Mixing Profit and Pleasure


Despite its French name, the concept of the ferme ornée is of English origin and is usually attributed to the garden designer and writer Stephen Switzer.* His 1715 book The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation criticized the overly elaborate formal gardens derived from French and Dutch examples, and proposed laying out grounds that were attractive but also functional: ‘By mixing the useful and profitable parts of Gard’ning with the Pleasurable in the Interior Parts of my Designs and Paddocks, obscure enclosures, etc. in the outward, My Designs are thereby vastly enlarg’d and both Profit and Pleasure may be agreeably mix’d together.’ In other words, working farms could be transformed into visually delightful places. One of the earliest examples of the ferme ornée was laid out by Philip Southgate who owned the 150-acre Woburn Farm, Surrey on which work began in 1727. ‘All my design at first,’ wrote Southgate, ‘was to have a garden on the middle high ground and a walk all round my farm, for convenience as well as pleasure.’ The fashion for such designs gradually spread across Europe as part of the adoption of natural English gardens: perhaps the most famous example is the ferme ornée is the decorative model farmy called the Hameau de la Reine created for Marie Antoinette at Versailles in the mid-1780s. The most complete extant example of this garden type in Europe is believed to be at Larchill, County Kildare.
*Incidentally, Stephen Switzer was no relation to the Irish Switzers: whereas his family could long be traced to residency in Hampshire, the Switzers who settled in this country in the early 18th century had come from Germany to escape religious persecution.





Larchill was created in the mid-18th century on part of an estate then owned by the Prentices, a Quaker merchant family whose adjacent country retreat, Phepotstown, still stands. As was typical with members of this sect, the house is very plain (the Quakers disapproving of unnecessary ornament) in striking contrast with the buildings on their farm. Here they followed the principles espoused by Switzer, Southgate and others, erecting structures both utilitarian and attractive around a gothick-style yard. However, it is across the surrounding farmland that the greatest, and most conspicuous, effort was expended. The focus of this enterprise is an eight-acre lake to the south of the farmyard. Several buildings are located around this stretch of water, while two others stand on small islands. That to the east is a small temple-like structure, its outer wall marked with decorative recesses, while inside a circle of columns surrounds an open space which may have been a well (the columns supporting a roof that directed rainwater into the centre of the site). A bridge, perhaps composed of pontoons, linked this island to the mainland. Meanwhile to the west, a larger island holds a miniature fort known as Gibraltar, the name deriving from an unsuccessful siege of the peninsula that ran for more than three and a half years from 1779-1783. The fort may have been erected to commemorate the fact that Gibraltar withstood this assault by Spanish and French forces. Between the two islands used to stand a statue of the ancient Greek hunter Meleager: more recently it has been replaced by a similarly-proportioned figure of Bacchus. here…





The statue of Meleager once found in the middle of the lake now has pride of place in the Larchill’s restored walled garden. The south-west corner of this space is occupied by a three-storey battlemented tower, the interior spaces of which – lit by arched gothic windows – have walls covered in shells, reflecting a fashionable pastime of the period such as can be seen inside the cottage decorated in a similar fashion during the same period by Emily, Duchess of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare which stands not far away. Further to the east of this wall is a three-arched loggia which once served as an ornamental dairy, the interior once lined with 18th century Dutch blue-and-white tiles. Like the rest of Larchill, the walled garden has been restored over the past twenty-years by its present owners. The Prentices, who had created the core of the ferme ornée were forced to sell the place, which was then bought by another family the Watsons who maintained and even added other features to the grounds such as the Fox’s Earth, a folly apparently built by Robert Watson, a well-known Master of Hounds who feared reincarnation as a fox (having been responsible for killing too many of them). However, during the 19th century it would seem the ornamental aspects of the parkland were neglected so that it returned to customary agricultural usage. The buildings fell into dereliction, the lake dried out, or was drained, and the special character of Larchill lost. Only after being purchased by the de las Casas family in 1994 did work begin to restore the site. Many of the buildings were carefully cleared of undergrowth and trees, the lake re-established and the distinctive character of this ferme ornée recovered. Thanks to their labours, today it is once more possible to emulate the precedent of Philip Southgate and to walk around Larchill ‘for convenience as well as pleasure.’here…

