One Site: Two Ruins (II)


Second the remains of St Columcille’s church at Skryne, County Meath. Intended for Anglican worship, this was built in the early 19th century: in 1809 the Board of First Fruits provided £500 towards its construction costs. At the time there were some 67 souls who worshipped here but, as was the case across the country, numbers declined during the last century and the church closed in the 1960s. Today only the squat tower with its diagonal buttresses remains on the site.

One Site: Two Ruins (I)

First the remains of St Columba’s church at Skryne, County Meath. The place name derives from Scrín Choluim Chille (Colmcille’s Shrine): in the ninth century the relics of St Columba, otherwise Columcille, were brought here from England for safe keeping and a monastery established. The ruins likely date from a 15th century church built on the site of the earlier foundation, and consist of sections of the former nave and a massive tower at the west end.

Ascending the Social Ladder

When the first edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (then known as ‘Burke’s Commoners’) appeared in 1833 it did not include an entry for the Alexanders of Milford, County Carlow. This must have been a matter of some disappointment to the family, as was their absence in subsequent editions until finally in 1871 when they were featured, albeit briefly. The history of the Alexanders is a tale of social ascendancy initially dependent on wealth, and the retention of the former even when the latter had gone. The founder of the dynasty, John Alexander, had modest origins but what he lacked in pedigree was amply compensated by entrepreneurial flair, and resulted in his acquisition of an estate sufficiently substantial for later generations to judge themselves members of the landed gentry. Late in life his heir, also called John Alexander (as remained the case with successive generations) wrote ‘There is not any subject so difficult to me as genealogy. I am very much behind in my knowledge of it as far as relates to my family. I have been endeavouring to grasp some particulars for your perusal, my object being to elicit the truth and to place my family in their right position.’ Likewise he had earlier insisted, ‘’I am not a “retired” merchant, never having served my time to any business, and during the years I was proprietor of the mills on this property, I took almost no part in the working of them’. All of which indicates a desire to distance himself from the mercantile activities which had formed the basis of the family fortune, and to ally himself with a class unsullied by sordid commercial transactions.





The first Alexanders arrived in Ireland as settlers from Scotland in the early 17th century, settling in the Limavady area. In the late 1750s John Alexander, a younger son, moved to Belfast where he became a successful merchant and land agent for the Earl of Donegall before also going into the milling business. His eldest son, likewise called John, moved to County Carlow in 1784 with the intention of becoming involved in the last profession and there joined forces with a wealthy Roman Catholic corn merchant and miller called James Conolly. Already Carlow had become one of the country’s principal area’s for corn production: between 1769 and 1784 the amount of corn sent there to Dublin grew from just 78 stone to 382,953 stone, an astonishing increase. This growth was driven by entrepreneurial businessmen like Conolly and young John Alexander. The former already owned a mill on the river Barrow a few miles from Carlow town, in a townland called Ballygowan, and this was the business John Alexander joined and expanded, notably after 1790 when at the age of 26 he took over direct responsibility for its management. The result was further rapid growth, not least thanks to the construction of additional and larger milling buildings on the site, by then given the name it has carried ever since, Milford. Within three years the mill had become County Carlow’s largest supplier of flour to the capital. In addition, Alexander embarked on a second enterprise on the same site: the production of malt. To the east of the flour mill, he constructed Ireland’s largest and most powerful malthouse, thereby establishing his predominance in a second field. During this period of expansion, Alexander lived in a modest single-storey, three-roomed thatched dwelling adjacent to the mills. However, in 1799 it was time for him to build a residence befitting his status as a wealthy man.





Now for sale for the first time since built, Milford House appears to have been designed by its first occupant, mill owner John Alexander who married not long after construction was complete and then gradually acquired an estate of more than 2,000 acres. Facing west, the core of the building is of five bays and two storeys over basement, with a single-storey extension to the north added around 1813. As testament to Alexander’s want of social pretensions, the facade is unadorned other than a granite portico with four Ionic columns. Inside there is a similar want of ostentation, a generous entrance hall leading to the library at the front and drawing and dining rooms to the rear, and accordingly facing east. A staircase opening to the north of the hall leads to a first-floor lobby from which can be accessed six bedrooms. Since its construction, the house has undergone relatively little modification, the most immediately obvious being the insertion of plate glass in the ground-floor windows: this dates from the mid-1890s when John Alexander III married. It was during the same period that Milford benefitted from electrification: the former oat mill was then reconfigured as a hydro-electricity generating station, which led to nearby Carlow town being the first urban centre in Ireland or Britain to enjoy electric street lighting. Meanwhile the entrance hall had been re-decorated in 1883 with the William Morris ‘Pomegranate’ wallpaper still in place. The only other major intervention was the replacement of the main reception rooms’ chimneypieces. The originals were of plain Kilkenny marble but in the mid-1940s they were removed by Olive Alexander (wife of John Alexander IV) who bought that in the library when the contents of nearby and now-ruinous Clogrennane were being auctioned. Those today in the drawing and dining rooms appear to have been acquired around the same period in Dublin. However, Milford essentially retains its original character and is thus a record of how a mercantile family thrived and used the construction of a country house to assist its transformation into landed gentry.

