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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
Pottering 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.
Rohesia 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.
Built 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.
This week the Irish Aesthete celebrates its third birthday. When first posting in September 2012, I had no idea that the project would develop as it has since done, nor that it would attract such a loyal following (and certainly not that I would still be doing this now). A sincere thanks to everyone who has been reading these pages over the intervening period, and for your support and encouragement which – as any writer can confirm – make such a difference. Your own contributions and comments continue to be most welcome although a courteous tone is necessary if you wish for a response.
Over the past three years many posts have been gloomy or dispiriting in character, reflecting the problems faced by Ireland’s architectural heritage, and its want of sufficient support from public and private quarters alike. But given today’s occasion demands a more celebratory spirit, here is a trio of historic houses which have been featured before, all of them restored and brought back to vibrant life thanks to the imagination and passion of their respective owners.
Rokeby Hall, County Louth which first featured here in February 2013 (Building on a Prelate’s Ambition) was built in the 1780s as a country retreat for then-Archbishop of Armagh Richard Robinson. As his architect Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston: born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. The house’s severe limestone façade hides a more inviting interior, of three storeys over basement, since Rokeby contains a particularly generous attic concealed behind the parapet, centred on a circular room lit by glazed dome. A similar circular landing on the first floor provides access to the main bedrooms.
Descendants of the Robinson family remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation, of Rokeby until the middle of the last century. Thereafter the property passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen. Over the past twenty years, a process of reclamation has taken place, driven by the correct balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. Most recently the present owners have impeccably restored Rokeby’s mid-19th century conservatory.
The County Cork farmhouse shown above was discussed here in May 2014 (A Dash of Panache). when I noted that far too many such buildings in Ireland are abandoned to the elements ‘for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose.’ This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Indeed, one has only to venture into the countryside to see bungalows considered the ne plus ultra of modernity a few decades ago now drifting into a ruinous condition. More regrettably the same fate befalls far too many of Ireland’s handsome old farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness could be given fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate: mouldering into dereliction.
That looked the only prospect for this property until it was taken on by the present owner and brought back to life after a half-century of being left unoccupied. A low-key and sympathetic approach was adopted to the rescue programme. The old kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building, as does the large glazed space that now runs along the ground floor. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the artwork was acquired in the same way or came via friends. The result serves as a model of how to transform an apparently unsalvageable old farmhouse into a comfortable and smart private residence
The double-height entrance hall of Gloster, County Offaly featured here last month (Spectacle as Drama) but the rest of this house merits equal attention. Gloster is believed to date from the third decade of the 18th century and to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, a cousin of then-owner Trevor Lloyd. The original two-storey building was of nine bays but two further bays were later added on either side making the facade exceptionally long. A series of terraces in front offer views to a lake and then mountains beyond, while another vista is closed by an arch flanked by obelisks. The sense of baroque theatre evident in Gloster’s siting continues indoors, and not just thanks to its spectacular entrance hall. To left and right run further rooms providing a wonderful enfilade rarely found in Ireland. These reflect changes in taste after the house was first constructed. The cornicing in the sitting room above, for example, is evidently from later in the 18th century as is the chimney piece but there is no sense of disharmony anywhere and diverse stylistic elements comfortably co-exist.
Gloster remained in the ownership of the Lloyds until 1958 when it was sold to the Salesian order of nuns who opened a convalescent home in the house and built a large school to the rear. When I first visited in the early 1980s the nuns were still in occupation but it was already evident that they were struggling to maintain the property. Indeed in 1990 they closed down operations and Gloster’s future looked uncertain, especially since it changed hands on a couple of occasions. Thankfully the present owners bought the place in 2001 and since then they have worked tirelessly and splendidly to turn around Gloster’s prospects. Inevitably, given the scale of the undertaking, this remains a work in progress. But already an enormous and admirable programme of restoration and refurbishment has been undertaken. Gloser demonstrates what can be done, even on limited means, provided the task is accompanied by sufficient courage and verve.
My thanks again to all readers and followers of the Irish Aesthete for your ongoing support. Please encourage more people to become interested and engaged in Ireland’s architectural heritage. You can also discover me on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete), Twitter (@IrishAesthete), Pinterest (irishaesthete) and Instagram (The.Irish.Aesthete).
