The remains of the early 18th church of the Holy Trinity in Castlerea, County Roscommon. This building, and surrounding graveyard, stand in what had been part of the demesne owned by the Sandfords, who owned much of the land in this part of the country. The church ruins are notable for an exceptionally fine limestone Venetian window set into the building’s east gable. The graveyard is the burial place of Oscar Wilde’s grandfather Dr Thomas Wills Wilde, who practised medicine in the town and whose father, Ralph Wilde, acted as land agent for Lord Mount Sandford. The church was abandoned in the early 19th century when a new one was built on higher ground in the town.
At some date in the future, research will probably be undertaken into the consequences of the near-wholesale disappearance of Roman Catholic religious orders from Ireland during the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years, they had been a dominant presence across the country, every town of any consequence having at least one, more often several, large building complexes occupied by various orders who would have been responsible for the area’s education and, as we have discovered of late, other less savoury activities. By and large, the persons responsible for running those institutions have disappeared, primarily due to the fact that since the 1970s fewer and fewer individuals have been prepared to become nuns or monks and so forth. But the buildings remain, still dominating many a neighbourhood, even though their intended residents have departed. Sometimes the properties have found a new purpose, more often they now stand empty, their decaying presence serving as testament to an authority that once erroneously believed itself invincible. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they proclaim ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.’ So, aside from the physical manifestations, what have been the consequences of this ebbing of a once-powerful tide? What effect has it, will it have, on the national psyche? That remains to be investigated, but when such work begins, perhaps those responsible might like to consider how we have been here before, that we went through a similar experience back in the second half of the 16th century.
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ballindoon Priory, County Sligo was a late-comer to the company of Ireland’s religious houses. A Dominican foundation, it was established on the banks of Lough Arrow in 1507 by one Thomas O’Farrell under the patronage of the McDonaghs, who were then the most powerful family in the area. The interior of the church is dominated by a remarkable two-storey, triple-vaulted archway. The arches on the ground floor are all the same height but only the centre one provides access from nave to chancel, those on either side probably once holding altars (that to the south has since been blocked). The central arch above is much higher than its neighbours and may once have contained a cross or crucifix although it also has a hole in the ceiling to allow the suspension of a bell rope from further up the tower. This floor, effectively a gallery, is lit by exceptionally tall, narrow windows set into the north and south walls. Reached by an unusual external staircase, the top of the tower is thought once to have contained accommodation for whoever lived on the site, since no domestic ranges were ever constructed around the church (the land to the immediate south of the church drops steeply down to the lakeshore). Both the east and west ends of the church have splendid traceried windows
Ballindoon Priory was almost the last such religious house to be established in Ireland, although Eóghan O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien founded a Franciscan friary at Creevelea, County Leitrim a year later, in 1508. At the time both these buildings were erected, it must have seemed as though little would change, that the Roman Catholic church would continue to have a dominant presence throughout the country, and its properties enjoy a secure future. Just a few decades later, Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the church in his dominions, which included Ireland, and ordered the dissolution of all religious houses. One by one, they were closed down, their occupants sent away, their possessions confiscated and frequently granted or sold to supporters of the English crown. An entire way of life disappeared, leaving the Irish countryside littered with the decaying remains of what had once seemed an immutable authority. This must have been a unsettling experience for the entire population, who over the space of some 50 years witnessed the loss of the familiar and with it the sense of comforting security. Sound familiar? History has an uneasy way of repeating itself.
Anyone approaching Sligo town from the south cannot fail to see a large range of rock-faced limestone buildings rising to the immediate east. Erected in 1890-91, this was Summerhill College (or, more correctly, The College of the Immaculate Conception), a secondary school for boys designed by local architect Patrick Kilgallin on the instructions of then-Roman Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Lawrence Gillooly. Further additions to the site were made early in the last century and again in the 1930s. However, ten years ago a new school was built on an adjacent site and the old buildings offered for sale. In 2016, the Diocese of Elphin announced it had sold the property to a Liverpool-based company Eastview Limited for an undisclosed sum (believed to be in the region of €400,000). Nothing further happened until in April 2020 when Eastview sold the former school to another company, RIPL Strandhill Ltd for €1.6 million. However, it appears the agreement was never finalised and last April legal proceedings were initiated by lawyers acting on behalf of Eastview to ensure completion of the sale. At the same time, a fire broke out in the building, believed to have been started by arsonists and inflicting serious damage to the upper storeys. Meanwhile, the rest of the site is being left to deteriorate.