Larchill, County Kildare is open to the public. For further information, see: https://larchill.ie/

An Italian Hour


Looking positively Italianate in the early autumn sunshine, the west end of the garden front at Abbeyleix, County Laois. A series of terraces descend to a final series of circular stone steps, an architectural device highly reminiscent of similar work designed in 1906 by Edwin Lutyens for Heywood barely five miles away: might he have had a hand in this too? A sunken area immediately below contains what was once a swimming pool but more recently has been converted into a lily pond, at one end containing a bronze statue of a nude on horseback made by  Irish sculptor Olivia Musgrave.

Firmly Lodged


The gate lodge on the south-west corner of St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. This was designed c.1880 by James Franklin Fuller, the Kerry-born architect much employed by Sir Arthur Guinness, raised around this time to the peerage as Baron Ardilaun: the latter paid for the 22-acre park to be landscaped and opened to the public (hitherto access was only available to keyholders). The lodge is an endearing hodge-podge of gables, dormer windows, mullions and bays constructed in brick, sandstone and timber (including ornamental bargeboards on the gables) and terracotta fish-tail tiles. The total cost was £2,256, much higher than was usually expended on such buildings.

The Other Boleyn Girls


In Donizetti’s 1830 opera Anna Bolena, the unhappy queen tells her erstwhile admirer Henry Percy, future sixth Earl of Northumberland, ‘Ambiziosa, un serto io volli’ e un serto ebb’io di spine’ (Ambitious, I wanted a crown, and got a crown of thorns). She came from an ambitious family. Originally of East Anglian yeoman stock, the Boleyns gradually improved their economic and social circumstances during the 15th century: Anne’s great-grandfather Sir Geoffrey Boleyn had been a London merchant who prospered to such an extent that he was elected Lord Mayor of the city, received a knighthood and bought Hever Castle in Kent. His son William married Lady Margaret Butler, a daughter and co-heiress of the seventh Earl of Ormond: this is the origin of the Boleyns’ links with Ireland. Sir William and Lady Margaret’s eldest son Sir Thomas Boleyn further scaled the social ladder by marrying Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk. A skilled diplomat and courtier, Sir Thomas lay claim to the Butler title following the death without male heirs of his grandfather, the Earl of Ormond in 1515. This was disputed by an Irish claimant, Piers Butler but once Henry VIII became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, he persuaded Butler to renounce the Ormond title (he was created Earl of Ossory instead). Accordingly in 1529 Sir Thomas Boleyn became not just Earl of Ormond, but also Earl of Wiltshire, his claim to the latter also coming through familial ties with the Butler family. Meanwhile his only surviving son George received the courtesy title Viscount Rochford. Following the downfall and execution of both Anne and her brother in 1536, their ambitious father lost his position at court and retired to the country. The year before his death, the Ormond title was restored to Piers Butler: his grandson, Thomas Butler the tenth earl, was a cousin of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I who is said to have called him her ‘black husband’ and certainly made him Lord Treasurer of Ireland.




In 1803, a limestone slab measuring eight by four feet is said to have been discovered close to Clonony Castle, County Offaly. This is recorded as bearing the following inscription: ‘Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.’ Understandably there has been much popular speculation about the stone and its words. George Boleyn, as mentioned, was Anne’s only brother: he was executed two days before her in May 1536 on a trumped-up charge of incest. George was as ambitious for advancement as the rest of his family: he had been introduced to the English court at the age of ten and not long afterwards became one of the king’s pageboys. From the mid-1520s onwards, as his sister’s star rose, he became a favourite of Henry VIII receiving a series of ever-more significant grants and offices from the crown. Around this time he married Jane Parker, daughter of the wealthy and well-connected tenth Lord Morley. Following her husband’s disgrace and death in 1536 she retired temporarily from court but then returned and served Henry VIII’s successive wives until February 1542 when, because of her links with Catherine Howard, she too was beheaded. Although they were married for more than a decade, there is no record of George and Jane Boleyn having had any children, either male or female, and no heirs for the couple are known. This is why the stone found at Clonony so curious: it claims his two great-granddaughters were buried there. But since he had no offspring, the matter is open to conjecture.




