A Pioneer Passes


As many readers will be aware, Desmond Guinness, the pioneer of architectural conservation in Ireland. died last Thursday, at the age of 88. Led by Ireland’s President, Michael D Higgins, many tributes have quite correctly been paid to Desmond and his decades-long defence of the country’s architectural heritage. So, it is easy to forget that for much of that time, he and his supporters received not encomiums but abuse, not praise but criticism, not support but hostility. And yet he continued on his crusade, one which has left this country and its citizens considerably richer than would otherwise be the case.
Although a member of the Irish Guinness family, Desmond spent the greater part of his life in England until, following his marriage to Hermione Marie-Gabrielle von Urach – universally known as Mariga – he moved with her to Ireland and they began looking for somewhere to make their home. It was while engaged in this quest and travelling about the country that the couple became aware of how many old buildings of note in Ireland were being either neglected or demolished. The 1950s were an especially lean era here and, understandably, the losses to her architectural heritage provoked little, if any, protest or regret among the greater part of the Ireland’s impoverished population. Most of them had other, more immediate, concerns than what happened to properties with which they felt no great affinity; in the popular mind, historic houses were associated with the old regime. Inspecting many sites over a couple of years had the effect of refining Desmond and Mariga’s already intuitive aesthetic sensibilities, and it made them acutely aware of just how many 18th and 19th century buildings around the country were at risk of being lost forever. However, it was the demolition of Georgian buildings in Dublin rather than the disappearance of another country house that inspired the couple to establish the Irish Georgian Society in 1958. On their visits to the capital from 1956 onwards, the Guinnesses had seen Dublin Corporation workers clear away magnificent mansions on Lower Dominick Street and Hardwicke Place and replacing them with blocks of local authority flats. Most of these old properties had long ago deteriorated into squalid tenements; their loss, though unwelcome, was comprehensible. But in July 1957 the government authorised the demolition of two 18th century houses on Kildare Place, only a matter of yards from the Dail in Leinster House. No. 2 Kildare Place had been designed by Richard Castle and executed after his death in 1751 by John Ensor; its neighbour was of a slightly later date. Both houses were in excellent condition and there was no reason for their destruction other than an unwillingness on the part of the State to maintain the buildings. This barbarous act on the part of government spurred Desmond and Mariga into direct action, and the Irish Georgian Society was born.



Prior to the establishment of the Irish Georgian Society there had been no organization, or individuals, taking up the cudgels on behalf of the country’s historic properties. Building up credibility was a long and arduous process: during the first decades of its existence the Society – and its founders – had to fight many battles. Some of these were won, others lost. But the biggest battle was against ignorance and indifference: these twin demons had to be faced down over and over again. Desmond experienced much personal hostility, often from those in positions of power who did not like their decisions being called into question. However, he remained resolute in his enterprise, and never wavered in his determination to conserve the architectural legacy left by earlier generations and to encourage wider appreciation of this legacy. The most important example of his industry and imagination can be seen at Castletown, County Kildare. This important building, the first great Palladian house in Ireland dating from the early 18th century, was at risk of being lost forever when Desmond stepped in and found the necessary funds to save the property. Today Castletown is owned by the Irish State and is rightly lauded as a splendid example of Irish design and craftsmanship. But if it had not been for Desmond’s brave initiative, and then the restoration work that he and Mariga oversaw on the house – helped by the many volunteers they inspired – Castletown would now be nothing more than a handful of old black and white photographs. There are many, many other instances of bold decisions being taken by Desmond leading to the survival of important properties throughout the country. It is worth noting that from the mid-1960s onwards, he regularly visited the United States where his mission, and that of the Irish Georgian Society, was better received and supported than was the case back home. The IGS, like many of the buildings it championed, would not be here still were it not for American friends.


