Tucked down a minor road north of Drogheda, this is St Nicholas’s church, Ballymakenny, County Louth. It was designed by Thomas Cooley for his patron, Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, whose country residence, Rokeby Hall, stands a few miles further still further north. Cooley died in 1784 before the work was executed and therefore the job passed to the young architect Francis Johnston, then just on the onset of his career. This charming little rural church is 18th century Irish Gothic at its best, a simple design with the tower at the west end flanked by modest vestries and then the main body of the building being a long, plain hall. The most notable feature of the exterior is above the entrance, the archiepiscopal insignia and Robinson’s arms in beautifully crisp limestone (just look at those ribbons ending in tassels). In recent years, the church has been used by a local Baptist group, although it is a pity that much of the glass on the north side (where the latticed windows are actually blind) has been broken and not repaired.
Not too far from Termonfeckin Castle, seen here earlier in the week, stands St Fechin’s church, alas now standing forlorn and neglected in the midst of a graveyard. Here can be found a sandstone High Cross, some nine feet tall and somewhat weathered but with an unbroken nimbus ring. Above a tapered shaft decorated on all four sides with abstract, interwoven patterns, the centre of the east face shows the Crucifixion, while the west face depicts Christ in glory.
Today it’s difficult to believe that the little County Louth village of Termonfeckin was once the palatial seat of successive Archbishops of Armagh, who in the later Middle Ages preferred to live here rather than in the primatial city further north (think of this as being the Irish equivalent of the Papacy taking up residence in Avignon during the same period). Nothing now survives of that building – what remained was demolished in 1830 – but a second late-medieval castle still stands, a tower house probably built in the 15th century and then repaired in 1641 by the Brabazon family who were then a dominant presence in this part of the country. The castle is three storeys tall and has a projecting tower; a second one has long since gone. The interior boasts a vaulted ceiling on the first floor but alas, on the occasion of a recent visit, the building’s key holder could not be located. Perhaps another time…
Located beside an early 19th century church, this is Haynestown Castle, County Louth. Believed to date from the 16th century, it is a square, three-storey tower house made distinctive by having a massive turret at each corner. These have slit windows on the two upper floors but otherwise the building has few openings, its entrance on the west front long since blocked up. The central sections of this and the east side are notable for being finished with large arches.
What survives of Ballug Castle, on the Cooley Peninsula, County Louth. This is thought to be a 15th or early 16th century tower house to which a gable-ended dwelling was added, probably in the late 17th century. Originally the tower would have had a barrel-vaulted ceiling but this has since collapsed, along with a spiral staircase occupying a turret in the south-east corner.
Last January Drogheda, County Louth was named one of the dirtiest towns in Ireland in the annual Irish Business Against Litter report – placed 39 out of 40 locations surveyed, only Dublin’s north inner city was judged to be even filthier. Although obviously not an achievement worth celebrating, this information will come as no surprise to anyone who has been visiting Drogheda over recent years and watched the place sink further and further into degradation. In 1993, the Pevsner Guide to this part of the country, written by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey, observed that ‘As is too often the case, the 20th century has not been kind to Drogheda. However, the problems of the town lie not so much in the lack of quality in its new architecture as in the neglect and lack of concern for its historic buildings.’ That was almost 30 years ago: the situation has only grown worse over the intervening decades.
In contrast to its shameful present, Drogheda has a proud past: at the end of the 17th century, one visitor thought it a handsome, clean town ‘and the best I have seen in Ireland.’ Its location at the final bridging point on the river Boyne three miles before it joins the Irish Sea (the name Drogheda derives from Droichead Átha, meaning Bridge of the Ford) indicates strategic importance and from the Viking period onwards there was an important settlement here. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, lived here rather than in his titular seat, and six national parliaments were convened in the town between 1441 and 1494. A terrible disaster befell Drogheda in 1649 when it was captured and ransacked by members of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, but by the beginning of the following century it was once again booming and many of the town’s finest buildings were erected over the next 100 years. Commercial decline had already begun by the middle of the 19th century. When Thackeray visited in 1842, he wrote of buildings on the main street being ‘in a half state of ruin and battered shutters closed many of the windows where formerly had been “emporiums”, “repositories” and other grandly-titled abodes of small commerce.’ He also described the town as dirty, a term still appropriate 180 years later. Over the past century, with improved transport links, not just the railway but even more the car, Drogheda’s relative proximity to Dublin, which is less than 35 miles away, has only added to its problems.
There are many reasons why Drogheda should no longer enjoy the same prosperity as was once the case, but no reason whatsoever why the town should have been allowed to become such a sad, neglected, shabby mess. Everywhere one turns, there are empty buildings falling into ruin, historic properties which, in other countries, would be repaired and put back into use. Instead, no apparent effort has been made to preserve Drogheda’s outstanding architectural heritage. What could, for example, be a significant tourist destination – and therefore a source of revenue for the local community – is being wilfully ignored. At the moment, no visitor coming to Ireland could be directed to Drogheda, except to see how not to care for the urban environment. The local authority, Louth County Council, seems supremely indifferent to the condition of the town, showing absolutely no sense of pride in what should be one of the region’s finest assets. If there’s no sense of pride, there’s clearly no sense of shame either. Otherwise this situation would not be allowed to continue. Further words are redundant: the pictures shown today are sufficiently eloquent. Welcome to Drogheda, where the streets have no shame.
