A pre-Christian monument, the Doonfeeny Standing Stone is, at 14 and a half feet, the second tallest of its kind in Ireland (the standing stone in Punchestown, County Kildare is some 22 feet tall). The precise purpose of this and similar structures is unclear but the belief is that they were associated with pagan rituals, perhaps marking places of death and burial. It is notable that a church was subsequently built close to the the example at Doonfeeny, and a graveyard developed around it, all suggesting a continuation of older practices into the Christian era: two crosses were carved into this particular stone, as though to claim it for the new faith. For rather obvious reasons, standing stones were also long associated with fertility, women who wished to become pregnant being encouraged to visit them.
The origins of the Aylmer family in Ireland are unclear, but they were certainly here before the end of the 14th century and by the mid-1400s were living at Lyons, County Kildare (the estate was sold by the hopelessly-indebted Michael Aylmer in 1796 to Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry). In 1559 Gerald Aylmer, then aged 11, inherited an estate elsewhere in the county, at Donadea, which had been bought by his father the previous year and where there may well have been some kind of castle, possibly erected by the de Berminghams who had previously held the property. It is thought that in due course Gerald Aylmer constructed a new tower house for himself. This work may have been undertaken around 1587 when he married Mary Travers, widow of the attainted third Viscount Baltinglass. The tower is now the oldest part of the present Doneadea Castle. A lawyer by profession, Gerald Aylmer initially spent much time at the English court but adherence to the Roman Catholic faith might have hindered his chances of preferment. Nevertheless, he was knighted in 1598 and then created a baronet in 1622. Two years later, he and his (second) wife were responsible for building a three-storey block adjacent to the tower. The Donadea estate was duly inherited by the couple’s only son, Sir Andrew Aylmer who, although not a participant in the Confederate Wars from 1641 onwards, was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Meanwhile, the house his father built was burnt and the lands confiscated; they were returned to the family in 1662. Another assault and fire struck the property during the Williamite Wars. Still staunchly Catholic, a succession of Aylmers then all died young, often leaving infant heirs until the time of the sixth baronet Sir FitzGerald Aylmer, who although barely a few months old when he inherited the estate in 1737, managed to live for another 57 years. Raised in England as a member of the Established Church, it was Sir FitzGerald who undertook an extensive reconstruction of the old family house, an old plaque explaining that this work had begun in 1773.
As mentioned, Donadea Castle assumed much of its present form in the last quarter of the 18th century, thanks to Sir FitzGerald Aylmer who inserted large window openings with granite sills into the old building, as well as the canted first-floor Venetian window on the south side of the building. Donadea Castle is U-shaped, a recessed central section flanked by two three-storey towers, one of which was the original residence built by the first baronet. Between the towers is a single-storey bowed entrance screen, probably early 19th century and tentatively attributed (by Andrew Tierney) to Sir Richard Morrison. It may be the latter was also responsible for the rest of the Tudor-style decorations on the building, such as the lines of battlements along the roofs and mouldings above the windows. All of this would have been commissioned by the seventh baronet, Sir Fenton Aylmer, founder of the Kildare Hunt. Morrison could also have been the architect of a free-standing crenellated tower to the west of the building; above a staircase window is a datestone of 1837 with the motto Non Dormit qui Custodit (He who guards does not sleep) proposing that the tower was used as a muniments store. This tower was commissioned by the eighth baronet, Sir Gerald Aylmer, who was also responsible for many other improvements on the estate, not least the creation of an eight-acre enclosed garden immediately behind the castle, as well as the demesne wall, gate lodges and the planting of a fine lime avenue.
