The former National School in Ballintemple, County Cavan, with adjacent house. The buildings stand beside St Patrick’s Church of Ireland church which dates from 1821, and the school, which is the single storey building to the right, was built almost thirty years later as a small plaque beneath the roof eaves explains. Another plaque on the facade of the two-storey neighbouring buildingnotes that it was erected in 1925 by the Rev. RJ Walker. Alas, both are now empty and falling into dereliction.
A little mausoleum located in woodland and set into the side of a hillock on the edge of the former Bawnboy estate, County Cavan. The now-ruinous house here was built in 1790 by John Enery whose family then owned the property, but at some point before the end of the 19th century it appears to have passed into the ownership of the Johnstones: in 1899 Robert Henry Johnstone, whose forebears had come from Swanlinbar elsewhere in the county but was now a Justice of the Peace and Vice-Chairman of Bawnboy Board of Guardians declared himself to be a land agent and landlord. As can be seen by the plaque inside the mausoleum, he died in 1934 (and his wife Mary five years before him) and it appears that the building was erected around that time. The estate was sold in the late 1950s and subsequently broken up by the Land Commission.
Considering the impact he had on this country, it is surprising that the name of architect George Wilkinson is not better known here. Born in Witney, Oxfordshire in 1814, and the eldest of six children, Wilkinson’s background was modest: his father was a carpenter and builder. There is little known of his education or training but he soon began to win contracts for work and in 1839 – when still not yet 25 – was appointed architect to the Irish Poor Law Commission, of which more below. Wilkinson thereafter spent the greater part of his life in Ireland, only returning to England a few years before his death in 1890. While living here, aside from his work for the commission, he was responsible for designing many other buildings, not least railway stations, perhaps the most celebrated of these being that on Harcourt Street in Dublin, as well those in Cavan and Sligo towns, Bray, County Wicklow, Athlone, County Westmeath, and Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, among many others. He designed the fine redbrick offices for the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and district lunatic asylums in Castlebar, County Mayo, Letterkenny, County Donegal, and both Carlow and Limerick. His practice in Ireland was extremely and consistently busy but it began with a large number of buildings which continue to have a notoriety here: workhouses.
In Ireland, workhouses are today associated with the catastrophe of the Great Famine and its aftermath. However, as institutions they neither originated in this country, nor were they intended to deal with such a disaster. The workhouse was essentially an English construct, arising out of successive Poor Law Acts and specifically dating back to the 1720s when legislation was passed allowing a local parish either to purchase or rent a property ‘for the Lodging, Keeping and Employing of poor Persons.’ Here in Ireland, and some twenty years earlier, a ‘House of Industry’ was established by act of Parliament in St James’s parish, Dublin ‘for the employment and maintaining of the poor thereof’: in 1729, it also became a Foundling Hospital. Operational costs were covered by, among other things, a tax on sedan chairs and hackney coaches. In 1773 a similar House of Industry was set up across the other side of the Liffey, on what is now North Brunswick Street. Others followed in a number of Irish cities and towns including Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford and so forth. Like their English equivalents, these buildings were never supposed to be an attractive option: they were intended to be places of last resort for those who were destitute and prepared to suffer what could be a harsh regime (in England the running of many workhouses was contracted out to third parties: shades of direct provision centres in this country at present). Circumstances, both in England and here, began to change in 1832 when the Westminster Parliament established a Royal Commission, chaired by the Bishop of London, to look at the administration of existing Poor Laws, some of them going back to 1601, and see how these might be improved. A report delivered two years later led to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which created a new administrative framework for providing relief to the poor, operated by a Poor Law Commission. One of the latter’s first tasks was to disband the old parish-level system of support and replace it with a nationwide series of organisations called Poor Law Unions, each run by a locally elected Board of Governors. Each union was to have its own workhouse, funded by a local poor rate. Workhouses were deeply unpopular in England and Wales, where they were first constructed, and often subject to attacks; some were even threatened with arson. Nevertheless, a similar system was proposed for Ireland by the government and in 1833 another commission, this one chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin, was set up to look into the matter. The commission’s report, delivered in 1836, did not recommend that the English system be replicated in Ireland: the problem here being lack of work rather than any unwillingness on the part of the local population to take up employment (which was thought to be one of the primary causes of poverty in England). More jobs, better housing, the drainage of bogs and improvements in agriculture: these were among the Irish commission’s recommendations. Unhappy with these proposals, the government in London sent over one of the English Poor Law Commissioners, George Nicholls, to investigate. Nicholls, who had never been here before, spent a mere six weeks traveling through the country, after which he returned home and declared that the English workhouse system was the best remedy for Ireland’s distinct issues. Despite violent opposition to the idea, the government proceeded with a Bill ‘for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ which passed into law in July 1838. Under this legislation, the country was divided into 130 Unions, each of which was to have its own workhouse (during the years 1848-50 some of these unions were split, with the creation of a further 33, thereby increasing the final figure). In early 1839 George Wilkinson, who had already designed a number of workhouses in England and Wales, arrived in Ireland with the brief of producing plans for all of them here.
