The Village at Lyons, County Kildare is often described as a restoration but to be frank it is more a recreation. By the time the late Tony Ryan bought the estate in 1996, the buildings beside the Grand Canal, which had once included a forge, mill and dwelling houses, were in a state of almost total ruin. Therefore the work undertaken here in the years prior to his death in 2007 involved a great deal of architectural salvage, much of it brought from France, although some Irish elements were incorporated such as a mid-19th century conservatory designed by Richard Turner, originally constructed for Ballynegall, County Westmeath. Today the place primarily operates as a wedding venue, providing an alluring stage set for photographs but bearing little resemblance to what originally stood here.
As anyone who has watched Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls will be aware, the city above the river Foyle has had a tumultuous history in recent decades. However, as the television series demonstrated, despite multiple and often appalling tragedies, both Derry and her people have survived with their distinctive character intact. The core of the city is defined by her walls, built 1613-19 by the Honorable The Irish Society, a consortium of London livery companies given responsibility for this part of the country by the English government in the aftermath of the Nine Years War; hence the name Londonderry. Although besieged on a number of occasions, most notably in 1689, Derry’s walls were never breached nor were they demolished, as tended to be the case throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries when such defences were deemed no longer necessary. As a result, Derry is the only intact walled urban settlement in Ireland. The walls run approximately one mile in circumference and, depending on the terrain beyond, vary between 12 and 26 feet in height. Today in state care, a walkway runs along the walls which project out at eight points for bastions, platforms on which cannons were placed: that shown immediately above is one of a pair made in 1642, this one provided by London’s Fishmongers’ Company and nicknamed Roaring Meg.
Derry enjoyed great prosperity during the 18th and 19th centuries. The port flourished, and the city also became one of the centres for industry, particularly shirt making; at its height some 18,000 people – predominantly women – were employed in this sector. Evidence of the city’s wealth throughout the period can be seen in the many houses then built, many of which survive. The two above are 19 and 20 Magazine Street, so named because the former stands on the site of what was once a gunpowder store, or magazine. The house dates from c.1840 and is of five bays and three storeys, although the ground floor breaks with the upper levels by being of only four bays, with the doorcase off-centre. Since the street slopes, the latter is approached by a short flight of stone steps, and is set inside a shallow arch, the door flanked by Ionic columns and pilasters and below a wide fanlight, its glazing bars taking the form of arrows. The house’s immediate neighbour, No.20, although smaller (just two bays) was evidently built at the same time.
The houses on Magazine Street look to be in good condition, but the same cannot be said for a number of properties on Pump Street, which runs just below St Columb’s Cathedral; the street’s name derives from the town water pump once located here. A substantial stretch of the side, Nos. 10-14 is taken up by a three-storey, seven bay building of red brick. It dates from 1780 when opened as the King’s Arms, or County, Hotel but in 184o the building was purchased on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishop and eight years later became the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, remaining in this order’s hands until some 15 years ago when sold. Along with its immediate neighbour No.16 (also once part of the convent complex) it now stands empty and looks to be in poor condition. The doorcase is similar to that at 19 Magazine Street, approached by a flight of steps, with the space usually reserved for side lights filled with wood panelling, although in this case the order used for the door is Doric rather than Ionic. A second, plainer door to the right marks what would have been the hotel’s carriage entrance. Other buildings along Pump Street look similarly vulnerable to dilapidation, not least 26-28 which greet all visitors leaving the grounds of St Columb’s Cathedral.
‘The Belfast Bank of 1853 is one of Charles Lanyon’s most confident Renaissance Designs, high and massy like a Genoese palazzo, only three windows wide and three storeys high but big in scale with a rusticated central archway surmounted by a Corinthian aedicule so large that it erupts into the attic window of the floor above, like Gibbs’s pediment at King’s College, Cambridge.’ (from The Buildings of Ireland: North West Ulster by Alistair Rowan, 1979). Shipquay Street is one of Derry’s most important thoroughfares, providing access into the walled city from the banks of the Foyle. The former Belfast Bank stands immediately inside the gates and is likely to be one of the first buildings seen by anyone entering Derry. The Foyle Civic Trust’s Living City Project reported it vacant in 2005 and 15 years later nothing seems to have changed.
Derry is a city with an enviably rich architectural heritage, but one which of late appears to have been badly neglected. In the Diamond, for example, which stands at the centre of the city, is the now-shuttered Austin’s, which until its sudden closure in March 2016 could claim to be the world’s oldest department store. The building on the site, an example of Edwardian baroque at its most exuberant, now looks in poor repair, and despite a restoration application being lodged in April 2017, nothing seems to have happened here. A similar tale can be told across the historic core with many buildings standing empty and in poor condition. But Derry Girls has shown the resilience of the city, and at the start of a new decade one must hope that the years ahead will bring fresh opportunities for improvement to conditions here. Below are photographs of either side of Bishop’s Gate, a triumphal arch erected in 1789 to commemorate the centenary of the city’s siege. Designed by Dublin-based architect Henry Aaron Baker and faced with ashlar Dungiven sandstone, it features panels containing martial trophies and, in the keystones, faces of river gods: that facing outwards represents the Foyle, the inwards the Boyne. Anyone familiar with the Custom House in Dublin will recognise these, as in both instances they were carved by Edward Smyth.
