Wrapped in Mystery


Despite Ireland being a relatively small country, it can often be difficult to discover information about many of our historic buildings, the precise details of their origin and development lost to local fable. Such is the case with Gortkelly Castle, County Tipperary, about which surprisingly little is known. Samuel Lewis, for example, did not include the place in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) nor, more than a century later, does it appear in Mark Bence-Jones’s Guide to Irish country houses (1978), or indeed in any other relevant publication. Yet this is hardly a modest cottage, so the absence of documentation is strange, although by no means unusual. 





It appears that for at least two centuries, Gortkelly was home to a branch of the Ryan family. In 1746 John Ryan received a lease for 31 years of the land on which the house stands. The lease was given by one Daniel Ryan: despite the same surname, the two men are not thought to have been related. Based at Inch, a few miles to the east of Gortkelly, Daniel Ryan was that relatively rare individual in the mid-18th century: a Roman Catholic who had held onto a large estate. Six years before granting the lease, he had employed John Ryan as an agent, to oversee the management of his property, collect rent from other tenants and so forth. Presumably John Ryan had proven competent in the position, and this explains why he was leased several hundred acres at Gortkelly. The lease was renewed in 1781 to Andrew Ryan and then in 1814 to John Ryan. In the 1870s, another Andrew Ryan of Gortkelly Castle, Borrisoleigh, owned 906 acres in County Tipperary. This estate was advertised for sale in December 1877 but the family seems to have remained in residence, since one Patrick Ryan is listed as dying there in 1937. 





As already mentioned, almost no information exists about the building now known as Gortkelly Castle. www.buildingsofireland.ie proposes that the core of the house dates from c.1800 with alterations made to its external appearance some 30 years later. However, given that John Ryan received his lease on the land here in 1746, the original construction date could be earlier. On high ground facing almost due east, the building clearly began as a classical house of five bays and three storeys; an extensive range of outbuildings, presumably from the same period, still stand to the immediate south. From what remains of the interior, it appears there were four reception rooms on the ground floor, with the central space to the rear occupied by a staircase hall lit by a tall arched window on the return. At some subsequent period, the decision was taken to modify the exterior – of rubble limestone – so as to give the house the appearance, if only superficially, of a castle. Accordingly, a crenellated parapet was added to the front and side elevations, slender octagonal towers placed on corners of the facade, and the entrance dressed up with a projecting polygonal tower climbing above the roofline to a belvedere which must have offered wonderful views across the surrounding countryside. These elements are of brick, the whole building then rendered and scored to look as though of dressed stone. These decorative flourishes are so shallow that they must be early 19th century, certainly before the Gothic Revival movement demanded a more authentic historical approach. Whoever was responsible for this work is now unknown. Seemingly Gortkelly Castle was unroofed around 1940 (in other words, a few years after the death of Patrick Ryan) and then left to fall into the striking ruin that can be seen today, another part of Ireland’s architectural history wrapped in mystery.  

Off its Head



Located on the north-east corner of the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, this is Scully’s Cross – or at least what remains of it. Dating from 1867, the rusticated base of the structure contains a mausoleum to the wealthy Roman Catholic Scully family: above the entrance is a plaque carved with their name in Irish Ó Scolaidhe. A stepped pyramid then leads up to the base of the cross proper, its shaft, each side of which is carved with a series of biblical scenes, rising some 20 feet high. The top of the cross – ringed in the early Irish Christian style – can be found scattered on the ground around the mausoleum, having fallen when the monument was struck by lightning in 1976. 

When All Those Rooms and Passages Are Gone



A handsome ashlar limestone triumphal arch marking the former entrance into the Johnstown estate, County Tipperary. This structure presumably dates from the last quarter of the 18th century and was erected at the same time as the main house, commissioned for Peter Holmes, M.P. for Banagher, County Offaly in the Irish House of Commons. In typical fashion of the time, he called the place after himself: Peterfield. Members of his family continued to live there until 1865 when the estate was bought for more than £13,000 by William Headech. He had arrived in Ireland around a quarter-century earlier as secretary to the Imperial Slate Quarry Company at Portroe. Headech later bought the company and made a fortune from slate production, allowing him to buy Peterfield, which he renamed Johnstown.



