Milltown Castle, County Louth is thought to date from the early 15th century when built for the Anglo-Norman Gernon family, who long held land in this part of the country. In many respects it is a typical tower house of the period, but made unusual by having rounded corners and a couple of semi-circular towers. Of four storeys, it underwent the usual alterations across the centuries but remained in use as a residence until relatively recently; a 19th century photograph shows buildings attached on either side, including a two-storey house, but these have since been demolished and today it stands in a farm yard (guarded by a pair of rather aggressive dogs, hence no closer pictures…)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of a book that might be said to have initiated modern interest in the Irish country house. Of course, there had been other publications on the subject before, not least the fifth volume of the original Georgian Societies records of 1913, and Sadleir and Dickinson’s Georgian Mansions in Ireland, produced two years later (see Glimpses into a Vanished World « The Irish Aesthete and Enriched with Treasures « The Irish Aesthete). And in the interim, other writers like Mark Girouard and the Knight of Glin had visited various houses around the country, the results of these explorations duly appearing in publications such as Country Life. But Irish Houses & Castles was different because it attempted to give an overview of the country’s historic domestic properties, and in doing so allowed the reader to draw conclusions about what made Ireland’s country houses different from those found elsewhere. The book was jointly authored by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan, the former bringing to the work all the experience and knowledge – and indeed social connections – he had gathered since establishing the Irish Georgian Society with his first wife Mariga 13 years earlier. Indeed, one of the purposes of Irish Houses & Castles was to raise funds for the society, which would receive all royalties from sales. Indicative of the appetite for such publications is the fact that the first American edition of 2,000 copies sold out within a month: over the next decade a further 75,000 more copies were published. The funds raised proved invaluable, since at the time the IGS was in the throes of rescuing Castletown, County Kildare. ‘If ever a book saved a house,’ Desmond later remarked, ‘ours saved Castletown, where weekly wages somehow had to be paid, and restoration work continue.’
Irish Houses & Castles featured 39 of the most important remaining historic homes in the country, at least a dozen of which have since either been destroyed or else changed hands with the loss of the original contents. In this way, the book is now an historic record but at the time of publication, it provided valuable information on what was a largely unknown subject, not least thanks to the two authors’ introduction which, after discussing the architectural evolution of Irish houses, moved on to examine the paintings and furniture that had been made for them, and even the gardens, gatehouses and follies that ornamented their surrounding estates. As with the books published earlier in the century, an important although often overlooked feature of Irish Houses & Castles is that it offers an insight into how such properties were decorated at the time, frequently in a style quite unlike that today. For example, there is a photograph of the entrance hall at Abbey Leix, County Laois. Today this has been restored to ensure that the eye is immediately caught by its architectural qualities, but 50 years ago the hall still looked much as it probably did in the late Victorian/Edwardian era: acting as an informal meeting space/sitting room it contained chintz-covered sofas on either side of the chimneypiece, an abundance of side tables and bibelots, and a tall folding screen in front of the front door in order to minimise draughts. The writer is old enough to remember many such house entrance halls decorated in the same fashion, but today they have cleared of clutter and tend to be much more sparsely furnished. And of course, many of the original contents of Abbey Leix, accumulated by successive generations, were dispersed when the house was sold in the mid-1990s; again, one remembers that occasion, typical of the time with the marquee outside the house, the surrounding fields filled with cars and the excitement of eventual prices far exceeding estimates (£700 paid for a selection of old copper pans and jelly moulds expected to go for no more than £120). Now the photographs featured in Irish Houses & Castles have become an invaluable source of information about how the place used to look.
