The Surviving Twin

Around 1720 Algernon Coote, sixth Earl of Mountrath agreed to take a lease on a house due to be built at 30 Old Burlington Street, London. Erected over the next few years this property was designed by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington (and also fourth Earl of Cork), together with his protégé the Scottish architect Colen Campbell. In the event, Lord Mountrath never occupied the building, which was demolished in 1935. However, what might be described as its twin can be found in Dublin, at 9 Henrietta Street, which dates from c.1731.
Why this similarity of design between the two houses (especially since images of 30 Old Burlington Street were neither engraved nor published)? The original owner of 9 Henrietta Street was one Thomas Carter, an ambitious politician who would serve as Master of the Rolls in Ireland and Secretary of State for Ireland. Known for his opposition to English government interference in the affairs of Ireland, Carter’s great ally in the Dublin parliament was Henry Boyle, future first Earl of Shannon and a cousin of Lord Burlington (whose Irish affairs he managed). Furthermore in 1719 Carter married Mary Claxton, first cousin of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, to whom the design of 9 Henrietta Street is attributed (in turn, Pearce’s uncle was Thomas Coote of Cootehill, a cousin of Lord Mountrath). It will also be remembered that Pearce was the architect who designed the new parliament building in Dublin. Family connections were as helpful in 18th century Ireland as they are today.

Aside from certain details, 9 Henrietta Street follows the design of the Old Burlington Street house both inside and out. The exterior is of five bays and three storeys over basement, of brick other than rusticated rendering on the ground floor (unlike the London property which was all faced in brick). The entrance is through a doorcase with blocked Ionic columns rising to a pediment centred on a massive keystone. Directly above, as with London, is an arched window, flanked by Ionic pilasters.
Likewise internally the plan differs little from the London house, notably in the entrance hall which is the finest extant on Henrietta Street (so many of the other staircases were pulled out when buildings were converted into tenements). On entering the property, one sees a screen of Corinthian columns (of marbleized timber) to the right of which is the double-height staircase, taking up a quarter of the entire space. Beneath an elaborate wrought-iron balustrade with mahogany handrail, cantilevered Portland stone stairs climb around three walls to reach the first floor. The walls retain their original plasterwork panelling, beneath a compartmentalised and coffered ceiling. Thanks to its scale and quality of finish, this is one of the most dramatic 18th century interiors in Dublin.
9 Henrietta Street’s other important room is to the rear of the ground floor, which, like the entrance/staircase hall has been little altered (although in line with changing fashion the windows here were lowered c.1800). Once more the walls are plaster panelled and the ceiling compartmentalised. The chimneypiece, of painted wood and marble, features a lion’s head with foliate garlands to either side; above is an aedicule with Corinthian pilasters and a gilded eagle occupying the pediment. The main doorcase, leading to the room in front, is likewise pedimented and flanked by Corinthian columns.

Unlike many other houses on Henrietta Street, No.9 had a relatively benign history over the past three centuries, which explains why its appearance has changed so little. Following Thomas Carter’s death in 1763, his two sons lived in the building, after which it was occupied by John, first Viscount O’Neill who was killed by rebel forces during the Battle of Antrim in June 1798. For some four decades in the first half of the 19th century, the house was residence to Arthur Moore, a former member of the Irish parliament (and opponent of the Act of Union), later Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Ireland. Following his death it was used as the Queens Inns Barristers’ Chambers. At the start of the last century the building was acquired by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul who also owned the neighbouring 10 Henrietta Street (see Shedding Light on a Subject, March 20th 2017). It remains in their care to the present time. 9 Henrietta Street was restored some twenty years ago by Paul Arnold Architects and is now used as a resource and education centre for the local community.

