A number of state-sponsored programmes exist to encourage the revival of the country’s smaller urban centres, such as the Town and Village Renewal Scheme (begun 2016) and the Historic Towns Initiative (begun 2018). And yet, wherever one goes around Ireland, the same scenario can still be found: perfectly decent houses being left to fall into ruin. The question needs to be asked: why? Especially during what is universally acknowledged to be a national shortage of decent housing, why should this be the case. Why, for example, do local authorities – which have the relevant powers available to them under the 2000 Planning Act, not intervene? Why do we all seem to take it for granted that our towns and villages should display ample evidence of abandoned and neglected properties? Here is an example of this unhappy state of affairs: a fine red-brick house on the outskirts of Ardee, County Louth. Behind the double canted bay facade, the building is L-shaped and incorporates a small yard, while to the rear and now incorporated into a range of (equally dilapidated) outbuildings, stands a 15th century tower house: all are in equally neglected state. The national Buildings of Ireland website (www.buildingsofireland.ie) proposes a date of c.1900 for its construction, but a pediment over the main entrance contains the initials LCC (presumably representing Louth County Council) and the date 1931: does this mean the building was constructed at that time, or simply taken over at that time by the local authority? But more importantly, why today is it being allowed to deteriorate?
The remains of a former estate at Clogher in County Cork. In 1837 Samuel Lewis describes the property as belonging to one ‘G. Bond Low, Esq.’ but provides no further details. The house itself, now a ruin, dates from the early 19th century and is of three stories and five bays. A sense of its character is provided by what survives: a pair of handsome limestone gate posts, beside one of which is a derelict lodge. Not far inside the entrance is a very fine yard, typical of the kind then being erected across the country and, despite neglect, still so sturdy that it begs for restoration: the perfect setting for a number of courtyard dwellings, should someone with sufficient imagination (and funds) be prepared to take on the task.
The former Cistercian abbey of Holy Cross in County Tipperary derives its name from a fragment of the cross on which Christ was supposed to have been crucified. There are various stories told about how this fragment came to be housed here, both Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and Isabella of Angoulême, second wife of Henry’s son King John, being cited as donors, although neither case seems probable since neither woman ever came to Ireland nor had they any direct dealings with the country. More likely it was given by Donal Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond, who granted the establishment on the banks of the river Suir its foundation charter in 1185/6 (although Cistercian monks from Monasteranenagh, County Limerick seemingly settled at the site a few years earlier). Initially, the new monastery struggled to survive and its survival was in question. However, in the 15th century, from which period most of the extant buildings date, Holy Cross Abbey came under the patronage of the powerful Butler family, receiving particular favour from the fourth earl of Ormond, and this marked a turning point in the house’s fortunes. It also appears that around the same time the monastery became a place of pilgrimage, owing to the possession of the aforementioned cross fragment: might the latter only have arrived on the site then?
As already noted, most of the surviving buildings at Holy Cross Abbey date from the 15th century. From the time of its foundation, only the north arcade of the church’s aisle, parts of the south aisle, the monks’ doorway to the cloister and some traces of early Gothic lancets in the west gable, remain. Otherwise, what one finds here was created during a wholesale reconstruction in the 1430s. As noted by Roger Stalley in his monograph on Ireland’s Cistercian monasteries (1987), the church’s design ‘followed a conventional layout, with a square presbytery and two chapels in each transept. There are lierne vaults over the presbytery, crossing and north transept, and the windows contain a varied range of curvilinear tracery.’ To the south of the church lie what remains of the cloister and the ranges around this, that to the east incorporating a barrel-vaulted sacristy and chapter house, while the west side three linked dwelling chambers above vaulted basements. As for the cloisters, the section along the north side closest to the church was largely re-erected some decades ago, while smaller sections to the west and east survive. Further east of the claustral enclosure are additional, free-standing ruins which may have been the abbot’s dwelling, guest accommodation or an infirmary.
