This handsome early 19th century residence stands at one end of Barrack Street in Killala, County Mayo. Of three bays and two storeys, for a period during the pre-Independence period it provided accommodation for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary but of late has stood empty and falling into dereliction, like so many other historic houses in Irish regional towns (further down the same street, there is the shell of what must once have been an equally fine property).
A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere.
Last January Drogheda, County Louth was named one of the dirtiest towns in Ireland in the annual Irish Business Against Litter report – placed 39 out of 40 locations surveyed, only Dublin’s north inner city was judged to be even filthier. Although obviously not an achievement worth celebrating, this information will come as no surprise to anyone who has been visiting Drogheda over recent years and watched the place sink further and further into degradation. In 1993, the Pevsner Guide to this part of the country, written by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey, observed that ‘As is too often the case, the 20th century has not been kind to Drogheda. However, the problems of the town lie not so much in the lack of quality in its new architecture as in the neglect and lack of concern for its historic buildings.’ That was almost 30 years ago: the situation has only grown worse over the intervening decades.
In contrast to its shameful present, Drogheda has a proud past: at the end of the 17th century, one visitor thought it a handsome, clean town ‘and the best I have seen in Ireland.’ Its location at the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea (the name Drogheda derives from Droichead Átha, meaning Bridge of the Ford) indicates strategic importance and from the Viking period onwards there was an important settlement here. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, lived here rather than in his titular seat, and six national parliaments were convened in the town between 1441 and 1494. A terrible disaster befell Drogheda in 1649 when it was captured and ransacked by members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the beginning of the following century it was once again booming and many of the town’s finest buildings were erected over the next 100 years. Commercial decline had already begun by the middle of the 19th century. When Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term still appropriate 180 years later. Over the past century, with improved transport links, not just the railway but even more the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin, which is less than 35 miles away, has only added to its problems.
There are many reasons why Drogheda should no longer enjoy the same prosperity as was once the case, but no reason whatsoever why the town should have been allowed to become such a sad, neglected, shabby mess. Everywhere one turns, there are empty buildings falling into ruin, historic properties which, in other countries, would be repaired and put back into use. Instead, no apparent effort has been made to preserve Drogheda’s outstanding architectural heritage. What could, for example, be a significant tourist destination – and therefore a source of revenue for the local community – is being wilfully ignored. At the moment, no visitor coming to Ireland could be directed to Drogheda, except to see how not to care for the urban environment. The local authority, Louth County Council, seems supremely indifferent to the condition of the town, showing absolutely no sense of pride in what should be one of the region’s finest assets. If there’s no sense of pride, there’s clearly no sense of shame either. Otherwise this situation would not be allowed to continue. Further words are redundant: the pictures shown today are sufficiently eloquent. Welcome to Drogheda, where the streets have no shame.
The model village of Talbot’s Inch stands above the river Nore to the immediate north of Kilkenny city. The extraordinary development was devised and created by Ellen, dowager Countess of Desart (née Bischoffsheim) who, having failed in efforts to retain possession of her late husband’s home (the now-demolished Desart Court) in 1907 built a new house for herself here called Aut Even (from the Irish áit aoibhinn meaning ‘beautiful place’). The architect responsible was William Alphonsus Scott, his work much inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and one suspects especially that of Voysey. Lady Desart had already employed him to design the 26 houses that comprise Talbot’s Inch, intended to house workers from the Greenvale Woollen Mills and the Kilkenny Woodworkers’ Company, both located across the Nore; in this, she was inspired by her brother-in-law, the Hon Captain Otway Cuffe, President of the local branch of the Gaelic League. Occupying two sides of a communal green and comprising either semi-detached pairs or short terraces, none of the buildings is identical but they share many characteristics, such as dormer attic windows set in steeply pitched sprocketed roofs, the use of decorative brickwork panels and chevron-detailed chimneystacks. Not far away – see below – is Tigh-na-Cairde (now called Oak Lodge) also by Scott and completed in 1907 for the Woollen Mills manager. Although there have been a few interventions on the site (and there is currently a planning application for more houses to be constructed at one end of the green), Talbot’s Inch survives reasonably intact, a monument to Ellen Desart’s philanthropy: she would later go on to become a Senator in the first Seanad Éireann, (the first Jewish person to do so) and would also succeed Captain Cuffe as president of the Kilkenny branch of the Gaelic League.