A Special Friendship

The story of Castle Ward, County Down is well-known. Wonderfully sited on a rise above Strangford Lough the house dates from the mid-1760s when an older residence was replaced by something more à la mode. The problem was that Bernard Ward and his wife Lady Anne (née Bligh) had very different ideas about what they wanted. Mr Ward (created Baron Bangor in 1770, and then Viscount Bangor in 1781) preferred the classical style, whereas his wife fancied Gothick. As Mrs Delany wrote around this time, ‘Mr Ward is building a fine house, but the scene about is so uncommonly fine it is a pity it should not be judiciously laid out. He wants taste, and Lady Anne is so whimsical that I doubt her judgment. If they do not do too much they can’t spoil the place, for it hath every advantage from nature that can be desired.’ Ultimately a compromise was reached whereby Mr Ward had his way on the entrance front, and Lady Anne hers on the side overlooking Strangford Lough. Internally the same division was agreed so that the ground floor rooms are quaintly split between the two decorative styles. The architect responsible for organising this curious arrangement is unknown, although it has been proposed that, like the stone used for the exterior, he came from Bath or else Bristol (the names of both James Bridges and Thomas Paty have been mentioned). Nevertheless the arrangement was not enough to hold the Ward marriage together and soon after Castle Ward was finished Lady Anne, who complained of being bullied, decamped first to Dublin and later to Bath where she died in 1789, eight years after her husband.

It may be that the Wards’ differences extended beyond just architecture. In an article published in 2000, Professor Sean Connolly discussed the relationship that existed between Lady Anne and an older woman, Letitia Bushe. Born in County Kilkenny in the first decade of the 18th century, Letty Bushe was a gentlewoman of modest means whose life was spent either in rented rooms in Dublin or staying with friends in the country. A talented amateur watercolourist, she was also known for the brilliance of her conversation (as well as her good looks before these were marred by smallpox). Among her closest friends was the aforementioned Mrs Delany who, when still Mrs Pendarves and visiting Dublin in November 1731 wrote to her sister, ‘I eloped for an hour or two to make a visit to a young lady who is just recovered of the small-pox. I think I never saw a prettier creature than she was before that malicious distemper seized her – a gay, good-humoured, innocent girl, without the least conceit of her beauty; her father has been dead about six months, a worthless man that has left a very uncertain fortune; she paints delightfully.’ The two women remained friends and regular correspondents until Letty Bushe’s death in 1757. But for a period she had a closer and much more intense relationship with Lady Anne. It appears they met in 1739, when the latter was just twenty-one and Miss Bushe in her mid-thirties. On July 31st 1740 she wrote to her younger friend, ‘This Day twelvemonth was the Day I first stay’d with you, the night of which you may remember pass’d very oddly. I cannot forget how I pity’d you, & how by that soft road you led me on to love you. I feared many things for you, & my compasion by degrees rose into esteem.’ Later again she would write of ‘two whole years of thoughts, tenderness, stuff and nonsense’. All of which indicates this was more than just a standard friendship.

Professor Connolly chronicles the relationship’s ups and downs, in part caused by Lady Anne’s regular visits to England where her father, John Bligh, first Earl of Darnley, had extensive estates. Letty Bushe suffered agonies in her absence. In the spring of 1740 Lady Anne crossed the Irish Sea, and by August of that year Miss Bushe was confessing, ‘About the time you left Ireland, I hardly slept at nights, and such a wizened pale old hag I grew.’ This appears not to have been an exaggeration because Mrs Ann Preston, with whom Letty Bushe was then staying in County Meath, in turn wrote to Lady Anne, ‘What has your Ladyship said to poor Miss Bushe? For since your last letter she has neither eat, drank, slept or spoke one chearfull sentence. In short she is so very unlike herself that I scarce know her. I beg you will say something to her to raise her spirits.’ The following month Miss Bushe wrote to her inamorata, ‘You make some of the sweetest moments of my life in reflection, & were it not for bitter absence I think you wou’d do so in reality. Tho I live & eat & sleep & laugh, yet I am often surprized at my self, well knowing I seldom am without your Idea, & the cruel sence of being separated from you.’ So it went on for several years, even after the marriage of Lady Anne in September 1742 to Robert Hawkins Magill of Gill Hall, County Down (he died less than three years later). We can only guess at the tone and content of Lady Anne’s letters because it appears that at some date she made off with her side of the correspondence and destroyed it. But she preserved the letters received from Letty Bushe and they provide both an insight into their relationship and a possible explanation for the failure of her marriage to Mr Ward. Despite the couple having three sons and four daughters prior to her departure for Dublin, it was perhaps more than just his architectural judgement she found disagreeable.

