If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00
A view of the northern end of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street as shown in William Turner de Lond’s depiction of the entry of George IV into Dublin on August 17th 1821. The king had actually landed at Howth five days earlier, on his fifty-ninth birthday and in a state of some inebriation: it may have been as a result of the latter that his ‘official’ arrival only took place when it did. The scene shows George IV, the first British monarch to visit Ireland in 130 years (and the first for much longer to come without bellicose intent), standing in his carriage to acknowledge the cheering crowds. This was not a piece of fiction: a contemporary report in The Patriot observed that ‘they never saw any manifestation of popular enthusiasm so heartfelt, as that which hailed his Majesty from, at least, 100,000 persons of all ranks and estates.’ The painting was only one among several produced to commemorate the occasion (a number of artists recognised its commercial potential) and is of interest for showing the Rotunda Hospital in the background as well as the east side of Rutland (now Parnell) Square.
It is one of a number of such works included in a recently-published book, Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art which accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently running at the National Gallery of Ireland. While at least some of the works discussed are imaginative recreations (such as Samuel Watson’s portrayal of the 11th century Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1844, and James Barry’s Baptism of the King of Cashel by St Patrick, c.1800-1), others provide an invaluable record of how parts of this country looked in the past. Such is the case with the picture shown below, Francis Wheatley’s 1780 picture of the Irish House of Commons. For some observers the interest here would be in identifying some of the political parties included in the work. For others, however, it is especially important for showing how this chamber, designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, looked before being seriously damaged by fire in 1792. Although reconstructed to a simpler design, the House of Commons was abolished eight years later and, as is well-known, when the Parliament building was subsequently bought by the Bank of Ireland, the British government insisted structural changes were made to ensure it could not revert to its original purpose. Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art examines more than fifty works of art and includes essays by the likes of Professors Tom Dunne and Roy Foster, Róisin Kennedy and Emily Mark-Fitzgerald.
In 1788 almost 28,000 silver teaspoons were recorded in the ledger of the Dublin Assay Office, an institution established in 1637 – and still in operation today – to assess the purity of all gold and silver manufactured in Ireland. Teaspoons were especially popular both because their small size made them more affordable than other items in the same metal, but also thanks to the rise in consumption of drinks such as tea, coffee and hot chocolate, all of which were sweetened with sugar. By the late 18th century, for example, the average annual consumption of tea in this country is estimated to have been two or three pounds per person. This fascinating information, and much more beside, can be found in a newly-published study of Silver in Georgian Dublin by Dr Alison FitzGerald.
While Irish silver has been well explored by Douglas Bennett and others, the focus of these connoisseur-driven investigations has usually been on matters of style and authorship. FitzGerald on the other hand is representative of a new generation of art historians keen to explore the character of material culture and thus contextualise the object of their attention within its period. This is what she has done so admirably in the present book, which looks at the production, distribution and consumption of silver in Georgian Dublin, and beyond. So, for example, when discussing the increasing popularity of tea over the course of the 18th century, assisted by a gradual reduction in its price, she looks not only at silver tea pots but also the greater use of ceramic vessels, preferable because less expensive. So a household might have a ceramic teapot but also silver sugar tongs (selling for 12 shillings in 1772).
The choice of retail premises from which they could make their purchases, while never as great as that in London (where some Irish grandees preferred to shop for such goods) certainly improved over passing decades, and for local clients had the advantage of offering credit for purchases: FitzGerald provides a number of instances where goldsmiths such as Isaac D’Olier had to advertise that all accounts owing to him had to be settled immediately and in full. Then, as now, it was often cheaper to buy at auction, and these events regularly took place, often following a collector’s death: Charles Cobbe, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1740 acquired a considerable amount of silverware at the sale of his late father-in-law Sir Richard Levinge’s effects. And silver was regularly melted down and refashioned as tastes, and consumer requirements changed.
Some items survived better than others, not least teaspoons. The set of ten shown above above, dating from c.1800 and carrying the mark of Carden Terry and Jane Williams, was recently sold by Adam’s of Dublin for €2,500. On the other hand, buckles – once a staple in every gentleman’s wardrobe – gradually disappeared as styles of dress altered. In 1788 more than 24,000 silver buckles were sent to be assayed in Dublin, mostly intended for shoes and knee breeches: by 1800 that number had dropped to a mere eighteen. Once deemed redundant, they faced recycling, and accordingly only a certain number can now be found. The pair shown below, today in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, were made c.1790 by Joseph Jackson of Dublin.
Drawing on a huge range of sources ranging from diaries and letters to contemporary guild accounts, inventories and trade ephemera – not to mention the archives of the Dublin Assay Office – Alison FitzGerald’s book is a wonderfully informative, entertaining and engaging read, absolutely packed with information and profusely illustrated with illustrations that complement an already eloquent text. A terrific addition to our knowledge of this period.
The south entrance to Ballyanne, County Wexford, a house built c.1790 for Henry Houghton. It was demolished in 1943 but this wide gatescreen indicates what has been lost. Six rusticated pillars are linked by iron railings and gateposts, while at either end is a matching porters’ lodge, of which now only the front elevations survive, their central windows (now blocked up) flanked by arched niches. Ballyanne’s entrance rightly figures in J.A.K. Dean’s newly published gazetteer The Gate Lodges of Leinster, a remarkable piece of research that appears over twenty years after the same author’s similar work devoted to Ulster’s lodges. This one runs to 416 pages and contains entries for no less than 4,285 buildings: even two centuries ago the profusion of gate lodges in Ireland was noted by visitors (some properties having six or more entrances, each of which had to be manned). Opening with a history of the gate lodge in this part of the country, the text then proceeds county by county, each entry following in alphabetical order with a full historical and architectural account, and a statement of current condition (where still standing).
Dean’s meticulously researched text is complemented by a profusion of illustrations including photographs and architectural drawings, and makes for an engrossing read. On the other hand, the book inspires a certain sense of melancholy, since so many of these miniature treasures have either been demolished (the fate, Dean estimates, of half of all built since the mid-18th century) or left to fall into decay. Their diminutive size can make them unattractive for modern permanent accommodation although, as the Irish Landmark Trust (and its English equivalent) has shown, they can be converted to serve as successful holiday lets. Furthermore, they have often been overlooked by architectural historians whose attention was focussed on what lay at the end of the avenue. But if their interiors were often relatively functional, much care was expended on their exterior appearance, since the lodge served as a statement of the estate owner’s status, and the first point of contact for visitors to the area.
This is a wonderful labour of love, and deserves to be applauded (and rewarded with abundant sales over the coming weeks). The only drawback is that it leaves one hankering for the companion volumes to Connacht and Munster…
Although County Limerick has a rich stock of historic buildings dating back as far as the early Christian era, much of its architectural heritage is insufficiently known or celebrated. A newly published little gem of a book should help to rectify this situation. An Architectural Tour of County Limerick does exactly what its title proposes, offering visitors to the area an opportunity to discover a wealth of sites ranging from that piece of 19th century gothic whimsy, Dromore (shown on the cover above) to the 13th century Trinitarian Abbey dovecote in Adare (below), and taking in many other properties along the way. With a text written by historian Declan Downey and delightfully illustrated by Nesta FitzGerald, the book deserves to encourage a rash of informed readers to descend on County Limerick and see for themselves what delights this part of the country has to offer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?