Former Greatness

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Like almost every urban settlement in Ireland, the origins of Trim, County Meath seem to depend on an early saint, in this case Lommán (or Loman) who is believed to have been involved with a monastery here in the late 5th/early 6th century. But the town really owes its importance to the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy, granted the Lordship of Meath by Henry II in 1172. De Lacy was responsible for initiating construction of the immense castle that still dominates the skyline in this part of the country, but not far away are other striking ruins that receive far less attention. These are the remains of Newtown Trim, established in 1206 by Simon de Rochfort who fourteen years earlier had become Bishop of Meath. Until then the diocesan seat had been in Clonard but after the abbey thehre was attacked and destroyed by the Irish in 1200 de Rochfort took advantage of the situation to have the see transferred to Trim.

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Located about half a mile from Trim and on the other side of the river Boyne, Newtown centred on a priory of Canons Regular, its church dedicated to SS Peter and Paul effectively acting as a cathedral. Little enough of this remains, but sufficient to indicate its immensity: this was one of the largest such buildings in mediaeval Ireland, and vaulted in stone which was not always the case. The greater part of the remaining area is the chancel leading towards a now-lost east window: some on either side do survive. At the western end of the choir section lay the nave but this has also disappeared. Of the ancillary buildings, only small portions of the chapter house and refectory (the latter immediately above the river bank) still stand but the distances between these ruins provide an excellent sense of how important was this religious house. The scale of the site is made all the more apparent by the remains of a parish church to the immediate east, its walls dwarfed by those of the adjacent priory. Inside the little church is a well-preserved limestone altar tomb of 1586 commemorating Sir Lucas Dillon and his wife Jane Bathe who lie on the top while around the sides are family coats of arms and a scene showing a family group, presumably the Dillons.

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A little to the south-east lie a second set of ruins, those of the former Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist which, like the Augustinian priory, was founded by Simon de Rochfort. Some of the surviving walls, not least those to the west, have a defensive character, suggesting the need for protection from attack, a not-unusual occurrence in Ireland during the upheavals of the later Middle Ages. The long church, without aisles, concludes at the east end in three lancet windows but there is little other extant decoration. The living quarters here are in somewhat better condition than in the other religious house, as in the post-Reformation era St John’s was granted to Robert Dillon, an attorney general to the crown and then passed to the Ashe family who made some alterations for domestic use. In other words, like Bective Abbey a few miles away, it was converted for secular purposes. Whereas visitors tend to be drawn to Trim Castle and its attendant attractions, Newtown Trim is comparatively little known. As a result, it retains the kind of romantic appeal that many other ruins have lost. This is especially apparent on a winter afternoon when the sun sinks behind these remains, but not before bathing the stone in a roseate glow.

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A Man of Taste and Literature

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Described by Maria Edgeworth as ‘An excellent clergyman, of a liberal spirit and conciliating manners, a man of taste and literature,’ the Rev. Daniel Beaufort was also a talented amateur architect. Here is his design for a new church at Ardbraccan, County Meath dating from the 1770s. At the west end it was proposed the building incorporate a still-extant 15th century tower which rises 100 feet: accordingly Beaufort proposed the church run to the same length. The tower was also to be given single-storey gothick wings on either side. In the event, a simpler version of Beaufort’s drawing was constructed, of four bays rather than six (thereby making the nave shorter) and leaving the tower unattached. This can be seen below, in a photograph taken inside Ardbraccan’s demesne wall. I shall be giving a talk on the life and work of Daniel Beaufort next Thursday, November 17th at 7.30pm in St Mary’s Church of Ireland, Church Hill, Navan (a building for which he was also responsible). For further information, see: http://mahs.freesite.host/index.php/2016-programme

