A Labour of Love


Running to some 62 acres, Powerscourt, County Wicklow is unquestionably Ireland’s most famous – and most photographed – country house garden, but what can be seen here today is of relatively recent origin. The building around which it was created has origins in a medieval tower house constructed by the de la Poers, whence derives the site’s name. In the 1730s, this structure was encased in a large Palladian house designed for Richard Wingfield, first Viscount Powerscourt by the architect Richard Castle. But the surrounding landscape remained largely unadorned, the ground behind the building dropping down to a large, irregular stretch of water called Juggy’s Pond, beyond which the vista was closed by the distant Sugarloaf Mountain. Only in the 19th century did the scene begin to change, initially thanks to the sixth Viscount who in 1843 employed architect and landscape designer Daniel Robertson to produce plans that would divide the sloping ground into a series of Italianate terraces, supposedly inspired by those at the Villa Butera (now Trabia) in Sicily. In a book about the estate that he published in 1907, the seventh viscount remembered being brought from his schoolroom one October morning to lay the first stone of this scheme. He also recalled how Robertson, who was forever in debt, would periodically have to hide in one of Powerscourt’s domes when the Sheriff’s officers came to arrest him. As for the gardens, Robertson, who found himself better able to work after sufficient quantities of alcohol had been consumed, in consequence suffered from gout. As a result, he ‘used to be wheeled out on the Terrace in a wheelbarrow, with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct the workmen, but when the sherry was finished, he collapsed and was incapable of working till the drunken fit evaporated.’ However, in 1844 the sixth viscount, who had travelled to Italy to buy vases and sculptures for the intended garden, died of consumption before reaching home. Work on the site stopped during his young heir’s minority and it was not until the latter had reached adulthood in 1858 and assumed responsibility for the estate that the garden once more began to receive attention. 





By the time the seventh Viscount Powerscourt started taking an active interest in the gardens of his country house, Daniel Robertson had died. However, the estate’s owner took a keen interest in finishing the incomplete job, visiting a number of key sites in Europe, such as the gardens at Versailles as well as those around the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna and the Schwetzingen Palace near Mannheim. He also consulted a number of landscape gardeners such as James Howe and William Brodrick Thomas. The second of these was also employed by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham in Norfolk. In the end, however, it was largely Lord Powerscourt himself and his Scottish head gardener, Alexander Robertson (no relation of the previously mentioned Daniel) who drew up their own scheme. Robertson, described by his employer as a very clever man with ‘more taste than any man of his class that I ever saw’ died in 1860 but by then the main outlines of the project had been agreed, and work started, not least on creating the terraces, on which it seems 100 men laboured for ten years. Lord Powerscourt reported that one of the difficulties faced was that because the ground had once been part of a glacier moraine, water kept coming to the surface of the ground and threatening to wash away the work; Robertson proposed thatbefore anything else was done, holes be dug at the back of each terrace so that the water inside, on coming to the surface ‘should fall down through the holes into the next stratum and disappear. This was done and we had no more trouble.’ Similar feats of engineering had to be undertaken to transform what had hitherto been Juggy’s Pond into the basin seen today: inspired by Bernini’s Triton Fountain in Rome, it has a central jet which can reach 100 feet. Another key feature added during this period is the Perron, a terrace situated part of the way down the central walk to the basin, designed by the English architect and astronomer Francis Penrose. This was intended to offer a viewing platform to what lies beyond, but also to break the monotony of the descent. The Perron has elaborate geometric mosaic paving, finished in 1875 and made from different coloured pebbles collected on the nearby beach at Bray. Meanwhile, Lord Powerscourt had continued to add to the collection of statuary and urns begun by his father, buying old pieces and commissioning new ones: the pair of figures representing Victory and Fame were made for him in 1866 by Hugo Hagen in Berlin: the same sculptor was also responsible for the pegasi down by the basin’s edge.