A brief personal note. I first met Desmond Guinness when an undergraduate, but only in passing. In the early 1980s and by then living in the Damer House in County Tipperary (an early 18th century house which the Irish Georgian Society had saved from demolition), I met him again and over the next 35 years had the opportunity to come to know him well. Desmond was a man blessed with many advantages; he was exceptionally handsome (those famous pale blue eyes) and possessed an abundance of personal charm, well able to captivate whoever was in his company. He had a deliciously mellifluous voice and engaging manner, which he put to excellent effect on his fund-raising visits to the United States; even today there are elderly American women who shyly blush when they recall being in his presence over half a century ago. In his heyday, he was a tireless advocate, running the society from a room in his County Kildare home, Leixlip Castle where – when not working elsewhere for the society – he was an unfailingly generous host with flawless manners. Leixlip Castle was always the most hospitable of houses, where Desmond was at his easiest and most charming, ensuring it was always a delight to be in his company. There are a great many people, myself included, who are grateful to have benefited from his unflagging kindness and support.
Unlike most countries, Ireland has no official honours system. During his lifetime, Desmond never received the acknowledgement that he deserved for his pioneering work in the area of architectural conservation. Now that he is dead, the best way the Irish state could honour his legacy is by giving more attention to our country’s historic buildings. Otherwise, like Desmond, it will be too late to give them the attention they merit.

 

Two Empty Shells


Geoffrey Keating (in Irish Seathrún Céitinn) is thought to have been born c.1569 in County Tipperary; for a long time Burgess was believed his birthplace, but more recently an argument has been advanced for Moorstown Castle, a tower house then occupied by the Keating family. In 1603 he sailed for France where he attended the recently-founded Irish College in Bordeaux. On finishing his studies and being an ordained priest, he returned to Ireland where he took up clerical duties in a parish near Cahir. Over the next twenty years he wrote his major work, completed around 1634, Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland, commonly known as The History of Ireland). Written in Irish, this traced the evolution of Keating’s native country from the creation of the world until the arrival of the Anglo-Normans (who were among the author’s own forebears). The manuscript, of which the first version was only published in English in 1723 (and the full text in Irish only at the start of the last century) drew on a wide variety of sources, some of which no longer exist and others of which can be deemed pseudo-historical. Much of the content is therefore open to revision. However, as Bernadette Cunningham wrote in 2001, during a time of enormous social upheaval and political unrest, ‘Keating’s portrayal of Ireland as an ancient and worthy kingdom had enormous attractions for his contemporaries. It told the story of the kingdom of Ireland at a time when the idea of an Irish kingdom mattered a great deal to contemporaries. In consequence, though it may tell us relatively little about early Irish history that cannot be gleaned from other sources, it reveals a great deal about Keating’s own seventeenth-century world.’




Little is known about Keating’s life, or even when and where he died. With regard to the latter, a plaque above the doorcase of a mortuary chapel at Tubrid, County Tipperary carries the following inscription in Latin: ‘Orate Pro Aiabs P. Eugenu: Duhy Vic de Tybrud: et D: Doct Galf: Keating huis Sacelli Fundatoru: necno et pro oibs alusta sacerd. quam laicis quoru corpa in eod: jacet sa A Dom 1644.’ (Pray for the souls of Father Eugenius Duhy, Vicar of Tybrud, and of Geoffrey Keating, D.D., Founders of this Chapel ; and also for all others, both Priests and Laics whose bodies lie in the same chapel. In the year of our Lord 1644.) Accordingly, we know he was dead by this time but the exact date and death remain a mystery. Now roofless and in one corner of a substantial graveyard, the chapel still thanks to the Roman Catholic priest and historian Patrick Power who in the early years of the last century championed the memory of Keating, and arranged to have steel rods inserted into the building to ensure its walls did not collapse.