Like all such establishments, during the 16th century Reformation Holy Cross Abbey was closed and its occupants, the monastery and its land being granted to the then-Earl of Ormond, a member of the same family which had once done so much for the same place. Yet, as was often the case in this country, although the religious house had been officially shut, members of the order continued to live in the buildings or within their vicinity; there were, apparently monks at Holy Cross until the mid-18th century after which the old church and monastery fell into ruin. In the late 19th century, the remains were declared a national monument, and almost a century later, work began to restore the church so that it might be used for religious services again; today it acts as the local place of worship for Roman Catholics. While the restoration of the church was widely applauded, not everyone was equally enthusiastic about further alterations subsequently undertaken elsewhere on the site, Stalley commenting, ‘Some of the more recent work is of an unacceptably low standard for what is one of Ireland’s outstanding national monuments.’ And it is disappointing to see so little respect shown for the historic fabric even of the church. The chancel, for example, contains a splendid 15th century limestone sedilia, often considered the finest of its kind in Ireland. Rising 17 feet with a lavishly carved canopied roof over the seats, ugly electric wiring is draped across the top of this important monument, and an array of sockets and other items installed immediately adjacent in a frankly crass manner. Especially after the trouble and expense taken over rescuing it from ruin, the management of such an important part of our heritage deserves greater consideration.
The outer walls of the former Church of Ireland church at Derrylossary, County Wicklow. The present structure stands on the site of a much older one, thought to have been associated with the monastic centre at Glendalough, located some six miles to the south-west. Possibly incorporating parts of the original structure, this church was rebuilt in the 1820s thanks to financial support from the Board of First Fruits, with a tower added the following decade. The site is noteworthy for being the burial place of two well-known figures in 20th century Ireland, the first being Robert Barton who lived not far away at Glendalough House and was one of the signatories of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (although he then opposed it). The second is his cousin Erskine Childers’ son, of the same name, who briefly served as Ireland’s fourth President until his death in November 1974; his father, Childers senior, had been executed during the Civil War after being arrested by Free State while staying at Glendalough House. Derrylossary church continued to be used for religious services until the late 1960s, after which it was closed and eventually unroofed.
A recent video about obelisks on the Irish Aesthete YouTube channel (see (2) Follies Pt 1 – YouTube) served as a reminder of a cenotaph visited last year and located in County Mayo. This commemorates Maria Browne, née O’Donel, whose father Sir Neal O’Donel lived at Newport House elsewhere in the county. In 1797 she had married as his second wife Dodwell Browne, his unusual name being the surname of his paternal grandmother, who lived at Raheens. Maria Browne only lived until 1809, dying soon after arriving in Dublin whence she had gone for treatment of her illness. Her husband duly erected this monument to her memory, a tapering column that rises some 80 feet from a base to an ornamental urn. While rubble is used for the body of the monument, all four sides have quoins of cut limestone. A large plaque on the base written in old Irish may be translated as follows: ‘This is to your memory my friend. Oh my loyal beloved, gone forever, your presence forever lost to me’. Beneath, in English are the words ‘This cenotaph was built in memory of Maria O’Donel Browne, second daughter of Sir Neal O Donel.’ Above it a second plaque is inscribed ‘À Marie Et À L’Amour Par Son Cher Époux Dodwell, 1809”. Further up again is an oval disc containing the deceased’s profile and her name. The opposite side features another plaque, this one proclaiming ‘To Gaiety and Innocence’. A blank space above it suggests that a further tribute inserted here has since been removed. Once part of the Raheen estate demesne, today the monument stands in the middle of a field. As for the house, the supposedly-moated Elizabethan property where Dodwell and Maria Browne lived was pulled down by their son and replaced with a classical building; it has been a ruin since at least the middle of the last century.
Two weeks ago, this site discussed the first four volumes of records published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society, established in 1908. The organisation declared from the start an intention that it should exist for a few years only, during which this series would be issued annually as a visual account of Dublin’s architectural heritage, particularly of buildings dating from the 18th century. However, for the final publication, which appeared in 1913, the society ventured outside the capital to explore historic houses around the rest of the country. As the Introduction explained, ‘the Committee thought they would make this fifth volume more interesting by going abroad through Ireland, and examining in the light of prominent examples, how far the Georgian architecture of country houses in Ireland corresponded with that of the capital during this period. In most cases, gentlemen had a hôtel (as the French would call it) in the city which they used especially when they came up to attend the Irish Parliament.’ The text goes on to note that in many instances, either the town or country house has since been lost, in the case of the latter claiming ‘the disappearance was due, not to neglect or poverty, but to wealth and a change of taste.’ It soon becomes evident that the writer(s) of this text did not care for the previous century’s Gothic revival, regarding the work of Francis Johnston and the Morrisons père et fils with a certain disapproval and commenting ‘even these early nineteenth-century houses, which were not Gothic, differ so completely in style from the work of the eighteenth century, that anyone may recognise it at first sight.’
