One of what might be termed Ireland’s pocket cathedrals: that dedicated to St Feidhlimidh at Kilmore, County Cavan. The present building was designed by London-based architect William Slater who received a number of such commissions in this country. Consecrated in 1860, it replaced an older and much altered structure which by the mid-19th century was deemed unworthy of purpose and therefore almost entirely cleared away. The only surviving trace of its predecessor is a much-weathered Romanesque doorway set into the north wall of the chancel, although it has been proposed that this feature originally belonged to another church, that of the Premonstratensian Priory of Holy Trinity of nearby Lough Oughter (although this was founded about a century after the doorway was likely carved). The cathedral is one of a group of buildings on this site that also includes the now-empty early 19th century Bishop’s Palace, or See House (for more on this read See and Believe, September 14th 2015) and one section of a much older palace. The see’s most famous incumbent was William Bedell who as Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh was responsible for commissioning the first Irish translation of the Old Testament.
In 1739 an Anglican clergyman called William Henry wrote a descriptive account of the area around Ulster’s Upper Lough Erne in which he mentioned that a river (which he calls ‘of Ballyhaise’ but which is now known as the Annalee) ‘ murmurs by Rathkenny, the seat of the Clements’ family. Here the river is beautified by an elegant house, improvements and large plantations on the southern shore, and on its northern bank by extensive gardens and terraces.’ It appears that Daniel Clements, originally from Warwickshire, came to Ireland in the 1640s as a soldier and by 1657 was in possession of the estate of almost 2,000 acres at Rathkenny, County Cavan which remained in the possession of his descendants (whose name in the 19th century became Lucas-Clements) until sold just a few years ago. His son Robert succeeded to the property in 1680 and remained there until his own death in 1722. One of Robert’s sons was Nathaniel, of whom mention has been made here before (see A Man of Taste and Influence, August 3rd 2015).
The Clements family would seem to have built a house for themselves on the south bank of the river which bisected their property. Nothing is known of the appearance or character of this building since it was demolished, likely around the late 1820s when work began on a new residence. This neo-classical block was designed by William Farrell who was the architect for a number of other such places in the vicinity. A sunken lawn to the immediate east appears to indicate where was the previous house but directly across the river is a survivor from the earlier property: a terraced walled garden. Today this is approached by a narrow concrete bridge but presumably something more elegant once offered access, since the garden itself is rather splendid. Cut limestone walls support banks on either side of limestone gate piers: paths to the immediate left and right lead to enclosing red brick walls which, on the river frontage, conclude in tall piers topped with urns. A gate to the east leads beyond the wall to the remains of a small pavilion built on the water’s edge; only one wall of this remains with a gothic arched window at its centre. One has a sense of what this little building must have been like since at the top and centre of the main terraces (supported by a sequence of low brick walls) is a summer house. Flanked by quadrant walls it is in the gothick style, constructed of brick with stone quoins, a battlemented parapet and arched windows on each side of the door. Inside is a single high-ceilinged room which once had further windows, since blocked up, and a chimneypiece which has gone. To the rear of the building there is access to another room below: one imagines this was used by servants looking after the needs of those upstairs.
Relatively little is known of the history of the walled garden at Rathkenny: Lucas-Clements lore proposed that it dated to 1695, which means construction soon after Robert Clements returned from England (he had been attainted by James II’s parliament in 1689 and fled to England) and around the time he became high sheriff of County Cavan. Nothing like it survives in this part of the country, but evidently at one point it was not the only such terraced garden. In 1739 the aforementioned Rev. Henry wrote of Ballyhaise, some nine miles to the west, ‘‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers.’ Designed for Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, probably in the third decade of the 18th century, and attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, the main house at Ballyhaise is of red brick with cut stone dressings: with later additions the building survives although the river-fronting terraced gardens are long gone (for more on Ballyhaise, see Made to Last For Ever, March 9th 2015). Then barely three miles to the east of Rathkenny is Bellamont Forest (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st 2013), another red-brick and stone house almost certainly designed by Pearce, and then a few miles further north again are the remains of the former early 18th century stables at Dartrey, County Monaghan (Now Unstable, October 1st 2014), once more employing the same materials. One has the impression that even if the same architect was not involved in all these neighbouring estates, the same spirit was at work, and the same influences and tastes being shared. More research remains to be done in this area but meanwhile the terraced gardens at Rathkenny are a rare survivor from the early Georgian period. Thankfully the property’s new owner appreciates their significance and is ensuring that they will continue to offer us an insight into early 18th century horticultural design.
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.