In the small village of Kenagh, County Longford rises this limestone gothic revival clock tower dated 1878. Designed by the English architect Sir Robert William Edis, it features a number of marble plaques including one showing the man in whose memory the monument was erected, the Hon Laurence Harman King-Harman who had died three years earlier. A younger son of General Robert Edward King, first Viscount Lorton, and a younger brother of Robert King, sixth Earl of Kingston, the Hon Laurence lived not far away at Newcastle, Ballymahon. A panel below the portrait declares that the clock tower was erected by his tenants and friends ‘in grateful memory of a good landlord and an upright man.’ Within a decade the expression of such sentiments would have begun to fall out of favour following the rise of the Land League. The cost of over £1,000 was seemingly covered by local subscription. There is another clock tower likewise erected to honour the Hon Laurence in the centre of Boyle, County Roscommon where his family had their main estates. Has there been any other person similarly commemorated in this country?
‘The townland, and chief part of the demesne of Ledwithstown, are in this parish (Shruel), though the dwelling house and offices are in the parish of Kilcommack. It has been long the residence of a respectable family of the name of Ledwith, who possess a considerable property in this neighbourhood.’ A Statistical Account, or Parochial Survey, of Ireland, 1819.
In 1976 Maurice Craig wrote of Ledwithstown, County Longford, ‘there can be few houses of its size in Ireland more thoroughly designed, and with internal decoration so well integrated.’ The house has long been attributed to Richard Castle and is one of three such properties considered to have been designed by the architect, the other two being Gaulstown, County Westmeath (see Gallia Urba est Omnis Divisa in Partes Tres, February 24th 2014) and Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (see An Appalling Vista, February 9th last). In their form and composition this triumvirate demonstrates a steadily growing assurance, with Ledwithstown displaying by far the greatest sophistication and thus inclining to the idea that it was the latest, probably dating from the second half of the 1740s (Castle died in 1751). Relatively little is known of the building’s history, other than that until 1911 it was owned, although not always occupied, by the Ledwith family who settled in the area around 1650. Members of that now-vanished class, the gentry, the Ledwiths played their part in local society as Grand Jurors and High Sheriffs but otherwise came little to public notice. The same is true of their former home, which despite its considerable charm, can be passed unnoticed on the public highway: again like Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown lies at the end of an exceptionally long, straight drive.
As with Gaulstown and Whitewood, Ledwithstown is a three-bay house of two storeys over a semi-raised basement. With all three the main entrance is approached by a flight of stone steps; in this instance, the supporting walls splay out to create the impression of a ceremonial approach to the door. In the case of the other two properties, the doorcase is relatively plain, of cut limestone with a fanlight (that at Gaulstown also has side lights). Ledwithstown’s south-facing doorcase is altogether more elaborate, a cut-stone tripartite Tuscan design incorporating tetrastyle pilasters resting on rusticated base and surmounted by carved pediment. Such an entrance immediately indicates this is a building with greater aspirations than those of its siblings. In other respects, however, the facade of Ledwithstown is closer in spirit to Whitewood than to Gaulstown, sharing the same heavy parapet wall concealing the greater part of a slated roof with a pair of substantial chimneystacks (those at Gaulstown are at either gable end). Likewise Ledwithstown and Whitewood have raised corner quoins which add further gravitas to the building, the most striking differences between the two being that Whitewood’s facade is of cut stone (as opposed to roughcast render over rubble stone) and Ledwithstown’s first floor fifteen-pane sash windows share the same proportions as those one storey below (their equivalents at Whitewood are smaller).
The interior design and decoration of Ledwithstown is much more elaborate than either of the two houses with which it bears comparison. Although measuring just forty-eight by forty-seven feet, it can be considered a country house in miniature, the layout being identical to that found in many larger properties. There are, for example, two staircases, that to the west, of carved wood, serving only the ground and first floors while secondary service stairs of stone to the east also descend to the basement area. Immediately inside the entrance hall are doors to left and right providing access to the former morning room and study; a matching pair to the rear open to the staircases while one in the centre of the back wall leads to the drawing room. Here and in the adjacent dining room, the walls retain their mid-18th century plaster panelling, that in the drawing room being especially fine with a combination of lugged and round topped panels topped by swags or baskets of fruit and shells. Similarly the main staircase, lit by a round-topped window, has timber wainscoting and leads to a panelled first floor landing with egg-and-dart and dentil cornicing; one of the rooms on this level is entirely panelled in wood and others still contain their shallow limestone chimney pieces. The basement likewise keeps much of its original character with a sequence of rooms opening off a central stone-flagged and vaulted central passage.
