And Now For Something Completely Different


On this Bank Holiday Monday, some photographs of one of Ireland’s great natural wonders: the Burren, County Clare. For those unfamiliar with the place, it covers some 200 square miles in the north-west of the county and is notable for being covered by sedimentary rock, primarily limestone, giving the Burren the appearance at times of a lunar landscape. 





Much of the Burren is uninhabited, and uninhabitable, given the scarcity of vegetation or large areas of soil on which crops might be grown. At the same time, this part of the country has clearly supported human activity for millennia, as is testified by the many miles of stone walls that can be seen wending their way across the successive vistas. On the other hand, the Burren has long provided grazing for livestock, notably cattle and goats. What sets the region apart, especially at this time of year, is its extraordinary variety of flora, with more than 70 per cent of Ireland’s flower species found there, and many other plants found nowhere else in the country. These can often be discovered growing in the grikes, or fissures, of the limestone where moisture is also found. 





Scattered around the Burren are the remains of a number of mediaeval monastic settlements and tower houses, indicating that despite the relative poverty of the region it still sustained settlements across the centuries. Today, tourism is probably the most important source of income for anyone living in the area, but much of that activity tends to be confined to a handful of towns and sites such as the Cliffs of Moher and it is easy to leave these behind and explore the greater part of the Burren without seeing anyone else. It is at such times that the strange, sculptural beauty of the place can best be appreciated. 

The Cause of Jealousy



As mentioned a few days ago, in the mid-18th century the first Earl of Belvedere quarreled with his brother George Rochfort and so built the ‘Jealous Wall’, a sham folly that obscured the view of the younger man’s house further south on Lough Ennell. Here is the property in question, Tudenham Park, which, like Belvedere itself, is believed to have been designed by Richard Castle. However, whereas Belvedere is really a villa, this is a proper country house, of three storeys over basement with bowed projections on either side and a seven-bay entrance front, its plainness relieved by the pedimented tripartite Doric doorcase with round-headed niche above and then a circular bracketed niched below the parapet. Occupied by successive families until the early 20th century, Tudenham Park then became a hospital and was in military ownership until the 1950s when unroofed and left a shell. Some 15 or so years ago, plans were hatched to rescue the building and restore it to use but these came to nothing, so it remains the ruin seen in these pictures.


Jealous Minds



The most famous folly in Ireland, this is the Jealous Wall at Belvedere, County Westmeath. Some 180 feet long, this theatrical sham ruin was constructed around 1760 by Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere. Intended to look like the remains of an ancient castle, the three-storey wall incorporates a series of stepped towers, some of which have arched Gothic windows and, at the centre of the ground floor, a three-bay loggia. Seemingly it was built in order to block the view from Belvedere south towards Tudenham Park, a house further along Lough Ennell which had been erected some years before by the earl’s younger brother, George Rochfort. The siblings subsequently quarreled, hence the wall was put up here.


An Underutilised Resource


Designed by Richard Castle c.1740, Belvedere, County Westmeath is an exquisite villa overlooking Lough Ennell built for Robert Rochfort, later created first Earl of Belvedere. The Rochfort family had lived in Ireland since the 13th century, their primary residence being Gaulston, some five miles south-east of Belvedere. The house there, also designed by Richard Castle, was badly damaged after being burnt in 1920 during the War of Independence and later demolished. However, from around 1743 Robert Rochfort made Belvedere his main home after he had become estranged from his second wife, the Hon Mary Molesworth, who he accused of having an affair with one of his younger brothers, Arthur Rochfort. Famously, Mary Molesworth was thereafter kept a prisoner at Gaulston, never permitted to leave or to see anyone for thirty years until after her husband’s death in 1774; only once did the couple encounter each other again, by accident, and after that occasion a servant was required to walk in front of Mary Molesworth ringing a bell in order to warn Rochfort that she might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile, he pursued his younger brother for financial recompense under the legislation covering Criminal Conversation (as adultery was then known). Unable to pay, Arthur Rochfort fled the country but on his return was incarcerated in Dublin’s debtors’ prison where he died. 





Floating serene above the lake, Belvedere seems a world away from this unhappy tale. A two-storey block with semi-circular bow ends with a five-bay front, the centre three bays slightly recessed and those on either side having a Venetian window on the ground floor and a Diocletian window above. Initially the building was just one room deep but at the end of the 18th century a wing was added to the rear. The two most important reception spaces, drawing room and dining room, are at either end, with smaller rooms next to the entrance hall, behind which runs a corridor incorporating a narrow staircase leading up to four bedrooms, the service quarters being in a sunken basement. The great joy of the interior is the delicate rococo plasterwork in which putti and classical figures, surrounded by trailing garlands, shells and volutes, seem to be in the process of emerging from the ceilings. The stuccodore responsible is unknown, but the work, dating from around 1760, has been attributed to Barthelemij Cramillion. 





