The remains of a church that was once part of a Carmelite monastery in Castlelyons, County Cork. This religious house was established in 1309 by John de Barry, but much of what can be seen today dates from the following century. Although sections of the cloister also survive, the church is the most substantial extant part of the site, a long nave separated from the chancel by a semi-ruinous three-story crossing tower. The building’s best-preserved details can be found on the west front, featuring a pointed doorway with hoodmoulded surround below a twin-light, ogee-headed window.
Last July, one of Ireland’s major banks, AIB, announced plans to withdraw all cash services from 70 of its 170 branches. Although the company – in the face of near-universal outcry, not least from politicians in whose constituencies the threatened branches lay – quickly withdrew the proposed withdrawal, its original declaration of intent provided proof of what has long been evident throughout the country: the seemingly irreversible decline of regional towns. One by one, the staples of a thriving Irish urban settlement, whether it be the community hospital, the agricultural mart, the creamery, the post office, the bank and so forth, have packed up and left. For more and more of their needs, residents in smaller towns have been expected to head to a handful of bigger conurbations, where all the major services are congregated. Although this phenomenon is much discussed and analysed, one important aspect of the decline rarely appears in such discourse: the near-total disappearance over recent decades of Roman Catholic religious orders and the consequent abandonment of their buildings.
The Presentation Order (full title: the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) was founded in Cork in 1775 by Honora ‘Nano’ Nagle, member of a wealthy Roman Catholic family. Within a few years of its establishment, Presentation nuns had begun to open and run schools for girls, first in Ireland and then elsewhere around the world. In its country of origin, the order soon came to have a presence in every town of significance: indeed, by the mid-19th century the presentation of a Presentation Convent and attached school could be seen as indicative of a town’s economic and social importance. There was, therefore, widespread delight when the first three nuns of this order arrived in Mitchelstown, County Cork in June 1853. As if to emphasise the significance of this event, the site they would occupy dominates the town: immediately adjacent to the Catholic church (built at the same time) on high ground to the east of New Square. A month after their arrival, the nuns opened a school and within a few weeks 637 children of all ages had enrolled there for classes. Thus matters continued for the next 150 years, during much of which time it must have seemed as though the Presentation order would long remain a notable presence in Mitchelstown. However, towards the end of the last century, the numbers of nuns declined and those remaining grew ever older. Twenty years ago, in 2002, the last of them left and the convent they had once occupied, along with the school they had run, became vacant.
The former Presentation Convent in Mitchelstown consists of a three-storey, five-bayed central block facing due west. Gable-ended wings on either side extend eastwards to the rear, making the entire building U-shaped. The north wing held the chapel, described by Frank Keohane in his Guide to the Buildings of Cork as ‘a charming if old-fashioned Gothick affair with a rib-vaulted ceiling with bosses and pendants, a gallery on clustered columns and tracery-like panelling to the E wall.’ Following the departure of its original residents, the entire site was sold to a development company, Irish and European Properties, which in 2007 received permission from the local authority to convert the existing buildings for ‘community and commercial use’, create an underground two-screen cinema complex with associated car park spaces and then cover much of the surrounding grounds with apartment blocks. The economic crash of the following years put that scheme on hold but in 2012 Cork County Council granted an extension to the developers’ plans. Nothing happened – except that the company went into receivership – and two years later, in 2014, the council announced plans to prosecute the owners of the former convent under the Derelict Sites Act. Although it seems some remedial works were then carried out on the building, little has since happened and so the place has fallen into a state of almost complete ruin. In the past, the claim was sometimes made that Ireland’s country houses suffered neglect and abandonment because the majority of the population felt no sense of association with them. That argument does not apply in this instance: the Presentation convent was an important part of Mitchelstown’s identity for some 150 years, representative of the town’s importance and a centre of education. There must be many local residents who attended school here, and who can remember how it once looked. Furthermore, it is not as though the convent has disappeared: these buildings still dominate Mitchelstown, but their present condition now tells a very different story, one of disuse and decay. This is not a problem unique to Mitchelstown. There are many other towns throughout Ireland with similarly dilapidated complexes previously occupied by religious orders. As much as the closure of banks and post offices, they demonstrate the ongoing decline of Ireland’s regional towns.