‘We are situated on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula of the Ards… The House faces almost due south and is but a stone’s throw away from the salt water Lough Strangford…The eastern shore of the Ards is on the Irish Sea and Belfast Lough sweeps right round the northern shore far inland. So narrow is the space between the head of Strangford Lough and that of Belfast Lough that Mount Stewart…experiences island conditions. The climate is sub-tropical…in hot weather we always have extremely heavy dews at night. We do not have an excessive rainfall…we get all the sun of the east coast with its drier conditions…the Gulf Stream running up the Irish Sea washes the shores all round the promontory.’
From a Foreword to The Mount Stewart Garden Guide Book written by Edith, Lady Londonderry, 1957.
In the care of the National Trust since the mid-1950s, Mount Stewart, County Down contains one of the most famous, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic, gardens in these islands. The land on which this stands were first purchased by Alexander Stewart in 1744. Both house and owners were gradually aggrandised, the latter eventually becoming Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry. Thanks to their ownership of collieries in County Durham, they became fantastically rich in the 19th century, with Mount Stewart being just one of many properties they owned, the best-known being Londonderry House on London’s Park Lane. Mount Stewart was thus only intermittently occupied by the family and Edith, seventh Marchioness would recall that when she first visited there at the start of the last century ‘the dampest, darkest, and saddest place I had ever stayed in, in the winter. Large Ilex trees almost touched the house in some places and sundry other big trees blocked out all light and air.’ She would be responsible for transforming the site into the extraordinary gardens that can be seen there still today. Although her own designer, she was ably assisted in the enterprise by a small team, not least Mount Stewart’s head gardener Thomas Bolas, who had trained at Chatsworth and who, as she noted was ‘able and willing to carry out designs from the roughest plans, and together he and I have worked out the designs, whether of buildings, walls or flower-beds, on the actual sites.’ It was Bolas who understood the particular climate conditions in this part of the country – ample sunshine and not too much rainfall – and knew how best to exploit them. As Neil Porteous – who has been responsible for a sensational restoration of the gardens in recent years, thanks to the mild climate, Edith Londonderry and her team were able ‘to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.’ Bold and exuberant might be a polite term for eccentric, since Mount Stewart is quite unlike any other garden and yet, like all true eccentrics, convinces thanks to the courage of its own convictions. But before these could be put into effect, the place first had to be made ready. Fortunately when this transformation got underway in the years following the end of the First World War, Edith Londonderry was able to provide work for the demobilised locals who would otherwise have faced unemployment, and she thus found the ample manpower needed to embark on such a large-scale project.
