Lovely even in the rain: the facade of Castlegar, County Galway. This elegant villa was designed in the early 1800s by Richard Morrison for Ross Mahon, later created first baronet. The south front with its two-storey bow was originally conceived as entrance to the building, but this was later moved to the north side. Originally the tripartite windows on either side of the bow were set within segmental arches, as was the two-bay breakfront of the east side. However, at the end of the 19th century, alterations and additions were made to the house (not least a large extension to the west) and the whole given cement render.
‘There is not a baronet in the United Kingdom who (with the very essence of good-humour) has afforded a greater opportunity for notes and anecdotes than Sir John Burke of Glinsk Castle and tilt-yard;—and no person ever will, or ever can, relate them so well as himself. Sir John Burke is married to the sister of Mr. Ball, the present proprietor of Oatlands, commonly called the Golden Ball. I witnessed the court ship; negotiated with the brother; read over the skeleton of the marriage settlement, and was present at the departure of the baronet and his new lady for Rome, to kiss the pope’s toe. I also had the pleasure of hailing them on their return, as le Marquis and la Marquise de Bourke of the Holy Roman Empire. Sir John had the promise of a principality from the papal see when he should be prepared to pay his holiness the regulation price for it. At all events, he came back highly freight ed with a papal bull, a nobleman’s patent, holy relics, mock cameos, real lava, wax tapers, Roman paving-stones, &c. &c.; and after having been overset into the Po, and making the fortune of his courier, he returned in a few months to Paris, to ascertain what fortune his wife had ;-a circumstance which his anxiety to be married and kiss the pope’s toe had not given him sufficient time to investigate before. He found it very large, and calculated to bear a good deal of cutting and hacking ere it should quit his service—with no great probability of his ever coaxing it back again. Sir John’s good temper, however, settles that matter with great facility by quoting Dean Swift’s admirable eulogium upon poverty:—“Money’s the devil, and God keeps it from us,” said the dean. If this be orthodox, there will be more gentlemen’s souls saved in Ireland than in any other part of his Britannic Majesty’s dominions.’
‘Previous to Sir John’s marriage, Miss Ball understood, or rather had formed a conception, that Glinsk Castle was placed in one of the most cultivated, beautiful, and romantic districts of romantic Ireland, in which happy island she had never been, and I dare say never will be. Burke, who seldom says any thing without laughing heartily at his own remark, was questioned by her pretty closely as to the beauty of the demesne, and the architecture of the castle. “Now, Sir John,” said she, “have you much dressed grounds upon the demesne of Glinsk?” “Dressed, my love?” repeated Sir John, “why, my whole estate has been nearly dressed up these seven years past.”
“That’s very uncommon,” said Miss Ball; “there must have been a great expenditure on it.”
“Oh, very great,” replied the baronet, “very great.”
“The castle,” said her future ladyship, “is, I suppose, in good order?”
“It ought to be,” answered Sir John; “for (searching his pockets) I got a bill from my brother Joe of, I think, two hundred pounds, only for nails, iron cramps, and holdfasts—for a single winter.”’
‘The queries of Miss Ball innocently proceeded, and, I think, the replies were among the pleasantest and most adroit I ever heard. The lady seemed quite delighted, and nearly ex pressed a wish to go down to the castle as soon as possible. “As Sir John’s rents may not come in instantly,” said she, “I have, I fancy, a few thousand pounds in the bank just now, and that may take us down and new-furnish, at least, a wing of the castle !”
This took poor Sir John dreadfully aback. Glinsk was, he told me, actually in a tumbling state. Not a gravel walk within twenty miles of it: and as to timber, “How the devil,” said he, “could I support both my trees and my establishment at the same time? —Now,” he pursued, “Barrington, my good friend, do just tell her what I told you about my aunt Margaret’s ghost, that looks out of the castle window on every anniversary of her own death and birth-day, and on other periodical occasions. She’ll be so frightened (for, thank God! she’s afraid of ghosts), that she’ll no more think of going to Glinsk than to America.” – “Tell her yourself, Sir John,” said I:—“no body understands a romance better; and I’m sure, if this be not a meritorious, it is certainly an innocent one.” In fine, he got his groom to tell her maid all. about the ghost: the maid told the mistress, with frightful exaggerations: Sir John, when appealed to, spoke mysteriously of the matter; and the purchase of Glinsk Castle could not have induced Miss Ball to put her foot in it afterwards. She is a particularly mild and gentlewomanly lady, and, I fancy, would scarcely have survived, a visit to Glinsk, even if the ghost of Madam Margaret had not prevented her making the experiment.’
