There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of Ireland’s town centres, visible in examples such as that shown above. This house sits in the middle of Erskine Terrace on Farnham Street in Cavan. Dating from the late Georgian period when the Maxwell family, Lords Farnham took an interest in the town, it is today in a state of sad neglect and a blight on the rest of the terrace. Further north on the same street and adjacent to the Roman Catholic cathedral of SS Patrick and Felim is the former presbytery (see below) which it appears was once an early 19th century three-storey house with pitched roof but converted into the present two-storey flat-roofed building in 1962. Like the other property to the south, it stands empty and forlorn, doing nothing to improve the character of the town.
So, what is to be done? The Heritage Council has recently launched a new Podcast series called Putting Town Centres First (https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/projects/podcast-series-putting-town-centres-first). No doubt admirable in its intent, one has to ask what practical difference this series will make. Discussions about urban decline, conferences, reports and analyses: all have been going on for decades with no visible solution to the problem under consideration. There has been much hand-wringing but little real change. Last month in the Irish Times, economist David McWilliams wrote an article in which he stated bluntly that dereliction ‘is vandalism for the property-owning classes’ and that the country’s huge numbers of neglected buildings ‘send out a signal of decay and reveal an enormously wasteful attitude to capital.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-the-rules-of-the-property-game-have-changed-1.4382088). Returning to the subject a couple of weeks later, McWilliams noted that some 15% of the country’s total building stock, almost 200,00 properties, are at present lying empty and neglected, and that in a little over a year 11 buildings had collapsed in the middle of Cork city. He then proposed a simple solution to resolving the issue: ‘use it or lose it’ legislation. Under this proposal, property that is being actively used, ideally for residential purposes, ‘is rewarded with preferential treatment, but one that is vacant is taxed. If the owner can’t pay that tax, the property faces a compulsory purchase order by the State, which then puts it on the market.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-a-plan-to-put-ireland-s-200-000-vacant-buildings-to-use-1.4394673). Sounds radical? Yes indeed, but despite all those conferences and reports and now podcasts, no one else has yet come up with a better solution. The simple question is this: should private individuals be permitted to desecrate the public environment by failing to maintain their property? At what point does it become unacceptable for private interest to trump public good? Talk may salve consciences but solves nothing. There is really no need for any more of it. If Ireland’s town centres are to have a viable future, and our collective architectural heritage preserved, what’s required is decisive – and perhaps radical – action. Otherwise the number of buildings looking like these examples in Cavan will continue to rise.
On August 25th 1732, the future Mrs Delany (then the merrily widowed Mrs Pendarves) embarked on a journey from Navan, County Meath to Cootehill, County Cavan. She wrote in her journal, ‘travelled through bad roads and a dull, uninhabited country, till we came to Cabaragh, Mr Prat’s house, an old castle modernized, and made very pretty: the master of it is a virtuoso, and discovers whim in all his improvements. The house stands on the side of a high hill; has some tall old trees about it; the gardens are small but neat; there are two little terrace walks, and down in a hollow is a little commodious lodge where Mr Prat lived whilst his house was repairing. But the thing that most pleased me, was a rivulet that tumbles down from rocks in a little glen, full of shrub-wood and trees; here a fine spring joisns the river, of the sweetest water in the world.’
The ‘Mr Prat’ to whom Mrs Pendarves refers was Mervyn Pratt, a sometime Member of the Irish Parliament representing County Cavan. His father, Joseph Pratt, had been one of two brothers who moved from Leicestershire to Ireland in the mid-17th century, both of them settling in County Meath. However, Joseph made an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth, only daughter and heiress of Col. Thomas Cooch (or Couch) who owned estates in Counties Donegal and Cavan. When he died in 1699, he left his property in the latter county to his grandson Mervyn Pratt, then aged 12. The heir duly settled on his inheritance and married Elizabeth, daughter of a neighbour, the Hon. Thomas Coote of Bellamont, County Cavan. At Cabra (spelled ‘Cabaragh’ by Mrs Pendarves), the couple’s home was an old castle, built at the start of the 17th century by Gerald Fleming (who had in turn been granted territory previously held by a branch of the O’Reilly family). This was the building which was ‘modernized and made very pretty.’
Today the castle at Cabra is just one of a number of buildings constructed or improved by Mervyn Pratt. A walk through the site today leads first to his former stable block (see first set of pictures), popularly known as the Barracks. A long, two-storey gabled block the east side features a series of lunettes resting on a string-course; most of these have been blocked up but two are open as part of doorcases into the building. Nothing remains of the interior. To the west and on higher ground are the remains of the extended old castle, primarily consisting of two four-storey towers, that to the south likely the original Fleming residence. Again, almost nothing survives of the interior, but somehow in the newer block there remains intact one plastered niche, as well as evidence of an adjacent cantilevered staircase. From this high spot, the land begins to drop and, past a typical domed and recessed icehouse, the path leads down to a lake beside which stands what’s left of the ‘little commodious lodge’ where Mervyn Pratt lived while the castle was being restored and enlarged. It has been proposed by Kevin Mulligan that this building (as well as the stables) were designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and originally featured a broad pedimented façade inspired, via the work of Lord Burlington, by Palladio’s Villa Valmarana at Vigardolo. As elsewhere, not a lot remains and indeed at least half of the building no longer stands; the central portion has lost its pediment and, given a flat, utilitarian roof, is now used as a store shed. But at least here, enough does survive for the original concept to be apparent.
