Awaiting Conversion

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The former Church of Ireland church at Odagh, County Kilkenny. Dating from 1796 and built with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, it remained in use for services until the late 1950s and was unroofed some thirty-five years ago. In 2012 permission was granted for conversion of the church into a two-bedroom domestic dwelling and evidently some work then took place on the site. It is now on the market.

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An Architectural Conundrum: Update

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Earlier this year, the ‘barracks’ at Clomantagh, County Kilkenny featured here (An Architectural Conundrum, August 15th) with some speculation on its origins and date since, as the name implies, it has long been associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary. As a result, a notion had gained currency that the building was constructed as a barracks for the force. However, James Butler, whose family owned the property from the 1870s-80s until the first decade of the present century, has been in touch with information and memories, extracts of which are given below: ‘The barracks would have been purchased by my great great grandfather James Butler, in the second half of the 19th century. I believe the RIC vacated the buildings and moved into another barracks in Tullaroan. I spoke to my grandfather about it in the 1980s and hastily wrote what I remembered when I got back to my uncle Noel’s house (behind the barracks and up the road towards Johnstown) on a scrap of paper which I still have…’
These recollections include the proposal that the adjacent mill (which was only demolished in 2005) had been built after the Great Famine. However, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (published 1837, that is several years before the onset of famine), notes ‘The Clomanto flour-mills, capable of manufacturing about 12,000 barrels annually, are impelled by a small river that intersects the parish; and attached to them is a large starch-manufactory, both belonging to Mr. W. Lyster.’ It would appear that the ‘barracks’ was owned by Lyster and then passed into the possession of the RIC before eventually being acquired by the Butlers.
Their descendant continues: ‘Now, the state of the barracks. I can assure you it was never attacked or burned down by the IRA. Simply because my grandfather was then the owner and he was also a volunteer in the IRA. There are no scorch marks to be seen anywhere. My grandfather spent most of the war of independence in various English gaols…You mention 1805 on the bell housing. I remember the housing but I don’t remember the year. Considering the RIC was only there from 1840-1860 then I suggest it is not a purpose built barracks but instead belonged to the Lyster family, as did the mill. It would have needed horses to take processed grain to market. The RIC may only have used it temporarily whilst the Tullaroan barracks were built. Although 20 years is a long temporary…The alcove to the right of the exit under the bell was a milking parlour. I remember gun dogs in another ground floor room. Possibly the other alcove to the left. My father remembers a small cinema occasionally set up for the community also in one of the groundfloor rooms. Upstairs was always full of hay. The fields above leading to my uncle’s place was usualy planted with wheat…’
These recollections show how, although Ireland is a small country, much of its architectural history remains to be studied, ideally before the relevant buildings are forever lost.

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Majestic in its Ruins

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How the earth darkens! not a day-beam cheers
Its pensive look, or gilds the evening sky;
While through the gloom, from other worlds appears
No smile to bid the gathering shadows die.
All is so sadly still! The cooling breeze
That from yon mountains their mild freshness bears,
Now breathes not, – floating through the blossomed trees,
To fan the sable garb which nature wears…

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I gaze where Jerpoint’s venerable pile,
Majestic in its ruins, o’er me lowers:
The worm now crawls through each untrodden aisle,
And the bat hides within its time-worn towers.
It was not thus, when in the olden time,
The holy inmates of yon broken wall
Lived free from woes which spring from care or crime,
Those shackles which the grosser world enthrall…

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I mark the venerable Abbot stand
Beneath the shadow of his church’s towers,
Grasping the wicket in his trembling hand,
Reverting to past scenes of happier hours,
And dwelling on the many years gone by
Since first his young lips breath’d his earliest prayer,
To lisp of Him who lives beyond the sky,
And nurse the hope he might behold him there…

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No more the banners o’er their ramparts wave,
Or lead their chieftains onwards to the fight,
Where die the vanquish’d, or exult the brave,
For victory – basking in its worshipp’d light.
Gone are the heroes of the days of yore;
Their enemies, like them, have felt decay;
The Chiefs of Ossory, and Leix O’More,
Are mingled in the dust with common clay…Line

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Extracted from Lines Written at Jerpoint Abbey by Samuel Carter Hall (1823).