From Sir Jonah Barrington’s Personal Sketches of his Own Times (3 vols. 1827–32). Until offered for sale through the Encumbered Estates Court in the early 1850s, the land on which Glinsk Castle, County Galway stands had belonged for many centuries to a branch of the Burke family. In 1628 one of them, Ulick Burke, was created first baronet and it was probably around this time, or soon afterwards, that work commenced on the construction of the castle, built as a semi-fortified house. However, it does not seem to have survived very long, being perhaps gutted during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s. Certainly by the time Sir John Burke, tenth baronet, married the wealthy Sydney Ball in October 1816 the building had long been a ruin, hence his desire that she never visit the place.
From The Tuam Herald of Saturday, September 4th 1920: ‘A correspondent gives some interesting but sad details of the malicious burning of Tyrone House [County Galway]. It was in the late Georgian style and the finest house in Ireland. The ceilings were all painted by Italian masters and were regular works of art. The mantle pieces were all of rare Italian marble and very costly. In the hall was a fine full sized marble statue of Baron St George the founder of that once great family. It was the work of an Italian artist. The head was broken off the night of the raid deliberately it must be said. All the ceilings are now ruined and the mantle pieces also, and the entire structure an empty shell and ruin. There was no grounds for the report that the military or police intended or were to occupy the house, and agrarian motives are believed to have inspired and instigated this most foul and reprehensible act of purely wanton destruction. Of late years the place was freely allowed to be used by pleasure parties who came out from Loughrea and other places to have a dance which cost them nothing and to enjoy themselves, and who were never prevented from having their pleasure and a dance on the spacious floor of the dining room, and they can now no longer do so, and where in olden days the finest balls in the Co. Galway took place.’
This month marks the sad centenary of the burning of Tyrone House. For further information on the building and its former owners, the St George family, see https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/09/18/tyrone-house/ or watch on the Irish Aesthete’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=irish+aesthete
Clontuskert Priory, County Galway is a little-known religious site which yields ample pleasures for the traveller who troubles to find it. The present ruins date from the 15th century, but it is claimed that originally a monastic settlement was founded here around 800AD by Saint Baedán. If this were the case, no trace of that establishment survives. Later, probably towards the close of the 12th century, the prominent Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) family invited members of the Arrouasian order – a particularly austere division of the Augustinian canons – to found a house here, the Priory of St Mary. The Ó Ceallaighs remained closely associated with this establishment, which became one of the richest in this part of the country. Members of the family were consistently appointed to the position of Prior, even though, on a number of occasions, they were illegitimate (in the medieval church, illegitimacy was a barrier to holy orders or the holding of a benefice, so papal dispensation had to be sought). In 1444 Eoghan O’Kelly, then-Prior of Clontuskert was slain in a battle with a rival family, the McCoughlans. There were several instances when corruption seems to have been rampant: in 1463, for example, Thady O’Kelly, a canon in the priory, reported to Rome that the Prior, John O’Kelly was guilty of immorality, perjury and simony. Thady O’Kelly then in turn became Prior, after which another canon, Donatus O’Kelly accused him of killing a layman. Donatus next became Prior, after which he was accused by another canon Donald O’Kelly, of scattering the priory’s goods, keeping a concubine and committing homicide. And so it went on.