In 1911 Ledwithstown was bought from the original family by Laurence Feeney. However, following his premature death just six years later, the house was let to a variety of tenants none of whom took care of the property; seemingly a brother and sister who lived there for a while removed all the door and shutter knobs, while another family allowed the chimneys to become blocked and then knocked holes in the walls to permit smoke escape. In 1976 Maurice Craig described Ledwithstown as being ‘unhappily in an advanced state of dilapidation, perhaps not beyond recovery’ and two years later Mark Bence-Jones wrote that the place was ‘now derelict.’ However, around this time the original Laurence Feeney’s grandson, likewise called Laurence, married and he and his wife Mary began to consider the possibility of restoring Ledwithstown.
The couple, together with their children, initiated work on the house and in 1982 they were visited by Desmond Guinness. Soon afterwards the Irish Georgian Society offered its first grant to Ledwithstown, the money being put towards replacing the roof. Further financial aid from the IGS followed, along with voluntary work parties to help the Feeneys in their enterprise. By 1987 Ledwithstown had a new roof and parapet and was once more watertight. Inevitably sections of the reception rooms’ plaster panelling and other decoration had been lost to damp, but enough remained for it to be copied and replaced. The same was true of the main stair hall and sections of the first floor wood panelling, all of which was gradually replaced: when new floors were installed on this level in 1990 surviving panelled walls had to be suspended in mid-air to facilitate the removal of decayed boards. Ledwithstown demonstrates that even the most rundown building can be saved provided the task is approached with enough commitment. Today, more than thirty years after they embarked on their mission, the Feeneys remain happily living in what is, above all else, a family home. So too are both Gaulstown and Whitewood Lodge, making this another trait all three houses share.
On this day in 1849 the wondrous Maria Edgeworth died at the age of 81. She is rightly best remembered for her 1800 novel Castle Rackrent, a remarkable work that had no precedent but many successors, both in Ireland and elsewhere. While nothing else in her output matched its originality, at the same time Edgeworth’s other Irish novels in particular The Absentee (1812) are worth reading for insights into the state of the country in the aftermath of the Act of Union. Her family home, and the place where she produced many of her books, was Edgeworthstown House, County Longford. From around 1770 onwards it was much enlarged and altered by her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the result notable for the distinctive interiors which he designed in an idiosyncratic fashion. The house still stands and has long been a nursing home run by a religious order: the last time I visited the nuns in charge seemed to have little knowledge of or interest in its most famous resident. Sadly the building today bears little resemblance to its appearance during Maria Edgeworth’s lifetime having been ruthlessly stripped of decoration and character. Below is an engraving showing the house’s library as it looked a few years after her death.
This is an engraving of Broadstone on the north side of Dublin dating from 1821 and based on a picture by George Petrie. The most prominent building is the King’s Inns, designed by James Gandon in 1800 and by that date nearing completion. It looks little different today but the surprise is to find a harbour immediately in front since this has long gone. As the picture’s caption reveals, the harbour was constructed to serve the Royal Canal, its site chosen because of proximity to many key resources such as the city markets as well as the Linen Hall and various penitentiaries and workhouses.
Although Broadstone Harbour is no more the Royal Canal survives, despite sundry attempts over the past 150-plus years to damage it irreparably. Linking Dublin to the river Shannon and intended to encourage greater trade between the west and east of the country, the enterprise was plagued with problems from the very start. Not the least of these was the presence of the rival Grand Canal which follows a similar route further south and on which work had started in 1757. Construction of the Royal Canal on the other hand only began in 1790 by which time the senior waterway was almost finished and already taking large quantities of commercial and passenger traffic. So when a group of investors established the Royal Canal Company, they had to petition the Irish Parliament for financial support, receiving £66,000 to add to the £134,000 already raised from subscribers.
