The State of the Place



A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere. 

Where The Streets Have No Shame


Last January Drogheda, County Louth was named one of the dirtiest towns in Ireland in the annual Irish Business Against Litter report – placed 39 out of 40 locations surveyed, only Dublin’s north inner city was judged to be even filthier. Although obviously not an achievement worth celebrating, this information will come as no surprise to anyone who has been visiting Drogheda over recent years and watched the place sink further and further into degradation. In 1993, the Pevsner Guide to this part of the country, written by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey, observed that ‘As is too often the case, the 20th century has not been kind to Drogheda. However, the problems of the town lie not so much in the lack of quality in its new architecture as in the neglect and lack of concern for its historic buildings.’ That was almost 30 years ago: the situation has only grown worse over the intervening decades. 






In contrast to its shameful present, Drogheda has a proud past: at the end of the 17th century, one visitor thought it a handsome, clean town ‘and the best I have seen in Ireland.’ Its location at the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea (the name Drogheda derives from Droichead Átha, meaning Bridge of the Ford) indicates strategic importance and from the Viking period onwards there was an important settlement here. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, lived here rather than in his titular seat, and six national parliaments were convened in the town between 1441 and 1494. A terrible disaster befell Drogheda in 1649 when it was captured and ransacked by members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the beginning of the following century it was once again booming and many of the town’s finest buildings were erected over the next 100 years. Commercial decline had already begun by the middle of the 19th century. When Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term still appropriate 180 years later. Over the past century, with improved transport links, not just the railway but even more the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin, which is less than 35 miles away, has only added to its problems. 






There are many reasons why Drogheda should no longer enjoy the same prosperity as was once the case, but no reason whatsoever why the town should have been allowed to become such a sad, neglected, shabby mess. Everywhere one turns, there are empty buildings falling into ruin, historic properties which, in other countries, would be repaired and put back into use. Instead, no apparent effort has been made to preserve Drogheda’s outstanding architectural heritage. What could, for example, be a significant tourist destination – and therefore a source of revenue for the local community – is being wilfully ignored. At the moment, no visitor coming to Ireland could be directed to Drogheda, except to see how not to care for the urban environment. The local authority, Louth County Council, seems supremely indifferent to the condition of the town, showing absolutely no sense of pride in what should be one of the region’s finest assets. If there’s no sense of pride, there’s clearly no sense of shame either. Otherwise this situation would not be allowed to continue. Further words are redundant: the pictures shown today are sufficiently eloquent. Welcome to Drogheda, where the streets have no shame. 

A Post-Industrial Present



A relic of Ireland’s industrial past, this is the Suir Mills, standing on the eastern side of the river just outside the town of Cahir, County Tipperary. Dating from the last years of the 18th century, like many other such premises, it was developed by members of the Society of Friends: excluded by law from many other activities, Quakers soon established themselves as millers in Ireland. This particular property is both substantial and compact and, as always, with such buildings, very sturdily constructed. Unfortunately, despite its sturdiness, many years of neglect in our post-industrial age have taken their toll on the mill, not least its roof, so that the whatever about the past, its future looks questionable.


An Idea of Good Taste, and Even Refinement


‘Clifden is situated at the head of one of the most picturesque of the many bays of Connemara. It is about four miles from the ocean, but vessels of large tonnage can be brought up within a short distance of the town. The town is protected from the westerly gales by a range of lofty hills. It has been laid out in broad streets, and with some degree of regularity. It is favourably situated for drainage, and has from its situations various other local advantages.
It is mainly to the late John D’Arcy, Esq., of Clifden Castle, that Clifden is indebted for its existence. By granting liberal leases, frequently upon lives renewable forever on payment of small fines, that gentleman induced individuals to lay out their money in buildings of a decent class to such an extent as to form a town. The place now contains nearly 250 dwelling-houses, among which are several tolerable shops. There are also two inns, a large catholic chapel, a protestant church, a dispensary, a corn-store and several flour-mills. Antecedent to the famine, there was a growing export grain trade from this place; and as much as a thousand tons of oats have been shipped here in one year. From the mode in which Clifden was originally let, the amount of rental to its proprietor in no degree represents the value of the town. It produces, under existing leases, little more than £200 per annum. This, however, may be regarded in the light of a ground rent, and the whole of it under every state of circumstances is necessarily well secured.’ 






