How the Mighty have Fallen (Part II)


Last July, one of Ireland’s major banks, AIB, announced plans to withdraw all cash services from 70 of its 170 branches. Although the company – in the face of near-universal outcry, not least from politicians in whose constituencies the threatened branches lay – quickly withdrew the proposed withdrawal, its original declaration of intent provided proof of what has long been evident throughout the country: the seemingly irreversible decline of regional towns. One by one, the staples of a thriving Irish urban settlement, whether it be the community hospital, the agricultural mart, the creamery, the post office, the bank and so forth, have packed up and left. For more and more of their needs, residents in smaller towns have been expected to head to a handful of bigger conurbations, where all the major services are congregated. Although this phenomenon is much discussed and analysed, one important aspect of the decline rarely appears in such discourse: the near-total disappearance over recent decades of Roman Catholic religious orders and the consequent abandonment of their buildings. 






The Presentation Order (full title: the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was founded in Cork in 1775 by Honora ‘Nano’ Nagle, member of a wealthy Roman Catholic family. Within a few years of its establishment, Presentation nuns had begun to open and run schools for girls, first in Ireland and then elsewhere around the world. In its country of origin, the order soon came to have a presence in every town of significance: indeed, by the mid-19th century the presentation of a Presentation Convent and attached school could be seen as indicative of a town’s economic and social importance. There was, therefore, widespread delight when the first three nuns of this order arrived in Mitchelstown, County Cork in June 1853. As if to emphasise the significance of this event, the site they would occupy dominates the town: immediately adjacent to the Catholic church (built at the same time) on high ground to the east of New Square. A month after their arrival, the nuns opened a school and within a few weeks 637 children of all ages had enrolled there for classes. Thus matters continued for the next 150 years, during much of which time it must have seemed as though the Presentation order would long remain a notable presence in Mitchelstown. However, towards the end of the last century, the numbers of nuns declined and those remaining grew ever older. Twenty years ago, in 2002, the last of them left and the convent they had once occupied, along with the school they had run, became vacant.






The former Presentation Convent in Mitchelstown consists of a three-storey, five-bayed central block facing due west. Gable-ended wings on either side extend eastwards to the rear, making the entire building U-shaped. The north wing held the chapel, described by Frank Keohane in his Guide to the Buildings of Cork as ‘a charming if old-fashioned Gothick affair with a rib-vaulted ceiling with bosses and pendants, a gallery on clustered columns and tracery-like panelling to the E wall.’ Following the departure of its original residents, the entire site was sold to a development company, Irish and European Properties, which in 2007 received permission from the local authority to convert the existing buildings for ‘community and commercial use’, create an underground two-screen cinema complex with associated car park spaces and then cover much of the surrounding grounds with apartment blocks. The economic crash of the following years put that scheme on hold but in 2012 Cork County Council granted an extension to the developers’ plans. Nothing happened – except that the company went into receivership – and two years later, in 2014, the council announced plans to prosecute the owners of the former convent under the Derelict Sites Act. Although it seems some remedial works were then carried out on the building, little has since happened and so the place has fallen into a state of almost complete ruin. In the past, the claim was sometimes made that Ireland’s country houses suffered neglect and abandonment because the majority of the population felt no sense of association with them. That argument does not apply in this instance: the Presentation convent was an important part of Mitchelstown’s identity for some 150 years, representative of the town’s importance and a centre of education. There must be many local residents who attended school here, and who can remember how it once looked. Furthermore, it is not as though the convent has disappeared: these buildings still dominate Mitchelstown, but their present condition now tells a very different story, one of disuse and decay. This is not a problem unique to Mitchelstown. There are many other towns throughout Ireland with similarly dilapidated complexes previously occupied by religious orders. As much as the closure of banks and post offices, they demonstrate the ongoing decline of Ireland’s regional towns.

What Future?


‘There is also a convent for nuns of the Carmelite order, founded about the year 1680, and removed to its present site in 1829, when the building, including a chapel, was erected, under the direction of the prior of the abbey at a cost of £5,000, defrayed from the funds of the nunnery.’ (Slater’s National Commercial Directory of Ireland, 1846) Here is the former Carmelite convent in Loughrea, County Galway, built adjacent to the remains of an earlier religious foundation dating from 1300 when Carmelite friars settled on the site. It’s curious to see how, when the convent was built on what was then the outskirts of town, the style chosen by an unknown architect was that of a country house, of two storeys and five bays, the two outer ones projecting slightly forward and marked by prominent quoins. And the groundfloor entrance is distinguished by a handsome carved limestone doorcase, with sidelights and a plaque containing a crest above. The impression of a country house is somewhat spoiled by a large array of other structures subsequently added, indicative of what would eventually prove to be a misplaced confidence in the long-term future of the order here: six months ago, the five remaining Carmelite nuns left the property. What now is to be the fate of this building and its immediate neighbours? 

