Historical Recollections


‘Ferns. A small town in the county of Wexford, Ireland. The history of this town commences with that of its religious establishments. It is said that in the year 598, an Irish king, named Brandubh, gave to St Maodhog, or as he is sometimes called St. Aedan, the lands of Ferns, where he founded an abbey and was consecrated bishop.’




‘The rising consequence of Ferns was interrupted early in the ninth century, by the incursions of the Danes who plundered and burned the abbey in the years 834, 836, 838, 917 and 928. By the same marauders it was, for the sixth time, consumed by fire A.D. 930; and the town was accidentally destroyed by conflagration in 1165. In the following year the town and abbey were reduced to ashes by the celebrated Dermod Macmurrough, king of Leinster. As some atonement for the crime of burning the ancient monastery of Ferns, he afterwards founded at this place a new abbey for canons regular of the order of St. Augustin, under the invocation of the Virgin Mary, which he richly endowed with lands.’




‘The remains of the abbey still excite great interest by their historical recollections. It was here that king Dermod was secreted and entertained, whilst waiting in the early part of 1169 for the arrival of his British allies; – a period pregnant with the future fortunes of Ireland! The remains of the fabric consist chiefly of two sides of a cloister, or of a narrow chapel, having two rows of tall windows, of the lancet form. The windows and the piers are uniformly of an equal breadth. Adjoining this architectural fragment is a church, the steeple of which is on a very unusual plan. The lower part represents an oblong square of confined proportions, the dimensions being about eleven feet by eight. At the height of twelve or thirteen feet from the ground, the steeple assumes a round form, seven feet in diameter and twenty in height. The whole is constructed of a reddish stone and, withinside, a flight of steps leads to the summit whence is obtained a delightful prospect over an immense extent of landscape.’

From The British cyclopaedia of the arts, sciences, history, geography, literature, natural history, and biography, London, 1838.

Reconciled to Ruin


Inside the rear section of the former army barracks at Glencree, County Wicklow. In the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion when this part of the country proved difficult for the authorities to control, a route still called the Military Road was constructed through the Wicklow Mountains, and these buildings erected in 1806 to house 100 troops. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars they vacated the barracks which during the second half of the 19th century was converted into a boy’s reformatory, being used for this purpose until 1940. The site then served as a prison for captured German military personnel (a small cemetery holding the remains of those who died during that period remains close by) and since the mid-1970s one block has been the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation. However, as can be seen, the buildings immediately behind have been left to fall into their present state of disrepair.

For a Gentleman Farmer


A gentleman farmer’s residence in south County Tipperary. Once part of the Green estate, the house is believed to date from c.1830 and is of three bays and two storeys over basement. To the rear a series of outbuildings forms an attractive courtyard, although many of them have fallen into neglect. The house’s most significant feature is the limestone doorcase reached via a short flight of steps: note how the lintel is carved with a frieze of flowers.

Eaten Bread is Soon Forgotten


Portlaw, County Waterford and its association with the Malcolmson family have been mentioned here before (see: A Shell, June 28th 2017). The Malcolmsons were of Scottish Presbyterian origin but in the mid-18th century one branch became members of the Quaker community. A son of this line, David Malcolmson, settled in Clonmel, County Tipperary where from 1793 onwards he became involved in the corn milling industry and enjoyed such success that when Richard Lalor Shiel visited the town in 1828 he could write ‘Malcolmson’s Mill is I believe the finest in Ireland. Here half the harvest of the adjoining counties as well as Tipperary is powdered.’ By that date the family, fearful that the Corn Laws (restrictions on the import of grain which favoured domestic production) were to be revoked by parliament, had moved into another business in another part of the country. In 1825 Malcolmson took a 999-year lease on a house called Mayfield and the adjacent 16 acres from a local landlord, John Medlycott. A small corn mill, damaged by fire, stood on the site and this was redeveloped as a vast, six-storey cotton mill, building a canal to utilize the power of the adjacent river Clodiagh. The enterprise required large numbers of employees and as a result the little village of Portlaw expanded rapidly. Around the time the Malcolmsons began work on the mill, it comprised less than 400 residents living in 71 houses: by 1841 the population of Portlaw had grown to 3,647 souls occupying 458 houses, most of the latter built by the Malcolmsons as part of a planned urban settlement. The family lived on the edge of the town and directly above the mill in Mayfield.






