A Gardener’s Legacy

This week marks the first anniversary of the death of architect and garden designer Angela Jupe at her home at Bellefield, County Offaly, where the Irish Aesthete had paid a visit just a few weeks before that unhappy event. After graduating from university, she worked for a number of architectural firms before heading up a design team at the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). But by the mid-1980s she had established her own practice and begun to follow her personal passion for gardening. She created two businesses, the Traditional Gardening Company which specialised in garden design and construction, and the Garden Furnishing Company, a retail outlet. 

As the name of her garden design business indicates, Angela Jupe loved old-fashioned gardens: an obituary in the Irish Times quoted her observation that ‘Some modern landscape architecture feeds only the eyes and forgets that we have noses for scent and hands for touch…Not only is there too much hard landscaping but it leads to plants that grow into a little circle requiring no pruning, care or attention.’ The first country garden she created for herself was at Fancroft Millhouse, County Tipperary which had stood empty and neglected for 12 years before she bought it in 1997 and embarked on a thorough restoration, not just of the grounds but also the house and outbuildings. Then in  2004 she took on a fresh challenge, moving to Bellefield, where the stables and walled garden had stood unused for the previous three decades.

Bellefield is a charming small gentleman’s residence dating from the first years of the 19th century. A keen believer in conservation and architectural salvage, Angela Jupe filled the house with decorative items brought from other buildings, as she also did when restoring the stableyard to the rear. And in the two-acre walled garden, which again benefitted from her attention and experience, she constructed both a charming little onion-domed folly and a large glasshouse from various pieces of salvage. The garden itself, formerly completely overgrown, displays her various passions, not least for snowdrops, of which there are more than 300 different varieties, one of the largest such collections in Ireland. In addition, there is an abundance of old French roses, rare daffodils, Chinese peonies and old fruit trees. Following her unexpected death, it emerged that she had left the Bellefield, the house and its garden, to the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) of which she had been a long-standing supporter and board member. The process of transfer of ownership is still ongoing, but the RHSI is currently maintaining the site and hopes to open it to the public next year.

A Cause for Worry

Like so many Irish towns, Ennis, County Clare sometimes seems determined not to take best advantage, or best care, of its architectural heritage. Nothing better exemplifies this unfortunate state of affairs than Bindon Street, a short stretch of road comprising two terraces facing each other, both holding six properties. A mixture of two and three bays wide, the houses are of three or four storeys over basement, with handsome limestone doorcases and, in most cases, mellow brick facades. Dating from the early 1830s, Bindon Street has the potential to be a splendid, albeit rather truncated, thoroughfare, a celebration of Ennis’s thriving mercantile and architectural past. Alas, while some of the buildings have been decently maintained, others suggest all is not well. No. 1, for example, is distinguished from the others by a bay window added to the ground floor around the middle of the 19th century. At this level all seems fine, but raise your eyes and note the insertion of unsuitable uPVC windows, at least in some openings – others on the top floors are boarded up. A cause for worry. 

P.S. And would someone please do something about all those ugly exposed electric cables snaking across every building. 

Successive Ruins

Another abandoned Church of Ireland church, this one in Dungarvan, County Kilkenny. It dates from 1812 when constructed with help from the Board of First Fruits. As earlier gravestones around the building attest, his was not the first such place of worship on the site. A drawing made in 1799 by amateur artist Austin Cooper, after an original by landscape painter James George Oben, shows the church’s predecessor: what would appear to be a late-medieval structure with a bellcote on the west end and a door on the north wall. The main body of the building was roofless but the east end featured a four-storey tower with crenellations, which presumably provided accommodation for the cleric who conducted services. Today the church which replaced it is in no better condition.

The Bells, The Bells

Earlier this month, one of Cork city’s best-known landmarks celebrated the tercentenary of its construction. Located high above the river Lee and immediately west of Skiddy’s Almshouses (see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete) St Anne’s church dates from 1722 when it was constructed close to the site of an earlier place of worship, St Mary’s, which had been severely damaged in 1690 when Cork was besieged by Williamite forces under the authority of John Churchill, future first Duke of Marlborough. The exterior of the building is rather plain, using a mixture of red sandstone rubble that seemingly came from the mediaeval Shandon Castle which stood nearby, and cut limestone for quoins and the round-arched window surrounds taken from a former Franciscan friary elsewhere in the city. The most notable external feature is the substantial entrance doorcase, approached via two flights of stone steps and comprising a round-arched doorway flanked by Tuscan pilasters supporting a very substantial entablature. 

