A number of state-sponsored programmes exist to encourage the revival of the country’s smaller urban centres, such as the Town and Village Renewal Scheme (begun 2016) and the Historic Towns Initiative (begun 2018). And yet, wherever one goes around Ireland, the same scenario can still be found: perfectly decent houses being left to fall into ruin. The question needs to be asked: why? Especially during what is universally acknowledged to be a national shortage of decent housing, why should this be the case. Why, for example, do local authorities – which have the relevant powers available to them under the 2000 Planning Act, not intervene? Why do we all seem to take it for granted that our towns and villages should display ample evidence of abandoned and neglected properties? Here is an example of this unhappy state of affairs: a fine red-brick house on the outskirts of Ardee, County Louth. Behind the double canted bay facade, the building is L-shaped and incorporates a small yard, while to the rear and now incorporated into a range of (equally dilapidated) outbuildings, stands a 15th century tower house: all are in equally neglected state. The national Buildings of Ireland website (www.buildingsofireland.ie) proposes a date of c.1900 for its construction, but a pediment over the main entrance contains the initials LCC (presumably representing Louth County Council) and the date 1931: does this mean the building was constructed at that time, or simply taken over at that time by the local authority? But more importantly, why today is it being allowed to deteriorate?
An overlooked feature of Collon, County Louth: this limestone water fountain on the town’s main street. As the inscription says, it was a gift of the late Reverend Alexander Bradford. For many years he had served as curate of the parish, the income of which was enjoyed by the Rev Daniel Beaufort (see
https://theirishaesthete.com/2016/11/12/a-man-of-taste-and-literature/). Beaufort died in 1821 and Bradford was finally able to become Collon’s Rector. Alas, he wasn’t able to enjoy the position for long as he also died the following year, so this fountain was his most lasting legacy. Its late Gothic form reflects that of the adjacent church, designed by Beaufort in the style of King’s College, Cambridge. Presumably the water originally came out of the mouth of a brass lion, but as the street level changed, an alternative outlet was inserted, one made by the Kennedy Patent Water Valve Company (founded in 1863). Today the lion looks distinctly perturbed to find himself at risk of being swalloped up by tarmacadam.
St Mary’s church in Mansfieldstown, County Louth was a medieval church badly damaged in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and then, owing to an insufficient number of parishioners, left to fall into ruin. An Episcopal Visitation of 1690 noted ‘Church not in repair since the warrs, and the reason given why it is not built is because the parish is very poore, and there are no Protestants in it except Mr. Tisdall (who lives in Dublin), and the parish clerk, who lives in the parish…No bells, no Common Prayer Book, nor Church Bible. A stone font lying on ye ground, no chest for poore, no Register Book’. However the church was shortly afterwards rebuilt (the estimated costs for this were £140) as a second visitation two years later commented ‘Three parts of the walls and roof in good repair ; windows to be glazed. The whole chancel and part of the body of church built at equal charge of the Minister and parishioners. Remaining part of the body unbuilt since ’41, on account of the poverty of the parishioners. The charge for building that part will be £30. The church slated and painted ; no bells ; Service 10 o’clock on Sunday morning…A decent pulpit, good Communion Table, a decent carpet, and also a Font of stone.’ When the building underwent this overhaul, the original late-medieval traceried east window was salvaged and reinstalled, note the corbel heads, and a third at the top of the label moulding. Smaller traceried windows were inserted on the north and south walls in the 19th century and there are similar corbel heads (thought also to be from the 17th century) found on these.
A bit battered and bruised, but still in place: Hamill’s on Bridge Street in Ardee, County Louth. Dating from around 1900, the two-storey building has a pub on the ground floor with an exceptionally attractive – and exceptionally rare – commercial façade. This features encaustic tiles above, below and around the central entrance and its flanking curved display windows. The fascia is especially charming, with floral festoons interwoven with the lettering: notice how another swag of flowers, this time in a terracotta panel, has been placed midway between the two windows. The building’s design appears to be by Peter William Cahill, an engineer and architect then living and working in the area. Somehow, despite being on a main traffic artery and subject to almost ceaseless pollution from passing vehicles, Hamill’s has survived, albeit with a certain amount of damage to the façade.
The pictures above suggest this might be the entrance to an Irish country house, built in the mid-19th century when the fashion for a loose interpretation of Tudor Gothic was at its height here. In fact, it is the centre block of the former Convent of Mercy in Ardee, County Louth. Built in the mid-1850s, the convent was designed by John Neville, then County Surveyor for Louth (a position he held for 46 years, thereby ensuring plenty of work for his office in the area). The three-storey block built of coursed rubble features cut limestone for quoins, and window surrounds as well as for the three-bay, single-storey porch in Perpendicular style. And the facade is saved from what might be dull uniformity by the two-storey canted bay to the immediate right of the entrance. Further buildings, including a chapel, were added to left and right of the convent. As in so many other towns, the nuns have now departed and the ten-acre site has been on the market since last autumn. What might its future be?
The Irish Aesthete has recently been discussing tower houses on YouTube* so here is a fine example rising above the flat landscape of County Louth. The four-storey Roodstown Castle is believed to date from the 15th century although it may be later.
The building has projecting square turrets diagonally opposite each other, one of which contained the garderobe, the other a staircase leading from the usual vaulted entrance space to the upper floors. There is a murder hole just inside the door, and formerly a machicolation outside it but this has since disappeared.
