An Uncertain Future

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The ubiquity of older buildings in Irish towns and villages suffering from insufficient maintenance. Here two fine houses, both probably early 19th century, in Greyabbey, County Down. Above is 88-90 Main Street, below 2 Church Street, the latter closing the long vista down Main Street and therefore sited at a critical point in the village. Both excellent properties that once held commercial premises, both now looking as though facing an uncertain future.

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A Sick Building

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Last Monday, the Irish Times published a feature on the threatened demolition of a former Church of Ireland primary school in Glasthule, County Dublin: an application has been lodged with the local authority for the present building to be replaced by four so-called ‘townhouses.’ Objections have been raised to this plan on the grounds that humanitarian and Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement may have attended the school, thereby linking it to the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year. However on Wednesday the same newspaper carried a letter from one of Casement’s biographers outlining the peripatetic nature of his upbringing and thus confuting the notion that he had ever been educated in the Glasthule establishment.
Above is an image of the former County Meath Infirmary on Bridge Street, Navan. A decade younger than the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, it dates from the mid-18th century, at which time, according to a subsequent account, ‘The gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Navan, from their observation of the various calamities and miseries the poor undergo,for want of proper and timely assistance in their several maladies and disorders, did propose to found a County Hospital. Accordingly a subscription was opened at an Assembly at Navan, the first of October 1753; and soon after the Foundation of a County Hospital was laid on a convenient and healthy situation, on an eminence at the entrance into the town.’ A plaque above the main entrance carries the date 1754 and a quotation from St Mark’s Gospel: ‘I was sick and you visited me.’
A supposedly protected structure the seven-bay, three storey County Infirmary (its premises extended in the 19th century) continued to serve the locality until finally closed in September 2010. The building stood vacant before finally being sold three years later. It has remained empty and visibly deteriorating ever since. As can be seen, several of the windows are now broken, there are slates missing from the roof and the fabric is clearly suffering. Designed to tend the sick, now the building itself is in need of care. Unlike the former school premises in Glasthule, the County Infirmary can claim no connection with someone famous (although a plaque linking it with the 1916 Rising has recently been placed on the outside wall). Perhaps for this reason there appears to be little public concern over its present state and future survival. Yet in a town which retains precious few historic buildings of any merit, this is an important link to the past and to the generous philanthropists who funded its construction and medical endeavours. Is it enough to believe we should only preserve our architectural heritage provided there is a link, however putative or fanciful, to dead patriots (and even that has too often proven an insufficient safeguard)? Should we not value a building on its own merits, whether as a tangible part of our history, as an important legacy to pass on to the next generation or even – heretical thought – due to inherent aesthetic excellence? Both the Glasthule schoolhouse and the County Infirmary in Navan, together with thousands of other properties across the country, need to be considered on all these terms and not just because someone now held in esteem may or may not once have crossed their thresholds.

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Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Green Street Debtors' Prison
Located in the centre of north Dublin, the debtors’ prison on Green Street was built in 1794 and offers a fascinating insight into the city’s history. Constructed from granite and limestone and U-shaped in form, it rises three storeys over basement. The prison contained thirty-three cells, or rooms, available either furnished or unfurnished. These were occupied by debtors until they had paid off all outstanding obligations, but despite its appearance conditions in the building were not necessarily grim. Inmates often brought in their own food, and were permitted visitors: in effect, the place served as a kind of hotel from which guests were not allowed to leave. It was later used as a police barracks and accommodation for police widows.
At one time threatened with demolition (for one of the road widening schemes with which the city council was for a while obsessed) in the 1990s the former prison was leased by the Office of Public Works to a charitable body, the Green Street Trust, which undertook a considerable amount of restoration work with the intention of ensuring community use for the property. Unfortunately this imaginative initiative stalled due to want of funds and the prison was returned to the OPW: since then it has stood empty and the building has fallen into a vulnerable state (it now features on An Taisce’s Buildings at Risk register).
Last Monday, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works went to court to secure the removal from the debtors’ prison of a group of squatters who had moved into the property, the plaintiffs arguing the site was not safe. Interestingly there appears to have been no discussion of how or why the building had become unsafe, nor indeed which public bodies were responsible for its upkeep (not least ensuring it could not be accessed by unauthorised persons). Presumably had the property been kept both safe and secure, the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works would not have needed to go to court (and presumably would not have had to pay lawyers’ fees). The debtors’ prison is listed by Dublin City Council as a protected structure: this seems not to have prevented it falling into the present poor condition. If the state does not abide by its own legislation regarding the care of protected structures, why should private individuals and companies be expected to behave any better towards historic buildings in their possession?
Photograph by Ciarán Cuffe.

Ice Ice Baby

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Located on a side road adjacent to the river Blackwater outside Lismore, County Waterford is this pair of ice houses dating from the end of the 18th century. They were built not to serve the nearby castle but by a local family, the Foleys who operated a fishery business in the area and wanted to preserve their catches. On a piece of flat land, channels were dug through which water from the river would enter and then be held by sluice gates while it froze during the winter: the resultant ice was then moved into these two round buildings which seemingly continued to serve this purpose well into the last century. The original entrance porch was to the rear, through which further doors gave admittance to each house, each measuring 6.65 metres in diameter and 4.5 metres to the top of the dome: the arched entrance in the southern chamber (next to the road) was only created a few years ago by the local authority. The cracks in the northern chamber must be a cause of concern.

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Squandered Opportunities 


As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere. 

Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013):  its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.

Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass. 

Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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End of the Road

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A fine five-bay townhouse on the Doneraile Road in Castletownroche, County Cork. Of two storeys over basement, this is the end of a terrace of such buildings on the street dating from c.1810 and distinguished by their handsome doorcases and wide roof eaves. Unfortunately in this instance the property’s condition suggests it may also soon be the end of the line here.

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