The interior of St Anne’s underwent an extensive refurbishment in the last decade of the 19th century when the pine barrel-vaulted ceiling was installed and much of the chancel panelled in the same dark-stained wood. Either then or at some other date, the customary box pews were also removed from the nave although a version of them survives in the short north transept which also holds a monument incorporating a mosaic panel depicting St George and dedicated to members of the parish who had died during the First World War. Supported on Ionic columns, a gallery at the west end remains from the original design, as do the barley-twist balusters of the communion rail, but the stained glass is predominantly late-Victorian, as are the pulpit and desk, both carved from Devonshire stone. 

As mentioned, St Anne’s best-known feature is its bell tower, a sturdy piece of work rising 120 feet with walls seven feet thick: energetic visitors can climb 132 steps to reach this point, which offers spectacular views across the city and surrounding suburbs. In 1749-50, the tower was raised a further 50 feet by the addition of three diminishing stages, clad in limestone and with clasping pilasters in Tuscan, Doric and Ionic orders successively, the whole crowned with a lead dome with a gilded weathervane in the form of a salmon: in Cork parlance, this is known as ‘the goldie fish.’ The city corporation was responsible in 1847 for adding a clock face to each side of the tower. Again, locals have called this the ‘four-faced liar’ since the time on each clock does not always correspond with that of its immediate neighbours. The eight bells within the tower are much loved by Corkonians; they were cast in Gloucester in 1750 and installed two years later, ringing for the first time on 7th December 1752 to mark the marriage of Henry Harding to Catherine Dornan. Each bell carries a different graceful inscription, such as ‘When us you ring we’ll  sweetly sing’ and ‘Prosperity to the city and trade thereof’. Shandon’s Bells are synonymous with the city, but a decision not to ring them was taken two years ago at the start of the Covid pandemic, and they have not been heard since. The people of Cork will know normality has returned when the bells of St Anne’s ring out once more.

Pocket Gothick

A pocket Gothick house on Castle Road, forming the upper portion of O’Mahoney Avenue in Bandon, County Cork. This is one of a six such properties located immediately outside the demesne wall of Castle Bernard, former home of the Earls of Bandon, which was burnt out in June 1921 (see A-Bandon « The Irish Aesthete). Originally a classical house, around 1815 Castle Bernard was given a gothic makeover by an unknown architect, and these two-storey cottages. of rough cast stone with ornamental brick surrounds on the door and windows, were presumably built at some date thereafter to reflect that style; the architect responsible is unknown, and it seems impossible to find any further information about them. While some are still occupied, others have sadly been allowed to fall into ruin.

Silent Witness

Considering the impact he had on this country, it is surprising that the name of architect George Wilkinson is not better known here. Born in Witney, Oxfordshire in 1814, and the eldest of six children, Wilkinson’s background was modest: his father was a carpenter and builder. There is little known of his education or training but he soon began to win contracts for work and in 1839 – when still not yet 25 – was appointed architect to the Irish Poor Law Commission, of which more below. Wilkinson thereafter spent the greater part of his life in Ireland, only returning to England a few years before his death in 1890. While living here, aside from his work for the commission, he was responsible for designing many other buildings, not least railway stations, perhaps the most celebrated of these being that on Harcourt Street in Dublin, as well those in Cavan and Sligo towns, Bray, County Wicklow, Athlone, County Westmeath, and Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim, among many others. He designed the fine redbrick offices for the Guinness brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin, and district lunatic asylums in Castlebar, County Mayo, Letterkenny, County Donegal, and both Carlow and Limerick. His practice in Ireland was extremely and consistently busy but it began with a large number of buildings which continue to have a notoriety here: workhouses.