In 1404 Clontuskert Priory was struck by lightning and set alight, destroying the buildings and their contents. A Papal order was subsequently issued offering ten-year indulgences for those who contributed to the cost of its rebuilding. So what we see on the site today are the remains of a 15th century priory. The O’Kellys seem to have continued to be associated with the Priory up to the time of the Reformation in the 1540s, a number of them holding benefices under the control of the house. In the mid-16th century the lands hitherto owned by Clontuskert passed into the hands of the de Burgos, Earls of Clanricarde, in 1570 the second earl receiving a grant from the government of the priory. However, the family remained Catholic and the Augustinian canons remained on site, even though they had lost their possessions. A keystone inserted into the doorway leading from nave to choir is dated 1633 indicates they were still there then. But by the end of the 17th century the de Burgos had converted to the Established Church and it would appear that thereafter Clontuskert Priory was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
While portions of Clontuskert Priory’s cloister survive, the main interest of the site lies in the church. Here the east wall, with its beautiful traceried window, collapsed in 1918 but the pieces were saved, allowing for reconstruction in the early 1970s. Much further restoration work was undertaken on the site in the previous decade. The north and south walls of the choir feature a number of fine tombs. The choir itself is accessed via a substantial arcaded stone rood screen, one of the features reconstructed some decades ago. Originally there would have been no end wall, so that the arches would have offered a view through to the choir where services were taking place. However, a wall was built at the east end of the rood screen (when the aforementioned door with the date 1633 was inserted) thereby fundamentally changing the appearance of the space. But the most attractive aspect of Clontuskert Priory is its west doorway, which carries the following inscription: ‘Matheu : Dei: gra : eps : Clonfertens : et : Patre’ oneacdavayn : canonie’ esti : domine : fi’ fecert : Ano : do : mcccclxxi’ (Matthew by the grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made. Anno Domini 1471). The exterior of the doorway is covered with carvings, including the figures of the Archangel Michael carrying a sword and scales (for weighing souls), Saints John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and, it is thought, Augustine of Hippo; they are flanked by smiling angels each holding a shield. Stones on either side are carved with the likes of a pelican feeding her young, a pair of mythical beasts, two ibexes with intertwined necks, and a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. Just inside the door is a water stoup, again bearing two figures believed to be, again, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Largely bereft of visitors, Clontuskert Priory is something of a hidden gem, but one definitely worth discovering.
What remains of one of Ireland’s last surviving market crosses stands in the centre of Athenry, County Galway. Believed to date from c.1475, originally it would have been part of a much larger, and taller, monument; it was placed on the present plinth at the start of the 19th century. The south face carries a depiction of the Crucifixion, while on the other side can be seen (just about) a crowned Madonna and Child. The cross is badly weathered, its condition not helped by being in the middle of a busy traffic junction. Although this is now the only market cross in Ireland still in situ, perhaps the time has come to move it to another, less environmentally damaging location?
*New post on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2cvPCjwXwU&t=11s
Another roofless church, this one in County Galway where the village of Shanaglish derives its name from the Irish ‘Sean Eaglais’ meaning ‘old church’. This is the building in question, at a spot called Beagh. It appears there was already a church here in the ninth century, and that this was subject to attack by marauding Vikings. Then in 1441 the Franciscan order established a friary which survived until the 1580s. The building was used, and extended, by the Church of Ireland in the 17th century at least until 1685 when the parish of Beagh was amalgamated with another nearby. This is all that remains today on the site.
From Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837)
‘BEAGH or ST. ANNE’S, a parish, in the barony of KILTARTAN, county of GALWAY, and province of CONNAUGHT, containing, with part of the post-town of Gort, 5343 inhabitants. This parish is situated on the confines of the county of Clare, and on the road from Galway and Loughrea to Ennis. A monastery of the third order of Franciscans was founded here about the year 1441, but by whom is unknown: in an inquisition of the 28th of Elizabeth it is denominated a cell or chapel, and its possessions appear to have consisted of half a quarter of land, with its appurtenances and tithes, which had been long under concealment. The parish comprises 12,331 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act, and there is some bog; agriculture is improved, and there is good limestone.’
From Fahey, J., D.D., V.G. The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh (1893)
‘On the island of Lough Cutra lake there are also some interesting ruins- a church and castle amongst others, on the history of which no light has yet been cast. We find, from an “Inquisition” taken before John Crofton, Esq., at Athenry, on the 1st of October 1584, that Richard, second Earl of Clanricarde, was then seized of “Beagh and 4 qrts of land, and the ruined castle of Lough Cutra, with an island in the Loug aforesaid.” It may be desirable to add that the Beagh referred to is the old ruined church on the Gort river, about two miles east of town, which had been long previously the parish church of Beagh. There can be little doubt that the lands referred to were its confiscated property.’
