Presents of Mind III


A niche in the façade of Dublin’s Lying-In Hospital, otherwise known as the Rotunda. Designed by Richard Castle, what is now the world’s oldest continuously operating maternity hospital opened on this site in 1757 and takes its popular name from the adjacent Round Room which with accompanying assembly rooms were constructed to raise income for the institution. The hospital’s façade is of Wicklow granite, the use of which is discussed in The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland written by the late Arthur Gibney (and edited for publication by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland). While a certain amount of investigation has been conducted into the architecture of the Georgian period, the process of construction during the same era is relatively little studied. This is what makes Gibney’s book so fascinating: he has studied contemporary records to discover how buildings both public and private were put together at the time. The first two chapters examine who was responsible for what on a building site, and the various form of contractual arrangements employed whenever work was undertaken. Regarding the latter, several options were available, some of which involved fixing the final cost in advance (carrying an attendant risk that contractors keen to make a good profit might skimp on materials and finish) while what was known as a measured contract ‘paid each trade separately for measured quantities of work based on agreed rates.’ The potential financial gains to be made by builders, especially in large-scale public schemes, were exposed following a parliamentary enquiry in 1752 into a national barracks building programme: this led to the dismissal of the Surveyor General Arthur Jones Nevill in 1752 (he was expelled from Parliament the following year).
Gibney follows with chapters looking at different areas of the building trade covering carpentry, joinery and the timber trade, wall construction, brickwork and stone, roofing and glazing, plastering and painting. The emergence of builder architects like George Semple and the Ensor brothers is also considered; as Gibney observes, ‘Eighteenth-century craftsmen in Irish cities were essentially part of a middle-class milieu with access to the same opportunities as members of the merchant community.’ By the book’s conclusion, the reader has a full understanding of how buildings were constructed in the 18th century and what characteristics distinguished them from equivalent structures in Britain and elsewhere (it transpires the differences are most immediately evident in the way floors were made). Gibney’s work is a most welcome addition to the field of Irish architectural studies and helps to provide a fuller picture of building work in this country during the Georgian period.


The Building Site in Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Arthur Gibney (edited by Livia Hurley and Edward McParland) is published by Four Courts Press.

Presents of Mind II


In Ireland the term ‘castle’ is widely applied, on occasion to buildings which have nothing fortified about their appearance, and even lack relevant appurtenances such as towers and battlements. The most widespread appropriation has been for structures that are actually tower houses, built in large numbers between the 15th and early 17th centuries. A typical example is Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary believed to have been constructed for Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn, Chieftain of Ormond (died 1588). Cinneide is the Irish word for ‘Helmeted Head’: the Ua Cinneides were supposedly the first people in this country to wear helmets when going into battle against the Vikings. The name was later anglicised to Kennedy and the family remains widespread in this part Ireland. Although Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn’s son Donnchadh further fortified the castle, in 1653 it was surrendered to English forces. Nevertheless his descendants regained possession of the property and were in occupation in the 18th century. Lackeen is of four storeys and holds the remains of several chimneypieces as well as two flights of stairs, initially a straight run to the first floor, and then a spiral staircase to the upper levels concluding in a large open space, once roofed and containing the main living chambers.
Lackeen is one of thirty-six properties featured in Tarquin Blake’s latest book, Exploring Ireland’s Castles. Some of them – such as those in Trim, Kilkenny and Limerick – really are castles in the original sense of the word and date back to the arrival here of the Normans. Others, like Lackeen, Leap in County Offaly and Fiddaun in County Galway follow the classic tower house form. Another group, including Kanturk, County Cork and Burncourt, County Tipperary are representative of that transitional period in the late 16th/early 17th century when fortified manor houses were constructed. And finally there are a substantial number of buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century like Tullynally, County Westmeath and Lough Cutra, County Galway that were given a castellated appearance in order to imply greater antiquity.
Many of the castles selected by Blake are now ruins, a common enough occurrence for old properties in this country. Others, like Birr Castle and Charleville Forest, both in County Offaly, still retain their roofs. The two latter are in private hands whereas examples are also included of castles in public ownership, like Malahide in County Dublin and Johnstown, County Wexford. It makes for an eclectic and heady mix, all photographed by Blake who accompanies his pictures with a short history of each property. An excellent introduction to the distinctive yet diverse character of Irish ‘castles’.