Despite occupying such a prominent position overlooking the town, Millmount in Drogheda, County Louth is relatively little known. According to Irish legend, this site was the burial place for Amhairghin, a poet for the Milesians, supposedly the last race to settle in Ireland, at least until the Normans arrived. However, it seems more likely that the latter constructed a fort here, Drogheda being one of their most important settlements. Here in the 1180s, on a bluff overlooking the river Boyne, they constructed a motte and bailey, probably on the instructions of Hugh de Lacy; his son Walter would grant the town which grew up around the fort its first charter during the following decade. A stone castle was later built in the same place.
None of the buildings on the site today are of medieval origin. The original fortifications were all demolished in the first decade of the 19th century when the present Martello Tower was constructed on the highest point; this was the time of the Napoleonic Wars when fear of a potential invasion by the French (as had happened in 1798) led the government to develop a series of such fortifications around the coast. By this time, the area below the old castle had been developed into a centre for the British army, named Richmond Barracks. A range of two-storey accommodation blocks for soldiers, dating from c.1720 survives here, along with a number of other, larger buildings such as a Governor’s House and the officers’ quarters, both erected around the same time as the tower.
The buildings of Richmond Barracks survived into the last century, and were among the first to be vacated by the British Army, who handed over the premises to the Free State authorities in January 1922. However, a few months later, members of anti-Treaty forces occupied Millmount. In July, the Free State army shelled the place, thereby forcing its occupants to retreat but leaving the tower seriously damaged. It remained in this condition until the late 1990s when finally restored in time for the Millennium and opened as a museum. Meanwhile, a number of the houses below have also been refurbished and are now used for diverse purposes, some of them providing space for small businesses, workshops and retail outlets. A large area to the immediate west of this complex remains derelict and would benefit from attention by the local authority.
Today surrounded by architecturally inconsequential housing estates, this is Ballsgrove, built on raised ground overlooking Drogheda, County Louth. It was built as a country villa by George Ball, member of a family which had been prominent merchants and citizens of the town since the 14th century, although they also owned an estate called Ballygall near Glasnevin, Dublin. This was sold by George Ball in 1725, the proceeds seemingly being used to pay for the construction of Ballsgrove. Facing west, the house is of five bays and two storeys over raised basement. At some date in the 19th century the rear was given single-storey canted bays. These have castellations, as does the the little octagonal pavilion built on the south-east corner seen below.
Now marooned on a bend in the riverside Ring Road of Drogheda, County Louth, this was formerly the entrance to the Ballsgrove estate. Dating from 1804 and taking the form of a triumphal arch, the limestone carriage arch is flanked by narrow pedestrian gates separated from above oval niches above by a Greek key impost course. In the tympanum of the pediment is the Ball family coat of arms. George Ball was responsible for erecting this entrance but it was his grandfather, also called George Ball, who built Ballsgrove, sometimes also called The Grove (altho’ a plaque in the wall here calls it The Ball). The latter was also responsible for laying out fine terraced gardens, which were sometimes open to the public. In 1752 Mrs Delany visited the site and reported in a letter, ‘You wind up a very steep hill (which otherwise would be insurmountable) planted with trees – some in walks, others in groves, so that part of it looks like a thick wood – on the top is a long level walk with old trees on each side of it, and at the end a pretty, clean house and spruce garden full of flowers, which belongs to Mr Ball, who is so obliging to the town as to permit that fine walk to be a public one, and it is the Mall of Drogheda. The view from it is surprisingly beautiful. At the foot of this fine hill winds the River Boyne.’ All a far cry from present circumstances here.
As has been discussed here before, Townley Hall, County Louth is one of Ireland’s most perfect neo-classical buildings (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/06/10/la-tout-nest-quordre-et-beaute). The house was designed in the mid-1790s by Francis Johnston, who until then had been employed primarily by Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, often to complete commissions left unfinished following the early death of Thomas Cooley in 1784. Townley Hall is his first independent piece of work although here again the client’s involvement was critical since it is known that Blayney Townley Balfour, who owned the property, and his sister Anna Maria were intimately involved in every stage of the design.
Johnston was invited to design not just Townley Hall itself but also a number of ancillary buildings, including a new stableyard. His plans for this survive and are dated between 1799 (work being initiated on the site in May of that year) and 1804. The intention was to build around a rectangular courtyard with coach house and grainstore topped by a cupola on the north side, and stables coming forward to its immediate east and west. The south side was to be taken up by screen wall with arched entrance. Sadly this scheme was never realized, possibly for financial reasons (like many other house builders before and since, Blayney Townley Balfour discovered the initial budget was insufficient). Instead, while the northern range was constructed, it lacked the proposed cupola, and only the western range of stables were finished; a terrace of single-storey cottages runs along the eastern side of the site. Likewise the south wall with entrance arch was left unbuilt, and even a modified plan for railings with piers went unrealized. A drawing of the plan survives a penciled note reading ‘not built yet – 1837 FTB’, those initials standing for Lady Florence Townley Balfour (daughter of the first Earl of Enniskillen) who had married Blayney Townley Balfour in 1797.
As is well known, Townley Hall was sold by the heirs of the Townley Balfour family in the 1950s and, having been owned for a short period of time by Trinity College Dublin, was sold again with the Land Commission taking the greater part of the surrounding estate. Many of the ancillary buildings are no longer part of Townley Hall, including the former stableyard. Almost every other part of the former estate has been restored and brought into use, but sadly this element, which is, it seems, independently owned, has languished in neglect for a number of years, and is now in poor repair. Even if not as originally intended by Johnston, the yard remains associated with what is widely judged to be his masterpiece, and accordingly deserves a better fate.