What Remains

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At some date in the late fifth or early sixth century a monastery was founded at Grangefertagh, County Kilkenny by Saint Ciaran of Saighir. This religious house was raided by the Vikings in 861 and it was presumably after that incident that the monks built a round tower to protect them in the event of another attack. It proved unfit for purpose however, since in 1156 it was burnt by Murtagh McNeale, with the monastery’s lector inside. Somehow the tower survived (even if the lector did not) and remains the only remnant of the pre-Norman building, although as can be seen the greater part of its conical roof is lost. In the 13th century a priory of Augustinian Canons Regular was established here, and a portion of its ruined church remains: in the last century part of it was converted for use as a handball alley (not an unusual occurrence). A chapel to one side contains the double tomb of John MacGillapatrick and his wife, carved c.1540 by Rory O’Tunney.

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The Most Benevolent Disposition

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Against one of the walls surrounding St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny is this memorial to wealthy local banker Connell Loughnan (1733-1812) who is described as being ’eminent for the display of the most benevolent disposition and the practice of every Christian Virtue,’ while his wife Anastasia who died a decade earlier was notable for ’emulating the virtues of her husband, an affectionate wife, a kind parent and a good friend.’

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A Conundrum

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Like most country houses, Shankill Castle, County Kilkenny has a range of outbuildings close to the main residence. The latter dates from c.1825, its neo-gothic design attributed to local architect William Robertson. The other structures, composed of cut limestone with granite for windows and doorcases, share stylistic similarities and can therefore be presumed by Robertson also. Some of them are used as studios and gallery space by the property’s present owners, but what to do with the others? Expensive to maintain, they no longer appear to have an apparent purpose. This is the conundrum facing everyone today responsible for such buildings.

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Beyond the Green Baize Door

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During an interview given in March last year, Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of Britain’s National Trust caused widespread umbrage by announcing the organisation intended to simplify displays of artwork in its properties. Visitors, she declared, were put off because there is ‘so much stuff’ in some of the historic houses owned by the NT. ‘We just make people work fantastically hard,’ said Dame Helen, ‘and we can make them work much less hard.’ Understandably this approach, implying the trust’s members were incapable of appreciating works of art or of understanding the context in which they are shown, met with disapproval in many quarters. Dame Helen’s comments suggested the trust’s intention was not to encourage instruction (because that might require people to ‘work fantastically hard’) but to accept incomprehension. It indicated entertainment would be given precedence over education, without understanding that some visitors, possibly the majority, actually want to learn more, want to come away from a visit with greater knowledge and understanding. Of course it is true the majority of visitors to historic properties are unlikely to have first-hand experience of living in such an environment. Nor will their forbears have done so. Hence the evolution of country house displays, which initially concentrated on showing only the main reception rooms, those spaces in which the best furniture and paintings were on view. More recently, and in part thanks to television series like Downton Abbey, the opportunity to explore what took place on the other side of the green baize door has become increasingly popular. Life at the top and the bottom of a house, the rooms used and occupied by servants, can be less immediately aesthetically pleasing but they hold other attractions, not least an opportunity to discover how a building operated. In its heyday, the country house was like a complex machine in which all the parts worked together to ensure smooth delivery of service to the owners. Only by looking at the rooms in which this work took place can one fully understand how a great house functioned successfully. This explains why they merit investigation. However, there is another reason why these areas can sometimes be worth exploring.