Clonony Castle is a tower house, probably built at the start of the 16th century by the MacCoghlan family who were hereditary chieftains in this part of the country. They remained in situ until the aftermath of the Nine Years War when dispossessed of much of their land. At the start of the 17th century Clonony had been acquired by an English official Roger Downton and in 1612 he sold it to Matthew de Renzi. The latter was a German-born cloth merchant who, having run up substantial debts in London, moved to Ireland in 1606. The funds to buy Clonony and 100 surrounding acres probably came from his first wife’s dowry. De Renzi is a fascinating character, not least because, a keen linguist who already spoke six languages, he learnt to write and speak both colloquial and classical Irish and composed an Irish grammar. The intention was to help him as he struggled to establish his presence in the Midlands, fiercely resisted by the MacCoghlans whose head, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, told everyone in the locality to neither buy from nor sell to de Renzi (except at excessive rates), and to ignore the boundaries of his territory. Soon he faced such intimidation that he thought it best to spend the winter at the County Roscommon home of his second wife, a daughter of Sir Oliver St John, writing ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’ Nevertheless, by the end of the following decade he had increased his landholding to over 1,000 acres, after which he sold Clonony, moved to Dublin, became a government official and was knighted in 1627, dying seven years later.
Clonony, de Renzi discovered, was not an especially comfortable residence, tall and narrow with very small windows so that little light penetrated the interior. In form it remains a typical tower house, some fifty feet high over three storeys, the greater part of each floor being given over to a single vaulted chamber. Clonony was restored as a private house in the 19th century when repairs were carried out on the bawn wall and, one suspects, larger windows inserted into the tower. The present owner has carried out further repairs and restoration, while retaining the essential character of the place. Incidentally, a 1533 proclamation of forbidding criticism of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was repealed by the Irish government three years ago in July 2015.


Romantic Views


The ruins of old Crom Castle, County Fermanagh. Located on the shore of Upper Lough Erne, this was built in 1610 by Scottish settler Michael Balfour: nine years later it was described by Nicholas Pynnar as ‘a house set of lime and stone’ situated inside ‘a bawn of lime and stone being 60 feet square, 12 feet high with two flankers.’ In 1655 Crom was acquired by the Crichton family who lived here until 1764 when the building was gutted by fire. Following the construction of the present Crom Castle elsewhere on the estate in the 1830s, this ruin was embellished by the addition of long walls concluding in circular flankers on either side of the main block. During the following decade the Crichton Tower, a folly on little Gad Island (seen below) was likewise built as a romantic eye-catcher.

Amid Low-Lying Fields


Today Athenry, County Galway is best known for featuring in a lachrymose ballad usually sung by performers somewhat worse for alcohol. However, the town was of significance from the Middle Ages onwards, as evidenced by large sections of the mediaeval walls that still survive, and a number of important buildings in the centre, not least a castle dating from c.1235. Originally guarding the crossing point over the river Clarin, it consists of a keep and the remains of a separating banqueting hall all enclosed within their own defences. The town subsequently developed around this castle, constructed by the Anglo-Norman knight Meyler de Bermingham whose descendants would become Barons Athenry and Earls of Louth. De Bermingham was also responsible for the other significant mediaeval remains in Athenry, the nearby Dominican Priory.




