A Fine Past, A Sad Present


Alas, the dilapidated remains of Athcarne Castle, County Meath now indicate little of its distinguished history, which go back at least 900 years. The name of the place is thought to derive from either Ath Cairn (the Bridge/Fording Point at the Cairn) or Ard Cairn (High Cairn). Whichever is the case, this indicates that it was originally the site of a pre-Christian cairn, or burial mound: it may well be that the structure seen today rests on top of or adjacent to a cairn. For hundreds of years, the lands in this part of the country belonged to the Bathe family, descendants of Hugo de Bathe, and Anglo-Norman knight who, as his name explains, came from Bath and who arrived in Ireland with Hugh de Lacy in 1171. It may be that Hugo de Bathe built some kind of castle or defensive fort here but eventually this was succeeded by the tower house which still survives and constitutes the eastern portion of the building. Rising four storeys and presumably erected in the 15th or 16th century, the tower has large window openings on the upper levels which were clearly later than the original structure; those on the topmost floor are topped with stone mouldings and there is a buttress on the north-east corner.






Until the mid-17th century the Bathes were a prominent family in Ireland, with large landholdings in north County Dublin, where they built a number of other castles at places such as Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Three of them would serve as the country’s Lord Chief Justice while John de Bathe was Attorney General in 1564 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer 1577-86. Around 1590 his son William Bathe, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and then married (as his second wife) Janet Dowdall (as her third husband) built what, from a surviving engraving, appears to have been an Elizabethan manor house onto the west side of the old tower house; it may well have been around this time that the latter’s windows were enlarged. The couple’s respective coats of arms can be seen on a slim tower on the south-west corner of the present building, seemingly having been moved to this location in the 19th century. Despite remaining Roman Catholic, the Bathes appear to have survived and held onto their estates until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when, along with other landed families of the same faith, they rose in rebellion. And, like so many other landed families of the same faith, upon the arrival of the Cromwellian forces towards the close of the decade, they found themselves on the losing side. As a result, their considerable lands were forfeited and distributed to members of the English army, Athcarne being granted to one Colonel Grace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bathes sought the return of their property, but were unsuccessful, since it was now granted to Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II). Following further appeals, the duke returned Athcarne and surrounding 1,200 acres on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent: the rest of their former lands he retained. When James II came to Ireland, it is claimed that he spent the night before the decisive Battle of the Boyne at Athcarne Castle, which was, after all, only rented to the Bathes. In any case, soon after the start of the following century, the family had gone, James II was in exile in France, and Athcarne passed into the hands of another family, the Somervilles who in turn rented it on a long lease to the Garnetts.






Athcarne Castle remained occupied by successive generations of Garnetts until the early 1830s when it was acquired by the Gernons, once more a family of Anglo-Norman origin (mentioned here recently, see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete). It appears the Gernons were responsible for pulling down the Elizabethan manor house and replacing it with a new residence, the remains of which can still be seen. This is a castellated three-storey block originally two rooms’ deep. A modest, single-storey entrance porch was added on the south side (previously access to the building had been from the north). It was probably also around this time that the little tower in the south-west corner was constructed and the Bathe/Dowdall coats of arms, previously on the exterior of the manor house, placed there as a souvenir of the castle’s earlier history. By the last century, the Gernons, rather like their predecessors on the site, were in decline. The surrounding land was sold and finally in 1939 an auction of the contents was held; among the lots, apparently, was a bed dating from the 17th century, the bed in which James II had slept the night before the Battle of the Boyne. In May of that year, the Land Commission offered the castle and remaining 88 acres for sale. Left empty, the building was unroofed and left as a shell in the early 1950s and so it has remained ever since. 

 

Continental Influences



At a minor junction on a minor road in County Meath stands this rather fine stone cross, notable for being rather later in date than the many others found around the country. The monument was erected c.1675 by Cecilia Dowdall to mark the occasion of her marriage to Sir Luke Bathe who lived nearby at Athcarne Castle (of which more shortly). Standing some eight feet high, the cross’s east face features a high relief carving of the crucifixion, Christ’s arms raised above his head, and his feet resting on a skull. The west side has a shield containing the arms of the Dowdall and Bathe families and the instruments of Christ’s Passion, below which is a tender carving of the Virgin and Child which displays the influence of Renaissance art not previously seen in such work here in Ireland (Raphael’s Sistine Madonna immediately comes to mind). 