Lord Powerscourt never stopped adding new features to the grounds of Powerscourt, which extend much further than is indicated here. It is said that he did so because for a long time he and his wife had no children, and he did not want to leave anything for his somewhat disreputable younger brother Lewis Wingfield (and then, after 16 years of marriage, Lady Powerscourt had five children in succession).  After he died in 1904, the family struggled to maintain the estate and eventually, in 1961 it was sold to the Slazenger family, which owns it still although, as is well known, the house was tragically gutted by fire in 1974. But the gardens remain much as they were during the seventh viscount’s time and draw large numbers of visitors. The pictures shown today were taken on a rare occasion when the grounds were entirely empty, allowing the Irish Aesthete to have the place to himself. In style, they are intended as a homage to those taken by Eugene Atget a century ago in the Parc de Saint-Cloud outside Paris. 

No Longer Triumphal



A former entrance to the Rathfarnham Castle estate in County Dublin. Constructed of granite and taking the form of a triumphal arch, the building’s design according to James Howley (in his 1993 book The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland) was inspired by the Porta Portese in Rome: both share a number of features including engaged Doric columns, square recessed panels above niches, and a balustraded top above the arch. One obvious difference is that inside the Rathfarnham entrance can be found a keystone made from Coade stone and representing a hirsute Roman God. When Howley was writing, the architect responsible for this work was unknown, but more recently in his Gazetter to the Gate Lodges of Leinster (2016) J.A.K. Dean has proposed Francis Johnston, the design based on James Wyatt’s entrance to Canterbury Quad, Christ Church College, Oxford: Dean points out that Johnston’s early patron, Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, was a graduate of Christ Church and had provided the funds for the rebuilding of Canterbury Quad. Alas, despite such a distinguished pedigree, today the Rathfarnham arch languishes neglected on a tiny strip of land, surrounded by housing estates and intermittently subjected to vandalism. It deserves better than this: why might it not be moved into the grounds of Rathfarnham Castle, which would provide a safer home than is the case at present.


A Picture of Extreme Beauty


‘The church to which this doorway belongs stands in a glen at the foot of that part of the mountain of Slieve Mairgre called Knockara, two miles and a half from the town of Carlow, in the parish of Killeshin, barony of Slievemargy, and county of Carlow. The name is derived originally from that in the valley in which it was built, Gleann Uissean, by which title it is mentioned in the Annals and Martyrologies.
The ruin stands not far from a rath on a knoll overlooking a little waterfall, which tumbles over a ledge of rock in the ravine at its foot. The gables and side walls of the church are clothed with ivy and long grass. The ancient pillar-clustered doorway, arch within arch, with its rich adornment of sculptured traceries, mouldings, bas-reliefs and inscriptions appearing in the midst of this framework of leaves, forms a picture of extreme beauty.’




‘The church was remodelled at three different periods. Before the east wall fell, it was 66 ft. long by 25 ft. 8 in. broad internally, but as it stands now it measures 90 ft. from end to end, and the eastern part to the distance of 24 ft. was evidently added at a much later period than that at which the original building was erected. This modern portion may be termed the chancel, and is 1 ft 6 in. narrower than the nave. The walls are 3 ft. 8 in. to 4 ft. thick. The masonry is large, showing little trace of the hammer, with deep granite quoins and pilasters at the west end projecting 9 in., and 3 ft. 2 in. wide. In the modern work, the stones are small and hammered, while the quoins are of limestone. The western gable is partly broken away.
The west door is of four orders…Many of the ornaments are identical with those of the doorway at Timahoe [County Laois] and also resemble some of the later work at Tomgraney [County Clare]. The keystone of the outer order bears a venerable human head carved in relief. The design called the trumpet pattern, or divergent spiral, appears among the other ornaments of this door. The jambs are rounded, but the orders of the arch preserve their square form, and are enriched with surface ornament, while the entablature which runs along the top of the jambs is carved at the salient angles into human heads, the long interlaced hair of each head covering the surface of the stone back to the re-entrant angles. Each order of the doorway has engaged shafts at the angles. The bases have the beautiful feature of leaves connecting the bulbous portions with square plinths at the angles. The following inscriptions run along the abaci at each side, and the beginning of another occurs on the front of the jamb of the second order on the north side which appears to have been continued to the top of the jamb…
…The first inscription may be read:-
Pray for Art…King of Leinster, and for…Steward. Pray for…Iena Ua Mel[lach, Prince of Hy] Duach. Pray for Cellac…
The territory of Hy Duach comes within a mile of this church.’ 




