Rags and Tatters


The remains of Ardclinis church, County Antrim, believed to have been founded in the early Christian period by St MacNissi, or perhaps St MacKenna: the present ruins are from the later Middle Ages. A crozier, called the Bachil McKenna, used to be set into the building and was used by local people for the taking of oaths and detection of false statements. However, it was subsequently acquired by a local farmer called Galvin. He and his successors, when not employing the crozier as a hook in the family home, would dip it into water being given to sick cows: in the early 1960s it was acquired by the National Museum of Ireland. In front of the ruins is a blackthorn ‘Rag Tree.’ Traditionally rags, belonging to someone sick or with a particular problem, are tied to a tree in the belief that this will resolve the issue.

Institutionalised




The garden front of Garron Tower, County Antrim. Built at a cost of £4,000 over several years from 1848 onwards, the house sits on a plateau high above the sea and with views, on a clear day, across to Scotland. Intended as a summer residence, Garron Tower’s architect is thought to have been Lewis Vulliamy, his client being Frances Anne, Marchioness of Londonderry who had inherited land here from her mother, the second Countess of Antrim. It has been suggested that her intention was to own a property superior to Glenarm Castle, inherited by her aunt, which stands a few miles further south. Garron Tower’s austere exterior is not aided by the use of black basalt, but the original interiors were said to be luxurious. The property was little used after Lady Londonderry’s death and by the end of the 19th century was rented for use as a hotel. It was badly damaged by fire in 1914, the house was converted into a school in 1950 and now exudes a grimly institutional air.


A Shaggy Dog Story


The Massereene Hound, a carving believed to date from 1612. According to legend, not long after her marriage in 1607 to Sir Hugh Clotworthy of Antrim Castle, Mary Langford was walking alone in the woods when threatened by attack from a wolf. Fortunately at the same moment an Irish wolfhound appeared and saved Lady Clotworthy by killing the wolf. A second tale has it that the self-same wolfhound also ensured the Clotworthys were spared an assault on their castle by howling and thereby warning them of the imminent danger. Whatever the truth, the sculpture stood on the original castle until the 18th century when it was moved to one of the estate walls. It now stands on a plinth adjacent to the restored walled gardens.

On a Date

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A date stone beneath one of the windows on the façade of the Old Rectory at Glenarm, County Antrim. It carries the year 1838 but the house is believed to be much older than this, a section to the rear likely having been built in the 17th century by a settler in the area, so perhaps the house was originally occupied by a tenant farmer before becoming a residence for the local Church of Ireland clergyman. Another date stone over the main entrance is inscribed with the year 1858, indicating further work was carried out then. The same stone reports the house was restored in 1990 by its present owner, the artist Hector McDonnell.

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Down with Mrs Delany

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In June 1743 Mary Pendarves (née Granville) married as her second husband the Anglican clergyman Dr Patrick Delany who a year later was made Dean of Down. As a result, although the couple’s main residence was at Delville on the outskirts of Dublin, they often spent time in the Dean’s diocese there occupying a house not far from Downpatrick with the distinctive name of Mount Panther. Much embellished after its acquisition by the future first Earl Annesley in 1770, for two centuries Mount Panther was judged one of the finest properties in County Down with especially fine plasterwork in the ballroom and drawing rooms. It survived until the 1960s but is now a ruin. However, a few souvenirs of Mount Panther have been incorporated into a house in neighbouring County Antrim including these curved doorcases and doors which were a feature of the staircase hall. Also rescued from Mount Panther were the neo-classical plasterwork wall decorations which incorporate a variety of motifs including the head of a big cat, although it looks more like that of a lion than a panther.

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By a Long Stretch

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The canal at Antrim Castle, County Antrim is laid out in two sections, the original (seen above, on the cusp of yet another recent storm) believed to date from either the late 17th or early 18th century: if the former, then it was the work of John Skeffington, second Viscount Massereene (died 1695), if the latter his son, Clotworthy Skeffington, the third Viscount. Approached by a yew walk, it is thirty feet wide and runs to 660 feet, a rare surviving example of the formal French-style gardens then in vogue. In the 19th century John Foster-Skeffington, tenth Viscount Massereene added an upper canal (below) the two lengths separated by a short cascade. A survey of Antrim conducted by James Boyle in the 1830s describes the water as being edged by a lime hedge of eighteen feet. Although the castle was gutted by fire in 1922 and later demolished, the gardens were restored some years ago by the local authority and are now a public park.

