The name of St Olav’s church in Waterford testifies to the city’s Viking origins: Olaf II was a Norweigan king killed at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, and canonised in 1164. The original church here, likely made of wood, is supposed to have been constructed around 1050, long before Olav became a saint, so it must have been named after him at a later date, perhaps when the stone structure was built. The latter had fallen into ruin by the early 17th century and only an arched doorcase survives at the west end of the present church, which occupies the same site but was erected in the 1730s on the instructions of the then-Bishop of Waterford, Thomas Milles: its design has been attributed to William Halfpenny who, during the same period, produced designs for the Bishop’s Palace and Christ Church Cathedral, neither of which were executed (see: The Finest 18th century Ecclesiastical Building in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). St Olav’s remained a place of worship until 1970 and today serves as a community centre.
Visited on a particularly wet day during this particularly wet summer, here is what remains of the little church at Kilbunny, County Waterford, named after St Munna and originally founded in the 8th century. The present building, with its restored Romanesque arch entrance and chevron moulding, is from the 11th century. Seemingly at one time some 230 monks lived here, but it is difficult to imagine such numbers today: certainly, only a handful of them would fit into the church which only measures about 8.5 metres in length and 5 metres in width. Outside, a faint trace of what was possibly representing a human head, can be discerned at the base of the arch on the right-hand side, while inserted into the wall on the left-hand is an animal head, perhaps that of a ram. On the ground to either side are bullaun stones, it is thought originally used as baptismal or water fonts.
After a recent discussion of the colourful Thomas Steele and the fate of his former home (see Honest Tom « The Irish Aesthete), it is now worth turning attention to a significant, but insufficiently recalled, figure in late 18th century Ireland, Dr Thomas Hussey. Born in 1746, owing to restrictions imposed by the era’s Penal legislation, Hussey was sent to study at the Irish College in Salamanca, after which he joined the Trappist order. However, his obvious intelligence led him to become well-known at the court in Madrid and in due course, now ordained a priest, he was appointed chaplain to the Spanish Embassy in London. There he became acquainted with many of the leading political and intellectual figures of the period, not least Edmund Burke who became a close friend. In 1779, his diplomatic skills led him to be sent by George III’s government on a secret diplomatic mission to Madrid in order to break the Franco-Spanish Alliance in the context of the American War of Independence. Although the effort was unsuccessful, Hussey’s reputation did not suffer any ill effects and he continued to be consulted by the English authorities. Meanwhile, in due course his intellectual abilities were also recognised in 1792 when he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Subsequently, the government sent him on a further mission, attempting to placate disaffected Irish soldiers and militia in Ireland. However, when he heard what they had to say, Hussey adopted their cause, which was not what had been expected. He then played a role in establishing the Irish seminary at Maynooth and became its first president in 1795. Two years later he was appointed Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, holding that position until his death in 1803.
This is Prospect Lodge (above), the house in which Thomas Hussey lived during his years as Bishop of the diocese. On a prominent site in what would once have been open countryside overlooking the city, the building is believed to date from c.1780. Of five-bays and two-storeys, it has a two-bay two-storey section with half-dormer attic to south-east, and two-bay single-storey wing to south-east. Prospect Lodge is notable for being slate-hung on all elevations and, as part of Waterford’s historic architecture, is worthy of preservation even without its associations with Thomas Hussey. Yet at the present it is being left to fall into decay.
Elsewhere in the south-east of Ireland, this house can be found in Carrick-on-Suir, County Waterford. Dating from c.1760, it is of four-bays and three-storeys over basement, the rear yard dropping down to the quays on the north side of the town. While the building lacks the historical associations of Prospect Lodge, it is similarly slate-hung and therefore represents an important part of Carrick-on-Suir’s heritage. Yet, also like Prospect Lodge, it sits empty and neglected, left to fall into dereliction instead of enhancing the streetscape while realising its potential as a home. Two houses, one fate: and there are thousands more such properties all over Ireland going the same way.
The origin and histories of some old Irish houses are veiled in mystery, and likely to remain so, since so much information about our architectural heritage has been lost. One such property is a place called Rath House in Co Waterford. The word rath appears very often in this country’s place names. It derives from the Irish Ráth, which means a circular enclosure or ring fort, suggesting this was the site of an ancient settlement. In this instance, there does not appear to be any obvious evidence of such a development, but – like the want of historical detail about the building – this is by no means an uncommon circumstance.
