For more than 150 years, one of the most prominent landmarks in Dublin was Nelson’s Pillar. Erected in 1809 and rising 134 feet, the fluted limestone column was crowned by a statue of Horatio, Admiral Nelson; visitors could ascent an internal staircase to a viewing platform just below the figure of the Battle of Trafalgar hero. In March 1966 Irish Republicans decided to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising by attempting to blow up the pillar, a botched job but one that did so much damage to the monument that government forces had to finish the job. Various parts of the pillar have turned up over the year, but one interesting portion – 16 granite blocks each measuring two feet square which once formed part of the base carved with the names of Nelson’s most notable victories – can now be seen surrounding a circular pool in the garden behind Butler House in Kilkenny city. Various explanations have been given for how the stones ended in this location, one being that in the 1960s William Walsh, head of Córas Tráchtála Teoranta (the Irish Export Board) and the man responsible for establishing the Kilkenny Design Workshops, saw the pieces, admired their fine lettering and brought them to the city to provide inspiration for graphic designers. Alas, the government short-sightedly closed down the Kilkenny Design Workshops in 1988, but the stones still remain.*
Although the second-largest town in County Kilkenny, Callan has a charmingly sleepy atmosphere, much of its centre blessedly free of contemporary intervention, or dereliction. Many of the shops still retain their original frontages, such as O’Brien’s, a delightful old-fashioned menswear business where visitors can borrow a key giving access to St Mary’s church on the other side of Green Street. The church, like the town in which it stands, is thought to have been founded by the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, at the start of the 13th century (although other accounts attribute the construction of St Mary’s to Hugh de Mapilton, Bishop of Ossory in c.1250). The great square tower to the west is all that survives of that original building today.
Other than its tower, the older St Mary’s was demolished in the 15th century and the present church built in its place, consisting of a nave with aisles 15 feet wide each with four-arch arcades, and a long – almost 60 feet – rectangular chancel. Like all such buildings, it suffered badly during the religious and civil upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, passing back and forth between Roman Catholic and Established Church authorities until finally the latter gained the upper hand. Thereafter it served the local Church of Ireland community which here, as elsewhere, was not large enough to require such a substantial building, only the chancel being used for services. As a result, as early as 1731 the Bishop of Ossory noted that ‘Callan Church, next to St Canice’s, the largest in the diocese; west end needs repairing.’ By the end of the century, it was reported that the nave was ‘now a ruin, but the chancel is kept in repair and used as the parish church.’
Perhaps because the Callan Union was a relatively wealthy parish, no funds for the restoration or refurbishment of St Mary’s was provided by the Board of First Fruits (it may be that no financial assistance, either as grant or loan, was sought). However, in 1837 the board’s successor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, provided £393 for the restoration of the chancel, in particular the re-roofing of this portion of the building. Little then happened until almost the middle of the last century when the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for the main body of the building. Once services were discontinued in the chancel in 1974, it too passed into the care of the same body which subsequently carried out various structural repairs, necessary because the nave had long been used as a burial site which resulted in subsidence. Many handsome tombs survive inside the church but regrettably this is not accessible, so only the exterior may be examined, its finest features being the limestone doorcases at the western end of the north and south aisles; both carry carvings of angels and other decorative designs (that on the north side features the head of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress).
Another week, another cross, this one found in Killamery, County Kilkenny. A monastery was founded here in the 7th century by St Gobhan, and the High Cross is thought to date from the late 8th/early 9th century. Although there are scenes with figures (now well-worn) around the cross itself, the shaft is decorated with abstract patterns, those of the western front featuring a floral motif; seemingly a much-weathered inscription on the base reads OR DO MAELSECHNAILL, ‘A Prayer for Máel Sechnaill’ who was High King of Ireland 846-862. The capstone, which takes the form of a gabled roof, used to be touched by visitors as a cure for headaches.
The High Cross stands in the grounds of a graveyard close to the ruins of a former Church of Ireland place of worship dedicated to St Nicholas. Dating from 1815, it was constructed with assistance from the Board of First Fruits but services ceased to be held here less than 90 years later, and it has since fallen into its present state.
A gate lodge at the entrance to the former Castle Morres estate in County Kilkenny. The main house here, built for the de Montmorency family, dated from the mid-18th century, its design attributed to Francis Bindon: the remains of the building were demolished in 1978. This lodge was constructed later, at some point in the second quarter of the 19th century and is presumed to have been the work of Daniel Robertson.
The purity of the building’s cut-limestone Temple pedimented portico façade is rather marred by the later addition of an attic storey, and even more by the rather lumpen extension to one side. Even so, one can still gain an idea of the building’s original appearance (and adjuncts can always be reversed).