Following the first earl’s death in 1774, Belvedere – and indeed Gaulston – was inherited by his son George Augustus Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere. However, when he died in 1714, he had no direct heir and so the titles became extinct and the settled estate was inherited by his sister Jane and then, after her death, by her grandson Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough. He rarely visited Belvedere and on his death in 1847 it passed to a cousin, Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy bachelor who invited Ninian Niven to devise plans for the walled garden and who was also responsible for laying out a series of terraces between the house and lake. On his death in 1912, the estate was inherited by Charles Howard-Bury, a noted mountaineer, explorer and botanist. Howard-Bury had been born and raised in Charleville Castle, County Offaly but seemingly had such an unhappy childhood there that he preferred to live in Belvedere and when he died in 1963, he left the place to his long-time companion, a former actor called Rex Beaumont, who would be the last private owner of the estate. In 1980, Beaumont announced his plans to leave the place and held a sale of the contents, jointly organised by Hamilton & Hamilton and Christie’s; quite a few of the lots had originally come from Charleville Castle, meaning collections from two different houses were thereby dispersed. In 1982 Beaumont sold the house and surrounding parkland to the local authority, which has managed the place ever since. While much money was spent on restoring Belvedere at the time, 40 years have now passed and the house is looking tired and in need of attention, little having changed there since its acquisition by the county council. The surrounding demesne is extremely popular with local families and much frequented, but Belvedere itself appears an under-utilised resource; at the moment, only a handful of the rooms are even open to the public, with much of it closed up. It’s time fresh consideration, and attention, was given to one of Ireland’s most charming 18th century villas. 

War and Peace



Built close to the shoreline of the river Shannon 210 years ago in 1812, only the three-stage tower remains of a little Church of Ireland church at Mount Trenchard, County Limerick. In the immediate grounds are the graves of Mary Spring Rice, a daughter of the second Lord Monteagle, who was among the group responsible for bringing a large number of rifles for the Irish Volunteers from Germany on board the Asgard in July 1914. Also buried here is her cousin, Conor O’Brien, grandson of William Smith O’Brien: a keen sailor, he also helped bring arms to Ireland at that time and then in 1923-25  circumnavigated the world in his yacht Saoirse. A plaque on the gateway into this peaceful little site records their names and those of others from the area involved in gun-running activities during the same period.


The State of the Place



A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere. 

In Harmony with Nature


‘Ireland is far more favoured by latitude than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish…The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds.’
The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed c.731 A.D.
‘The Irish climate is favourable to many plants which, though neglected, do better in Ireland than the countries from which they are imported.’
Dr Peter Lombard, De Regno Hiberniae Commentarius, 1600. 





Across the centuries, observers have remarked on the kindly character of the Irish climate. While conditions vary somewhat from east to west, and from north to south, this island does not, as a rule, suffer from extremes of temperature: despite being on the same latitude as Newfoundland in Canada, our winters are generally mild (only dropping a few degrees below 0 °C) and our summers cool (even at their highest they seldom exceed 25 °C). Although winds are plentiful, they are rarely extreme and rainfall is abundant: the eastern half of the country averages 750-1,000 mm of rain per annum, that to the west 1,000-1,400 mm. These circumstances are further aided by the character of Irish soil, much of it rich and fertile. We enjoy a temperate climate perfect for the cultivation of a wide diversity of plants. And yet the cultivation of those plants and the creation of gardens in which to enjoy them, came relatively late to Ireland. 





During the last century, in the aftermath of the First World War and the War of Independence, many Irish country house gardens were lost. The breaking up of the great estates, together with increased taxation and rising labour costs, combined to make the maintenance of these sites unfeasible for owners. Just as many country houses fell into dilapidation and ruin, so too did their surrounding demesnes and gardens. But it was not entirely a story of loss. From the late 19th century onwards, a number of Irish houses and estates had been taken over by Catholic religious orders, for use as schools, seminaries and so forth. Often the new owners sought to maintain the grounds of their property, thereby ensuring the survival of their predecessors’ work. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, growing public awareness and appreciation of our historic sites led to the establishment of a Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme. Grant-aided by the European Regional Development Fund and with a £4 million allocation, this scheme oversaw the restoration of some 24 gardens throughout the country.
Despite straitened circumstances, throughout the 20th century some country house owners continued to maintain their gardens and, in addition, a number of spectacular  new ones were created. Across the millennia, gardening has been a passion exerting authority over some property owners and from which, as a rule, they never wish to be released. Happily, this remains the case in Ireland. And while, in the past, that passion might have been largely private, to be shared only with family and friends, today more and more of our finest gardens are open to the public, permitting all of us to revel in their outstanding qualities.


