A 19th century greenhouse in the gardens of Muckross House, County Kerry. The estate was owned by the Herbert family for several hundred years until indebtedness required its sale in 1899 when bought by Lord Ardilaun (whose wife was related to the former owners). The reason for the Herberts’ financial problems is often said to have been the expense incurred in entertaining Queen Victoria when she stayed with them for a few days in 1861, but this rather seems to be an instance of seeking a scapegoat. Long before Victoria thought of coming to the area, the family had demolished their previous residence and built a large new one, plus spent lavishly on their gardens, including the provision of many greenhouses such as this one, so the suspicion arises that even without a royal visit they would have eventually come a cropper.
Seen in the grounds of St Mary’s, Killarney, County Kerry: the tombstone of William Wadd who, as the carving explains, acted as Surgeon Extraordinary to George IV. Wadd is remembered for being one of the first doctors to advocate a sensible approach to diet, in 1810 publishing his Cursory Remarks on Corpulence which explored the history and causes of obesity, concluding that it was due to ‘an over-indulgence at the table’ (such as that practiced by his royal patient). The work went through four editions, the last appearing in 1829, the year of its author’s death: Wadd had come to Ireland on holiday and was killed instantaneously outside Killarney after leaping from a runaway carriage. Hence his interment at St Mary’s.
St Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, County Kerry was originally designed by Augustus Welby Pugin in 1840, its form a homage both to Ardfert Cathedral, elsewhere in the same county and Salisbury Cathedral. Work paused during the years of the Great Famine, but the building was finished in 1855 under the supervision of James Joseph McCarthy. The cathedral’s superlative mid-19th century Gothic interior survived intact until 1973, when then-Bishop Eamonn Casey commissioned what was called a ‘re-ordering.’ This involved throwing out almost all the decorative features and gutting the space back to bare stone walls. Such an act of desecration, which occurred in other Roman Catholic churches throughout Ireland, was supposedly undertaken in order to comply with new liturgical procedure, but oddly enough the same brutal approach was not undertaken in other countries, where churches were allowed to retain their historical interiors. It deserves to be exposed for what it was: the philistinism of a vainglorious prelate.
The façade of Churchtown, County Kerry. This house replaced nearby Castle Corr (see last Wednesday) as a residence for the McGillycuddy family, and may have been built in part using stone from that now-ruined building. In 1717 Dennis McGillycuddy married Anne Blennerhassett and Churchtown subsequently passed into the possession of her family, remaining with them until the second half of the 19th century when bought by forebears of the present owners (who now offer it as a holiday let). Believed to date from 1740, building is slate-fronted on its southern side and this was also the case with the now-rendered, five-bay façade, plain other than the cut limestone doorcase.
With a backdrop of the McGillycuddy Reeks, evening light shines on what remains of Castle Corr (Cáisleán an Chórraig, the castle of the Marsh), County Kerry. This tower house was built in the middle of the 15th century by the McGillycuddys and, despite the family remaining Roman Catholic and backing James II in the Williamite Wars, they managed to retain the property. Badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, the building was subsequently restored and continued to serve as a residence until the mid-18th century when nearby Churchtown was built. It is said that the latter’s basement storey was constructed of stone taken from Castle Corr, which has long lost its southern side. What survives today stands somewhat incongruously in the middle of a golf course.
A midsummer visit to the cathedral in Ardfert, County Kerry took place on what in Ireland is known as a ‘soft day.’; In other words, it was teeming with rain, which made the experience hard going. A village of some 750 persons, there is some discussion about what are the origins of the name Ardfert. It could mean a place on an eminence, or perhaps Ardfert derives from ‘Ard Ert’, meaning the high place of Ert or Erc, since a 5th century saint called Erc supposedly made this the seat of a bishopric, hard to imagine today in such a small spot. But the size of the cathedral remains testify to Ardfert’s former importance, as do the nearby substantial ruins of the former Franciscan friary (see An Incomplete Story, https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/11/13/ardfert).
One of Ireland’s most famous saints, Brendan is said to have founded a monastery in Ardfert in the 6th century. Believed to have been born about six miles south of here, at the age of 26 Brendan was ordained a priest by the aforementioned Saint Erc. As well as Ardfert, he established monasteries in a number of other locations but most famously his restless spirit is said to have led him, accompanied by 16 followers, across the Atlantic Ocean to the ‘Isle of the Blessed’ (what is today North America): the earliest known account of this epic journey was written around the year 900. Hence the saint is known as Brendan the Voyager. More information on his life and travels can be found in a piece written here four years ago (see The Traveller’s Rest, https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/12/14/clonfert).