 

Stooped but not yet Conquered


Originally from County Durham in England, by 1651 Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh was living in Philipstown (now Daingean), County Offaly, the first of this family to settle in Ireland. His grandson Thomas married Mary Sherlock from Kildare and the couple moved to Ardagh, County Longford where around 1703 he bought some 235 acres of land from the Farrell family. At some point between this acquisition and his death in 1749 he commissioned a new residence in Ardagh; this building is said to have provided part of the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer since the playwright mistook the Fetherstonhaugh’s house for an inn. The couple’s eldest son Ralph sat in the House of Commons of the Irish Parliament for 12 years from 1768 onwards and in 1776 was created a baronet. He also simplified the family surname to Fetherston (other branches retained the name in full). His eldest son Thomas, the second baronet, likewise sat as an M.P., in the Irish Parliament until 1800 and thereafter at Westminster until his death in 1819. The third and fifth baronets, Sir George and Sir Thomas Fetherston respectively were responsible for giving the local village of Ardagh its present appearance, by commissioning new housing for the local population. In the early 1860s Sir Thomas employed Dublin-based architect James Rawson Carroll to design one- and two-storey cottages around a green featuring a clock tower erected to the memory of his uncle, Sir George (see Commemorating a Life-long Devotion « The Irish Aesthete)





Sir Thomas Fetherston had only one son, another George, who was only 13 when he inherited the estate. He later became an Anglican clergyman and travelled widely, meaning he did not spend as much time in Ardagh as had his father. Under the terms of the Wyndham Act, in 1903 Sir George sold most of the estate – by then running to some 11,000 acres – to his tenants, retaining only the house and demesne. When he died unmarried at the age of 70 in 1923 the baronetcy died out also. Within a few years, the former family home had been sold to an order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy who moved into the building and then gradually added extensions to the east side, from which they ran a home economics college. As in the case of so many other such properties, at the start of the present century the nuns gradually wound down operations here and in 2007 the house and surrounding 227 acres was sold at auction for  €5.25 million. However, that sale fell through and it was back on the market for €5; by June 2009, as the effects of recession began to be felt, that price had dropped to €3.25 million. It was finally sold at auction in June 2012 for €1.36 million. Since then, the house has sat empty.





As mentioned, the main house at Ardagh is thought to date from the first half of the 18th century when constructed for Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. But much of its present appearance is 19th century, when it was refurbished first by Sir George Fetherston (who laid out the surrounding grounds) and then by his nephew Sir Thomas. The latter was responsible for the present stable block which, like a considerable portion of the adjacent village, was designed by architect James Rawson Carroll and features a series of cut-stone blocks with half-hipped roofs around a central courtyard. Sir Thomas is thought to have been responsible for adding a two-storey, three-bay ballroom wing to the immediate east of the eight-bay house, as well as the latter’s porch and arcaded conservatory. During the Civil War, an attempt was made to burn down the building, but this seems to have caused little damage. A more serious fire in 1948 led to the nuns then in residence removing the top floor, thereby making the house look longer and lower than would previously been the case. Anyone passing through Ardagh village cannot fail to see the building standing forlorn and unkempt across open ground. It seems unfortunate that a property linked to the family who did so much for the area, and which can claim associations with one of the finest comedies ever written in the English language, should today be left in this sad condition.  

No Mercy




Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.



What Future?



The pictures above suggest this might be the entrance to an Irish country house, built in the mid-19th century when the fashion for a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic was at its height here. In fact, it is the centre block of the former Convent of Mercy in Ardee, County Louth. Built in the mid-1850s, the convent was designed by John Neville, then County Surveyor for Louth (a position he held for 46 years, thereby ensuring plenty of work for his office in the area). The three-storey block built of coursed rubble features cut limestone for quoins, and window surrounds as well as for the three-bay, single-storey porch in Perpendicular style. And the facade is saved from what might be dull uniformity by the two-storey canted bay to the immediate right of the entrance. Further buildings, including a chapel, were added to left and right of the convent. As in so many other towns, the nuns have now departed and the ten-acre site has been on the market since last autumn. What might its future be?


New Owner Wanted


Kilcormac is a village in County Offaly which at the last census (2016) had a population of 935 persons (the figure was 973 in 1991). The most prominent building on its main, indeed only really significant, street is that shown here: an eight-bay convent built in 1885, probably to the design of William Henry Byrne who specialized in such commissions, for the Sisters of Mercy. Members of the order remained in residence here until two years ago, when the last nuns left and the premises, together with an acre of land to the rear, were put on the market. This is a story that can be told in almost every town and village across the country, where the decline in clerical numbers has made the maintenance of what is almost invariably the most substantial property in the vicinity unsustainable. Often the buildings then sit neglected for years, the only attention they receive from vandals and arsonists. Let’s hope this one, a handsome solid structure with nice brick detailing around the windows and attractive use of the quatrefoil motif, finds a new owner soon.