An avenue leading from Castle Saunderson, County Cavan brings the curious to a small church likely dating from the 1830s and designed by George Sudden but either incorporating or replacing an older place of worship on the same site. This was built by and for the Saundersons who owned the estate on which the church still stands, and as if to underline that point above the door inside the west end is a sandstone plaque, believed to date from the 17th century, featuring the family coat of arms. Outside at the east end the ground, in which are set 17th century gave slabs, drops away to provide access to what used to serve as the Saunderson’s vault.
Cloverhill House, County Cavan was shown here some months ago (see A Mere Shell, 9th September 2015), a ruin well on the way to vanishing altogether. Happily its entrance is in better condition, a slim, unadorned ashlar triumphal arch flanked by pedestrian gates. The residnce to which it originally gave access was extended by Francis Johnston in 1799, so one imagines the arch dates from the same period. The side gates need to be cleared of overgrowth if they are not to go the way of the old house.
A week ago the national tourist board, Fáilte Ireland, announced that €60,175 in funding is to be made available to Castle Saunderson, County Cavan. Seemingly this money is part of the organisation’s ‘New ideas in Ancient Spaces’ Capital Grants Scheme for attractions within the Ireland’s Ancient East initiative. The latter scheme was launched by Fáilte Ireland’s last April and ‘seeks to build on the wealth of historical and cultural assets in the east and south of Ireland.’ Leaving aside the fact that Castle Saunderson could never be described as being located in either the east or south of the country (north-midlands might be the simplest summary) one wonders what will be the result of this expenditure. According to Fáilte Ireland, the money ‘will be used to enhance the “on the ground” visitor experience and present the story of Castle Saunderson through the ages. This will be achieved through the development of a new “easy to explore” heritage trail – The Castle Trail. Through interpretative displays, visual art and written interpretation, the story will imaginatively portray the dramatic history and transition of this place as part of Ireland’s Ancient East from free land, through conflict, plantation and the divisive advent of Unionism and the Orange Order to the peaceful coexistence of the present day.’ In other words, the money doesn’t appear to be going towards the restoration of a building on the site which has only fallen into dereliction in the past twenty years and which, with a hint more creativity and resourcefulness, could be restored to serve as a splendid base for the aforementioned ‘on the ground’ visitor experience.
Around the middle of the 17th century the land on which Castle Saunderson stands passed into the hands of one Robert Sanderson whose father, Alexander Sanderson, had come to Ireland as a soldier and settled in County Tyrone. Robert Sanderson had been a Colonel in the army of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and in 1657 served as High Sheriff of County Cavan. On his death in 1675, the estate passed to his eldest son, another Colonel Robert who sat in the Irish House of Commons and married Jane Leslie, a daughter of the Right Rev John Leslie, Bishop of Clogher. The couple had no children and so Castle Saunderson passed to a nephew, Alexander Sanderson. It was the latter’s grandson, another Alexander, who changed the spelling of the family name to Saunderson as part of an ultimately fruitless effort to claim the Castleton peerage of the Saundersons of Saxby, Lincolnshire (the first and last Earl Castleton having died unmarried in 1723). It is his son Francis who is credited with having built the core of the present house. Staunchly anti-Catholic, he is said to have disinherited his eldest son for marrying a member of that faith (or it could have been because she was the daughter of a lodge keeper at Castle Saunderson). So the estate of over 12,000 acres went to a younger son, Alexander. He likewise disinherited his first-born son because he was crippled, and another son who proved rebellious, instead leaving Castle Saunderson to the fourth son, Colonel Edward James Saunderson who, like his forbears, was a Whig politician, and in Ireland leader of the Liberal Unionist opposition to Gladstone’s efforts to introduce some measure of home rule. It appears to have been after the death of his eldest son Somerset Saunderson in 1927 that the family moved out of the house, although they did not sell the property until half a century later.