One of the Dominican order’s most important houses in Ireland, Athenry Priory of SS. Peter and Paul was founded by Meyler de Bermingham in 1241 when he purchased the land on which it stands for 160 marks and then provided the same amount for the construction of the church, as well as providing some of his men to help with the work: he would be buried inside its walls following his death in 1252. Many of his descendants were likewise interred here. Other local families, both Anglo-Norman and Gaelic assisted in the development of the site: Felim O’Conor built the refectory, Eugene O’Heyne the dormitory, Cornelius O’Kelly the chapter house, and others the cloister, infirmary, guesthouse and so forth: almost nothing of these domestic buildings survives. Alterations were made over successive generations. In the late 13th/early 14th century for example, rebuilding work took place on the west gable of the church, to which an aisle and transept were added on the north side. In the fourteenth century William de Burgh (forebear of the Earls and Marquesses of Clanricarde, with whom the priory would later be associated) left money to enlarge the church, adding some 20 feet to the choir, and building a new entrance at its west end (now largely lost after a handball alley was built on the exterior of the building in the last century). Meanwhile in 1408 Joanna de Ruffur left funds to construct a new east window. A fire destroyed much of the priory in 1423, after which indulgences were granted by Popes Martin V and Eugene IV to shoe who contributed to the buildings’ repair. During this period, a crossing tower was erected in the church, with a number of windows being replaced or blocked, and the aisle arcade being reduced.




In the 16th century, Athenry Priory initially escaped the dissolution that befell other such religious establishments. In a letter dated July 1541 Anthony St Leger, Lord Deputy of Irleand advised Henry VIII that as the priory ‘is situated amongst the Irishry … our saide sovereign lord shoulde have lyttle or no profit.’ However, the head of the priory Adam de Coppynger and his fellow friars agreed to abandon their religious habits and dress in secular clothing. In 1568 Elizabeth I directed that the Earl of Clanricarde could preserve the friary for a burial place but nine years later the priory and 30 acres of land in Athenry (plus more elsewhere) was granted to the town of Athenry: around the same time both town and priory were sacked by members of the Earl of Clanricarde’s family. Towards the end of the century the Dominicans reoccupied the priory but it suffered when the whole town was burnt in 1597. Still the Dominicans lingered on in the area, until the early 1650s when English soldiers wrecked the priory. Later the domestic buildings were largely demolished, and an army barracks built in their place. This remained in use until 1850. A late 18th century image shows the church without roof but the central tower still standing: it collapsed in 1845. Relatively little change has since occurred.




Despite quantities of damage inflicted on it over the centuries, the interior of the priory church retains much of interest. Of particular note are two large monuments in the choir. That tucked into the south-east corner was a mausoleum for the de Burgh family, who it will be remembered were permitted by Elizabeth I to use the building as a burial site. The monument in its present form dates from 1835 when repaired by Ulick de Burgh, first Marquess of Clanricarde. The upper portion (which looks as though designed to have something further on top of it) carries a peer’s coronet and the family coat of arms with its motto: Un Roy, Un Foy, Une Loy. A considerable portion of the choir is then taken up with a monumental tomb to Lady Matilda Bermingham, youngest daughter of the last Lord Athenry (also first, and last, Earl of Louth), who died in 1788 at the age of 20. Of cut limestone, the tomb was decorated with an abundance of Coade figures and stone panels, one of which bears the date 1791, and an urn which features the deceased’s profile. As an instance of contemporary misinformation, one frequently reads online that this tomb was badly damaged by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in search of treasure: since Lady Matilda Bermingham died over 130 years after these troops were in Ireland this seems somewhat improbable, and yet still the story circulates in the internet. The truth is more prosaic. In October 2002 vandals broke into the church, breached the tomb’s walls and pulled out the coffin: who needs to import despoilers when they can be found at home? It was reported at the time that repairs were being carried out on the monument, but these do not appear to have been very extensive and much of the Coade stone ornamentation has been forever lost.

At a Crossroads



On the cusp of dereliction: a two-storey, three bay house of coursed rubble limestone at Glencara Crossroads, County Westmeath. Likely dating from the early to mid-19th century, the building is close to Glencara House and may have been associated with that estate, perhaps built for an agent or worker there. Glencara House was constructed c.1824 for the Kelly family to the designs of an unknown architect but alterations were made around 1840 (attributed to J.B. Keane). These included the addition of canted bays, not unlike the clearly added to this little two-storey property, although this is somewhat less sophisticated: note how the entrance and window above are slightly off-centre. Unfortunately the househas stood empty and neglected for a number of years and, like the location, its future is now at a crossroads.