A Sick Building

Infirmary 1

Last Monday, the Irish Times published a feature on the threatened demolition of a former Church of Ireland primary school in Glasthule, County Dublin: an application has been lodged with the local authority for the present building to be replaced by four so-called ‘townhouses.’ Objections have been raised to this plan on the grounds that humanitarian and Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement may have attended the school, thereby linking it to the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year. However on Wednesday the same newspaper carried a letter from one of Casement’s biographers outlining the peripatetic nature of his upbringing and thus confuting the notion that he had ever been educated in the Glasthule establishment.
Above is an image of the former County Meath Infirmary on Bridge Street, Navan. A decade younger than the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, it dates from the mid-18th century, at which time, according to a subsequent account, ‘The gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Navan, from their observation of the various calamities and miseries the poor undergo,for want of proper and timely assistance in their several maladies and disorders, did propose to found a County Hospital. Accordingly a subscription was opened at an Assembly at Navan, the first of October 1753; and soon after the Foundation of a County Hospital was laid on a convenient and healthy situation, on an eminence at the entrance into the town.’ A plaque above the main entrance carries the date 1754 and a quotation from St Mark’s Gospel: ‘I was sick and you visited me.’
A supposedly protected structure the seven-bay, three storey County Infirmary (its premises extended in the 19th century) continued to serve the locality until finally closed in September 2010. The building stood vacant before finally being sold three years later. It has remained empty and visibly deteriorating ever since. As can be seen, several of the windows are now broken, there are slates missing from the roof and the fabric is clearly suffering. Designed to tend the sick, now the building itself is in need of care. Unlike the former school premises in Glasthule, the County Infirmary can claim no connection with someone famous (although a plaque linking it with the 1916 Rising has recently been placed on the outside wall). Perhaps for this reason there appears to be little public concern over its present state and future survival. Yet in a town which retains precious few historic buildings of any merit, this is an important link to the past and to the generous philanthropists who funded its construction and medical endeavours. Is it enough to believe we should only preserve our architectural heritage provided there is a link, however putative or fanciful, to dead patriots (and even that has too often proven an insufficient safeguard)? Should we not value a building on its own merits, whether as a tangible part of our history, as an important legacy to pass on to the next generation or even – heretical thought – due to inherent aesthetic excellence? Both the Glasthule schoolhouse and the County Infirmary in Navan, together with thousands of other properties across the country, need to be considered on all these terms and not just because someone now held in esteem may or may not once have crossed their thresholds.

Infirmary 2

The Speaker and His Wife


In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.


On with the Dance

How fitting that this week’s funeral of Captain Sir John Leslie, otherwise universally known as Jack, should have taken place in glorious sunshine, the same kind he shed on so many peoples’ lives. Jack died last Monday just eight months shy of reaching his centenary, having been born in December 1916. Over the course of ten decades he witnessed many changes in the world but somehow still behaved as though it was much the same as that into which he had emerged: I remember on the first occasion we met our conversation turned to the Romanian author Princess Marthe Bibesco, and he produced a book she had given and signed to him. His own memoirs, Never a Dull Moment, written ten years ago are full of entertaining reminiscences and suggest a personal history untouched by setbacks or misfortune. Of course this was not the case, as evidenced by Jack’s experience during the Second World War. Commissioned in the Irish Guards, he and his platoon crossed to France in May 1940 where they were almost immediately captured by the German army: Jack spent the next five years in a Bavarian Prisoner of War camp with all its attendant privations.
Although he returned to Ireland on his release and was expected to assume responsibility for Castle Leslie, within a few years Jack left again, eventually settling in Rome where he occupied a small palazzo in the Trastevere district, as well as embarking on the restoration of an ancient monastery outside the city, the Badia di San Sebastiano di Alatri. Some twenty years ago he finally came back to Castle Leslie, by this time in the care of his niece Sammy Leslie, and settled down as resident guide and anecdotalist, always delighted to engage with visitors and explain the history of his family and their property.
In later years Jack also became well-known for his fondness for nightclubs where he would energetically dance to what he liked to call ‘boom boom’ music. I accompanied him on these expeditions more than once, initially in the self-appointed role of chaperone. However, like everyone else I discovered he was invariably received with wild enthusiasm, and would soon be surrounded by a coterie of solicitous admirers, on average only a quarter of his age. But there were other instances, notably a tea held in his honour some years ago at Bellamont Forest, where Jack demonstrated older forms of dancing: supported by a sixteen-piece band, that afternoon he gave a lively demonstration of the Black Bottom. So one likes to remember him, light of heart and light of foot. Wherever you may now be Jack: on with the dance.