Among the key shareholders of the Royal Canal scheme was the second Duke of Leinster, who insisted that the waterway pass by Maynooth, the County Kildare town beside his estate at Carton. This necessitated cutting through extensive rock at Clonsilla and creating an aqueduct to cross the river Ryewater at Leixlip, both of which added greatly to costs. By 1796 the canal had reached Kilcock and the first passengers were able to travel between this town and Dublin at a cost of one shilling and one penny, cheaper than a seat on the traditional stagecoach. However progress on moving the route further west was slow and more expensive than had been anticipated.
By 1811, despite being given almost £144,000 in government grants, the Royal Canal Company’s debts stood at £862,000. A parliamentary investigation into the business was undertaken and two years later the company was dissolved with responsibility for the project handed over to the Directors General of Inland Navigation who were instructed to complete work on the canal at public expense and with all due speed. In 1817 the Royal Canal finally joined the Shannon at a total cost of £1,421,954, seven times more than the original estimate. The following year a new Royal Canal Company assumed responsibility for the concern and built a branch line to Longford town which opened in 1830.
Now as then the Royal Canal runs for 90 miles (146 kilometres) through Counties Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Longford. The main water supply comes from Lough Owel near Mullingar which feeds the canal’s highest level. Its creation involved the building of 46 locks, four aqueducts and 86 bridges.
By the mid-1830s, goods traffic on the canal had grown to 134,000 tons annually, and passenger numbers stood at 46,000 in 1837 by which time the journey between Dublin and Mullingar took an average eight hours. But even at its peak, the Royal Canal was never as successful as the Grand Canal. And the arrival of railways the following decade had an immediate and devastating effect. In 1845 the Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the canal in its entirety for £289,059 with the intention of laying railway tracks on top of the route. The government did not allow this plan to proceed, but it explains why trains heading west from Dublin do so directly alongside the canal for many miles. In 1877 the old Broadstone canal harbour was filled in and the site used as a forecourt for the railway company’s new termimus; a branch line of the canal had already connected it to the Liffey at what is now known as Spencer Dock.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canal went into steady decline, with the annual quantity of goods being carried on its route falling to 30,000 tons and passenger traffic gone. In 1938 ownership was transferred to the Great Southern Railway and six years later to the national rail company Coras Iompair Eireann. In 1955 the last boat officially to pass the length of the canal made its journey and the waterway was closed to navigation in 1961 after which it fell into serious disrepair. In the mid-1970s a group of enthusiasts started a Save the Royal Canal campaign and thanks to their sterling efforts, the route, which passed into the care of the Office of Public Works in 1978, was gradually restored. It took longer to refurbish than it had to construct: work on the last part of the Royal Canal was only completed in 2010.
There are many reasons to celebrate the Royal Canal the most frequently cited being that it is an amenity beneficial to the tourist industry. That is certainly true and boats navigating its length bring visitors and income to towns and villages along the route. But let us leave matters economic to one side, not least because for over two centuries the Royal Canal has failed as a viable commercial proposition, inevitably costing more money than it generates. Though it might seem perverse to do so, this aspect of the waterway should be judged a cause for celebration, especially in the present era when the merit of everything and everyone seems to be based solely on the grounds of cost-effectiveness. Applying that criterion to the Royal Canal makes no sense, but instead demonstrates the fatuity of assessing value on economic grounds alone.
What’s more important in this instance is that the Royal Canal provides an example of successful intervention in the natural landscape. We are inclined to believe all man-made intrusions damage the environment, but the Royal Canal offers conclusive evidence this need not be the case: far from impairing its surroundings, the waterway often enhances them. And that is what matters most: the Royal Canal as an object of beauty. The original scheme may have been ill-conceived and sometimes ill-executed, over-time and over-budget in its completion, but we are all now the grateful beneficiaries. That gives it a value beyond price.
Almost big enough to serve as a punchbowl, this exquisitely simple piece of Irish silver dates from 1778 and was made in Dublin by Matthew West, a member of the family which continued operating as the country’s oldest jewellers until its Grafton Street premises closed two years ago. Due to be auctioned by Adam’s on Tuesday, the bowl is one of a number of lots coming from Carrigglas Manor, County Longford.
