Kilcormac is a village in County Offaly which at the last census (2016) had a population of 935 persons (the figure was 973 in 1991). The most prominent building on its main, indeed only really significant, street is that shown here: an eight-bay convent built in 1885, probably to the design of William Henry Byrne who specialized in such commissions, for the Sisters of Mercy. Members of the order remained in residence here until two years ago, when the last nuns left and the premises, together with an acre of land to the rear, were put on the market. This is a story that can be told in almost every town and village across the country, where the decline in clerical numbers has made the maintenance of what is almost invariably the most substantial property in the vicinity unsustainable. Often the buildings then sit neglected for years, the only attention they receive from vandals and arsonists. Let’s hope this one, a handsome solid structure with nice brick detailing around the windows and attractive use of the quatrefoil motif, finds a new owner soon.
Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.
It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’
While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.
Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.
Moore Hall can be found on O’Moore Street, Tullamore, County Offaly. The house dates from the mid-1750s when built by Richard Moore, who may have been related to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville (of the first creation). It was probably quite simple but just over a century later a doctor called John Ridley added the central limestone bay with its extraordinary first floor window in Jacobean Mannerist style that sits atop a more regular doorcase flanked by Doric columns and finished with a wide fanlight. Aside from the unfortunate uPVC windows, the building survives in good condition, unlike its immediate neighbour, a pretty early 19th century cottage with Wyatt windows on either side of a tall and wide gothic doorcase: sadly this house is fast falling into dereliction.
The roofless remains of Woods Mill, County Offaly, so named because when described in the 1840s it was operated by one Thomas Woods. Dating from the late 18th/early 19th century, a time when increasing numbers of these commercial complexes were being constructed throughout the country, the building is of five storeys and six storeys. It operated as both a flour mill (water-powered thanks to the adjacent Little Brosna river) and a kiln. Converted to a saw mill at the end of the 19th century, it now stands empty, another mute witness to our increasingly lost industrial heritage.
Gloster, County Offaly has featured here before (see Spectacle as Drama, August 31st 2015) not least thanks to the exemplary and ongoing restoration programme being carried out there by the present owners. Their latest initiative has involved the very striking eye-catcher folly situated on high ground to the east of the house. Above are a couple of photographs showing how this looked until recently.
The Gloster folly is believed to date from the 1720s, making its construction some twenty years earlier than that of the better-known Conolly Folly in County Kildare. As with the main house here, the design is attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: his aunt had married Menhop Lloyd, owner of the Gloster estate and it was their son Trevor (first cousin of Pearce) who remodelled Gloster following his inheritance of the place. Rising some twenty feet high, the folly consists of a triumphal arch, flanked by obelisks on substantial plinths. Last year the whole site was cleared of vegetation before both the folly and its wing walls underwent full restoration, thereby ensuring its long-term survival and providing another example of what can be achieved in preserving our architectural heritage. Bravo to all concerned.
The entrance front of Tullynisk, County Offaly. Dating from the early 19th century and replacing an older property on the site, the house is a mixture of the classical and gothic, the former evident in the doorcase with its Ionic columns, the latter in the window directly above. The combination of the two is as unselfconsciously assured as the sheep grazing in the immediate vicinity.
In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.
As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.
Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?
Tomorrow the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland is hosting a one-day conference on the operation, presentation and promotion of industrial sites (see http://ihai.ie/calendar-of-events): seemingly some 100 of these around the country are open to the public. Lacking the necessary mineral wealth, Ireland never experienced an industrial revolution similar to that of our nearest neighbour. However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, large mills were erected harnessing the power of water (of which we have a great deal) to engage in activities such as milling. The legacy of that enterprise can still be found in sites across the entire island. Many of them are in various states of disrepair, such as this complex on the banks of the Shannon in Banagher, County Offaly.
An advantageous position on the south-eastern side of the Shannon helped Banagher to thrive from an early period: pilgrims visiting the monastic sites at Clonfert and Clonmacnoise would pass this way and it appears the first bridge across the river at this point was built around the middle of the 11th century. While there was long a military presence in the town, its economic development was initially dependent on the wool trade. Major expansion occurred from the late 1700s onwards, thanks to the development of the Grand Canal, providing this part of the country with access to the ports of Dublin and Limerick. Banagher now became a major centre for the grain trade. A boom followed and around the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s the town’s population was some 3,000 (today it is a little over half that figure). Decline followed in the second half of the century, not least owing to the abolition of the Corn Laws which allowed for the importation of cheap grain from abroad, with inevitable consequences for the domestic trade. The mill by the Shannon offers evidence of the town’s rise and fall.
Now derelict, the core of the complex is a five-storey, twelve-bay grain mill and malting works. Seemingly there was a mill on the site by the late 1700s (shown with an external waterwheel on its north gable on an engraving of c.1800). This was presumably used as a flour and corn mill and parts of it remain incorporated into the present, much-enlarged block. On Ordnance Survey maps of 1838 and 1884 the building is described as being ‘Haughtons Mills.’ Initially it took advantage of water channelled through the arches of a bridge spanning the river at this point but later a steam engine was installed, making the use of water redundant. Around 1880 the buildings were taken over by F.A. Waller and thereafter used for malting. It only ceased to be operational in the 1970s when Waller amalgamated with D.E. Williams of Tullamore and the Banagher buildings were no longer needed. Since then the main block, together with ancillary offices and out-houses, has fallen into ruin. Can the site hope to have a viable future? Perhaps tomorrow’s conference might produce some answers.
Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.
In Donizetti’s 1830 opera Anna Bolena, the unhappy queen tells her erstwhile admirer Henry Percy, future sixth Earl of Northumberland, ‘Ambiziosa, un serto io volli’ e un serto ebb’io di spine’ (Ambitious, I wanted a crown, and got a crown of thorns). She came from an ambitious family. Originally of East Anglian yeoman stock, the Boleyns gradually improved their economic and social circumstances during the 15th century: Anne’s great-grandfather Sir Geoffrey Boleyn had been a London merchant who prospered to such an extent that he was elected Lord Mayor of the city, received a knighthood and bought Hever Castle in Kent. His son William married Lady Margaret Butler, a daughter and co-heiress of the seventh Earl of Ormond: this is the origin of the Boleyns’ links with Ireland. Sir William and Lady Margaret’s eldest son Sir Thomas Boleyn further scaled the social ladder by marrying Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk. A skilled diplomat and courtier, Sir Thomas lay claim to the Butler title following the death without male heirs of his grandfather, the Earl of Ormond in 1515. This was disputed by an Irish claimant, Piers Butler but once Henry VIII became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, he persuaded Butler to renounce the Ormond title (he was created Earl of Ossory instead). Accordingly in 1529 Sir Thomas Boleyn became not just Earl of Ormond, but also Earl of Wiltshire, his claim to the latter also coming through familial ties with the Butler family. Meanwhile his only surviving son George received the courtesy title Viscount Rochford. Following the downfall and execution of both Anne and her brother in 1536, their ambitious father lost his position at court and retired to the country. The year before his death, the Ormond title was restored to Piers Butler: his grandson, Thomas Butler the tenth earl, was a cousin of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I who is said to have called him her ‘black husband’ and certainly made him Lord Treasurer of Ireland.
In 1803, a limestone slab measuring eight by four feet is said to have been discovered close to Clonony Castle, County Offaly. This is recorded as bearing the following inscription: ‘Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.’ Understandably there has been much popular speculation about the stone and its words. George Boleyn, as mentioned, was Anne’s only brother: he was executed two days before her in May 1536 on a trumped-up charge of incest. George was as ambitious for advancement as the rest of his family: he had been introduced to the English court at the age of ten and not long afterwards became one of the king’s pageboys. From the mid-1520s onwards, as his sister’s star rose, he became a favourite of Henry VIII receiving a series of ever-more significant grants and offices from the crown. Around this time he married Jane Parker, daughter of the wealthy and well-connected tenth Lord Morley. Following her husband’s disgrace and death in 1536 she retired temporarily from court but then returned and served Henry VIII’s successive wives until February 1542 when, because of her links with Catherine Howard, she too was beheaded. Although they were married for more than a decade, there is no record of George and Jane Boleyn having had any children, either male or female, and no heirs for the couple are known. This is why the stone found at Clonony so curious: it claims his two great-granddaughters were buried there. But since he had no offspring, the matter is open to conjecture.
Clonony Castle is a tower house, probably built at the start of the 16th century by the MacCoghlan family who were hereditary chieftains in this part of the country. They remained in situ until the aftermath of the Nine Years War when dispossessed of much of their land. At the start of the 17th century Clonony had been acquired by an English official Roger Downton and in 1612 he sold it to Matthew de Renzi. The latter was a German-born cloth merchant who, having run up substantial debts in London, moved to Ireland in 1606. The funds to buy Clonony and 100 surrounding acres probably came from his first wife’s dowry. De Renzi is a fascinating character, not least because, a keen linguist who already spoke six languages, he learnt to write and speak both colloquial and classical Irish and composed an Irish grammar. The intention was to help him as he struggled to establish his presence in the Midlands, fiercely resisted by the MacCoghlans whose head, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, told everyone in the locality to neither buy from nor sell to de Renzi (except at excessive rates), and to ignore the boundaries of his territory. Soon he faced such intimidation that he thought it best to spend the winter at the County Roscommon home of his second wife, a daughter of Sir Oliver St John, writing ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’ Nevertheless, by the end of the following decade he had increased his landholding to over 1,000 acres, after which he sold Clonony, moved to Dublin, became a government official and was knighted in 1627, dying seven years later.
Clonony, de Renzi discovered, was not an especially comfortable residence, tall and narrow with very small windows so that little light penetrated the interior. In form it remains a typical tower house, some fifty feet high over three storeys, the greater part of each floor being given over to a single vaulted chamber. Clonony was restored as a private house in the 19th century when repairs were carried out on the bawn wall and, one suspects, larger windows inserted into the tower. The present owner has carried out further repairs and restoration, while retaining the essential character of the place. Incidentally, a 1533 proclamation of forbidding criticism of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was repealed by the Irish government three years ago in July 2015.