The pictures shown here today, all taken from Irish Houses & Castles, demonstrate how vulnerable these properties remain, and how little protection they still have. The dispersal of Abbey Leix’s original contents in the mid-1990s has already been mentioned. To go through the others, one begins with Belvedere, County Westmeath. Today the house is in the care of the local authority which does an admirable job in maintaining the place. But the contents, which included many items originally from Charleville Castle, County Offaly, were all sold in September 1980. Since it appeared in Irish Houses & Castles, Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny has changed hands on a number of occasions, and the same is also true of Bellamont Forest, County Cavan: in both instances the present owners are American. Meanwhile Malahide Castle: two years after Irish Houses & Castles appeared the 7th Lord Talbot de Malahide died suddenly and the property was inherited by his sister Rose, who offered the castle and its contents to the Irish state in lieu of death duties. The offer was declined and as a result, in 1976 a public auction was held with many important items leaving the country. Ironically, the state – which had bought the castle and surrounding 268 acres – found itself bidding against international dealers and collectors in order to buy some pieces so the building would not be entirely denuded. An expensive and unnecessary act of national folly. Meanwhile elsewhere in County Dublin Rathbeale, which had been restored and furnished by Julian and Carola Peck was subsequently sold, the couple moving to County Derry where they restored another important 18th century house, Prehen; alas, since the deaths of the couple and their surviving son, that house and its contents are likewise at risk (see Hanging On « The Irish Aesthete). Luttrellstown Castle, which had been given by Ernest Guinness to his daughter Aileen on the occasion of her first marriage in 1927 (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). She had extensively refurbished the house in the 1950s, the work overseen by decorator Felix Habord. Once more, it was sold in 1983 and the fabulous contents again dispersed thanks to an auction lasting several days. Finally, and most tragically, one turns to Powerscourt, County Wicklow which, having been acquired from the Wingfields by the Slazenger family was thoroughly restored and then, just as this work was completed, the building was gutted by fire in November 1974, an irreparable loss to the country’s architectural heritage. If for the photographs and account of Powerscourt alone, this is what makes Irish Houses & Castles such an important document.
Still in County Kilkenny, and around seven miles west of Newtown Jerpoint (see last Monday) is another Newtown: when it came to naming places in this part of the country, someone wasn’t feeling terribly imaginative. In this instance, the remains include a tower house, officially dating from the 1620s but by general consent probably constructed at least 100 years earlier, perhaps for the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country. Rising four storeys, the building is fairly plain (hence the suggestion that it dates from well before the 17th century) and as usual is accessed by a single arched doorcase with a murder hole immediately inside. Not far away lie the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the surrounding graveyard still in use as is so often the case in Ireland. Dedicated to All Saints, the building’s only surviving feature is a window on the east gable. Internally, much of the ground is covered with the remains of old tombstones.
For a long time based in what is now north County Cork, the O’Keeffe (in Irish Ó Caoimh) family used to claim descent from the Celtic goddess Clíodhna. She and another mythical woman Aibell were in love with the same man Caomh but Clíodhna triumphed by turning her rival into a white cat. Whatever about this legend, it is true that members of the family were Kings of Munster for several centuries but with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, they were driven from their original territory and obliged to settle a little further west, the senior branch having its seat at Dromagh, just a few miles east of the border with Kerry. Here a castle still stands as evidence of their former presence.
As it now exists, Dromagh Castle is thought to date from around the late 16th century when constructed by Art Ó Caoimh who in 1582 received a re-grant of his lands from the English authorities (a common device during this period, which not only ensures the loyalty of Irish chiefs to the crown, but also changed the nature of land ownership from collective to individual). The family seems to have stayed out of the conflict until the time of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s onwards, when Dromagh was until the control of Donal Ó Caoimh. The last great battle of this conflict took place a few miles away at Knocknaclashy in July 1651 and it is said that the leader of the Catholic Confederate forces, Donough MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry, marched out of Dromagh to face General Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, head of the Cromwellian forces. The latter’s victory on this occasion signalled the imminent end of Roman Catholic opposition to the English government. It appears that Dromagh Castle may have suffered some damage at this time, and was also taken from Ó Caoimh but following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the property was returned to the family. Its history thereafter seems unclear but the original owners may have supported the cause of James II at the end of the 1680s, after which they lost their lands for good. When next mentioned in the second quarter of the 18th century, Dromagh Castle was owned, or at least occupied, by a William Philpot whose daughter Christabelle married Henry Leader in 1741. The Leaders had arrived in Ireland in the middle of the previous century and acquired land in this part of the country, their seat being the now-ruined Mount Leader a few miles to the south-west. Through judicious marriage, the Leaders acquired not just Dromagh Castle but also other estates in the vicinity, and in the early 19th century established a number of profitable collieries. In the early 19th century, Nicholas Philpot Leader was a keen supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the cause of Catholic Emancipation, and as an MP criticized the lack of government measures to relieve the ‘mass of misery, distress and destitution’ in Ireland.