…To Another Kells



For many centuries Kells, County Meath – like Kells, County Kilkenny – was the location of a substantial religious establishment, but in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Meath town came under the control of the Taylour family, who lived close by at Headfort (and eventually became Marquesses of Headfort). Not surprisingly therefore, the focal point here, a wide thoroughfare has the name of Headfort Place and is lined with a sequence of handsome and substantial houses, evidence of the area’s prosperity in the late 18th/early 19th century. A short terrace of three-bay properties, constructed c.1780 and given identical pedimented limestone doorcases, occupies a stretch of the north side of Headfort Place. These buildings are all in excellent condition, and offer a contrast to what can be seen on the other side of the street. Here a detached house of slightly later date (note its starkly plain limestone doorcase) stands empty and in poor condition.


And their Posterity



Although the church that once stood here has long since gone, the little graveyard at Clonabreany, County Meath contains a number of charming old funerary monuments, not least that seen above. A notice at the site (together with a number of references to the graveyard found online) proposes that this altar tomb commemorates the parents of St Oliver Plunkett (mentioned here last week, see Lighting up the Night « The Irish Aesthete). However, the monument carries an inscription in Latin noting that it was erected to commemorate Oliver Plunkett, who died in 1581 and his wife Elizabeth Dillon (died 1595). Since St Oliver Plunkett was only born in 1625, the likelihood of this couple being his parents seems remote. Meanwhile, close by is another handsome monument, this time dating from 1779; it commemorates brothers Edward and Patrick Kearney, their parents ‘and their posterity.’


Lighting up the Night



The sad end of the main house at Loughcrew, County Meath is well-known. The building was said to be the subject of a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ And so it came to pass. The house, designed in severe neo-classical style by architect Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s, did indeed suffer three fires, the last occurring in 1964 and leading to the demolition of its remains a few years later, so that now the Naper family, resident on the estate since the 1650s, live in the former yard buildings. Today just parts of the facade’s great Greek Ionic portico show where it once stood, but elsewhere on the surrounding land, more active restoration has taken place. 





A short distance to the west of the remains of the old house at Loughcrew stands a late-medieval church associated with St Oliver Plunkett who was born here in 1629. The church has a large, three-storey residential tower at the west end, as was often the case with such buildings erected during the late 14th and 15th centuries when much of the country was disturbed by feuding between different families and not even religious buildings were safe from attack. Entrance to the church was via a door at the west end and the interior appears always to have been relatively simple, with a single chapel opening on the south side, the upper portion of the window here being divided in two by a central spandrel featuring the Naper coat of arms. Unlike many such sites, the church continued to be used for services throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite being renovated and re-roofed in 1818, it was abandoned 25 years later when a new place of worship was built elsewhere. 





Immediately adjacent to the old church lies the Loughcrew estate’s walled garden, parts of which are believed to date back to the arrival of the Naper family here in the mid-17th century; there is, for example, a classical arched gateway dated 1673. Over the past couple of decades, much of the garden, which had fallen into neglect has been restored and a number of the earlier features – such as a canal and a formal parterre, been re-instated. Some features of an earlier settlement on the site have also been uncovered. Meanwhile, later aspects of a fashionable country house garden, like the 19th century taste for deep herbaceous borders, can once more be found. Loughcrew and its gardens are a work in progress, but already much has been achieved and the future promises even more. 



Over the coming weeks, every evening Loughcrew gardens are hosting a musical Lightscape open to the public. Further details, and information on ticket purchase, can be found at https://loughcrew.com/loughcrew-lightscape 

Christ’s Curse and Mine



‘The Church of St. Nicholas. This massive and interesting building is situated in the demesne of Dunsany, a short distance north-east of the castle. It is probably on the site of the church which existed so early as 1302-1306, and seems to have been rebuilt about the middle of the 15th century by Nicholas Plunkett, first Baron of Dunsany and Killeen. In his will, dated on the feast of St Peter ad Vincula, 1461, although desiring to be “Y beret in ye chaunsell of Killeene before our Lady,” he heaped valuables on “St Nichols Church of Dunsany” – arras and scarlet hangings, crosiers and chalices of silver and gold, the latter being then in course of preparation by a goldsmith of Trim; missals, graduals, hymnals and psalters; a chaplet of pearls for the statue of the Blessed Virgin; copes of gold and red satin; chasubles; 100 shillings off the mill of Alomny (Athlumney); and money off Thomastown; and to find priests to pray for his soul and the souls of his wives Anne Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Preston; “and which of my children that breaketh my will, I leave him Christ’s curse and mine”.’





