A Call to Arms



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?


In Poor Health


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.

More Good News



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.


Well Protected


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.

Scattered Remains


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




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




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




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

In Indifferent Repair



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


A Survivor


Set into a wall to the immediate west of the main entrance into Mearescourt, County Westmeath is this pedestrian gateway. It appears to be a survivor from the main house at the end of the drive: this was developed over the 17th and 18th century around an earlier tower house and the building’s present front dates from c.1760. Probably when this work was completed and a classic Paladian doorcase installed, the earlier version was removed. However, rather than simply dispose of it, the owners recycled the stone here. So this is a late-Baroque ashlar limestone doorcase with moulded architraves, the cornice supported by carved brackets, a rare survivor from the period although in need of some attention to ensure its future.

A Tale of Two Lodges

Killua, County Westmeath was originally built in c.1780 as a regular three-storey classical house, before being transformed into a gothic castle fifty years later to the designs of James Pain. Two of its lodges represent these different periods and styles. That above is the Temple Lodge with its Ionic portico and high gabled pediment. Further along the former estate walls stands the Castle Gate Lodge, presumably also designed by Pain and intended to prepare visitors for what lay ahead since it incorporates many of the features found in the main house. The other difference between the two is that whereas the older lodge is still occupied and in good condition, the more recent one has fallen into disrepair.

Well Lodged

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






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






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