In Ireland, workhouses are today associated with the catastrophe of the Great Famine and its aftermath. However, as institutions they neither originated in this country, nor were they intended to deal with such a disaster. The workhouse was essentially an English construct, arising out of successive Poor Law Acts and specifically dating back to the 1720s when legislation was passed allowing a local parish either to purchase or rent a property ‘for the Lodging, Keeping and Employing of poor Persons.’ Here in Ireland, and some twenty years earlier, a ‘House of Industry’ was established by act of Parliament in St James’s parish, Dublin ‘for the employment and maintaining of the poor thereof’: in 1729, it also became a Foundling Hospital. Operational costs were covered by, among other things, a tax on sedan chairs and hackney coaches. In 1773 a similar House of Industry was set up across the other side of the Liffey, on what is now North Brunswick Street. Others followed in a number of Irish cities and towns including Cork, Belfast, Limerick, Waterford and so forth. Like their English equivalents, these buildings were never supposed to be an attractive option: they were intended to be places of last resort for those who were destitute and prepared to suffer what could be a harsh regime (in England the running of many workhouses was contracted out to third parties: shades of direct provision centres in this country at present). Circumstances, both in England and here, began to change in 1832 when the Westminster Parliament established a Royal Commission, chaired by the Bishop of London, to look at the administration of existing Poor Laws, some of them going back to 1601, and see how these might be improved. A report delivered two years later led to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which created a new administrative framework for providing relief to the poor, operated by a Poor Law Commission. One of the latter’s first tasks was to disband the old parish-level system of support and replace it with a nationwide series of organisations called Poor Law Unions, each run by a locally elected Board of Governors. Each union was to have its own workhouse, funded by a local poor rate. Workhouses were deeply unpopular in England and Wales, where they were first constructed, and often subject to attacks; some were even threatened with arson. Nevertheless, a similar system was proposed for Ireland by the government and in 1833 another commission, this one chaired by the Archbishop of Dublin, was set up to look into the matter. The commission’s report, delivered in 1836, did not recommend that the English system be replicated in Ireland: the problem here being lack of work rather than any unwillingness on the part of the local population to take up employment (which was thought to be one of the primary causes of poverty in England). More jobs, better housing, the drainage of bogs and improvements in agriculture: these were among the Irish commission’s recommendations. Unhappy with these proposals, the government in London sent over one of the English Poor Law Commissioners, George Nicholls, to investigate. Nicholls, who had never been here before, spent a mere six weeks traveling through the country, after which he returned home and declared that the English workhouse system was the best remedy for Ireland’s distinct issues. Despite violent opposition to the idea, the government proceeded with a Bill ‘for the more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland’ which passed into law in July 1838. Under this legislation, the country was divided into 130 Unions, each of which was to have its own workhouse (during the years 1848-50 some of these unions were split, with the creation of a further 33, thereby increasing the final figure). In early 1839 George Wilkinson, who had already designed a number of workhouses in England and Wales, arrived in Ireland with the brief of producing plans for all of them here.

Employed on an annual salary of £500, Wilkinson was instructed by the Poor Law Commissioners to visit and inspect all proposed sites before coming up with a proposal for workhouses ‘intended to be of the cheapest description compatible with durability; an effect is aimed at by harmony of proportion and simplicity of arrangement, all mere decoration being studiously excluded.’ Within a couple of months, Wilkinson had come up with a design model which was almost universally applied in the construction of Irish workhouses. Built of stone in a suitably unadorned Tudoresque style and capable of holding on average up to 800-1,000 persons, each site was entered through a relatively small porters’ block, where prospective inmates were admitted and where the local guardians would hold their meetings. Behind and to either side of this were separate recreation yards for boys and girls, divided by a small central garden. Then came the main accommodation block, separated into dormitories for men and for women (and for boys and girls above), behind which were two further recreation yards, once more divided by gender and kept apart by a long building running down the spine which held the chapel and dining room. Finally, the top of the workhouse site would be occupied by the kitchens, a laundry, a mortuary and what was usually described as a ‘ward for idiots.’  Because they all followed the same model, workhouses soon began to spring up across the country: as early as April 1843, Wilkinson was able to report that 112 of them were finished, and another 18 nearing completion. But they remained deeply unpopular, among all classes. Those who had to pay for them resented doing so: in Westport, County Mayo, for example, although the workhouse was ready for use in November 1842, it took three years – and a change of Board of Guardians – for the necessary operating funds to be collected through poor rates. Meanwhile, nobody wanted to be admitted to places known for their harsh regime, poor diet and miserable living conditions: even in the summer of 1846, many workhouses were only half-full. Then came the worst years of the Great Famine when suddenly there was no alternative. Buildings never intended to meet such demand struggled to accommodate many more inmates than had been planned, disease, such as typhus, became rife, and large numbers of Unions sank into debt as they struggled to provide any kind of assistance to the starving local community. No wonder that the image of the Irish workhouse is forever tainted. And quite a few of them survive to the present day, either in part or whole, and often pressed into service for other uses, not least as hospital complexes: Wilkinson, it appears, met his brief to make them durable. The workhouse shown here, in Bawnboy, County Cavan, is one of those established in the post-Famine period. Simpler in style than the earlier models, it was built at a cost of £4,900 (plus £945 for fixtures and fittings) and opened in November 1853 when 52 inmates from its equivalent in Cavan town were transferred here. Designed to hold 500 residents, it never seems to have reached that figure: in 1855, 172 persons lived here and by 1901 there were just 70. Following the workhouse’s closure in 1921, the buildings were used for various purposes, some of them serving as a vocational school, while another section became a dancehall. Services were held in a Roman Catholic chapel as late as 1979. Then no new function could be found them, and a long, slow decline appears to have begun, despite local recognition of the site’s significance and efforts to save the buildings. This is how they are today, derelict and empty, silent witnesses to a particularly grim period of Irish history.

