Ghost House


I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.




I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.




It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.


Ghost House by Robert Frost. 
Crossdrum Lower, County Meath – one of the houses featured in The Irish Aesthete: Ruins of Ireland (Cico Books), now available to order from your favourite local bookshop or online from Amazon…

Scattered Remains


Lough Ree has been mentioned here on a couple of occasions (see With Advantageous Views, September 19th 2018 and Well Lodged, October 15th 2018). The second-largest lake over the course of the river Shannon (and the third-largest lake in Ireland) Lough Ree is some 28 kilometres long and borders on three counties: Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon. Across its length can be found many islands of differing sizes: until the 1950s many of these were inhabited by farmers: the last man to live on a Lough Ree island only died in February 2018. Lough Ree appears on the map derived from Ptolomy’s second century Geographia where it is called Rheba, indicating awareness of its existence beyond the shores of Ireland. Most likely Rheda is a corruption of Rí, the Irish word for King, whence derives Lough Ree. However, while this might be designated the Lake of Kings, for a long time it was better known for the monastic settlements that were once widespread on the islands here.




Inchcleraun derives its name from Clothru, according to ancient legend the sister of Queen Mebh of Connacht: the latter is said to have retired to the island where while bathing she was killed, seemingly by her nephew (the story is exceedingly complicated). A monastery was founded here around the year 530 by St Diarmaid: a little church, the oldest on the site, is known as Templedermot. By the eighth century Inchcleraun was home to a number of religious settlements, but over the course of the next 500-odd years these were subject to repeated attack and plunder. Today there are the remains of some seven churches, the largest of which is called Templemurry: according to old lore, any woman entering this building would die within a year.




Running to just over 132 acres, Inchmore is the largest of the islands on Lough Ree and lies inside the borders of County Westmeath. The first religious settlement here is said to have been made in the fifth century by one St Liberius. However, in the second half of the 12th century, a priory of the Canons Regular of St Augustin was established here: it is the remains of this establishment – perhaps with later embellishments – which can be found on the island today. Like all such houses, the Augustinian priory was closed down in the 16th century, in 1567 Inchmore being granted by the crown authorities to Christopher Nugent, Baron Delvin.




Like Inchcleraun, Saints Island lies inside the boundaries of County Longford but is not strictly an island since a narrow causeway connects it to the mainland. A monastery was established here in the mid-sixth century by St Ciarán who would later go on to found a more famous house at Clonmacnoise. In 1089 Saints Island was attacked and plundered by Murkertach O’Brien and a large number of Danes. However around 1244 Sir Henry Dillon caused the settlement of Augustinian canons in a Priory of All Saints to be settled on the site of St Ciarán’s earlier foundation. As with all other such establishments, it was closed down in the 16th century but the main part of the church with its fine east window, clearly subject to alterations 100-odd years earlier, survives as do a few portions of the priory buildings.

June 1921 II




As already mentioned, June 1921 was a particularly bad month for country house burnings in north-west County Cork. One of those then lost was Rye Court, seat of the Tonson Rye family: the Ryes were originally living in Cork city (where one of their number was mayor in 1667 and 1668) but had moved to Ryecourt before the end of the 17th century. There they built a fine house and, at some date in the second half of the 18th century changed their name to Tonson Rye as a result of marriage into another family. Ryecourt looked south over a fine parkland, many trees of which still survive but the building was gutted by fire in 1921 and subsequently demolished (a small house was built inside the adjacent walled garden). Immediately behind the old house stood a courtyard with offices to east and west, and with gates and railings closing its north side: all these survive, albeit in poor condition, as can be seen here.


June 1921 I



During Ireland’s War of Independence, more country houses were burnt in County Cork than in any other part of the country. June 1921 saw a particularly extensive outbreak of arson attacks on such properties in the north-west of the county, one such house being Warren’s Grove. As its name indicates, this belonged to the Warren family whose main residence a few miles away bore the equally imaginative name of Warren’s Court. More is known about the history of the latter than of Warren’s Grove, which seems to date from the early 19th century. In 1837 Samuel Lewis listed the property as belonging to John Borlase Warren, a younger brother of Sir Augustus Warren, third baronet. Following Sir Augustus’ death in 1863 without a direct heir, Warren’s Court – and the baronetcy – was inherited by the now-Sir John Borlase and, following his own death less than eight months later, his eldest son, another Sir Augustus. Accordingly Warren’s Grove became a secondary residence for the family. It was burnt by the IRA in mid-June 1921, along with Warren’s Court (and another Warren property in the same part of the world, Crookstown House). Warren’s Court was subsequently demolished, but the shell of Warren’s Grove still stands, the outbuildings in a courtyard to the rear of the house having been converted of late into holiday accommodation.


