The Speaker and His Wife

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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.

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Outstanding in its Field

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Located in the middle of a field, the now-disused church at Ballynafagh, County Kildare. Built beside the remains of a mediaeval religious site, the building dates from 1831 when constructed with the support of £900 from the Board of First Fruits. It remained in use until 1959 when the last services were held there but retained its roof until as recently as 1985. The windows and doors have since been blocked up to stop access to the interior but the structure remains in good shape, with west and east ends marked by distinctively tall finials (although as can be seen below the top of that on the north-east corner has broken off).

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In Limbo

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Tyrrell is a common Irish surname but as with so many others, its origin is Anglo-Norman. At a date around the 1170s Hugh Tyrel (or Tirrell) came to this country and acquired the Barony of Fertullagh, County Westmeath running to some 39,000 acres, as well as land in Castleknock closer to Dublin. The Tyrrells thereafter flourished, in part because like so many others of their ilk they gradually became integrated with the indigenous population. The best-remembered member of the family is Captain Richard Tyrrell who in July 1597 defeated a superior force of English soldiers at a place in Westmeath thereafter known as Tyrrellspass. The Berminghams likewise were a Norman family, the first of whom Richard de Bermingham came to Ireland in the 1170s. Initially they settled in County Galway but also became established further east. Thomas Bermingham, the last Baron of Athenry and Earl of Louth died without a male heir in 1799 and with his death the main branch came to an end. More than half a century earlier, the Tyrrells and the Berminghams had coincided when in 1735 Walter Bermingham sold Grange Castle, County Kildare to Thomas Tyrrell.

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Today set in the midst of a series of stone enclosures Grange Castle is most likely a 15th century tower house, one of a number of defensive properties built by the Berminghams in this part of the country, not least nearby Carrick Castle, which is earlier in date but now in poorer condition. Grange has survived better no doubt because it remained in use as a domestic residence. In addition, at some date in the late 16th/early 17th century it was modernised, as can be seen by the larger window openings, the tall chimney stacks (indicating an increased number of hearths) and the ornamental crenellations around the roofline. Further improvements appear to have occurred not long after the castle was acquired by the Tyrrells when a single storey house was added to the immediate west. Linked to the castle at the rear, this evidently contained the main reception rooms, with the older section presumably being utilised as sleeping quarters. The main point of access was through the house, via a fine carved limestone doorcase, its pediment containing the Tyrrell coat of arms and their motto Veritas Via Vitae (a variant of Christ’s words in St John’s Gospel, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’).

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Grange Castle remained in the ownership of the Tyrrells until 1988 when responsibility for the mediaeval structure was handed over to the state. However the later house, and surrounding outbuildings remain in the ownership of the family. In the mid-1990s a charitable trust was established to restore the property with the intention that it be opened to the public. Over the course of several years a considerable amount of work was undertaken to improve both house and grounds. However in 2003 this enterprise came to a close and it appears that ever since the place has sat empty, and a prey to vandals. The castle itself is secure, the only access being via a locked door to the rear of the house. The latter however is easily accessed and accordingly has suffered some despoliation. At the same time the damage is not so grave to render the project beyond re-activation, and perhaps this will occur. For the moment Grange Castle appears to be in limbo.

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Crowning Glory

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One of the doors on the north façade of the Market House in Athy, County Kildare. This building is often said to date from the 1730s or early 1740s but may be slightly later since it seems to have been one of the improvements to the town undertaken by its then-owner James FitzGerald, 20th Earl of Kildare (and created first Duke of Leinster in 1766) who only succeeded to his title and family estates, in 1744. Moreover the Market House occupies one end of Emily Square, named after his wife, Lady Emily Lennox, who he married in 1747. As was so often the case, the building had more than one purpose since it also served as courthouse, hence the carved plaque above the door which shows the British crown occupying a position between the scales of justice and resting on a base containing a pike and a sword. Its pair above another door on the same side of the building features a similar design but this time the centre is filled with the harp of Ireland and without any weaponry. Sold by the FitzGeralds to Kildare County Council in 1975 for £9,000, the old Market House is now Athy’s Heritage Centre and Museum.

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A Classic of the Middle Size

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Seen across a field from its former entrance gates, the south front of Ballinderry, County Kildare. Seemingly built around the core of an old tower house, the present property is believed to date from the 1740s when it was constructed for the Tyrell family. Still occupied by their descendants, the building’s relatively plain rendered façade is relieved by a handsome Doric limestone pedimented doorcase approached via a short flight of steps and flanked by sidelights.