The bungalow-strewn village of Stratford on Slaney, County Wicklow looks as though it could be a modern suburb almost anywhere. However a handful of houses indicate the place has an older pedigree. The name derives from founder Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough whose architectural ambitions have been discussed here before (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017). He developed the village during the last quarter of the 18th century, intending it to be a centre for the textile industry, specifically cotton and printing works. At its height in the 1830s, Stratford on Slaney contained 104 houses (and thirteen public houses) with a population of 2,833 people, 1,00o of them employed in the fabric factory. Lord Aldborough built places of worship for Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, a dispensary and several shops. The famine and its attendant woes in the following decade put an end to the business, and so to Stratford where the factory closed and people moved away: in the census of 2016, the village had a population of just 241 persons. These few houses, dating from c.1840 are all that remain of Lord Aldborough’s ambitions.
In 1837 Samuel Lewis described Cloghan, County Offaly as a ‘village and post-town’ containing 84 dwellings and 460 inhabitants. Evidently some of the latter enjoyed prosperity because the dwellings they occupied were substantial, not least one on Hill Street which has this handsome doorcase. The five-bay property is believed to date from around 1820, a time when the country experienced greater affluence than would be the case just a couple of decades later, and which led to something of a building boom. Another house on nearby Castle Street was constructed during the same period and features a similar, albeit slightly plainer, doorcase.
As its name indicates, the little coastal village of Castletownshend, County Cork grew up around a castle occupied from c.1665 onwards by Richard Townsend, and still in the ownership of his descendants. Castletownshend offers an example of how a small urban settlement can retain its character and charm, and thereby attract visitors who during the summer months throng the place. Located on a small side-street rather grandly called The Mall, the mid-18th century house above has retained much of its original appearance, as is the case for the majority of other properties in the village. A number have benefitted from more recent sympathetic owners such as the house below: dating from the 1880s, prior to independence it was occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Castletownshend is a model of how to get it right.
A rare survivor in an Irish country town: an 18th century shopfront in Fethard, County Tipperary. Dating from c.1770, it features handsome fluted columns with Corinthian capitals on either side of the main windows at the centre of which is the shop entrance with double doors. A separate entrance to the right provides access to the upper storeys. Sadly the building is now disused and being permitted to fall into irreparable disrepair, a great loss to the architectural heritage of the town, and indeed the country.
Handsome doorcases such as this testify to the prosperity of Clones, County Monaghan in the 18th century when it became a market town benefitting from the growth of the linen industry. A series of large properties were built around The Diamond, a triangular open area to the immediate south of the monastery said to have been founded here in the early sixth century by St Tigernach and while some have been refaced, and others demolished, enough survive to give an idea of how Clones might have looked prior to suffering the same, more recent decline as so many other regional urban centres in Ireland.
Further instances of the near-ubiquitous urban dereliction now found in Ireland: houses close to the central square of Johnstown, County Kilkenny, a town laid out in the 18th century by the Hely family who lived nearby in Foulkscourt House. The latter has since been lost, although some of the associated buildings survive. However, it looks like these little properties will not last much longer.
Looking distinctly down-at-heel, the once-dapper Naper Arms Hotel which occupies a prominent site on The Square in Oldcastle, County Meath. Built in the mid-19th century when the town enjoyed commercial prosperity, the building now offers vivid evidence of the way in which Ireland’s smaller urban centres are embarked on what seems to be irreversible decline. If national and local government are serious about attempting to halt the phenomenon – a new €60 million initiative called ‘Action Plan for Rural Ireland’ was announced on Monday – a good place to start would be obliging owners to give them purpose, on the premise of ‘use it or lose it.’ Otherwise one suspects little will change…
Once the tallest building in Wexford town, here is the tower that stands at the centre of the collegiate range of St Peter’s, former seminary for the diocese of Ferns. With corner turrests and mullioned windows, the five-storey block was designed c.1832 by a local architect, Richard Pierce, today better remembered for the town’s ‘twin churches’ of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception which have identical spires. Pierce was clerk of works in Ireland for Augustus Welby Pugin (responsible for the chapel built immediately adjacent to the range) and his own work shows the influence of the latter. The tower of St Peter’s is particularly notable for its splendid Perpendicular tracery window which lights the internal staircase.