Saintly Connections


The last Roman Catholic to be executed in England for his faith (although officially it was for high treason), Oliver Plunkett was also the first Irishman to be canonised for some seven centuries when declared a saint in 1975. Born 350 years earlier in Loughcrew, County Meath, Plunkett was member of a family which traced its origins back to Sir Hugh de Plunkett, a Norman knight who had come to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. His descendants established themselves primarily in Meath and Louth and soon acquired large land holdings in both. During the Reformation period, the Plunketts remained loyal to the Catholic religion of their forebears. Oliver Plunkett’s education was accordingly assigned to a cousin Patrick Plunkett, Abbot of St Mary’s, Dublin (and brother of the first Earl of Fingall). He then travelled to Rome where he entered the Irish College and became a priest, remaining in Italy until 1669 when appointed Archbishop of Armagh: the following year he returned to this country where he established a Jesuit College in Drogheda. However, changes in legislation and government attitudes towards Catholicism following the so-called Popish Plot of 1678 obliged him to go into hiding. Finally arrested in Dublin in December 1679 he was initially tried in Ireland but when the authorities here realised it would be impossible to secure a conviction he was taken to London where found guilty of high treason ‘for promoting the Roman faith’ and hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in July 1681: since 1921 his head has been displayed in a reliquary in St Peter’s, Drogheda.





One of the houses associated with Oliver Plunkett is Louth Hall, County Louth. It was here he came to stay on his return to Ireland in 1670, provided with lodgings by his namesake and kinsman Oliver Plunkett, sixth Baron Louth. The original building on the site was a late-mediaeval tower house set on a hill above the river Glyde. This branch of the family had been based at Beaulieu, immediately north of Drogheda but in the early 16th century another Oliver Plunkett moved to the site of Louth Hall and in 1541 was created the first Lord Louth by Henry VIII. He may have improved the property to befit his status but given the travails that befell his successors as they remained Catholic during the upheavals of the next 150 years it is unlikely much more work was done to the building: on a couple of occasions their lands were seized from them or they were outlawed. The ninth Lord Louth, a minor when he succeeded to the estate in 1707, was raised in England in the Anglican faith and so his successors remained until the second half of the 19th century when the 13th Baron Louth was received into the Catholic church. Meanwhile considerable changes were wrought to their house, to which c.1760 a long three-storey, one-room deep extension was added. Further alterations were made in 1805 when Richard Johnston, elder brother of the more famous Francis, created several large spaces including a ballroom with bow window to the rear of the building. He was also responsible for inserting arched gothic windows to the original tower house and providing a crenellated parapet to conceal the pitched roof behind.





The Plunketts remained at Louth Hall until almost the middle of the last century. Most of the surrounding estate, which in the 1870s ran to more than 3,500 acres, was sold following the 1903 Wyndham Land Act but the house stayed in the family’s ownership and was occupied by the 14th Lord Louth who died in 1941. Louth Hall was then disposed of and seems to have stood empty thereafter. When Mark Bence-Jones wrote of the house in 1978 (Burke’s Guide to Country Houses: Ireland), he included a photograph of the dining room being used to store sacks of grain. Fifteen years later Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan (Buildings of Ireland: North Leinster) wrote of ‘delicate rococo plasterwork’ in two niches of the same room, and of crisp neo-classical plasterwork in the stairwell, as well as the first-floor drawing room featuring ‘delicate plasterwork of oak garlands and acorns.’ Almost none of this remains today, as vandals set fire to the already-damaged house in 2000 and left it an almost complete ruin. Somehow traces of the original interior decoration remain here and there, tantalising hints of how it must once have looked, but even the Plunkett coat of arms that until recently rested above the pedimented entrance doorcase has either been stolen or destroyed. As so often in this country, the only remaining occupants are cattle. Oliver Plunkett is a much–venerated saint in Ireland but not even his documented links with Louth Hall has been sufficient to protect it from a sad end.