The Coppinger family has been mentioned here before, in relation to Glenville Park, County Cork (see A Life’s Work in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). They are believed to have been of Viking origin, but long settled in Cork city where in 1319 one Stephen Coppinger was Mayor. Several of his descendants would hold the same position, as well as becoming bailiffs and sheriffs, thereby cementing their position in the area. However, none of this proved sufficient for Walter Coppinger, who emerged in the late 16th century and is always referred to as ‘Sir Walter’ although when he received a knighthood or baronetcy appears unknown. As Mark Samuel has noted, ‘He seems to have been a man of extraordinary vigour and despatch who, alongside a straightforward lust for power and wealth, also had a burning desire to develop his estates, boost productivity and indirectly modernise the whole of south-west Cork.’ In order to achieve these ambitions, Sir Walter, who may have trained as a lawyer, spent much of his time engaged in complex litigation.
As mentioned, Walter Coppinger was very keen both to increase his power and his land holdings. In consequence, he became involved in a long-running legal dispute with several individuals, much of it based around the settlement at Baltimore, County Cork. The lands here had belonged to Sir Fineen O’Driscoll, whose daughter Eileen was married to Coppinger’s brother Richard. However, in 1600 Sir Fineed had leased this part of his property to Northamptonshire-born adventurer Thomas Crooke: the latter then founded the port town of Baltimore as a colony for English settlers. It soon became the centre for a lucrative trade in both pilchards and wine, as well as a base for piracy along the coast: famously, in 1631 Baltimore was attacked by a group of Barbary pirates who carried off a large part of the population, both settlers and native Irish, into slavery. From the start, Coppinger was opposed to this development. In part, this may have been because he was a fervent Roman Catholic and therefore disliked the idea of English Protestants settling in this part of the country. But no doubt the success of Crooke’s venture also irked him, and therefore led Coppinger to embark on a series of lawsuits against the settlers over ownership of their lands, claiming he had acquired rights over them due to a mortgage provided by him to Sir Fineen O’Driscoll’s son Donogh. In 1610 the three men – Coppinger, Crooke and O’Driscoll appear to have reached an agreement whereby they jointly granted a lease to the settlers for 21 years, but litigation continued and was still ongoing at the time of Crooke’s death in 1630. The sack of Baltimore the following year was a blow from which the town never fully recovered, not least because it lost the greater part of its population. This event also seems to have damaged Coppinger’s own financial circumstances: in 1636 he leased Baltimore to one Thomas Bennet of Bandon Bridge and retired to the country where he died three years later.
In 1621 Coppinger embarked on building himself a new residence on a site west of Rosscarbery, County Cork. Like so many other properties constructed during the same period, this was a semi-fortified manor house. Coppinger’s Court, as it is commonly called, was supposed to have a chimney for every week, a door for every month and a window for every day of the year; whether this is true or not, it was certainly intended to display Coppinger’s wealth and authority. The house is Y-shaped, with the main entrance on the north side which is flanked by wings to west and east that project forward in order to create a forecourt. Behind these lies the main body of the building – it would appear the ground floor here was originally divided into a dining chamber and great hall – and then to the south projects an extension that once held the main staircase. Rising four storeys, Coppinger’s Court has gable ends and chimney stacks on every side, together with multiple windows arranged either in pairs or threes, thereby providing more light to the interior than was the case with tower houses built the previous century. The building speaks not only of wealth but also confidence. However, the latter was misplaced because in 1641, just two years after Walter Coppinger’s death and soon after the onset of the Confederate Wars, the house was ransacked and burnt, perhaps by some of those English settlers who had been subject to endless lawsuits from its late owner. Initially forfeited to the Commonwealth, in 1652 the property was returned to James Coppinger (thought to have been Walter’s nephew) after he had been deemed ‘an innocent Papist.’ The restitution was confirmed by Charles II but then in 1690, the family, still Roman Catholic, backed James II and as a result their estate was once more forfeited and this time not returned. Coppinger’s Court seems never to have recovered from the attack in 1641, and thereafter was plundered for stone so that by the mid-18th century, it had fallen into the ruinous state seen today.