Today the word ‘mall’ is usually applied to shopping centres with pretensions to grandeur, but historically malls were outdoor urban spaces in which the local population would stroll and socialise. No doubt originally The Mall in Wicklow town was intended to perform just such a function. Situated on ground steeply rising above the point where the Vartry river flows into the Irish Sea ,and therefore overlooking the harbour, The Mall is separated from Main Street immediately below by a retaining wall built of local granite and dating from c.1875. A double flight of steps links the two areas and to go from one to the other pedestrians pass under a wrought-iron arch centred on a glazed lantern. There ends whatever charm The Mall has today, since much of it is now a muddle of traffic congestion and neglected buildings, not least the former Bayview Hotel which occupies a particularly prominent spot. Originally constructed as a private residence around 1810 and called Bellevue, the property became a library in 1925 and later an hotel. Before the economic recession, there had been plans that it form part of a shopping centre complex but this never happened and it has been in decline since then. A year ago, the building, along with its neighbours, was sold for €903,000. One must hope the new owners have plans to improve the prospects not just of this site but the entire area. A stroll along The Mall ought to be a pleasure.
In the centre of Slane, County Meath stands the Square, which is actually an octagon and was laid out by the Conyngham family in the mid-18th century. Four of the sides are occupied by almost identical houses dating from c.1760, all being of three bays and three storeys over basement and fronted in the same limestone, with brick chimneystacks at either gable and hipped roof. Only the doorcases display modest differences in design, that above (on the north-east corner) featuring engaged columns while that below (south-east) corner has pilasters. The latter house is currently for sale.
Thanks to the presence of the Trench family at Garbally on the edge of the town, the historic centre of Ballinasloe, County Galway has handsomestreets lined with fine stone buildings dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Alas, many of them have fallen into poor condition, such as this dwelling on the corner of Duggan Avenue and Church Hill (and therefore at a crucial space facing the St Joseph’s Church of Ireland). Dating from c.1810, more than a decade ago it was cruelly, and crudely, stripped of the original render during an apparent renovation scheme long since abandoned. The building is notable for its carved limestone doorcase and remains of a leaded fanlight. Alas its immediate neighbour is in little better condition and the house directly opposite retains only its ground floor walls. Disappointing to see what could be an enchanting spot in the town allowed to remain in such neglect.
For many centuries Kells, County Meath – like Kells, County Kilkenny – was the location of a substantial religious establishment, but in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Meath town came under the control of the Taylour family, who lived close by at Headfort (and eventually became Marquesses of Headfort). Not surprisingly therefore, the focal point here, a wide thoroughfare has the name of Headfort Place and is lined with a sequence of handsome and substantial houses, evidence of the area’s prosperity in the late 18th/early 19th century. A short terrace of three-bay properties, constructed c.1780 and given identical pedimented limestone doorcases, occupies a stretch of the north side of Headfort Place. These buildings are all in excellent condition, and offer a contrast to what can be seen on the other side of the street. Here a detached house of slightly later date (note its starkly plain limestone doorcase) stands empty and in poor condition.
Kilbeggan, County Westmeath is barely five miles west of Tyrellspass, but the two places couldn’t be more different in character. Both have a crescent but that in Kilbeggan occupies one portion of a bleak traffic roundabout and has suffered badly from neglect and mistreatment. The building dates from c.1830 when constructed in the then-popular Tudor-Gothic style as an hotel, indicating the prosperity of the period and the amount of traffic then passing through the village. The gables on the left-hand portion have been removed, as have the cut-limestone hooded doorcases, replaced by a brutish cement-rendered opening that makes nonsense of the composition. Alas, elsewhere things don’t get much better, with many buildings standing empty and neglected. Typical in this respect is the former Bank of Ireland, dating from c.1890, which closed early in the present century and presents a forlorn face on Market Square.
In Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath the Crescent looks as though it could provide the setting for a novel by the likes of Mrs Gaskell. This part of the village was mostly laid out during the second decade of the 19th century, thanks to the endeavours of Jane, second Countess of Belvedere, whose elderly husband died in 1814, and to whom she erected a monument inside the church of St Sinian (although just a year later she married again). Around the open green are a number of domestic residences as well as a former single storey schoolhouse and a two-storey former courthouse. All are well maintained, although some of the fenestration shows evidence of the insidious uPVC virus (when will local authorities take steps to halt the spread of this blight across our architectural heritage?). On the outskirts of the village is a cluster of buildings constructed in the early 1840s as a girl’s orphanage thanks to a bequest left by the countess on her death the previous decade. In the Tudor-Gothic style, these were restored by the county council some years ago and now serve as housing scheme.