It would appear that the earliest known reference to Rath House dates from 1851 when it was recorded as being leased from the Duke of Devonshire (the celebrated Batchelor Duke) by one John Carroll; at the time, it had a value of £16. But of course, the building could be much earlier than that, or might have been constructed on the site of an earlier residence, as was so often the case. It subsequently passed through a number of different hands, for some time in the last century being occupied by two unmarried Jacob sisters, members of the well-known Waterford Quaker family (responsible, among other things, for running the eponymous biscuit factory). More recently, it was home to another bachelor who died in 2021, hence the place is now being offered for sale.
Rath House is of unusual design, a long, single-storey, six bay cottage with two-storey projecting gable-ended wings on either side. It may be that the central section was the original farmhouse, and the wings were added in the 19th century, perhaps around the time that John Carroll received his lease from the Devonshire estate. Constructed of rubble stone beneath a render, considerable effort was made, both on the exterior and interior, to present the house as more than just another tenant farmer’s residence. A short flight of cut-stone steps leads up to the fan-lit principle entrance, but note how the windows are not all evenly spaced, with a significant that on the furthest left somewhat further away from the two-storey wing than is its equivalent on the right-hand side. Inside, the house is effectively one room deep, a passageway running along the end wall and leading to staircases at either end. In the central section, the room to the right of the entrance hall, lit by three windows, served as the drawing room, that to the left as the dining room. The kitchen lay beyond the latter on the ground floor with two bedrooms above; the same layout can be found in the corresponding wing at the other end of the building. In front of the house, a series of terraces descended to the roadway, and to the left of this was a walled enclosure, presumably a garden where fruit and vegetables were once cultivated. With its demonstrable ambitions towards gentility, Rath House is a fascinating property, albeit now in rather poor condition. One must hope that the next owner will bring this place back to life – and also discover more about its hidden history.
When writing of Waterford architect John Roberts here on Monday, notice was made that his death occurred in 1796 when, at the age of 84, he fell asleep in the city’s unfinished Roman Catholic cathedral – which he had designed – and caught a chill. Four years earlier, Waterford Corporation had been presented with a petition from members of that faith requesting that a plot of land be provided so that a suitable place of worship might be built, more than three and a half decades before all Penal legislation was reformed. The site given was that already occupied by a Catholic chapel, but the new cathedral occupied much more space than had its predecessor. As mentioned, Roberts was the architect responsible, as he had been 20 years before for the Church of Ireland’s new cathedral in the same city. The two buildings share certain characteristics, borrowed from James Gibbs, such as the great line of Corinthian columns running down the nave. Also like Christ Church, it has been subject to alterations (not least the addition of a new facade in the late 19th century) and no longer looks exactly as Roberts intended, but these two cathedrals are unique in having been designed by the same architect, the father of two siblings whose common characteristics cannot be denied.
‘The new church in this city is a very beautiful one, the body of it is in the same stile exactly as that of Belfast already described; the total length 170 feet, the breadth 58. The length of’the body of the church 92, the height 40, breadth between the pillars 26. The isle (which I do not remember at Belfast) is 58 by 45.
A room on one side the steeple space for the bishop’s court, 24 by 18; on the other side a room of the same size for the vestry, and 28 feet square left for a steeple when their funds will permit. The whole is light and beautiful, it was built by subscription and there is a fine organ bespoke at London.’
Description of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford from Arthur Young’s A Tour in Ireland, 1776-1779.
There has been a Christian place of worship on the site of Christ Church Cathedral since the 11th century and famously in 1170 this was the venue for the marriage of Strongbow (Richard de Clare, second Earl of Pembroke) and Aoife, daughter of Dermot MacMurrough. In 1210, the original building was replaced by a new cathedral which survived until the 18th century when the city’s corporation expressed a desire to erect a modern structure. However, the bishop of the time, Richard Chevenix, was reluctant to allow the old cathedral’s destruction so, according to local legend, it was arranged that one morning, as he walked past the building, a quantity of rubble and dust would be dropped from the roof onto his path, thereby encouraging him to agree with the corporation’s proposal. The first plans for a new cathedral were drawn up in 1739 by William Halfpenny (to whom the design of the original hunting lodge at Castlecor, County Longford is also attributed, see: A Worthy Recipient « The Irish Aesthete) but these were not carried out. In 1773 Dublin architect Thornas Ivory was asked to report on the condition of the cathedral and recommended that it be rebuilt. Nevertheless, he did not get the commission, this going instead to a local man, John Roberts.
