What’s left of Blackhall Castle, County Kildare. A typical late-medieval tower house of four storeys, it was built by the Eustace family who controlled much of this part of the country between the 13th and early 17th centuries. The building survived intact until February 1999 when, in the aftermath of a storm, the entire east front collapsed, bringing down much of the south and north walls. Today the exposed west wall provides an interesting spectacle, offering a display of how the different levels were arranged, from a vaulted chamber on the ground floor up to a well-lit living space with large fireplace at the very top of the building, access provided by a spiral staircase in the south-west corner. A sheila-na-gig once set higher into the castle has been moved into a wall space at eye level.
An excellent example of good vernacular architecture in the village of Carbury, County Kildare. Dating from c.1800, it is a typical, five-bay, two-storey domestic dwelling, the modest door (that discreet fanlight tucked above) and windows representing a lack of pretension, as do the outbuildings immediately behind. But then, at some later date, perhaps not much later, a single bay extension was added to one side, taking the form of a semi-circle in order to follow the line of the road as it curves around. Utterly charming.
Formerly the entrance but now the garden front of Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. The house is believed to have been built c.1724 for the Rev. Arthur Price*, who was then the local rector (he later rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Archbishop of Cashel). Tall and somewhat austere, Oakley Park’s design is attributed to Thomas Burgh, also responsible for the Old Library at Trinity College, of which it is somewhat reminiscent. In the late 18th century, the house was acquired by Lady Sarah Napier, sister of Lady Louisa Conolly who lived nearby at Castletown, and Emily, Duchess of Leinster who lived at Carton. It appears thereafter to have changed hands regularly and at some date in the 19th century, the entrance was moved to the other side of the building (see below). Since 1953 the house and surrounding grounds have been used by the St John of God religious order who run a training centre here for disabled children and young adults.
*Arthur Price’s land steward in Celbridge was one Richard Guinness. On his death in 1752 he left £100 to Guinness and his son, Arthur – Price’s godson – who a few years later established a certain well-known and still flourishing brewery.
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
We meet them at the doorway, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.
There are more guests at table, than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.
The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.
We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.
The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapors dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.
Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.
These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star,
An undiscovered planet in our sky.
And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o’er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night,–
So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.
The origins of the Aylmer family in Ireland are unclear, but they were certainly here before the end of the 14th century and by the mid-1400s were living at Lyons, County Kildare (the estate was sold by the hopelessly-indebted Michael Aylmer in 1796 to Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry). In 1559 Gerald Aylmer, then aged 11, inherited an estate elsewhere in the county, at Donadea, which had been bought by his father the previous year and where there may well have been some kind of castle, possibly erected by the de Berminghams who had previously held the property. It is thought that in due course Gerald Aylmer constructed a new tower house for himself. This work may have been undertaken around 1587 when he married Mary Travers, widow of the attainted third Viscount Baltinglass. The tower is now the oldest part of the present Doneadea Castle. A lawyer by profession, Gerald Aylmer initially spent much time at the English court but adherence to the Roman Catholic faith might have hindered his chances of preferment. Nevertheless, he was knighted in 1598 and then created a baronet in 1622. Two years later, he and his (second) wife were responsible for building a three-storey block adjacent to the tower. The Donadea estate was duly inherited by the couple’s only son, Sir Andrew Aylmer who, although not a participant in the Confederate Wars from 1641 onwards, was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Meanwhile, the house his father built was burnt and the lands confiscated; they were returned to the family in 1662. Another assault and fire struck the property during the Williamite Wars. Still staunchly Catholic, a succession of Aylmers then all died young, often leaving infant heirs until the time of the sixth baronet Sir FitzGerald Aylmer, who although barely a few months old when he inherited the estate in 1737, managed to live for another 57 years. Raised in England as a member of the Established Church, it was Sir FitzGerald who undertook an extensive reconstruction of the old family house, an old plaque explaining that this work had begun in 1773.
As mentioned, Donadea Castle assumed much of its present form in the last quarter of the 18th century, thanks to Sir FitzGerald Aylmer who inserted large window openings with granite sills into the old building, as well as the canted first-floor Venetian window on the south side of the building. Donadea Castle is U-shaped, a recessed central section flanked by two three-storey towers, one of which was the original residence built by the first baronet. Between the towers is a single-storey bowed entrance screen, probably early 19th century and tentatively attributed (by Andrew Tierney) to Sir Richard Morrison. It may be the latter was also responsible for the rest of the Tudor-style decorations on the building, such as the lines of battlements along the roofs and mouldings above the windows. All of this would have been commissioned by the seventh baronet, Sir Fenton Aylmer, founder of the Kildare Hunt. Morrison could also have been the architect of a free-standing crenellated tower to the west of the building; above a staircase window is a datestone of 1837 with the motto Non Dormit qui Custodit (He who guards does not sleep) proposing that the tower was used as a muniments store. This tower was commissioned by the eighth baronet, Sir Gerald Aylmer, who was also responsible for many other improvements on the estate, not least the creation of an eight-acre enclosed garden immediately behind the castle, as well as the demesne wall, gate lodges and the planting of a fine lime avenue.