Marooned in a lake of tarmacadam and looking rather bleak, this is the former National School in Esker, County Galway. Solidly built of limestone and designed in a loosely-Tudoresque fashion, it would have contained little more than two large rooms, one for teaching boys, the other for girls. A well-carved plaque over the entrance carries the date 1858, which was two years after the Board of Works had taken over responsibility for the design of such buildings from the architectural department of the National Education Board. Above the date is an heraldic crest featuring a running stag, presumably part of the coat of arms of the local landowner?
Further to Monday’s post on the Eyrecourt staircase, it is worth noting that the house in which this remarkable piece of Irish craftsmanship once stood is no more. The building was effectively abandoned in the 1920s, following the sale of its contents – including the staircase – and gradually fell into ruin. When Maurice Craig visited the site in 1957, at least part of the roof was still in place as was the front doorcase. Since then, however, total decay has followed and today only portions of Eyecourt’s outer walls stand, incorporated into a farm yard. A sad end.
It is a year almost to the day since the unexpected death of Rolf Loeber. Dutch-born, he was a specialist in child psychology, with a particular interest in juvenile delinquency and for more than three decades had been based at the University of Pittsburgh: at the time of his death, he was that institution’s Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Epidemiology. But while still a student in Holland in the 1960s, he read Maurice Craig’s Dublin, 1660-1840 (first published in 1952) and become fascinated by Ireland’s architectural history. As a result, despite a busy academic career, he somehow found time to produce a series of invaluable articles and books on the subject, beginning with a Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 which appeared in1981. He was a pioneer in his meticulous scrutiny of archives and his ability to draw together material from a remarkable range of sources, as can be seen in his last book, which is being issued posthumously this week. Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 is typical in being both scholarly and readable, immensely engaging thanks to the author’s enthusiasm and full of insights into the ways in which diverse buildings across the country correspond to each other. One of the chapters contains several pages devoted to Eyrecourt Castle, County Galway and the remarkable staircase once found inside that house. The last conversation I had with Rolf Loeber concerned this staircase and the possibility that, having left Ireland almost a century ago, it might now return here.
As is so often the case in Ireland, despite its name there was nothing remotely castellated about Eyrecourt Castle. The house was built in the 1670s by Colonel John Eyre, an English soldier who had come to this country twenty years earlier and through diverse methods acquired a considerable amount of land in east County Galway (incidentally, Galway’s Eyre Square indicates how involved the Eyre family became in the affairs of the city during this period). On his estate, he began laying out a new town with broad streets, the principal thoroughfare concluding at the gates leading to his house. Given the unsettled nature of the times, it might have been expected the colonel would make sure this new residence was well fortified. Remarkably, however, Eyrecourt Castle was completely unprotected. As can be seen in the top photograph, it was a two-storey manor with dormered attic, the seven-bay façade having a pedimented three-bay breakfront and the wood entrance doorcase featuring Corinthian pilasters flanking a wide entablature centred on an elliptical window surrounded by carved foliage. Were it still standing, Eyrecourt Castle would be the architectural wonder of the West. Alas! The colonel overstretched his resources in the house’s construction (as early as 1677 a trust had been established in which a portion of the estate was set aside for 61 years to cover arrears) and the family finances appear never to have recovered thereafter. Circumstances were not helped by ubsequent generations of Eyres becoming typical members of the Irish gentry, hard-living and hard-drinking squireens.
It is worth quoting in full the description of John Eyre, created first – and last – Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt in 1768, given by dramatist Richard Cumberland (whose father was then Bishop of nearby Clonfert). According to Cumberland, Lord Eyre was ‘Proprietor of a vast extent of soil, not very productive, and inhabiting a spacious mansion, not in the best repair, he lived according to the style of the country, with more hospitality than elegance, and whilst his table groaned with abundance, the order and good taste of its arrangements were little thought of. The slaughtered ox was hung up whole, and the hungry servitor supplied himself with his dole of flesh sliced from off the carcase. His lordship’s day was so apportioned as to give the afternoon by much the largest share of it, during which, from the early dinner to the hour of rest, he never left the chair, nor did the claret ever quit the table. This did not produce inebriety, for it was sipping rather than drinking, that filled up the time, and this mechanical process of gradually moistening the human clay was carried on with very little aid from conversation, for his lordship’s companions were not very communicative, and fortunately he was not very curious. He lived in an enviable independence as to reading, and of course he had no books. Not one of the windows of his castle was made to open, but luckily he had no liking for fresh air, and the consequence may be better conceived than described.’ As this passage indicates, Cumberland’s memoirs are as entertaining and as informative of life in provincial Georgian Ireland, as those of the slightly later Sir Jonah Barrington.