Set into the eastern section of a wall surrounding St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth, the tombstone slab of a funerary monument dating from 1520 and commemorating Sir Edmond Golding and his wife Elizabeth Flemyng. Depicting the couple as cadavers, this stone would originally have sat on top of a free-standing tomb but was presumably moved to its present position when St Peter’s was rebuilt in the 1750s. Sections of the lower portion of the tomb can also be found elsewhere on the same wall.
‘Little Dr Beaufort of Navan,’ Richard, Marquess Wellesley once commented, ‘would make a good terrier.’ Small, energetic and forever chasing after a new idea or scheme, the Reverend Daniel Augustus Beaufort was indeed terrier-like in his doggedness. According to his biographer Canon C.C. Ellison, ‘Possessed of an insatiable curiosity, his keen eye and ready pen recorded the passing scene. He could not resist calling at a mansion or a castle, especially if building work was in progress. Usually he found a welcome, a dinner and a bed. Parks, gardens and farms were of special interest and he was ever on the lookout for new methods and machinery to try out on his own land. An art collection, museum or curiosity of any sort drew him like a magnet. He liked to copy old records and try his hand at scientific experiments. He had so many interests that he seldom concentrated on any of them long enough to make a lasting impact. If there was a pedigree to be puzzled out, an escutcheon to be designed, a good executor to be found, a plan to be drawn, a congratulatory address to be written, or confidential business to be transacted, the solution was often, Ask Dr. Beaufort.’ He was born in London in October 1739 the son of French Huguenot refugees Daniel Cornelis de Beaufort and Esther Gougeon. His father was initially pastor of the Huguenot church in Spitalfieds and then of that in Parliament Street, Bishopsgate, in 1729. Two years later, however, he converted to the Church of England and served as rector of East Barnet from 1739 to 1743. When William Stanhope, first Earl of Harrington was sent to Ireland as Viceroy in 1747 he brought Beaufort senior with him as his private chaplain. The whole family followed and remained in this country. Many men in who gained such a position usually worked it to their advantage and secured an affluent bishopric for themselves. However, Daniel Cornelis, like his son after him, seems to have lacked the ability to improve his circumstances and the highest office he secured from Lord Harrington was the rectorship of Navan, County Meath. He was provost and archdeacon of Tuam from 1753 to 1758 and thereafter until his death thirty years later was rector of a parish in County Laois.
Daniel Augustus Beaufort was educated at the Preston School, Navan and then went to Trinity College, Dublin of which he was elected a scholar in 1757. He attained a B.A. in 1759, an M.A. in 1764, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the university in 1789. Long before then he had been ordained by the Bishop of Salisbury, and, in succession to his father, was rector of Navan, co. Meath, from 1765 to 1818. In 1790 he was presented by John Foster to the vicarage of Collon, co. Louth: until his final years he was ostensibly responsible for both parishes although given his travels and other engagements curates did most of the work. He also held several other benefices yet despite this plurality of incomes he was always chronically short of funds and forever falling into debt from which he had to be rescued by relatives and friends. From 1779 to 1784, for example, he and his family lived first in Wales and then Cheltenham, ostensibly for the sake of his son’s education. In fact the main motivation was to reduce expenditure and to avoid creditors in Ireland. He paid three brief visits to the country during this period, one of them being for the purpose of voting in a Meath election but, in typical fashion, he arrived too late for the ballot. Likewise Cheltenham disappointed, his sons being almost immediately expelled from the Grammar School because of their impenetrable Irish accents.
In 1767 Beaufort had married Mary, daughter and co-heiress of William Waller of Allenstown, County Meath. The couple had five children who survived to adulthood, the best known being Francis Beaufort who became a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy and in 1805 invented the Beaufort Scale, an empirical measure that relates wind speeds to observed conditions at sea or on land and is still used today. The eldest of their three daughters, Frances Anne in 1798 married Richard Lovell Edgeworth as his fourth wife: he was only five years younger than her father. Just to confuse matters further, her brother the aforementioned Francis Beaufort married as his second wife Richard Lovell Edgeworth’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Honora Edgeworth. In this way he became both a brother- and son-in-law of the same man. Richard Lovell’s most famous offspring (he had more than twenty children from his quartet of wives) was Maria Edgeworth. Her 1817 novel Ormond contains a character called Dr Cambray, an Anglican cleric of Huguenot extraction modelled on Daniel Beaufort. At one point in the book Dr Cambray is described as being ‘a very agreeable, respectable, amiable person’ and at another as someone whose ‘persuasive benevolent politeness could not have failed to operate even on first acquaintance, in pleasing and conciliating even those who were of opposite opinions.’