As has been mentioned, at the core of Castle Saunderson is a classical house built by Francis Saunderson probably around the time of his marriage to Anne White in 1779. In the mid-1830s the building was extensively remodeled in a version of Elizabethan gothic for his son Alexander Saunderson. In December 1835 Nathaniel Clements wrote to Lady Leitrim that he had called by Castle Saunderson where the owner was ‘altering and castellating his house, so I was quite in my element’ The architect responsible for this work is now considered to be George Sudden, who was employed elsewhere in the area, at Lough Fea, County Monaghan and Crom Castle, County Fermanagh, Castle Saunderson displaying certain similarities with the latter (where the original design had been by Edward Blore). This intervention resulted in a bit of a mongrel, the east-facing, two-storey former entrance front retaining long sash windows to either side of a central three-storey castellated tower, its octagonal turrets echoed by lower, square ones at either end of the facade. The north and south fronts are asymmetric, the former having an octagonal entrance tower placed off-centre, the latter featuring a four-bay loggia between two further towers, as well as a substantial service wing at right angles that once incorporated a single-storey orangery. Although unoccupied by the Saundersons, the property was not sold by the family until 1977 when it was bought by a businessman who undertook restoration work. For a period it then became an hotel before being sold again in the 1990s after which fire gutted the house. In 1997 Castle Saunderson and its grounds were acquired by what is now called Scouting Ireland which initially appeared to show interest in restoring the building but eventually chose to construct a new centre elsewhere in the grounds at a cost of some €3.7 million. Meanwhile the old castle has continued to deteriorate: it looks unlikely Fáilte Ireland’s recently-trumpeted initiative will change this situation.
One of the series of doors found at the base of the stairs in the south hall at Ballyhaise, County Cavan. While the core of the house dates from c.1730, this part of the building was extensively remodelled and extended early in the following century. The doorcases, with their ribbed pilasters and feathered capitals beneath expansive arched fans, date from that period.
The south-facing garden front of Corravahan, County Cavan. Dating from c.1840 the building shares many characteristics with the slightly earlier and considerably larger See House at Kilmore in the same county (see See and Believe, September 14th last). This is hardly surprising as both were designed by the same architect, William Farrell. Just as importantly whilst Corravahan was commissioned by then-local rector, the Rev. Marcus Gervais Beresford, the See House had been built on the instructions of his father, George de la Poer Beresford, Bishop of Kilmore. Ultimately Marcus Beresford would succeed to the same bishopric (by then united with the See of Ardagh) before being appointed Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1862. His immediate predecessor in this position was a cousin, Lord John George de la Poer Beresford: one might almost suspect nepotism was a feature of the 19th century Anglican church in Ireland. The present owners of Corravahan, who have spent recent years restoring the house, believe the ground floor bay window to the left is a later addition, perhaps added by a subsequent owner, the Rev. Charles Leslie or a member of his family.
One of the lesser-known episodes of Irish history is the Tithe Wars of the 1830s. Tithes, a payment to support the religious establishment and its clergy, had existed in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic church but from the 16th century onwards, this obligatory contribution went to the Church of Ireland even though its members were always in a minority of the population. The tithe payment was expected to represent ten per cent of the value of certain kinds of agricultural produce. Prior to the Tithe Composition Act of 1823 it was possible to pay tithes in kind instead of in cash. To complicate matters further, a tithe was not payable on all forms of land, and there was even variation from place to place on the types of land subject to tithes. After legislation passed in 1735, for example, pasture (usually held by landowners rather than tenants) was deemed exempt, while tillage land was not. Likewise only certain produce was judged taxable: potatoes, the most widely grown crop for the majority of the population, could be subject to a tithe in one part of the country and not in others. Following the Composition Act tithes were required to be monetary and surveys were carried out in each parish to assess its likely income. Understandably tithes were much resented, and not just by the majority non-Anglican population. Therefore following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 (popularly known as Catholic Emancipation) it was inevitable the payment of tithes would come under attack.