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Kilfane, County Kilkenny has been discussed here before (see When Nature Imitates Art, November 11th 2013), specifically in relation to a picturesque garden developed on the estate in the 1790s. The land here had originally belonged to the Cantwells, prior to the family being banished to Connaught in the 17th century. It then passed into the ownership of Colonel John Bushe who was granted Kilfane in 1670, and his descendants remained on the estate for most of the following century. In the late 1700s, John Power married Harriet Bushe whose brother Henry Amias Bushe then lived at Kilfane. Power was the son of a County Tipperary landowner who had served with the British army in India where he had been aide-de-camp to Clive during the Battle of Plassey. Eventually he took a lease in perpetuity on Kilfane from his brother-in-law, and carried out many improvements on the estate. It would appear at least one explanation for his settling in County Kilkenny was a keen interest in hunting: in 1797 he established the Kilkenny Hunt Club. The first of its kind in Ireland, the club would meet in the evenings in Kilkenny City at what had hitherto been called Rice’s Hotel (James Rice having been house steward to Captain Power) but soon became known as the Club House, as it is to this day.
An existing house at Kilfane seems to have been remodeled by the Powers around 1798. A couple of years later, William Tighe wrote ‘To Kilfane, Mr Power has added a new front and other improvements, which render it not only an excellent house, but a good specimen of architecture.’ As then completed, the main block was of five bays and three storeys over basement with a single bay, one storey projecting porch on the ground floor, and three-bay single storey flanking wings. The building was comprehensively enlarged around 1855-6 by local builder/architects Patrick O’Toole and Joseph Wright who added three-bay two storey recessed blocks behind the wings and gave the porch bays on either side. Kilfane may have undergone further alterations in the late 19th/early 20th centuries but little else appears to have been done to the building prior to 1971 when Kilfane was sold by the Powers. It has recently come on the market again, providing the opportunity for a recent visit to the house.

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Trying to understand the architectural development of Kilfane is challenging because, as is so often the case, little information survives. We do not know who, if anyone, was the Powers’ architect at the end of the 18th century, nor the appearance or layout of the house to which, according to William Tighe, was added ‘a new front and other improvements.’ Internally few clues are immediately offered. The entrance hall is wide and low, with screens of columns featuring composite capitals. Access from here is gained to the drawing and dining rooms, both with considerably higher ceilings (they each occupy a one-storey wing) and ample, full-length windows: the same characteristics are found in the former library behind the drawing room. These three spaces clearly date from the end of the 18th century, whereas the entrance hall could be earlier (and given its shape might originally have been a number of rooms subsequently knocked into one). Thereafter things grow more confusing, not least in the staircase hall which is wood panelled in a style that looks distinctly Edwardian. The first floor doorcases into the main bedrooms add to the muddle, being heavily carved in a manner suggesting German or Austrian origins. The mid-19th century alterations made to the building provide a fresh challenge, with flights of stairs on either side of the central block rising to more bedrooms.
Greater clarity, and a better understanding of the house’s original form, may be discovered in the top and bottom floors, those spaces formerly devoted to servants. Because less subject to the whims of changing taste, these areas are more inclined to retain their earliest decoration and such looks to be the case at Kilfane. Here the second floor features a series of rooms, now in poor structural condition, with the same deep window embrasures, shutters and skirting installed at the end of the 18th century. The whole storey is centred around a landing lit by a funnel-shaped cupola: according to legend, the devil was once caught playing (and cheating at) cards in the house and fled through here into the night. The basement is equally informative as again the basic layout appears to have remained relatively unaltered. Hence the sequence of rooms is much as it would have been when the Powers first embarked on developing the property, the old kitchen still in place, together with the wine cellar, storage spaces, pantries and so forth. A large section of the basement occupies only the area taken up by the main block of the house, excluding the wings, suggesting this was what first stood on the site prior to the Powers’ intervention. A further examination of the house is merited to see what else might be learned here about its evolution. In this instance, the absence of ‘stuff’ on the top and bottom floors offers an opportunity for elucidation. This may not be what Dame Helen Ghosh had in mind when she gave her interview, but sometimes the most useful information about a house can be discovered beyond the green baize door.

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