Nine for Nine

2012 Rush Hill, County Roscommon

2013 Beaulieu, County Louth

2014 New Hall, County Clare

This week, rather to one’s own surprise, the Irish Aesthete celebrates a ninth birthday, the first, somewhat tentative, post having been made in late September 2012. Anybody who has embarked on such a venture, will testify to a want of certainty about how long it will last, and indeed many such enterprises fall by the wayside after a few months. When this site made its debut, blogs were highly popular whereas now they are less frequently encountered, not least because there are now many more alternative online options. Instagram, for example, had already existed for two years, but had yet to reach anything like the audience it now enjoys (incidentally, the Irish Aesthete can also be found on Instagram, see @theirishaesthete). But as a rule those alternatives are only good for quick soundbites, and do not allow for substantial communication or investigation. And that is why this site continues to appear thrice-weekly: because often something more than a picture and a couple of explanatory lines of text is required. 

2015 Ballynagall, County Westmeath

2016 Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary

2017 Aldborough House, Dublin

A year or so after the Irish Aesthete first appeared, regular enquiries were made about whether there might be enough material to sustain it for much longer. Well, it appears that there has been – and still is – more than enough. Even during the past 18 months when the country was intermittently in lockdown, enough could be found to ensure not a post was missed. Of course, maintaining a site such as this can sometimes be a chore, but the task has always been fascinating, not least because over nine years many places that might otherwise have remained unvisited have instead been explored, investigated, studied, sometimes celebrated, ofttimes  mourned. And this period of time and the visits undertaken therein have always been enjoyed in the company – metaphorical if not literal – of the friends and followers who have been so good as to stay loyal to the Irish Aesthete. To all of you, many thanks and here’s to 2022 when we will be able to mark a tenth anniversary together. Meanwhile, stay safe everyone. 

2018 Castletown, County Kildare

2019 Doneraile Court, County Cork

2020 Dunmain, County Wexford

Recalling a Lavish Host

Many people in Ireland will be familiar with the name of Theobald Mathew, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest who became known as the Apostle of Temperance. A member of the Capuchin order, in 1838 Fr Mathew, witnessing the problems arising from excessive consumption of alcohol, founded the Total Abstinence Society in Cork city, where he was then living. Within nine months some 150,000 persons had enrolled in this organisation and at its height during the late 1840s it is estimated that half the population of Ireland were members. What may be less well known is that Theobald Mathew was related to a wealthy, and Protestand, landed family and grew up at Thomastown Castle, County Tipperary where his father acted as agent to a cousin, the first Earl of Landaff. Now a striking ruin, Thomastown was for several centuries the seat of the Mathew family. Of Welsh origin (hence the choice of name for their title), they were connected through marriage to the Butlers, and thus acquired land in this part of the country. As was so often the case, a series of judicious marital alliances made them exceedingly rich, allowing the construction of a large residence in the late 17th/early 18th centuries. In Town and Country in Ireland under the Georges (1940) Constantia Maxwell provides an excellent account of life there in the years after the house had been built by Thomas Mathew. The building was ‘surrounded by gardens adorned with terraces, statuary, and fish ponds, and by a park of some two thousand acres stocked with deer. Mr Mathew, besides being very rich, was held to be one of the finest gentlemen of the age, and, having travelled much on the Continent and lived in London and Dublin, had a large circle of friends. Nothing gave him so much pleasure as to invite these to Thomastown, where he had no less than forty guest-rooms, besides handsome accommodation for servants. The guests in his house were invited to order anything they might wish for, as at an inn; they might seat themselves at the dining-room table without paying irksome respect to rank, or, if they preferred it, dine with chosen companions in their own rooms. A large room was fitted up as a city coffee-house with newspapers and chessboards, where servants had been ordered to bring refreshments at any time of the day. For those who liked sport fishing tackle was provided, as well as guns and ammunition, while hounds and hunters were available in the stables. But, although everything at Thomastown was on such a lavish scale, there was no disorder or waste, for Mr Mathew rose early every morning to look over the accounts, and his servants were well paid, and forbidden to take tips.’ A description of life at Thomastown was provided by Thomas Sheridan in his biography of Jonathan Swift described how the later was so delighted with Thomas Mathew’s hospitality that instead of staying for a fortnight, as originally intended, he remained there for four months. 

