Italy in Ireland


Thanks to the Gulf Stream, an Atlantic Ocean current originating in the Gulf of Mexico, there are portions of Ireland’s south-west coastline that enjoy a more temperate climate than might otherwise be expected. As a result, the area has long attracted garden enthusiasts keen to exploit the opportunities provided. One of those was Belfast-born John Annan Bryce, who having enjoyed a successful business career in Asia, retired to become a Liberal MP and to spend more time in his country of origin. Bryce and his family had already visited this part of County Cork on many occasions when in 1910 he decided to buy a small island called Garnish or Illnacullin (meaning island of holly) off Glengarriff Harbour in Bantry Bay. Until then owned by the British War Office, the island runs to just 37 acres and at the time of its purchase was composed primarily of rock with a Martello Tower erected at the highest point in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Otherwise Ilnacullin had little to recommend it as a site, and certainly bore no resemblance to its appearance today when visitors can easily gain the impression they have somehow stumbled into a garden in Italy.






Bryce’s first task was to make the island capable of supporting plantlife. For three years until the outbreak of the First World War, some 100 workmen were employed to bring over soil from the mainland, as well as to detonate explosives in the rock so that trees could take sufficient root in the cracks created. A large number of Scots and Austrian pines together with wind-resistant Californian conifers were placed around the outer perimeter of the island, thereby creating a shelter for the inner portion where the more formal gardens would be established. Thanks to the protection this dense belt of trees offers camellias, magnolias, azaleas and tree ferns now all flourish in abundance. While Bryce was a highly knowledgeable plantsman, he was not a designer. Therefore he called on the expertise of the English landscape architect Harold Peto who produced a master plan for the island. Not all of Peto’s work was eventually executed: the most notable missing element is a five-storey house meant to have been build adjacent to the Martello Tower (one floor of which was to serve as a music room). Instead the gardener’s cottage was adapted as a residence for the family.






The outstanding aspects of Peto’s design to have been accomplished and still visible are the walled garden and the formal grounds beyond. With stone towers at each corner (one climbs higher than the others to act as a bell tower) the walled garden is entered through a series of gates at mid-point of each wall, those at the top and bottom being more elaborate in design than the other two. That at the lowest point provides access to a wide expanse of lawn at the far end of which is an Italianate pavilion called the Casita, built of Bath stone with oak beams. Loggias on either side lead to the central tea house in which Bryce originally hung his collection of old master drawings. Similarly many pieces of antique sculpture were once generously scattered about the site but many of these had to be sold by the next generation: sufficient remain in situ to give a sense of how it must originally have looked. Meanwhile beyond the Casita lies a sunked garden focussed around a lily pool beyond which steps lead to an open-air gallery where Rosso Antico columns with white marble Ionic capitals frame a view across the bay towards the Caha Mountains. Ilnacullin remained in the ownership of Bryce’s son Roland until his death in 1953 when the island was bequeathed to the Irish state, in the care of which it has remained ever since.


Encouraging Conservation and Preservation


Today sees the start of this year’s National Heritage Week, the aim of which according to the Heritage Council (which coordinates the event) ‘is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.’ This is a laudable aspiration and merits everyone’s support. Heritage Week has encouraged some valuable initiatives. As of today, for example, St Lawrence’s Gate, a thirteenth century barbican originally built as part of the defences of Drogheda, County Louth (seen above) is to be permanently closed to vehicular traffic – something which should have happened many years ago – thereby ensuring its better protection. All counties in Ireland participate with enthusiasm in Heritage Week but once the seven days are over, many of our historic buildings revert to a condition of vulnerability. Below is a photograph of the former Church of Ireland church at Castlehyde, County Cork. Originally constructed in 1809 it further benefitted from the attention of George Pain in 1830. Having been closed for services, it has sat empty for some time and is now in imminent danger of collapse. This building is as much part of our heritage as St Lawrence’s Gate, and although likewise listed for protection has been allowed to slip into its present state. It would be beneficial if the goodwill engendered by Heritage Week were put to advantage to ensure more historic properties were given the support required to ensure their long-term future. Obvious ways to do so would be to use this high-profile annual event to highlight specific buildings at risk, and to campaign that local authorities enforce the law regarding protection of listed structures, something that with rare exceptions they currently fail to do so. As the state of the church in Castlehyde shows, until our legislation is matched by implementation every week needs to be Heritage Week.