Mount Stewart is divided into a series of compartments (they really are too large for the currently fashionable word ‘room’ to be applicable here) each with its own distinctive character. Outside the west side of the house and approached across a generous flagged terrace is the sunken garden, laid out in the early 1920s and in some respects the most traditional part of the site. A pergola runs around three sides of the lawn reached via flights of stone steps, with the corners shaved off to provide densely planted beds of flowering plants. Beyond the sunken garden one begins to get a better sense of Edith Londonderry’s highly distinctive approach to horticultural design. This is the Shamrock Garden, centred on a 14 foot high topiary harp in yew. The space is enclosed within a hedge of similar height, the top of which featured a range of fantastical topiary creatures, since lost although there are plans to recreate many of them. Meanwhile, laid out on the ground in annual bedding plants is a giant red hand of Ulster. Moving to the rear of the house, one reaches the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by those Edith Londonderry had seen on visits to such Renaissance sites as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and those at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Immediately below is the Spanish Garden, the source of its inspiration being the Moorish palaces of Andalusia; one of the most distinctive features here are the flanking arcades of cypress, evoking memories of the ancient world’s aqueducts. The break between Italian and Spanish Gardens is marked by a number of herms, also inspired by those found in classical and Renaissance gardens but in this instance featuring the faces of Circe, the mythological sorceress who bewitched sailors and turned them into the animals – also portrayed here. In 1915 Edith Londonderry and her husband had founded the private Ark Club, its membership composed of friends and admirers who would meet weekly in their London house. As a result of the power she exerted over this group, Edith came to be known as Circe, hence her presence in the grounds of Mount Stewart. Similarly, the other participants in the club were given names, and they are likewise found around the gardens in these whimsical guises, especially on the Dodo Terrace which was developed to the east of the Italian Garden. Here can be seen many well-known figures of the inter-war years. among them, Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill Winston the Warlock, while Lady Lavery became Hazel the Hen, John Buchan John the Buck and Sir Philip Sassoon Philip the Phoenix. All of them were portrayed by another of the Mount Stewart team, Thomas Beattie, a local stonemason who in this instance used an early form of cast concrete for his work. The employment of such a material rather than something more orthodox unlines the decidedly unconventional, and yet successful, character of Mount Stewart.
In the centre of Slane, County Meath stands the Square, which is actually an octagon and was laid out by the Conyngham family in the mid-18th century. Four of the sides are occupied by almost identical houses dating from c.1760, all being of three bays and three storeys over basement and fronted in the same limestone, with brick chimneystacks at either gable and hipped roof. Only the doorcases display modest differences in design, that above (on the north-east corner) featuring engaged columns while that below (south-east) corner has pilasters. The latter house is currently for sale.
Daingean, County Offaly was formerly called Philipstown, the name given to it in the mid-16th century in honour of her husband (Philip II of Spain) after whom this part of the world was also given the nomenclature King’s County. Philipstown was intended to be the county town (like Maryborough – now Portlaoise – in neighbouring Queen’s County – today County Laois). However, even before the end of the 18th century, the place was being eclipsed by Tullamore and never recovered its status. A couple of buildings survive to show Philipstown’s municipal ambitions, not least the courthouse which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced an earlier building. This one, with a large market square in front, is of five bays and two storeys, the two outer ones pedimented with relieving niches beneath and limestone urns above. The slightly recessed three centre bays are rusticated on the ground floor, and divided by limestone pilasters on the first (seemingly there were once windows between these). The building has had a chequered history, intermittently allowed to fall into poor condition, and it does not appear to be in great shape at present, despite some work being undertaken there a few years ago. In his excellent Pevsner Guide to Central Leinster, Andrew Tierney politely describes the courthouse as being ‘disheveled at the time of writing.’ Others might opt for stronger language.
‘The abbey is still almost perfect, except the roof and some buildings on the North side, which were taken down about 1750 by the then proprietor, Knox, to furnish materials for a dwelling house which was erected nearby…The church is 125’ long by 20’ broad towards the East; from the West door to the tower the breadth varies from 40’ to 50’; on the broadest space is a gable with a pointed window of stone and of fine workmanship. To the Eastern wall of this portion of the building were two altars, having a piscine to each; between the altars there is an arched recess, which would seem to have been a place of safety for the sacred utensils of the altars…On the right side of the aisle is a range of arches corresponding with the height of that tower, done in hewn stone; the arches, which are hexagonal and turned on consoles, support the tower, which is nearly in the centre of the church, and about 100’ in height. The ascent to the summit of the tower is by a helix of 101 steps.’
(From Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, Thomas Walsh, 1885)
‘The Abbey itself is almost perfect, except the roof and some buildings on the north side, which were taken down about forty or fifty years ago, by the proprietor, to furnish materials for a dwelling house which was erected nearly on the site of the old walls and joined the church…The sacrilegious had that had done this, I was told by the country people, never came to any good after, nor any of those who had been concerned with it. Certain it is the house was but a short time inhabited and is now completely in ruins. One might suppose that time, while, with an unrelenting hand, he committed so many ravages on the house that was thus so sacrilegiously reared, had in pity spared the remains of the adjoining edifice that had once, with its peaceful and inoffensive inhabitants, been devoted to the offices of religion and piety.’