One of a number of gateways providing access to the four-acre walled garden at Barmeath Castle, County Louth. A map dating from the mid-1770s and drawn up by the surveyor Charles Frizell shows this area of the demesne to be a shrubbery with no evidence of enclosure, indicating the walled garden, like so many others, was only created in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Unusually, all the walls are lined in brick, whereas, as a rule, it was only the south-facing wall that received this treatment since brick retains the heat longer than does stone. The entrances are also distinguished by being given rather grand, pedimented, breakfront gateways. The walled garden here has been restored in recent years and is now open to the public. Readers with no interest in matters horticultural should be warned that the Irish Aesthete is at present curating an exhibition devoted to the history of the Irish country house garden (opening at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House in Dublin on May 19th) and therefore this subject is likely to feature heavily in the coming weeks.
As many readers will be aware, a splendid book was recently published on one of Ireland’s finest country houses, Townley Hall, County Louth (see Of the Highest Standard « The Irish Aesthete). The building and immediate surroundings have been meticulously maintained by its current custodians but the same cannot be said for the organisation responsible for the wider grounds, including the entrance. Both the gates and the lodge here were, like the house itself, designed by Francis Johnston and ought therefore to be kept in good condition. The photographs above show their state in January, and those below in April: already in poor shape, over those intervening months the gate posts have become even more dilapidated and unless there is due intervention, their future has to be in doubt. The owner in this instance is a state body, Coillte which has an almost unrivalled reputation for neglecting historic buildings supposed to be in its care – cf. Donadea Castle, County Kildare (Another Blot on the Landscape « The Irish Aesthete), Rockingham, County Roscommon (Differing Fates I « The Irish Aesthete) and many other sites. If Coillte cannot look after such properties – and clearly it can’t – then the organisation should hand over responsibility for their maintenance to another body which will show more concern for the protection of our national heritage. It’s worth pointing out that the relevant local authority, Louth County Council, ought by now to have intervened and instructed Coillte to restore these gateposts: in their present state, they provide a very shoddy welcome to Townley Hall and its woodlands.
Townley Hall, County Louth is an Irish country house which has featured here more than once before (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* « The Irish Aesthete). Without doubt, one of the most perfectly designed buildings in Ireland, it was the result of a happy collaboration between architect Francis Johnston and his client Blayney Townley Balfour – and also, crucially, the latter’s sister Anna Maria Townley Balfour whose involvement in the project has until recently been insufficiently understood and appreciated. The result was a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, a work of impeccable refinement and flawless taste, with the staircase hall at the centre of the house being one of the masterpieces of late 18th century European architecture. Like all such properties in Ireland, Townley Hall has faced challenges, its future at times uncertain, but the present custodians of the building – the School of Philosophy and Economic Science – have carried out much work on site to ensure the survival of this most-important building in our national heritage. And it has now produced a sumptuous book celebrating the glories of the house and its place in the architectural pantheon, to which the Irish Aesthete has contributed several chapters. The standards of the publication are every bit as high as those of Townley Hall, making this a book of interest to anyone possessed of an aesthetic sensibility.
You can also watch me discuss Townley Hall in a short film made for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art last summer, which is available to view at Townley Hall, Ireland | ICAA Travel Revisited – YouTube
Some weeks ago, the sad present state of a Penal-era Roman Catholic chapel in County Cavan was featured here (see A Sorrowful Sight « The Irish Aesthete). Here is another such building, thankfully this one in much better condition. St James’s in Grange, County Louth dates from 1762, meaning that this year marks its 260th anniversary. It is likely that when first erected, the chapel consisted simply of one long hall running north to south, with separate entrances for men and women at either end, and an altar in the middle of the east wall, as at Holy Trinity in Kildoagh At the start of the 19th century, extensions were made to west and east, the former running back to create a third arm and convert the building into the typical T-plan form, while a belfry tower was built at the centre of the eastern side incorporating a sacristy. It has been proposed that the original chapel was designed by a local architect and builder called Thaddeus Gallagher whose son James emigrated to the United States where he changed his surname to Gallier and enjoyed a successful architectural career in New Orleans; in his autobiography of 1864 he claimed to have re-roofed the chapel at Grange around 1818, which is likely when the other alterations were made.
The interior of the chapel still retains much of its original character. At the end of each arm are panelled timber galleries, although that in the western, later section has taller panels with a slightly different frieze below (compare the first and last pictures above). Each gallery is supported by elaborate plaster brackets at either end, and a pair of columns with Ionic capitals that reflect the building’s location by incorporating scallop shells suspended from strings of beads. The interior is lit by tall, round-headed windows with their Georgian glazing and there are charming fanlights over the two porch doors. At some date in the post-Vatican II era, the sacristy behind the altar was opened to create a new sanctuary space. The present arrangement there, with the end wall featuring an aedicule and Ionic columns, appears to incorporate at least elements of the former design.
Just a few miles away from Grange stands another old Catholic chapel, but this one is poor repair. It is located in a townland called Lordship, its title derived from the pre-Reformation period when this part of the country was owned by the Lord Abbot of Mellifont. The chapel forms one element of what seems to have been a group of buildings, including a national school and another property (today in use as a creche). Some time ago the old national school was converted into a local credit union: Irish readers may remember it was here that Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe was fatally shot during an armed robbery almost exactly nine years ago. There is little information available about this disused chapel, but apparently it was on the site of a place of Catholic worship during the penal era. Today it stands abandoned and derelict.