Built close to the shoreline of the river Shannon 210 years ago in 1812, only the three-stage tower remains of a little Church of Ireland church at Mount Trenchard, County Limerick. In the immediate grounds are the graves of Mary Spring Rice, a daughter of the second Lord Monteagle, who was among the group responsible for bringing a large number of rifles for the Irish Volunteers from Germany on board the Asgard in July 1914. Also buried here is her cousin, Conor O’Brien, grandson of William Smith O’Brien: a keen sailor, he also helped bring arms to Ireland at that time and then in 1923-25 circumnavigated the world in his yacht Saoirse. A plaque on the gateway into this peaceful little site records their names and those of others from the area involved in gun-running activities during the same period.
The Coote family has been mentioned here on several occasions. The first of them to settle in Ireland was Charles Coote, an ambitious soldier who arrived here around 1600 and gradually acquired estates, predominantly in the midlands, before being killed at Trim, County Meath in June 1642 during the Confederate Wars. One of his sons, Chidley Coote, born in 1608, participated in the same wars, rising to the rank of colonel. Unlike his father, he survived those turbulent times and in 1666 was granted some 3,000 acres near Kilmallock, County Limerick by Charles II. There he occupied a property called Castle Coote, which was eventually demolished in the mid-18th century, presumably around the time a new house – called Ash Hill – was built. His heir, another Chidley Coote, rather than the army, chose to become a Church of Ireland clergyman instead, although one of his sons, General Sir Eyre Coote served as a soldier in India for many years. The same was true of one of his nephews, another General Sir Eyre Coote, although the latter’s career ended in disgrace in 1816 after it was discovered that the previous November, he had visited Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex and offered some boys there money if they allowed him to flog them. He then asked them to flog him in turn before providing payment. When this was discovered, General Coote was charged with indecent conduct, although acquitted after making a donation of £1,000 to the school. However, a subsequent investigation by a number of his fellow generals, concluded that Coote was eccentric rather than mad. Nevertheless, his behaviour was deemed unworthy of an officer and a gentleman, and in consequence, he was removed from his regiment and dismissed from the army. Coote’s eccentricity, it was claimed, arose from the effects of the climate on his brain while he served as Governor of Jamaica between 1805 and 1808. Incidentally, it has been claimed that while living on the island, he had an affair with a slave, and that the direct descendant of that relationship was another distinguished soldier and politician, the late General Colin Powell.
To return to the Cootes of Kilmallock, the last of them to live on the Kilmallock estate was yet another Chidley Coote. Curiously, following his death in 1799, the property passed not to one of his sons (he had four by his second marriage) but instead to a cousin, Eyre Evans, whose great-aunt Jane Evans had been Coote’s grandmother: the Evans family was based at Miltown Castle, County Cork. In the early 1830s, Eyre Evans was responsible for transforming the garden front of the house at Ash Hill, of which more below. However, in 1858, in the aftermath of the Great Famine when much land changed hands, part of the estate was sold to one Thomas Weldon. More of the estate was sold by the Evans family in 1880 to Thomas Weldon’s son, John Henry. Following the latter’s death in 1907, the house came to be occupied by his wife’s nephew, Captain Paul Lindsay: in 1946 he sold it to the present owner’s family.
As seen today, Ash Hill reflects the tastes of its different owners, beginning with the Coote family. Seen through imposing limestone gate posts, the entrance front looks onto a wide forecourt, flanked by long, two-storey stable blocks that date from around the second quarter of the 18th century, making them earlier than the main house, believed to date from 1781. Its eleven-bay facade is centred on a single-bay pediment holding a doorcase with wide fanlight and sidelights below a Venetian window. Further along the building are two further doorcases with fanlight and sidelights, although one of these has since been turned into a window. As already mentioned, some 50 years later, further alterations and additions were made to the garden front of the building and they were quite startling. As Samuel Lewis explained in 1837, ‘a large castellated mansion now in progress of erection in the ancient baronial style, consisting of a centre flanked by lofty circular towers and two extensive wings, of which one on the west is connected with a noble gateway leading to the offices, which occupy the sides of a quadrangular area; the whole is of hewn limestone…’ The architect responsible for this work is thought to have been Charles Anderson who had an extensive practice in this part of the country until 1849 when he emigrated to the United States and there enjoyed a successful career until his death 20 years later. As a result of these changes, the house’s name was changed to Ash Hill Towers.
