Robin Bury’s recently-published Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland is, appropriately enough, something of a curate’s egg. However, the book provides a valuable account of the decline in Protestantism within this country, as testified by the numbers of people identifying themselves as such here. According to the 1911 census, there were some 327,000 Protestants living in the 26 counties, accounting for approximately ten per cent of the population: this figure excluded members of the British army stationed in Irish garrisons. A century later, the 2011 census indicated there were 137,000 Irish Protestants, accounting for three per cent of the population. Then as now the spread was uneven. The late R.B. McDowell’s Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists (1997) reveals that at the start of the last century about a third of the total Protestant population in the 26 counties lived in Dublin and the adjacent counties of Wicklow and Kildare. In the prosperous south Dublin suburbs running from Rathmines/Rathgar out to Dalkey, over sixty per cent of the residents were Protestant. On the other hand, the further south and west one travelled, the fewer Protestants were to be found: in Munster they totalled six per cent of the population, in Connacht under four per cent. Inevitably as numbers started to drop from 1920s onwards, it was in these areas that church attendance, and subsequent closure, was most immediate and widespread.
Pay no attention to decorators, designers, or passing fashions: from one season to the next nothing better becomes a house than a well-stocked bookcase (although a well-stocked cellar is also appreciated). Here are two of them within the library at Ballinderry Park, County Galway, an 18th century house that has been discussed before (see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th 2014) but deserves regular revisiting, if only to linger over some of the many volumes gathered therein.
The O’Flaherty family are descended from one Flaithbheartach mac Eimhin who lived in the 10th century. Although originally settled on the eastern side of what is now County Galway, they were later driven further west and came to control much of Connemara. But like many other such tribes, they were almost constantly striving to expand the area under their authority and it is said the mediaeval walls of Galway city carried the inscription ‘From the ferocious O’Flahertys O Lord Deliver Us.’ By this time, one of their strongholds was Bunowen Castle, County Galway strategically located by the Hill of Doon and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
In the sixteenth century, Bunowen and its surrounding lands were controlled by Dónal ‘an Chogaidh’ Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battle) who in 1546 married Gráinne daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, chief of the Ó Máille clan in neighbouring County Mayo: she is also known as Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. The couple had three children before Dónal was killed in battle in 1560: a few years later Gráinne left Bunowen and settled instead on Clare Island in her own county. But the castle remained in the family’s ownership until the 1650s when it was captured by the Cromwellian army and the O’Flahertys dispossessed. Bunowen was then given to Arthur Geoghegan whose own lands in County Westmeath had been taken from him before he was transplanted to the west of Ireland. The Geoghegans subsequently married into a local family, the Blakes who were one of the Tribes of Galway, and so became integrated into the region.
In 1808 John David Geoghegan of Bunowen petitioned the British crown for permission to change his surname. The family had long believed itself descended from the prehistoric Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages and therefore wished to take the name of his descendants. Accordingly they were granted the right to call themselves O’Neill. It is perhaps for this reason that, having assumed control of the Bunowen estate following his father’s death in 1830, John David’s son Augustus John O’Neill embarked on an ambitious building programme to enlarge the house. During the previous four years he had served as an Member of Parliament for the English constituency of Kingston-upon-Hull but had not stood for re-election. There were rumours that one reason for his unwillingness to face the electorate a second time was due to a gambling scandal or unpaid bills, but these allegations were not substantiated. In any case, he did overstretch his resources on Bunowen and, like so many others, in the aftermath of the Great Famine he was obliged to sell his property. In 1853 it passed into the hands of Valentine O’Connor Blake of Towerhill, County Mayo who used Bunowen as a summer residence. The castle was intact a century ago but at some date thereafter abandoned. It now stands a gaunt ruin, still gazing out to the Atlantic as it did when occupied by the ferocious O’Flahertys.
In 1716 the Cork-born Anglican cleric Edward Synge was appointed Archbishop of Tuam, County Galway, holding the office until his death in 1741. At some time during this period, he built a new archiepiscopal palace which to this day remains the largest and most prominent building in the town. Of three storeys over basement and of seven bays, the centre three forming an entrance breakfront, the house was set amidst gardens that to the rear ran down to the river Nanny. Its most significant external feature is the main doorcase, of cut limestone with fluted Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment. The palace was seemingly vacated in the 1950s; it now serves as the adjunct to a local supermarket.
Like many other religious sites, the former Franciscan friary at Ross Errilly, County Galway continued to serve as a burial site long after it had officially been put out of commission during the 16th century Reformation. Later visitors often commented on the poorly interred bodies here: in 1851 the Rev. John Hervey Ashworth claimed he had counted no less than sixty skulls scattered about the semi-ruinous buildings (see To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th 2014). Today there are no corpses to be seen, but many handsome tombstones inserted into the mediaeval walls, such as the two examples seen here dating from the early 18th century.
