Dusk at Dunbrody Abbey, County Wexford. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1182 by Hervé de Montmorency, uncle of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow. The site was initially offered to the monks of Buldwas, Shropshire but after they declined it came under the care of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. Most of the extant buildings, including the substantial church, date from the first half of the 13th century. Dunbrody was officially dissolved in 1536 and nine years later the buildings and surrounding land were acquired by Sir Osborne Etchingham.
Wexford in the second half of October is filled with opera lovers who come for the annual festival specialising in the rediscovery of lost musical gems. Some of them might like to take a break from this activity and explore another under-appreciated gem: the town’s walls. Wexford was established by the Vikings in the mid-ninth century and named ‘Weissfjord’ meaning Bay of the Mud Flats. Its walls were likely constructed three centuries later, following the arrival of the Normans. Originally they ran in a loose C-shape around Wexford’s land border, the town being left open to the sea. Covering more than 24 hectares, the walls were punctuated by seven gates, only one of which remains: the Selskar Gate. However while large sections of the old defences were demolished in the 18th century, a number of ‘mural towers’ survive along stretches of the wall. That above is located close to George’s Street, that below on Rowe Street. Both merit discovery – and provide an opportunity to clear the head of all that music.
The granite portico of Oaklands, County Wexford. This late Georgian house is associated with the Tyndall family, the last of whom died in 1957: soon afterwards Oaklands was gutted by fire and pulled down. This is all that remains to indicate its appearance, although large blocks of cut stone litter the surrounding area. A bungalow has been built on the site.
Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.
Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’
There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.
‘From Artramont, I proceeded to the castle of Carrick, by Edmond, the seat of Mr. Bell, Mount Anna, that of Colonel Hudson, and Sanders’-court, the once respectable residence of the late Earl of Arran. When I arrived within view of the splendid arch and lodges, which, on an elevated position above the public road, form a grand outpost to this concern, and through which, though never carried into effect, an approach was meditated by the late Earl, my mind became unexpectedly introduced into a train of reflection on the ruinous consequences to this country, of that absentee system, which since our union with England has become so much the fashion. This splendid portal, with the degraded state of the mansion-house and offices, (now wholly deserted by the proprietor and his family,) and which form a striking contrast to each other, were well calculated to impress this subject upon the mind…I felt my heart impelled by a sentiment of sympathy; a feeling not likely to be obliterated, by the neglected and ruinous aspect of Sanders’-court, no longer the seat of nobility, nor of that munificence and national hospitality of which it was so eminently remarkable.’ From A. Atkinson’s The Irish Tourist (1815).
Saunderscourt, County Wexford derives its name from Colonel Robert Saunders who came to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell and was apppointed Governor of Kinsale, County Cork. However, he is said to have quarreled with Cromwell and having supported the restoration of Charles II was allowed to keep his grant of 3,700 acres in Wexford. In 1730 the Colonel’s great-granddaughter Jane Saunders, an only child, married Arthur Gore, later first Earl of Arran and thus Saunderscourt passed into the ownership of this family. It was the couple’s son, the second Earl of Arran whose decease (in 1809) was lamented by Atkinson since his heir abandoned the place which soon fell into ruin, as described above. Interest in the estate revived following the succession of the fourth earl in 1837, after which work was undertaken on the demesne by noted landscape gardener James Fraser. However, eventually Saunderscourt was sold c.1860 to an Arthur Giles who undertook restoration work on the main house. Believed to date from the second half of the 18th century, this was a two-storey, seven-bay property described following its refurbishment as being ‘a fine courtly building of considerable extent that displays its rich and handsome façade consisting of a centre and characteristic wings to the south-west.’ Saunderscourt changed hands again before the end of the 19th century and the main house was soon after demolished so that no trace of it remains today.