John Roberts was born in Waterford in either 1712 or 1714, son of architect and builder Thomas Roberts whose own father, also called Thomas and described as ‘a Welshman of property and beauty’ had settled in the city in 1680. It is believed that as a young man, John Roberts spent some time in London, although nothing is known of what he did there and to whom, if anyone, he was apprenticed. Returning to Waterford around 1744, he fell in love, and eloped, with Mary Susannagh Sautelle, daughter of a well-to-do Huguenot family who did not approve of the relationship; as a result, she was disinherited and the couple’s first couple of years were difficult (they were, on the other hand, very happy together and went on to have 22 children, of which eight survived to adulthood). In 1746 the aforementioned Bishop Richard Chenevix, who knew both the Roberts and Sautelle families, gave the young architect his first great opportunity, inviting him to complete the episcopal palace, originally designed by Richard Castle but left unfinished at the time of the latter’s death. Thereafter, other commissions followed, although not all of them can be confirmed. Among those outside Waterford city which have been attributed to Roberts are the great forecourt at Curraghmore (see Now Available « The Irish Aesthete) and Cappoquin (see Risen from the Ashes « The Irish Aesthete), both in County Waterford, as well as Tyrone House, County Galway (see A High House on High Ground « The Irish Aesthete) and Moore Hall, County Mayo (see When Moore is Less « The Irish Aesthete). Within and in the immediate vicinity of Waterford city, Roberts – who took a long lease on the old bishop’s palace beside the cathedral – designed several other buildings such as the Assembly Rooms and Playhouse (1783), a new Leper Hospital (1785, now an apartment complex), Newtown House (1786, now Newtown School) and a private residence for William Morris (1795, today the Chamber of Commerce). Famously, 20 years after designing Christ Church, in 1793 he was commissioned to design a second cathedral in Waterford: dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, this was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in Ireland since the Reformation. The commission also proved to be the death of Roberts. Accustomed to rising daily at 6am, one morning he mistakenly got up at three and, going to inspect work at the cathedral, he found the place empty: sitting down, he fell asleep and as a result caught a serious chill that resulted in his demise in May 1796 at the age of 84. Popularly known as ‘Honest John Roberts’, it was later written that ‘to all in his employment he was especially kind and thoughtful, He was in the habit of paying half the wages to the wives on Saturday rnorn:ing, that they might purchase to advantage at the early market and he always gave to each the exact money and thus to some extent prevented a visit to the publichouse for change.’ He was also the founder of a remarkable dynasty, two of his sons being the artists Thomas Roberts and Thomas Sautelle Roberts, a grandson being Abraham Roberts, a general in the East India Company, and the latter’s son being Field Marshall Frederick Roberts, first Earl Roberts.