The ninth Aylmer baronet, Sir Gerald, inherited the Donadea estate in 1878, but died five years later, followed in 1885 by his heir, Sir Justin Aylmer: aged just 21 and an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was killed in a cycling accident. While the baronetcy then went sideways (to a younger son of the seventh baronet and then, just two months later, to his grandson), Donadea was inherited by Sir Justin’s only surviving sister, Caroline Aylmer, who lived there unmarried for the next half-century. On her own death in 1935, she left the property to the Church of Ireland, which quickly sold on the estate to the Land Commission. In due course, the castle was unroofed and the surrounding lands handed over to Coillte, the state-owned forestry body. Alas, while Coillte may be first-rate at looking after trees, its record in taking care of any buildings is pretty dismal, as can be seen by visitors to Donadea who over successive years have seen the castle and its surroundings allowed to fall further and further into dereliction, to the point that now cracks are appearing in walls and collapse is a real possibility. Given the property’s history, its convenient location and popularity as a site, this neglect seems especially reprehensible. Indifference can be the only explanation for Coillte’s failure to ensure Donadea Castle remains in decent repair; why, for example, have surviving features such as the charming Gothic-style wooden frames in many windows, not been removed and preserved? Why is it that a rare example of 17th century bay window with stone mullions should now be crudely filled with cement blocks (while the stonework above is left to become dangerously loose)? Unless serious intervention occurs soon, little of consequence will be left here. Another blot on our record of caring for the country’s architectural heritage.
Not far away from the old church in Castledermot, County Kildare with its round tower and pair of High Crosses, stand the remains of a Franciscan friary. This is thought to have been founded in the early 13th century by Walter de Riddlesford the younger; his father, of the same name, had been granted the lands in this part of the country by Strongbow. The friary was plundered and badly damaged by Edward Bruce and his army in 1317, so it is likely that at least some of what can be seen today dates from a subsequent rebuilding programme.
Like all such establishments, the friary in Castledermot was officially closed down by government authorities in the 1540s, although there were still Franciscans living on the site 100 years later. However, it was badly damaged by English soldiers in 1650 and thereafter fell into ruin. What survives is a large, long church typical of the medieval mendicant orders. An opening on the north wall gives access to the transept, with what is left of three small chapels; in two instances the windows here retain their tracery windows but alas the gable end’s fine tracery shown in a late 18th century engraving by Daniel Grose, has long since been lost. A tower on the north side of the chancel was probably added in the 14th century as protection for the friary’s residents continued to be necessary during this period. The south side of the church, which would have opened into the long-disappeared cloister is less well preserved.
Motor traffic used to crawl through Castledermot, County Kildare but the advent of motorways in Ireland means that today the town is now relatively visited, meaning fewer people get to see – even through the windows of a car – the fine ruins it holds. Its name derived from Diseart Diarmada (Dermot’s Hermitage), Castledermot was established as a monastic settlement founded around 800. Seemingly much raided by Vikings, all that remains of the monastery is a reconstructed 12th century Romanesque doorway. Behind this stands the present St James’s church, given its present form in the 19th century. To the north of the building rises a round tower, somewhat truncated and likely given battlements at a later date. Unusually the entrance to the tower is on the ground floor and this is accessed via a short vaulted corridor linking it to the church.
The graveyard here contains two High Crosses, one on either side of the church, both dating from the ninth century. That to the north rises over 10 feet and while weathering of the granite over the course of more than 1,000 years makes some of the panels challenging to interpret, but the centre of the head on the east side is thought to show Adam and Eve (representing the Fall of Man) and on the west side Christ’s crucifixion (Man’s Redemption). The west face of the High Cross to the south of the church is better preserved than its equivalent on the other side of the graveyard, not least the central panel which once again features the Crucifixion, with a series of familiar tales below on the shaft, including Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Temptation of St Anthony and, once more, Adam and Eve. In this instance, the east side of the cross is not figurative but given over to abstract patterns, geometric shapes and scrolls, like those found in illuminated manuscripts of the same period.
Inside its own courtyard and therefore well set back from Main Street in Celbridge, County Kildare, this is Kildrought House. Dating from c.1720, it was built by Robert Baillie, a tapestry maker who also acted as land agent for William Conolly of nearby Castletown, the design attributed to Thomas Burgh. The house has had a complex history, serving not just as a private residence (which is now the case) but also from 1782 as an academy and then in 1830 as a cholera hospital. The building was restored thirty years ago by the present owner and offers an excellent example of how to preserve the best features of our towns, an example too rarely followed.
Caught in a (very) momentary lull in traffic, this is Jasmine Lodge, located at the northern end of Main Street in Celbridge, County Kildare. The house is thought to date from c.1750 when built by Charles Davis, then acting as land agent for the Conolly family of nearby Castletown. Its most distinctive feature is the floating pediment at the top of the building, inset with a small Diocletian window. The present doorcase with its wide fanlight and sidelights was, it seems, installed around 1800 while the decorative iron archway was reportedly made using material salvaged from Dublin’s General Post Office after the 1916 Rising.