Encouraging Conservation and Preservation


Today sees the start of this year’s National Heritage Week, the aim of which according to the Heritage Council (which coordinates the event) ‘is to build awareness and education about our heritage thereby encouraging its conservation and preservation.’ This is a laudable aspiration and merits everyone’s support. Heritage Week has encouraged some valuable initiatives. As of today, for example, St Lawrence’s Gate, a thirteenth century barbican originally built as part of the defences of Drogheda, County Louth (seen above) is to be permanently closed to vehicular traffic – something which should have happened many years ago – thereby ensuring its better protection. All counties in Ireland participate with enthusiasm in Heritage Week but once the seven days are over, many of our historic buildings revert to a condition of vulnerability. Below is a photograph of the former Church of Ireland church at Castlehyde, County Cork. Originally constructed in 1809 it further benefitted from the attention of George Pain in 1830. Having been closed for services, it has sat empty for some time and is now in imminent danger of collapse. This building is as much part of our heritage as St Lawrence’s Gate, and although likewise listed for protection has been allowed to slip into its present state. It would be beneficial if the goodwill engendered by Heritage Week were put to advantage to ensure more historic properties were given the support required to ensure their long-term future. Obvious ways to do so would be to use this high-profile annual event to highlight specific buildings at risk, and to campaign that local authorities enforce the law regarding protection of listed structures, something that with rare exceptions they currently fail to do so. As the state of the church in Castlehyde shows, until our legislation is matched by implementation every week needs to be Heritage Week.

Memento Mori

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In anticipation of next Monday, here is a particularly striking tombstone in the old graveyard at Dromiskin, County Louth. The limestone monument was erected by local man James Duffy (here spelled Duffey) in memory of his father Michael who died in February 1797 at the considerable age of 89. On the front of the stone are carved the Crucified Christ (with God the Father and Holy Spirit immediately above) and angels proffering directions to heaven on the left and hell on the right. The rear of the tomb carries the now-weather beaten Duffy coat of arms topped by a memento mori-serving skull. Happy All Hallows’ Eve…

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Pagan and Christian

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Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.

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Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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A Garden of Earthly Delights

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In the mid-1830s George Harpur, a merchant based in Drogheda, County Louth who had made his money in the salt trade, bought an estate called Killineer a few miles north of the town. A century earlier the land here had been granted by the local corporation on a 999-year lease to Sir Thomas Taylor, whose family lived at Headfort, County Meath. It then passed to the Pentlands whose main residence was to the immediate east at Blackhall. At some date in the 18th century a house was built on the property: it appears on early maps but little now remains other than one room which still retains sections of plaster panelling. Located to the rear of the walled garden, this space now serves as a toolshed.

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Following his purchase, George Harpur embarked on the construction of a new house, on a site a little below the earlier one. Unfortunately we do not know who was the architect responsible for designing this building, which is not dissimilar from the Pentlands’ nearby Blackhall. Of two storeys over basement, it has a six-bay rendered façade centred on a Tuscan portico. Deep windows admit abundant light into the four ground-floor reception rooms which have elaborate plasterwork cornice friezes. But the most striking features of the house are its octagonal entrance hall with arched niches on four sides, and the splendid imperial staircase leading to that long-standing feature of the Irish country house: the first floor top-lit gallery from which bedrooms are accessed. One of the reasons we know so little about the house’s early years is that when George Harpur died in 1888 he left no heir and Killineer accordingly changed hands, passing into the ownership of another local family, the Montgomerys of Beaulieu. When it was next offered for sale in 1918, the auction notice advised prospective purchasers ‘Everything that taste or comfort could suggest for the embellishment of the house and demesne was done by the late owner regardless of expense.’

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In addition to building himself a new house, George Harpur also laid out gardens at Killineer, beginning with a series of formal Italianate terraces that descend from the front of the main building. Eventually these reach a long serpentine stretch of water, created from what was shown on earlier maps as a relatively small pond. A series of islands on this lake help to break up the vista so that the prospect constantly alters as one wanders along paths meandering on either side. To the immediate east is a woodland garden, rich in ferns, mosses and other moisture-loving plants, while to the north west is a great laurel ‘lawn’, a piece of 19th century garden design once common but now more rare: that at Killineer is today the largest in the country. On this side also is a lakeside summer pavilion, its façade a miniature version of the house. Behind the stables and yards is the old walled garden which runs to an acre and a half and is still used for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers: it is here the remnant of the original Killineer can be found. Dotted around the grounds are garden ornaments originally made for other properties, some of which have since been lost, including St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dundalk House further north in County Louth, and Stackallen, County Meath. As today’s photographs testify, Killineer’s present owners keep the place in marvellous repair and make it a garden of earthly delights.