Historical Recollections


‘Ferns. A small town in the county of Wexford, Ireland. The history of this town commences with that of its religious establishments. It is said that in the year 598, an Irish king, named Brandubh, gave to St Maodhog, or as he is sometimes called St. Aedan, the lands of Ferns, where he founded an abbey and was consecrated bishop.’




‘The rising consequence of Ferns was interrupted early in the ninth century, by the incursions of the Danes who plundered and burned the abbey in the years 834, 836, 838, 917 and 928. By the same marauders it was, for the sixth time, consumed by fire A.D. 930; and the town was accidentally destroyed by conflagration in 1165. In the following year the town and abbey were reduced to ashes by the celebrated Dermod Macmurrough, king of Leinster. As some atonement for the crime of burning the ancient monastery of Ferns, he afterwards founded at this place a new abbey for canons regular of the order of St. Augustin, under the invocation of the Virgin Mary, which he richly endowed with lands.’




‘The remains of the abbey still excite great interest by their historical recollections. It was here that king Dermod was secreted and entertained, whilst waiting in the early part of 1169 for the arrival of his British allies; – a period pregnant with the future fortunes of Ireland! The remains of the fabric consist chiefly of two sides of a cloister, or of a narrow chapel, having two rows of tall windows, of the lancet form. The windows and the piers are uniformly of an equal breadth. Adjoining this architectural fragment is a church, the steeple of which is on a very unusual plan. The lower part represents an oblong square of confined proportions, the dimensions being about eleven feet by eight. At the height of twelve or thirteen feet from the ground, the steeple assumes a round form, seven feet in diameter and twenty in height. The whole is constructed of a reddish stone and, withinside, a flight of steps leads to the summit whence is obtained a delightful prospect over an immense extent of landscape.’

From The British cyclopaedia of the arts, sciences, history, geography, literature, natural history, and biography, London, 1838.

Eaten Bread is Soon Forgotten


Portlaw, County Waterford and its association with the Malcolmson family have been mentioned here before (see: A Shell, June 28th 2017). The Malcolmsons were of Scottish Presbyterian origin but in the mid-18th century one branch became members of the Quaker community. A son of this line, David Malcolmson, settled in Clonmel, County Tipperary where from 1793 onwards he became involved in the corn milling industry and enjoyed such success that when Richard Lalor Shiel visited the town in 1828 he could write ‘Malcolmson’s Mill is I believe the finest in Ireland. Here half the harvest of the adjoining counties as well as Tipperary is powdered.’ By that date the family, fearful that the Corn Laws (restrictions on the import of grain which favoured domestic production) were to be revoked by parliament, had moved into another business in another part of the country. In 1825 Malcolmson took a 999-year lease on a house called Mayfield and the adjacent 16 acres from a local landlord, John Medlycott. A small corn mill, damaged by fire, stood on the site and this was redeveloped as a vast, six-storey cotton mill, building a canal to utilize the power of the adjacent river Clodiagh. The enterprise required large numbers of employees and as a result the little village of Portlaw expanded rapidly. Around the time the Malcolmsons began work on the mill, it comprised less than 400 residents living in 71 houses: by 1841 the population of Portlaw had grown to 3,647 souls occupying 458 houses, most of the latter built by the Malcolmsons as part of a planned urban settlement. The family lived on the edge of the town and directly above the mill in Mayfield.






The core of Mayfield was a classical house dating from c.1740 and it was here the Malcolmsons initially lived. However, in 1849 Joseph Malcolmson, who had assumed responsibility for the business, employed architect William Tinsley to enlarge the building. Like his client, Tinsley originally came from Clonmel and had built up a substantial practice in the area, so he was an obvious choice. However, by the time Joseph Malcolmson decided on a further expansion of Mayfield, Tinsley was no longer available: in 1851 he had emigrated with his family to the United States where he enjoyed an equally successful career before dying in Cincinnati in 1885. So in 1857 Malcolmson instead employed John Skipton Mulvany who specialized in a loosely-Italianate style architecture and who was responsible for giving the house its present appearance. Mulvany added many of Mayfield’s most striking features, not least a three-storey tower that served as an entrance on the house’s eastern front. This rises considerably higher than the rest of the three-storey over basement building which is of seven bays: the tower accordingly provided views both down to the factory and over to the village, allowing the Malcolmsons a paternalistic prospect of their workers. Mulvany was also responsible for the single-storey over basement wings on either side of the main block: that to the south served as a conservatory, that to the north held a pair of reception rooms. However the family were not to enjoy this splendor for long, the cotton factory which generated their wealth being ruined in the aftermath of the American Civil War (the Malcolmsons had extended credit to the losing side).






