Making a Connection

Some time ago the European Commission designated 2018 as European Year of Cultural Heritage. According to the commission’s website, ‘Heritage is our cultural identity, values and traditions that we have inherited from previous generations, live with today, and pass on to future generations. It includes buildings, monuments, historical and archaeological sites, museum objects, our customs, sports, language, music, dance, folklore, crafts and skills, and natural heritage, such as landscapes, wildlife habitats and biodiversity.’
In this country, the Heritage Council has been charged with coordinating and promoting the year’s programme. The council has chosen as a theme for Ireland ‘Make a Connection’ intended ‘to deepen the connection between people and heritage, and build a legacy of increased public engagement.’ Engagement is critical, particularly with regard to our historic buildings. Since 2016 the Heritage Council has run an ‘Adopt a Monument’ scheme but the take-up has been relatively small: just seven projects were added last year. All over Ireland there are many sites which have fallen into neglect and dereliction. Frequently they can be found in the centre of towns such as the two shown today, both of which are in County Galway and have featured here before. Above is St John’s, the former Church of Ireland church in Ballymoe: dating from 1832 it has been remorselessly vandalised. The same is true of the building below, St Brigid’s, the original Roman Catholic church in Portumna, built in 1825. When a new church was constructed in the 1950s, this property served for a time as a sports hall but has now been abandoned and suffered accordingly.
There are many buildings such as these standing empty and forlorn. If the European Year of Cultural Heritage is to have any long-term impact, a concerted effort must be made to engage local people’s interest in and concern for the architectural legacy of their own area. The coming twelve months offer an opportunity which may not occur again. Making a Connection can make a difference.

The Irish Aesthete wishes friends and followers a Happy New Year. Thank you all for your continued interest and support in 2017 and may you prosper in 2018.

Lost Forever

The history of Tyrone House, County Galway and its sad fall from grace was discussed here a few weeks ago (see A High House on High Ground, September 18th 2017). Above is an image of the building included in the fifth and final volume of the The Georgian Society Records of Eighteenth Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration published in 1913, showing it still intact. One of the house’s most striking features was the entrance hall, dominated by a mid-18th century white marble life-size statue of St. George Ussher St. George, Baron Saint George. This survived until Tyrone House was attacked in August 1920 when the statue was smashed to pieces: as a result, the photograph below is the only record of the work.
Copies of my new book, Tyrone House and the St George Family: The Story of an Anglo-Irish Family are now available from the Irish Georgian Society bookshop. For more information, please see

A High House on High Ground

‘It is a high house, standing on high ground; without a tree, bush or offices in sight, nothing can be more uncompromising than it looks from this road. We soon after approach two bridges over different rivers, which rise after a subterranean course…the old gentleman [Christopher French St George] built the house and an excellent one it is – finished it in the best manner – with painted ceilings to all the lower rooms, and to the hall, which is large and handsome – he furnished it in the best style of those days – of about twenty years back, lived in it and enjoyed it, and 9 or 10 years ago resigned it to his son, who soon after married Lady Harriet St. Lawrence, and they have lived happily and have seldom left it, never for any length of time – they have six little girls – and they appear very happy – Mr St. George an excellent country gentleman, improving his estate, fond of hunting, shooting and all country sports…’
From the Journal of Mary Beaufort, September 1808

‘In the afternoon Tilly Redington and I drove over to Tyrone House. A bigger and much grander edition of Ross – a great square cut-stone house of three stories, with an area – perfectly empty – and such ceilings, architraves, teak doors and chimney-pieces as one sees in old houses in Dublin. It is on a long promontory by the sea and there rioted three or four generations of St. Georges – living with country-women, occasionally marrying them, all illegitimate four times over. No so long ago eight of these awful half-peasant families roosted together in that lovely house, and fought, and barricaded and drank, till the police had to intervene – about 150 years ago a very grand Lady Harriet St Lawrence married a St. George, and lived there, and was so corroded with pride that she would not allow her daughters to associate with the Galway people. She lived to see them marry two men in the yard. Yesterday as we left an old Miss St. George, daughter of the last owner, was at the door in a donkey trap-she lives near, in a bit of the castle, and since her people died she will not go into Tyrone House, or into the enormous yard, or the beautiful old garden. She was a strange mixture of distinction and commonness, like her breeding, and it was very sad to see her at the door of that great house – If we dare to write up that subject!’
From a letter written by Violet Martin to Edith Oliver, March 18th 1912

‘A correspondent has sent some interesting but sad details of the malicious burning of Tyrone House…It was in the late Georgian style and the finest house in Ireland. The ceilings were all painted by Italian masters and were regular works of art. The mantle pieces were all of rare Italian marble and very costly. In the hall was a fine full sized marble statue of Baron St George the founder of that once great family. It was the work of an Italian artist. The head was broken off the night of the raid deliberately it must be said. All the ceilings are now ruined and the mantle pieces also, and the entire structure an empty shell and ruin. There was no grounds for the report that the military or police intended or were to occupy the house, and agrarian motives are believed to have inspired and instigated this most foul and reprehensible act of purely wanton destruction. Of late years the place was freely allowed to be used by pleasure parties who came out from Loughrea and other places to have a dance which cost them nothing and to enjoy themselves, and who were never prevented from having their pleasure and a dance on the spacious floor of the dining room, and they can now no longer do so, and where in olden days the finest balls in the Co. Galway took place.’
From the Tuam Herald, September 4th 1920.