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Craic des Chevaliers

IMG_3802Pottering about the back lanes of County Louth, one’s attention is suddenly arrested by a limestone outcrop on which are the remains of a once-substantial fortification. This is Castle Roche, the name of which suggests that it was built by a northerly branch of the Roche family members of which are mostly found in Counties Wexford and Cork. Actually the origin of the castle’s title is more complex, as is the history of its construction. The building is believed to date from the 13th century and to have been erected by the Anglo-Norman de Verduns. An ancestor, Bertram de Verdun had come to England in 1066 as a retainer of Count Robert of Mortain, one of William the Conqueror’s principal commanders at the Battle of Hastings. His grandson, another Bertram, was appointed seneschal for the visit of Henry II to Ireland in 1171 and this was the beginning of the de Verduns’ association with this country. Bertram would die at Jaffa in 1192 while participating in the Third Crusade, but his son Nicholas inherited the family estates and especially after marrying Joan Fitz-Piers who likewise came into land in Ireland he spent much of his time here. The couple had a daughter, Rohesia de Verdun, and she is traditionally credited with building Castle Roche.

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IMG_3795Rohesia de Verdun was a considerable heiress, so it is not surprising that she should have become linked to another important Anglo-Norman family in Ireland, in 1225 marrying as his second wife Theobold le Boteler, a forebear of the Butler family. However by this time she already had a son, John de Verdun, perhaps the offspring of an illicit marriage or affair. It was John de Verdun, and not the children of Rohesia’s marriage to Theobold le Boteler, who would eventually inherit his mother’s Irish estates. In the meantime, she had become a widow, her husband dying in 1230 during an expedition to Gascony. Six years later, she is said to have undertaken the construction of a mighty fortress on her lands in what is now County Louth. Its name, Castle Roche, derives from a corruption of her own, Rohesia. It is likely that John de Verdun added much to the work his mother had begun, not least because in 1242 she founded the Augustinian Priory of Gracedieu near Thringstone in Leicestershire. This house is believed to have been the only one of its kind in England and, in line with the independent character of its founder, the nuns were independent of outside control. Rohesia died there five years after establishing the house. A persistent legend about Castle Roche may explain why she decided to become a member of a religious community. Although the Magna Carta enshrined in law that no widow could be compelled to remarry, it was not unusual for the crown to insist on such unions for various political and fiscal reasons. If she had taken another husband, Rohesia would have weakened the likelihood of her son John inheriting the family estates intact. It is said that she declared her intention only to marry the man who could build a castle to her satisfaction. Someone duly did so, but on their wedding night, as he showed his new bride the spectacular view from a window on the west side, she pushed him through it. Thereafter at Castle Roche it was known as the Murder Window.

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IMG_3783Built on the edge of a steep cliff, the plan of Castle Roche is almost triangular, this unusual form being dictated by the nature of the site. Rock formations provide protection to east, west, north and south so that the only access to the building lies on its easterly side. This was controlled by a bailey separated from the castle by a rock cut ditch. Entry to the castle was gained through the bailey, across a bridge over the ditch and through an arched gateway between two bastion towers. Like the battlemented curtain walls, these towers feature a series of slits through which arrows could be fired at the approaching enemy. Inside, the remains of a two-storey great hall can be found in the south-east corner, but otherwise little survives of any permanent structure as this was predominantly a walled enclosure. Castle Roche survived for several centuries. A meeting of all the English forces in Ireland took place here in 1561 but the building was devastated eighty years later during the Confederate Wars and has remained a ruin ever since. Given its dramatic position and relatively decent state of preservation, Castle Roche seems surprisingly little known. Last year the state tourist board launched an initiative called Ireland’s Ancient East designed to encourage more visitors to this part of the country. Castle Roche ought to feature in proposed itineraries but doesn’t. A missed opportunity – but at least those of us who come across the place can be confident of having it to ourselves.

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