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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An Architectural Conundrum

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The first official police force in this country, the Royal Irish Constabulary, owed its origins to Sir Robert Peel, Chief Secretary in Ireland 1812-18. Two years into his term of office, he introduced the Peace Preservation Act which allowed fir the establishment of a force that would maintain law and order, especially in rural districts where civil disarray was less easy to control. Thanks to his association with this initiative, the force became popularly known as Peelers or, more commonly in England where similar legislation was later passed, as Bobbies. The Irish Constabulary Act of 1822 established a police force in each province with chief constables and inspectors general under the authority of central government in Dublin. Further legislation in 1836 led to what thereafter was called the Royal Irish Constabulary, an organisation which by 1841 numbered more than 8,600 men. At the beginning of the last century that figure had climbed to some 11,000 constables spread over 1,600 premises, these generally known as barracks.

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Although the majority of them were drawn from the locality in which they served, members of the RIC were often unpopular, since they were charged with implementing the authority of the British regime. Hence once the War of Independence began in the aftermath of the First World War, they – and their barracks – were an obvious target for the rebel forces. In the years 1919-21, 513 members of the RIC were killed, while a further 682 were wounded. Many others quit the force: over a three-month period in 1920, for example, 600 men resigned from the force. Unable to maintain control over such a large number of premises, the RIC began to abandon smaller rural barracks: again in the first quarter of 1920, 500 buildings – of different sizes but predominantly in more remote areas – were evacuated. Within months the IRA had destroyed more than 400 of these, seemingly at least 300 in April alone. One of those deliberately gutted by fire during that period is the building shown here.

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The barracks at Clomantagh, County Kilkenny was, as its name indicates, once occupied by a local division of the RIC. Accordingly the local authority dates the building to the middle of the 19th century. However, a stone on the central bell tower is dated 1805 – that is to say nine years before the first police force was established in Ireland – and furthermore the architectural character of the structure is more interesting than was typical of police barracks around the country (which were usually of a utilitarian design). Of two storeys, the building is semi-circular in shape with three elliptical-headed, cut limestone carriageways at its centre, that below the bell tower given a breakfront. The most obvious comparison is with the stable block at Kilkenny Castle some fourteen miles away. Built at the close of the 18th century, this is similarly crescent-shaped, of two storeys and with elliptical-headed carriageways on the ground floor. Clomantagh ‘barracks’ looks like a somewhat less sophisticated version of the castle stables, but it has elegant decorative details such as the round-headed niches found both inside and out. Directly across the road there used to be a seven-storey flour mill dating from c.1775: this was only demolished in 2005. Surely there must have been some connection between that building and what is now called the barracks, even if the latter subsequently became used by the RIC? It is an architectural conundrum, one the present owners, who have already undertaken a considerable amount of essential remedial work and intend to undertake more, would wish to resolve. Their public spiritedness in ensuring the building has a future needs to be matched by discovering more about its past. 

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At the Close of the Day

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A winter’s sunset reflected on the west front of St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Gowran, County Kilkenny. Built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier monastery, it was served by a community of clerics unattached to any particular area. Post-Reformation, this part of the building fell into dereliction but in the 1820s the tower and chancel were extensively restored for use by the Church of Ireland.

An Active Afterlife

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The west entrance to the 12th century church at Ullard, County Kilkenny, its much-weathered Romanesque doorway featuring the outline of human and animal heads. It was directly facing this entrance that Jeremy Williams was interred last Saturday following a service at nearby Duiske Abbey. Everyone interested in Ireland’s built heritage will have known Jeremy, architect, author and superlative draughtsman, a constant presence at meetings, outings and social gatherings. Always full of enthusiasm, always embarking on a fresh project, always determinedly encouraging others to share his current passion, there were no houses in Ireland where he was not assured of a welcome: and little of the country’s architectural patrimony that he hadn’t nimbly recorded with his pen. His sudden death on Christmas Eve has left a void impossible to fill. Impossible also to imagine Jeremy resting in peace: one imagines that already he is persuading the Almighty to cast an eye over freshly-drafted plans for the refurbishment of Heaven’s Gates.

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Distinguished Remnants

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Last Saturday’s post featured the former Church of Ireland place of worship at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny. Immediately adjacent to this are the remains of a large tower house dating from the 15th century. Burnchurch Castle is believed to have been built by a branch of the FitzGerald family and remained in their hands until the mid-17th century when it passed into the possession of the Cromwellian soldier Colonel William Warden. Subsequently owned by the Floods, it remained in use as a residence until the second decade of the 19th century. Rising six storeys, the main building well preserved, although an adjacent great hall has long since disappeared. However, close by is a remnant of the former bawn wall that used to surround the site: a now-free standing castellated turret.

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Made Better By Their Presents II

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Although the Board of First Fruits is no longer much remembered, for more than a century it was an important organization in this country. Established in 1711 during the reign of Queen Anne, the board was devised to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. Initially funded by a tax on clerical incomes, from 1778 onwards the body benefitted from grants given by the Irish Parliament, the amount varying until 1785 after which it received an annual sum of £5,000. Following the abolition of the country’s parliament in 1800, just as Ireland’s elected representatives were more closely bound to their English equivalents, so too were Irish Anglican clergy, thanks to the creation of the United Church of England and Ireland. One consequence of this merger was a substantial increase in money available to the Board of First Fruits: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808 and then climbed to a remarkable £60,000 between 1810-26 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. This largesse led to a massive building boom, with almost 700 churches either constructed or renovated, as well as 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. Of course the Church of Ireland population was never large (just over 10 per cent in the 1831 census) and has steadily declined (today it is less than three per cent), rendering increasing numbers of these buildings surplus to need. Over the past century, parishes have been amalgamated and properties let go, with many churches falling into dereliction. Readers may already be familiar with photographer Tarquin Blake’s previous books including two featuring Abandoned Mansions of Ireland. Now he has produced a new volume Abandoned Churches of Ireland, which contains accounts of 82 properties spread across twenty-five counties. In varying stages of decline, they represent the Church of Ireland’s history from dominant faith – in authority if not in numbers – to minority denomination. Blake’s pictures and text eloquently tell the story of churches like that at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny (seen above and below), its present form dating from 1810 when the Board of First Fruits provided the parish with a grant and loan for this purpose. Built on the site of an older church, it remained in use until 1961 and is now a roofless shell.

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Abandoned Churches of Ireland by Tarquin Blake is published by Collins Press (27.99).