A number of descriptions of Ash Hill in the first decades of the last century survive, giving the impression there was insufficient money to maintain the place. Writing in 1908, Eileen Weldon observed that while the house was big and impressive, it was also rather bare, and that the food on offer was meagre: ‘All we were offered for supper was six slices of toast for five of us and some cold bread. There was tea and butter, but not a sign of anything else. Father had smuggled in a cake from downtown and hidden it in the sideboard so we didn’t fare so badly.’ As for the interiors, ‘The ceilings and fireplaces are beautiful, but oh so dirty. I long to get to work with soap and water, a broom, etc.’ During the early 1920s, the house suffered badly, being occupied by different groups of soldiers on three occasions, none of them treating the place well. Another Weldon family member who called into Ash Hill in 1932 remembered ‘It was unoccupied and badly in need of repair. It was all furnished – about 30 rooms (not one bathroom) but the hand carved marble fireplaces were all bashed and broken – the ancestral pictures had been used for target practice…the lovely books of the library strewn underfoot.’ Seemingly Captain Lindsay offered Ash Hill ‘as a convent or monastery but there were no takers because of its condition.’ Finally, as noted, it was sold in 1946. Subsequently, some of Anderson’s more fanciful decorative flourishes were removed from the garden front, not least the two tall castellated towers and a chapel extension to one side. Internally, other changes had to be made, including the construction of a new main staircase, large parts of its predecessor having been destroyed. What does survive is a series of wonderful ceilings, the majority of them on the first floor which evidently once held the main reception rooms. Two of them look as though they might have been designed by James Wyatt/Thomas Penrose. However, it does not appear man either produced these specific designs. Similarly, the execution is of an exceptionally high standard – those oval medallions holding classical figures – but the stuccodore responsible is unknown. The nearest comparison is the ceiling in the entrance hall at Glin Castle, elsewhere in County Limerick, which dates from the same period. The Ash Hill work has blessedly undergone restoration work in recent years to ensure future survival. Meanwhile, in striking contrast to these neo-classical designs, an adjacent room overlooking the garden holds a really splendid Perpendicular Gothic ceiling, smothered in ribs of fan vaulting. It is this confident mixing of styles within the same building, so typical of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, so anathema to purists, that makes Ash Hill and its history so fascinating to explore.
A worker’s cottage in the hamlet of Glenosheen, County Limerick. It dates from c.1840, around the time a new bog road was built through the area, then part of the Castle Oliver estate. The building’s simple but effective design sets it apart from many other such modest dwellings of the period: for example, the use of brick around the upper sections of the door and windows, in contrast to the limestone rubble with which it is otherwise constructed. Then there are the hooded mouldings above the windows, and the pedimented projection of the gently-arched doorway. This is one of a pair of cottages but unfortunately its neighboutr has had unsympathetic fenestration inserted, with the result that much of its charm is lost.
Killeedy, County Limerick was originally called Cluain Chreadháil, meaning ‘the meadow with a good depth of soil.’ However, its name changed after this part of the country became associated with Saint Íte (otherwise Ita), said to have embodied the six virtues of Irish womanhood: wisdom, purity, beauty, musical ability, gentle speech and needle skills. Interesting to see the last of these judged a virtue. Although born in County Waterford, at the age of sixteen Íte is supposed to have been led by a series of heavenly lights to Cluain Chreadháil where she founded a convent and there spent the rest of her life As a result, the place came to be called Cill Íde (the Church of Ita), anglicised to Killeedy.
Thought to stand on the site of an older building dating from the 10th century, Glenquin Castle in Killeedy was built by the O’Hallinan family (their name deriving from the Irish Ó hAilgheanáin, meaning mild or noble). When the castle was built seems unclear; both the mid-15th and mid-16th centuries are proposed. Regardless, it is typical of tower houses being constructed at the time right around the country. Of limestone and rectangular in shape, it measures 10×15 metres and rises six storeys and some 20 metres high, to a crenellated roofline. Each floor is reached via a spiral staircase located to the left of the entrance doorcase (which has a murder hole directly above it). Two of the six storeys hold substantial barrel vaulted rooms, and some of the rooms have paired arched windows.
In typical behaviour of the time, the O’Hallinans appear to have been dispossessed of Glenquin Castle by the O’Briens, but then fell into the hands of the Geraldines during the course of the Desmond Rebellions before being confiscated by the English crown in 1571. Granted to Sir Walter Raleigh, who supposedly demolished part of the structure, the castle was then granted to Sir William Courtenay, who received large tracts of former Desmond land, amounting to some 85,000 acres in this part of the country. In the 1840s the castle was restored by Alfred Furlong, agent to the tenth Earl of Devon (a descendant of Sir William Courtenay). Further work on the site was undertaken in more recent times by the Office of Public Works, hence its surprisingly tidy present appearance.
Even before the year draws to a welcome close, all language used to describe 2020 has become hopelessly cliched, so let us merely say that its passing will not be much mourned. A lot of what has appeared on this site over the past twelve months has also not been especially cheering, since so much of Ireland’s architectural heritage remains imperilled, vulnerable to the twin risks of neglect and abuse. However, there have been a few happy stories to tell, so today here are some of them again, as a reminder that the past year has not been entirely a period of darkness and gloom: occasional shafts of sunlight were to be seen. Fingers crossed, and glasses raised later this week, that there will be many more such shafts during 2021.
The Irish Aesthete will be taking a break for the rest of the week, returning here refreshed and ready for 2021 next Monday, January 4th. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all friends and followers. Stay safe, stay well.