‘The D’Arcys of Clifden, who have been referred to as the proprietors of this town, are one of the most ancient and honourable families in Ireland. As their name indicates, they are of Norman extraction. There are said to be more peerages in abeyance in this family, than in any other in the empire. They boast of two baronies in abeyance, of a third forfeited, of three others extinct, and of an earldom, that of Holdernesse, which also expired by want of direct descendants. The first D’Arcy who settled in Ireland, came to the country in 1330. James D’Arcy was Vice-President in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and his son was one of the most distinguished members of the Catholic Convention in Ireland, in 1641. The original lands of the D’Arcys were lost by forfeiture; this, their latest wild possession, was obtained, it is stated, by a female of the family, as a reward of an act of generous heroism in protecting the lives of some English soldiers.’ 






‘The Clifden estate comprises, in addition to the town, the mansion and demesne of Clifden Castle, numerous islands in the bays and on the coast, and a large extent of territory on the peninsula, on which a reference to the map will show the reader that the town of Clifden stands. Clifden Castle itself is about two miles westward from the town. It stands at the head of a little bay of its own, protected by a semicircle of hills from the winds and storms which sometimes devastate the coast. There are plantations of twenty or thirty years’ growth about the house, which also minister to its protection. The edifice itself is a castellated villa. There is nothing about it which is at all magnificent; but its appearance from all points affords an idea of good taste, and even of refinement. The views from Clifden Castle extend to the ocean, over an expanse of bay, studded with rocky islands, and protected both upon the north and south by a long projecting range of headland. The aspect is wild and varied, and to the lover of marine scenery most striking. The shores are bold and rocky, though not generally lofty. Happy would it be were they more generally visited!’


Text from The Encumbered Estates of Ireland by W.T.H., 1850.
Dating from 1815, as mentioned above, Clifden Castle was built by John D’Arcy who a few years earlier had founded the nearby town of the same name: the architect responsible is unknown. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, his son was obliged to sell house and estate, its new owners – the Eyre family from Bath – buying both for £21, 245. They remained in possession of the place until 1917 when it was controversially sold to a local butcher. A few years later the castle and adjacent land was acquired by a cooperative and in the mid-1930s the building was stripped of all saleable materials and left the ruin still seen today. 

 

A Shoddy Welcome




As many readers will be aware, a splendid book was recently published on one of Ireland’s finest country houses, Townley Hall, County Louth (see Of the Highest Standard « The Irish Aesthete). The building and immediate surroundings have been meticulously maintained by its current custodians but the same cannot be said for the organisation responsible for the wider grounds, including the entrance. Both the gates and the lodge here were, like the house itself, designed by Francis Johnston and ought therefore to be kept in good condition. The photographs above show their state in January, and those below in April: already in poor shape, over those intervening months the gate posts have become even more dilapidated and unless there is due intervention, their future has to be in doubt. The owner in this instance is a state body, Coillte which has an almost unrivalled reputation for neglecting historic buildings supposed to be in its care – cf. Donadea Castle, County Kildare (Another Blot on the Landscape « The Irish Aesthete), Rockingham, County Roscommon (Differing Fates I « The Irish Aesthete) and many other sites. If Coillte cannot look after such properties – and clearly it can’t – then the organisation should hand over responsibility for their maintenance to another body which will show more concern for the protection of our national heritage. It’s worth pointing out that the relevant local authority, Louth County Council, ought by now to have intervened and instructed Coillte to restore these gateposts: in their present state, they provide a very shoddy welcome to Townley Hall and its woodlands. 



Society Scandals



At the rear of a graveyard in Clonlara, County Clare stands this impressive tomb erected following the death in June 1817 of the Rev. Charles Massy. The second son of Sir Hugh Dillon Massy, he had, like so many other young men in his position, become a Church of Ireland clergyman and as such was permitted to marry. His choice of bride was the 18-year old Mary Ann Ross-Lewin, beautiful and poor and as a result of the latter circumstance, Sir Hugh attempted to persuade his son against the marriage. To no avail: the couple married in 1796 and the following year had a son, named Hugh Dillon after his grandfather. All seemed well until 1803 when the Rev Massy and his wife made the acquaintance of Thomas Taylour, first Marquess of Headfort. At the end of that year, on the Sunday morning after Christmas and while her husband was officiating in church, Mary Anne Massy eloped with the marquess who was not only twice her age but married with four children. A scandal ensued, and the cuckolded clergyman brought a case for Criminal Conversation against Taylour, being awarded £10,000 at the end of a court case in July 1804. The Rev Massy was represented by barrister and orator John Philpot Curran, who was in a positin to sympathise with his client’s circumstances: a decade earlier, he had discovered his own wife Sarah had being having an affair with, and become pregnant by, another man – curiously enough, a Church of Ireland cleric the Rev Abraham Sandys. Curran successfully sued for Criminal Conversation, but, since his own philandering was publicly exposed during the case, he was only awarded a token £50. He and his wife separated but never divorced, whereas the Rev Massy did divorce his errant wife in 1808 and subsequently remarried. As for Mrs Massy, she was left in the disadvantaged position of being a divorced woman as the Marquess of Headfort remained married to his wife. None of this history, of course, is related on the the Rev Massy’s tomb but it seems a shame a monument that provides a link to these scandals of the late Georgian period should be allowed to fall into such poor condition.