The ninth Aylmer baronet, Sir Gerald, inherited the Donadea estate in 1878, but died five years later, followed in 1885 by his heir, Sir Justin Aylmer: aged just 21 and an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was killed in a cycling accident. While the baronetcy then went sideways (to a younger son of the seventh baronet and then, just two months later, to his grandson), Donadea was inherited by Sir Justin’s only surviving sister, Caroline Aylmer, who lived there unmarried for the next half-century. On her own death in 1935, she left the property to the Church of Ireland, which quickly sold on the estate to the Land Commission. In due course, the castle was unroofed and the surrounding lands handed over to Coillte, the state-owned forestry body. Alas, while Coillte may be first-rate at looking after trees, its record in taking care of any buildings is pretty dismal, as can be seen by visitors to Donadea who over successive years have seen the castle and its surroundings allowed to fall further and further into dereliction, to the point that now cracks are appearing in walls and collapse is a real possibility. Given the property’s history, its convenient location and popularity as a site, this neglect seems especially reprehensible. Indifference can be the only explanation for Coillte’s failure to ensure Donadea Castle remains in decent repair; why, for example, have surviving features such as the charming Gothic-style wooden frames in many windows, not been removed and preserved? Why is it that a rare example of 17th century bay window with stone mullions should now be crudely filled with cement blocks (while the stonework above is left to become dangerously loose)? Unless serious intervention occurs soon, little of consequence will be left here. Another blot on our record of caring for the country’s architectural heritage.
Located on high ground some distance from the main house at Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary: the remains of what appears to be an 18th century folly, perhaps once serving as a tea house. Constructed from uncut stone, the partially-restored building is circular with arched openings of three sides and a domed roof. What remains of a wall on the upper section suggests this might once have served as a viewing platform, offering visitors the opportunity to admire the surrounding countryside. Francis Bindon has long been credited as architect for Sopwell Hall, so might he have been responsible for the design of this structure also?
The outer walls of the former Church of Ireland church at Derrylossary, County Wicklow. The present structure stands on the site of a much older one, thought to have been associated with the monastic centre at Glendalough, located some six miles to the south-west. Possibly incorporating parts of the original structure, this church was rebuilt in the 1820s thanks to financial support from the Board of First Fruits, with a tower added the following decade. The site is noteworthy for being the burial place of two well-known figures in 20th century Ireland, the first being Robert Barton who lived not far away at Glendalough House and was one of the signatories of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (although he then opposed it). The second is his cousin Erskine Childers’ son, of the same name, who briefly served as Ireland’s fourth President until his death in November 1974; his father, Childers senior, had been executed during the Civil War after being arrested by Free State while staying at Glendalough House. Derrylossary church continued to be used for religious services until the late 1960s, after which it was closed and eventually unroofed.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
To the north-east of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath stand the remains of what was once a very substantial walled garden, running to at least four acres. Certainly one of the largest extant examples of this horticultural form dating from the mid-18th century – although now in a very poor condition – the garden consists of a series of four ascending terraces, the outer walls constructed of rubble limestone lined internally of brick, the latter material also used for the terrace walls. Some of these have curved, or corrugated, sections (thereby offering additional shelter to tender plants) while others have infilled arches. That same device also features in the main entrance to the site, which takes the form of a brick-faced triumphal arch (with Diocletian window inserted into the pediment) flanked by single-storey pavilions. If Waterstown was designed, as is generally the consensus, by Richard Castle then this walled garden must be attributed to him also; the entrance certainly displays just the right amount of eccentrically-used architectural motifs. Today the site is partially used as a farmyard but otherwise stands empty.
The shell of Doory Hall, County Longford, the stable block of which was discussed here some time ago (see Future Uncertain « The Irish Aesthete). Doory Hall belonged for several centuries to the Jessop family who had settled here in the second half of the 17th century on land granted to them by Charles II. There was an earlier house on or near this site, as the present house – or what remains of it – dates from c.1820 and is attributed to Cork architect John Hargrave, much of whose work otherwise involved designing gaols and courthouses. Perhaps this accounts for the severity of the building’s neo-classical design, now softened only by the bows at either end, although it should be noted that originally the central pedimented breakfront had a single-storey Doric porch, since removed. Internally nothing survives to indicate how the house once looked.