The chapel which forms a centrepiece of Mitchelstown College, County Cork. Despite its name, this was never an educational establishment, but a group of almshouses occupying the north side of King’s Square and built between 1771-87 under the terms of the will of James King, fourth Baron Kingston, who died ten years before work began on the site. Designed and built by John Morrison, there were originally 24 houses but some of these were later sub-divided so that today there are 31. The chapel originally had a cupola, but this was soon replaced by the tower which can still be seen today: the original 18th century interior was entirely replaced in 1876. Directly beneath is the crypt of the King family where the remains of the 11th Earl of Kingston were recently placed.
Previous entries here over the years have looked at old mill complexes around the country. Ireland never experienced the same industrial revolution as occurred in our nearest neighbour, not least because we never enjoyed the same mineral wealth. However, from the mid-18th century onwards, large-scale mills began to be constructed right around the island, designed to take advantage of the power of our many waterways rather in the way that wind power is now being harnessed here to generate electricity. Many of these complexes were used for grain milling, especially in the south-east where large amounts of wheat and other such crops were grown, but mills were also used for textile spinning, and it was not uncommon for the buildings to serve both purposes, albeit at different periods during their working life. For the vast majority of them, that life has long since come to an end, and they stand empty, often roofless and falling into ruin. Such is the case with the former mill at Quartertown, County Cork.
Dating from c.1810 (the golden age for mills, during the Napoleonic Wars when Ireland’s crops were especially sought), Quartertown Mill may have had its origins back in the 13th century. The present complex is thought to have been built by Major Henry Croker, a younger son of the family whose main seat was Ballynagarde, County Limerick: possession of the land at Quartertown came through his wife Harriet Dillon. Operated by a millstream flowing from a tributary of the river Blackwater, the flour mill and attendant property passed through a couple of hands before coming into the possession of siblings John and Robert Webb in 1853. The industrial buildings suffered a major fire in 1864 but were reconstructed by Robert Webb and resumed activity, employing up to 120 people and remaining in use until the mill finally closed in 1957. But in the previous century, it had obviously been extremely successful, since in 1870 Robert Webb was able to enlarge and improve his nearby home, Quartertown House.
Now just a shell, Quartertown House was originally built in the last quarter of the 18th century, presumably by the Crokers. As mentioned, in 1870 Robert Webb embarked on a major overhaul of the building, choosing as his architect a fellow Corkman, Richard Rolt Brash whose long list of projects – whether a block of villas in Cork City’s Sunday’s Well, a town hall in Bandon, a Roman Catholic church in Buttevant or a flax spinning mill in Douglas – demonstrates a preparedness to provide whatever the client wanted. In Webb’s case, an Italianate villa was required, and duly delivered. The old house, which can be seen below (being to the left) was altogether more modest and smaller, of just five bays and stands behind what can now be seen. Of two storeys over basement, Quartertown House has a rendered, east-facing facade of seven bays with channelled rustication on the ground floor where the round-headed windows are set within square-headed recesses while those on the floor above are square-headed, the whole beneath a heavy modillion cornice. The entrance at the centre (there is a pedimented doorcase buried within the rampant foliage) is marked by an Ionic portico, with a tripartite window above; the south elevation has a canted bay on the basement and ground floor. At some date in the last century, the house was acquired by a Catholic religious order which remained in occupation until the 1970s. However, it then seems to have been abandoned and left to fall into the present sad condition, the roof caved in, the interiors destroyed. Just a hollow shell, there is little to show of the Webb wealth that once paid for the building’s creation.
Next weekend marks the centenary of the destruction of Mitchelstown Castle, County Cork, the biggest country house burnt in Ireland during the War of Independence/Civil War. Designed by siblings James and George Pain, the castle was built in the 1820s for George King, third Earl of Kingston who demolished the previous Palladian house on the site; Lord Kingston specifically required that it be bigger than any other such property in the country. Alas, less than 100 years later it was looted and destroyed, and the site then cleared: a milk-processing plant now stands on the site. To commemorate the events of 1922, Doomed Inheritance, a conference on the destruction of Mitchelstown Castle and other such buildings during that troubled period of Irish history will be held in Mitchelstown, at which the Irish Aesthete will be giving a paper ‘The Ruined Big House: Perception and Reality.’ Further information on the conference can be found here: Doomed Inheritance History Conference Tickets, Fri 12 Aug 2022 at 19:00 | Eventbrite
After Monday’s post about the remains of the once-splendid Barry residence in Castlelyons, County Cork, readers might be interested to see this: a mausoleum erected not far away in the graveyard of Kill St Anne Church. Dating from c.1753, it commemorates James Barry, fourth Earl of Barrymore who had died five years earlier. Born in 1667, the earl had enjoyed a distinguished military career, supporting William of Orange and then participating in the War of the Spanish Succession during which he rose to the rank of Lieutenant-General. However, late in life, he became a supporter of the Jacobite cause and in 1744 was arrested and imprisoned; following the failure of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s attempted rebellion the following year, the elderly earl was released. He died in January 1748.