(From Anthologia Hibernica: or Monthly Collections of Science, Belles Lettres and History, by ‘J.C.’, January 1794)
‘The Abbey of Moyne, situated on the estuary of the River Moy, is certainly one of the noblest of the Franciscan Abbeys in Ireland. It is two miles from Killala, six miles from Ballina on the old road by the river. It is barely one-eighth of a mile from the public road, yet on entering its precincts its loneliness, its solitary air and surrounding, is the first impression produced. The Still ‘Pool,’ as the arm of the Moy beneath is called, the solemn tower, casting its long shadow over the countless graves and tombs, the stillness of the luxurious fields around, where the silent cattle graze, but where man is not seen, the rising or ebbing flow of the Moy scarcely making a ripple on the sweet strand, all without a sound, give the first impression as utter loneliness. One is at once forced to feel that here was a fit place for a Community to live away from noise, from care, from the tramp and traffic of the world’s ways, to have thoughts fixed on the quiet and “rest that remaineth for the people of God”.’
(From The Windings of the Moy, Rev, James Greer, 1924)
In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Ballindoon, County Sligo was originally called Kingsborough, thereby indicating it was built for a branch of the King family who some lived some 25 miles away at Rockingham, County Roscommon. The latter house was designed by John Nash and Ballindoon has sometimes also been attributed to him, but since it is believed to date from c.1820 perhaps it can only regarded as being in his style: by that date the architect was far too busy with royal commissions in London to have time for an Irish client. Essentially a lake-side villa, Ballindoon is a building of exceptional character, beginning with the immense pedimented Doric portico on the north-facing entrance front, its scale overwhelming the single bays on either side. Similarly the garden front is dominated by an enormous dome-topped bow, with a further series of engaged Doric columns around the ground floor. Unfortunately, like Hollybrook a few miles to the west (see previous entry), Ballindoon has stood empty for some years and is now suffering as a consequence, with what appears to be dry rot appearing on the upper floor: the insertion of uPVC windows throughout the house probably doesn’t help. Ballindoon was offered for sale with 80 acres three years ago, but remains unsold, and accordingly remains at risk.
In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Hollybrook, County Sligo dates from the mid-18th century when believed to have been built to replace an earlier castle on the site: the estate then belonged to the ffolliott family around 1659, subsequently passing in and out of their possession on at least one occasion. In the last century it was run for several decades as an hotel (see a fascinating piece of film from 1938 showing it in use for this purpose: (1) Holiday at Hollybrook House, Co Sligo 1938 – YouTube) but in recent decades the house has stood empty and falling into the present state of decline; despite being on the market for several years along with 275 acres, it remains unloved. In urgent need of help if it is to survive, Hollybrook is of three storeys over basement and superficially appears to be a typically symmetrical building of the period. However, an examination of the facade shows that the handsome Doric portico is slightly off-centre: note how it is closer to the window on the left than to that on the right. The rear of the building shows similar idiosyncracies in the fenestration placement. One wonders therefore whether the old castle, probably a tower house, wasn’t demolished but, as happened in other instances, incorporated into a new house. Alas, an examination of the interior would be required to take this investigation further.
The Plunket family has been mentioned here before, not least the Hon Brinsley Plunket who in November 1927 married Aileen Guinness, eldest daughter of Ernest Guinness (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). The couple were related: the grandmother of Brinsley (always known as Brinny) Plunket had been a Guinness, sister to Aileen’s grandfather. Another curiosity: the groom’s great-great aunt, the Hon Katherine Plunket, who died in 1932 when a month short of her 112the birthday, is recorded as the longest-living person in Ireland. Brinny Plunket was younger brother of Terence (known as Teddy), sixth Lord Plunket. A talented cartoonist who later turned to painting portraits, in 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and American actress Fannie Ward. Teddy and Dorothé were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938 while on their way to attend a party at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate. Their close links to the royal family meant the couple’s eldest son Patrick, seventh Baron Plunket, would serve as Equerry to Elizabeth II and Deputy Master of the Royal Household until his death in 1975.