A Woman’s Life in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Case of Letitia Bushe by S.J. Connolly was published in The Historical Journal, Vol.43 (2000)

To the Muses

Whether on Ida’s shady brow
Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the Sun, that now
From ancient melody have ceased


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. 

Shedding Light on a Subject

The houses of Dublin’s Henrietta Street have featured here more than once, and deservedly so since even if many have suffered long periods of neglect those that remain are among the most important such buildings in the capital. Henrietta Street was the first major scheme undertaken by the 18th century’s enlightened and far-seeing property developer Luke Gardiner (would that his present successors displayed such taste and perspicacity). From 1721 onwards he began to construct large domestic residences on what had hitherto been open ground to the north of the existing city. Nothing better demonstrates confidence in such an enterprise than the developer himself living on site, and around 1731 Luke Gardiner built his own house, the architect responsible being the most fashionable of the era, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. This is 10 Henrietta Street which remained in ownership, even if increasingly intermittent occupation, through successive generations of the original family until 1829 when Charles Gardiner, Earl of Blessington died without a male heir. His fascinating second wife, born Marguerite Power, is believed to have visited the house only once and it eventually became used by members of the legal profession (not surprisingly since the Gardiner estate thereafter became immersed in long and costly litigation). In 1899 the building was acquired by the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, members of which order continue to live there still.

Unlike many other properties on Henrietta Street, the interiors of No.10 remain relatively unaltered, the most notable changes occurring during the 18th century when the house was still owned and lived in by the Gardiners. On the ground floor, a rear room originally known as the Breakfast Parlour, appears least changed from the original decorative scheme, with a splendid doorcase flanked by Corinthian columns and topped by a pedimented entablature: the ceiling here, unlike most of the others, exemplifies sober early 18th century classicism, compartmentalised in low-relief geometric plasterwork patterns.
Structurally the most significant intervention was a reconfiguring of the entrance hall and staircase. When the house was first built, it featured a double-height entrance containing stairs leading to the first-floor. However, some years after the death of Luke Gardiner in 1755 his son Charles reordered this space to create a single-storey entrance hall, behind which a new staircase hall was instated. Probably around the same time a number of rooms were given new ceilings in the rococo manner. These decorations are important because in the majority of cases they are made not of plaster but papier-mâché. The use of this medium is unusual but not unique – a number of other examples survive elsewhere in the city and in Carton, County Kildare – but it seems strange to find it here. One of the attractions of papier-mâché was its relative cheapness (relative to stuccowork, that is) but the Gardiners were certainly affluent to afford anything they wished. On the other hand, its great merit is easier (and cleaner) installation than plaster, so perhaps this is why papier-mâché was preferred for the redecoration of existing rooms.
It was not used, on the other hand, for the saloon, or ballroom (now used as a chapel), which in its present form looks to have been either added or extended at the time when Charles Gardiner was re-fashioning other spaces in the house. The saloon ceiling (central photograph above) while stylistically not unlike the others on this level is of plasterwork, and the other striking decorative feature is a substantial Venetian window in the centre of the west wall.

