After recent somewhat dispiriting posts, time for something more uplifting. Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny was discussed here almost five years ago (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/11/24/of-the-middle-size) but that page really needs to be revisited because, as a visit to the house not long ago revealed, the owners continue to be indefatigable in their improvements to the place. One of the latest additions is to the rear of the main building where a formal Italianate garden has been created. Just a handful of plants have been employed, including beech, box and Irish yew, but sophisticated design, and sound maintenance, means the eye never grows tired. Ballysallagh thankfully shows that growth, as much as decay, is possible in Ireland…
One of the country’s best-known families, the Butlers originated with Theobald Walter who in 1185 was granted by Prince John (future King John) the title of Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had already held the same title in England). Theobald’s successors established themselves in what is now County Kilkenny, their stronghold being in Gowran where they built a castle that would remain their principle residence until they established a presence in Kilkenny City at the end of the 14th century. As a result, the church in Gowran was greatly enriched by the presence of the Butlers. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier religious settlement, possibly a monastery founded by Saint Lochan who was connected with the region: Saint Patrick is also said to have passed through here on at least one of his seemingly innumerable perambulations around Ireland.
In its present form, St Mary’s was a collegiate church, built in the late 13th century and served by a ‘college’ of clerics who lived communally in an adjacent dwelling but did not follow any monastic rules, as was the case for the likes of the Benedictines or Cistercians. The presence of the Butlers greatly enhanced its status. In 1312, for example, Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick and Lord Deputy of Ireland made a binding agreement before the Kings Justice in Dublin with the Dean and Chapter of St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny to provide finance allowing four priests attached to St. Mary’s to say masses in perpetuity for himself, his wife Joan, his son James (future first Earl of Ormonde), his daughters, and other family members both living and dead. The church had a long aisled nave with substantial chancel to the east, the two parts linked by a great square tower, now taller than was originally the case. Inevitably it suffered onslaught over the centuries. In 1316 Edward Bruce and his army of Scottish and Ulster troops attacked and took the town of Gowran, with damage inflicted on the church. It suffered similarly during the Cromwellian wars of the early 1650s but by then, like many other religious buildings in the post-Reformation period, St Mary’s was falling into disrepair. Only at the start of the 19th century was refurbishment undertaken, with the chancel converted into a parish church for the local Church of Ireland community, access being directly beneath the great tower. The nave was left a ruin, as it remains to the present day. St Mary’s continued to be used for services until the 1970s, since when a series of further restoration programmes have been undertaken under the auspices of the Office of Public Works.
The interior of St Mary’s today is notable for the number, and quality, of tombs displayed inside the former chancel. In some instances moved indoors from elsewhere on the site, these funerary monuments stretch across many centuries, the oldest being a partial slab carved with Ogham script. There are many slabs from the 13th and 14th centuries decorated with crosses and inscriptions in Latin. The central space of the chancel is dominated by two substantial table tombs, both early 16th century and perhaps carved by the O Tunneys, an important family of stone carvers at the time. One shows a single Knight, the other two Knights, all were members of the greater Butler clan. The entrance to the church is dominated by a vast classical memorial to James Agar, who died in 1733. Originally from Yorkshire, the Agars succeeded the Butlers as the dominant local family in the mid-17th century and remained so until the end of the 19th. It was James Agar’s widow who, one can read, ‘out of sincere respect to the WORTHY DECEASED has caused THIS to be ERECTED AS A MONUMENT TO HIS MERIT AND HER AFFECTION.’ Tributes to the deceased until relatively recently, one of the more recent being a stained glass window on the north wall designed by Michael Healy of An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) an Arts and Crafts studio established in Dublin in 1903: the window commemorates Aubrey Cecil White who died aged twenty at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The range of monuments inside St Mary’s, and their exceptional calibre, make this church worthy of being described as Ireland’s ossuary.
At the end of last August the Heritage Council, a statutory body ‘working for heritage’ released a five-year strategic plan which proposes to set out a new ‘vision’ for the country’s heritage and to map a route towards its realization (see: https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/news/news-features/heritage-at-the-heart-heritage-council-strategy-2018-2022). As so often with such documents this one is strong on lofty aspiration but rather weak on specific action leading to the achievement of goals. However, the idea is that by 2022 thanks to the council’s vision ‘heritage will be at the heart of Irish society and decision-making and that Ireland will be internationally recognised as a centre of excellence in heritage management, conservation and community engagement.’
On Wednesday a building less than ten minutes’ walk from the Heritage Council’s premises in Kilkenny city was gutted by fire. Adjacent to the Nore and across the river from Kilkenny Castle, for which it once served as a dower house, 88/89 Lower John Street dates in large part from the mid-18th century although it incorporated fabric from a much earlier building and contained the remains of a mid-17th century staircase. Despite its enormous architectural and historic significance – and despite being listed for preservation – the house was permitted by the local authority to stand empty for many years, its garden sheared off for the construction of an hotel, thereby severely compromising the site. Last year the house was finally sold, and hopes were raised that the property, its exterior a much-photographed landmark, would finally be restored. Instead it remained in the same condition until this week when left a smoking ruin.
One might have expected the Heritage Council – which declares its vision to be that ‘heritage is enjoyed, managed and protected for the vital contribution that it makes to both our social and economic well-being’ – would make a statement about this terrible loss so close to its own property. Yet it has remained silent: on Wednesday, the council’s Facebook page opted to post a video of Basque dancers in Galway. And ironically on the day after the fire, the Heritage Council was involved in a conference about urban renewal entitled ‘Unlocking Prosperity through Heritage-Led Regeneration.’ A building within Kilkenny offered an opportunity to demonstrate that the benefits of such regeneration, but that opportunity was missed. The Heritage Council’s home page bears the slogan ‘Our Heritage: Where the Past Meets the Future.’ In the case of 88/89 Lower John Street the past wasn’t given the chance to meet the future and all of us are the poorer. Articulating a ‘vision’ is admirable but occasions like this prove it to be insufficient.