When Lord Eyre died in 1781 the estate was already heavily encumbered, and the next couple of generations of the family ran up further debts, not least owing to their preoccupation with hunting, for which the Eyres kept a stable of 30-40 horses and their own pack of 80 hounds. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, a considerable part of the estate had to be sold but this did nothing to curb the family’s extravagance, leading to further sales in the 1880s; by the time William Henry Gregory Eyre died in 1925, what had once been a holding of more than 30,000 acres had dropped to a little more than 600. The following year, the remainder of the estate was auctioned, together with the contents of the house. Eyrecourt Castle was then abandoned, but not before its staircase had been carefully removed and taken out of the country.
Dating from the time of the house’s construction, Eyrecourt Castle’s staircase took up an extraordinary one-third of the total interior space, and is unlike anything else in Ireland. Made of elm, oak and pine, it comprises two flights of steps that gradually rise to the return where they unite to offer single access to the upper floor, the piano nobile holding the main reception rooms. Rolf Loeber described it as though still in situ: ‘As seen from the downstairs hall, the staircase is partly screened by the Eyre family’s coat of arms, flanked by two arches, ingeniously suspended from the ceiling. On the first steps, the balustrades and newel posts with their wealth of botanical detail become visible, including many carved vases with flowers. At the half-landing, the full extent of the staircase first becomes visible, showing contrasts between the straight lines of the massive bannisters and the rolling down of the carved acanthus leaves from the railings.
The gradual ascent continues to the first floor, where a wall of decorative panelling with superimposed pilasters on each side of the double doors announced the saloon. The high point of the staircase is its rich carving dedicated to nature. The newel posts alone carry thirty carved vases of flowers, mostly freestanding, while others adjoin the walls. Two carved heads of “green men” at the top of the staircase spout acanthus leaves from their mouth, with the leaves rolling down the foliated frieze below the massive bannisters. Other faces of “green men” feature up and down the staircase.’
In 1926 some of the interiors of Eyrecourt Castle, including its staircase, were purchased by the decorating firm of White, Allom & Co., removed from the house and taken to London. White, Allom was run by Sir Charles Allom who specialised in period interiors for American clients: his firm was responsible for laying out the rooms in what is now the Frick Collection in New York. From the mid-1920s Allom worked with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, then fitting out the vast castle he had built in San Simeon, California. Hearst bought the Eyrecourt staircase in 1927 and, taken apart and packed into a series of wooden crates, it was shipped to the United States.* There it sat in the crates until 1951 when Hearst died. His estate subsequently donated the staircase – and much other material besides – to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The crates remained in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, until they were finally opened a few years ago and the multiple pieces of carved wood unpacked.
Among architectural historians, the Eyrecourt staircase enjoys legendary status but it’s safe to say that only a handful of Irish people have ever seen it: two years ago, the Irish Aesthete went to Detroit specifically to do so, and was very kindly taken by one of the institute’s curators to the repository where the photographs shown today were taken. The experience was fascinating, since although dispersed around various sections of the space the structure’s various parts are all present. Numbered and ready for reassembly, the work first needs restorative attention, not least because at some date in the past the wood was stripped and this has had an adverse effect on its condition. But it is a marvel, a stupendous work of Irish craftsmanship and, as already mentioned, unlike anything else now in this country. At the time of his death, Rolf Loeber was investigating the possibility of repatriating the Eyrecourt staircase: this was the subject of our final conversation. Still stored in a suburban warehouse, the likelihood of the item ever being reassembled by its present custodian looks remote. The staircase is a national treasure and ought to be in Ireland. While the cost of doing so is considerable, overlooking this opportunity to bring a masterpiece home would be an unforgiveable oversight. The time has come to start a campaign, so that this exile can return to its native country.
*In 1928 White, Allom assembled the panelled former drawing room from Eyrecourt Castle at an antiques show held in Olympia, London, where it was photographed and described as a ‘Charles II Room.’ The panelling was subsequently acquired by Hearst and installed in two rooms in St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan.
Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 by Rolf Loeber is published by Four Courts Press, €55.