Whether or not one agrees with the fifth volume’s judgemental tone about Irish country houses built later than 1800, the work itself is an invaluable document for several reasons. The first is that it includes photographs and drawings of buildings since lost, quite a lot of them within a decade during the years of Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War. In some instances, they are almost the only visual evidence of these houses that we still possess. Just as importantly, but perhaps less appreciated, these pictures show how such houses were decorated and furnished at the time. Again, this information is quite priceless since almost without exception the contents of such properties has since been lost or dispersed. For a small number, inventories survive of their contents and for others, lists were compiled by owners when applying for compensation following their houses destruction during the aforementioned years of upheaval. But nothing compares with a photograph, showing individual items in situ and giving us a better understanding than any document could of how such a building functioned. Another helpful feature of this volume is the ‘Catalogue of Georgian Houses in Ireland’, which is a list of such buildings in each county in 1913. It is, of course, far from being complete, and reflects the compilers’ prejudices towards post-1800 houses. Nevertheless, the catalogue provides a reader with ample information, since each entry includes not just the name of the property, but also – where known – the architect and date of construction, original and then owner, sources of information about the place (such as references in earlier published accounts) and finally what is described as ‘particulars.’ The last of these is the most tantalising of all, since it often contains details of houses long-since lost. Few people today, for example, are likely to have heard of Pennyville, otherwise called Croydon Park, which stood in Clontarf, County Dublin and which, according to the catalogue’s compilers was an ‘early house, with very thick walls, and long rooms opening off one another. Drawing-room has coved rococo frieze.’ A photograph exists of James Larkin and members of the Irish Citizen Army drilling in front of Croydon Park in 1914: the house was demolished in the 1920s as part of the Marino housing scheme. Also largely forgotten: Hortland, County Kildare, a house dating from c.1748. Believed to have been designed by Richard Castle, and built for Josiah Hort, Archbishop of Tuam, according to the catalogue the building contained ‘Staircase in side hall, similar to No.20 Kildare St., Dublin [also attributed to Castle], and deep cornice above. State bedroom with coved ceiling. Good mantel in drawing room, in two marbles and carved centre panel, Diana with dog, &c. Cut-stone doorway, with Ionic columns in entablatures.’ The house was subsequently demolished.
The fifth volume pays particular attention to nine houses, the majority of which are still standing and only one, Summerhill, County Meath, discussed here in the past (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) has been been entirely lost. Of the others, two – Castletown, County Kildare and Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin – are in state ownership, one managed by a trust (Russborough, County Wicklow), one converted into an hotel (Carton, County Kildare) and the other four remain in private ownership, although only one of these still occupied by descendants of the original family, namely Mount Ievers, County Clare (discussed here also some time ago, see A Place of Magic « The Irish Aesthete). How, one wonders, do these statistics compare to those of other countries? And, as already mentioned, another feature of the texts – and their accompanying images – is the information they provide on the properties’ contents at the time since almost without exception these have since been dispersed/lost/destroyed. Among the greatest losses was a superlative panelled mid-18th century saloon formerly in Rossanagh, County Wicklow. Dismantled and removed from the building in the 1920s and sold out of the country, its subsequent fate is unclear, perhaps blown to pieces in a London bombing during the Second World War, perhaps still surviving somewhere in the United States but certainly no longer in its country of origin. Such, regrettably, has too often been the story of our heritage.
Killaster is – or rather, could be – a particularly good example of Irish rural vernacular architecture. A sturdy, three-bay, gable-ended farmhouse, it probably dates from the early years of the 19th century when many such properties were erected. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation of this part of the country in 1857, the house, valued at £4, together with 100 acres were being rented by one Patrick Coyne from Denis O’Conor who lived a little further north on a property called Mount Druid. Today Killaster, along with is fine yard to the rear, stands empty.
Deerpark Castle, County Galway might be considered the Weight Watchers of Irish tower houses: has all the vertical substance of a regular one, but only half the width. Erected on a natural outcrop of rock, the building is believed to date from the 16th century when this part of the country would have been under the control of the de Burgos, or Burkes a branch of which later became Earls (and eventually Marquesses) of Clanricarde. There are protruding stones on one side of the structure, suggesting an intention – probably not realised – to enlarge it, which may explain the tower’s unusual slimness. Its present name presumably derives from a later date, perhaps the 17th or 18th century, when the surrounding land was enclosed to serve as a deer park for the Burkes; its conversion into use as a dovecote most likely also occurred at this time.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.