Exploring Ireland’s Castles by Tarquin Blake is published by the Collins Press

Presents of Mind I


One of the gates at the entrance of the Keep Gate standing in the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly incorporating the Parsons family coat of arms. With machicolations, slit and loop windows, and crenellated battlements, this two-storey miniature castle was designed by Mary, third Countess of Rosse in 1847-8 and constructed as a famine relief project. Well inside the grounds of the estate, the Keep Gate forms part of a star-shaped moat around the castle, the moat being designed by the Countess’s uncle Captain Richard Wharton Middleton.
The Keep Gate is one of many buildings to feature in a splendid new publication Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly written by County Architect Rachel McKenna. After initial chapters investigating the nature of follies and other demesne architecture, McKenna goes on to consider in depth fifteen different estates in Offaly, some well-known – like Birr and Charleville – others less familiar such as Ballycumber, Prospect and Acres’ Hall. Running to 348 pages, the work is extensively and admirably illustrated with abundant colour photographs, maps and plans, drawings old and new and many other images to complement the text. Published by Offaly County Council, this is a model of the kind of book all local authorities should be producing: one hopes others will follow Offaly’s lead in demonstrating such pride in the region’s built heritage. Hard to fault and impossible to resist, not least because the volume’s price is a very affordable €30.


Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly by Rachel McKenna is published by Offaly County Council.

A Most Happy – and Narrow – Escape


‘We have had a most happy – and narrow escape [from] having the whole house burned – Most fortunately the fire broke out by day – if it had been in the night, nothing could have saved us – and nothing would have saved us either by day or night but the extraordinary courage, zeal, activity, steadiness & obedience of the people who came to our assistance – 30 men & boys who went on unremittingly for above 3 hours from 7 o’clock in the morning till half after 10 carrying water up, up, up ladders & staircase & pouring continually, continually down the chimney till at last the fire was got under and extinguished – the total extinction & complete safety was not effected till half after seven in the evening…
Lovell & I first met in the study, he carrying the tin box with the title deeds – I undertook the carrying out of all the papers with 2 men he left me – Mrs Smith’s son and Dargan – most steady they were – in less than an hour’s time they had carried out all the presses of leases, etc, boxes of surveys & every rent book – The top of Mr Hind’s [the land agent] in which were his accounts & I know not what & it was impossible to open the locks –
First I tried to get the things out of the study window – impossible opening from top – too high up – weight of presses – breadth of table – imposs – The men actually carried the who alcove mentioned through the hall – down the stairs – while every instant bucket men were ascending – how it was done Heaven knows – Honora and I carried out all my papers & Lovell’s – and my mother’s – letters – (pigeon holes) money accounts, books all laid on the grass before library window –my father’s picture on the veranda – all the library side of the hall pictures, Mr Dat etc.
The quiet at front of house seemed most extraordinary! – as if it knew nothing & nature knew nothing of what was going on – But what is still more extraordinary, my dear Fanny, believe me if you can – I whom you have seen such an egregious coward in small or no danger in a carriage felt all the this time without fear – absolutely as if the magnitude of the danger swallowed up fear – I was absolutely bereft of feeling & could think & did think as coolly as I do now – and more clearly – I cannot understand it but it is a fact…’


Extract from a letter of May 14th 1828 written by Maria Edgeworth to her half-sister Fanny and describing a fire that damaged but did not destroy the family home at Edgeworthstown, County Longford. Dating from 1791 and painted by Mrs Mary Powys the upper picture shows the house as it was after improvements carried out by Richard Lovell Edgeworth. The lower picture shows the same building in the late 1850s, some ten years after Maria Edgeworth’s death. The little bow window to the left gave light to her equally modest bedroom – but it fell off the wall some years later. Thankfully the greater part of the house still stands, although altered to serve as a nursing home. Both images and the letter are included in Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland most skilfully selected and edited by Valerie Pakenham, and just published by Lilliput Press.

