Located in the north-west corner of County Westmeath, this is Wilson’s Hospital, a secondary school which in 2011 celebrated its 250th anniversary. The school’s founder was one Andrew Wilson who, the year before his death in 1725, made a will stipulating that if there were no direct male heirs to his estate, then this should be transferred to the Church of Ireland for the establishment of a hospital for elderly Protestant men and a school for impoverished Protestant boys. After a few decades had passed and no male heir had appeared (and a family dispute over the will resolved), work began on the building, its design sometimes attributed to the little-known Dublin architect Henry Pentland. From the front Wilson’s Hospital looks like a Palladian country house, since to the rear of the main block (shown here) are quadrants leading to two-storey wings. And the façade features a two-storey-over-basement limestone breakfront, the three centre bays stepped forward and with fine Venetian windows on the extreme first-floor windows. The institutional nature of the place is indicated by the clock tower visible above the roofline, and, immediately behind the front, by an arcaded, three-storey courtyard that recalls that of the earlier Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, albeit on a smaller scale. Elderly Protestant men are no longer accommodated here, but boys (and for the past 50 years, also girls) continue to be educated at Wilson’s Hospital.
South Hill, County Westmeath is a house of five bays and three-storeys over basement, believed to date from c.1810 and perhaps designed by Dublin architect William Farrell. The building’s most notable feature is a long, single-storey limestone pavilion attached to the facade and centred on a pilastered porch with wide fanlight. Constructed for a branch of the Tighe family, South Hill was then inherited by the Chapmans of Killua Castle, a few miles away; in 1870 Thomas Chapman became owner of the estate, following the death of an older brother. Chapman, who would later become Sir Thomas, seventh and last baronet, had four daughters with his wife, an ardent evangelical Christian. The couple hired a governess for the children, Sarah Lawrence and in 1885 she became pregnant, giving birth to a son. Chapman was the father, and when his wife discovered this, he left the family home and moved with Sarah Lawrence to Wales, where a second son, Thomas Edward, was born; having settled in Oxford, the couple would have several further sons. They and their four half-sisters appear never to have met each other.
Sir Thomas Chapman never returned to Ireland, although he continued to receive an annuity from the estate. His second son, who would become famous as Lawrence of Arabia, was aware of his Irish ancestry and of the fact that his father had lived in South Hill; in later years he considered acquiring land in the area, but this didn’t happen before his early death. Eventually the property was sold to an order of nuns and became an educational establishment. Today South Hill is surrounded by institutional buildings of outstanding architectural mediocrity.
Boarded up and falling into dereliction: the former administration block of the workhouse in Mullingar, County Westmeath. Many of the other buildings that were part of this complex have since been given fresh purpose by the Health Service Executive (albeit with the introduction of uPVC windows: when will official Ireland ever provide a lead here?). However, this handsome house, which is at the entrance to the site, is in a wastefully poor state, only saved from total ruin by being constructed in sturdy limestone. Dating from 1841 and built in the Tudor-Gothic style to the design of architect George Wilkinson, the building’s present state is a shameful waste of state resources.
Internationally acclaimed for his work, the astronomer William Edward Wilson was born in 1851 in Belfast, where his grandfather, also called William, had made a fortune in the shipping business. As a result, William senior bought each of his four sons an estate, that given to William junior’s father, John Wilson, being Daramona, County Westmeath. The younger William, not enjoying good health as a child, was educated at home but when he was 19 the opportunity arose to join an expedition travelling to Algeria to witness a total solar eclipse. This inspired his interest in astronomy and in due course he acquired his first telescope. When aged thirty, he constructed his own observatory at Daramona, on a site immediately adjacent to the house. Here he worked for the rest of his life, until his early death in 1908. Among the scientific breakthroughs with which he is credited are the production of the first photo-electric measurements of the brightness of stars and the first accurate determination of the temperature of the solar photosphere. He was also responsible for making a series of outstanding celestial photographs. As a result of his work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896 and awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Trinity College Dublin in 1901.