Headech’s descendants continued to live at Johnstown until the 1930s when the property was acquired by the Land Commission. The house, of three storeys over basement and believed to have been designed by architect William Leeson, was unroofed in 1941 and then demolished a couple of decades later, so that today just fragments of this fine property remain.
Below are two older images of the Johnstown, the first taken from a late 18th century engraving by Jonathan Fisher made when the property was still called Peterfield, the second, a photograph by the late Paddy Rossmore, taken in the 1960s when the building, although roofless, was still standing.
Lines from Yeats’ Coole Park come to mind:
‘Here, traveller, scholar, poet take your stand,
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone…’

A Place of Strength


‘The present town of Cahir owes its rise to the late Earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl. Cahir, however, is of remote antiquity, and it appears that a castle was built here prior to the year 1142 by Connor, King of Thomond; and in the reign of John, Geoffry de Camoell founded an abbey of which there are still some remains. The manor was one of those belonging to the Butler family, and in the reign of Elizabeth the castle was besieged by the Earl of Essex, with the whole of his army, when the garrison, encouraged by the hostilities then waged by the Earl of Desmond, held out for ten days, but was compelled to surrender. In 1647, this fortress was invested by Lord Inchiquin, and, notwithstanding its great strength, surrendered in a few hours after some of its outworks had been gained by the assailants.
Cahir Castle, the extensive old seat of the Butlers, is in the town. It is in good preservation and occupying the summit of an isolated rock, which rises over the left bank of the Suir, is a highly interesting and picturesque object.’
From A Handbook for Travellers in Ireland by James Fraser, 1844. 





‘The chief historical events connected with the castle were the sieges of it by the Earl of Essex, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and by Lord Inchiquin, in that of Charles I. The readers of English history are familiar with the unhappy expedition of Essex to Ireland, which was greatly promoted by his powerful enemies at court, as certain to end unfortunately, and thus as certainly to break his influence with the queen. Former viceroys and commanders in Ireland had suffered disaster upon disaster; and by the Battle of the Blackwater, in 1598, the English forces were reduced to the lowest ebb. Essex landed with an army of more than 20,000 men, the largest force, according to the Four Masters, sent to Ireland by the English since the invasion of Strongbow. But Essex was no more successful than his predecessors. His orders were, in the first place, to reduce the rebels in Ulster, and to put strong garrisons into their forts; but, instead of this, he marched into Munster and laid siege to Cahir Castle. He invested it with 7,000 foot and 1,200 horse; but the Earl of Desmond and Redmond Burk came to its relief, and Essex found himself unable to reduce it till he had sent to Waterford for heavy ordnance. On the tenth day of the siege, being the 20th of May, 1599, the castle was surrendered to the Earl of Essex and the Queen. But the surrender of the castle was of no real advantage. He made, indeed, capture of the rebels’ cattle in those parts, and drove the rebels themselves into the woods and mountains; but, as fast as he retired again towards Dublin, these rebels came out from their retreats and followed on his track, harassing his rear, so that his return was rather like a rout than the march of a conqueror. The disasters which befell him on this journey completed his ruin.’
From Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain and Ireland by William Howitt, 1864. 





‘During the troubles which followed on the rebellion of 1641, Cahir Castle was taken for the Parliament, by surrender, in the beginning of August 1647 by Lord Inchiquin; and it was again taken in February 1650 by Cromwell himself, the garrison receiving honourable conditions. The reputation which the castle had at this period as a place of strength will appear from the account of its surrender as given in the manuscripts of Mr Cliffe, secretary to General Ireton, published by Borlase. After observing that Cromwell did not deem it prudent to attempt the taking of Clonmel till towards summer, he adds that he “drew his army before a very considerable castle called Cahir Castle, not very far from Clonmel, a place then possessed by one Captain Mathews, who was but a little before married to the Lady Cahir, and had in it a considerable number of men to defend it; the general drew his men before it, and for the better terror in the business brought some cannon with him likewise, there being a great report of the strength of the place, and a story told the general, that the Earl of Essex in Queen Elizabeth’s time, lay seven or eight weeks before it and could not take it. He was notwithstanding then resolved to attempt the taking of it, and in order thereunto, sent them this thundering summons:-
“Sir – Having brought my army and my cannon near this place, according to my usual manner in summoning places, I thought fit to offer you terms honourable for soldiers, that you may march away with your baggage, arms and colours, free from injuries or violence; but if I be, notwithstanding, necessitated to bend my cannon upon you, you must expect what is usual in such cases. To avoid blood, this is offered to you by,
Your Servant,
O. Cromwell”
Notwithstanding the strength of the place, and the unseasonableness of the time of the year, this summons struck such a terror in the garrison, that the same day the governor, Captain Mathews, immediately came to the general and agreed to the surrender.’
From The Irish Penny Journal, Volume 1, No.33, February 1841. 