What survives at Saunderscourt is the ‘splendid arch’ and adjacent lodges that so moved Atkinson to eloquent reflection in 1815. Tucked down a quiet country road, this building appears to have been constructed during the time of the second Earl of Arran and, as is mentioned, was intended to be the start of a new approach to the house but this never happened. Thus it would seem always to have stood in glorious isolation, a monument to unrealised ambition. Attributed recently to Waterford architect John Roberts (who certainly worked in the area on a number of properties), the entrance, as can be seen, consists of a towering triumphal arch with the same treatment to both front and rear: engaged Tuscan columns support a triangular pediment, while a semicircular arch with moulded architrave is supported on Tuscan piers. This all executed in limestone although the greater part of the structure is of brick. The same material is also used for the single-storey quadrants and lodges. The former, which each have a pair of round-headed niches, are interesting because – like the arch itself – they are identical on either side. The effect is to create concave spaces which acted as yards for the lodges, with their Gibbsian door- and windowcases in limestone. The whole effect is tremendously grand, although somewhat incongruous in its present setting, shared with a series of cow sheds. The Saunderscourt arch has of late benefitted from attention paid to its welfare by the Irish Landmark Trust but that organisation’s limited resources have meant work has not progressed beyond stabilization and certain key repairs, particularly to roofs and drainage. Provided the necessary funds are forthcoming, no doubt further remediation will be undertaken and the property fully restored so that it can begin generating an income (and thereby better secure its future).
Once the tallest building in Wexford town, here is the tower that stands at the centre of the collegiate range of St Peter’s, former seminary for the diocese of Ferns. With corner turrests and mullioned windows, the five-storey block was designed c.1832 by a local architect, Richard Pierce, today better remembered for the town’s ‘twin churches’ of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception which have identical spires. Pierce was clerk of works in Ireland for Augustus Welby Pugin (responsible for the chapel built immediately adjacent to the range) and his own work shows the influence of the latter. The tower of St Peter’s is particularly notable for its splendid Perpendicular tracery window which lights the internal staircase.
Three lancet windows close the chancel of St Mary’s, New Ross, County Wexford. Founded at the start of the 13th century by William Marshall and/or his wife Isabel de Clare, this was one of the first Perpendicular Gothic churches built in Ireland and most likely the largest at the time. Even in the present condition, it remains a monument to the couple’s ambitions. Having fallen into disrepair, a new Anglican place of worship was built on the site of the nave in 1813 with funds provided by the Board of First Fruits and remains in use for services to the present day (its chancel wall can be seen behind the empty windows). The interior of the ruins contain a substantial collection of mediaeval, and later, funerary monuments most of them within the two transepts (that to the south shown below).
The remains of the principal gate lodge at Castleboro, County Wexford. The main house (burnt in 1923) had been built around 1840 for the first Lord Carew to the designs of Daniel Robertson of Kilkenny. The single-storey lodge, marking the entrance of a new approach to the house through its parkland, dates from some twenty years later and features a tetrastyle Roman Doric portico. Sad to see this crisp granite building slip into what appears to be irreversible decay.
Built 1883-89 Newtownbarry, County Wexford is one of the last country houses designed by Belfast architect Sir Charles Lanyon, assisted by his pupil W.H. Lynn and his son John. Somewhat austere in style, the building’s character constrasts with that of the lush surrounding grounds. These are probably of earlier date and include a two-acre sunken garden which terminates at one end in this densely foliated rustic tunnel.
This time of year always has a special resonance for the people of Wexford since it marks the anniversary of the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion in that part of the country. Readers unfamiliar with Irish history might not be aware of the uprising, initiated by members of an organisation called the Society of United Irishmen. Founded in 1791 this body as its name indicates welcomed members of all religious persuasions and strove to achieve more democratic government within Ireland, inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution. However, it was also stimulated by what was taking place in France at the time and after the British government went to war against the French in 1793 the United Irishmen movement was proscribed, with the result that it went underground and became more extreme in intent: an independent republic was now the goal.
Finally in May 1798 the United Irishmen movement, which now had over 250,000 members, saw key leaders arrested by the government and uprisings in various parts of the country, most notably County Wexford. The degree of violence and destruction which took place here was greater than anywhere else, and one of the houses which is known to have suffered damage during the period was Woodbrook, near Killanne in the north-west of the county.