On January 17th 1774 the committee of Christ Church Cathedral met to consider the best method of either taking down and reconstructing or repairing the building. The members agreed that ‘the plain plan omitting the rustik work laid before the committee by Mr. John Roberts for re-building the cathedral appears to be the most eligible of any as yet produced to us. Estimate 23,704- 5s-6d. The old steeple to be taken down and the bells placed in the French church.’ (Evidently Roberts’ original design suggested a degree of rustication on the exterior of the cathedral, its exclusion being most likely on the grounds of cost). Work soon began and most of it was completed by 1779 at a cost of £5,397, somewhat higher than the original estimate, and even as late as 1783 subscriptions were still being raised for the steeple. Built using as much stone as was possible from its demolished predecessor, the new Christ Church’s design is much indebted to the churches of James Gibbs which Roberts would have seen during his time in London as a young man. Here, for example, as in the case of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the limestone spire rises at the west end of the building, directly behind the portico, graduating from a square base in three stages up to the octagonal steeple; much of the detailing here is indebted to Gibbs’s spire for St Mary le Strand. Unlike the portico of St Martin-in-the-Fields with its six great Corinthian columns, that of Christ Church has just four of the Doric order, thereby making less of an impact than might otherwise be the case, but the side elevations and arrangement of windows clearly borrows from the London church. So too does the interior, even after being considerably re-ordered in the late 19th century. Entering through the west end portico, the visitor first steps into an open ante-chapel, separated from the main body of the cathedral by a screen supporting the organ; in this space, some funerary monuments salvaged from the old cathedral were installed (including a rather fine one to the brothers Nicholas and John FitzGerald by John van Nost). Beyond the screen, the nave, 80 feet long, is separated from the aisles by a splendid line of Corinthian columns supporting the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The checkerboard floor of white marble and black limestone is original, as is the reredos at the east end with its pedestalled Corinthian columns and pilasters on either side of a centre panel with sunburst. The reredos was once topped by a line of urns, but these have since gone, along with other elements of Roberts’s scheme. We know how the interior once looked thanks to a print published in 1806. This shows that the nave was lined on either side by galleries resting on rusticated pedestals supporting the Corinthian columns; at ground level, there were the customary box pews. The ceiling decoration was somewhat different to that seen today, owing to a fire in October 1815, ‘occasioned by the neglect of some persons who were employed to attend a stove placed in the organ loft, for the purpose of airing it.’ Not only were the organ and surrounding woodwork destroyed but the ceiling so badly damaged that it had to be redecorated, but the result is unquestionably splendid. In 1889-91, the architect Thomas Drew carried out extensive alterations to the interior, including the galleries’ removal, new choir fittings, pulpit, lectern, the addition of architraves & mullions to windows, and the closing up of lower windows (the absence of galleries rendering these redundant). In addition, the rusticated column pedestals were taken away and replaced with others of red Cork marble and carved Caen stone. So this is what we see today: a somewhat bastardised version of John Roberts’s design but still one beautiful enough to merit Mark Girouard’s 1992 description of Christ Church Cathedral as ‘the finest 18th century ecclesiastical building in Ireland.’
The village of Villierstown, County Waterford was established in the 1740s by John Villiers, first Earl Grandison who wished to have a settlement for weavers and other personnel working in the linen industry he was then establishing in the area. The industry has long-since gone, but two monuments still stand in the centre of the village recalling later members of the family. In front of the church (constructed by Lord Grandison in 1748) is a High Cross erected by Henry Villiers-Stuart in memory of his parents, Henry, Baron Stuart de Decies and his Austrian-born wife Pauline. Due to doubts over the validity of their marriage, following Lord Stuart de Decies’ death in 1874 the title was not inherited by the next generation. To the immediate west is a second monument, this one a public fountain in rock-faced limestone ashlar; it was erected in 1910 by the younger Henry’s children in memory of their mother Mary who had died three years earlier.
Sixty-five years ago, in July 1957, the Irish Times announced that the gardens of Mount Congreve, County Waterford ‘are to be open to the public for the first time’ on three afternoons each week over the following two months. The unnamed writer declared that few finer gardens of their kind were to be found on either side of the Irish Sea, those at Mount Congreve including a large 18th century conservatory and a walled garden where the quarter-mile of herbaceous borders held some 15,000 plants in hundreds of varieties ‘timed to flower in the coming weeks.’ In addition, there were rare trees and shrubs, and lawns offering attractive views of the adjacent river Suir. The owner of this property, the Irish Times correspondent explained, was Ambrose Congreve, then-Chairman of Humphreys & Glasgow Limited, the London fuel and chemical engineers ‘who are marketing small nuclear power plants.’