I shall be speaking of Tyrone House, County Galway and the St George family next Friday, September 22nd at 12 midday during the 2017 Irish Antique Dealers Association Fair in the RDS, Dublin. For more information, please see:

Pallas Life

There are over twenty place names in Ireland incorporating the word ‘Pallas.’ Seemingly this derives from a Norman term, paleis, meaning boundary fence (hence the word palisade which clearly comes from the same source). One such spot is Pallas, County Galway found at the end of a boreen (from the Irish word bóithrín, meaning ‘a little road’). Here can be found, if not quite a palace, certainly the remains of a very substantial tower house and ancillary buildings. Pallas Castle as it is known, is believed to date from c.1500 when it was built by a branch of the Burke family, descendants of the Norman de Burghs, the first of whom William de Burgh had seized territory in this part of the country and in 1203 called himself Lord of Connacht. Rising five storeys, the tower stands within a bawn wall access to which is through an east-facing two-storey gatehouse flanked by similarly propotioned turrets. Immediately adjacent to the tower house on the west side are portions of a 17th century house, its gable end built into the bawn wall, through which separate entrance was created. The walls on either side retain their internal parapets, reached via flights of stone steps.

The Burkes remained in possession of Pallas until the mid-17th century when, like many other families who had risen against the Cromwellian forces, they were dispossessed of their lands and moved further west. The same fate befell another ancient family of Norman origins, the Nugents, formerly Barons Delvin but since 1621 Earls of Westmeath. They too were required to depart their original property and move west, being given part of the former Burke land including Pallas. Following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, the second Earl of Westmeath was allowed to return to his ancestral lands and those in County Galway bestowed on his second son, the Hon Thomas Nugent, created Baron Nugent of Riverston by James II in 1689. As a Roman Catholic and Jacobite he went into exile, dying in 1715 but his sons conformed to the established church and so were able to retain both the family title and estates. Their descendants remained at Pallas until the 1930s, having some thirty years earlier become Earls of Westmeath when the main line of the family died out. Ultimately the Land Commission took over the Pallas estate and divided it up, thereby ending the Nugent link. What remains of Pallas Castle is today a National Monument.

So this is what is left at Pallas, but another very substantial building in the immediate vicinity has since disappeared. In 1797 the amateur architect William Leeson, now best known for laying out the town of Westport, County Mayo, was commissioned by the fourth Lord Nugent of Riverston to design offices and, it seems, a new residence. This building was considerably enlarged by the tenth Earl of Westmeath after he inherited the title and estate on the death of his father in 1879. Surviving photographs show a house typical of the period, with an abundance of plate glass, parapets and balustrades, cement-rendered pilasters and quoins, together with a three-bay extension to one side. Further improvements were carried out on the property in the years immediately before the outbreak of the First World War  with the addition of a new library and smoking room, but in the aftermath of the war circumstances were very different. The Nugents left the area for good soon after the death of the 11th Earl in 1933 when the title passed to his younger brother. A sale of the contents took place and then in 1945 the house itself was demolished, followed by an auction of its fixtures and fittings, including no less than 150 interior and exterior doors and a similar number of windows, marble chimney pieces, library shelving and so forth. Despite  the building’s scale, today there is no obvious trace of it on the landscape and only the older structures survive at Pallas.

Jacobean Sophistication

The façade of Portumna Castle, County Galway seen from the outer court. The house dates from 1618 when it was commissioned by Richard Burke, fourth Earl of Clanricarde and his wife Frances Walsingham, who had previously been married to both Sir Philip Sidney and the second Earl of Essex. The building’s design bears similarities to the Clanricardes’ mansion at Somerhill, Kent completed just a few years earlier. At the time it was probably the most sophisticated semi-fortified house in Ireland, with Italianate influences apparent throughout beginning with the Tuscan gateway providing access to the inner court. Few changes were made thereafter to the property, other than the addition of a bow at the centre of the rear elevation. However Portumna Castle was accidentally gutted by fire in 1826 and the family later built a new residence on an adjacent site. The latter was destroyed in 1922 and its stones used to build a Roman Catholic church in the nearby town. The old castle was subsequently acquired by the state and re-roofed although, having stood exposed to the elements for over 150 years, its interior retains few original features.