His mausoleum in the old village graveyard is constructed of rubble limestone, the eastern facade having an advanced and pedimented centre of red brick, the Serlian opening surrounded by red marble-limestone, its wrought-iron gates topped with an earl’s coronet. To the rear of the groin-vaulted interior is the deceased’s monument composed of different coloured marbles. Completed in 1753, it was the work of David Sheehan and John Houghton, the latter responsible for the angels and presumably the half-length figure of the earl inside a central medallion. Wonderfully unexpected, it is a little bit of Roman baroque in the middle of the Irish countryside.
When writing here last month about Fota, County Cork (see Saved for the Nation « The Irish Aesthete), mention was made of the Barrys, Earls of Barrymore. For many centuries, their main residence lay much further north, in Castlelyons. Although subject to dispute, this village’s name (Caisleán Ó Liatháin) is said to derive from having been an important centre in the ancient kingdom of Uí Liatháin. However, in the last quarter of the 12th century, the land in this part of the country came into the hands of the Anglo-Norman knight Philip de Barry; his son William’s ownership of this property was confirmed by King John in 1207. Some time thereafter, the family constructed a castle on a limestone outcrop at Castlelyons and this became one of their most important bases. A settlement grew up around the base of the castle, with a Carmelite priory established to the immediate north in the early 14th century.
David de Barry is thought to have become first Lord Barry in 1261, beginning the family’s ascent through the ranks of the peerage and indicating its increasing importance. In 1541 his descendant John fitz John Barry was created first Viscount Buttevant, and then in 1628 David Barry became the first Earl of Barrymore. He was indirectly responsible for the construction of what can now be seen of the former castle at Castlelyons. The earl had been born in 1605, some months after the death of his father, so that he was raised by his grandfather, the fifth viscount who died in 1617. Young David then became a ward of the powerful Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. Seeing an opportunity to ally himself with a long-established dynasty in the region, the latter duly arranged a marriage in 1621 between his young charge and his eldest daughter Alice: the bride was aged 14, the groom 16. In the mid-1630s Boyle also decided to rebuild his son-in-law’s residence at Castlelyons, since the Barrys were already heavily in debt (the canny Great Earl had earlier taken on the Barry wardship in exchange for the redemption of substantial mortgages left by the fifth Viscount). A vast new house was erected on the site of the old one, but the Earl of Barrymore had little opportunity to enjoy it, since he died in September 1642, probably as a result of wounds received at the Battle of Liscarroll a couple of weeks’ earlier. His heir, once again a minor, became the second earl. Successive generations then followed, but increasingly the family spent their time in England and it appears that by the mid-18th century the great castle at Castlelyons was falling into disrepair. This probably explains why, in 1771, repair work was undertaken on the building’s roof. Unfortunately, careless workmen left a soldering iron against wooden beams and the place caught fire. The sixth earl – who would die two years later – was as debt-ridden as his forebears and so made no effort to repair the damage. Instead, the castle was abandoned, along with its surrounding gardens, and left to fall into the state of ruin that can be seen today.