Among Dr Beaufort’s more notable achievements in the religious realm were the prominent role he played in the establishment and encouragement of Sunday Schools, and the preparation of elementary educational books. Today however he is better recalled for his secular work. He was a founder member of the Royal Irish Academy and associated with the Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society) in its early days. His great life project was the preparation of a new map of Ireland, Civil and Ecclesiastical published on the scale of six miles to the inch and accompanied by a quarto ‘Memoir of a Map of Ireland illustrating the Topography of that Kingdom and containing a short Account of its present State civil and ecclesiastical with a complete Index to the Map.’ It took years for this enterprise to reach completion, not helped by established cartographers taking umbrage after he, a mere amateur, had proclaimed that his map would be ‘more correct’ than their earlier efforts. In 1787, having finally secured approval from the relevant authorities, including the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Beaufort embarked on two years of exhaustive journeying throughout Ireland, writing a daily account of all he had seen, everyone he met and all the places he stayed. Despite the harsh conditions of the time, he was indefatigable in his pursuit of new experiences, Maria Edgeworth telling her step-mother (and Beaufort’s daughter) in 1806 that he ‘next to my own, is I think the best and most agreeable traveller in the world…’ Further research and preparation absorbed another few years and only in 1792 did Beaufort’s map finally appear; typically, after all his trouble the river Boyne was somehow omitted from the index. But the Map proved to be a success, selling 2000 copies within 18 months of publication and a 2nd edition appearing in 1797. Nevertheless, the project ended up costing him £1,000.
In addition to his many other interests and activities, Dr Beaufort was also an amateur architect of some ability, producing designs for houses and religious buildings alike. As with so much else in this busy man’s life, not all his proposals were realised, but some did reach completion, not least the last and finest: the church in Collon, County Louth. As has already been mentioned, in 1790 Dr Beaufort was presented with the living at Collon, thanks to his friendship with John Foster last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons, who lived there (for more on Foster and Collon, see Mr Speaker, April 28th 2014). There already was a church in the village, erected as recently as 1763, but it was inadequate to the needs of the Fosters who required a new family vault. Thus by 1810 plans were underway for the building’s replacement with a new church designed by Dr Beaufort, now in his mid-seventies but as indefatigable as ever. It seems likely the Fosters provided some funds, and the Board of First Fruits (an Anglican organisation intended to improve the condition of the country’s churches and glebe houses) offered both a grant of £800 and a loan of £1700. The foundation of the new building was laid in July 1811 but two years later Beaufort discovered to his surprise – but most likely no one else’s – that £760 of his own money had been swallowed up in the work. Thanks to an intervention by John Foster, the Board of First Fruits granted a further loan of £2000. It is not too surprising costs had spiralled given that Beaufort chose as the model for his design one of the finest religious buildings in England: the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. This superlative example of 15th century Perpendicular architecture was reproduced on a smaller scale in a Louth village, albeit with some modifications. Aside from the east gable which is dominated by a large window, the exterior of Collon church is relatively plain. The interior, however, is more engaging, the east window and those along the south wall filled with abstract coloured glass designed by Beaufort’s equally talented daughter Louisa. The real joy of the building is its plastered fan-vaulted ceiling which dominates the space without overwhelming it. Both this and a heating system beneath the tiered box seating on either side of a central aisle are believed to have been designed by William Edgeworth, the engineer son of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. Collon church opened for services two hundred years ago, in 1815 and aside from some minor changes – the entrance was moved from the east to west end at some date in the later 19th century – remains exactly as it was when first designed. Yet even this endeavour was not without its hiccups, as usual of a financial nature. It is said that when Dr Beaufort was fitting out the interior he asked a carpenter to speak from the pulpit to test the acoustics. The man mounted the steps and shouted, ‘When will you pay me?’