While the two lodges designed by George Fowler Jones for Castle Oliver, County Limerick are today derelict, the main house itself is in fine condition, having been extensively restored in recent years. Jones was not yet aged 30 when he received this commission, the reason being that his clients – the Misses Mary Isabella and Elizabeth Oliver Gascoigne – had already employed him to design some almshouses near their Yorkshire estate, Parlington Hall. When therefore in the mid-1840s the sisters decided to build a new house at Castle Oliver, the old one having fallen into disrepair, Jones was the obvious candidate for the job. Constructed of local pink sandstone, the house’s Scottish baronial character may be due to Jones having been born in Inverness. The resolutely asymmetrical exterior is notable for its many stepped gables and corbelled oriels.
The east or Raheenroe gate lodge that formerly provided entrance to Castle Oliver, County Limerick. Both this and the west (Ballyorgan) lodges and gates were designed in the mid-1840s for the Misses Oliver Gascoigne by Yorkshire-based architect George Fowler Jones: his clients’ intention was to provide work to local tenants during the Great Famine. As with the main house, Jones chose a high Gothic style but while the east lodge looks like a miniature medieval French castle (the corner turret once had a tall conical roof), that at the west gate was meant to evoke the Scottish manorial style, the architect having been born in Inverness. Both alas are now derelict but being sturdily constructed could easily be restored and made habitable again.
On 17th June 1765 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, wrote in his journal, ‘At seven I preached in the Market-house at Kilfinane [County Limerick]. Well nigh all the town, Irish, English and Germans, Protestants and Papists, presently gathered together. At first, most of the Papists stood aloof; and so did several of the genteeler people: but by degrees they drew in, and mixed with the congregation.’ Wesley returned to Kilfinane on several later occasions, each time preaching in the market house, of which these are now the sorry remains. Dating from c.1760 and of cut sandstone with three broad arches on its façade, the market house was described as ‘a large and commodious building’ by Samuel Lewis in 1837, having just been repaired the previous year. Having remained in use until the last century, how regrettable to see what was a part of the town’s history, and prosperity, for more than 250 years allowed to fall into such a shabby state.
Not all anniversaries are necessarily cause for celebration. Today marks the centenary of the burning of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, one among the first wave of Irish country houses to be burnt during the War of Independence, followed by many more over the course of the Civil War. Dating from the mid-18th century, Mount Shannon was originally built for the Oliver family but by 1765 it had been acquired by John FitzGibbon, who had converted from Roman Catholicism to the Established Church in order to practice law. This move ultimately also converted him into a wealthy man, so understandably the same profession was also followed by his son, another John FitzGibbon, who became known as ‘Black Jack’ for his hostility to the faith of his forebears and his advocacy of the 1800 Act of Union. Prior to that event, he served as last Lord Chancellor of Ireland and was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Earl of Clare in 1795. While he improved Mount Shannon and the surrounding demesne, it was his son the second earl who did most work on the place, not least by enhancing the façade with the addition of its great Ionic portico, designed by architect Lewis William Wyatt. Thanks to a pension secured by his father, he was also able to fill the interior with furniture and works of art collected during his travels in Europe, and from time spent in India as Governor of Mumbai (then called Bombay). Having no children, when he died in 1851 both title and estate passed to a younger brother.
The third Earl of Clare did not benefit from a government pension such as that enjoyed by his late brother, nor did he lead as charmed a life; in 1854 his son and heir, 25-year old Viscount FitzGibbon, was reported missing, presumed dead, after leading his troop of Royal Irish Huzzars at the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. His body was never recovered. So, when the third earl in turn died a decade later, Mount Shannon passed to the youngest of his three daughters, Lady Louisa FitzGibbon who likewise suffered various misfortunes: her first husband died, as did her son, and then her second husband – a Sicilian marchese – proved to be as just as impoverished as was she. Already in debt, the onset of the Land Wars finished off her prospects and in 1888 Lady Louisa’s creditors forced a sale of Mount Shannon and its contents. The house had two more owners before its eventual destruction, the first being Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor. He lived at Mount Shannon for less than a decade because in 1902, exactly a century after the first Earl of Shannon had died following a fall from a horse, Mr Nevins suffered the same fate. His wife followed him a few years later, and Mount Shannon was back on the market. Most of the land was divided up between local farmers and in 1915 the house and immediate surroundings were bought for £1,000 by one David O’Hannigan, who already owned a fine property some thirty miles to the south, Kilbolane House, County Cork (since demolished). However, he was unable to enjoy his new home for very long because on the night of June 14th 1920 Mount Shannon was set on fire by a local band of the IRA, leaving the building completely gutted; it is believed flames from the blazing site could be seen in Limerick city more than five miles away. What remains of the house has stood a ruin ever since. Over the next three years, there will be many more such centenaries to recall.
You can see and hear more about Mount Shannon on the Irish Aesthete’s new YouTube channel:
And a longer history of the house was published here in January 2014: https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/01/20/a-spectacular-fall-from-grace
The Irish Aesthete finally discovers YouTube. Discussing the history of Mount Shannon, County Limerick he can now be found at https://youtu.be/fcrlzLgMnNA
Part 2 to follow later in the week, and further short films in due course…