To the immediate north of the chapel at Tubrid stand the remains of another building, St John’s a former Church of Ireland church thought to have been built on the site of an older place of worship: he buttressed walls of the nave suggest these might even have been retained from the earlier building. Turrets with conical caps stand at each corner of the main body of the church, while the tower has four capped octagonal towers. Many sources (such as http://www.buildingsofireland.ie) give a date of 1819-20 for the church’s construction, meaning it comes from the period when the Board of First Fruits was at its most active. However, the Representative Church Body Library (in effect the archives for the Church of Ireland) holds a number of drawings of the building signed by James Pain and dated 1835: these show exterior and interior ground plans and elevations. In 1823 Pain had been appointed architect to the Board of First Fruits for Munster (responsible for all churches and glebe houses in the province) and he continued to work for the board and its successor, the Ecclesiastical Commission, until at least 1843. Therefore one may assume the church was designed by his office and is later than the date usually given. (It is not listed in David Lee’s 2005 monograph on the architect, but on the other hand the author advises that not all churches attributable to Pain are listed in the relevant appendix and recommends consultation of the RCB Library archives). Drawings of the same church also survive from the office of Welland & Gillespie, architects to the Ecclesiastical Commission from 1860 until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland ten years later, but whether these plans were executed or not is unclear. St John’s, Tubrid ceased to be used for services in 1919 and, like its older neighbor, now stands a roofless shell.

A Heroine’s Anniversary


Five years ago, the Irish Aesthete featured a tribute to the late Mariga Guinness, co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society; for anyone not familiar with her history, please see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/05/05/marvellous-mariga. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Mariga’s death at the horribly early age of 56, and so it is opportune to remember her again and to celebrate all that she did for her adopted country of Ireland. An inspiration to so many people during her lifetime, she deserves to be recalled and celebrated as a pioneer in the still-ongoing battle to save our architectural heritage.

The Hiberno-Italian Link


Further to Monday’s post about Drumcondra House, Dublin, here are portraits of the two men discussed. Above is the funerary monument to Marmaduke Coghill erected in the adjacent church by the deceased’s sister Mary. It was carved by (and bears the signature of) the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers who was based in London: this work seems to have been his most important Irish commission, aside from a series of fourteen busts which can be seen in the Long Room of the Old Library, Trinity College Dublin. Clearly proud of her sibling, Mary Coghill made sure his extensive list of achievements and virtues were recorded on the substantial base below the central figure. Meanwhile in the entrance hall of Castletown, County Kildare can be seen this portrait of the Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei, responsible for the initial design of the house, and perhaps of Drumcondra House too. Painted by Giuseppe Berti in 1735, it shows Galilei seated before an open window through which can be seen the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano which he had designed three years earlier: plans for it can also be seen below his left hand.

Down Memory Lane


For Irish readers: At 9.35 this evening, Wednesday 5th September, there will be a screening on RTE One television of Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s drama-documentary Citizen Lane. Telling the story of art dealer, collector and philanthropist Sir Hugh Lane, the film is a mixture of dramatized excerpts from the subject’s life and interviews with contemporary contributors, including the Irish Aesthete.
For all readers: My biography of Sir Hugh Lane, out of print for more than a decade, has just been republished – with a new Afterword – by Lilliput Press and is now widely available.

A Lakeside Lament

 

The shore of Lough Tay, County Wicklow into which the ashes of the Hon Garech Browne were committed yesterday in the company of family and friends. The devoted custodian of the Luggala estate for half a century, his generous cultural patronage, not least through the creation of Claddagh Records, were deservedly eulogised during the afternoon in words and music alike. While Garech has gone, he leaves rich memories and a legacy certain to last as long as water laps on Lough Tay’s shore.

An Irish Emigrant

Taking advantage in a respite of hostilities between Britain and France thanks to the Peace of Amiens, in September 1802 a Cork Quaker merchant called Cooper Penrose travelled to Paris where he sat for Jacques-Louis David. The artist had written beforehand, ‘Mr Penrose can have complete trust in me, I will paint his portrait for him for two hundred gold louis. I will represent him in a manner worthy of both of us. This picture will be a monument that will testify to Ireland the virtues of a good father and the talents of the painter who will have rendered them…’ Penrose subsequently brought the picture back to his native city where until around 1947 it hung in the family house, Woodhill (since demolished). Turning up with Wildenstein & Co. in New York in 1953, it was acquired by the Putnam Foundation and is now one of the glories of the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, California. Another emigrant destined never to return to these shores…

Pious Liberality


The funerary monument of John Evans-Freke, sixth Baron Carbery, located inside the cathedral church of St Fachtna, Rosscarbery, Co. Cork . The monument is in two parts, one being this life-size marble statue of the deceased dressed in doublet and hose. Carved by Belgian sculptor Guillaume Geefs, the figure is complemented by a wall monument featuring an angel ready with his trumpet to summon the peer (whose coat of arms can also be seen) at Last Judgement. Below a long encomium assures readers that Lord Carbery’s ‘active usefulness and pious liberality are attested by this church which was built through his exertions.’ The church in question is that at Rathbarry, formerly part of the Castlefreke estate. Now a ruin, it closed in 1927, at which date the monument was moved to its present site.