Given that they owned other houses not far away, the Leader family did not live in Dromagh Castle but instead farmed the land. They fitted out the interior courtyard with offfices and other buildings along the two longer walls, as well as a certain amount of accommodation in the circular corner towers. Much of what can be seen today is due to their work on the site. It is likely that here, as elsewhere, the centre of the space would have been occupied by a tower but this has long since vanished. The Leaders added battlements to the outer bawn walls and then raised the height of the corner towers, making them five storeys to the front and and three to the rear. The join between original and later sections can clearly be seen on the outside of the building. Battlements were again added, as they were to the small square towers flanking the main entrance fore and aft. The upper portions of the corner towers have thinner walls – and larger window openings – than the original lower parts, showing their purpose was more decorative than defensive. It had become, in effect, a pasteboard castle. Unfortunately this lack of substance has meant the towers are vulnerable if not maintained. Indeed a section of that in the south-east corner has already fallen down, and a large crack down the front of what still stands suggests more could soon follow suit. Dromagh Castle remained in use until the War of Independence when members of the IRA set fire to the property in March 1921. While some of the lower buildings inside the walls were subsequently used, in more recent years it has stood empty and gradually falling into decay. Perhaps some wealthy descendants of the original O’Keeffes might like to consider rescuing their former family seat?
Situated at a strategic crossing point of the river Shannon, Lanesborough (originally called Béal Átha Liag) derives its present name from the Lane family, and specifically Sir George Lane who in the second half of the 17th century did much to improve the place. The son of Sir Richard Lane of Tulsk, County Roscommon, Sir George was a faithful royalist and had followed Charles II into exile. So when the king returned to the throne in 1660, he duly rewarded Sir Richard with additional grants of land in Ireland, as well as a number of high offices; in 1664 he was appointed to the Irish Privy Council, and the following year was made Secretary of State for Ireland, a position he held until his death in 1683. In 1676 he was created first Viscount Lanesborough.
Sir Richard’s primary residence in Ireland stood just a few miles south of Lanesborough, at Rathcline Castle, today a spectacular ruin. The lands here originally belonged to the Quinn or O’Quinn family who may have been responsible for constructing the original tower house here in the 15th or early 16th century. During the latter period, it had passed into the possession of the O’Farrells, but by 1620 Rathcline belonged to Sir Thomas Dutton, an English soldier granted some 2,000 acres by the crown as part of the plantation of Ireland. At least some of what remains here was due to Dutton but after he died, his son also called Thomas, sold Rathcline and the surrounding lands to Sir George Lane. In 1724 following the death of his son, the second Viscount Lanesborough without a son, the place was inherited by the latter’s nephew George Fox, who duly changed his surname to Fox-Lane. His heirs in due course sold the Longford estate to Luke White, who amongst other properties also owned Luttrellstown Castle on the outskirts of Dublin.
The remains of Rathcline Castle date from several different periods, beginning with the original three-storey tower house with battered base which stands on the south-east corner of the site. At the north-east corner is another tower, of also of three-storeys but rectangular and projecting eastwards; this looks to be of a slightly later date. At some point, perhaps in the 17th century, a long range was built linking the two towers, and forming one wall of an enclosed courtyard behind. It had a sequence of large window openings, long since blocked up. Sir George Lane apparently intended to carry out extensive improvements on the property, perhaps inspired by his links with the Duke of Ormonde who did undertake major work on his residence, Kilkenny Castle. In 1664 plans for Rathcline were secured from John Westley, a Dublin-based lawyer and amateur architect married to the daughter of John Webb (Inigo Jones’ pupil); incidentally, Westley also devised plans for Phoenix House, the royal lodge near Dublin, and proposed himself to undertake the construction of new buildings in Dublin Castle. Whether his scheme for Rathcline Castle was carried out even in part is unknown, but in a description of this part of the country written in 1682, Nicholas Dowdall called the building ‘A very noble and spacious house’ which was ‘very pleasant and well Improved with Orchards, Gardens, Fishponds and a Deer Park.’
Whatever it once looked like, as can be seen from within the courtyard, Rathcline Castle was never very deep, perhaps going back no further than a single, admittedly substantial, room: what survives of a great moulded limestone chimneypiece can be found on the first floor of the north wall. Elsewhere in the courtyard the ruins of a range of farm buildings, perhaps erected in the 19th century, occupy one section of the west wall. Otherwise the space stands empty, and evidently much pillaged for stone over 100s of years: it appears that Rathcline Castle suffered badly during the Williamite Wars and may never have been occupied thereafter. The most arresting feature of the site is a limestone classical archway inserted into the south wall, although it too is incomplete, since there were evidently free-standing columns on either side. A second carved limestone archway also survives on the west side. The design of this looks earlier than the classical arch and, given that it occupies the base of a gable wall, suggests this was the public entrance to a chapel on the site. Given its long-term neglect, trying to understand much more about the layout of the castle is a challenge.