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Escaping a Family Curse

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In 1824 the former courtesan Harriette Wilson advised a number of her ex-lovers that in return for a consideration of £200 she would omit their names from the memoirs she was then writing. The Duke of Wellington is famously said to have retorted ‘Publish and be damnned.’ He duly appeared in the book, as did another Irishman, James Lennox Naper. By the time the work appeared Naper was a respectably married man living on his estate in County Meath. However, the tale recounted by Wilson concerned his life more than a decade earlier, when he was a young Member of Parliament living in London and conducting a liaison with the author’s friend and sister-courtesan Julia Johnstone. The latter was at least fourteen years older than her lover (Harriette Wilson thought he looked more like her son) and she did not find him especially attractive. Nevertheless, she was urged by Wilson to respond to his ardours, not least for the sake of Johnstone’s many children: ‘”Napier [sic] is your man”,’ Wilson told her. ‘”Since you could be unchaste to gratify your own passions, I am sure it cannot be wrong to secure the comfort and protection of six beautiful children.” “But Napier’s vanity makes me sick,” retorted Julia, impatiently. “The possession of my person would not satisfy him. He wants me to declare and prove that I love him; and the thing is physically impossible”.’ Eventually she overcame her reluctance, but the match was never very happy. On one occasion Wilson discussed the matter with her sister Fanny, ‘”Oh, he is horridly stingy,” answered Fanny, “and Julia is obliged to affect coldness and refuse him the slightest favour till he brings her money; otherwise she would get nothing out of him. Yet he seems to be passionately fond of her, and writes sonnets to her beauty, styling her, at forty, although the mother of nine children, ‘his beautiful maid’.”‘ The affair only ended with Johnstone’s death in 1815.

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In 1593 the Dorset-born judge Robert Napier was knighted and sent to Ireland as Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer. He appears to have been singularly inept at his job, forever complaining about this country’s climate and seeking a better position on the other side of the Irish Sea. In 1600 he travelled to England and thereafter refused to return to Ireland. Accordingly he was suspended from office in 1601 and replaced the following year. Nonetheless, during the short period he held office, Sir Robert managed to found the family’s fortunes here, and in the third quarter of the 17th century his grandson James Naper further improved it by marrying Dorothy Petty, sister of Sir William Petty whose own descendants would eventually become Marquesses of Lansdowne. A series of strategic marriages meant that the Napers eventually came to own some 180,000 acres of land, with their main seat being at Loughcrew, County Meath. This was the estate inherited by Charles Lennox Naper who, despite being so stingy to poor Julia Johnstone, was believed to enjoy an annual income of more than £20,000. A considerable amount of it was ultimately spent on Loughcrew, where around the time Naper’s name featured in Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, he commissioned a substantial new residence designed by Charles Cockerel.

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Naper’s splendid house is no more: over the course of less than 100 years Loughcrew suffered three fires and was not rebuilt after the last of these. Only part of the building’s portico was re-erected in recent years, while adjacent outbuildings were converted to provide accommodation. The greater part of the estate has likewise gone, and little remains to demonstrate the former wealth of this family. Yet here and there in the surrounding landscape are remnants indicating how extensive was the demesne and how ambitious once its owners’ notions. Today’s pictures show the Rustic Lodge, one of at least six formerly marking approaches to the house, each of them different in design from the others. As its name indicates, this lodge is resolutely pastoral in concept, and might almost have been conceived as a nest in which Naper could conduct subsequent romances. Believed to date from c.1840 the two-storey building’s ground floor features a blind arcade resting on rusticated stone piers, with openings for door and mullioned casement windows. The upper level is of yellow brick, with a patterned roof of slates and tiles, the two chimney stacks being again in rusticated stone. What remains of the interior suggests a similar character, the chimneypieces once more in rusticated stone and the entrance hall’s coved wooden ceiling almost alpine in spirit. The prettiest feature is a spiral staircase tucked into a corner of the former sitting room whence it sinuously climbs to the first floor before concluding in a final coquettish swirl of iron balusters. Now in poor condition, with the surrounding woodland encroaching ever nearer and the climate Sir Robert Napier so disliked having an impact on the fabric, one worries this lodge, like much else at Loughcrew, might be lost forever. It is said the main house on the estate suffered from 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.’ All being well, the Rustic Lodge will escape this fate and enjoy a happier future.