Close to Death


Immediately above the village of Ballyvourney, County Cork is a shrine to St Gobnait: a shrine and well here still attract many visitors. On a site immediately below the old church and graveyard – and adjacent to a holy well – stand the remains of a once-fine residence, its buttressed south-facing entrance porch incorporating a substantial gothic window. Samuel Lewis’s 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland mentions that the Church of Ireland church above ‘is a very neat edifice, in the early English style, erected in 1824 by aid of a gift of £600 from the late Board of First Fruits. The glebe-house was built at the same time, partly by gift and partly by a loan from the same Board.’ This house was the latter building but sadly the roof has now collapsed and, their immediate surroundings currently occupied by a herd of calves, the walls look set to follow before too long. 

Surrendering to the Elements


Buried in the midst of woodland in north-west County Cork, Lohort Castle has had a turbulent past and, by the look of the place today, is experiencing a none-too secure present. As so often in Ireland, the building’s origins are uncertain. It has been proposed that a castle was constructed here in the late 12th centuries on the instructions of Prince (future King) John, but more likely it was one of the innumerable tower houses that appeared on the Irish landscape in the 15th and 16th centuries. As such it would have been built for the MacCarthys who were then the dominant family in the region. At the time, the castle would have been at the centre of a larger site with other buildings surrounded by an enclosing wall. In plan and form it is typical of the Irish tower house, being rectangular and rising five storeys to a machiolated parapet, with only one small point of access on the ground floor. The building’s most striking feature is its curved external walls, which while unusual are not unique. An engraving from the early 1740s shows it looking much as is still the case today, albeit surrounded by a moat (drained in 1876) and protected by star-shaped Vaubanesque outerworks. The only obvious differences are the stepped gable on the east side of the roof and the chimney stacks: these were added towards the end of the 19th century. 





In the late 1630s Lohort Castle passed out of the hands of the MacCarthys and came into the possession of Sir Philip Perceval, an English adventurer who acquired an extensive estate in Ireland. With the onset of rebellion in 1641 Perceval garrisoned the castle with 150 soldiers but it still fell to the native Irish who remained in occupation until 1650 when besieged by Sir Hardress Waller and his troops. It was written that Waller ‘by the Help of Cannon reduced it in four days’ but there is no evidence of such damage on the exterior walls (which are ten feet thick at the base) so perhaps the threat of cannon fire was enough to encourage surrender. Lohort was duly returned to the Percevals and remained in their hands for several centuries. It was Sir Philip’s grandson, John Perceval, created first Earl of Egmont in 1733, who paid most attention to the building. Formal classical gardens with long straight vistas were laid out in the surrounding grounds while alterations were made inside the main building including the provision of a library and an armoury holding sufficient weapons to equip men. In 1740 the builder John Hickey was hired by Lord Egmont to carry out this work but he miscalculated the costs and the following year was imprisoned for debt. Following the first earl’s death, his son seems to have lost interest in Lohort which was thereafter occupied by an agent.





In the late 19th century, Lohort again changed ownership, being bought by the O’Briens: Sir Timothy O’Brien was a cricketer famous for his short-temper. It was presumably during their tenure that further alterations were made to the original building in the mid-1870s. The need for additional guest accommodation was resolved by an unknown architect designing a large twin-towered gate house at the end of an avenue directly in front of the castle. As well as providing more bedrooms, this building added further drama to the site. The O’Briens were still in ownership when the gatehouse and castle were burnt by the IRA in July 1921 during the War of Independence. However, both were sufficiently sturdy to survive and, after some restoration work, to be habitable once more. This no longer looks to be the case. About a decade ago Lohort was offered for sale, and finally found a buyer at the end of 2011. Either before or after that date some rather aggressive work appears to have been undertaken on the buildings (and to an adjacent stableyard) but then halted. As a result, they are now suffering badly, the gatehouse especially being in pitiful condition. What an English army could not achieve four centuries ago, neglect in our own time may yet accomplish. 

A Merchant Prince


Cork city has long been renowned for its merchant princes, and Sir Mathew Deane was an early example of the breed. Believed to have been born in Bristol in 1623, he came to Ireland as a young man and settled in the south. Evidently he prospered, at different dates serving as mayor and sheriff of Cork; in 1691 he was appointed first master of the newly-established Society of Wholesale and Retayling Merchants. A year later he endowed an almshouse adjacent to St Peter’s church in the city, and in his will left instructions for the construction of a new building to serve the same purpose. Already knighted, he was created a baronet shortly before his death in 1710.