Daramona is a mid-19th century, three-bay, two-storey Italianate villa probably built by John Wilson soon after the birth of his son, the future astronomer. There was an older house immediately behind the present one, but it has long since been demolished; it is suggested that the somewhat over-scaled limestone Doric entrance porch was recycled from the previous building. The doorcase behind has a particularly wide fanlight and sidelights. The interior is typical of the period, the most interesting space being the very substantial library, the largest room on the ground floor, which has timber panelled walls and, above the chimneypiece, a panel bearing the family coat of arms. Immediately behind the house, on the site of the earlier house, are two long service wings. Wilson’s two-storey observatory, completed around 1892 and originally domed, stands left of the rear of the house. Beyond it is a curtain wall topped with a balustrade and incorporating a pedimented doorcase leading providing access to the rear avenue.
Not long after Edward Wilson’s death in 1908, his widow and children moved first to County Cavan and then, following the outbreak of troubles in the 1920s, to England. His telescope was offered to the University of London where it remained until 1974; it is now in Liverpool’s Merseyside County Museum. Much of his original instrumentation when to Trinity College Dublin. Meanwhile, Daramona was sold to another family who lived in and maintained the property until it was put on the market in 2000. House and land were then bought by a local building firm which applied to construct 38 houses on the site. Thanks to a campaign by scientists in Ireland and around the world, this application was refused by the county council which in due course conferred protected structure status on the main building, ancillary outhouses, demesne wall and gates. Since then it would appear nothing has been done, so that today Daramona is fast falling into decay and – once more – taking with it part of the national history. Looking for a solution to this problem? One might as well follow William Wilson’s example, and look to the stars.
In November 2011, former Labour TD Willie Penrose announced his intention to resign as a Minister of State as a result of the then-government’s decision to close Columb Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath the following year. At the time, the buildings were occupied by some 170 troops who were subsequently moved to the barracks in Athlone. Eight years have since passed without proper use being found for the premises.
Standing in the centre of Mullingar town and occupying some 26 acres of land, the main complex in Columb Barracks are over 200 years old, having been constructed in 1814, and first occupied in 1819, when it was called Wellington Barracks (the name was changed in 1922 in memory of Patrick Columb, a member of the National Army who had been killed in the town not long before). Designed to accommodate 1,000 soldiers, the barracks is U-shaped with a large parade ground at its centre. The three-storey blocks with roughcast rendered walls and cut limestone door- and window cases in each section of the building. The ranges are largely unaltered other than the unfortunate and universal insertion of uPVC windows at some relatively recent date and, on the southern range, openings being widened, apparently in 1980 when someone in authority decided to give them the all the flair of a provincial hotel, complete with porticos supported by spindly Corinthian columns. Even more unfortunate is a serious loss on the west side of the complex. Old photographs show that the centre of this featured a three-bay breakfront, its rusticated ground floor incorporating an arch above which was a tripartite window and, on the top level, a Diocletian window below a pediment. The entire section was swept away in 1966 to create a miserable-looking, single-storey concrete brick gateway marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising. Incidentally, the early photographs (from the French collection in the National Library of Ireland) also show how much better maintained the entire site used to be. Outside the main complex lie a range of other buildings, some in stone (including a chapel dating from 1855), others in brick, constructed over the course of the 19th century to provide facilities for the troops then in residence.