An inventory survives for 10 Henrietta Street, taken in November 1772 and itemising the contents of each room in the house. It adds immensely to our understanding not just of this property but also of how rooms in an 18th century urban residence were furnished. The answer is: relatively sparsely. The two interlinked first-floor drawing rooms, for example, each contained a large pier glass (valued at £12 & 10 shillings, and £9 respectively), and a marble-topped table (£4 and £3) but only a handful of other items, at least those considered worth recording. The Ante Chamber – formerly the upper portion of the entrance hall – featured ‘2 Large Landscapes in Gilt frames’ (£22 & 15 shillings), a large Dutch market scene (£7) and a mahogany dressing table (just 15 shillings). The most notable items were in the saloon which held two marble-topped tables with brass borders (£9), two ‘large Pictures of the Cartoons Gilt Frames’ (a pair of cartoons attributed to Raphael and valued at £50), two full-length portraits in gilt frames of George I and the Duke of Bolton (£17), a similar portrait of the Earl of Stafford and his secretary (£7), a pair of mahogany card tables (£1 & 16 shillings) and ‘2 Plates of Glass in late Mr Gardiner’s frames’ (£17). And so it goes on through the house, giving us an insight into living conditions at the time. Coupled with the preservation of the house itself (which benefitted some years ago from a major restoration programme that saw many of the rooms brought back to their initial state), 10 Henrietta Street sheds clearer light than perhaps any other such property in Dublin on how a grand urban residence looked in the Georgian period.


Hanging On

In mid-December 1761 outside Lifford Gaol, County Donegal John MacNaghten was hanged not once but twice. A month earlier he had killed a young woman to whom he claimed to be married. More than twenty years earlier MacNaghten had inherited an estate at Benvarden, County Antrim with an annual income of some £600, but his addiction to gambling meant he was obliged to sell or mortgage the greater part of the property. Circumstances improved following marriage to Sophie Daniel, daughter of the Dean of Down who brought with her an impressive dowry. Unfortunately MacNaghten soon resumed his old ways and by 1756 had accumulated such significant debts that a warrant was issued for his arrest. Around this time his wife died in childbirth, leaving him penniless once more. In a further attempt to improve his fortune he managed to be appointed to the lucrative post of tax collector for Coleraine but then gambled away £800 of the state’s money: his estate was now sequestered and by 1760 he was without recourse to funds. An old family friend, Andrew Knox who lived at Prehen, County Derry took pity of MacNaghten and offered him support. Knox had a fifteen-year old daughter Mary Anne who was already in line to inherit £6,000 and possibly much more should her elder brother not have any children. MacNaghten and Mary Anne Knox developed some kind of romantic relationship and even seem to have gone through a form of marriage ceremony before her father discovered what was taking place and forbade further contact between the two. He was in the process of travelling with his daughter to Dublin in November 1761 when their carriage was intercepted by MacNaghten, intent on carrying off the young girl. In an exchange of gunfire, Mary Anne was accidentally and fatally wounded. It did not take long before MacNaghten was arrested, tried at Lifford Courthouse and sentenced to death for her murder. When the day came for him to be hanged, the rope broke and so he had to be strung up a second time. Forever after he has been remembered as Half-Hanged MacNaghten.

Originally from Scotland, the Knox family settled in Ireland during the 17th century, the first of them to come here being an Anglican clergyman Andrew Knox who in 1610 was appointed Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal. In 1738 his great-grandson, the aforementioned Andrew Knox, father of the unfortunate Mary Anne and long-time MP for Donegal in the Irish Parliament, married Honoria Tomkins, heiress to the Prehen estate. The following decade the couple built themselves a new residence here overlooking the river Foyle and some two miles upstream from the city of Derry. The house’s design is attributed to Michael Priestley, about whom relatively little is known except that he was responsible for a number of buildings in north-west Ulster. Incidentally, among his other commissions was Lifford Courthouse and Gaol, outside which John MacNaghten was twice-hanged: a curious architectural link with Prehen, although probably of little interest to the condemned man. Built of rubble with ashlar dressings, the house has two storeys over basement and is of four bays, the centre two being slightly advanced and featuring a handsome sandstone Gibbsian doorcase and at the top a pediment with the Knox coat of arms. The interior is equally fine for the period, beginning with a substantial flagged entrance hall off which open a series of reception rooms to left and right while symmetrical doors to the rear give access to a main and service stairs respectively. A similar arrangement pertains on the first floor where the central space to the front of the building is taken up by a substantial gallery with coved ceiling.