Although the present cathedral at Ardfert was begun in the 11th century, the greater part of it dates from the 13th century, with battlements added to the exterior walls two centuries later again. An important surviving feature is the doorway at the west end of the building: it is a fine example of Hiberno-Romanesque decoration, with outward pointing chevrons around the doorcase flanked on either side by paired blind arches in the same style. Similar features can be found in what remains of Temple-na-hoe, a small church to the immediate north-west of the cathedral. Those battlements added in the 15th century indicate how turbulent were the times, and so it remained for almost 200 years. During the Desmond Rebellions of the 1570s and ‘80s, the building was attacked and severely damaged, but appears still to have been used for services. However, in 1641 during the Confederate Wars, the cathedral was gutted by fire and temporarily abandoned. Some thirty years later, the south transept was restored and used by the Church of Ireland congregation for services until 1871 when a new church was built in the village. Ardfert cathedral is now under the care of the Office of Public Works, with the south transept used as a visitor centre and display area for some items found on the site. It also provides welcome shelter on a soft day…
The entrance to Derrynane, County Kerry, ancestral home to Daniel O’Connell. It is interesting to read in Emer Crooke’s recently-published book on how country houses fared during the first decades after Independence* that when O’Connell’s descendants first offered the property to the state in 1945, this was declined. A letter from the Department of Finance written in October of that year argued that ‘in view of the uncertainty as to the purchase price, the capital expenditure involved in putting the house to rights and the large recurring expenditure entailed in maintenance the minister does not favour state acquisition.’ Responsibility for Derrynane was shortly after taken on by a private trust but it soon ran into difficulty and began appealing to the government for funds. When these were not forthcoming, the house was placed on the market but in 1963, after no buyer had been found, the state took on Derrynane which has ever since been managed by the Office of Public Works.
From the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume XXVIII, Part IV (1898) by Francis Joseph Bigger: ‘The ancient church of Kilmakilloge stands on a rocky eminence a little north of Bunaw. Burials have been very numerous in the interior of the church ruins, and many bones and portions of coffins are strewn about. The gravestones clearly denote the overwhelming proportion of O’Sullivan to any other name; and one curious monument to the east of the church bears an inscription worth recording. This monument is a high, square altar-tomb raised on steps and supported on four carved pillars, the intervening spaces being filled with stone panels. On the east end is the following inscription “I H S This Monument contains the Last Remains of the Late McFININ DUFFE He DEPD THIS LIFE THE 1 DAY of SEPT 1809 aged 58 years Pater Patrie.” This McFinin Duffe was an O’Sullivan, and the last of his line.’
The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.
Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.
Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.
‘In the autumn of 1868 the late Lord Lansdowne, accompanied by his uncle, the Hon. James Howard, paid a visit of ceremony to the various Irish estates to which he had recently succeeded. After inspecting his property in other parts of Ireland, he came in the month of October to Kerry, travelling via Cahirciveen and Killarney to Kenmare, and finally to Derreen…It was not long after this that Lord Lansdowne became engaged to Lady Maud Hamilton, youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. He soon determined to make Derreen his summer residence, and came over in 1870 to superintend the necessary alterations. In the following year he spent several months with his wife in their new home. Thenceforward a visit to Derreen became an annual affair, looked forward to with eager anticipation by all concerned. But from 1883 to 1894 he was abroad, first in Canada and afterwards in India, as Viceroy, and he was only able to snatch a few weeks in Kerry in 1888 during his few months at home between the two appointments. During his absence in India the place was let to the late Duke of Leeds, for whom as a gardener, a keen fisherman, and a good shot, it held a strong appeal. Meanwhile the new line from Headford to Kenmare had been completed and the drive of forty miles over the mountains from Killarney was shortened to one of seventeen miles on the flat, while the train service had been improved; after 1895 more frequent visits thus became possible.’
‘Derreen had by this time greatly changed from what it was when [historian James Anthony] Froude spent his “Fortnight in Kerry.” The clearing and planting, which had been systematically carried on for twenty-five years, had borne fruit. The scrub of hollies and brambles with which the ground had been for the most part covered had given place to green lawns and winding paths through groves of bamboos, tree-ferns and shrubs of all kinds. The peat bank, from which McSweeny used to draw his household turf, had become a bog garden, and the existence of the numerous small inclosures which constituted the former farm was only betrayed here and there by traces of a bank or ditch amidst the sub-tropical vegetation. Indeed the principal gardening difficulty in Kerry is the rapidity and luxuriance of growth. Shrubs, which in England would take years to make a show, here under the influence of the Gulf Stream soon develop into trees, and many are to be sacrificed if the rest are to have room. When my father first came over, he put in about a hundred plants of hybrid “arboretum” rhododendrons. They grew to such a size that it became apparent they would exclude all light and air from the narrow paths. One by one, they have almost all had to go; of those remaining there are today one or two specimens quite fifty feet in height.’
‘The year 1903 was made memorable at Derreen by a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Their Majesties made in that summer a tour of Ireland, partly in the Royal Yacht and partly overland. The original intention had been that they should come to Derreen by water from County Clare, but weather conditions made this inadvisable, and the journey was eventually made by motor-car. They arrived on the afternoon of July 31. A Union Jack had been floated on the top of Knockatee and a triumphal arch was erected outside the Derryconnery Gate, where an address of welcome was presented by the assembled tenantry. On the lawn in front of the house the children of Lauragh school had been marshalled and they presented a bouquet to the Queen. Then there was a walk around the gardens where two commemorative bamboos were duly planted in the glade now called “the King’s Oozy”. After tea in the new dining room, which had been added to the house that year, the party went down to the pier, where Queen Alexandra was initiated into the mysteries of prawn fishing. The ground had been lavishly baited in advance and the fishing was such a success, that in spite of the obvious impatience of His Majesty, she could scarcely be persuaded to relinquish her net when the hour came for departure.’