As many readers will be aware, Desmond Guinness, the pioneer of architectural conservation in Ireland. died last Thursday, at the age of 88. Led by Ireland’s President, Michael D Higgins, many tributes have quite correctly been paid to Desmond and his decades-long defence of the country’s architectural heritage. So, it is easy to forget that for much of that time, he and his supporters received not encomiums but abuse, not praise but criticism, not support but hostility. And yet he continued on his crusade, one which has left this country and its citizens considerably richer than would otherwise be the case.
Although a member of the Irish Guinness family, Desmond spent the greater part of his life in England until, following his marriage to Hermione Marie-Gabrielle von Urach – universally known as Mariga – he moved with her to Ireland and they began looking for somewhere to make their home. It was while engaged in this quest and travelling about the country that the couple became aware of how many old buildings of note in Ireland were being either neglected or demolished. The 1950s were an especially lean era here and, understandably, the losses to her architectural heritage provoked little, if any, protest or regret among the greater part of the Ireland’s impoverished population. Most of them had other, more immediate, concerns than what happened to properties with which they felt no great affinity; in the popular mind, historic houses were associated with the old regime. Inspecting many sites over a couple of years had the effect of refining Desmond and Mariga’s already intuitive aesthetic sensibilities, and it made them acutely aware of just how many 18th and 19th century buildings around the country were at risk of being lost forever. However, it was the demolition of Georgian buildings in Dublin rather than the disappearance of another country house that inspired the couple to establish the Irish Georgian Society in 1958. On their visits to the capital from 1956 onwards, the Guinnesses had seen Dublin Corporation workers clear away magnificent mansions on Lower Dominick Street and Hardwicke Place and replacing them with blocks of local authority flats. Most of these old properties had long ago deteriorated into squalid tenements; their loss, though unwelcome, was comprehensible. But in July 1957 the government authorised the demolition of two 18th century houses on Kildare Place, only a matter of yards from the Dail in Leinster House. No. 2 Kildare Place had been designed by Richard Castle and executed after his death in 1751 by John Ensor; its neighbour was of a slightly later date. Both houses were in excellent condition and there was no reason for their destruction other than an unwillingness on the part of the State to maintain the buildings. This barbarous act on the part of government spurred Desmond and Mariga into direct action, and the Irish Georgian Society was born.
Prior to the establishment of the Irish Georgian Society there had been no organization, or individuals, taking up the cudgels on behalf of the country’s historic properties. Building up credibility was a long and arduous process: during the first decades of its existence the Society – and its founders – had to fight many battles. Some of these were won, others lost. But the biggest battle was against ignorance and indifference: these twin demons had to be faced down over and over again. Desmond experienced much personal hostility, often from those in positions of power who did not like their decisions being called into question. However, he remained resolute in his enterprise, and never wavered in his determination to conserve the architectural legacy left by earlier generations and to encourage wider appreciation of this legacy. The most important example of his industry and imagination can be seen at Castletown, County Kildare. This important building, the first great Palladian house in Ireland dating from the early 18th century, was at risk of being lost forever when Desmond stepped in and found the necessary funds to save the property. Today Castletown is owned by the Irish State and is rightly lauded as a splendid example of Irish design and craftsmanship. But if it had not been for Desmond’s brave initiative, and then the restoration work that he and Mariga oversaw on the house – helped by the many volunteers they inspired – Castletown would now be nothing more than a handful of old black and white photographs. There are many, many other instances of bold decisions being taken by Desmond leading to the survival of important properties throughout the country. It is worth noting that from the mid-1960s onwards, he regularly visited the United States where his mission, and that of the Irish Georgian Society, was better received and supported than was the case back home. The IGS, like many of the buildings it championed, would not be here still were it not for American friends.
A brief personal note. I first met Desmond Guinness when an undergraduate, but only in passing. In the early 1980s and by then living in the Damer House in County Tipperary (an early 18th century house which the Irish Georgian Society had saved from demolition), I met him again and over the next 35 years had the opportunity to come to know him well. Desmond was a man blessed with many advantages; he was exceptionally handsome (those famous pale blue eyes) and possessed an abundance of personal charm, well able to captivate whoever was in his company. He had a deliciously mellifluous voice and engaging manner, which he put to excellent effect on his fund-raising visits to the United States; even today there are elderly American women who shyly blush when they recall being in his presence over half a century ago. In his heyday, he was a tireless advocate, running the society from a room in his County Kildare home, Leixlip Castle where – when not working elsewhere for the society – he was an unfailingly generous host with flawless manners. Leixlip Castle was always the most hospitable of houses, where Desmond was at his easiest and most charming, ensuring it was always a delight to be in his company. There are a great many people, myself included, who are grateful to have benefited from his unflagging kindness and support.
Unlike most countries, Ireland has no official honours system. During his lifetime, Desmond never received the acknowledgement that he deserved for his pioneering work in the area of architectural conservation. Now that he is dead, the best way the Irish state could honour his legacy is by giving more attention to our country’s historic buildings. Otherwise, like Desmond, it will be too late to give them the attention they merit.