A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere.
Another splendid stableyard, this one directly behind the main house at Ballindoolin, County Kildare. Dating from c.1810 when constructed for the Bors, a family of Dutch extraction, the land to the rear rises up, meaning the yard must be approached via a flight of granite steps. Directly ahead is the yard bell sitting atop a pediment, with three arched openings below. That to the left leads to the second yard, for agricultural use, that in the middle is a coach house and that to the right, created to achieve symmetry, reveals a modest entrance behind the double doors. Limestone ashlar is used for window, door and arch openings while the rest of the yard buildings are of limestone rubble visible through the flaking render.
The story is often told that Martinstown, County Kildare was built so as to provide Augustus Frederick FitzGerald, third Duke of Leinster, with a discreet location in which to meet his mistress. Curiously, the name of the duke’s inamorata is never mentioned, nor any further information given about the nature of the affair. Biographical information primarily focuses on his early support for Catholic Emancipation, his loyalty to the Whig party (traditional in the FitzGerald family) as well as his long and close involvement with Freemasonry: he was Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ireland for 61 years until his death in 1874. In 1818 he married Lady Charlotte Augusta Stanhope, a daughter of the third Earl of Harrington, with whom he had four children. If there were any marital indiscretions, they do not seem ever to have become known in the public realm.
An estate map of Martinstown dated February 1833 and signed by one W. Clutterbuck, depicts an altogether more modest dwelling house than what can be seen on the site today, little more than a farmhouse (now the kitchen wing). At the time, the property belonged to Robert Borrowes (otherwise Burrows) whose family had moved to Ireland in the late 16th/early 17th century from Devonshire. Robert Borrowes was a younger son of Sir Kildare Dixon Borrowes, fifth baronet, of Barretstown Castle. That house passed to Robert’s older brother, while he was given the nearby Gilltown estate. Martinstown, therefore, was never a primary residence but rather a secondary farm which, according to Clutterbuck’s map, had been heavily planted with trees over the previous 15 years. However, a second extant drawing made in 1840 shows a building much closer in style to that which stands on the site today. The main, two-storey garden front is asymmetrical, heavily ornamented with a series of pinnacled gable-ends, cusped bargeboards and twisted, Tudoresque chimney stacks. Its design has been attributed to English architect Decimus Burton, best-known in this country for his work on the gate lodges of Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Martinstown is altogether more fanciful than those buildings, a late flowering of the Georgian Gothick cottage orné, likely developed as a shooting lodge rather than a venue for romantic ducal rendezvous.
The main entrance porch on the narrow north-west side of Martinstown has a half-timbered room above it which seems to be one of a number of later additions to the building. The walls of the house’s entrance hall show one of the most recent of such alterations: covered in murals representing an idealised landscape, they were an early commission received by artist Jane Willoughby. From here, visitors enter the central stair hall, decorated in a delightful Tudoresque manner. The west side of the room features a triple-arched arcade with open-work spandrels and a rosette cornice. Doors at either end of this open into the dining room and what is now a study.
As befits a cottage orné, the majority of rooms are cosy with low ceilings. An exception to this is the double-height drawing room with coved ceiling, added to the house in the 1870s when Martinstown was let to members of the British army then in residence just a few miles away on the Curragh: its scale is substantially larger than any other space in the building: the upper part of the walls here were painted with garlands of leaves and ribbons by another artist, Phillipa Bayliss.
Today available to rent for weddings and other events, during the last century Martinstown passed through several hands, the most notorious being those of Austrian-born Otto Skorzeny, a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the German Waffen-SS during the Second World War. Skorzeny and his wife, who were then living in Spain, visited Ireland for the first time in 1957 and two years later, they bought Martinstown and 168 acres of land from its then-owner Major Richard Turner, for £7,500. However, although they initially paid regular visits to the property, the couple were never able to secure residents’ visas from the Irish government and spent little time here after 1963, selling the place in 1971. Today the property acts as both a family home to the present owners, and as a popular venue for weddings: somewhere romantic for couples to marry rather than meet for illicit trysts.
More High Crosses, these ones found in the graveyard of St John’s church in Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare. The first stands to the immediate north of the early 19th century church. Standing 3.4 metres high, it is composed of three elements: head, shaft and pyramidal base. Rather than the usual elaborate carving customary on these crosses, it is relatively plain, perhaps because carved from unyielding granite. The only decoration of note can be seen on the west face which features a central boss with rounded moulding within a solid ring. Possibly dating from the 10th century, the cross’s two arms carry an inscription noting that it was re-erected on the present site by Ambrose Wall in 1689; he would be killed the following year during the Siege of Limerick. What remains of a second cross can be found south of the church; all that survives here is the tapered shaft and, deep in the vegetation, another pyramidal base.
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.