A year ago, thejournal.ie reported that during the previous three years the state had spent over €113,000 paying a private security firm responsible for looking after Columb Barracks in Mullingar. As today’s photographs show, there has been considerable damage to the site, some of the buildings have been badly vandalised while others are suffering from neglect, ultimately adding to the cost of their refurbishment. Almost 20 voluntary organisations – the likes of the local boxing and cycling clubs, a youth café, a men’s shed group and so forth – occupy portions of various premises, presumably on short-term leases and, it would seem, with little security of tenure. But even with their presence, the greater part of the barracks has been allowed to remain in limbo for the past eight years. When the state first embarked on closing down military bases around the country more than two decades ago, it sold a number of them to developers and private organisations. Indeed, some years ago Columb Barracks was placed on the market for sale, but then withdrawn following the establishment by government in September 2018 of a new organization called the Land Development Agency (LDA), the purpose of which is supposed to be the provision of affordable housing. Responsibility for the barracks lay with the Department of Defence, but this now appears to have been transferred to the LDA. A year ago the Department of Housing advised (in finest bureaucratic language) that the LDA was ‘carrying out a technical due diligence process on the Columb Barracks site to determine the development constraints and opportunities, which will take a number of months. Once this process is complete the LDA will determine a delivery strategy for the site.’ The following May then-Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy wrote in response to an enquiry from another TD that the LDA was in the process of advancing agreements with various state bodies in relation to a number of sites including Columb Barracks and furthermore ‘it should be noted that the LDA has commenced preparatory Professional work on each of the eight sites listed above and that the transfer process will not impact the ultimate delivery on those lands. The LDA performs a due diligence process on all sites, which includes an assessment of alternative use potential and development capacity and constraints.’ At the moment on its website (https://lda.ie) the LDA lists the current status of Columb Barracks as ‘Development feasibility study underway.’
Understandably, given its size and location, there has been considerable disquiet in Mullingar about the continuing neglect of Columb Barracks. A local body has been set up, Columb Barracks Restoration & Regeneration Committee (https://columbbarracks.ie) to champion the restoration and refurbishment of the site. It proposes that the former barracks could be transformed into a ‘vibrant community-owned and operated centre, providing education and other community services, based on renewable energy, zero waste and other environmentally sustainable and economically viable activities and practices; and capable of being an agent for the spreading of these practices and ideas, and for the transformation of Mullingar into a twenty-first century transition town.’ As well as the existing voluntary bodies using parts of the place, the committee suggests there could also be both short- and long-term accommodation, a museum, more sports facilities, a concert/theatre space, artists’ workshops, food markets and so forth. Not all of these ideas will necessarily come to fruition, but there are enough of them to give the barracks a real and viable future. Eventually something will be made of the site, but in the meantime eight years have passed during which these buildings, part of the country’s architectural heritage, have been allowed to deteriorate, with the inevitable result that whatever decisions are eventually made about intended purpose, these will cost more to implement because the site will require greater work. In Ireland the wheels of officialdom in Ireland can turn so slowly that they appear not to be moving at all. But surely, before the buildings here fall into further disrepair and suffer further vandalism, the time has come for the relevant state authorities to call a halt to ‘due diligence process’ and ‘assessment of alternative use potential and development capacity and constraints’. After eight years, there can be little left to discuss and analyse and consider and assess. Surely now is the moment instead to initiate action and bring Columb Barracks back into purposeful use?
Captain Nicholas Pollard was one of the many adventurous Englishmen who came to Ireland in the latter part of the 16th century and was rewarded by the government with a grant of land. Originally from Devon, Pollard arrived here as part of the Earl of Essex’s ill-fated expedition in 1599, but whereas his commander returned home in ignominy, Pollard remained and received land and the castle at Mayne in County Westmeath. His heir, also called Nicholas, settled slightly further to the east where he built a new castle and founded a town, which he duly named Castlepollard. His son Walter carried out further improvements in the area, having received from Charles II a patent for holding fairs and a weekly market in the new town. Walter’s son, another Walter, although he had served in Charles II’s army and was attached to the Stuart cause, nevertheless supported William III and in the aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne became a Member of Parliament, as well as being charged to raise supplies for the crown in Westmeath for a number of years. He died in 1718 and having been predeceased by his only son, the estate passed to his daughter Letitia who in 1696 had married Major Charles Hampson; the latter duly took his wife’s family name, Successive generations of Pollards then followed, none of whom made much of an impression outside the immediate locale, although in the 19th century some of them enjoyed respectable army careers. The family remained in residence until after the death of the last male heir, Francis Edward Romulus Pollard-Urquhart in 1915: two decades later the house and 110 acres were sold to a Roman Catholic religious order, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
Standing on the outskirts of Castlepollard, the Pollards’ former residence is called Kinturk House. The core of the building is believed to date from c.1760 when it would have replaced an older castle either here or on an adjacent site. This work was undertaken because in 1763 the estate’s then-owner William Pollard married Isabella, daughter and heiress of John Morres. However, one must assume her inheritance was not enormous since Kinturk was only room deep. This changed in the 1820s when the house was enlarged and remodeled for its next resident, William Dutton Pollard by architect Charles Robert Cockerell, who had come to Ireland to work on another commission for the Naper family at Loughcrew. Cockerell doubled the depth of Kinturk and gave the garden front of the building a more imposing presence by increasing the number of bays (from five to seven) with a central breakfront. He also added a single-storey Ionic porch to the façade, and single storey extensions at either end. Inside, the most notable feature is the cantilevered Portland stone staircase with brass banisters but at least one of the ground floor reception rooms retains pretty rococo plasterwork from the 1760s.