In the aftermath of the 1829 act, and with a rise in numbers of Roman Catholic clergy and the construction of many new churches throughout the country – both of these funded by local communities – opposition to the payment of tithes grew. Opposition was further stimulated by the publication of lists of defaulters and orders being issued collection for the seizure of goods and chattels, most often livestock. The first open resistance occurred in March 1831 in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny where the civil authorities unsuccessfully attempted to seize 120 cattle from the local parish priest Fr Martin Doyle: he had arranged for the people of the area to place their livestock in his care. He had the support of a cousin James Warren Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin who famously wrote of the Irish people to Thomas Spring Rice (then-Secretary of the Treasury), ‘An innate love of justice and of indomitable hatred of oppression is like a gem on the front of our nation which no darkness can obscure. To this firm reality I trace their hatred of tithe. May it be as lasting as their love of justice.’ The revolt against tithes soon spread and led to several ugly incidents: in June 1831, for instance, the Irish Constabulary fired on a crowd resisting the seizure of cattle in Bunclody, County Wexford, killing a number of them (the figure cited seems to vary from twelve to eighteen). Three years later in Rathcormac, County Cork a similar incident occurred (over the non-payment of a tithe valued at 40 shillings) which resulted in at least twelve deaths. Eventually in 1838 the Tithe Commutation Act for Ireland was passed. This reduced the amount payable directly by about a quarter and made the remainder payable in rent to landlords who would then pass on the funds to the relevant authorities. In effect, tithes thus became another form of rental payment but the outcome was an end to open confrontation. Tithes were not abolished until the Irish Church Act of 1869 which disestablished the Church of Ireland.
Astonishingly it was during this troubled period that George de la Poer Beresford, who had been Bishop of Kilmore, County Cavan since 1802, decided to embark on the construction of a new residence for himself and his successors. A bishop’s palace already existed close to the site of the present building; when John Wesley visited in 1787 he declared the earlier house, dating from the early 18th century, ‘is finely situated, has two fronts and is fit for a nobleman.’ But apparently not fit enough for Bishop Beresford who in the mid-1830s commissioned its replacement from the Dublin-born William Farrell. In 1823 the latter had been appointed the Board of First Fruits architect for the Church of Ireland ecclesiastical Province of Armagh (a position he held until 1843) and in this capacity designed a number of churches and other buildings in the region. Accordingly even if Beresford’s wish for a new house seems odd, it made sense for him to use Farrell. One suspects at least part of the reason for this expensive enterprise was so that the bishop could commemorate himself: the tympanum of the façade’s pediment carries the Beresford coat of arms. Writing in 1837, Jonathan Binns harshly passed judgement: ‘The Bishop has lately erected a palce in lieu of the old one. The new palace is built in the Grecian Doric style and covered with Roman cement. It appears too lofty and in other respects is not well proportioned.’ Apparently always known as the See House the building is unquestionably stark, of three storeys over semi-raised basement, its three-bay front is relieved a large limestone porch and flanking Wyatt windows on the ground floor. The garden front is asymmetrical owing to the insertion of an off-centre bay window with another tripartite window to one side but not the other. There are two fine yards, separated by a block with a clock tower.
The dominant feature of the See House’s interior is height: the ground floor ceilings must rise to some twenty feet. Beyond the porch, a square entrance hall has a circular ceiling supported on pendentives. Then comes the staircase hall from which open a series of reception rooms, all characterized by their severity and scale. Doors and chimneypieces shrink to insignificance in these spaces, as do the ceilings’ modest plasterwork and cornicing. The current empty condition of the building exacerbates this feature but it must always have been an echoing barn. The bifurcating staircase further emphasizes the See House’s overblown proportions, rising to a return lit by a vast round-headed window before climbing up to the spacious landing off which run a succession of bedrooms. The top floor, reached via stone service stairs is equally substantial, its centre gallery lit by a wonderful octagonal lantern. One of the rooms on this level, presumably used as a nursery or schoolroom, has walls painted with trees. Otherwise here, as elsewhere in the building, decoration is minimal. The See House appears to have been occupied by Bishops (since 1841 of the combined dioceses of Kilmore, Elphin and Ardagh) until the beginning of the present century. It is now in private hands and although not at present occupied has been well maintained. Perhaps the last episcopal residence built by an Anglican cleric in Ireland, the See House is an example of the purpose to which at least some of those much-hated tithes were put.
Above is a photograph taken some time ago of Cloverhill, County Cavan. The original house was built by a branch of the Saunderson family in 1758 but then extended from 1799 onwards to a design by Francis Johnston. It is his work which can be seen here: a two-storey, three bay house with east-facing breakfront entrance bay focussed on a pedimented Ionic portico: on the south side was a bow with Wyatt windows. In 1958 the property was sold by a descendant of the original owners and has since been allowed to fall into ruin. As can be seen below, it is now a roofless shell, the portico seemingly removed more than two decades ago and moved to a house in County Wexford.