Employed on an annual salary of £500, Wilkinson was instructed by the Poor Law Commissioners to visit and inspect all proposed sites before coming up with a proposal for workhouses ‘intended to be of the cheapest description compatible with durability; an effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded.’ Within a couple of months, Wilkinson had come up with a design model which was almost universally applied in the construction of Irish workhouses. Built of stone in a suitably unadorned Tudoresque style and capable of holding on average up to 800-1,000 persons, each site was entered through a relatively small porters’ block, where prospective inmates were admitted and where the local guardians would hold their meetings. Behind and to either side of this were separate recreation yards for boys and girls, divided by a small central garden. Then came the main accommodation block, separated into dormitories for men and for women (and for boys and girls above), behind which were two further recreation yards, once more divided by gender and kept apart by a long building running down the spine which held the chapel and dining room. Finally, the top of the workhouse site would be occupied by the kitchens, a laundry, a mortuary and what was usually described as a ‘ward for idiots.’ Because they all followed the same model, workhouses soon began to spring up across the country: as early as April 1843, Wilkinson was able to report that 112 of them were finished, and another 18 nearing completion. But they remained deeply unpopular, among all classes. Those who had to pay for them resented doing so: in Westport, County Mayo, for example, although the workhouse was ready for use in November 1842, it took three years – and a change of Board of Guardians – for the necessary operating funds to be collected through poor rates. Meanwhile, nobody wanted to be admitted to places known for their harsh regime, poor diet and miserable living conditions: even in the summer of 1846, many workhouses were only half-full. Then came the worst years of the Great Famine when suddenly there was no alternative. Buildings never intended to meet such demand struggled to accommodate many more inmates than had been planned, disease, such as typhus, became rife, and large numbers of Unions sank into debt as they struggled to provide any kind of assistance to the starving local community. No wonder that the image of the Irish workhouse is forever tainted. And quite a few of them survive to the present day, either in part or whole, and often pressed into service for other uses, not least as hospital complexes: Wilkinson, it appears, met his brief to make them durable. The workhouse shown here, in Bawnboy, County Cavan, is one of those established in the post-Famine period. Simpler in style than the earlier models, it was built at a cost of £4,900 (plus £945 for fixtures and fittings) and opened in November 1853 when 52 inmates from its equivalent in Cavan town were transferred here. Designed to hold 500 residents, it never seems to have reached that figure: in 1855, 172 persons lived here and by 1901 there were just 70. Following the workhouse’s closure in 1921, the buildings were used for various purposes, some of them serving as a vocational school, while another section became a dancehall. Services were held in a Roman Catholic chapel as late as 1979. Then no new function could be found them, and a long, slow decline appears to have begun, despite local recognition of the site’s significance and efforts to save the buildings. This is how they are today, derelict and empty, silent witnesses to a particularly grim period of Irish history.
A sorrowful sight: one of the few Penal era Roman Catholic churches left to moulder. This Holy Trinity in Kildoagh, County Cavan, a rare surviving example of such barn-style places of worship more often associated with the Presbyterian faith. A stone plaque on the front notes in Latin that it was constructed in 1796 by the Reverend Father Patrick Maguire. At that time, the building would have had a thatched roof, but this was replaced by slate in 1860 when an additional bay was added and the facade refenestrated. There are separate entrances for men and women, who were also seated in separate galleries on either side of the altar. The church was closed for services in the late 1970s and seemingly suffered from vandalism, hence its present boarded-up condition.
