or misplaced but just as often is employed to denote something that has vanished, perished or been destroyed. Such is the case with an engrossing – albeit chastening – book recently published, Lost Ireland: 1860-1960. Author William Derham has trawled through thousands of photographs to select 500 images of buildings throughout the island, the majority of which have entirely disappeared or else been so altered/mutilated that they no longer bear any semblance to their original state.

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In a thoughtful introductory essay, Derham provides an historical context for why so many older buildings in Ireland should come to have been lost and laments the disappearance of certain building types such as the early unfortified house represented by Eyrecourt, County Galway: dating from the second half of the 17th century and still intact less than 100 years ago, it is now a roofless shell. Likewise Ireland has no examples of the ‘cagework’ urban house in which the frame would be of wood and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub. The last of these to survive, in Dublin on the corner of Castle and Werburgh Streets, was demolished as long ago as 1812. Likewise the once-widespread brick gabled townhouses known as Dutch Billies are now almost extinct, or else subsumed into later buildings.

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Some losses – notably among the ranks of the Irish country house – are already well-known, but even here Derham finds examples likely to be unfamiliar to most readers, and explains the shameful role played in the erosion of their number by that state body the Land Commission. However he covers many other areas of depletion and, frankly, dissipation, such as the damage inflicted on Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council. Using the excuse of a new liturgy, members of the Irish clergy stripped interiors of the buildings for which they were responsible: one of the most egregious examples being the gutting of Pugin’s Killarney Cathedral at the instigation of then-bishop Eamon Casey. Tellingly their clerical equivalents in other countries did not feel impelled to engage in similar acts of vandalism. But valuable secular buildings were also squandered for no good reason, such as the demolition in 1964 of a fine mid-18th century market house in Mountrath, County Laois – supposedly because a public lavatory was needed (although this was never built). As much as an exhortation to protect what remains as a requiem to what has gone, this is a beautifully produced book and allows us to find again, if only in photographic form, what has been lost. Do acquire a copy while you can as it is certain to sell out.

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Lost Ireland: 1860-1960 by William Derham is published by Hyde Park Editions, price £39.95/€49.95. The photographs above were taken at a recent exhibition in Dublin Castle to coincide with the launch of the book. They show (from top), Roxborough Castle, County Tyrone (burnt 1922), Longford Castle, Longford (demolished 1972), Woodstock, County Kilkenny (burnt 1922) and Ballynastragh, County Wexford (burnt 1923). The exhibition has now ended but deserves to travel to other venues around the country in coming months; why not encourage your local arts centre/library to borrow it?

Made Better by their Presents III

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A view of the formal gardens at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, lying directly below the building’s north face. The hospital’s minutes in 1695 note, ‘The garden walls to be arranged so the garden may lie open to the north part…for the greater grace of the house.’ Although the design here is a 20th century reconstruction, it gives an idea of the style of classical garden once common in Ireland but now rarely seen. A recently published book by Vandra Costello, Irish Desmesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 gives an idea of what has been lost, as well as what remains. She rightly chooses 1660 as her starting date, since that was the year Charles II was restored to the throne and his supporters, including James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, returned from mainland Europe. During their years in exile, these royalists had observed the French fashion for gardening epitomised by the work of André Le Nôtre and in due course introduced these ideas to their own countries. These gardens, as Costello observes, were guided by the principle of utile et dulci: the notion that landowners, in addition to following contemporary fashion and devising idealised landscapes in which to enjoy themselves ought at the same time ‘to make their fruit growing endeavours, timber plantations and parklands economically profitable and sustainable as well as aesthetically pleasing.’ Thus the garden at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – the building of which had been initiated by the Duke of Ormond – was expected to provide not just elegant surroundings for the main structure but also produce for its occupants. In the course of her highly informative and elegantly written book, Costello also explodes a few well-cherished myths, such as the notion that the 17th century formal gardens at Kilruddery, County Wicklow, the finest such example remaining in this country, were designed by a Frenchman called Bonnet, possibly a pupil of Le Nôtre himself: this error, she points out, has arisen from confusion over a reference in the papers of Sir William Petty. And she discusses how it was that the classical garden fell out of favour with Irish landowners in the 18th century, noting the process was less attributable to politics – it is often proposed that Tories liked formality while Whigs preferred the ‘natural’ – than to straightforward changes in taste. In her garden at Delville, County Dublin Mrs Delaney, who was unquestionably a Whig, incorporated many elements of the formal style including a bowling green, terrace walk, parterre and orangery. As so often in Irish history, the simple interpretation is rarely correct. A terrific read, and definitely worth adding to every library.

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Irish Demesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 by Vandra Costello is published by Four Courts Press, €50.

