The concept of ‘rural Ireland’ and its preservation are much touted, especially by those who live in the countryside and believe their traditional way of life should be given more attention. In practice however little has been done to ensure the traditional appearance of rural Ireland is preserved. Across the country old houses are abandoned, their replacements – often built on sites immediately adjacent to an abandoned property – looking no different from those found in Britain or the United States. This cottage in County Meath, although habitable until recently, has now been left to fall into ruin.
One of a pair of High Crosses found on the site of a former monastic settlement at Ahenny, County Tipperary. Believed to date from the 8th century, and therefore among the earliest extant examples of these monuments, the North Cross (above) is of sandstone and stands 3.65 metres high. The main body is decorated in elaborate geometric designs imitating those found both on contemporaneous metalwork and in illuminated texts like the Book of Kells. Only the base is figurative although now so worn it is difficult to make out details of the procession of figures portrayed. The nearby South Cross is likewise of sandstone and rises 3.35 metres. Like its neighbor it has a curious removable cap, perhaps intended to represent a bishop’s mitre.
Once prominent in the East Muskerry region of County Cork, the Long family is believed to be descended from a branch of the Ui Eachach. By the late Mediaeval period, their base was at Canovee, otherwise called Cannaway, and often referred to as an island since so much of the area is surrounded by water, with the river Lee to the immediate north, north-east and north-west, the river Kame and one of its tributaries to the east and another stream to the west. The Civil Survey of the Barony of Muskerry conducted in 1656 lists a great deal of the land around here as having belonged to ‘John Long of Mount Long, Irish Papist (deceased).’ This John Long was the son of Dr Thomas Long, a doctor of civil and canon law who had evidently prospered since he was able to acquire land elsewhere in County Cork, specifically to the south overlooking Oysterhaven Creek. Here in 1631 John Long embarked on building himself a new residence, named Mount Long.
At the time of its construction Mount Long’s design would have embodied contemporary architectural trends. By this date, Irish domestic dwellings were no longer being built as tower houses but, in misplaced expectation of future peace, as fortified manors. As Stephen Byrne writes, the building ‘exemplifies the new style. Its proportions and detailing, including large mullioned windows, mark the transition from dimly-lit towerhouses with an overt defensive capability to properties boasting comfortable well-lit rooms and a modicum of fortification.’ Of three storeys and three bays on every side, Mount Long features a near-square flanker tower at each of its four corners, a feature borrowed from English architecture and intended to increase both the amount of accommodation and the quantity of light, aided by those aforementioned abundant mullioned windows. Obviously these left the building more vulnerable to attack and the presence of gun loops on the exterior walls indicates this was still deemed a threat. The elevations are notable for their then-fashionable gables: originally twenty in number, today just twelve survive. The present state of the building makes it difficult to understand how the interior looked, or the layout of rooms, not even a chimneypiece remaining. As late as 1907 architect James Franklin Fuller could write that cornices survived ‘with figures representing scriptural subjects and fieldsports’ but these can no longer be seen.
John Long only enjoyed his smart new residence for a very short time. 1641 saw the start of what would become known as the Confederate Wars, in which Long and his two sons took the side of the Roman Catholic forces. They established a camp not far away near Belgooly but the following spring were defeated close to Bandon. Taken prisoner, Long was convicted of treason and hanged. It is said that, knowing his fate, he sent a message to his daughter at Mount Long in 1643 telling her to burn the house in order to stop it falling into enemy hands. Whether true or not, the building was certainly consumed by fire at some date: extant lintels over doors and windows still show evidence of scorch marks. Despite post-Restoration efforts by John Long’s heirs to regain their property, Mount Long was granted to the Busteed family who built another house on higher ground close by. Mount Long fell into dereliction and is now a ruin. The west wall has entirely collapsed, along with most of the towers on either end, but the other three sides still stand, albeit in a somewhat precarious state. With just twelve years between its construction and destruction Mount Long reminds us that owing to changed circumstances buildings can sometimes have very brief lives.
Mount Long is the October Building of the Month on http://www.buildingsofireland with an accompanying text written by Stephen Byrne.
Seen beneath a thunderous sky and across its parkland, the façade of Swainstown, County Meath. This idiosyncratic house dates from c.1750 and was built for Nathaniel Preston whose elder brother John during the same period was building Bellinter, some ten miles away, to the designs of Richard Castle: accordingly the latter may have had a hand in Swainstown. The house follows the classic Palladian model, the main block being of two storeys with wings on either side linked by quadrants. But thereafter an element of whimsical caprice is apparent, beginning with the limestone window lintels and a front doorcase which is exaggeratedly tall and narrow, and finished with a segmental pediment. Swainstown continues to be occupied by Nathaniel Preston’s descendants.
The history of Tyrone House, County Galway and its sad fall from grace was discussed here a few weeks ago (see A High House on High Ground, September 18th 2017). Above is an image of the building included in the fifth and final volume of the The Georgian Society Records of Eighteenth Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration published in 1913, showing it still intact. One of the house’s most striking features was the entrance hall, dominated by a mid-18th century white marble life-size statue of St. George Ussher St. George, Baron Saint George. This survived until Tyrone House was attacked in August 1920 when the statue was smashed to pieces: as a result, the photograph below is the only record of the work.