Pretty as a Picture


The thatched lodge at Derrymore, County Armagh featured here some time ago (see The Most Elegant Summer Lodge « The Irish Aesthete). That building dates from the mid-1770s, making it at least 30 years older than another fanciful cottage orné, this one in County Tipperary. Popularly known as the Swiss Cottage, the later example was constructed c.1810 for Richard Butler, 10th Baron Caher (created Earl of Glengall 1816). Member of a branch of the Butler family which had been dominant in this part of the country for hundreds of years, his own forebears had been settled at Cahir Castle since the 14th century. They remained there until c.1770 when a new residence, Cahir House (now an hotel) was built. Richard Butler was never expected to inherit the title and associated estate. However, following the death in June 1788 of the 8th baron, a distant relative, without heirs – and then the death of Richard Butler’s own father a month later – at the age of just 12 he came into considerable wealth. At the time, he was living in poverty in France, but then returned to Ireland, where he was accommodated by the eccentric widow Arabella Jeffereyes of Blarney Castle. There was method behind Mrs Jeffereyes kindness: within a few years, she had arranged the marriage of her daughter Emilia (then aged just 16) to the wealthy Lord Caher. Soon afterwards the couple returned to live at Cahir House where, according to Dorothea Herbert, they threw ‘a most flaming Fête Champêtre’ during which the young Lady Caher ‘danced an Irish jig in her stockings to the music of an old piper. We had a superb supper in the three largest rooms, all crowded as full as they could hold and we did not get home till eight o’clock next morning and so slept all the next day.’ 





The tone set by the party they had thrown after their return to Cahir House, the Butlers appear to have led an exceedingly merry life, dividing their time between County Tipperary and London where, following the implementation of the Act of Union, Lord Caher served as an Irish representative peer in the Westminster House of Lords. It may have been there that he made the acquaintance of architect John Nash, who would be responsible for designing a number of buildings in Cahir, including St Paul’s church (Figures of Mystery « The Irish Aesthete) and the adjacent Erasmus Smith School (Well Schooled « The Irish Aesthete) as well as the sadly-demolished Shanbally Castle just a few miles away. Accordingly, the Swiss Cottage is attributed to Nash, not least because of its resemblance to similar picturesque buildings he designed during the same period at Blaise Hamlet on the outskirts of Bristol. The cottage was sketched in 1814, indicating its completion by that date, and two years later was mentioned in an account of local races: ‘the tout ensemble of the Cottage affording a display of rural decoration not easy to be equalled in this country for chasteness of character and richness of fancy.’ Perched above the river Suir and just two kilometres south of Cahir, the cottage was never intended to be a permanent residence, but rather somewhere to visit, perhaps for a meal, perhaps an overnight stay in good weather. Built to a T-plan and of two storeys over basement, the cottage has rustic timber verandas around most of its exterior and a thatched roof. French windows open onto the surrounding grounds and there are a number of balconies on the first floor: much of the exterior is covered in wooden lattice trellising. The overall effect is exceedingly charming. 





Three years after becoming an earl, Richard Butler died and was succeeded by his only son, also called Richard. Despite marrying an heiress, he would find expenditure exceeded income, particularly after 1839 when he embarked on the restoration of Cahir Castle, and the rebuilding of much of the town of Cahir. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, it transpired that Lord Glengall’s debts amounted to a prodigious £300,000, the situation not helped by a lawsuit over their inheritance between Lady Glengall and her sister. The earl was duly declared bankrupt in 1849 and everything offered for sale, although some of the estate was subsequently recovered by his elder daughter, Lady Margaret Charteris. Somehow, the Swiss Cottage survived, although by the mid-1980s it was in poor condition, sitting empty and a prey to vandals. Before the building became a complete ruin, the local community bought it in 1985 with the aid of a £10,000 grant from the Irish Georgian Society. Work then began on salvaging the Swiss Cottage and the greater part of the funds for this project came, via the IGS, from the American Port Royal Foundation and its President Mrs Christian Aall (the foundation had already donated money towards the cottage’s purchase). Restoration work took three years to complete, overseen by architect Austin Dunphy assisted by John Redmill, with much of the labour provided under a government youth training scheme. New tree trunk posts were put up to support the shingled roof that surrounds the cottage at first floor level, later internal partitions removed and new wiring and plumbing installed. The building was re-thatched, and early 19th century wallpapers, not least a set in the salon by Joseph Dufour of Paris depicting Les Rives du Bosphore, scrupulously restored by David Skinner. Irish couturier Sybil Connolly was given responsibility for overseeing the interior decoration and arranged for a set of grotto chairs to be made for the ground floor rooms. Work on the Swiss Cottage was completed in September 1989 and the building has since been open to the public under the management of the Office of Public Works. 