The Irish Aesthete has recently been discussing tower houses on YouTube* so here is a fine example rising above the flat landscape of County Louth. The four-storey Roodstown Castle is believed to date from the 15th century although it may be later.
The building has projecting square turrets diagonally opposite each other, one of which contained the garderobe, the other a staircase leading from the usual vaulted entrance space to the upper floors. There is a murder hole just inside the door, and formerly a machicolation outside it but this has since disappeared.
As has been mentioned on this site more than once, Ireland is a country replete with ruins; indeed, scarcely a week or month seems to pass without additions to their number. It is perhaps the sheer quantity of decay and dereliction that has made us, if not indifferent then certainly unsurprised to the fact that so many buildings across the country are in various stages of decline. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be startled by an example of neglect, such as that found in Liscarton, County Meath, where a range of structures are seemingly of interest today only to the livestock grazing on the adjacent land.
It appears there was a church at Liscarton at least by the beginning of the 14th century, since in 1305 there is a reference to the building in the ecclesiastical taxation register of Pope Nicholas IV. Seemingly dedicated to St Nicholas, the church may then have been reconstructed in the following century but little is heard of it until 1622 when James Ussher, created Bishop of Meath the previous year, described it as being in reasonable repair. A further report some 60 years later confirms that it was still standing and evidently in the 18th century alterations were undertaken, since large, round-headed windows were then inserted on both the north and south sides. When it fell out of use and into disrepair is unclear, but this was evidently the case by the time Sir William Wilde came to write The Beauties of the Boyne, and its tributary, the Blackwater (1849) in which he notes ‘the church is remarkable for the extreme beauty of its eastern and western windows, each of which consists of one great light, divided by a shaft branching off on a level with the spring of the arch into two members, which join the arch-head about the centre of the curve. An exquisite variety of tracery, in the decorated style of gothic architecture, fills the head of both windows, and the mouldings are deep and well executed. Upon the exterior face may be observed well carved human heads projecting from the dripstone.’ The carved heads, of a king, a queen and a bishop, can still be seen decorating the hood of the western window, but its equivalent at the east end is threatened by ivy and other vegetation, and the entire site risks falling ever-further into ruin.
A short distance to the east of the church stand what remains of a pair of adjacent towers; just 40-odd feet apart, at one time they were linked by a great hall. Believed to date from the 15th century, the property is recorded in 1633 as having been held by Sir William Talbot (owner of what is now the Carton estate in County Kildare) and, in the following decade by his elder son Robert: Sir William’s youngest son Richard Talbot, was one of the most ardent supporters of James II, who created him Lord Deputy of Ireland and Duke of Tyrconnell. In the second half of the 17th century, the lands and castle of Liscarton passed into the possession of the Cadogan family: it is supposed to have been the birthplace of General William Cadogan, first Earl Cadogan, second only to the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Cadogans appear to have remained at Liscarton until at least the middle of the 18th century (Richard Pococke refers to it being in their hands in 1752) but at some date thereafter it was occupied by the Gerrard family, whose main estate was not far away at Gibbstown, of which more in the coming weeks. In 1841 the Gerrards gave a lease for the lands of Liscarton, including a ‘dwelling house, corn mill, kilns, water courses and stores’ to three brothers, James, Michael and Thomas Cullen. Incidentally, another of the siblings was Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh and the first Irish cardinal, a key figure in the country during the mid-19th century. It is known that he spent time at Liscarton Castle, since its address appears on a number of his letters. By this time the larger of the two towers, rising three storeys, had fallen into picturesque ruin but the smaller, two-storey building and adjacent hall remained sound and, as can be seen in an old postcard, were attractively thatched. A large collection of yard buildings and stables were built, probably in the 18th century, behind the larger tower and some of these remain in various states of repair. However, like so many other old buildings, the castle site was abandoned in the last century and left to decay. It seems extraordinary that there should be so little interest in or concern for a site connected with successive aspects of Irish history, whether the Duke of Tyrconnell or Cardinal Cullen. But seemingly not. This looks like another part of the country’s collective heritage – and memory – destined to be lost forever.
‘Immediately approaching Navan, the river [Boyne] makes a bold sweep round the foot of the hill, from which rise up the ruins of Athlumney Castle, the dilapidated towers and tall gables of which shoot above the trees that surround the commanding eminence on which it is placed, while glimpses of its broad, stone-sashed and picturesque windows, of the style of the end of the sixteenth century, are caught through the openings in the plantation which surrounds the height on which it stands. This beautiful pile consists of a large square keep, with stone arched floors and passages rising into a tower, from which a noble view can be obtained on a clear day; and a more modern castellated mansion, with square stone-mullioned windows, tall chimneys and several gables in the side walls.’