If a graveyard could be described as exceptionally fine, then that at Moybologue, County Cavan would qualify. Subcircular in shape and enclosed within a stone wall, the site during the medieval period held a church and some kind of hospice. Little of either remains, but an extant two-storey transept is believed to have served as a priest’s residence. All around these ruins are gravestones going back many centuries, including the tomb shown below which carries a variety of memento mori symbols including an hour glass, a bell, a coffin and a skull and crossbones. Dedicated to members of the Smith family, it dates from the mid-17th century.
The Presbyterian church at Glasleck, County Cavan which, as a cut-stone plaque set into the wall advises, was built in 1836. Its first minister was the Reverend Randal McCollum who remained in this office until his death in 1874. Aside from attending to his flock, he also maintained a farm and wrote a number of works, not least Sketches of the Highlands of Cavan and of Shirley Castle, in Farney, Taken during the Irish Famine, which was published in 1856. A diary he kept for ten years, 1861-71 is now in the collection of Cavan County Council. Evidently there was once a thriving Presbyterian community in this part of the country, thereby justifying the building’s construction, but it gradually declined in the second half of the last century and closed in 1998, when the congregation was amalgamated with that of First Bailieborough.
There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of Ireland’s town centres, visible in examples such as that shown above. This house sits in the middle of Erskine Terrace on Farnham Street in Cavan. Dating from the late Georgian period when the Maxwell family, Lords Farnham took an interest in the town, it is today in a state of sad neglect and a blight on the rest of the terrace. Further north on the same street and adjacent to the Roman Catholic cathedral of SS Patrick and Felim is the former presbytery (see below) which it appears was once an early 19th century three-storey house with pitched roof but converted into the present two-storey flat-roofed building in 1962. Like the other property to the south, it stands empty and forlorn, doing nothing to improve the character of the town.
So, what is to be done? The Heritage Council has recently launched a new Podcast series called Putting Town Centres First (https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/projects/podcast-series-putting-town-centres-first). No doubt admirable in its intent, one has to ask what practical difference this series will make. Discussions about urban decline, conferences, reports and analyses: all have been going on for decades with no visible solution to the problem under consideration. There has been much hand-wringing but little real change. Last month in the Irish Times, economist David McWilliams wrote an article in which he stated bluntly that dereliction ‘is vandalism for the property-owning classes’ and that the country’s huge numbers of neglected buildings ‘send out a signal of decay and reveal an enormously wasteful attitude to capital.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-the-rules-of-the-property-game-have-changed-1.4382088). Returning to the subject a couple of weeks later, McWilliams noted that some 15% of the country’s total building stock, almost 200,00 properties, are at present lying empty and neglected, and that in a little over a year 11 buildings had collapsed in the middle of Cork city. He then proposed a simple solution to resolving the issue: ‘use it or lose it’ legislation. Under this proposal, property that is being actively used, ideally for residential purposes, ‘is rewarded with preferential treatment, but one that is vacant is taxed. If the owner can’t pay that tax, the property faces a compulsory purchase order by the State, which then puts it on the market.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-a-plan-to-put-ireland-s-200-000-vacant-buildings-to-use-1.4394673). Sounds radical? Yes indeed, but despite all those conferences and reports and now podcasts, no one else has yet come up with a better solution. The simple question is this: should private individuals be permitted to desecrate the public environment by failing to maintain their property? At what point does it become unacceptable for private interest to trump public good? Talk may salve consciences but solves nothing. There is really no need for any more of it. If Ireland’s town centres are to have a viable future, and our collective architectural heritage preserved, what’s required is decisive – and perhaps radical – action. Otherwise the number of buildings looking like these examples in Cavan will continue to rise.
On August 25th 1732, the future Mrs Delany (then the merrily widowed Mrs Pendarves) embarked on a journey from Navan, County Meath to Cootehill, County Cavan. She wrote in her journal, ‘travelled through bad roads and a dull, uninhabited country, till we came to Cabaragh, Mr Prat’s house, an old castle modernized, and made very pretty: the master of it is a virtuoso, and discovers whim in all his improvements. The house stands on the side of a high hill; has some tall old trees about it; the gardens are small but neat; there are two little terrace walks, and down in a hollow is a little commodious lodge where Mr Prat lived whilst his house was repairing. But the thing that most pleased me, was a rivulet that tumbles down from rocks in a little glen, full of shrub-wood and trees; here a fine spring joisns the river, of the sweetest water in the world.’