A Most Happy – and Narrow – Escape


‘We have had a most happy – and narrow escape [from] having the whole house burned – Most fortunately the fire broke out by day – if it had been in the night, nothing could have saved us – and nothing would have saved us either by day or night but the extraordinary courage, zeal, activity, steadiness & obedience of the people who came to our assistance – 30 men & boys who went on unremittingly for above 3 hours from 7 o’clock in the morning till half after 10 carrying water up, up, up ladders & staircase & pouring continually, continually down the chimney till at last the fire was got under and extinguished – the total extinction & complete safety was not effected till half after seven in the evening…
Lovell & I first met in the study, he carrying the tin box with the title deeds – I undertook the carrying out of all the papers with 2 men he left me – Mrs Smith’s son and Dargan – most steady they were – in less than an hour’s time they had carried out all the presses of leases, etc, boxes of surveys & every rent book – The top of Mr Hind’s [the land agent] in which were his accounts & I know not what & it was impossible to open the locks –
First I tried to get the things out of the study window – impossible opening from top – too high up – weight of presses – breadth of table – imposs – The men actually carried the who alcove mentioned through the hall – down the stairs – while every instant bucket men were ascending – how it was done Heaven knows – Honora and I carried out all my papers & Lovell’s – and my mother’s – letters – (pigeon holes) money accounts, books all laid on the grass before library window –my father’s picture on the veranda – all the library side of the hall pictures, Mr Dat etc.
The quiet at front of house seemed most extraordinary! – as if it knew nothing & nature knew nothing of what was going on – But what is still more extraordinary, my dear Fanny, believe me if you can – I whom you have seen such an egregious coward in small or no danger in a carriage felt all the this time without fear – absolutely as if the magnitude of the danger swallowed up fear – I was absolutely bereft of feeling & could think & did think as coolly as I do now – and more clearly – I cannot understand it but it is a fact…’


Extract from a letter of May 14th 1828 written by Maria Edgeworth to her half-sister Fanny and describing a fire that damaged but did not destroy the family home at Edgeworthstown, County Longford. Dating from 1791 and painted by Mrs Mary Powys the upper picture shows the house as it was after improvements carried out by Richard Lovell Edgeworth. The lower picture shows the same building in the late 1850s, some ten years after Maria Edgeworth’s death. The little bow window to the left gave light to her equally modest bedroom – but it fell off the wall some years later. Thankfully the greater part of the house still stands, although altered to serve as a nursing home. Both images and the letter are included in Maria Edgeworth’s Letters from Ireland most skilfully selected and edited by Valerie Pakenham, and just published by Lilliput Press.

The Passing of a Pioneer


A view of the south front of St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, County Waterford drawn by Jonas Blaymire and engraved by J Haydon in 1739. At that date the building still assumed the appearance given after an extensive programme of restoration work undertaken by Sir William Robinson from 1769 onward. Robinson rightly features prominently in A Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 published in 1981. Sadly its author, Rolf Loeber, who thanks to the Hon Desmond Guinness was able to live in Castletown, County Kildare during the book’s preparation, died in Pittsburgh earlier this week. Although a distinguished professor of psychiatry and psychology, Loeber had a life-long passion for Ireland’s architectural history, first inspired when as a student in Amsterdam in the 1960s he had read a copy of Maurice Craig’s Dublin 1660-1860. Beginning with an article on Irish Country Houses and Castles of the Late Caroline Period: An Unremembered Past Recaptured (Bulletin of the Irish Georgian Society XVI, 1973), he published extensively on the subject, often breaking fresh ground and often in collaboration with his wife Magda (together they produced A Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900 which appeared in 2006). His knowledge and passion will be much missed by everyone interested in Ireland’s built heritage.