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A Grand Soft Day

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Recently photographed on a typical Irish summer morning (that is to say in sleeting rain: the Irish Aesthete is nothing if not intrepid) the walled garden at Glenarm Castle, County Antrim. Dating from the 18th century, it originally provided the main house with fruit and vegetables but in recent years has been converted into a series of pleasure grounds open to the public, the upper sections designed by Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin. Above is an obelisk of oak created by local craftsman Corin Giles: what distinguishes this piece is the use of wood for a rusticated base. Meanwhile below a pair of rills flanked by beech hedges run down to a cascade before concluding in a pool; far below can be seen an opening cut into the yew circle dating from the 1820s. How simple devices can achieve powerful effects…

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Court Out

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The main entrance to the former Court House in the county town of Antrim. A popular venue for markets and fairs since the first patent to do so was granted in 1605, inevitably there was a certain amount of disruption whenever these took place. Hence the citizens of Antrim felt the need to have a court house where miscreants could be tried and punished. In the early 18th century, the County Antrim Grand Jury granted £150 ‘towards building and carrying on a Session House in the town of Antrim in and for said county.’ Dating from 1726, the court house is of two storeys, that on the lower level originally having an open arcade where mercantile activity could take place even while justice was being administered upstair. By 1836, the ground floor had been converted into an enclosed yard
for prisoners attending trial and for confining drunkards
and rioters. The building continued to serve as a courthouse until 1994 since when it has been extensively restored by the local authority. Commendable work, although one must regret the installation of such commonplace light fittings and metal grills.

Fascination Frantic in a Ruin that’s Romantic

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Shane’s Castle, County Antrim is located at the north-east corner of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Britain and Ireland. The building was originally known as Edenduffcarrick (from the Irish meaning ‘The Brow of the Dark Rock’) and first appears in the late 15th century Annals of Ulster as the town of Conn O’Neill; a settlement of houses remained around the lakeshore until swept away towards the end of the 18th century to create an open parkland, much of which still happily remains as designed at the time. In 1490 there are references to a castle on the site which was attacked and demolished, but another such structure is mentioned in 1535 as being under assault and in 1596 it was reported that ‘on the edge of Lough Neagh standeth a runiated pile called Edendow Carreck, which, being made wardable, could be converted into a store for provisioning Blackwater and Coleraine in case of sea storms.’ Having suffered repeated attacks and changes of ownership, in 1607 the Castle and surrounding lands were settled by James I on Shane McBrian O’Neill. The name Shane’s Castle probably derives from this man whose descendants have lived on the estate ever since.

another view

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The oldest part of Shane’s Castle probably dates from the late 15th or early 16th century but the building was subject to so many assaults and reconstructions during this period, and such radical alteration later that it is now difficult to discern what might be original. Looking at the remains today, with their confusion of stone and brick, and comparing this with surviving paintings it becomes clear the structure was considerably extended and aggrandised in the 17th and more especially the 18th century. The eventual Shane’s Castle, which sat at right angles to the shores of Lough Neagh with the main symmetrical entrance facing east, was of three storeys over basement. It’s rendered exterior had a battlemented parapet and hipped roofs, the west front featuring projecting circular end bays while that to the east was centred on a large curved bay and closed with projecting rectangular bays. In the 1793 engraving after William Ashford immediately above it can be seen these east bays are pedimented but other images from previous decades show differently, an indication of how the building was subjected to repeated revisions reflecting changes in architectural taste during the course of the 18th century. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s make reference to some features of the structure which no longer exist, mentioning a sculptured coat of arms ‘said to have been erected over one of the principal entrances of the castle’ and also noting ‘none of the floors and only a small portion of a beautiful spiral stair of cut stone now remain.’