‘The chancel arch was pulled down upwards of fifty years ago, and a great part of the south wall of the church destroyed. It is said to have contained two round-headed windows widely splayed inside. Two windows of the same character still remain in the north wall. The most perfect is 7 ft. in height by 3 ft. 6 in. internally and is placed at a height of 9 ft. from the ground…About twenty yards to the south-west of the entrance stood the belfry, a round tower of great height and beauty, the doorway of which faced that of the church and was pulled down upwards of a century ago…Molyneaux, writing in the year 1709, thus alludes to the tower:- “Near the foot of the mountain on this road stands the old church of Killeshin, which is a very old building. Here lately stood, over against the Doore of the Church, one of the old round steeples which I am told, was very high, old and well built, so that when the owner of this place had it fallen, it came to the ground in one solid piece, and was not even by the fall against the ground so broke, but that several vast pieces yet remain sticking together, so that you easily discover what this building was. It plainly appears to be of the same building and age with the adjacent church, and this was certainly an Irish building, as appears by two Inscriptions on either side of the door as you enter…”’


Extracts from Notes on Irish Architecture by Edwin, third Earl of Dunraven, edited by Margaret Stokes, Vol.II, London, 1877. 

 

Towering Over its Surroundings



The surviving walls of Garron Castle, County Laois. Dating from the late 16th century, it was originally built by the Mac Giolla Phádraig (FitzPatrick) family, possibly in the time of Brían Óg Mac Giolla Phádraig, who in 1541 was created first Baron Upper Ossory, or else his son Barnaby FitzPatrick, second baron, who became a close companion to the boy king Edward VI before returning to Ireland after the latter’s death in 1553. The six-storey tower house remained in the possession of the FitzPatricks until the mid-17th century when it appears to have passed into the possession of the Vicars family. A view painted in 1790 by Austin Cooper shows it still reasonably intact, but in 1863 it was reported that two walls had collapsed, leaving the remains seen here, with a round bartizan on the top of one corner and a corbelled bartizan lower down the wall. Today Garron Castle towers over a farm yard adjacent to the present owners’ bungalow.


The End is Nigh



The former woolen mill at Ardmayle, County Tipperary, built by the banks of the river Suir around 1800. The man responsible was Richard Long who when young had joined the ranks of the East India Company where he rose to the rank of captain. He also succeeded in making himself wealthy so that on his return to Ireland in 1783, he was able to buy an estate in his native county and there built a house which he named Longfield. Unfortunately he made himself unpopular in the area by reporting suspicious activity to the local authorities and in 1814 was shot dead on the steps outside his new home. The mill was one of the enterprises he started in the locality, but it does not appear to have enjoyed much success, and as can be seen, more recently at least part of the ground floor was converted into a shop. But now the building has fallen into dilapidation and it can only be a matter of time before the rest of the roof goes and complete decay takes over.


Greater than Buckingham Palace


In the second volume of his magisterial life of W.B. Yeats, Roy Foster records a visit made by the poet to Markree Castle, County Sligo in late summer 1929. The house was then owned by Bryan Cooper, sometime poet and playwright, and for the previous six years a T.D. in Dáil Éireann. According to Foster, the visit was not altogether a success. Peter Cooper, one of his host’s sons, remembered it as ‘a great nuisance…he was deposited by his long-suffering wife, with instructions not to let him go out in the wet grass in his slippers, and she then disappeared off to Galway with the children.’ Bryan Cooper’s daughter Ursula was, it appears, equally not impressed when Yeats read her a poem he had just written. On the other hand, Bryan Cooper’s wife Lillian was delighted to hear from the poet that he had ‘realised the ambition of my life…as we have always looked on the Coopers and Markree Castle as greater than the Royal Family and Buckingham Palace.’ 





