The modest graveyard of Killathy, County Cork contains the remains of a late-medieval church but is dominated by the roofless shell of a large mausoleum, its pedimented facade of limestone ashlar featuring rusticated pilasters on either side of a wide arched opening, access to the interior barred by substantial metal gates (and a great deal of vegetation). The cement-rendered sides and rear of the building are completely plain and there is no indication anywhere for whom it might have been constructed, no crest, no name, nothing. Killathy lies mid-point between Castle Hyde, home to generations of the Hyde family, and Convamore, now a ruin but once residence of the Hares, Earls of Listowel: perhaps this mausoleum was erected for one of these families?
As seen today, Fermoy, County Cork owes its existence to John Anderson, an ambitious Scotsman who settled in Ireland as a merchant in the early 1780s. Before the end of the decade, he had established a national mail-coach service and Fermoy, with its bridge over the river Blackwater, became a stop on the route between Cork and Dublin. Then in 1791 he bought the town from the Boyle family and began to develop it with such success that in less than 20 years Fermoy’s population had grown from a few hundred to 4,300. One of the reasons for this is that in 1797 the British government decided to establish a major military base here, with Anderson providing the sites for two large barracks on the north side of the river. The first of these, the east, was constructed 1801-6, its western equivalent begun in 1809; the buildings, dominated by large central squares, accommodated thousands of troops and were designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave. Following the departure of British troops in 1922, the barracks were burnt and all the buildings demolished. Today only parts of the outer walls and the arched gateways survive: the grounds to the east are now used by the GAA and that to the west by the local rugby club.
The garden front of Ballyvolane, County Cork. Dating back to 1728, the original house was constructed for Sir Richard Pyne, a former Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, of seven bays and three storeys. Almost 150 years later, in 1872 George Pyne, who had recently acquired the estate, commissioned local architect and antiquarian Richard Rolt Brash to remodel the building to give it the present Italianate appearance, as well as remove the top floor. The original gardens at Ballyvolane were laid out in the early 19th century, but much of what can be seen today is due to the work of the Green family who bought the place 70 years ago in 1953. Next Friday, June 30th I shall be giving a talk at Ballyvolane on Ireland’s country house gardens, with cocktails beforehand and dinner after. For more information about this event, please see: Robert O’Byrne aka The Irish Aesthete ‘Irish Country House Gardens’ Talk and Dinner (ballyvolanehouse.ie)
Caught in the rain, this is Ballyannan Castle, a semi-fortified house built c.1650 for St John Brodrick, an English soldier who had arrived in Ireland almost a decade earlier as a captain of foot. By deft political footwork, he survived the turmoils of the rest of the century, only dying in 1711 at the age of 84 and leaving behind several sons, one of whom became the first Viscount Midleton. While the Brodrick family survives, Ballyannan did not do so, abandoned by the mid-18th century and already ruinous in 1786. The house is notable for its circular corner towers above which rise exceptionally tall chimneys. Ballyannan was once surrounded by extensive and elaborate pleasure gardens, described in 1743 as containing ‘all the irregular beauties that charm the fancy and delight the senses,’ but little now remains in fields given over to agricultural use, other than a small brick summerhouse (alas, heavy rain discouraged a visit to this. Another time…)
Midleton College, County Cork was originally endowed in 1696 by Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney, former Maid of Honour to Mary Stuart (who had died two years earlier) and former mistress of the latter’s husband, William III. He had granted Lady Orkney large tracts of land in Ireland, and some of these were used to endow the institution, intended for the education of Protestant boys. The building itself appears to have been constructed some 20 years later, the first schoolmaster, the Rev. George Chinnery, being appointed in August 1717. As originally constructed, the building consisted of an H-plan block of two storeys over basement; writing in 1750, Charles Smith referred to a ‘handsome dome’ over the centre but this has long-since disappeared. On the ground floor, the centre of the property was occupied by a school room, lit by the large arched windows on either side of the main entrance approached by a broad flight of steps; the dormitory, lit by three oculi, was directly above, and the schoolmaster lived in one of the wings. The side elevations are of eight bays, the four central ones slightly advanced. The rear of the house shares many features with the facade. The architect is unknown, although the name of Benjamin Crawley, who was involved in the building of a couple of country houses in the south-east of Ireland during this period, has been mentioned. However, the interiors were thoroughly altered in the early 19th century and then later extensions added to the block, so only the exterior bearssome re semblance to the college’s appearance when first constructed.
An ancient story lies behind the name of Ightermurragh Castle, County Cork. In the second quarter of the 17th century, Edmund fitzjohn FitzGerald, son and heir of the last official Seneschal of Imokilly, had three daughters. Since there was no son to inherit his property, he decided to divide it between the trio, allowing them to choose which part of the property they would take. The eldest said ‘Beigh Inse na Chruithneactha agam sa’ (I will have the Wheat Field by the River): this is a tower house called Castle Richard. The middle daughter said ‘An Cnoc Ghlas damh-sa’ ( The Green Hill for me): this is a townland which came to be known as Knockglass. Finally, the youngest daughter, Margaret FitzGerald said ‘Agus an t-Iochtar mo Rogha’ (The lower is my choice): from this utterance the name Ightermurragh is said to have derived.