A Cause for Worry



Like so many Irish towns, Ennis, County Clare sometimes seems determined not to take best advantage, or best care, of its architectural heritage. Nothing better exemplifies this unfortunate state of affairs than Bindon Street, a short stretch of road comprising two terraces facing each other, both holding six properties. A mixture of two and three bays wide, the houses are of three or four storeys over basement, with handsome limestone doorcases and, in most cases, mellow brick facades. Dating from the early 1830s, Bindon Street has the potential to be a splendid, albeit rather truncated, thoroughfare, a celebration of Ennis’s thriving mercantile and architectural past. Alas, while some of the buildings have been decently maintained, others suggest all is not well. No. 1, for example, is distinguished from the others by a bay window added to the ground floor around the middle of the 19th century. At this level all seems fine, but raise your eyes and note the insertion of unsuitable uPVC windows, at least in some openings – others on the top floors are boarded up. A cause for worry. 



P.S. And would someone please do something about all those ugly exposed electric cables snaking across every building. 

Final Traces


Rostellan Castle, County Cork is one of Ireland’s great lost houses, demolished less than 80 years ago and obliterated so completely that most visitors to the site would have no idea a substantial residence stood here for several centuries. The original building here is thought to have been constructed by a branch of the FitzGerald family; certainly by the mid-1560s the land it occupied had passed into the possession of Edmund FitzJohn FitzGerald, hereditary Dean of Cloyne. Knighted in 1602, he had a daughter Ellen who married Dermot O’Brien, fifth Baron Inchiquin and their eldest son, Murrough O’Brien, sixth Baron and first Earl of Inchiquin, would eventually come to own Rostellan. Remembered as Murchadh na dTóiteán (‘Murrough of the conflagrations’), he became notorious during the Confederate Wars from 1641 onwards for burning the houses, livestock and lands of his opponents, first the Catholic forces and then the Cromwellian army. In 1650 he left Ireland and moved to France where he joined the royal court in exile (and converted to Catholicism), returning to his country three years after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 and thereafter living quietly on estates which had been restored to him by royal act. Although O’Brien’s family had historically been associated with County Clare, where he owned land, his preference in later years was to live at Rostellan, and this remained the case for subsequent generations until the mid-19th century. 





Following his death in 1674, the first earl’s estates, including Rostellan, were inherited by his eldest son William O’Brien who had not converted to Catholicism but remained loyal to the Protestant faith. A military man, he had lost an eye in 1660 when he and his father were captured by Algerian corsairs in 1660; 14 years later, he . became Governor of Tangier and Captain General of the King’s Forces there. Back in Ireland, in 1688 he declared his support for William of Orange, but then failed in an effort to raise troops in County Cork to oppose James II. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, William III appointed him Governor of Jamaica, where he died of disease in 1692. His heir, the third earl, also William O’Brien seems to have lived a quieter life, spending much of his time at Rostellan where he carried out various improvements, not least walling and damming the surrounding land to stop tidal incursions, since Rostellan sits on a promontory overlooking Lower Cork Harbour; in 1701 he advised Queen Anne that at considerable expense he had ‘prevented the tide from overflowing a parcel of land adjoining to his house at Rostellan, which would be an advantage to the harbour of Cork for small vessels and boats, if a quay was made there, and desiring her Majesty to grant to him and his heirs the said ground, containing about 150 acres.’ In 1710 it was noted that the earl ‘is now att Rostellan…as buesie as ever, building &c; there neaver will be an end. God help him…’ He died in 1719, and was succeeded by his eldest son, yet another William O’Brien, who, in 1720, founded the Water Club of Cork Harbour in 1720; among other offices, he also served as Governor of Clare for more than 30 years and was a Member of the Privy Council of Ireland from 1753. Although he spent much time in England, the fourth earl carried out extensive works on the dwelling house at Rostellan, perhaps incorporating the older building although this is unclear. Legend has it that he built the house on or near the site of an old graveyard, ordering that the tombstones be levelled, according to another version, thrown into the sea. In any case, a woman whose only son was buried there duly laid a curse on him, saying no son would succeed thereafter and that the family line would die out. Indeed, the fourth earl and his wife had four sons, but they all predeceased him and when he died in 1777, Rostellan was inherited by a nephew, Murrough O’Brien, created first Marquess of Thomond in 1800. He in turn had no male heir, so the estate once more passed to a nephew, who had four daughters but no son. Rostellan and the O’Brien lands accordingly passed to a brother, the third and last marquess who, despite being married three times, had no children. And so, on his death in 1855, the curse made over a century earlier came to pass, the line died out and Rostellan was sold. Over the following decades, the property changed hands on a number of occasions, finally being leased in 1930 to Cloyne China Clay Company. who mined clay there for export. That continued for  decade, after which the house stood empty until demolished by the Irish Army Corps of Engineers in 1944. 