A Post-Industrial Present



A relic of Ireland’s industrial past, this is the Suir Mills, standing on the eastern side of the river just outside the town of Cahir, County Tipperary. Dating from the last years of the 18th century, like many other such premises, it was developed by members of the Society of Friends: excluded by law from many other activities, Quakers soon established themselves as millers in Ireland. This particular property is both substantial and compact and, as always, with such buildings, very sturdily constructed. Unfortunately, despite its sturdiness, many years of neglect in our post-industrial age have taken their toll on the mill, not least its roof, so that the whatever about the past, its future looks questionable.


The End is Nigh



The former woolen mill at Ardmayle, County Tipperary, built by the banks of the river Suir around 1800. The man responsible was Richard Long who when young had joined the ranks of the East India Company where he rose to the rank of captain. He also succeeded in making himself wealthy so that on his return to Ireland in 1783, he was able to buy an estate in his native county and there built a house which he named Longfield. Unfortunately he made himself unpopular in the area by reporting suspicious activity to the local authorities and in 1814 was shot dead on the steps outside his new home. The mill was one of the enterprises he started in the locality, but it does not appear to have enjoyed much success, and as can be seen, more recently at least part of the ground floor was converted into a shop. But now the building has fallen into dilapidation and it can only be a matter of time before the rest of the roof goes and complete decay takes over.


Well Schooled


The former Erasmus Smith schoolhouse in Cahir, County Tipperary. Erasmus Smith was a 17th century English merchant who acquired large amounts of property in Ireland running to over 46,000 acres. He then decided to use some of the income from this property to establish a trust, granted a royal charter in 1669, the purpose of which was to further children’s education in this country, not least by the establishment of a number of schools here. But over time the organisation also provided financial assistance for the creation of other schools, including that in Cahir, which was completed in 1818 at a cost of £1,034: the Erasmus Smith Trust providing £600 and local landlord Richard Butler, first Earl of Glengall paying the balance. Thought to have been designed by John Nash (who was also responsible for the adjacent Church of St Paul, see Figures of Mystery « The Irish Aesthete), the neo-Gothic building is constructed of cut limestone with a three-storey teachers’ residence in the central section and a classroom on either side. Open to children of all denominations, from the start the school was very successful, in 1824 having 131 pupils, of which 90 were Roman Catholic and the rest members of the Established Church. Due to the need for additional classrooms, the building was subsequently extended to the rear. It continued to operate as a school until 1963 after which it became a sawmill and steelworks, railway museum and warehouse before falling into disrepair. More recently, the former school has been restored by the local authority for use as an area office. 

Re-Purposed



Across the road from the old tower house in Ardmayle, County Tipperary stands this handsome church dedicated to St John the Baptist, reputedly standing in a place of worship since the 12th century. In its present form, only the tower at the west end is part of the original building, although a window inserted into this looks late-medieval. According to Lewis, writing in 1837, the rest of the building was reconstructed 22 years earlier, thanks to a gift of £800 and a loan of a further £150 by the Board of First Fruits. Until 1987, St John’s was used for Church of Ireland services but was subsequently restored by the local heritage society and is now used for a variety of purposes. 


A Fine Cattle Shed



What remains of an old tower house in Ardmayle, County Tipperary. Some four storeys high and likely dating from the 15th century, it is one of two ‘castles’ close to each other, the other being a later fortified manor, also now in ruins. Around 1225 the lands here were acquired by Richard Mór de Burgh, 1st Lord of Connaught (c. 1194 – 1242), Justicar of Ireland, following his marriage to Egidia de Lacy, daughter of Walter de Lacy, and Margaret de Braose. Later they passed into the ownership of the Butlers and finally the Cootes before it appears the place was abandoned. Today is home only to cattle who can take shelter from the elements under a fine vaulted roof.