One of Ireland’s lesser known mediaeval monuments: the 15th century Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, County Limerick. Built on the remains of an earlier structure (the remains of lancet windows on the south wall suggest it may once have served as a chapel), the hall sits above a vaulted lower chamber. The building was part of a castle complex developed here by the FitzGerald family, Earls of Desmond who remained in occupation until the end of the 16th century. The castle then passed into the possession of the Courtenays, later Earls of Devon, but was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and likely not occupied thereafter (an adjacent house, occupied by the Courtenays’ agent, was burnt in 1922 during the Civil War). The Banqueting Hall was restored some years ago when an oak screen and musicians’ gallery were installed, along with a hooded limestone chimneypiece.
It is often forgotten that the Penal Laws affected not just Roman Catholics but non-conformist sects such as Presbyterians and Quakers. Members of the Society of Friends (to give the latter their correct name) were unable to attend university, refused to join either the army or the Established Church, were excluded from any active role in politics and barred from many other areas of public life. As a result of these exclusions, many Quakers went into business, where they became known and respected for their probity. Certain industries attracted them, among these brewing, cotton manufacture and, in particular, milling. Driving across Ireland, one often sights large, now-abandoned mill buildings, many of which were developed by Quakers. Today’s pictures illustrate the interior of one such complex outside Clogheen, County Tipperary.
In his still-invaluable Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, Samuel Lewis notes ‘An extensive flour-mill, employing from 30 to 40 persons, the erection of which is supposed to have cost £6000, has lately been built at Castle-Grace by Sam. Grubb, Esq., of Clogheen.’ There were already a number of similar ventures in the vicinity, one of which Samuel Grubb had acquired in 1798. The family, like many others, arrived in this country in the middle of the 17th century and settled in the south-east region. Samuel Grubb was originally a merchant in Clonmel before he started to buy and develop mills around Clogheen some fifteen miles away. The late 18th/early 19th century was an especially prosperous time for Ireland, especially prior to the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Grain was in great demand throughout these islands and in consequence a large number of grain mills were constructed. That erected by Samuel Grubb on this site is no less than five storeys tall and runs to twenty bays.
The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland published in 1846 reports that in Clogheen ‘a large trade in agricultural produce is carried on, chiefly for exportation, and more than 80,000 barrels of wheat are annually purchased in its market and in the neighbourhood. which is made into flour of very superior quality and sent by land to Clonmel, whence it is conveyed down the [river] Suir: For this purpose there are seven flour mills in the town and neighbourhood, which are worked by fourteen water-wheels. There is also an extensive brewery.’ Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland, which appeared in the same year, also observes, ‘The corn-mills of Messrs. Grubb are very extensive, employing great power and a considerable number of hands.’ Nevertheless circumstances were about to change: the Corn Laws first introduced in 1815 to stimulate domestic production by imposing tariffs on grain imported into the United Kingdom were repealed in 1846, in large part due to famine in Ireland and the urgent need for more and cheaper foodstuffs. With the abolition of tariffs, the way was open for cheaper grain from the central plains of the United States to enter the market, with inevitable consequences. By 1880 all but one of the seven mills seen by Samuel Lewis less than half a century earlier had closed down and before the 19th century closed grain milling had ceased altogether in the Clogheen area.
This particular mill had a second life when in 1939 a later generation of the Grubb family used it as operation centre for the newly-established Tipperary Products Ltd. A huge variety of foodstuffs were processed and prepared in the old mill, not just diverse sorts of fowl but also rabbits (formerly widespread in the Irish countryside and much in demand especially during the years of the Second World War). A similarly wide range of fruit passed through the building, both wild (blackberries, sloes and so forth) and orchard grown, all to be used in the manufacture of jams and juices. This operation continued until only a few decades ago but eventually it too ceased and since then the building has sat empty. Today its interior contains ample evidence of former activity, successive floors heaped with bottles and jars, wooden boxes and woven baskets. Currently only occupied by pigeons, even after almost two hundred years the premises remains remarkably well-preserved and serves as testament both to Ireland’s manufacturing history and to the industry of the Quakers. Given that the mill has already enjoyed one resurrection, perhaps another could yet lie ahead?
Whether in heaven ye wander fair,
Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air
Where the melodious winds have birth
Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
Beneath the bosom of the sea,
Wandering in many a coral grove;
Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry
How have you left the ancient love
That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move,
The sound is forced, the notes are few.
To the Muses by William Blake
Photographs show the Apollo Room at 85 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin decorated c.1740 by stuccodores Paolo and Filippo Lafranchini.
Looking down an enfilade of rooms on the ground floor of the 1903 Milltown Wing at the National Gallery, Dublin. This portion of the building was designed by Sir Thomas Newenham Deane (following his death in 1899, its completion was overseen by his son Sir Thomas Manly Deane). A notable decorative feature is the doorcases carved in walnut by the Italian woodworker Carlo Cambi. The picture below shows the equivalent sequence of rooms on the first floor which, like much of the rest of the gallery, have been closed to the public for the past six years: once fully re-hung with pictures from the collection, they are due to reopen in mid-June.
In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.
The upper section of the double-height stair hall in 7 Henrietta Street, Dublin. The house dates from the early 1740s and retains some of its original interior, albeit in a much mutilated condition. For example, as can be seen below with a handful of exceptions the carved balusters were removed over a century ago when the building was divided into tenements and replaced with coarse timber uprights. But the walls retain their plaster panelling, a battered recollection of how splendid this space must once have been.
Following a recent note on two remarkably similar staircases, one in County Tipperary, the other in County Westmeath (see The Missing Twin, December 28th 2016), here is a third which has featured here before but is worth showing again as it might be deemed to belong to the same family. The stairs belong to the Red House, Youghal, County Cork, built in the first decade of the 18th century for the wealthy Uniacke family: the design has been attributed to a Dutch architect called Leuventhen. Whereas the other two examples have balusters fluted in the upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower, here these designs alternate. But otherwise the work has much in common, not least the Corinthian columns on each return and, on the gallery, a richly worked apron. There is more work to be done…