The remains of Tullaherin church and round tower, County Kilkenny. It is believed that a monastery was founded here by Saint Ciarán of Saigir. He died c.530 so presumably established a presence here at some date previous. Nothing survives of the original foundation, the present church being of two periods, the nave perhaps 10th century while the chancel is likely from the 15th century. In the aftermath of the Reformation, it continued to be used by members of the Established Church and was renovated in the early 17th century. However, by the 19th it had already fallen into ruin.
Like so many others around the country, the round tower at Tullaherin is missing its upper portion and capped roof: what remains rises almost 74 feet. Originally there were eight windows around the tower, the only other tower having so many being that at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly. The door is just over 12 feet above ground.
One of the most remarkable women of 16th century Ireland, Lady Margaret FitzGerald, a daughter of the eighth Earl of Kildare, is believed to have been born in 1473 and married in 1485 (at the age of 12) to Piers Butler, eighth Earl of Ormond: the couple would have nine children. A later chronicler, Richard Stanihurst described her as having been ‘man-like and tall of staure, liberal and bountiful, a sure friend and a bitter enemy, hardly disliking where she fancied, not easily fancying where she disliked.’ Other commentators thought her ‘a lady so politic, that nothing was thought substantially debated without her advice’ and as being ‘able for wisdom to rule a realm had not her stomach overruled itself.’ She certainly played an active role in her husband’s legal and dynastic affairs, enlarging or rebuilding many of Butler properties including Kilkenny Castle which the couple made their base. In Kilkenny she established the Grammar School in 1539 and during the previous decade brought over weavers and related craftsmen from the Low Countries to encourage the production of carpets and tapestries within their territories. In the 18th century historian Thomas Carte deemed Margaret FitzGerald ‘a person of great wisdom, and courage uncommon in her sex.’ In legend she is remembered for being on occasion extremely vindictive and cruel: many of the castles associated with her have windows or stone seats from which she is said either to have hanged her victims or watched them die. One story proposes that she ordered that seven bishops, all brothers, be robbed and killed. Another tells that while staying in one of her properties, she used to visit a nearby family, the Mandevilles and coveted their property. When they refused to part with it, she placed a curse on the Mandevilles so that all their sons died. The residence from which it is claimed she issued her malediction was Grannagh (or Granny) Castle, County Kilkenny.
Located on the northern bank of the river Suir just a few miles from Waterford city, Grannagh Castle is believed to have been built by the Le Poer family at the end of the 13th century. Around 1375 it passed into the hands of James Butler, second Earl of Ormond and remained with his descendants until seriously damaged c.1650. The early building comprised a large walled keep with cylindrical towers overlooking the Suir. Soon after taking possession of the property the Butlers seem to have erected a substantial five-storey tower in its north-east corner. Later additions included the insertion of an oriel window in the tower, and the construction of a double-height great hall adjacent to it along the south wall of the keep. The arch of a surviving window in that wall contains some carvings showing an angel holding the Butler coat of arms and the Archangel Michael wielding a sword in his right hand and the scales of Justice in his left. According to the 18th century historian and antiquary Edward Ledwich, during the Cromwellian war in Ireland, Grannagh Castle ‘was strongly garrisoned for the king, and commanded by Captain Butler. Colonel Axtel, the famous regicide, who was governor of Kilkenny, dispatched a party to reduce it, but they returned without accomplishing their orders; upon which Axtel himself marched out, with two cannon, and summoned the castle to surrender on pain of military execution. Without any hope of relief it is no wonder they submitted, and were conducted to the nearest Irish quarters.’ Thereafter the building stood unoccupied and seemingly allowed to sink into a ruinous state.
The entrance gates to Swiftsheath, County Kilkenny. The estate takes its name from Godwin Swift who built the original house here: he was the uncle of Jonathan Swift who is believed to have lived here while a student at Kilkenny College. Although it looks much earlier the present entrance of cut limestone and granite dates only from 1874 when designed by Dublin architect Joseph Maguire for R.W. Swifte. The latter’s predecessor was the eccentric Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte who claimed the title Viscount Carlingford (held by a 17th century Swift who had died without male heirs) but also designed and built what he called an ‘aerial chariot’, a form of flying machine. In 1854 he launched this from the top of nearby Foulksrath Castle – with his butler as pilot. The device plunged straight to ground and the butler sustained serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. The Swifte family remained in occupation of Swiftsheath until the early 1970s when it was sold to new owners.
The round tower at Kilree, County Kilkenny. A religious settlement is supposed to have been established here by St Brigid but no buildings from the early Christian period survive. Situated in the south-west corner of the former enclosure, the tower is believed to date from the 11th century and features a door and seven windows. It rises some twenty-nine metres to a battlemented top now missing its cap, thereby allowing views of the sky from the interior.
In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.
An abiding problem in the study of Irish country houses is ascribing a date of construction. Not so Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny where on completion of building work the original owner helpfully provided this information. On one of the quoins to the left of the entrance is the gentleman’s name, Samuel Mathews, while its match to the right features the date May 14th 1737. On the other hand, what remains unknown is who was responsible for the design of Bonnettstown: like a number of other houses in this part of the country for the past half-century it has been attributed to the gentleman-architect Francis Bindon.
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.
In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.
Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.