The first of the Coopers to live in Ireland is said to have been an English soldier who married the famous Máire Rua O’Brien after her second husband Conor O’Brien of Leamaneh Castle, County Clare was killed in 1651. Eight years later, Charles II granted Cooper land in County Sligo which had previously belonged to the McDonagh clan; it was based around a fort guarding a pass on the river Unsin, and this remains the site of Markree Castle. At some point in the 18th century, a classical house was constructed here, of three storeys with a five-bay entrance front (with three-bay breakfront) and the garden side with a single bay on either side of a curved bow. However, in 1802 Joshua Cooper commissioned Francis Johnston to transform the building into a castle. At that time Markree was also greatly enlarged, what had been the main facade extended to more than twice its original length and centred on a curved and battlemented tower; this now become – as it remains – the garden front. The entrance was now moved to an adjacent side, to which Johnston added a porch, while elsewhere an office wing was constructed, joined to the rest by a canted link. Further changes were made by Joshua Cooper’s nephew and heir, Edward Joshua Cooper, a keen astronomer who built an observatory in the demesne. Inside the castle, London architect Joseph Gwilt transformed the office wing into a private gothic chapel. Gwilt was also responsible for redecorating the interiors of the rooms overlooking the garden, in what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘an ornate Louis Quatorze style; with much gilding and well-fed putti in high relief supporting cartouches and trailing swags of flowers and fruits.’ (These spaces are now used as dining rooms). In the mid-1860s, the next generation to live here, Colonel Edward Henry Cooper, initiated further changes, this time employing James Maitland Wardrop who gave the exterior its present heavily fortified appearance. The entrance was moved once more with the construction of a vast porte – cochère (with billiard room directly above). Inside, a baronial stone staircase leads up to the reception rooms and here a second Imperial staircase in oak, lit by a great arched window filled with heraldic stained glass with portraits of members of the Cooper family and monarchs, leads to a top-lit gallery off which open the main bedrooms. Francis Johnston’s former entrance was turned into a long gallery divided by pairs of marble Ionic columns.





The history of Markree Castle for much of the last century was one of seemingly irreversible decline, personified by the fact that in 1988 it was used for the filming of a television series based on J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles, and that same year its staircase hall featured on the cover of Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, the castle had stood at the centre of an estate running to more than 42,000 acres, but most of this was sold by Bryan Cooper under the new land acts after he inherited the property from his grandfather in 1902. He then spent much of his time in Dublin, especially in later years so that Markree became only occupied during the summer months. When Bryan Cooper died in 1930, his eldest son Edward Francis Patrick Cooper was left the place; he and his family lived there until 1952 when it became impossible for them to maintain such a large house. As a result, many of the original contents were auctioned, and the Coopers moved into the old service wing, leaving the rest of the building empty. In the early 1980s, Markree was passed to the next generation but the eldest son, Edward, did not wish to live in the house, and eventually it was taken over by his younger brother Charles who had trained in hotel management and therefore decided to turn the castle, by now in very bad condition, into an hotel. He and his wife Mary embarked on a programme of restoration and ran the business until 2014 when, wishing to retire, they put Markree Castle on the market. The following year it was bought by the Corscadden family who already owned a number of other hotels located in historic properties and, after further refurbishment, the castle has been open to guests ever since.

A Fine Place to be Buried



If a graveyard could be described as exceptionally fine, then that at Moybologue, County Cavan would qualify. Subcircular in shape and enclosed within a stone wall, the site during the medieval period held a church and some kind of hospice. Little of either remains, but an extant two-storey transept is believed to have served as a priest’s residence. All around these ruins are gravestones going back many centuries, including the tomb shown below which carries a variety of memento mori symbols including an hour glass, a bell, a coffin and a skull and crossbones. Dedicated to members of the Smith family, it dates from the mid-17th century.