Copies of my new book, Tyrone House and the St George Family: The Story of an Anglo-Irish Family are now available from the Irish Georgian Society bookshop. For more information, please see https://shop.igs.ie/collections/books
The County Kildare institution long known as Maynooth Seminary was established by act of the Irish Parliament in June 1795 as The Royal College of St Patrick to provide ‘for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion.’ Curiously it would be eighty years before building work began on the college’s present chapel. In the early 1850s the English champion of the Gothic Revival and convert to Catholicism Augustus Welby Pugin had produced designs for the quadrangle called St Mary’s Square. His plans included a chapel but owing to Pugin’s death in 1852 and a shortage of funds, this part of the project was not initiated. Only in October 1875 was the foundation stone laid, the architect now being J.J. McCarthy, often popularly described as ‘the Irish Pugin.’ By 1880 expenditure on the work had reached £26,242 and when McCarthy died two years later just the basic structure had been completed: a report issued in the middle of the 1880s appealed for financial aid so that the ‘useless empty shell’ could be finished as ‘a splendid, fully furnished collegiate chapel’. In 1887 seven Catholic architects were invited to tender for the job of designing the interior, William Hague being selected. The building was consecrated and opened for worship by Cardinal Michael Logue in June 1891 but still the work went on. Hague designed the tower and spire in 1895 but, as with his predecessors, he did not live to see the work here reach conclusion; rising 273 feet, it is the tallest such built structure in Leinster. Inside, the Lady Chapel at the east end was decorated and furnished by architect G.C. Ashlin in 1908–11; Ashlin was also responsible for the alabaster high altar and reredos.
At 222 feet, Maynooth is the longest church choir in the world and certainly the most elaborately decorated in Ireland. Every surface carries ornament, all sharing the same theme of ‘Laus Deo’ (Praise God). The marble mosaic floor, for example, carries lines inspired by Psalms 112 and 46 opening with the line ‘Laudate pueri Dominum’ (Praise the Lord, young men). The use of the fleur-de-lis on the floor is intended to evoke not just the Trinity (in the same way that the shamrock is supposed to do) but also the links between Ireland and France during the worst times of the Penal era. Meanwhile the ceiling is covered in canvas featuring a vast heavenly procession of figures leading up to the main altar, predominantly angels and saints, many of the latter being associated with Ireland and the early Christian church here. Each figure is enclosed within a medallion again bearing lines from sacred texts. The design was by the English religious artist and decorator Nathaniel Westlake but the work executed by a little-known artist based in Dublin called Robert Mannix. The walls above the choir stalls are life-size representations of the Stations of the Cross: like the ceiling they are in oil on canvas, and were designed and supplied by Westlake.
More colour is provided in the interior by stained glass installed in the 1890s and for which three companies were responsible: that owned by the aforementioned Westlake; Cox, Buckley & Sons; and the Munich-based firm of Mayer & Co, which was then much patronized by Catholic and Anglican churches alike throughout Ireland. The glass in the chapel nave is devoted to representing scenes from the life of Christ while at the west end of the building a large rose window inspired by that in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Reims is devoted to celebrating Christ the King surrounded by sundry saints, apostles and evangelists. In the main body of the chapel, the space between the top of the choir stalls and the bottom of the windows is filled with a string course of Caen stone carved with animals and birds to demonstrate that even members of the animal kingdom sing the praises of their creator. The corbels at this level represent angels presenting various instruments used in church services by clerics, the two closest to the high altar holding a mitre and crozier (as used by bishops). Finally there are the stalls, all 454 of them carved in oak by a Dublin firm, Connollys of Dominick Street. The finial in the back row of each section supports the figure of a saint while those on the lower levels represent a different plant or tree, again to demonstrate the variety of divine creation. Whatever one’s faith, or even if one has none, the decorative scheme of Maynooth College Chapel cannot fail to impress. It has a rigour and entirety of both vision and execution rarely found in Irish Catholic churches. Furthermore the interior has escaped despoliation by either unnecessary post-Vatican II reordering or by the imposition of some later cleric’s ill-judged aesthetic notions (cf. the so-called ‘renovations’ of the cathedrals in both Killarney and Monaghan). As a result it remains not just the largest chapel in Ireland but also one of the country’s finest Roman Catholic buildings.
Wexford in the second half of October is filled with opera lovers who come for the annual festival specialising in the rediscovery of lost musical gems. Some of them might like to take a break from this activity and explore another under-appreciated gem: the town’s walls. Wexford was established by the Vikings in the mid-ninth century and named ‘Weissfjord’ meaning Bay of the Mud Flats. Its walls were likely constructed three centuries later, following the arrival of the Normans. Originally they ran in a loose C-shape around Wexford’s land border, the town being left open to the sea. Covering more than 24 hectares, the walls were punctuated by seven gates, only one of which remains: the Selskar Gate. However while large sections of the old defences were demolished in the 18th century, a number of ‘mural towers’ survive along stretches of the wall. That above is located close to George’s Street, that below on Rowe Street. Both merit discovery – and provide an opportunity to clear the head of all that music.