The Pratts remained in possession, but perhaps not in residence at Cabra for the rest of the 18th century; in his Statistical Survey of the County of Cavan (1802) Sir Charles Coote while enthusiastic about the improvements undertaken by Mervyn Pratt and his successors in the local town of Kingscourt, was much less engaged with the demesne and buildings at Cabra. ‘The ruins of the old castle,’ he wrote, ‘which was the family mansion, are contiguous to the house, but quite too near to have any pleasing effect, which such pieces of antiquity afford in the landscape.’ Sir Charles was far more enthusiastic about the landscape and house at nearby Cormy (‘very beautiful, and formed with great judgement and true economy’) owned by Henry Foster who was then undertaking to transform a standard Georgian house into a romantic Gothic castle. However, before this work was finished, Cormy was sold to Colonel Joseph Pratt who abandoned the old family old home and renamed the new one Cabra Castle. This remained in the ownership of his descendants until 1964 and has since been used as an hotel. Meanwhile the older Cabra estate fell into neglect until acquired by the national Forest and Wildlife Service in 1959. Today it is run by Coillte (the state forestry body) and open to the public as Dún a Rí forest park.
The former National School in Ardlow, County Cavan. A single-storey, three-bay building, it carries a plaque on the exterior advising date of construction was 1897. As is usually the case, the interior features two large rooms, one for boys, the other for girls, and the remains of a wall to the rear indicate the yard behind was likewise divided. Now empty and losing slates from the roof, so liable to fall into ruin before too long.
The so-called Fleming’s Folly in County Cavan. Many fanciful stories have been spread about this little building, such as that it was constructed by local landowner Captain James Fleming so that he could see his son’s ship returning from America. More likely it is an early 19th century folly, of the kind then being constructed across the country: the building is shown on an Ordnance Survey map of 1836. Made from stone quarried locally, it is of two storeys and has the remains of a large chimney on the groundfloor; this suggests the folly served as a destination for walks by the Flemings and their guests. The building stands at the top of a hill above the village of Ballinagh and by climbing an intramural staircase it was possible in clear weather to see three of Ireland’s provinces: Ulster, Leinster and Connaught.
Another ruinous church, this time of more recent vintage: the former Church of Ireland premises in Drumlumman, County Cavan. A plaque over the small west door carries the inscription ‘ ‘This Church was Built Chiefly at the expence of William Gore of Woodford Esq in the year 1789.’ The gothic windows on the east and south sides are believed to be a later addition. The church continued to be used for services until the 1970s and has since fallen into its present sad state.
William Gore, at whose expense the church was principally built, inherited an estate at Woodford, County Leitrim, originally owned by the O’Rourkes, one of their castles being incorporated into the house. His son, also William, married a Shropshire heiress Mary Jane Ormsby in 1815 and changed his surname to Ormsby Gore: the couple’s eldest son John was created first Baron Harlech in 1876. Having briefly represented Leitrim in the House of Commons, William Ormsby Gore and his family lived primarily in England: by 1837 Samuel Lewis described Woodford as having formerly been ‘a place of great splendour.’ The house no longer stands and it now looks as though the church Mr Gore had helped to build is going the same way.
According to an entry in buildingsofireland.ie, this building ‘gives strong architectural definition to its context, and forms a landmark at a crossroads on the main Virginia-Cavan Road.’ Dating from c.1870, the house was probably built for estate workers employed by the Marquess of Headfort whose former lodge lies not far away.
The building is particularly interesting because although looking like a single house from the front, it actually contained four residences, each with its own entrance. Given such a prominent position on the main road from the north into Virginia, County Cavan and the property’s historic associations its ongoing neglect is regrettable.
Photographed in the midst of a downpour, the Red Lodge at Cloverhill, County Cavan. This was originally a gate lodge probably designed by Francis Johnston (who was responsible c.1799 for the now-ruinous main house elsewhere on the estate). However towards the end of the 19th century the building was enlarged to become a farm manager’s residence. At the same time it was heavily embellished in the arts and crafts style; the architect is not known. What survives of Johnston’s work is the canted side with arched windows, but otherwise the lodge has been given a thorough make-over in which the dominant feature are the timber Oriel windows and corresponding entrance porch on the ground floor.
