Pourquoi me reveiller

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Ah! Bien souvent mon rêve s’envole
Sur l’aile de ces vers,
Et c’est toi, cher poète
Qui, bien plutôt, était mon interprète.
Toute mon âme est là!

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Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Pourquoi me réveiller?
Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?

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Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.
Hélas!
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?

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Piltown, County Meath: Built by Thomas Brodigan 1838, burnt by arsonists 2006.

Stable or Unstable?

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To the immediate north-west of the castle at Charleville Forest, County Offaly stands an equally substantial block that once served as stables for the property. Like the main house, this was designed by Francis Johnston in 1798 for Charles Bury, Lord Tullamore (later created Earl of Charleville) and is in the same solid Gothic style. Unfortunately whereas the greater part of the castle is still in use, the same is not true of the stable block which as a consequence is now in a poor state of repair.

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Finding a Niche

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One of the architectural wonders of Ireland is also one of its greatest mysteries: the forecourt of Curraghmore, County Waterford. This stupendous space, in which matching blocks of stables and offices face each other across an arena, leads up to the main house which has its own, more modestly proportioned wings. Linking the two sections are quadrants accommodating pedimented niches and entablatured doorcases, all executed in crisp limestone. Who was the architect responsible for the mise-en-scène? Both Francis Bindon and John Roberts have been proposed, but to date no one has been able to say for certain: it remains a mystery.

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Selective Memory

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The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.

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In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.

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Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.

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Just a Shell

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On Bishop Street in Ballyshannon, County Donegal stands the now-ruinous ‘Shell House.’ Dating from c.1880, the building’s name derives from the decoration of its façade, probably applied in the middle of the last century. The greater part of the surface has been covered with a mixture of shells and small pieces of broken china arranged in geometrical patterns. This appears to have been inspired by the grander shell houses and follies created in the 18th century and found on estates like Carton, County Kildare and Curraghmore, County Waterford. Sadly this example of vernacular embellishment is now in poor repair and sections of the ornamentation have already been lost: the rest is sure to follow soon.

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Small but Perfectly Formed

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The terrifically severe neo-classical former national school in Bagenalstown, County Carlow dates from c.1825. Of one storey, despite its modest proportions the building achieves a certain monumentality thanks to the use of large blocks of local granite and the insertion of this grandiose entrance flanked by Doric columns. The window openings are equally severe but have been ruined by the insertion of unsympathetic uPVC glazing.

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A Thundering Disgrace No More?

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Three years ago this site drew attention to the scandalous condition of Aldborough House in Dublin (see A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014). The last great aristocratic townhouse to be built in the capital (and, other than Leinster House, the largest) the building’s name comes from the man responsible for its construction Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough. Although the earl already possessed a fine residence next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, he was determined to construct a new one that would testify to his wealth and social position, in addition to serving as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to anticipate further development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a steep decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house marooned.

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Five years in construction, and costing over £40,000, Aldborough House was only enjoyed by its owner for a short period since he died in January 1801. The property passed to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead a mere eighteen months later. Then came a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to ‘Professor’ Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. (Incidentally, it is proposed that the word ‘finagle’ derives from the professor’s name and reflects his dodgy pedagogical methods). Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds. As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. At the end of the 19th century all the chimneypieces, supposedly by Pietro Bossi, were removed and placed somewhere safe, never to be seen again. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments and over the next nine years it fell further and further into disrepair.

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Today’s photographs were taken during a recent opportunity to inspect the interior of Aldborough House, and they testify to the building’s poor condition. The vast central staircase, of cantilevered Portland stone with wrought-iron balusters, is now supported by a number of metal poles rising the height of the building: the glazed dome at the top has been covered over, so no natural light reaches here. Many of the other areas are likewise boarded up, and can only be seen with the aid of a torch. The main rooms on ground and first floors are today principally striking for their scale, immense bare spaces stripped of whatever decoration they had once been given (although in the ballroom scagliola pilasters with Corinthian capitals survive beneath layers of paint). Long windows running almost the full height of the walls provide ample views of what was once largely open countryside but is now urban sprawl. Some of the overdoors, on which classical figures recline and putti frolic indifferent to the decay around them, remain but others have been pulled out. The chimneypieces, as already mentioned, are long gone, even in rooms on the attic storey. Tantalising hints of former splendour appear here and there, but in the main the impression is of long-term neglect with inevitable consequences for the building. Aldborough House changed hands once more in autumn 2014 and initially little seemed to be happening to improve the site. More recently however, clearance and stabilisation work has taken place, as well as the advent of decent security to ensure the place is no longer vulnerable to vandalism. There are proposals now being developed to give Aldborough House a viable future and if these are allowed to proceed the property would be restored and brought back to use. For too long it has sat empty and untended: anyone who cares for our architectural heritage must hope that this situation will soon change and Aldborough House no longer be a thundering disgrace.

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