This splendid funerary monument to Sir Mathew and his wife, formerly to one side of the main altar, today occupies the wall of a small chapel on the north-east side of the former St Peter’s church. Flanked by marble columns with Corinthian columns, the figures kneel in prayer on either side of an altar. While it is possible to identify Sir Mathew with ease, his wife poses problems because he married three times. A notice in the chapel calls her ‘Lady Elizabeth’ but none of his spouses was so named, the first being Mary Wallis, the second Martha Boyle and the third Dorothy Ferrar, dowager Countess of Barrymore. St Peter’s is no longer used for services and today serves as an exhibition venue and cultural facility.

Getting It Right


As its name indicates, the little coastal village of Castletownshend, County Cork grew up around a castle occupied from c.1665 onwards by Richard Townsend, and still in the ownership of his descendants. Castletownshend offers an example of how a small urban settlement can retain its character and charm, and thereby attract visitors who during the summer months throng the place. Located on a small side-street rather grandly called The Mall, the mid-18th century house above has retained much of its original appearance, as is the case for the majority of other properties in the village. A number have benefitted from more recent sympathetic owners such as the house below: dating from the 1880s, prior to independence it was occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Castletownshend is a model of how to get it right.

On the Defensive


All conquering powers need to guard against not only internal rebellion but also attack from an external force. So it was that over several centuries the British authorities remained on the alert for the possibility of Ireland being invaded by a rival power.  This being an island, the invaders would initially be seaborne but their means of assault changed as methods of warfare became more sophisticated and potentially more lethal. Once ocean-going ships capable of carrying cannon were developed, coastal defences had to adapt as earlier methods of resistance threatened to be ineffective. Hence the construction of Charles Fort outside Kinsale, County Cork.





Located at the mouth of the river Bandon, Kinsale harbour is virtually landlocked, providing good shelter and anchorage to sea vessels. When Philip III of Spain sent an expeditionary force here in 1601 to support the indigenous army then fighting the English crown, it disembarked at Kinsale. So too did James II, accompanied by a contingent of French troops, in 1689. Understandably Kinsale was seen by the governing authorities as a vulnerable point of entry, and therefore in need of defence. Already in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale, the pentagonal James Fort had been erected to the south of the port, but well before the end of the century this was judged insufficient. The development of another and bigger fortification began on the opposite side of the harbour. This is Charles Fort, named after Charles II.





There seems to be a degree of uncertainty over who was responsible for the design of Charles Fort. Stylistically it derives from the system of fortifications developed by the Marquis de Vauban (1633-1707), a French soldier and military engineer who among much other work in the course of a busy life oversaw the building of some thirty-seven new fortresses and fortified harbours in his native country. Vauban’s star-shaped fortifications featuring a sequence of acute angles allowed defendants of a building better to see and repulse any assault, as well as to withstand cannon fire. This design was much emulated from the second half of the 17th century onward and accordingly served as inspiration for Charles Fort. Built between 1678 and 1683, the fort was planned as a pentagonal star but the completed structure is simpler and lacks adequate landward bastions (it can also be overlooked from higher ground, which proved a serious drawback during the Williamite Wars). Nevertheless it is one of the largest and most impressive fortifications ever erected here, with massive seaward bastions and ramparts featuring gun platforms and embrasures, glacis (a bank sloping down from the building which leaves potential attackers exposed) and a citadel. The interior of the fort runs to some twenty acres, much of which is filled with the remains of military accommodation.





Sir William Robinson, then Surveyor-General in Ireland, is said to have played a role in the development of Charles Fort, but so too it seems did Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery – a polymath who was both soldier and playwright, gentleman-architect and engineer – and James Archer, a Roman Catholic architect and engineer who managed to survive several changes of regime. Internally, the majority of the buildings are later than the fortifications. The limestone pedimented gateway, for example, was put in place in 1759 (incorporating older fabric) and may have been designed by Thomas Roberts who was then employed in erecting new buildings inside the fort. One of the houses on site, first occupied by Governor Walander, dates from 1710 and also features a neo-classical pedimented doorcase. Other blocks are from different periods in the 18th century. The passage of time and a long period of neglect in the last century mean that today it is difficult to tell what dates from when. Charles Fort remained in use by the British armed forces until their departure in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. The following year the site was set alight by anti-treaty forces and badly damaged. Charles Fort thereafter fell into ruin until the early 1970s when it was declared a national monument and partially restored: in this condition it has been open to the public ever since.