As mentioned, the house at Thomastown was once surrounded by splendid gardens. Writing in 1778, Thomas Campbell noted that not only was the setting perfect, with the Galtee Mountains ‘set at such a due distance that they are the finest termination for a prospect a painter could desire’ but ‘behind the house is a square parterre, with flowers, with terraces thickly studded with busts and statues; before it, a long and blind avenue, planted with treble rows of well-grown trees, extends its awkward length. In the centre of this, and on the acclivity of the hill, are little fish ponds, pond above pond. The whole park is thrown into squares and parallelograms, with numerous avenues fenced and planted.’ By the time Campbell visited, this style of garden had fallen out of fashion, so he tut-tutted that ‘if a hillock dared to interpose its little head, it was cut off as an excrescence, or at least cut through; that the roads might be everywhere as level as they are straight. Thus was this delightful spot treated by some Procrustes of the last age.’ A few years later, Joseph Cooper Walker was just as critical of Thomastown’s gardens. ‘They lie principally on the gentle declivity of an hill,’ he explained, ‘resting on terraces, and filled with “statues thick as trees”. A long fish pond, sleeping under “a green mantle” between two rectilineous banks, appears in the midst. And in one corner stands a verdant theatre (once the scene of several dramatic exhibitions) displaying all the absurdity of the architecture of gardening. Thus did our ancestors, governed by the false taste which they imbibed from the English, disfigure, with unsuitable ornaments, the simple garb of nature.’  Not much later, perhaps when the second Earl of Landaff, who inherited title and estate on his father’s death in 1806, transformed the house, these by-now old-fashioned gardens were largely swept away in favour of open parkland. 

Thomastown, as previously mentioned, was originally a late 17th/early 18th century house of two storeys, the centre just one room deep with projecting wings forming a short entrance courtyard. However, it appears that the generous Thomas Mathew enlarged the house by filling in the space between the wings to create a dining room, some 50 feet long and 20 feet deep, no doubt to feed all the guests he entertained. Several generations later, the second Earl of Landaff decided to alter the building’s appearance by giving it a Gothick makeover. In 1812 the architect Richard Morrison was commissioned to come up with a design for the place. The original entrance arcade was now glazed to create a Great Hall, while the first-floor gallery became a gothic-style library. However, the drawing room retained its classical decoration, with screens of scagliola columns at either end, a typical Morrison flourish which can still be seen in the library at Ballyfin, County Laois. Meanwhile, the exterior was ornamented with a crenellated parapet and a series of octagonal turrets topped with dart-like finials. As Mark Bence-Jones noted, from a distance these look like rabbits’ ears. A kitchen and service wing at right-angles to the house was also thoroughly dressed in Tudor-Gothic decoration, although a stone tower at the corner of the range is in Norman style. The entire building was covered in stucco, which was then rather oddly painted pale blue. An engraving of the completed work made by John PrestonNeale in 1819 although this included an unexecuted family wing and a more simple service range than that actually constructed. The second earl had no children and following his death, Thomastown passed to a sister Lady Elizabeth Mathew who in turn left the estate to a cousin of her mother, the Vicomte de Chabot. Before the end of the 19th century, it had come into the possession of the Dalys of Dunsandle, County Galway but seemingly by then the house was already falling into ruin. And so it has remained, with much of the central block, where those hospitable dinners were once given, long since collapsed. Today the only diners seen here are cattle.