‘The building is 129 ft. long; the chancel, 21 ft. 3 in. wide and about 51 ft. long; the nave, 21 ft. 5 in. wide and about 55 ft. 6 in. long, the gable being “off the square”; the gable between is 5 ft. 7 in. thick, and the arch about 10 ft. wide. The chancel has a very rich east window inserted by the late Dowager Lady Dunsany to decorate the building, the older window having been destroyed long before, except the ancient sill, still apparent on the outside, and an elegant carving of an ivy spray. There are three windows to the south, and one to the north; the tracery and shafts have nearly disappeared, having been of fine yellow sandstone, like most of the details. The south wall has also a handsome sedile of three cinquefoil arches, the heads crocketed, and a heavy hood moulding, ending in a leaf to the left and a face to the right…North of the chancel is a residence three stories high, the lowest used as a vault by the Lords of Dunsany; fourteen steps lead to the second floor, which has a “squint” looking into the chancel; ten more steps lead to the upper storey. A passage and steps lead over the east gable to its roof. The tower-like S.E. buttress is of unusual dimensions. The nave has two doors (evidently rebuilt in recent times), one at each side. An ambry; a large perpendicular window and a recess occur in each wall. The north recess is two stories high; the upper reached by a staircase in the north pier of the chancel arch, which is round and rudely built, with clumsy projecting jambs, perhaps intended to support a rood beam or loft. The west gable has a large window; its tracery is gone, and its shafts are modern. It is flanked on the north by a lofty battlemented tower with curiously-corbelled roof and large double windows. It has entrances from the nave and from the north and west battlements. Another lofty tower at the south-west angle has a barrel stair of some sixty six steps.’





‘The altar-tomb has been horribly broken since Archdall’s day, and it was with difficulty the fragments of the sides could be found and pieced together…The effigies represent – to the right, a knight in full armour and conical helmet, a long sword on his left thigh, and his hands raised and clasped in prayer, his feet on a dog; to the left rests his wife in peaked head-dress, with traces of rich carving on it, a full-sleeved, long-pleated gown to the feet, which rest on a cushion carved with two birds and a cat’s head. The east slab had three niches, the left now broken away, the central one has a long-robed figure, and the right one a Bishop in pontificals. The west slab is now in the sedile; it has three floriated niches, with the flagellation of our Lord in the centre, and angels with censers on each side. The sides had similar niches, with shields between; the north side is in fragments in the nave, and has the arms of Plunkett (a bend and castle); Flemyng (checquy), 3 (probably Castlemartin), three castles; 4 Plunkett and FitzGerald. The south slab lies against the east gable and has shields of- 1, Plunkett; 2, FitzGerald (a saltire); 3, the heart pierced by two swords; 4, the instruments of the Passion.’



From an account of St Nicholas’ church, Dunsany, County Meath written by Thomas J Westropp and published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 4, No. 3 (September 1894). Since that time, the altar tomb he describes above has been reconstructed and moved to a small space on the north side of the nave.

Reopening



Partying putti in the gardens of Headfort, County Meath: they have evidently heard the news that the building is to reopen its doors as a school next month. Its design attributed to George Semple (a Dublin-based builder and self-taught architect), the house dates from the mid-1760s when constructed for the first Earl of Bective. In the following decade, the latter commissioned Robert Adam to  produce decorative schemes for a suite of rooms in the newly completed Headfort. Adam, who never visited this country, duly came up with designs for the entrance and staircase halls, as well for as a series of three adjacent spaces on the garden front culminating in a double-height saloon that was known as the ‘Eating Parlor.’ Even if not all his proposals were fully implemented, the interiors are of immense importance as the only extant examples of Adam’s work in Ireland. In 1949 the property was opened as a school which remained in operation until last March, when the institution’s then-board took the decision to close down. However, since then a group of supporters, many of them past-pupils, have come together to raise funds and re-open the establishment, thereby ensuring the future of this very important house.


Contrasting Styles II


Two country houses, both in County Meath and both now hotels. Today, Dunboyne Castle which dates from the mid-1760s and in its present form was designed by Drogheda architect George Darley for the widowed Sarah Hamilton. Although only 15 or so years later than Bellinter (see the previous post), Dunboyne Castle’s interiors are quite different, rococo having usurped baroque as the preferred style of decoration. The plasterwork of the ground floor saloon’s ceiling is reminiscent of work from the same period at Dowth Hall which was also designed by Darley (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2012/12/24/netterville-netterville-where-have-you-been) and which has been attributed to Robert West.