Situated to the immediate north of Kinvara, County Galway Dunguaire Castle was built in the early sixteenth century by the O’Hynes clan. Few of the tourists who stop to photograph the picturesque building know of its link with one of the great British society scandals of the last century. In 1918 Christabel Hart had married — against his family’s wishes — John Russell, heir to the second Lord Ampthill. Exceptionally tall and nicknamed ‘Stilts’ Russell enjoyed going to fancy dress balls in drag. Meanwhile his young wife spent the evenings in London dancing with a string of what her husband would refer to as ‘detestable young men.’ In June 1921, following a visit to a clairvoyant, Christabel Russell discovered she was five months pregnant. John Russell denied paternity and at once sued for divorce, claiming that no physical contact whatever had taken place between them and that the marriage had, on her insistence, never been fully consummated. In the resultant court case it transpired the couple had shared a bed for two nights just before Christmas 1920. According to Christabel Russell her husband had taken the opportunity to attempt what was referred to in accounts of the resultant court case as ‘incomplete’ or ‘partial’ intercourse; it seems he had already tried to do the same on several previous occasions, which she described as ‘Hunnish scenes, usually preceded by threats to shoot himself and once to shoot my cat, which often slept on the bed.’ Matters became still more confused when it was discovered that Christabel Russell, despite her pregnancy, showed ‘all the signs of virginity.’ One widespread explanation was that she had taken a bath immediately after her husband and had used the same sponge: even in later life her son Geoffrey (the fourth Lord Ampthill) was popularly known as the ‘sponge baby.’ The Russells eventually divorced in 1937 and Christabel, Lady Ampthill moved to Ireland, settling in County Galway where she enjoyed the hunting. For several decades until her death in 1976 her home was Dunguaire Castle.
As is still remembered, legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws meant that for much of the 18th century Roman Catholics under the authority of the British government found it hard to practice or express their faith publicly. It is worth pointing out that these laws were as much an affliction in England, Wales and Scotland as they were in Ireland, but the numbers of Catholics here were proportionately far greater than in those other countries. only in the late 1700s/early 1800s was the legislation gradually relaxed, ultimately leading up to the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which created full emancipation for members of this faith. But even prior to that date, Catholics had begun to embark on the construction of what at the time were always called chapels, buildings in which they could gather to hold their services. The great age of Catholic church building came in the post-emancipation era, which makes these early buildings all the more precious since relatively few of them still survive. They tended to be simple in form and design, not least because the costs involved in putting them up were borne by the local population, few of whom would have been wealthy. Weekly collections among the faithful led to the creation of a fund which was then used to pay for construction costs: Thackeray’s account of visiting various chapels during his tour of Ireland in 1842 make plain that the majority of those in attendance were the poorest of the poor.
St Brigid’s in Portumna, County Galway dates from 1825, and was therefore constructed a few years before full Catholic Emancipation had been achieved. A basic T-plan in form, it has a three-bay nave leading up to a pair of wide single-bay transepts, this simple design being a reflection of the limited resources then available. In 1858 a three-bay wide and one-bay deep porch was added to the west end, rising two storeys before being topped by a square-plan tower drum. It may be around this time that the exterior of St Brigid’s received its neo-gothic ornamentation such as the crenellated parapets and towers, and corner buttresses, thereby dressing up the original structure. In this form it remained in use for the next century. However in the late 1950s a new St Brigid’s was built on the adjacent former market square, using stone from the Portumna Castle which had been built in the 1860s and gutted by fire in 1922: evidently the local community felt their old church was no longer good enough for services. The now redundant church was converted into a sports hall, and served as such for some time before being deemed unfit for that purpose also. Since then it would appear the building (transferred into private ownership) and an adjacent abandoned convent, has sat empty, a prey to the elements and to vandalism.
How, one wonders, might the generation which contributed often very tiny sums of money judge what has become of St Brigid’s church in our own age? Would they consider the shillings and pence they could scarcely have afforded to hand over well-spent on a building which their descendants seem willing to leave fall into dereliction? Would they be satisfied that this is how their legacy, the hard-earned – and hard-paid for – right to free and open expression of faith, should be treated in such a fashion? Asking these questions is not intended to offend or to criticise the burghers of Portumna. The present circumstances of St Brigid’s are by no means unique: they are replicated in towns right across the country and are symptomatic of a greater problem. Like so many other historic properties in Ireland, this one is listed by the local county council as being a ‘protected structure’ but one wonders what protection it is being offered. According to information provided by the Citizens Information Board, ‘A protected structure is a structure that a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view. If you are the owner or occupier of a protected structure, you are legally obliged to prevent it becoming endangered, whether through damage or neglect.’ That legal obligation is meant to be enforced by the relevant local authority: there is no evidence of enforcement here but again that is hardly unusual. Last week, after two months’ negotiation between political parties, this country finally got a new government. When the various ministerial portfolios were announced, there was no reference to anyone being responsible for the department of heritage: apparently it comes under the remit of the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht but is of so little consequence that the name wasn’t even judged worthy of inclusion in this long-winded title. Too often the excuse offered for neglect of the country’s architectural heritage is that it represents the interests or legacy of alien others: this is the explanation customarily proffered to explain the wasteful abandonment of our country houses, for example. Nothing could more truly be representative of the national narrative than St Brigid’s, raised by and for the local population to serve their needs and to express their beliefs. Its neglect, like the title of new government ministries and the manner in which legislation regarding protected structures fails to be enforced, accurately express Ireland’s attitude towards our heritage: we may pay lip service to the visible evidence of our past but really we don’t care what becomes of it.