Understanding the original layout of Castlelyons Castle can be challenging today, since what would have been the building’s central courtyard has long since been quarried away. In addition (and perhaps as a result of the quarrying), both the west and east ranges have disappeared, leaving just exposed sections of those to the south and north. What still stands on the south-west corner is considered to be the oldest part of the property, perhaps part of the original 13th century construction, with walls in some places 3.4 metres thick. Across what is today a deep ravine rises the north range, dating from the 17th century and dominated by three rectangular chimney stacks that rise above the three-storey block (with a basement at the east end). Beyond the exposed rubble walls, nothing survives of the interior and one must imagine what the house looked like when first built as it then included a great gallery, some 90 feet long and two storeys high, although it appears this may never have been finished (presumably due to the death of the first Earl of Barrymore and the chaos of the Confederate War). The castle was once surrounded by equally splendid grounds, with a large terrace to the immediate north and a series of enclosed gardens to the west and south, of which scant traces remain, serving as witness to the decline and fall of the once-might Barry family.
After Monday’s post about Castlemartyr, readers might be interested in seeing some old photographs of the house’s interior when it was still owned and occupied by the Boyles, Earls of Shannon. The pictures date from the late 19th/early 20th century, and were taken by Nellie Thompson, wife of the sixth earl. The two above show the saloon as it was then decorated, filled with a vast quantity of furniture including a grand piano and a billiard table. The two below reflect the family’s travels overseas and what they had collected: prior to inheriting his title and estate in 1890, for example, the sixth earl had been living in Canada where he served as a Mountie. What most immediately strikes any viewer of these images is how dark and cluttered were the rooms, how filled with furnishings and fabrics, all competing and contrasting with each other. An insight into a different aesthetic sensibility from that of our own age.
The Earls of Shannon are a branch of the Boyle family, descendants of Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. The title dates back to 1756 when Lord Cork’s great-grandson Henry Boyle, after a remarkably successful political career which saw him sit on the Irish privy council, serve as chancellor of the exchequer and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for almost 23 years, was created the first Earl of Shannon. During that period and in the years prior to his death in 1764, he also found time to carry out many other duties, not least looking after the Irish estates of his cousin Richard Boyle, the architect Earl of Burlington, as well as his own property in Castlemartyr, County Cork.
For much of the Middle Ages, Castlemartyr was under the authority of the powerful FitzGerald family, who in 1420 were made governors, or seneschals, of Imokilly (a historic barony that covers a substantial area including Youghal, Cloyne and Midleton). Some twenty years later, Maurice FitzGerald chose to settle in Castlemartyr and erected a substantial tower here. Inevitably, such a prominent building was attacked on more than one occasion, being captured by Sir Henry Sidney in 1569 and again in 1581 by the 10th Earl of Ormond who is said to have hanged the mother of the castle’s owner,John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, from its walls. Although the building was restored and considered extended in the 17th century, further assaults occurred: it was burnt by Lord Inchiquin in 1645, plundered in 1688 and then stormed and burnt by Williamite forces two years later. Not surprisingly, the castle, or what remained of it, was thereafter abandoned and left to fall into a picturesque ruin. At some point in the early 18th century, the future first earl – whose family had been given the property in 1665 – embarked on construction of a new house to the immediate west of the old one, but little information exists about when this work started and what form it took. Further additions and alterations followed over the next two centuries, so that today Castlemartyr is long and low, the centre of the facade marked by a two-storey pedimented limestone portico with Tuscan columns, much the most satisfactory feature of the building. The entrance front likewise shows evidence of regular modifications being made, with a four-bay centre block, a nine-bay wing to the east centred on a bow, and a recessed four-bay block to the west; the loggia here replaced a conservatory in the early 1900s. The demesne was also extensively developed by the first earl and then his heir, the latter described by Arthur Young in 1776 as ‘one of the most distinguished improvers in Ireland.’ The grounds had been extensively planted with trees, some of which survive still, as does the ‘river’ which was created by diverting the Womanagh river to run through a channel cut west of its natural bed.
In 1907 Castlemartyr was sold to the Arnott family, but was then acquired by another owner just a decade later, and in 1929 was bought by members of a Roman Catholic religious order, which used the house as a boarding school. This closed in 2004 and since then, further substantial additions have been made to the site which now operates as an hotel. Taken during the last decades of the 19th century, today’s photographs show the property as it looked when still owned by the Boyles. In the first group, the conservatory still occupies a site on the east side of the garden front, since it was only replaced by a balustraded loggia during the Arnotts’ short tenure. The pictures therefore provide an insight into the house’s appearance and character prior to the place changing hands and purpose several times over the past 115 years.