After recent somewhat dispiriting posts, time for something more uplifting. Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny was discussed here almost five years ago (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/11/24/of-the-middle-size) but that page really needs to be revisited because, as a visit to the house not long ago revealed, the owners continue to be indefatigable in their improvements to the place. One of the latest additions is to the rear of the main building where a formal Italianate garden has been created. Just a handful of plants have been employed, including beech, box and Irish yew, but sophisticated design, and sound maintenance, means the eye never grows tired. Ballysallagh thankfully shows that growth, as much as decay, is possible in Ireland…
One of the country’s best-known families, the Butlers originated with Theobald Walter who in 1185 was granted by Prince John (future King John) the title of Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had already held the same title in England). Theobald’s successors established themselves in what is now County Kilkenny, their stronghold being in Gowran where they built a castle that would remain their principle residence until they established a presence in Kilkenny City at the end of the 14th century. As a result, the church in Gowran was greatly enriched by the presence of the Butlers. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier religious settlement, possibly a monastery founded by Saint Lochan who was connected with the region: Saint Patrick is also said to have passed through here on at least one of his seemingly innumerable perambulations around Ireland.
In its present form, St Mary’s was a collegiate church, built in the late 13th century and served by a ‘college’ of clerics who lived communally in an adjacent dwelling but did not follow any monastic rules, as was the case for the likes of the Benedictines or Cistercians. The presence of the Butlers greatly enhanced its status. In 1312, for example, Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick and Lord Deputy of Ireland made a binding agreement before the Kings Justice in Dublin with the Dean and Chapter of St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny to provide finance allowing four priests attached to St. Mary’s to say masses in perpetuity for himself, his wife Joan, his son James (future first Earl of Ormonde), his daughters, and other family members both living and dead. The church had a long aisled nave with substantial chancel to the east, the two parts linked by a great square tower, now taller than was originally the case. Inevitably it suffered onslaught over the centuries. In 1316 Edward Bruce and his army of Scottish and Ulster troops attacked and took the town of Gowran, with damage inflicted on the church. It suffered similarly during the Cromwellian wars of the early 1650s but by then, like many other religious buildings in the post-Reformation period, St Mary’s was falling into disrepair. Only at the start of the 19th century was refurbishment undertaken, with the chancel converted into a parish church for the local Church of Ireland community, access being directly beneath the great tower. The nave was left a ruin, as it remains to the present day. St Mary’s continued to be used for services until the 1970s, since when a series of further restoration programmes have been undertaken under the auspices of the Office of Public Works.
The interior of St Mary’s today is notable for the number, and quality, of tombs displayed inside the former chancel. In some instances moved indoors from elsewhere on the site, these funerary monuments stretch across many centuries, the oldest being a partial slab carved with Ogham script. There are many slabs from the 13th and 14th centuries decorated with crosses and inscriptions in Latin. The central space of the chancel is dominated by two substantial table tombs, both early 16th century and perhaps carved by the O Tunneys, an important family of stone carvers at the time. One shows a single Knight, the other two Knights, all were members of the greater Butler clan. The entrance to the church is dominated by a vast classical memorial to James Agar, who died in 1733. Originally from Yorkshire, the Agars succeeded the Butlers as the dominant local family in the mid-17th century and remained so until the end of the 19th. It was James Agar’s widow who, one can read, ‘out of sincere respect to the WORTHY DECEASED has caused THIS to be ERECTED AS A MONUMENT TO HIS MERIT AND HER AFFECTION.’ Tributes to the deceased until relatively recently, one of the more recent being a stained glass window on the north wall designed by Michael Healy of An Túr Gloine (The Glass Tower) an Arts and Crafts studio established in Dublin in 1903: the window commemorates Aubrey Cecil White who died aged twenty at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The range of monuments inside St Mary’s, and their exceptional calibre, make this church worthy of being described as Ireland’s ossuary.
At the end of last August the Heritage Council, a statutory body ‘working for heritage’ released a five-year strategic plan which proposes to set out a new ‘vision’ for the country’s heritage and to map a route towards its realization (see: https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/news/news-features/heritage-at-the-heart-heritage-council-strategy-2018-2022). As so often with such documents this one is strong on lofty aspiration but rather weak on specific action leading to the achievement of goals. However, the idea is that by 2022 thanks to the council’s vision ‘heritage will be at the heart of Irish society and decision-making and that Ireland will be internationally recognised as a centre of excellence in heritage management, conservation and community engagement.’
On Wednesday a building less than ten minutes’ walk from the Heritage Council’s premises in Kilkenny city was gutted by fire. Adjacent to the Nore and across the river from Kilkenny Castle, for which it once served as a dower house, 88/89 Lower John Street dates in large part from the mid-18th century although it incorporated fabric from a much earlier building and contained the remains of a mid-17th century staircase. Despite its enormous architectural and historic significance – and despite being listed for preservation – the house was permitted by the local authority to stand empty for many years, its garden sheared off for the construction of an hotel, thereby severely compromising the site. Last year the house was finally sold, and hopes were raised that the property, its exterior a much-photographed landmark, would finally be restored. Instead it remained in the same condition until this week when left a smoking ruin.
