In the Midst of Winters

From Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837):
‘Agher, a parish, in the barony of Upper Deece, County of Meath, and province of Leinster, 2 ½ miles (S. S. W.) from Summerhill; containing 360 inhabitants. It is situated on the road from Summerhill to Edenderry, and from the latter town to Dunboyne, and contains 1900 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act. Its surface gently undulates, and the soil consists of loam of different qualities: about one-third of the land is under tillage, and the remainder, with the exception of about 100 acres of bog, half of which is cut away and partly planted, is good grazing land. There are quarries of limestone; the Royal Canal passes near the southern extremity of the parish. Agher House, the residence of J. P. Winter, Esq., occupies a beautiful situation in a demesne of about 650 statute acres, containing some fine timber: the gardens are extensive and well laid out; and the neat appearance of the cottages on the estate manifests the proprietor’s regard for the comforts of the peasantry. The living is a rectory, in the diocese of Meath, and in the patronage of the Crown: the tithes amount to £80. The church is a neat edifice, erected by voluntary contributions and a parochial rate, in 1804: it contains a window painted by Gervaise, representing Paul preaching at Athens, from the cartoons of Raphael, which was formerly in the private chapel at Dangan, in the adjoining parish, when that place was the seat of the Wellesley family. There is a glebe-house, with a glebe of 12 ½ acres. In the R. C. divisions this parish forms part of the union or district of Laracor, or Summerhill: the chapel is situated on the townland of Agher, on ground given by the family of Winter. The parochial school for both sexes is aided by annual donations from Mr. Winter and the rector, and there is a private pay school; also a dispensary.’

The Winter family originally came to Ireland under curious conditions. According to Burke’s Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain and Ireland (1835), Dr Samuel Winter, an Anglican clergyman originally from Warwick had during the English Civil War settled in a parish in northern England. However, ‘In 1650 Dr Winter was obliged to resign the living of Cottingham, York, of which he was Rector, being ordered by the then Government to proceed to Ireland with the Commissioners appointed for the settlement of that country, as their Chaplain, and was soon after (on 3rd June 1652) constituted Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, which the preceding troubles had left almost dissolute. In this office he exerted himself with great zeal and success to reassemble the surviving members, and to re-establish the discipline of the University. He appears to have been removed from the provostship at the Restoration.’ Dr Winter then returned to England but not before confirming himself in the ownership of lands in Counties Offaly, Meath and Westmeath. On his death these were duly inherited by his eldest son, another Samuel, who had married a sister of the anabaptist Cromwellian solder, Colonel Zierom Sankey. Subsequent generations made equally good marriages, the most significant of which was the union c.1738 of Francis Winter (who had already inherited the estate of his childless elder brother) and Margaret Pratt, daughter and heiress of Benjamin Pratt of Agher, County Meath: like the Winters, the Pratts originally came to Ireland as part of the Cromwellian settlement and had bought Agher from Henry Jones, Bishop of Meath. In 1771 the son of Francis and Margaret Winter, yet another Samuel Winter, was left Agher on the death of his Pratt grandfather. Soon after he built a new house on the land, moving into it in 1776. However, the cost of the property, of three storeys over basement, together with other financial setbacks, obliged Samuel first to mortgage and then to sell some of his other lands. Thereafter the family seem always to have been short of funds: in 1817 Samuel’s son John Pratt Winter was forced to lease Agher, auction his stock and furniture, and take his wife and younger members of the family to live in a boarding house in Paris where they remained for seven years.

The last of the Winters to live at Agher was Captain Charles Edward Purdon-Winter who in 1936 sold the estate to the Irish Land Commission. The land was split into diverse lots and in 1947 the house demolished by controlled explosion, its rubble used to fill the basement. Today little remains to recall the Winters of Agher other than the church and its surrounding graveyard, both of which they did so much to beautify. The church was erected by the family in 1804 on the site of an older building (Jonathan Swift held the living from 1699 until his death in 1745). It was further extensively refurbished by the Winters in 1902 and at that date a four-stage buttressed tower and porch was added at the west end. Internally the church’s most distinguished feature is the window above the altar table. After Raphael and representing St Paul preaching to the Athenians, this was originally made for the private chapel of nearby Dangan Castle, seat of the Wellesleys (forebears of the Duke of Wellington) until abandoned by them at the end of the 18th century. The artist responsible was Dublin-born Thomas Jervais, who according to Strickland, ‘For the Duke of Leinster he executed some stained glass, which was formerly in the bow-window in the large room in Leinster House; and did several windows for Lord Charlemont at Marino, which were destroyed by fire in March, 1807. Three windows by him were formerly in Rathfarnham Castle, as recorded by Austin Cooper in 1781; but they have now disappeared.’ Around 1770 Jervais moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life. Thus the Agher window now appears to be the sole surviving example of his workmanship in this country and is particularly important because it is not stained but painted, using a technique he devised for himself. Less rare but equally charming is the Winter mausoleum found in the graveyard, its first occupant of its barrel-vaulted interior being Samuel who died in 1811. A late flourish of the Gothick style, the façade has a three-bay battlemented façade, the breakfront centre capped with pinnacles as are the outer miniature turrets. The arched opening is flanked by similar windows with a recessed quatrefoil above each. It stands a memorial to past Winters and, with little else remaining to do so, serves as a recollection of their long presence in this part of the country.

The Irish Georgian Society is currently fund-raising to help with the cost of restoring the Jervais window in Agher Church. The work comprises a series of painted panels which were then fitted between thin lead bars to make the picture. In its present position (see above), it contains an error of assembly: can anyone spot what that is?