Surviving photographs of Rostellan Castle show a three-storey house with a five-bay entrance front and three-sided bows at each corner. In the 19th century, a Gothic porch was added to the facade and to one side of the house a long, single-storey extension containing a Gothic-style chapel, ending in a squat round tower. All of this, as mentioned, has been entirely swept away, the area now occupied by pitches for a local GAA club. But along the shoreline are traces of the work undertaken by the fourth earl and his successors, not least a causeway with battlemented parapets and, at one point, the remains of a prow-like battery terrace, dating from 1727. Here were formerly set a number of canon, used for starting boat races (the earl having founded the Cork Water Club). Elsewhere along the same shoreline can be seen a rather stock Doric column with vermiculated plinth; originally this supported a lead statue by John van Nost the Younger of Admiral Edward Hawke. And further along are what survives of a battlemented round tower built as a tea house by the first marquess and named after the famous actress Sarah Siddons who he entertained there during one of her visits to Ireland. All in poor condition, these are all that remain of Rostellan Castle and its demesne; soon, like the house itself, they will disappear and with them the last memory of this place.  

Good Honest Design


A worker’s cottage in the hamlet of Glenosheen, County Limerick. It dates from c.1840, around the time a new bog road was built through the area, then part of the Castle Oliver estate. The building’s simple but effective design sets it apart from many other such modest dwellings of the period: for example, the use of brick around the upper sections of the door and windows, in contrast to the limestone rubble with which it is otherwise constructed. Then there are the hooded mouldings above the windows, and the pedimented projection of the gently-arched doorway. This is one of a pair of cottages but unfortunately its neighboutr has had unsympathetic fenestration inserted, with the result that much of its charm is lost.

A Reminder




On Monday, the Irish Times carried a report noting that Ireland’s Health Service Executive owns hundreds of unused buildings across the state, some of which have been left vacant for decades (see: HSE owns hundreds of unused buildings, figures show (irishtimes.com)). This will not come as news to anyone who is concerned for the welfare of the country’s architectural heritage: the HSE is responsible for many historic sites, and a large number of them have been left not just vacant, but badly neglected, such as the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway (above). A vast range of buildings designed by William Murray and opened in 1833, it closed 180 years later and has stood abandoned ever since. The HSE is by no means the only offender in this respect. Columb (originally Wellington) Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath provided accommodation for troops from 1819 until 2011, when it closed down: owned by the Department of Defence, the site has since been left largely empty, a prey to vandalism and creeping decay. Last winter – a full decade after the last troops left – the Land Development Agency produced a report on the site, with the promise that further information would follow in due course. No doubt something will eventually happen here, but after 11 years nobody can be accused of rushing into hasty decision-making.
A few points need to be made about both these and many other such premises, the first of which is that they are owned by the people of Ireland: the relevant state bodies in whose care they remain, are supposed to be their custodians. These are national assets, and the abysmal failure to take due care of them is at a cost to everyone else: the more they fall into decay, the less they are worth, to the detriment of all of us. In addition, the two examples shown here, and many more besides, are often close to urban centres and therefore ideally suited to provide ample accommodation for those who unfortunately don’t have it at present. In recent days, for example, it has been reported that a tent village is being prepared for Romanian refugees in Gormanstown, County Meath. This is an extraordinary state of affairs: why should anyone have to sleep in a tent when the HSE, and other agencies, own so many vacant buildings. Furthermore, if the state is supposed to lead by example, what sort of example is set by the likes of the HSE and the Department of Defence? Why should private owners worry about neglecting their property, when state authorities do so on a much larger scale? A reminder: this is a shameful – and shameless – squandering of our assets, and we are the losers as a result.