Killanne is a townland at the foot of the Blackstairs Mountains. It was here that John Kelly, a leader of the 1798 insurrection in Wexford grew up. He seems to have been only 21 when he participated in a battle against government forces on May 30th that led to the capture of Wexford town. Several days later Kelly was involved in the Battle of New Ross where he received a serious wound to his leg. In order to recuperate he moved to Wexford where one of his sisters lived. However, following the Battle of Vinegar Hill outside Enniscorthy on June 21st the British army regained control of Wexford and Kelly was discovered. Sentenced to death, on or near this day 215 years ago he was first hanged and then decapitated, his body subsequently thrown into the river Slaney, his head kicked about the streets before being set on a pike. His remains were later interred in a grave at Killanne. He is remembered in a well-known song:
‘Tell me who is that giant with the gold curling hair,
He who rides at the head of your band.
Seven feet is his height with some inches to spare,
And he looks like a king in command.
Ah, my lads, that’s the pride of the bold Shelmaliers,
Among our greatest of heroes a man,
Fling your beavers aloft and give three ringing cheers,
For John Kelly, the Boy from Killane.’
Woodbrook is believed to date from the late 1770s/early 1780s and was built for the Venerable Arthur Jacob who had purchased the estate on which the house stands in 1752. By the time construction commenced, he had been Rector of Killanne for some twenty years and for much of the same period was also Archdeacon of Armagh. The latter explains why in 1784 Susan his only child and heiress should have married Captain William Blacker whose family lived in that part of the country. The Blackers trace their descent from Blacar, a Norse chief who arrived in Ireland in the early 10th century. Among his more questionable achievements was the plunder of Clonmacnoise in 940 and the following year the slaying of Muirchertach, King of Ailech, after which he sacked the city of Armagh. One suspects there was not much mourning when he finallyy fell in battle in 946.
As for the modern line of Blackers, they are known to have settled more peaceably in County Armagh in the 17th century where in 1692 they built a house called Carrickblacker (after being acquired by Portadown Golf Club it was demolished some years ago). Captain William Blacker, who married Susan Jacob, was a younger son so he had the good fortune to find a rich wife. It may have been his connection with the British armed forces that led to her County Wexford house, Woodbrook, to suffer assault in 1798. Or it may have been because his nephew and namesake Col. William Blacker had been one of the founders of the sectarian Orange Order two years earlier. Or the explanation may simply be that Woodbrook, like a number of other big houses in this part of the country, was attacked by rebels looking for arms and other goods.
Woodbrook as seen today is the result of what must have been an extensive renovation programme by the Blackers in the early 19th century. A big handsome building, the main block is of three bays and three storeys, the south-facing entrance front saved from austerity by the embellishment of a wide tetrastyle Ionic granite portico (and pretty fanlight over the door beyond). There are tripartite Wyatt windows on all three floors (and on three sides) diminishing in size as they rise, so the interiors have an abundance of light as well as wonderful views across the parkland and towards the Blackstairs. The ceilings of the main rooms are exceptionally high and very generously proportioned; the drawing room, for example, is forty foot long with inlaid doors and elegant ceiling plasterwork.
The airiness and grace of Woodbrook is exemplified by its remarkable ‘flying’ staircase which spirals up the double-height hall from ground to first floor. The main structure is wood, with wrought iron balusters and a polished mahogany banister and although linked by metal bands to the surrounding walls in several places, it gives the impression of floating in space, a fancy enhanced by the slight bounce evident as one ascends or descends the steps. One wonders whether the civil engineer Charles Blacker Vignoles who was born in the house in 1793 (his father was a friend of the family) and who in the 1830s was responsible for the design and construction of Ireland’s first railway, running from Dublin to Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) might have had a hand in the creation of this unique staircase.
The last of the Blackers left Woodbrook in 1995 and three years later – on the 200th anniversary of the place being damaged during the 1798 Rebellion – it was sold to Giles and Alexandra FitzHerbert who have lived there ever since and together with their children have made the house marvellously welcoming and vibrant. Woodbrook is always full of activity and entertainment, and always a pleasure to visit. You can find out more about it by looking at: http://www.woodbrookhouse.ie