Margaret FitzGerald married a local man, Edmond Supple, whose family was said to have descended from a Norman knight called de Capel or de la Chapelle. The couple embarked on constructing a new residence for themselves at Ightermurragh; a chimneypiece still extant on the first floor carries the following inscription in Latin ‘Edmundus Suppel Dominus Margritatque Gerald, hanc struxere Domum quos ligat unus amor 1641’ (Edmund Supple and Margaret Gerald, whom love binds as one, built this house in 1641). As was so often the case, especially during the troubled period of the Confederate Wars, the couple did not long enjoy the place: before long: in 1642 the Catholic rebels, having failed to persuade Supple to join them, drove him and his wife and children from Ightermurragh Castle and burnt it out. Edmund Supple died in 1648 and not long after the remains of the building and surrounding lands came into the possession of Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery who managed to hold onto this acquisition even after the Restoration of Charles II when many old Irish families managed to have their estates returned to them. Edmund Supple’s descendants instead received other land in the area and built a new house for themselves, which they called Supple’s Court. In the 18th century, Ightermurragh Castle – presumably restored – was leased to a branch of the Smyth family. However, in 1772 Mr Beverley Smyth was attacked by a band of robbers who broke into the building and supposedly roasted the occupant on a gridiron in order to make him tell them where he kept his money. The castle was thereafter abandoned and left to fall into its present condition.
Of five storeys (including an attic and semi-basement) and divided by four string courses, Ightermurragh Castle – really a fortified house – stands on a rise above the river Womanagh and is cruciform in shape. What might be considered the main block runs east to west and measures 72 by 32 feet, with walls some five feet thick. The dimensions of the wings are 20 by 16 feet, the walls around four feet thick;; that to the south held the entrance, to the north the main staircase. Forty-five feet high, the building retains six of the original seven chimneystacks which rise a further ten or 15 feet; twelve of the fireplaces survive in situ. Of various dimensions, there are 45 windows, although none on the west gable end.
Dromdihy – otherwise Dromdiah – County Cork has featured here a couple of times, the first occasion almost eight years ago, when the building was in a very poor condition and looked as though it were destined to go the way of so many other abandoned Irish country houses: into oblivion (see pictures above). However, a couple of years later, the property was bought by a couple determined to bring it back to life and when the Irish Aesthete revisited in 2018 (see pictures immediately below) work had begun on clearing the site and parts of Dromdihy hitherto submerged in vegetation had re-emerged. The interior also, much of it previously inaccessible, was likewise visible and even possible to explore (albeit only at basement level, the upper floors having long-since been lost). Further progress was made, but then the pandemic intervened, putting something of a halt to proceedings. Now, however, work on the site has resumed and considerable changes occurred, as can be seen by the latest number of photographs (see bottom series). All being well, within another year or two, Dromdihy will habitable and once more be a family home.
As was noted here back in 2015, Dromdihy dates from the early 1830s when constructed for Roger Green Davis, agent for the absentee landlord Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke. A description of the house thirty years after being built noted that it ‘consists of a centre and two wings, ornamented with Doric columns and with a portico at the eastern end, by the hall is entered, and off which are hot, cold, vapour and shower baths. The first floor comprises five sitting-rooms; on the second floor are four best bedrooms, with dressing-rooms and water-closet…’ Evidently Green Davis spared no expense on the property: it is said that the stone was cut by craftsmen brought from Italy for the purpose. But if the design was admirable, its execution left something to be desired: seemingly from the start Dromdihy suffered from damp, the roof leaking and the interior manifesting both dry and wet rot. Green Davis’ son John, a barrister, sold the place to William Stopford Hunt, an Assistant Land Commissioner and well-known cricketer. He retained ownership of the estate until 1923, at which time the house and surrounding ninety acres were purchased by the O’Mahony family. They ran a manufacturing and timber business on the estate but by 1944 the house was deemed uninhabitable and its roof removed. It went into decline thereafter, one that until recently looked irreversible. But, as has already been mentioned and as these pictures demonstrate, provided sufficient determination and imagination exist, no building is beyond salvation. Dromdihy deserves to be held up as an example of what can – and should – be done in this country.
The towering remains of Belgooly Mill, County Cork. A smaller operation was built here in the early 1820s by one Thomas Jennings and served as a starch mill and vinegar distillery. In 1832, a flour miller called Peter Downing constructed g a new six-storey boulting mill, capable of producing 15,000 bags of flour annually, at a cost of £7,000: this is what can be seen here. In 1872, the recently-established South of Ireland and County Cork Distillery Company took a lease on the premises and converted them into a whiskey distillery, but just a decade later this business went into liquidation. The distillery’s copper fittings were all stripped out and the mill left empty, although parts of it were used by the local residents for various community purposes. But during the first decades of the last century, the buildings gradually declined and in 1941 they were stripped of all saleable materials – slates, flooring, beams and the like – and left a shell. The Irish Army was then invited to demolish the six-storey grain store using explosives, but despite several attempts to do so, it remained standing, as it still does today.
The remains of a church that was once part of a Carmelite monastery in Castlelyons, County Cork. This religious house was established in 1309 by John de Barry, but much of what can be seen today dates from the following century. Although sections of the cloister also survive, the church is the most substantial extant part of the site, a long nave separated from the chancel by a semi-ruinous three-story crossing tower. The building’s best-preserved details can be found on the west front, featuring a pointed doorway with hoodmoulded surround below a twin-light, ogee-headed window.
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.