‘Of the history of the castle of Athlumney and its adjoining church, there is little known with certainty; but, standing on the left bank of the Boyne, opposite this point, we cannot help recalling the story of the heroism of its last lord, Sir Launcelot Dowdall, who, hearing of the issue of the battle of the Boyne and the fate of the monarch to whose religion and politics his family had been so long attached, and fearing the approach of the victorious English army, declared on the news reaching him, that the Prince of Orange should never rest under his ancestral roof. The threat was carried into execution. Dowdall set fire to his castle at nightfall and, crossing the Boyne, sat down upon its opposite bank, from whence, as tradition reports, he beheld the last timber in his noble mansion blazing and flickering in the calm summer’s night, then crash amidst the smouldering ruins; and when its final eructation of smoke and flame was given forth, and the pale light of morning was stealing over that scene of desolation, with an aching and despairing heart he turned from the once happy scene of his youth and manhood, and, flying to the continent, shortly after his royal master, never returned to this country. All that remained of this castle and estate were forfeited in 1700. Many a gallant Irish soldier lost his life, and many a noble Irish gentleman forfeited his broad lands that day. We wish their cause had been a better one, and the monarch for whom they bled more worthy such an honour.’
‘Tradition gives us another, but by no means so probable story about Athlumney Castle, which refers to an earlier date. It is said that two sisters occupied the ancient castles of Athlumney and Blackcastle, which latter was situated on the opposite bank of the river; and the heroine of the latter, jealous of her rival in Athlumney, took the following means of being revenged…’
‘…She made her enter into an agreement, that to prevent their mansions falling into the hands of Cromwell and his soldiers, they should set fire to them at the same moment, as soon as the news of his approach reached them, and that a fire being lighted upon one was to be the signal for the conflagration of the other. In the mean time, the wily mistress of Blackcastle had a quantity of dry brush-wood placed on one of the towers of the castle which, upon a certain night, she lighted; and the inhabitants of Athlumney perceiving the appointed signal, set fire to their mansion and burned it to the ground. In the morning the deception was manifest. Athlumney was a mass of blackened, smoking ruins; while Blackcastle still reared its proud form above the woods, and still afforded shelter to its haughty mistress.’
An arched entrance into what was once the Castlepark estate in Golden, County Tipperary. The main house here, demolished several decades ago, dated from the late 18th century when built for Richard Creaghe; the main block was of three bays and two storeys over raised basement. Alterations were carried out to the building in the years prior to the Great Famine to the designs of local architect William Tinsley. However, in the aftermath of the famine, Castlepark was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court and bought by William Scully who renamed it Mantle Hill. A new residence, built some thirty years ago, now stands close to the site of the original house. This entrance is one of two, the other, a typical 1840s set of gates with adjacent lodge lies to the south and looks to have been one of Tinsley’s contributions. However, the west arch looks to be older. MIght it have been associated with Golden Castle, the ruins of which stand not far away on an island in the river Suir to the south-east?
From Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837)
‘BEAGH or ST. ANNE’S, a parish, in the barony of KILTARTAN, county of GALWAY, and province of CONNAUGHT, containing, with part of the post-town of Gort, 5343 inhabitants. This parish is situated on the confines of the county of Clare, and on the road from Galway and Loughrea to Ennis. A monastery of the third order of Franciscans was founded here about the year 1441, but by whom is unknown: in an inquisition of the 28th of Elizabeth it is denominated a cell or chapel, and its possessions appear to have consisted of half a quarter of land, with its appurtenances and tithes, which had been long under concealment. The parish comprises 12,331 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act, and there is some bog; agriculture is improved, and there is good limestone.’
From Fahey, J., D.D., V.G. The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh (1893)
‘On the island of Lough Cutra lake there are also some interesting ruins- a church and castle amongst others, on the history of which no light has yet been cast. We find, from an “Inquisition” taken before John Crofton, Esq., at Athenry, on the 1st of October 1584, that Richard, second Earl of Clanricarde, was then seized of “Beagh and 4 qrts of land, and the ruined castle of Lough Cutra, with an island in the Loug aforesaid.” It may be desirable to add that the Beagh referred to is the old ruined church on the Gort river, about two miles east of town, which had been long previously the parish church of Beagh. There can be little doubt that the lands referred to were its confiscated property.’