In Harmony with Nature:: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 is now open at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin and will continue to the end of July. For further information, please see In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)


 

Crazy Wonderful


Two doorcases in the entrance hall of Bellinter, County Meath, a house dating from c.1750 and designed by Richard Castle for John Preston. The two doors to the front of the room have the heaving lugging typical of this period but then atop a rectangular panel have caps studded with clusters of guttae. Meanwhile, the doorcase to the rear of the space has clearly been altered, probably in the early 19th century, but must always have concluded at a lower point in order to accommodate the plaster armory above. It’s all rather daft and completely wonderful.

Drumcondra Urns



In a small garden to the rear of Drumcondra House (now part of Dublin City University) can be found three much-weathered stone urns. Originally they stood on the parapet of the building’s south-facing front, thought to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: the east-facing Baroque facade of the same property has long been attributed to Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (see An Italian in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Photographs of Drumcondra House from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when it as All Hallows College (a training centre for Roman Catholic priests) show the urns still in situ, one in the centre and one at either end. At some date they were taken down, probably because of their condition but it is still possible to see their pedestals on top of the building.


The Drunken Man of Genius


Described by William Butler Yeats as ‘the drunken man of genius’, architect William Alphonsus Scott was mentioned here earlier this year, with regard to his designs for the model village of Talbot’s Inch, County Kilkenny (see An Act of Philanthropy « The Irish Aesthete). Born in 1871, Scott was the son of an architect who established his own practice in Drogheda, County Louth; after finishing at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, Scott worked for a time in his father’s office, and then in that of Thomas Newenham Deane (where his father had also once worked). He spent a further six years with his father and in 1897 the two men won a commission to design the new town hall in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Scott then moved to London for several years, where he absorbed the influences of the arts and crafts movement, being particularly inspired by the work of Philip Webb and Charles Voysey (the latter apparent in his houses at Talbot’s Inch). Returning to Ireland, he spent a further brief time with his father before establishing his own practice and in 1903 was asked to design a new country house, Killyhevlin on the outskirts of Enniskillen. It appears to have been in consequence of this that Edward Martyn, a key figure in the Irish literary revival, heard of Scott and so recommended him to Martin Morris, future second Lord Killanin, who was seeking an architect to design a new Roman Catholic church in Spiddal, County Galway. 





In 1950 Martin Morris’s nephew, the third Lord Killanin, published a long article in The Furrow about St Enda’s church in Spiddal, where his family owned a property. Until the start of the last century, this little town overlooking Galway Bay was just an impoverished hamlet. Nevertheless, as elsewhere across the country, the local Catholic people were determined to have their own decent place of worship; by the 1990s, the existing church was not only too small but in a bad state of repair. The parish priest embarked on a fund-raising campaign, with some £2,725 coming from parishioners, another £1,160 from supporters in the United States and almost £1,300 from the Morris family. Work on the site began in 1904 and was completed three years later; the eventual cost of the building was just over £5,580. As Bridget Hourican has noted in her entry on Scott in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, the architect’s designs ‘were simple, sparing of decoration, boldly executed, and often had a heavy monumental quality.’ These features are certainly apparent in St Enda’s. Constructed from granite with limestone used for the window dressings, the church draws influence from the early Irish Romanesque style, as is especially apparent in the door and window openings, but it is influence not imitation: Scott has borrowed elements from the likes of Cormac’s Chapel on the Rock of Cashel without copying them. As was noted in an obituary following his early death in 1921, his ambition was ‘to strike out for himself a fresh and original type of design.’ 





Unlike many other Irish Catholic churches subjected to needless alteration in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, St Enda’s still retains much of the appearance it had when first finished 115 years ago. Writing even before that date, Robert Elliott in Art in Ireland wrote of the building ‘Mr. Scott, with his knowledge of good work, took into consideration I fancy (for I have not cared to ask him), the landscape, the material and the type of the people who will worship in his church; who tell beads, and pray simply rather than desire garish light to read bulky manuals of devotion. Necessary walls with a roof and a tower for bells, and a gallery for singing…’ Like Loughrea Cathedral, County Galway, where Scott would design many of the furnishings, St Enda’s is a repository of early 20th century Irish craftsmanship, with the stained glass windows designed in An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower), the cooperative established by Sarah Purser in 1903. The finest of these is one dedicated to the memory of Col. the Hon George Morris (father of the third Lord Killanin), killed in France in 1914 while commanding the Irish Guards. The Stations of the Cross, unusually in opus sectile, were designed in 1915 by Ethel Mary Rhind, also of An Túr Gloine. Since the church is in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) part of the country, the inscriptions beneath each station are in Irish.
It is likely that today the majority of visitors passing through Spiddal merely observe St Enda’s as another place of worship, such as are found in every town and village throughout Ireland. But it is something more than that: the church deserves to be seen and appreciated as one of the birthplaces of a new visual identity here, the manifestation of a wish to create a fresh and distinctive architectural language for the country. Whether that wish was ever completely fulfilled is a discussion for another time.