The Knoxes remained at Prehen until the outbreak of the First World War when, for reasons that need to be explained, the estate was seized by the British government. Back in the mid-19th century Colonel George Knox married a Swiss girl, Rose Virgine Grimm and in turn one of their daughters Virginia was married to the German scholar and former student of Nietzsche Dr Ludwig von Scheffler of Weimar. Their son, Georg Carl Otto Ludwig von Scheffler became Adjutant to the Commander of the Cadet Corps Governor of the Royal Pages in the Prussian Army and was raised to the rank of baron by the Kaiser. On the death of his maternal grandfather George Knox in 1910, he inherited Prehen and assumed the additional surname of Knox. The Baron stayed at Prehen until August 1914 when war was declared between Britain and Germany. Initially placed under house arrest, he escaped and returned to Germany. In his absence, however, Prehen and its lands were confiscated by the government as enemy property. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the estate was liquidated at public auction under the terms of the 1916 Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act: Baron von Scheffler Knox only returned to see Prehen in the 1950s accompanied by his son, Johann Von Scheffler Prehen Knox who only died five years ago.

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By the early 1970s Prehen was in poor condition. Requisitioned during the Second World War for troop accommodation, the house had been internally subdivided, a secondary door inserted into one of the main entrance’s sidelights, and there were large holes in the roof. On the verge of complete dereliction the property was then bought by Julian Peck and his American-born wife Carola: the couple had previously restored Rathbeale, County Dublin. Julian Peck had a family link with the place, his mother being author Winifred Peck (née Knox), one of a remarkable band of siblings whose other members included Monsignor Ronald Knox, Roman Catholic priest and detective story writer, Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, who worked as a code breaker during both the First and Second World Wars (he was employed at Bletchley Park until his death in 1943), the Church of England clergyman Wilfred Knox, and the poet and editor of Punch Edmund Knox (whose daughter was the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald). The Pecks rescued Prehen, bringing the house back to life and filling it with animation. Several of the rooms have had their walls painted, those in the entrance hall being covered with frescoes by Alec Cobbe. Meanwhile the dining room was decorated by Carola Peck in a style that blends Pompeii with Puvis de Chavannes. Julian Peck lived in the house  until his death in 2001, followed by his wife in 2014. Their surviving son Colin sadly died last August, thereby ending a long connection between the Knoxes and Prehen. However the house survives as a testament to this remarkable family, and to the curious history of Half-Hanged MacNaghten.


Opportunity Knocks

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Opportunism and those who practise it are not, as a rule, judged very favorably. Yet there are times when our verdict on opportunists can be inaccurate or imperceptive. Much of Georgian Dublin is a manifestation of opportunism at work: the result of a handful of perspicacious developers – another now-detested term – recognising an opportunity and responding to it. This was certainly the case with the first Luke Gardiner who piecemeal built up landholdings on the northside of the city and there created new streets and terraces to meet growing demand for residential property. Gardiner’s first venture in this arena, and the basis of his future success, was the development from the late 1720s onward of Henrietta Street.

Luke Gardiner was a man of modest origins, far removed at the start of his professional life from the wealth he would come to enjoy. Much the same could be said of his protégé Nathaniel Clements who, although enjoying somewhat less humble beginnings, was the youngest of five sons and very much expected to make his own way. This he did, like Gardiner, by building houses and then selling them on: the parallels between the past and the present can sometimes be discomfiting. Henrietta Street was also Clements’ first venture into property development, as he took on several sites from Gardiner. One of these was number 4 (originally 5) Henrietta Street which he completed around 1740-41 and sold to George Stone, then Bishop of Ferns. Stone occupied the building but did not finish paying for it, until 1747 when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh and, in turn, opportunistically moved into a still-grander residence on the street before selling No.4. Its second owner was John Maxwell, MP for County Cavan who nine years later would be created first Lord Farnham. Of Scottish ancestry, Maxwell was the descendant of three generations of clerical opportunists: the Farnham estate in County Cavan had originally been purchased by his grandfather, the Anglican Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh. When John Maxwell acquired No.4 Henrietta Street, it came with a plot of land to the immediate east, perhaps serving as a garden. In 1754 Maxwell’s only daughter married another MP, Owen Wynne of Sligo, likewise the descendant of opportunists, although in this instance they had been army men. Around the time of his marriage the plot next to No.4 passed into Wynne’s hands and a house was built here. Today it is No.3 Henrietta Street.