 

Made Better By Their Presents II

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Although the Board of First Fruits is no longer much remembered, for more than a century it was an important organization in this country. Established in 1711 during the reign of Queen Anne, the board was devised to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. Initially funded by a tax on clerical incomes, from 1778 onwards the body benefitted from grants given by the Irish Parliament, the amount varying until 1785 after which it received an annual sum of £5,000. Following the abolition of the country’s parliament in 1800, just as Ireland’s elected representatives were more closely bound to their English equivalents, so too were Irish Anglican clergy, thanks to the creation of the United Church of England and Ireland. One consequence of this merger was a substantial increase in money available to the Board of First Fruits: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808 and then climbed to a remarkable £60,000 between 1810-26 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. This largesse led to a massive building boom, with almost 700 churches either constructed or renovated, as well as 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. Of course the Church of Ireland population was never large (just over 10 per cent in the 1831 census) and has steadily declined (today it is less than three per cent), rendering increasing numbers of these buildings surplus to need. Over the past century, parishes have been amalgamated and properties let go, with many churches falling into dereliction. Readers may already be familiar with photographer Tarquin Blake’s previous books including two featuring Abandoned Mansions of Ireland. Now he has produced a new volume Abandoned Churches of Ireland, which contains accounts of 82 properties spread across twenty-five counties. In varying stages of decline, they represent the Church of Ireland’s history from dominant faith – in authority if not in numbers – to minority denomination. Blake’s pictures and text eloquently tell the story of churches like that at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny (seen above and below), its present form dating from 1810 when the Board of First Fruits provided the parish with a grant and loan for this purpose. Built on the site of an older church, it remained in use until 1961 and is now a roofless shell.

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Abandoned Churches of Ireland by Tarquin Blake is published by Collins Press (27.99).

 

Made Better by their Presents I

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The Romanesque west doorway of St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, founded by Donal Mór O’Brian, King of munster in 1168 but said to incorporate elements of an older palace on the same site. This is one of a number of such buildings considered in Niamh NicGhabhann’s recently published Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1178-1915. The fascinating text explores changing attitudes to gothic architecture during the period, and increased academic interest in the subject as antiquarians like George Wilkinson and George Petrie carried out detailed surveys of old monuments. Equally interesting is how over the course of the 19th century Ireland’s built heritage became politicised, with debate focussed on what elements might be judged ‘authentically’ Irish and what foreign imports. As NicGhabhann writes, ‘In Ireland, debates on the meaning of architectural style were complicated by issues of religious identity, as well as by ideas of political symbolism and national representation.’ If not necessarily in the field of gothic architecture, these debates continue to resonate in some quarters to the present day. They became immediately applicable in Limerick when work on a new Roman Catholic cathedral, designed by Philip Charles Hardwicke, began in 1856: this stands in the area known since the Middle Ages as ‘Irishtown’ whereas St Mary’s is on King’s Island, otherwise known as ‘Englishtown.’ ‘The public and religious celebrations surrounding the consecration of St John’s Cathedral,’ writes NicGhabhann of this event in 1894, ‘can be read as a performance of both Catholic identity within the city, and the negotiation between the religious and political significance of the two cathedrals.’ That negotiation could be fractious, not least in Dublin where the Church of Ireland had possession of the capital’s two ancient gothic cathedrals, and the Catholic church had to settle for a neo-Catholic Pro-Cathedral. The choir of one of the former, St Patrick’s Cathedral , can be seen below. The building underwent a controversial ‘restoration’ in the 1860s, since Sir Benjamin Guinness, who funded the entire enterprise, chose to dispense with the services of an architect.

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Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1789-1915: Building on the Past by Niamh NicGhabhann is published by Four Courts Press, 55.

An Incomplete Project

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A view from Carlisle (now O’Connell) Bridge looking south. This was one of twelve topographical images of the city executed in watercolour and pencil by Samuel Brocas and then engraved by his brother Henry between 1818 and 1829. The caption reads ‘Published July 1st, 1820, by J. Le Petit, Printseller,  20 Capel Street, and Bell and Wright, Duke Street, Bloomsbury, London.’ The print was to be part of an intended Book of Views of Ireland which never materialised, probably due to lack of sufficient support but it gives us a wonderful idea of how Dublin looked two centuries ago, and how successful had been the work of the Wide Street Commissioners. Imagine a similar view taken today, and how little of the coherence of design and intelligence of layout visible here still remains.

 

For the Present III

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In 1972 Mariga Guinness claimed that Ireland ‘has more follies to the acre than anywhere else in the world.’ The assertion has yet to be verified (has anyone actually traversed every acre of the country in search of follies?) but we certainly have our ample share of these whimsical edifices. Some research on the subject has been published but usually of an academic nature and with no spirit of the playfulness which inspired the typical folly’s construction. For surely the essence of such a building’s character lies in its name, with the implication of common sense being absent and fun gaining the upper hand.
What a treat, therefore, to find a book which celebrates the irrational, glorifies the absurd and encourages the downright nonsensical. Fabulous Follies of Ireland is a collaboration between author William Laffan and illustrator Nesta FitzGerald. It explores fifteen of the country’s follies, some of them like the Casino at Marino (shown above) widely known, others such as McDermott’s Castle at Rockingham, County Roscommon insufficiently appreciated. And it does so with just the right balance of erudition and wit, ensuring readers are as much entertained as informed. The book is published by the Irish Georgian Society, the emblem of which – the Conolly Folly, County Kildare – can be seen below. It costs €7.50, making this a fabulous folly anyone can afford.

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