The core of Mayfield was a classical house dating from c.1740 and it was here the Malcolmsons initially lived. However, in 1849 Joseph Malcolmson, who had assumed responsibility for the business, employed architect William Tinsley to enlarge the building. Like his client, Tinsley originally came from Clonmel and had built up a substantial practice in the area, so he was an obvious choice. However, by the time Joseph Malcolmson decided on a further expansion of Mayfield, Tinsley was no longer available: in 1851 he had emigrated with his family to the United States where he enjoyed an equally successful career before dying in Cincinnati in 1885. So in 1857 Malcolmson instead employed John Skipton Mulvany who specialized in a loosely-Italianate style architecture and who was responsible for giving the house its present appearance. Mulvany added many of Mayfield’s most striking features, not least a three-storey tower that served as an entrance on the house’s eastern front. This rises considerably higher than the rest of the three-storey over basement building which is of seven bays: the tower accordingly provided views both down to the factory and over to the village, allowing the Malcolmsons a paternalistic prospect of their workers. Mulvany was also responsible for the single-storey over basement wings on either side of the main block: that to the south served as a conservatory, that to the north held a pair of reception rooms. However the family were not to enjoy this splendor for long, the cotton factory which generated their wealth being ruined in the aftermath of the American Civil War (the Malcolmsons had extended credit to the losing side).






In the last quarter of the 19th century the Portlaw factory was adapted for spinning but this enterprise didn’t last long and it was only in the early 1930s that a new purpose was found for the complex when it was acquired to act as a tannery by the Irish Leathers Group. Mayfield, which had for a period been occupied by members of the de la Poer Beresford family of nearby Curraghmore, now became an office premises for the new enterprise, and remained as such for the next half century. The tannery closed in the 1980s, and as a result Mayfield no longer had any purpose, although to the end of that decade a proposal was put forward to convert both factory and house into a retirement home. The scheme never took off and for the past thirty-odd years Mayfield has stood empty, falling into its present state of dereliction. As can be seen, little of the original mid-Victorian interiors remains other than fragments of plasterwork and rotting timbers. The exterior of the building has proven more sturdy, and retains the same appearance found in old photographs. But it is difficult to know what sort of future, if any, Mayfield might have. There is an old Irish expression Ní bhíonn cuimhne ar an arán a hitear, commonly translated as ‘Eaten bread is soon forgotten.’ Portlaw as seen today owes its existence to the enterprise and initiative of the Malcolmsons: what a shame that so little has been done to acknowledge their contribution to the area.

A Confident Blend of Styles


The entrance front of Tullynisk, County Offaly. Dating from the early 19th century and replacing an older property on the site, the house is a mixture of the classical and gothic, the former evident in the doorcase with its Ionic columns, the latter in the window directly above. The combination of the two is as unselfconsciously assured as the sheep grazing in the immediate vicinity.

The Books Will Still Be There


And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.



‘We are,’ they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.



I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will still be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

And Yet the Books by Czeslaw Milosz.
Photographs of the library at Clonalis, County Roscommon (https://clonalis.com)

In Indifferent Repair



The former church of St John the Baptist in Stonehall, County Westmeath. Built in 1809 thanks to a grant of £600 from the Board of First Fruits, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) Samuel Hall as ‘a plain, badly constructed edifice, in indifferent repair.’ Nevertheless it survived to serve its purpose until taken out of service in 1962: since then the church has fallen into its present ruin.


The Miniature Fort


Looking like a miniature fort, this is the former gatelodge to Belmount, County Cork which sits across a bridge spanning a tributary of the river Bride. The main part of the building rises three storeys, with two-storey castellated extensions to the rear running along the waterfront. Above the entrance are the remains of an Oriel window, a finial over that bearing the date 1837: sadly now roofless, there are only traces remaining of how the interior once looked.

Not a Happy Place


Conna Castle, County Cork, few owners of which appear to have enjoyed happy lives. Situated on a limestone outcrop above the river Bride, work on this tower house began in 1554 and seemingly took ten years to complete for the FitzGeralds, a branch of the Earls of Desmond. Hoping to inherit the title, they did not participate in either of the Desmond Rebellions and following the death of the fifteenth earl in 1583 petitioned Elizabeth I to be recognised as his successor. Unfortunately, they were descended from a marriage between the fourteenth earl and his own grandniece, judged to be outside the acceptable boundaries of consanguinity, thus making offspring from the union illegitimate. James FitzThomas FitzGerald, who had hoped to become the sixteenth earl, on his return to Ireland from London was mockingly known as the the Sugán or ‘Straw’ Earl. In 1598 he joined in the rising initiated by Hugh O’Neill but was defeated and went into hiding, eventually being betrayed to the English forces by a cousin Edmund FitzGibbon, the White Knight: taken to London, FitzGerald died in the Tower of London apparently having become insane. The lands around Conna then passed through a number of hands before becoming part of the territory owned by Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In 1645 during the Confederate Wars it was captured by the third Earl of Castlehaven: five years later the English forces made an unsuccessful attempt to take the castle back. However damage occurred a few years later owing to a fire which also claimed the lives of the steward’s three daughters. Conna has been in state ownership since 1915.