In the last quarter of the 19th century the Portlaw factory was adapted for spinning but this enterprise didn’t last long and it was only in the early 1930s that a new purpose was found for the complex when it was acquired to act as a tannery by the Irish Leathers Group. Mayfield, which had for a period been occupied by members of the de la Poer Beresford family of nearby Curraghmore, now became an office premises for the new enterprise, and remained as such for the next half century. The tannery closed in the 1980s, and as a result Mayfield no longer had any purpose, although to the end of that decade a proposal was put forward to convert both factory and house into a retirement home. The scheme never took off and for the past thirty-odd years Mayfield has stood empty, falling into its present state of dereliction. As can be seen, little of the original mid-Victorian interiors remains other than fragments of plasterwork and rotting timbers. The exterior of the building has proven more sturdy, and retains the same appearance found in old photographs. But it is difficult to know what sort of future, if any, Mayfield might have. There is an old Irish expression Ní bhíonn cuimhne ar an arán a hitear, commonly translated as ‘Eaten bread is soon forgotten.’ Portlaw as seen today owes its existence to the enterprise and initiative of the Malcolmsons: what a shame that so little has been done to acknowledge their contribution to the area.

In Indifferent Repair



The former church of St John the Baptist in Stonehall, County Westmeath. Built in 1809 thanks to a grant of £600 from the Board of First Fruits, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) Samuel Hall as ‘a plain, badly constructed edifice, in indifferent repair.’ Nevertheless it survived to serve its purpose until taken out of service in 1962: since then the church has fallen into its present ruin.


Well Lodged

Hare Island, County Westmeath is located at the southern end of Lough Ree is said to derive its name from the number of hares that once inhabited its 57 acres. It appears there was a monastic settlement here established in the sixth century by St Ciarán before he moved on to Clonmacnoise. However, it was subject to repeated attack and plunder, and cannot have been a very secure place to live. At some point in the second half of the 12th century, the Augustinian canons settled on the island, perhaps under the protection of the local Dillon family who controlled this part of the country. They remained in possession of the island until 1653 when Sir James Dillon went into exile, having formed the famous Dillon Regiment which then fought in the French army. His estates passed into the possession of a Dublin merchant Ridgely Hatfield, who was sheriff of Westmeath and in the 18th century Hare Island next came into the ownership of the Hackett family. They sold it to the Handcocks, landowners in Westmeath whose main seat was at Moydrum Castle (see An Unforgettable Fire, August 15th 2018).






Originally from Lancashire, William Handcock was the first member of his family to settle in Ireland, arriving here during the 1650s. Within a decade he had become a member of the Irish parliament, representing Athlone as did many of his descendants. In this area he built a house called Twyford, which still stands but is now ruinous. The Handcocks prospered and in 1812 William’s great-grandson, also called William, was created the first Baron Castlemaine of Moydrum. Around the same time and presumably to mark his elevation to the peerage, he commissioned the design of Moydrum Castle from Richard Morrison. It is believed that the same architect was responsible for the lodge on Hare Island. A keen sportsman, Lord Castlemaine used the building for fishing and shooting expeditions.






Mark Bence-Jones comments that the lodge on Hare Island gives the impression ‘of having been concocted out of the “left-overs” from several different houses of various styles and periods. Among the elements incorporated are an 18th century classical pedimented doorcase, gothick windows, one of them with a mullioned bay and, on the exterior, a Regency veranda its wide eaves supported by slim iron columns. The main lodge is quite small and of one storey, the main room obviously serving for receptions, parties and dancing. Behind are a handful of smaller spaces, perhaps acting as accommodation. But behind the lodge are further ranges, including a pair of two-storey pavilions facing each other across a narrow courtyard. From what remains, these appear to have been for guests (Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, a cousin of Queen Victoria is said to have stayed on Hare Island in 1850 as a guest of the third Lord Castlemaine). Behind these pavilions are further outbuildings, probably for servants, livestock and so forth. The buildings remained in use until relatively recently, being available for rent. Unfortunately they have now fallen into serious disrepair and the lodge’s future does not look encouraging.

Amid Low-Lying Fields


Today Athenry, County Galway is best known for featuring in a lachrymose ballad usually sung by performers somewhat worse for alcohol. However, the town was of significance from the Middle Ages onwards, as evidenced by large sections of the mediaeval walls that still survive, and a number of important buildings in the centre, not least a castle dating from c.1235. Originally guarding the crossing point over the river Clarin, it consists of a keep and the remains of a separating banqueting hall all enclosed within their own defences. The town subsequently developed around this castle, constructed by the Anglo-Norman knight Meyler de Bermingham whose descendants would become Barons Athenry and Earls of Louth. De Bermingham was also responsible for the other significant mediaeval remains in Athenry, the nearby Dominican Priory.