Crisis and Decline

Robin Bury’s recently-published Buried Lives: The Protestants of Southern Ireland is, appropriately enough, something of a curate’s egg. However, the book provides a valuable account of the decline in Protestantism within this country, as testified by the numbers of people identifying themselves as such here. According to the 1911 census, there were some 327,000 Protestants living in the 26 counties, accounting for approximately ten per cent of the population: this figure excluded members of the British army stationed in Irish garrisons. A century later, the 2011 census indicated there were 137,000 Irish Protestants, accounting for three per cent of the population. Then as now the spread was uneven. The late R.B. McDowell’s Crisis and Decline: The Fate of the Southern Unionists (1997) reveals that at the start of the last century about a third of the total Protestant population in the 26 counties lived in Dublin and the adjacent counties of Wicklow and Kildare. In the prosperous south Dublin suburbs running from Rathmines/Rathgar out to Dalkey, over sixty per cent of the residents were Protestant. On the other hand, the further south and west one travelled, the fewer Protestants were to be found: in Munster they totalled six per cent of the population, in Connacht under four per cent. Inevitably as numbers started to drop from 1920s onwards, it was in these areas that church attendance, and subsequent closure, was most immediate and widespread.

St John’s in Ballymoe, County Galway is a typical example of the churches being constructed during the opening decades of the 19
th century with support from the Board of First Fruits which in this instance provided a donation of £900. It dates from 1832 when already that organisation’s funds were in decline, not least thanks to the onset of the ‘Tithe War’ two years before which led to the majority of the Roman Catholic citizenry refusing to provide support for a minority faith, the Church of Ireland. 
Built of cut limestone, St John’s has a four-bay nave and at the west end a three-stage bell tower which also accommodates the main entrance. The style is a customary loose interpretation of Gothic with pointed arch windows in some of which remain the original metal lattice work. The interior looks always to have been plain, an open hall leading to the altar table at the east end beyond which is a modest vestry. Although capable of accommodating around 200 people, the typical attendance was only one fifth that number.
Ballymoe features in a curious publication which appeared five years before the present church was built: the three-volume Dialogues on Prophecy written by a wealthy English evangelical Henry Drummond. Concerned at imminent legislation repealing the last hindrances to Roman Catholics playing a full role in public life, Drummond cited the tale of one Mary Anne Burke, a niece of the Catholic Bishop of Elphin who in 1827, having heard talks given in Ballymoe by the local rector sought to join the Church of Ireland only to find herself locked into a room with shuttered windows by relatives anxious she not convert. There she was held for four weeks, some of the time without food, in the expectation that she would recant. Instead she fled, first to Castlerea and then to Boyle, County Roscommon where, claiming the Catholic priest in Ballymoe had beaten her, she sought the protection of the local magistrates, ‘that she may be allowed to exercise the rights of conscience, and become a member of the Protestant Communion, which she believes to be alone agreeable to the Word of God.’ What became of Mary Anne Burke thereafter Mr Drummond does not relate.

The number of converts such as Mary Anne Burke being insufficient, a general decline in Protestant attendance led to St John’s being closed for worship over half a century ago, and as can be seen the church is now in a semi-ruinous condition. One curious feature to the rear of the surrounding graveyard is a table tomb with recumbent figure on top in full mediaeval armour. This is not, however, a remnant from the Middle Ages but an example of 19th century romanticism. The tomb celebrates a member of the Bagot family, whose name is recalled in Dublin by Baggot Street (where their property, Bagotrath Castle once stood). Settled in Ireland since the 13th century, the Bagots came to hold land in the Midland counties of Laois and Offaly. In 1775 one of their number, Captain John Lloyd Bagot (who had been A.D.C. to Lord Cornwallis during the American War of Independence) married the heiress Catherine Anne Cuffe and the couple’s descendants thereafter owned an estate in the Ballymoe area. There seems to be some confusion whether the table tomb commemorates Captain Bagot’s son, Thomas Neville Bagot (died 1863) or his grandson John Lloyd Neville Bagot (died 1890) and to complicate matters further the local Record of Protected Structures proposes a date of c.1830 for its erection. Whatever the truth, it appears the intention was to note the ancient pedigree of the Bagots. Despite their efforts, they have since departed the area, and the church in which they once worshipped, like so many others of its kind, has fallen into desuetude. An outcome Henry Drummond’s Dialogues on Prophecy did not predict.

Above and Beyond Fashion

Pay no attention to decorators, designers, or passing fashions: from one season to the next nothing better becomes a house than a well-stocked bookcase (although a well-stocked cellar is also appreciated). Here are two of them within the library at Ballinderry Park, County Galway, an 18th century house that has been discussed before (see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th 2014) but deserves regular revisiting, if only to linger over some of the many volumes gathered therein.