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There are unanswered questions remaining about the history of 3 Henrietta Street, not least who was responsible for its design. The house is sometimes attributed to Nathaniel Clements because like its neighbour – which he almost certainly did build – there is a semi-circular bow at the back of the building. On the other hand, by the time of No.3’s construction, Clements had moved on to other projects and, more critically, he and Maxwell were political opponents, so it seems unlikely his assistance would have been sought here. Perhaps when Wynne embarked on the enterprise he decided to copy some features of his father-in-law’s adjacent residence. The interior shows alterations believed to date from 1830. Originally the entrance hall – like other houses on this side of the street – would have been of two storeys with the stairs visibly rising to the first floor. In the 19th century this staircase was taken out and a smaller one inserted, divided by a wall from the front of the house with the new entrance hall made just one storey high. But the first floor reception rooms retain much of their original decoration, the pair to the front of the room having a deep frieze with strapwork and festoons, while below the walls are sectioned by plaster panelling. To the rear at this level is a wonderful room with rococo stuccowork in the coved ceiling which extends into the bow, and gives the space a more intimate character than any of the others possess.

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As already mentioned, in the 19th century 3 Henrietta Street, like almost all other houses in the vicinity, underwent changes both of design and usage. The advent of the King’s Inns at the top of the street, and the gradual departure of private owners in the aftermath of the 1800 Act of Union meant many of the buildings came to be used as solicitors’ offices: in the decades leading up to his death in 1885 some three-quarters of the street were bought by the lawyer Tristram Kennedy and let to other members of his profession. However, his property portfolio was subsequently acquired by another – altogether less attractive – opportunist, former Dublin Lord Mayor Joseph Meade. Seeing a chance to get a good return on his investment, notoriously he converted most of the houses into tenements. The original interior spaces were divided to fit in more rooms for entire families to occupy and valuable items such as chimney pieces were stripped out and sold off. This was the fate of 3 Henrietta Street for a large portion of the last century, and evidence of its decline, as much as of its glory, can still be seen in the building. But the house is now on the market, and awaits a new owner who can offer it a viable future. What will happen next? As has been the case here over the past two and a half centuries, opportunity knocks – and 3 Henrietta Street once more awaits the advent of an opportunist.

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A Vision Realised

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a frenzy of church building in Ireland. In Cobh, County Cork for example, the construction of a vast new cathedral designed by Edward Pugin and George Ashlin began in 1867. That building, like the majority of others, was commissioned by the Roman Catholic church intent in the aftermath of penal reform to make its mark across the country. By contrast the Anglican Church of Ireland, which until around 1830 had engaged in a similar ferment of church building, primarily (although not exclusively) funded by the Board of First Fruits, was now in retreat. The Irish Church Act of 1869 (it came into force two years later) broke a long-standing link between the Anglican church and the state, and repealed legislation requiring all citizens to pay tithes to the Church of Ireland. As a result, the Church of Ireland’s ability to engage in construction or even restoration of property severely contracted. All the more interesting therefore to see that not far from Cobh and during the same decade as work on its cathedral began a similarly ambitious project was initiated by the Irish Anglican community: the rebuilding of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in the centre of Cork city. The site on which it stands is believed to have been a place of worship since a monastery was founded here in the seventh century and named after the local patron saint Fionnbarr (meaning ‘fair headed’). The city of Cork grew up around this religious settlement and in turn the monastic church became the city’s cathedral. This mediaeval structure was damaged during the Siege of Cork in 1690 and largely replaced in the following century: the most important extant feature of that much earlier building is the Dean’s Gate: now inserted into the southern boundary of the Cathedral grounds’ wall it was originally an archway in the west portico of the bell tower.