The rise of the Plunkets had begun in the late 18th century with William Conyngham Plunket. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he became a lawyer famous for having been lead prosecutor at Robert Emmet’s trial in 1803. Two years later he was made Attorney-General for Ireland and also became a member of the Irish Privy Council. A supporter of Catholic Emancipation, in 1827 he was created Baron Plunket, became Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas and later served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Obviously a man of such prominence needed to have a country seat and so in the mid-1780s he took a lease on an estate to the south of Dublin called Old Connaught. Originally there appears to have been a late-medieval tower house on this site, built by a branch of the Walsh family, but this was badly damaged by a fire in 1776 and seven years later the property was leased to an Anglican clergyman, the Rev William Gore, Bishop of Limerick. He embarked on building a new house for himself but died almost as soon as it was finished, and before long the lease was acquired, and then bought out, by William Conyngham Plunket, in whose family it would remain for the next 150 years. As demonstrated by the Hon Katherine, provided they weren’t killed in plane crashes, the Plunkets tended to live long, and the first baron was just six months shy of turning 90 when he died in 1854. His eldest son, the second baron (father of the aforementioned Hon Katherine Plunket), was a clergyman who rose to become Bishop of Tuam but had no sons, so following his death the title, and Old Connaught, passed to a younger brother. On the third baron’s death, he was succeeded by his eldest son William Plunket who was another clergyman (for generations, male members of this family either joined the church or practised as lawyers). Like several forebears, the fourth baron rose through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Archbishop of Dublin where he was instrumental in establishing a teacher training school in Kildare Place. That building is long gone (replaced by a mediocre office block housing the Dept of Agriculture) but Archbishop Plunket is commemorated by a statue which depicts him pensively observing his surroundings. In 1863 he married Anne Lee Guinness, and her substantial marriage settlement allowed improvements and extensions to be undertaken at Old Connaught, with both house and gardens benefitting, the former not least by the addition of a large conservatory – since lost – to one side of the building. As mentioned, the archbishop was Brinny Plunket’s grandfather while Anne Lee Guinness was great-aunt of Aileen Guinness, hence the link between the later couple. The archbishop’s eldest son, also William, was a diplomat who served as Governor of New Zealand 1904-10.
What has all the above to do with today’s photographs? These show the restored walled gardens of Old Connaught House. Following his parents’ death in California in 1938, the estate was inherited by their eldest son Patrick, but he and his siblings were raised by a paternal aunt in London and had little to do with Ireland. But even before then the family had largely abandoned the place, leasing it in 1935 to the Christian Brothers who used the house as a senior novitiate school under the name Colaiste Ciaran. The surrounding land was run as a farm and the old gardens used for growing fruit and vegetables. Having subsequently bought the estate from the Plunkets, the order remained there until 1972 when it was decided to close the novitiate school and sell or lease sections of the estate. The house itself remained in the hands of the Christian Brothers until 1999 when finally put on the market with just 12 acres; today the building is divided into a series of flats. Meanwhile, the old walled garden, long cultivated first by the Plunkets and then the brothers, was left to fall into ruin. In 1996 the gardens and stableyard were leased to a charity founded eight years earlier to provide a range of programmes for the disabled and disadvantaged. This body is called Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly) taking its name from the Plunket family motto, and reflects the process whereby the old walled gardens, running to some two and a half acres, were gradually resuscitated, one section reflecting the character of the site in the mid-19th century when Archbishop Plunket and his family would have lived at Old Connaught. Another part of the gardens is largely divided into allotments, filled with vegetables, fruit trees and flowers, just as would once have been the case. Incidentally, the wooden platforms seen on the middle garden’s long ponds are for the sake of terrapins who live here. The gardens (which also feature a shop and cafe) are open daily to the public for free, although donations are always welcome. Well worth supporting, so do consider hurrying along there (and not slowly).