Within a few years of buying Kinturk House, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart embarked on a substantial building programme in the grounds, where they erected, among other structures, a chapel linked to the old residence by a corridor and a free-standing three-storey block intended to serve as a 120-bed Mother and Baby Home. All the new buildings, constructed between 1938-41 was designed in a starkly brutalist style by Dublin architect Thomas Joseph Cullen, who throughout a long career worked extensively for the Catholic church. The cost of this project was some £76,000, much of the money coming from the Hospital Sweepstakes Fund. Called St Peter’s, the home operated for 35 years and like other similar establishments elsewhere in the country – some of them also operated by the same religious order – has in recent years rightly been subjected to public scrutiny, not least because of the horrific conditions in which many young women and their new-born infants were required to live. Following the closure of the home, in 1971 the site was sold to the Midland Health Board, and then, like so many other buildings across the country, became the responsibility of the Health Service Executive (HSE). Kinturk/St Peter’s thereafter provided residential care for the disabled until its closure was announced in 2014, shortly before a highly condemnatory inspection report on the facility was issued by the Health Information and Quality Authority. Today, two detached bungalows provide accommodation for ten residents. The rest of the site sits empty and neglected, the various properties visibly falling into disrepair. The original Kinturk House, of evident architectural merit, is closed up and increasingly dilapidated. This is, unfortunately, yet another instance of a state authority failing to look after the buildings supposed to be in its care and leaving it in poor health. As always, ultimately the citizens of Ireland (who own the place) will be the losers.
St John’s church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath featured here three years ago (see Community Spirit, March 28th 2016). A couple of pictures above give an idea of its appearance then. At that time the building was in a state of serious disrepair, but plans were already afoot for its restoration, thanks to a local initiative.
Since 2016, major work has been undertaken to St John’s and the building has now been fully restored and brought back for a wide variety of community uses. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2016 it looked beyond salvation, but this is another example of how, with sufficient determination and imagination, none of our architectural heritage need be lost. Congratulations (and thanks) to those responsible.
At the end of the sixth century a holy man called Fintán but now better known as St Munna, established a religious settlement at Taghmon, County Westmeath (Teach Munna: St Munna’s church). This flourished, and came to boast some 230 monks, but the present building on the site dates from the mid-15th century. This may have been before or after the place was ransacked in 1452 by Farrell MacGeoghegan in whose family territory it lay. The need for security explains the church’s most striking feature, the fortified tower at its west end where a resident priest could be safe from attack. This is of four storeys and configured like many of the tower houses then being constructed across the country, with a store on the ground floor and living/sleeping quarters on the upper levels.
In the 16th century St Munna’s church passed under the control of the Nugent family but had become ruinous within 100 years. However, by 1755 it was being used by the Church of Ireland for services and in 1843 extensive restoration work was carried out under the supervision of Joseph Welland, head architect for the Board of Ecclesiastical Commissioners: it is no longer in use for services. Aside from the tower, the building’s other notable feature is a sheela-na-gig above a window on the north wall.