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Only a couple of photographs taken shortly before its demolition give an idea of the appearance of Cork’s 18th century cathedral. Other than retaining the ancient tower at the west end, it looks to have been not unlike places of worship erected elsewhere in Ireland during the same era, such as the Anglican cathedrals then built in Cashel, County Tipperary and Waterford city. Commentators today, perhaps dazzled by its successor, tend to be unfairly disparaging about the old St Fin Barre’s since it probably had ample architectural merit, given some of the cultural pedigree of the bishops involved. Richard Caulfield’s Annals of St Fin Barre’s published in 1871 gathered together all source material on the building’s history and reported that in November 1733 ‘Whereas it appears to the Dean and Chapter that the Cathedral is in very bad repair, and in great danger of falling, & that an application be made to the Bishop by the Dean, Archdeacon, and Oeconomus [the bursar], that his Lordship would be pleased to give his advice about pulling down and re-building same Cathedral…and that the Dean, &c., should indemnify the Bishop.’ In September of the following year ‘The Cathedral was ordered to be taken down, the Oeconomus to employ workmen, and the Bishop to be requested to direct such a plan as he may think proper.’ Soon afterwards Robert Clayton was appointed bishop of the diocese and it was during his term, and that of his successor, that the new cathedral was built. Clayton, who would later have troubles over his religious beliefs (at the time of his death in 1758 he was facing charges of heresy having publicly espoused the doctrines of Arianism), was a man of considerable taste: his splendid Dublin townhouse on the south side of St Stephen’s Green was designed for him in the mid-1730s by Richard Castle (it is now part of Iveagh House). One therefore imagines that the cathedral works over which he presided in Cork would have displayed equal taste, even if in this instance we do not know who was the architect responsible. Yet work on the new St Fin Barre’s proceeded slowly, in part due to shortage of funds. In March 1737, for example, it was noted ‘The Dean and Archdeacon to wait on the Bishop to represent the state of the Cathedral, that all their money has been expended, and to seek his Lordship’s advice’ and later that same year, ‘The Dean and Chapter, not having sufficient means to finish the Cathedral, make a lease to John Supple of the great and small tytles of the Oeconomy of the Cathedral, for four years, at a yearly rent of £108 15s.; and as it would greatly retard the finishing of the Church if the Dean and Chapter were to wait till the rents became payable, &c., John Supple has advanced the four years’ rent in the whole sum of £435.’ Ultimately it appears the job had still not been finished by the time Clayton moved on to the diocese of Clogher in 1745, his place being taken by a local cleric, Jemmett Browne. He was likewise interested in architecture, reconfiguring his family house outside the city at Riverstown where the Ticinese sibling stuccodores Paolo and Filippo Lafranchini are credited with decorating the interior. A photograph of the chancel arch of 18th century St Fin Barre’s shows its walls to have been covered in elaborate rococo plasterwork on either side of a large Venetian window and this has been attributed by Joseph McDonnell to the same Lafranchini brothers. All of which suggests that the cathedral must have had a rather fine interior.