One of what might be termed Ireland’s pocket cathedrals: that dedicated to St Feidhlimidh at Kilmore, County Cavan. The present building was designed by London-based architect William Slater who received a number of such commissions in this country. Consecrated in 1860, it replaced an older and much altered structure which by the mid-19th century was deemed unworthy of purpose and therefore almost entirely cleared away. The only surviving trace of its predecessor is a much-weathered Romanesque doorway set into the north wall of the chancel, although it has been proposed that this feature originally belonged to another church, that of the Premonstratensian Priory of Holy Trinity of nearby Lough Oughter (although this was founded about a century after the doorway was likely carved). The cathedral is one of a group of buildings on this site that also includes the now-empty early 19th century Bishop’s Palace, or See House (for more on this read See and Believe, September 14th 2015) and one section of a much older palace. The see’s most famous incumbent was William Bedell who as Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh was responsible for commissioning the first Irish translation of the Old Testament.
In 1739 an Anglican clergyman called William Henry wrote a descriptive account of the area around Ulster’s Upper Lough Erne in which he mentioned that a river (which he calls ‘of Ballyhaise’ but which is now known as the Annalee) ‘ murmurs by Rathkenny, the seat of the Clements’ family. Here the river is beautified by an elegant house, improvements and large plantations on the southern shore, and on its northern bank by extensive gardens and terraces.’ It appears that Daniel Clements, originally from Warwickshire, came to Ireland in the 1640s as a soldier and by 1657 was in possession of the estate of almost 2,000 acres at Rathkenny, County Cavan which remained in the possession of his descendants (whose name in the 19th century became Lucas-Clements) until sold just a few years ago. His son Robert succeeded to the property in 1680 and remained there until his own death in 1722. One of Robert’s sons was Nathaniel, of whom mention has been made here before (see A Man of Taste and Influence, August 3rd 2015).
The Clements family would seem to have built a house for themselves on the south bank of the river which bisected their property. Nothing is known of the appearance or character of this building since it was demolished, likely around the late 1820s when work began on a new residence. This neo-classical block was designed by William Farrell who was the architect for a number of other such places in the vicinity. A sunken lawn to the immediate east appears to indicate where was the previous house but directly across the river is a survivor from the earlier property: a terraced walled garden. Today this is approached by a narrow concrete bridge but presumably something more elegant once offered access, since the garden itself is rather splendid. Cut limestone walls support banks on either side of limestone gate piers: paths to the immediate left and right lead to enclosing red brick walls which, on the river frontage, conclude in tall piers topped with urns. A gate to the east leads beyond the wall to the remains of a small pavilion built on the water’s edge; only one wall of this remains with a gothic arched window at its centre. One has a sense of what this little building must have been like since at the top and centre of the main terraces (supported by a sequence of low brick walls) is a summer house. Flanked by quadrant walls it is in the gothick style, constructed of brick with stone quoins, a battlemented parapet and arched windows on each side of the door. Inside is a single high-ceilinged room which once had further windows, since blocked up, and a chimneypiece which has gone. To the rear of the building there is access to another room below: one imagines this was used by servants looking after the needs of those upstairs.
Relatively little is known of the history of the walled garden at Rathkenny: Lucas-Clements lore proposed that it dated to 1695, which means construction soon after Robert Clements returned from England (he had been attainted by James II’s parliament in 1689 and fled to England) and around the time he became high sheriff of County Cavan. Nothing like it survives in this part of the country, but evidently at one point it was not the only such terraced garden. In 1739 the aforementioned Rev. Henry wrote of Ballyhaise, some nine miles to the west, ‘‘This seat, for beauty and magnificence, may vie with any in Ireland. There is an ascent to it by several terraces from the river, which are adorned with ponds, jets d’eau, fruit and flowers.’ Designed for Colonel Brockhill Newburgh, probably in the third decade of the 18th century, and attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, the main house at Ballyhaise is of red brick with cut stone dressings: with later additions the building survives although the river-fronting terraced gardens are long gone (for more on Ballyhaise, see Made to Last For Ever, March 9th 2015). Then barely three miles to the east of Rathkenny is Bellamont Forest (La Belle au Bois Dormant, January 21st 2013), another red-brick and stone house almost certainly designed by Pearce, and then a few miles further north again are the remains of the former early 18th century stables at Dartrey, County Monaghan (Now Unstable, October 1st 2014), once more employing the same materials. One has the impression that even if the same architect was not involved in all these neighbouring estates, the same spirit was at work, and the same influences and tastes being shared. More research remains to be done in this area but meanwhile the terraced gardens at Rathkenny are a rare survivor from the early Georgian period. Thankfully the property’s new owner appreciates their significance and is ensuring that they will continue to offer us an insight into early 18th century horticultural design.
An avenue leading from Castle Saunderson, County Cavan brings the curious to a small church likely dating from the 1830s and designed by George Sudden but either incorporating or replacing an older place of worship on the same site. This was built by and for the Saundersons who owned the estate on which the church still stands, and as if to underline that point above the door inside the west end is a sandstone plaque, believed to date from the 17th century, featuring the family coat of arms. Outside at the east end the ground, in which are set 17th century gave slabs, drops away to provide access to what used to serve as the Saunderson’s vault.