One of the Dominican order’s most important houses in Ireland, Athenry Priory of SS. Peter and Paul was founded by Meyler de Bermingham in 1241 when he purchased the land on which it stands for 160 marks and then provided the same amount for the construction of the church, as well as providing some of his men to help with the work: he would be buried inside its walls following his death in 1252. Many of his descendants were likewise interred here. Other local families, both Anglo-Norman and Gaelic assisted in the development of the site: Felim O’Conor built the refectory, Eugene O’Heyne the dormitory, Cornelius O’Kelly the chapter house, and others the cloister, infirmary, guesthouse and so forth: almost nothing of these domestic buildings survives. Alterations were made over successive generations. In the late 13th/early 14th century for example, rebuilding work took place on the west gable of the church, to which an aisle and transept were added on the north side. In the fourteenth century William de Burgh (forebear of the Earls and Marquesses of Clanricarde, with whom the priory would later be associated) left money to enlarge the church, adding some 20 feet to the choir, and building a new entrance at its west end (now largely lost after a handball alley was built on the exterior of the building in the last century). Meanwhile in 1408 Joanna de Ruffur left funds to construct a new east window. A fire destroyed much of the priory in 1423, after which indulgences were granted by Popes Martin V and Eugene IV to shoe who contributed to the buildings’ repair. During this period, a crossing tower was erected in the church, with a number of windows being replaced or blocked, and the aisle arcade being reduced.




In the 16th century, Athenry Priory initially escaped the dissolution that befell other such religious establishments. In a letter dated July 1541 Anthony St Leger, Lord Deputy of Irleand advised Henry VIII that as the priory ‘is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit.’ However, the head of the priory Adam de Coppynger and his fellow friars agreed to abandon their religious habits and dress in secular clothing. In 1568 Elizabeth I directed that the Earl of Clanricarde could preserve the friary for a burial place but nine years later the priory and 30 acres of land in Athenry (plus more elsewhere) was granted to the town of Athenry: around the same time both town and priory were sacked by members of the Earl of Clanricarde’s family. Towards the end of the century the Dominicans reoccupied the priory but it suffered when the whole town was burnt in 1597. Still the Dominicans lingered on in the area, until the early 1650s when English soldiers wrecked the priory. Later the domestic buildings were largely demolished, and an army barracks built in their place. This remained in use until 1850. A late 18th century image shows the church without roof but the central tower still standing: it collapsed in 1845. Relatively little change has since occurred.




Despite quantities of damage inflicted on it over the centuries, the interior of the priory church retains much of interest. Of particular note are two large monuments in the choir. That tucked into the south-east corner was a mausoleum for the de Burgh family, who it will be remembered were permitted by Elizabeth I to use the building as a burial site. The monument in its present form dates from 1835 when repaired by Ulick de Burgh, first Marquess of Clanricarde. The upper portion (which looks as though designed to have something further on top of it) carries a peer’s coronet and the family coat of arms with its motto: Un Roy, Un Foy, Une Loy. A considerable portion of the choir is then taken up with a monumental tomb to Lady Matilda Bermingham, youngest daughter of the last Lord Athenry (also first, and last, Earl of Louth), who died in 1788 at the age of 20. Of cut limestone, the tomb was decorated with an abundance of Coade figures and stone panels, one of which bears the date 1791, and an urn which features the deceased’s profile. As an instance of contemporary misinformation, one frequently reads online that this tomb was badly damaged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in search of treasure: since Lady Matilda Bermingham died over 130 years after these troops were in Ireland this seems somewhat improbable, and yet still the story circulates in the internet. The truth is more prosaic. In October 2002 vandals broke into the church, breached the tomb’s walls and pulled out the coffin: who needs to import despoilers when they can be found at home? It was reported at the time that repairs were being carried out on the monument, but these do not appear to have been very extensive and much of the Coade stone ornamentation has been forever lost.

Rusticated Remains


On a hill to the north of Moydrum Castle, County Westmeath and now surrounded by woodland, the rusticated exterior of a church once serving the Handcock family. The present building dates from the 1840s when built by Richard Handcock, third Viscount Castlemaine to provide relief work during the Great Famine. It replaced an earlier church on or near the same site also constructed by the family in 1740, and was in turn further altered in the 1860s by the addition of a gabled porch on the west end.