Like a great many Irish houses, the Carrigglas estate has had what can best be described as a chequered history. Originally part of the estates of the Bishop of Ardagh, the lands were acquired by Trinity College, Dublin before passing into the hands of the Newcomen family who operated one of 18th century Ireland’s most successful banks; designed in 1781 by Thomas Ivory, its former premises still stands on Lord Edward Street, Dublin, albeit enlarged in size. Clearly the Newcomens appreciated fine architecture since they commissioned a range of new buildings on their Carrigglas estate from the greatest architect of the period, James Gandon, responsible for both the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin. Unfortunately, of Gandon’s designs only the main entrance gates and the double stable yard were completed before the Newcomen Bank went into decline; on its ignominious collapse in 1825, the institution’s head, Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen, 2nd Viscount Newcomen, shot himself in his office.
Following this catastrophe, Carrigglas was acquired by a successful Irish barrister called Thomas Lefroy. Today Lefroy is best remembered as the possible object of Jane Austen’s amorous attentions and, arising from this, as inspiration for the character of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; in the rather fanciful 2007 film Becoming Jane, Lefroy was played by James McAvoy. He certainly knew and saw a great deal of Austen in 1796, being mentioned several times in her letters and on one occasion was described by her as ‘a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man’ with whom she admitted to having flirted. However, the following year he became engaged to Mary Paul, sister of a college friend, marrying her on completion of his legal studies in 1799. Ultimately becoming Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852, some fifteen years earlier Lefroy had requested architect Daniel Robertson to design a new house for him at Carrigglas in the Tudoresque idiom. This remained in the hands of successive generations of the family, finally being inherited in the mid-1970s by Jeffry and Tessa Lefroy. Like many other people in their position, they struggled with managing the place and trying to make it generate sufficient income. To this end, they opened the house to day visitors and paying guests. But by the start of the present millennium it was clear the battle for survival was never going to be won and in 2005 the Lefroys sold Carrigglas to a property company which trumpeted its intentions to preserve the estate. Writing in The Times in March that year, Tessa noted that many old Irish houses had been lost over the previous decades but ‘thankfully, Carrigglas’ future is secure: it is going to be turned into a country house hotel development with new homes in the grounds. The planning laws are now so strict that the house and yards must be restored to their former glory.’
Would that this had been the case. Far from taking care of the main house, stable yards and so forth, the only thing Carrigglas’ new owners, Thomas Kearns Developments, did was to strip large stretches of the parkland of trees and start throwing up rows of houses notable for their lack of sympathy with the surroundings. And before this work could be completed, the company ran into financial trouble; by autumn 2007 sub-contractors on the site had withdrawn their labour. The following spring the Bank of Ireland, which had advanced €35 million, called in accountants to assess the project’s viability. It was glaringly obvious this scheme had no future, especially after Thomas Kearns Developments went into liquidation and Carrigglas went into a limbo from which it may never emerge. Over the intervening four years, as these photographs make plain, the place has been allowed to suffer neglect, almost the only attention it receives coming from vandals.
The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage classifies the complex of inter-related structures at Carrigglas as representing ‘one of the most important demesnes in north Leinster.’ This designation did not stop the authorities of Longford County Council from granting permission for the estate’s irrevocable despoilment with that addition of over 300 residential units, a hotel, spa and inevitable golf course. Nor, it would appear, have the same authorities shown much concern for the preservation of what remains, not least the important group of Gandon buildings which are without peer anywhere else in the country. The silver bowl being auctioned on Tuesday will no doubt find a new owner and be much cherished. Regrettably the same good fortune cannot be hoped for Carrigglas. To paraphrase Jane Austen, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an estate in the possession of a receiver, must be in want of a saviour.
With thanks to Brendan Harte and Mary Morrissey for their photographs.
*Insufficiently dispirited by what you have read and seen here? Watch John O’Neill’s short film showing the present wretched condition of Carrigglas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYDKZ33pWX8&feature=plcp
Addendum: the bowl sold for €4,200.00 at Tuesday’s sale. What price Carrigglas?