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A Sick Building

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Last Monday, the Irish Times published a feature on the threatened demolition of a former Church of Ireland primary school in Glasthule, County Dublin: an application has been lodged with the local authority for the present building to be replaced by four so-called ‘townhouses.’ Objections have been raised to this plan on the grounds that humanitarian and Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement may have attended the school, thereby linking it to the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year. However on Wednesday the same newspaper carried a letter from one of Casement’s biographers outlining the peripatetic nature of his upbringing and thus confuting the notion that he had ever been educated in the Glasthule establishment.
Above is an image of the former County Meath Infirmary on Bridge Street, Navan. A decade younger than the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, it dates from the mid-18th century, at which time, according to a subsequent account, ‘The gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Navan, from their observation of the various calamities and miseries the poor undergo,for want of proper and timely assistance in their several maladies and disorders, did propose to found a County Hospital. Accordingly a subscription was opened at an Assembly at Navan, the first of October 1753; and soon after the Foundation of a County Hospital was laid on a convenient and healthy situation, on an eminence at the entrance into the town.’ A plaque above the main entrance carries the date 1754 and a quotation from St Mark’s Gospel: ‘I was sick and you visited me.’
A supposedly protected structure the seven-bay, three storey County Infirmary (its premises extended in the 19th century) continued to serve the locality until finally closed in September 2010. The building stood vacant before finally being sold three years later. It has remained empty and visibly deteriorating ever since. As can be seen, several of the windows are now broken, there are slates missing from the roof and the fabric is clearly suffering. Designed to tend the sick, now the building itself is in need of care. Unlike the former school premises in Glasthule, the County Infirmary can claim no connection with someone famous (although a plaque linking it with the 1916 Rising has recently been placed on the outside wall). Perhaps for this reason there appears to be little public concern over its present state and future survival. Yet in a town which retains precious few historic buildings of any merit, this is an important link to the past and to the generous philanthropists who funded its construction and medical endeavours. Is it enough to believe we should only preserve our architectural heritage provided there is a link, however putative or fanciful, to dead patriots (and even that has too often proven an insufficient safeguard)? Should we not value a building on its own merits, whether as a tangible part of our history, as an important legacy to pass on to the next generation or even – heretical thought – due to inherent aesthetic excellence? Both the Glasthule schoolhouse and the County Infirmary in Navan, together with thousands of other properties across the country, need to be considered on all these terms and not just because someone now held in esteem may or may not once have crossed their thresholds.

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An Echo of Lost Grandeur

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Now providing access to Dolly’s Grove, County Meath, this limestone triumphal arch seemingly once stood at the entrance to Summerhill in the same county. Among Ireland’s very finest country houses Summerhill was built in the 1730s but is no more, having been burnt in February 1922, after which its dramatic shell survived another thirty-five years before being demolished (for more on the house, see My Name is Ozymandias, April 1st 2013). Summerhill’s design has traditionally been attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and some of his stylistic tics, such as blind niches and oculi, can be seen here in the Dolly’s Grove arch suggesting the architect was responsible for this piece of work also.

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House of Stone

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Duleek, County Meath derives its name from the Irish words daimh liag meaning house of stone and is, it seems, the oldest known reference to such a church being made from stone rather than wood. A monastery was founded here in the fifth century by St Cianán, a disciple of St Patrick, but the ruins of St Mary’s Augustinian priory seen here date from the 12th and 13th centuries, with the large tower at the west end erected in the 15th century at a time when churches and monasteries were subject to attack. An adjacent early 19th century Anglican church no longer serves its intended purpose but has been converted into a restaurant.

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Not so Cosy

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There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of the Irish village: here is an example of the deterioration found across the country. On a key corner site in Crossakiel, County Meath stands a now-vacated former pub and grocery which, with slates gone from the roof and windows broken, only looks set to fall into further ruin. When that happens, as seems to be inevitable, the possibility of Crossakiel having a viable commercial future will grow even more remote than is the case at present. And so the decline continues.

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