Originally from Staffordshire (and collaterally related to the Restoration playwright William Congreve), members of the Congreve family first came to Ireland in the 17th century, one of them, the Rev. John Congreve, settling in County Waterford. His grandson, another John, was responsible for building Mount Congreve c.1760, its design sometimes attributed to local architect John Roberts but this is conjectural. As built, the house was of three storeys and seven bays, with slightly projecting two-storey wings on either side beyond which lay the service yards. Successive generations of the family lived there, alternating the first names John and Ambrose until the last of these, Ambrose Christian Congreve who died in 2011 at the age of 104 leaving no heir. Thanks to his considerable wealth, he was responsible for transforming both the house and surrounding gardens. The former he enlarged in the 1960s, not least by the addition of a substantial bow at the centre of the entrance front, centred on a rather modest Baroque limestone doorcase. Additions were also made to the wings and yards which were given cupolas and more limestone doorcases. Mr Congreve had a plutocrat’s taste: he liked everything large and abundant and almost to the end of his life he was making changes to the building and its contents, both of which might be described as plush. Outdoors, as a young man he was inspired by what he saw Lionel de Rothschild had created in his own garden at Exbury in Hampshire. From the early 1930s onwards Mr Congreve set about emulating this example, not least by planting the same species in large groups. ‘When one plants anything,’ he declared, ‘whether it involves five or fifty plants, they should be planted together and not dotted here and there’: as a result, at Mount Congreve, enormous numbers of one variety of magnolia or azalea can be found in the same location to spectacular effect. Thanks to its size – it runs to some 70 acres – Mount Congreve’s garden holds over 3,000 different trees and shrubs, more than 2,000 Rhododendrons, 600 Camellias, 300 Acer cultivars, 600 conifers, 250 climbers and 1,500 herbaceous plants.
In 1979, recognising that he had no direct heir, Ambrose Congreve transferred ownership of his family house and some 71 surrounding acres to a charitable organisation, the Mount Congreve Trust with the understanding that all of this property would eventually pass to the Irish state. However, part of the arrangement was that 66 acres of gardens would only become national property 21 years after his death, and the house and immediate five acres only in 2059. Thus, when he died in 2011, it appeared that the greater part of the gardens would not be taken under state care until 2032 – and the house and balance of land still not for a further 27 years. Inevitably, dispute followed, with unfortunate consequences, not least that the contents of the house – including a library dating back to the 18th century – were dispersed in a number of auctions, leaving the place empty. Meanwhile, the gardens on which he had lavished so much care and expense also deteriorated – today a very large 18th century greenhouse is in very poor condition – as discussions took place over who should be responsible for their upkeep. Only in 2019 was agreement reached whereby the trust transferred both the house and gardens to the local authority, which subsequently received a grant of €3.7 million from a Department for Rural and Community Development programme targeting regional development to restore and improve Mount Congreve. At the moment, the entire site is closed to the public (the house itself swathed in scaffolding, hence no pictures of it today), while necessary work takes place. It appears a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the main building will be accessible when the project is completed, along with one of the adjacent yards used to welcome visitors. But what will become of the rest of what is a very substantial house, which for more than a decade has sat vacant and shuttered? It remains to be seen if some new purpose is proposed for the place.
Located in the nave of one of the Irish Aesthete’s favourite buildings, St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, this early Christian carving of a man holding a book was discovered in the 19th century when the old well near Lismore Castle was being cleared. The figure likely formed some part of a support for the monastery that once stood on that site. St Carthage’s needs funds at present to improve the lighting, heating and sound and so, determined to ensure the cathedral has a viable future, not just as a place of worship but also a venue for other events, a number of locals have come together with a clever initiative. Verso Arts is an online auction which will be held two weeks’ hence on Saturday November 6th and feature more than 800 postcard-sized works by artists, some well-known (who would have guessed Joanna Lumley was such a dab hand with the paintbrush), others less familiar. All are being offered for the same price of €50 and all are listed anonymously, on a first-bid, first-secure basis. (They are all on exhibition at present in Lismore Castle Art Gallery). Absolutely all proceeds from the auction will go to St Carthage’s Cathedral, thereby helping to guarantee the old man above will still be visible for many years to come, as well as the wonderful McGrath Tomb below, dating from 1543 and without doubt one of the finest surviving examples of 16th century carving in Ireland.
All works included in the Verso Art auction are currently on view in Lismore Castle Arts Gallery, County Waterford until October 31st. For more information on the auction and how to bid, please see: Verso Art – VersoArt
Another abandoned Church of Ireland church, this one in Affane, County Waterford. Set in the midst of a substantial graveyard, the building dates from 1819 when erected at a cost of £500 with the usual support from the Board of First Fruits. This was a period when considerable numbers of such churches were being either built or restored across the country as part of an effort by the Church of Ireland to provide better facilities for worshippers and, it was hoped, increase the number of persons attending services: Affane church could accommodate 200 people although it is unlikely it did so very often. Already by 1874 the parish had been united with that of Cappoquin and by the condition of the building – today a relic from the Anglican Church’s age of improvement – it looks to have been long out of use.