Not far away from the old church in Castledermot, County Kildare with its round tower and pair of High Crosses, stand the remains of a Franciscan friary. This is thought to have been founded in the early 13th century by Walter de Riddlesford the younger; his father, of the same name, had been granted the lands in this part of the country by Strongbow. The friary was plundered and badly damaged by Edward Bruce and his army in 1317, so it is likely that at least some of what can be seen today dates from a subsequent rebuilding programme.
Like all such establishments, the friary in Castledermot was officially closed down by government authorities in the 1540s, although there were still Franciscans living on the site 100 years later. However, it was badly damaged by English soldiers in 1650 and thereafter fell into ruin. What survives is a large, long church typical of the medieval mendicant orders. An opening on the north wall gives access to the transept, with what is left of three small chapels; in two instances the windows here retain their tracery windows but alas the gable end’s fine tracery shown in a late 18th century engraving by Daniel Grose, has long since been lost. A tower on the north side of the chancel was probably added in the 14th century as protection for the friary’s residents continued to be necessary during this period. The south side of the church, which would have opened into the long-disappeared cloister is less well preserved.
The sad end of the main house at Loughcrew, County Meath is well-known. The building was said to be the subject of a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ And so it came to pass. The house, designed in severe neo-classical style by architect Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s, did indeed suffer three fires, the last occurring in 1964 and leading to the demolition of its remains a few years later, so that now the Naper family, resident on the estate since the 1650s, live in the former yard buildings. Today just parts of the facade’s great Greek Ionic portico show where it once stood, but elsewhere on the surrounding land, more active restoration has taken place.
A short distance to the west of the remains of the old house at Loughcrew stands a late-medieval church associated with St Oliver Plunkett who was born here in 1629. The church has a large, three-storey residential tower at the west end, as was often the case with such buildings erected during the late 14th and 15th centuries when much of the country was disturbed by feuding between different families and not even religious buildings were safe from attack. Entrance to the church was via a door at the west end and the interior appears always to have been relatively simple, with a single chapel opening on the south side, the upper portion of the window here being divided in two by a central spandrel featuring the Naper coat of arms. Unlike many such sites, the church continued to be used for services throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite being renovated and re-roofed in 1818, it was abandoned 25 years later when a new place of worship was built elsewhere.
Immediately adjacent to the old church lies the Loughcrew estate’s walled garden, parts of which are believed to date back to the arrival of the Naper family here in the mid-17th century; there is, for example, a classical arched gateway dated 1673. Over the past couple of decades, much of the garden, which had fallen into neglect has been restored and a number of the earlier features – such as a canal and a formal parterre, been re-instated. Some features of an earlier settlement on the site have also been uncovered. Meanwhile, later aspects of a fashionable country house garden, like the 19th century taste for deep herbaceous borders, can once more be found. Loughcrew and its gardens are a work in progress, but already much has been achieved and the future promises even more.
Over the coming weeks, every evening Loughcrew gardens are hosting a musical Lightscape open to the public. Further details, and information on ticket purchase, can be found at https://loughcrew.com/loughcrew-lightscape
And the remains of a third medieval church in County Kilkenny, this one about four miles to the south of Newtown Jerpoint in Knocktopher. St David’s was founded by Griffin FitzWilliam (mentioned earlier this week for having established the settlement of Newtown Jerpoint) and occupied by Augustinian Canons Regular. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, at least some of the building survived as a place of worship for members of the Established Church but in the late 1820s they moved to another site and most of this older church either fell or was pulled down. What survives is a section of the north wall incorporating a 15th century window and an altar tomb beneath, and the former entrance tower to the west: this has a square trunk but the upper section is octagonal and castellated, so might have been added in the 18th century to give the church a more whimsical character. Inside the tower is a double funeral effigy of a man and a woman, also believed to date from the 15th century. The rest of the site is given over to graves