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From the Same Hand

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Two County Kildare mid-18th century houses, located less than four miles apart and linked by marriage not long after both were constructed. It is therefore no wonder that they share certain characteristics, not least in the matter of decoration. The elaborate cornice above is found in the drawing room of one house, that below in the dining room of the other. But they clearly come from the same hand and show the inspiration, if not necessarily the involvement, of Robert West who was producing work of this kind during the 1750s/60s.

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Occupational Therapy

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During this post-festive season, when evenings can seem especially long and monotonous, readers might like to consider occupying their time with the creation of a print room. This once-fashionable pursuit, which had its heyday in the second half of the 18th century, subsequently fell out of favour and only one intact example survives in Ireland: that at Castletown, County Kildare. The design and execution of print rooms was customarily left to women, although it evolved from the mostly-male habit of collecting valuable prints and storing these either in a cabinet or within albums. Later on prints might be hung in a chamber designated for the purpose, often kept shrouded in order the work avoided suffering light damage: while cheaper than paintings prints, especially those of larger dimensions could be expensive to produce. However, larger runs of prints in the 18th century, often reproductions of popular works of art, helped to bring down costs and make these pictures accessible to a broader market than had hitherto been the case. Cheaper prices led to greater disposability and the emergence of the print room, a phenomenon effectively unique to Britain and Ireland (although there were some instances of the vogue found in America).

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Located behind the house’s main staircase and part of an enfilade on the ground floor overlooking the garden, Castletown’s Print Room was created in 1768 by Lady Louisa Conolly. She had been collecting pictures for at least the previous six years, and in addition had gained experience through assisting in similar ventures with her sister Emily, Countess of Kildare at nearby Carton and with Lady Clanbrassil at Cypress Grove House, Templeogue, County Dublin. Both these rooms have since been lost. The project was a long time in gestation: in 1762 she wrote to her sister Lady Sarah Bunbury, ‘I always forget to thank you my Dear for the Prints you sent me, I hope you got them of Mrs Regnier, for I have a bill there, the two little ones that you admired so, are the very things I wanted, that of Helen is charming. I have not had time to do my Print room yet.’ It is likely the reason the Print Room took so many years coming into existence is both because the Conollys were preoccupied with other work at Castletown and because Lady Louisa did not want to rush preparing the layout of what is a larger space than that customarily used for such a purpose: the ceiling here, for example, is twenty-five feet high. As a result, an awful lot of prints were needed. As late as February 1768 she was still writing to her sister Lady Sarah, ‘…any time that you choose to go into a print Shop, I should be obliged to you, if you would buy me five or Six large Prints, there are some of Teniers engraved by LeBas, which I am told are larger than the common size, if you meet with any, pray send me a few.’ Working out the design for this room was a complex business, particularly since border frames for each of the frames also had to be prepared, as well as garlands, trophies and other elements of the overall decoration.

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When Lady Louisa finally came to embark on the scheme, the prints were duly cut out and then glued onto lengths of warm off-white painted paper. These in turn were attached to the room’s walls on battens overlaid with cloth. As Ruth Johnstone has noted, in many cases Lady Louisa ‘made editorial decisions based on the outside shapes of images.’ Accordingly she altered the original rectangular format of forty-six images to either an octagonal, oval or circular shape, or to a rectangle with a convex top. Most likely because of the need to create a visual balance based on size and shape there is no overriding theme to the pictures but rather they reflect mid-18th century taste. A handful of images were included for a specific reason. In central position between the two windows, for example, is a print of Van Dyck’s portrait of the children of Charles I, a group including Lady Louisa’s great-grandfather Charles II. In the same position on the opposite wall is a print taken from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Louisa’s sister, the aforementioned Lady Sarah Bunbury (the original painting, incidentally, is now in the collection of Chicago’s Art Institute). Providing a centrepiece on the east and west walls are prints of the era’s most famous actor, David Garrick, and the room also includes a portrait of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, rather surprising since he was a political opponent of Lady Louisa’s brother-in-law Henry Fox, first Baron Holland. Otherwise the sources were diverse, with a fondness for both pastoral and classical subjects taken from the works of diverse artists including Teniers, Greuze, Jan Steen and Claude Lorrain. Despite such dissimilitude, Castletown’s Print Room conveys an impression of homogeneity thanks to its designer’s careful preparation. Anyone intending to embark on a similar enterprise will find these long winter evenings perfect for similarly thorough planning.

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Much more information on Castletown’s Print Room can be found in Ruth Johnstone’s essay on the subject including in the Office of Public Work’s 2011 publication Castletown: Decorative Arts.