With thanks to Shay Kinsella whose 2015 doctoral thesis on Milford and the Alexanders was of invaluable assistance.
Milford is currently for sale through Knight Frank (http://www.knightfrank.ie/properties/residential/for-sale/milford-county-carlow/cho180066)

Signs of Affluence


In 1837 Samuel Lewis described Cloghan, County Offaly as a ‘village and post-town’ containing 84 dwellings and 460 inhabitants. Evidently some of the latter enjoyed prosperity because the dwellings they occupied were substantial, not least one on Hill Street which has this handsome doorcase. The five-bay property is believed to date from around 1820, a time when the country experienced greater affluence than would be the case just a couple of decades later, and which led to something of a building boom. Another house on nearby Castle Street was constructed during the same period and features a similar, albeit slightly plainer, doorcase.

On the Nail


Now incorporated into the wall of the graveyard surrounding St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (see the recent post, A Significant Anniversary, July 2nd 2018): a row of Tuscan columns that once formed the ground floor arcade of the city’s Exchange building. Originally built in 1673, the original building was demolished in 1702 and rebuilt, with further building taking place in 1777-78. James Pain was paid £432.17s 5d for repairs and alterations to the structure in 1815 and his younger brother George Richard £182.1s 2½ d for more of the same four years later. By 1872 the Exchange was in use as a national school before being eventually demolished. Nearby in the city museum is preserved a limestone pillar with copper plate on top, known as the nail. Given to the Exchange in 1685 by Robert Smith, Mayor of Limerick, this was used by merchants to confirm transactions between themselves. It is often proposed that the phrase ‘payment on the nail’ derives from the Limerick monument, but it is found in texts from the previous century and there were similar nails in other mercantile cities such as Bristol.

Developments Awaited



The recent run of good weather in Ireland has turned everyone’s attention to gardens (if only to wonder, given a recent hose ban, how to keep them sufficiently watered). There has always been a strong public appetite for visiting gardens, especially those developed over a long period of time. One of the most popular in recent years has been Altamont, County Carlow, which offers the additional allure of free admission. Running to almost 100 acres, Altamont was developed around a house which, as so often in this country, has a complex and at times unclear history.






Originally known as Rose Hill, the present property at Altamont dates from the 18th century, although it has been proposed that the house incorporates an older dwelling, possibly a mediaeval religious establishment. Various dates are given for the core of the building, anything from 1720 to 1770 but during the earlier period a branch of the St George family was in residence and seems to have been responsible for its construction, including the polygonal bay on the east-facing façade. By the later part of the 18th century Altamont was occupied by the Doyles: curiously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, a mid-19th century illustrator and watercolourist, was called Charles Altamont Doyle. By that time, the place was owned by Dawson Borror whose father had been a landscape architect: it was he who initiated changes to the demesne and gardens to provide local employment in the aftermath of the Great Famine (not least the creation of the lake). Borror also extended the house, adding a wing on the north side for a library and other rooms, and then making further alterations in the early 1870s. Half a century later, Altamont came into the ownership of Feilding Lecky Watson: first he and then his daughter Corona North were largely responsible for giving the gardens their present appearance.






Following the death of Corona North in 1999 Altamont passed into the care of the Irish State, which through the Office of Public Works has continued to care for the gardens and keep them open to the public. Hitherto the house at the centre of the site remains closed. An article in the Irish Times in December 2007 noted that the building had been rated by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being of national importance and quoted then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government John Gormley as saying that the house would be ‘a very important tourist attraction in the Carlow area and a wonderful amenity for local families.’ The economic recession began soon afterwards and the building stayed shuttered. It also appears legal complexities delayed the formal handing over of the property to the OPW: this only occurred in January 2014 when then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Brian Hayes announced plans to open Altamont House to the public in the future. The following year a government press release reported that Simon Harris, then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works had visited Altamont where he explained his office ‘has already carried out vital remedial and maintenance works to the house and the entrance road and I am pleased to confirm that design work is at an advanced stage for the new Tearooms for which it is hoped to lodge planning permission very shortly.’ In December 2016 local media advised that work was ‘finally going to start in earnest into developing Altamont House into a place for visitors to the gardens to go.’ In February of last year the Carlow Nationalist reported that then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Seán Canney had visited Altamont and announced the organization was close to submitting planning permission for tea rooms in the building: ‘It’s a hugely ambitious project to renovate the house and it’s going to cost a substantial amount of money.’ Since then necessary repairs have been carried out on the roof. Further developments are awaited and, all being well, before too long the building at the heart of Altamont’s gardens will open its doors to the public.


Out of Work

An unrestored section of the former union workhouse at Donaghmore, County Laois. As with the majority of such buildings erected across the country from 1839 onwards, this one was designed by George Wilkinson, although the earlier neo-Tudor style he employed had long since been abandoned by the time work started here. Completed in September 1853, the project cost £4,750 with a further £775 spent on fittings. By the time it opened, the Great Famine had ended and thereafter workhouses gradually fell out of use: this one closed in 1886. For much of the last century the premises were used by local farmers for the Donaghmore Co-Operative Society. More recently a front portion of the site has been converted into a museum.