The ‘Mr Prat’ to whom Mrs Pendarves refers was Mervyn Pratt, a sometime Member of the Irish Parliament representing County Cavan. His father, Joseph Pratt, had been one of two brothers who moved from Leicestershire to Ireland in the mid-17th century, both of them settling in County Meath. However, Joseph made an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth, only daughter and heiress of Col. Thomas Cooch (or Couch) who owned estates in Counties Donegal and Cavan. When he died in 1699, he left his property in the latter county to his grandson Mervyn Pratt, then aged 12. The heir duly settled on his inheritance and married Elizabeth, daughter of a neighbour, the Hon. Thomas Coote of Bellamont, County Cavan. At Cabra (spelled ‘Cabaragh’ by Mrs Pendarves), the couple’s home was an old castle, built at the start of the 17th century by Gerald Fleming (who had in turn been granted territory previously held by a branch of the O’Reilly family). This was the building which was ‘modernized and made very pretty.’
Today the castle at Cabra is just one of a number of buildings constructed or improved by Mervyn Pratt. A walk through the site today leads first to his former stable block (see first set of pictures), popularly known as the Barracks. A long, two-storey gabled block the east side features a series of lunettes resting on a string-course; most of these have been blocked up but two are open as part of doorcases into the building. Nothing remains of the interior. To the west and on higher ground are the remains of the extended old castle, primarily consisting of two four-storey towers, that to the south likely the original Fleming residence. Again, almost nothing survives of the interior, but somehow in the newer block there remains intact one plastered niche, as well as evidence of an adjacent cantilevered staircase. From this high spot, the land begins to drop and, past a typical domed and recessed icehouse, the path leads down to a lake beside which stands what’s left of the ‘little commodious lodge’ where Mervyn Pratt lived while the castle was being restored and enlarged. It has been proposed by Kevin Mulligan that this building (as well as the stables) were designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and originally featured a broad pedimented façade inspired, via the work of Lord Burlington, by Palladio’s Villa Valmarana at Vigardolo. As elsewhere, not a lot remains and indeed at least half of the building no longer stands; the central portion has lost its pediment and, given a flat, utilitarian roof, is now used as a store shed. But at least here, enough does survive for the original concept to be apparent.
The Pratts remained in possession, but perhaps not in residence at Cabra for the rest of the 18th century; in his Statistical Survey of the County of Cavan (1802) Sir Charles Coote while enthusiastic about the improvements undertaken by Mervyn Pratt and his successors in the local town of Kingscourt, was much less engaged with the demesne and buildings at Cabra. ‘The ruins of the old castle,’ he wrote, ‘which was the family mansion, are contiguous to the house, but quite too near to have any pleasing effect, which such pieces of antiquity afford in the landscape.’ Sir Charles was far more enthusiastic about the landscape and house at nearby Cormy (‘very beautiful, and formed with great judgement and true economy’) owned by Henry Foster who was then undertaking to transform a standard Georgian house into a romantic Gothic castle. However, before this work was finished, Cormy was sold to Colonel Joseph Pratt who abandoned the old family old home and renamed the new one Cabra Castle. This remained in the ownership of his descendants until 1964 and has since been used as an hotel. Meanwhile the older Cabra estate fell into neglect until acquired by the national Forest and Wildlife Service in 1959. Today it is run by Coillte (the state forestry body) and open to the public as Dún a Rí forest park.
The former National School in Ardlow, County Cavan. A single-storey, three-bay building, it carries a plaque on the exterior advising date of construction was 1897. As is usually the case, the interior features two large rooms, one for boys, the other for girls, and the remains of a wall to the rear indicate the yard behind was likewise divided. Now empty and losing slates from the roof, so liable to fall into ruin before too long.
The so-called Fleming’s Folly in County Cavan. Many fanciful stories have been spread about this little building, such as that it was constructed by local landowner Captain James Fleming so that he could see his son’s ship returning from America. More likely it is an early 19th century folly, of the kind then being constructed across the country: the building is shown on an Ordnance Survey map of 1836. Made from stone quarried locally, it is of two storeys and has the remains of a large chimney on the groundfloor; this suggests the folly served as a destination for walks by the Flemings and their guests. The building stands at the top of a hill above the village of Ballinagh and by climbing an intramural staircase it was possible in clear weather to see three of Ireland’s provinces: Ulster, Leinster and Connaught.