Lost Forever


The history of Tyrone House, County Galway and its sad fall from grace was discussed here a few weeks ago (see A High House on High Ground, September 18th 2017). Above is an image of the building included in the fifth and final volume of the The Georgian Society Records of Eighteenth Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration published in 1913, showing it still intact. One of the house’s most striking features was the entrance hall, dominated by a mid-18th century white marble life-size statue of St. George Ussher St. George, Baron Saint George. This survived until Tyrone House was attacked in August 1920 when the statue was smashed to pieces: as a result, the photograph below is the only record of the work.
Copies of my new book, Tyrone House and the St George Family: The Story of an Anglo-Irish Family are now available from the Irish Georgian Society bookshop. For more information, please see https://shop.igs.ie/collections/books

Brought to Book


In September 1753 Michael O’Reilly wrote from Dublin to the Roscommon-based antiquarian Charles O’Conor ‘I think a man should read books as he eats victuals; surfeits of either cannot be digested; and too many books as too many dishes will cause surfeit.’ The problem for O’Reilly, as for many readers today, was that more volumes were being produced than could be consumed: the market seemed to be ahead of supply. Toby Barnard’s newly-published Brought to Book: Print in Ireland 1680-1784 examines the history of publication here during this period. Barnard notes the steady rise in work being brought out. In the 1680s the average number of new titles published in Dublin was 52: by the 1790s that figure had risen to 480. For a long time Irish authors preferred, if possible, to publish in England, the understandable expectation being that they would thereby earn more and reach a larger audience. Furthermore, because the British government’s Copyright Act of 1710 did not apply to Ireland, authors who published here enjoyed no legal entitlement to payment for their work. While this had an impact on the development of Irish publishing, ultimately the drive towards an indigenous industry was too strong to be resisted.


Barnard notes how many of the books produced here were local editions of work already successful in other countries. Initially interest in books about Ireland attracted little interest, one dealer noting that such volumes were ‘very little noticed by them whom they did most concern.’ But with the passage of time, increased communication and greater awareness of the need to improve the state of the country, work of Irish subject matter increased in appeal – and sales. Then as now, criticism was not always well-received: the English agronomist Arthur Young was much admired when he wrote about his own country – the Dublin Society made him an honorary member in 1771 – but drew a less favourable response when he turned his attention to matters Irish: the first edition of his Tour of Ireland had to be published in London when insufficient subscribers could be found here. Contrary to what is often thought and despite the Penal Laws, devotional books for Roman Catholics were published in Ireland from the 1720s onwards, albeit under a suppositious mainland European imprint. The first work in the Irish language known to have been produced in Dublin for Catholic readers appeared in 1736: intended as an aid for other members of the clergy, it was a series of sixteen sermons by Bishop Gallagher of Raphoe, County Donegal. By the end of the period covered, books such as Charlotte Brooke’s The reliques of Irish poetry (1788) were both recording and celebrating the nation’s ancient culture. As Barnard points out ‘the venerable was valued as evidence of the complex culture in an earlier Ireland.’ The course of this transition is traced in his own book, illustrating how complex cultures also existed here during the early modern period.


Brought to Book: Print in Ireland 1680-1784 by Toby Barnard is published by the Four Courts Press.

The Méséglise Way


‘It was indeed a hawthorn, but one whose flowers were pink, and lovelier even than the white. It, too, was in holiday attire, for one of those days which are the only true holidays, the holy days of religion, because they are not appointed by any capricious accident, as secular holidays are appointed, upon days which are not specially ordained for such observances, which have nothing about them that is essentially festal – but it was attired even more richly than the rest, for the flowers which clung to its branches, one above another, so thickly as to leave no part of the tree undecorated, like the tassels wreathed about the crook of a rococo shepherdess, were every one of them ’in colour,’ and consequently of a superior quality…it was Nature herself who had spontaneously expressed it (with the simplicity of a woman from a village shop, labouring at the decoration of a street altar for some procession) by burying the bush in these little rosettes, almost too ravishing in colour, this rustic ’pompadour.’ High up on the branches, like so many of those tiny rose-trees, their pots concealed in jackets of paper lace, whose slender stems rise in a forest from the altar on the greater festivals, a thousand buds were swelling and opening, paler in colour, but each disclosing as it burst, as at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, its blood-red stain, and suggesting even more strongly than the full-blown flowers the special, irresistible quality of the hawthorn-tree, which, wherever it budded, wherever it was about to blossom, could bud and blossom in pink flowers alone.’

Remembrance of Things Past: Janey Alexander, March 1962-May 2017