Time passes and tastes change, and the following century it was again resolved to demolish St Fin Barre’s. One suspects that this decision, officially taken in 1862, was due to the arrival that same year of a new bishop, John Gregg, appointed to the position on the recommendation of his admirer and then Lord Lieutenant, the seventh Earl of Carlisle. Evidently keen to leave a mark on his diocese, the strong-minded Gregg declared that the building he had inherited ought to be taken down and replaced with ‘a structure more worthy of the name, Cork Cathedral.’ One suspects the existing St Fin Barre’s was rather too secular in style to suit the Gregg’s brand of evangelical Christianity. Accordingly an international competition was held for an architect to design a new cathedral. This attracted sixty-eight entrants, William Burges being declared the winner, even though – as some of the losers pointed out – his proposal excluded from the prescribed budget of £15,000 the monies needed to build towers, spire and sculpture. The eventual cost would climb to more than £100,000 (on the other hand, reverting back to the Roman Catholic cathedral in Cobh, its original construction budget of £25,000 overran to a final total of £235,000). Moreover Burges declared himself ‘unconcerned’ over any difference between intended and ultimate cost of building his vision. In the future, he informed Bishop Gregg, ‘the elements of time and cost being forgotten, the result only will be looked at. The great questions will then be, first, is this work beautiful and, secondly, have those to whom it was entrusted, done it with all their heart and all their ability.’ These sentiments were not perhaps altogether appreciated by the people of Cork who, in the aftermath of the Church of Ireland’s disestablishment, had to find the funds for St Fin Barre’s. But Burges’ background explains his own indifference to budgetary matters: born in London in 1827, he inherited a fortune from his engineer father and therefore never had to worry about earning a living. After years of travel and working in the offices of both Edward Blore and Matthew Digby Wyatt, he set up his own practice in 1856. Thereafter despite providing designs for various competitions he was aged thirty-five before he finally won his first major commission: St Fin Barre’s. His proposal involved the total demolition of the building then on the site, including the mediaeval west tower, because Burges was an architectural ideologue whose preferred style – Early French Gothic – trumped all others: ‘I was brought up in the thirteenth century belief,’ he once wrote, ‘and in that belief I intend to die.’ No qualms here about clearing away anything that might impede the execution of his vision.

Both Burges and Bishop Gregg died before work on St Fin Barre’s had been completed, the former in 1881, the latter three years earlier but since he was succeeded in the diocese by his son Robert Gregg, the work continued seamlessly. Thus the cathedral as we see it today is essentially the expression of these two men’s aesthetic and religious beliefs: Burges’ intentions are understood but the importance of Gregg in the development of St Fin Barre’s has been less discussed. It is not difficult to understand why this should be the case, as Burges – who in today’s parlance might be reckoned a control freak – was responsible for the design of every part of the building: nothing was permitted to escape his attention and approval. He drew the designs for all of St Fin Barre’s sculptures inside and out, for the majority of its seventy-four stained glass windows, the mosaic pavement in the chancel, the pulpit, altar and bishop’s throne. An indication of his personal commitment was Burges’ gift of the Resurrection Angel made of copper covered in gold leaf that crowns the sanctuary roof at the east end. Given how elaborate the decorative scheme is, and the increasing demands of his work schedule elsewhere notably with the third Marquess of Bute in Cardiff, no wonder Burges died at the age of 53. Although the cathedral is relatively small (it was intended to hold a congregation of 700 souls, no more than the average for a London parish), it is smothered in embellishment. The exterior is built of Cork limestone, the interior of Bath stone and the walls are lined with red Cork marble. As was the case with mediaeval cathedrals, internally and externally St Fin Barre’s is intended to be ‘read’ by the faithful as the building narrates the story of Christianity. For example, the west rose window illustrates the story of creation according to the book of Genesis, while the windows on either side of the nave feature tales from the Old Testament. Those in the ambulatory deal with the life of Christ. While the cathedral was consecrated in 1870, its decorative work in accordance with Burges’ intentions was only finished in the mid-1930s. In this respect, it bears similarities with the slow construction of such buildings in the Middle Ages, and indeed with that of its 18th century predecessor. Today St Fin Barre’s is rightly admired as one of the finest and most complete expressions of Gothic Revival architecture in these islands. It also represents a final flourish on the part of the Anglican church in Ireland before the onset of a long decline.

The photograph above is a detail of a half-scale plaster model of a sculpture above the rose window on the inside of St Fin Barre’s. Depicting an architect at work, it is believed to represent William Burges.