One might have expected the Heritage Council – which declares its vision to be that ‘heritage is enjoyed, managed and protected for the vital contribution that it makes to both our social and economic well-being’ – would make a statement about this terrible loss so close to its own property. Yet it has remained silent: on Wednesday, the council’s Facebook page opted to post a video of Basque dancers in Galway. And ironically on the day after the fire, the Heritage Council was involved in a conference about urban renewal entitled ‘Unlocking Prosperity through Heritage-Led Regeneration.’ A building within Kilkenny offered an opportunity to demonstrate that the benefits of such regeneration, but that opportunity was missed. The Heritage Council’s home page bears the slogan ‘Our Heritage: Where the Past Meets the Future.’ In the case of 88/89 Lower John Street the past wasn’t given the chance to meet the future and all of us are the poorer. Articulating a ‘vision’ is admirable but occasions like this prove it to be insufficient.
The remains of Tullaherin church and round tower, County Kilkenny. It is believed that a monastery was founded here by Saint Ciarán of Saigir. He died c.530 so presumably established a presence here at some date previous. Nothing survives of the original foundation, the present church being of two periods, the nave perhaps 10th century while the chancel is likely from the 15th century. In the aftermath of the Reformation, it continued to be used by members of the Established Church and was renovated in the early 17th century. However, by the 19th it had already fallen into ruin.
Like so many others around the country, the round tower at Tullaherin is missing its upper portion and capped roof: what remains rises almost 74 feet. Originally there were eight windows around the tower, the only other tower having so many being that at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly. The door is just over 12 feet above ground.
One of the most remarkable women of 16th century Ireland, Lady Margaret FitzGerald, a daughter of the eighth Earl of Kildare, is believed to have been born in 1473 and married in 1485 (at the age of 12) to Piers Butler, eighth Earl of Ormond: the couple would have nine children. A later chronicler, Richard Stanihurst described her as having been ‘man-like and tall of staure, liberal and bountiful, a sure friend and a bitter enemy, hardly disliking where she fancied, not easily fancying where she disliked.’ Other commentators thought her ‘a lady so politic, that nothing was thought substantially debated without her advice’ and as being ‘able for wisdom to rule a realm had not her stomach overruled itself.’ She certainly played an active role in her husband’s legal and dynastic affairs, enlarging or rebuilding many of Butler properties including Kilkenny Castle which the couple made their base. In Kilkenny she established the Grammar School in 1539 and during the previous decade brought over weavers and related craftsmen from the Low Countries to encourage the production of carpets and tapestries within their territories. In the 18th century historian Thomas Carte deemed Margaret FitzGerald ‘a person of great wisdom, and courage uncommon in her sex.’ In legend she is remembered for being on occasion extremely vindictive and cruel: many of the castles associated with her have windows or stone seats from which she is said either to have hanged her victims or watched them die. One story proposes that she ordered that seven bishops, all brothers, be robbed and killed. Another tells that while staying in one of her properties, she used to visit a nearby family, the Mandevilles and coveted their property. When they refused to part with it, she placed a curse on the Mandevilles so that all their sons died. The residence from which it is claimed she issued her malediction was Grannagh (or Granny) Castle, County Kilkenny.
Located on the northern bank of the river Suir just a few miles from Waterford city, Grannagh Castle is believed to have been built by the Le Poer family at the end of the 13th century. Around 1375 it passed into the hands of James Butler, second Earl of Ormond and remained with his descendants until seriously damaged c.1650. The early building comprised a large walled keep with cylindrical towers overlooking the Suir. Soon after taking possession of the property the Butlers seem to have erected a substantial five-storey tower in its north-east corner. Later additions included the insertion of an oriel window in the tower, and the construction of a double-height great hall adjacent to it along the south wall of the keep. The arch of a surviving window in that wall contains some carvings showing an angel holding the Butler coat of arms and the Archangel Michael wielding a sword in his right hand and the scales of Justice in his left. According to the 18th century historian and antiquary Edward Ledwich, during the Cromwellian war in Ireland, Grannagh Castle ‘was strongly garrisoned for the king, and commanded by Captain Butler. Colonel Axtel, the famous regicide, who was governor of Kilkenny, dispatched a party to reduce it, but they returned without accomplishing their orders; upon which Axtel himself marched out, with two cannon, and summoned the castle to surrender on pain of military execution. Without any hope of relief it is no wonder they submitted, and were conducted to the nearest Irish quarters.’ Thereafter the building stood unoccupied and seemingly allowed to sink into a ruinous state.
The entrance gates to Swiftsheath, County Kilkenny. The estate takes its name from Godwin Swift who built the original house here: he was the uncle of Jonathan Swift who is believed to have lived here while a student at Kilkenny College. Although it looks much earlier the present entrance of cut limestone and granite dates only from 1874 when designed by Dublin architect Joseph Maguire for R.W. Swifte. The latter’s predecessor was the eccentric Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte who claimed the title Viscount Carlingford (held by a 17th century Swift who had died without male heirs) but also designed and built what he called an ‘aerial chariot’, a form of flying machine. In 1854 he launched this from the top of nearby Foulksrath Castle – with his butler as pilot. The device plunged straight to ground and the butler sustained serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. The Swifte family remained in occupation of Swiftsheath until the early 1970s when it was sold to new owners.