For the Day That’s In It

In the grounds of Down Cathedral on the Hill of Down is this slab of Mourne granite believed to mark the spot where St Patrick was brought for burial following his death on this day in either 461AD or perhaps in 493; there appears to be no universal agreement on the year. The Irish Aesthete wishes all friends and followers a happy St Patrick’s Day.

The Peripatetic Cleric

pococke 1
The above oil, painted in Constantinople in 1740 by Jean-Étienne Liotard, features in a marvellous exhibition devoted to the Franco-Swiss artist running until the end of the present month at the Royal Academy, London. The sitter was the Anglican clergyman Richard Pococke, then on an extended Grand Tour lasting more than eight years. Pococke’s travels took him not only around Europe but also to Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon & Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece: fortunately his full correspondence (predominantly letters sent to his mother, always addressed as ‘Honoured Madam’) from this period has been edited and published in three volumes in recent years by Dr Rachel Finnegan and is much recommended. From these we learn of Pococke’s meetings in 1740 with Liotard who was then resident in Constantinople, hence in this picture Pococke is represented in oriental costume (a fashion which the artist did much to promote when he returned to Europe). From 1747 onwards Pococke spent increasing periods of time in Ireland where his restless spirit directed him on several journeys around the country: his published tour of 1752 is also compelling reading. He was appointed Bishop of Ossory in 1756 and then of Meath in 1765 but died only a matter of months after assuming the latter office. His memorial in the graveyard of Ardbraccan, County Meath can be seen below. As mentioned, the Liotard exhibition is unquestionably worth seeing, not least for its strong Irish interest since he had many patrons in this country including Simon Luttrell, first Earl of Carhampton, the Earl of Clanbrassil and above all William Ponsonby, second Earl of Bessborough who had first invited Liotard to accompany him to Constantinople.

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May These Characters Remain, When All is Ruin Once Again*

Thoor Ballylee, County Galway is a 15th/16th century tower house originally built by the de Burgo family but now best known as the former property of poet William Butler Yeats who acquired it a century ago and subsequently undertook a restoration of the old building. Opened to the public in 1965, the tower closed seven years ago after being flooded by adjacent Streamstown river. It might have remained shut thereafter but for the endeavours of a local group, the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society, which tirelessly worked for the building’s refurbishment in time for last year’s 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. These pictures were taken two months ago, since when the tower – like so much of the surrounding country – has once more been subjected to severe flooding. However, according to the society’s website (http://yeatsthoorballylee.org) determined efforts are being made to ensure it will reopen later in the spring: an example of local, private initiative that deserves to be applauded and emulated elsewhere.

*A plaque on the castle’s wall contains the following text: ‘I the poet William Yeats/With old millboards and sea-green slates/And smithy work from the Gort forge/Restored this tower for my wife George./And may these characters remain/When all is ruin once again.’


An Active Afterlife

Jeremy 1
The west entrance to the 12th century church at Ullard, County Kilkenny, its much-weathered Romanesque doorway featuring the outline of human and animal heads. It was directly facing this entrance that Jeremy Williams was interred last Saturday following a service at nearby Duiske Abbey. Everyone interested in Ireland’s built heritage will have known Jeremy, architect, author and superlative draughtsman, a constant presence at meetings, outings and social gatherings. Always full of enthusiasm, always embarking on a fresh project, always determinedly encouraging others to share his current passion, there were no houses in Ireland where he was not assured of a welcome: and little of the country’s architectural patrimony that he hadn’t nimbly recorded with his pen. His sudden death on Christmas Eve has left a void impossible to fill. Impossible also to imagine Jeremy resting in peace: one imagines that already he is persuading the Almighty to cast an eye over freshly-drafted plans for the refurbishment of Heaven’s Gates.

Jeremy 2