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We are fortunate to possess a number of descriptions of Shane’s Castle in full opulence. As a young woman, the 18th century’s most celebrated actress Sarah Siddons had met and been befriended by Henrietta Boyle, judged one of the loveliest women of her generation, who subsequently married John, first Viscount O’Neill. Hence in 1783 when Mrs Siddons was performing at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre she travelled to County Antrim to spend time with her friends at Shane’s Castle. In her memoirs she recalled the visit: ‘I have not words to describe the beauty and splendour of this enchanting place; which, I am sorry to say, has since been levelled to the earth by a tremendous fire. Here were often assembled all the talent, and rank, and beauty of Ireland. Amongst the persons of the Leinster family whom I met here was poor Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the most amiable, honourable, though misguided youth, I ever knew. The luxury of this establishment almost inspired the recollections of an Arabian Night’s entertainment. Six or eight carriages, with a numerous throng of lords and ladies on horseback, began the day by making excursions around this terrestrial paradise, returning home just in time to dress for dinner. The table was served with a profusion and elegance to which I have never seen anything comparable. The sideboards were decorated with adequate magnificence, on which appeared several immense silver flagons, containing claret. A fine band of musicians played during the whole of the repast. They were stationed in the corridors which led to a a fine conservatory, where we plucked our dessert from numerous trees of the most exquisite fruits. The foot of the conservatory was washed by the waves of a superb lake, from which the cool and pleasant wind came, to murmur in concert with the harmony from the corridor.’

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Four years after Mrs Siddons, the Rev. Daniel Beaufort, a sociable Anglican clergyman and amateur architect who succeeded his father as rector of Navan, County Meath, likewise paid a visit to Shane’s Castle and again was deeply impressed by what he saw there. In his journal he wrote: ‘Drawing room adorned with magnificent mirrors, off breakfast room is rotunda coffee room, where in recesses are great quantities of china, a cistern with a cock and water, a boiler with another, all apparently for making breakfast; a letter box and round table with four sets of pen and ink let in for everybody to write. Conservatory joins house, fine apartment along lough, at end alcove for meals, from it a way to h & c bathing apartments with painted windows. On other side of house, pretty and large theatre and magnificent ballroom 60 X 30, all of wood and canvas painted, and so sent ready made from London.’ The theatre Beaufort mentions reflected Lady O’Neill’s interest in the performing arts and it is believed that Mrs Siddons acted there during her stay.

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It must be recorded that other visitors to Shane’s Castle were less impressed by what they found there. In 1806 the English antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare (who more than twenty years before had inherited Stourhead from his grandfather) made a tour of Ireland, publishing an account of his trip the following year. In this he observed that Shane’s Castle was ‘placed immediately on the shores of the lake, whose waves beat against its wall; it is an old castle modernised, or rather a modern mansion attached to an old fort; its situation is bold; but its architectural design far from picturesque or appropriate. Improvements, both in gardening and farming, are advancing here most rapidly; a fine kitchen garden, with all its luxurious and glassy appendages, and very extensive and commodious offices have lately been erected.’ Perhaps Charles O’Neill, the second viscount (who had become first and last Earl O’Neill in 1800) took Hoare’s criticisms of his house to heart, since soon after he engaged the services of architect John Nash to make improvements to Shane’s Castle and render it more gothic in character.

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Had circumstances been otherwise, Shane’s Castle would feature prominently in any consideration of Nash’s oeuvre. It appears that the architect was consulted on alterations to the building in the early 1800s although work only began in the second decade of the century. Accounts of visitors like those mentioned above all indicate a terrace to the south already existed along with a conservatory linked by a passage to the main building. The terrace was now extended further out into the lough, the conservatory replaced with one to Nash’s design and from this, a suite of reception rooms planned eastwards with views directly across the water. All the foundations had been put in place, and the new conservatory erected, when in 1816 fire broke out in the old house, seemingly originating in a dressing or bedroom chimney where rooks had built a nest (although local legend preferred to believe that a banshee, for whom accommodation was always left vacant, took umbrage when a full house party meant her traditional quarters were occupied and so she started the conflagration).
The result was devastation and cessation of the proposed Nash adjunct. In fact Lord O’Neill abandoned the site occupied by his forbears and moved into part of the estate’s offices and outbuildings some distance to the west. Here in the 1860s a new house was built by the Belfast firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon: in turn it was burnt by the IRA in May 1922.
Today Shane’s Castle forms a striking sequence of ruins, with the outer walls of diverse sections of the old house surviving largely unconnected to each other. Then in the midst of these hollow shells one comes across Nash’s conservatory which has long served as a camellia house and was meticulously restored by the present Lord O’Neill and his son a few years ago after suffering damage in a storm. Sitting on top of an extensive vaulted undercroft, the building has thirteen arched openings filled with panes of scalloped glass, each of these windows opening on a central pivot in order to allow circulation of air on warm days.
It is a poignant survivor of the otherwise lost ‘Arabian Night’s entertainment’ so keenly remembered by Mrs Siddons. To give a sense of what has gone, below is an imagined view of what the completed Nash design might have looked like, as painted for Lord O’Neill in 1988 by Felix Kelly.

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