This week’s ruined church can be found at Skirk, County Laois on a high site with wonderful views across the surrounding countryside. There seems to be some uncertainty about when it was constructed, since some writers propose a mid-18th century date. However, the usually reliable Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) says it was built in 1831 thanks to a loan of £500 from the Board of First Fruits. The latter option makes more sense since to the immediate south are the remains of an older, late medieval church, a section of which seemingly collapsed in the 1830s so that now only the east gable and a portion of one wall survive: it appears that this was used as a mausoleum, the blocked entrance to which can still be seen.
In the last quarter of the 16th century a number of members of the Cuffe family, all from Somerset, arrived in Ireland seeking opportunities to enrich themselves. Henry Cuffe, for example, came to this country as secretary to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex when the latter was appointed Lord Lieutenant here in 1599. But when Essex fell from favour two years later and was executed, Cuffe suffered the same fate. Meanwhile, one of his relatives, perhaps a brother (it seems unclear) called Hugh Cuffe had also settled in Ireland where he was granted some of the Earl of Desmond’s lands in Munster, following the earl’s own death in 1583. Initially Hugh Cuffe seems to have been based in County Clare, but within a few years he was recorded as receiving land in County Cork, close to property which had been given to Edmund Spenser. However, before much longer had passed Cuffee had to surrender at least some of what he had been granted, after his right to it was challenged by members of an Old English family related to the FitzGeralds . Nevertheless, he must have held onto something because a marriage settlement drawn up in 1604 between his daughter Dorothea, and Charles Coote, describes Hugh Cuffe as being ‘of Cuffe’s Wood (or Kilmore), County Cork.’
Like Hugh Cuffe, Charles Coote was an English settler, arriving here in 1600 as captain of a foot regiment in the army of Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy who had succeeded the Earl of Essex as Lord Deputy of Ireland: Coote was therefore a member of the force that a year later defeated the Irish and Spanish forces at the Battle of Kinsale. He soon began to reap the benefits of being on the winning side. In 1605 he was appointed Provost Marshal of Connaught and then in 1613 was given the office of General Collector and Receiver of the King’s Composition Money for Connaught, also for life, before being further promoted to Vice-President of Connaught. As a result of holding these positions, his main base was in Roscommon where he built a residence, Castle Coote. He also founded the towns of Jamestown and Carrick-on-Shannon, both in County Leitrim, as well as Mountrath, County Laois. Knighted in 1616, five years later Coote was appointed a Privy Councilor by James I, who also made him the first Baronet of Ireland, ‘in consideration of his good and faithful services in the province of Ulster.’ All seemed to be going well for him until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars in 1641. Although by then aged 60, he was instructed by the English government to raise a regiment and suppress insurrection, which he did with considerable force in County Wicklow before moving north. In May 1642 he was shot dead while leading a cavalry charge against a Confederate army in Trim, County Meath.
As already mentioned, in 1604 Hugh Cuffe’s daughter Dorothea married Charles Coote. Although the couple spent much of their time in Connaught, Coote owned land in what is now Laois but was then called Queen’s County. Here at some unknown date, perhaps around 1621 when he became a baronet, perhaps later, he embarked on building a substantial new house, which in honour of his wife he named Castle Cuffe. Was the place ever finished and occupied? We shall probably never know because soon after the onset of the Confederate Wars it was threatened with attack by the O’Dunnes who had formerly owned the land on which the castle stood. A cunning strategy was adopted to capture the place: Captain Daniel Dunne placed a tree trunk, coloured to look like a large cannon, on a hill some distance from the building and threatened to fire on it unless the occupants surrendered, which they duly did – fleeing to the town of Birr some miles away. Meanwhile, Dunne’s troops, having taken everything they wanted from Castle Cuffe, set fire to the place. It appears to have remained a ruin ever since and only scant remains survive, although their height gives an idea of how impressive a house must once have stood here, constructed on a H-plan, rising three storeys high and with a facade 100 feet long. What mostly survive are a number of gable ends topped with high, squared chimneys, their striking appearance – as is so often the case in Ireland – a matter of indifference to the cattle which now call Castle Cuffe home.
A further example of urban decay in Ireland: the Market House in Portarlington, County Laois. Standing in the centre of a square from which radiate four roads, the building dates from the early years of the 18th century and reflects the town’s prosperity at the time. Readers outside Ireland may be startled to know that for several decades this significant monument to Portarlington’s past operated as a garage where cars were serviced and repaired; for Irish readers, the information will come as no surprise, since it is typical of how we are inclined to treat our architectural heritage. Last July the local authority came to an arrangement with the owners of the market house, taking it over on a long lease. The intention, presumably, is to restore the building and put it to more sympathetic use. But much more needs to be done if such a project is to realise its full potential. At the moment, there are several substantial properties around the surrounding square in various stages of neglect and decay, most critically Arlington House, a five-bay, three storey 18th century house currently vacant (and with a long-time empty lot beside it), also the former Church of Ireland church, and adjacent to that a former cinema dating from the 1940s. Much of the square’s space is given over to car parking, and near-constant traffic discourages pedestrians from exploring the site. If this square and market house were elsewhere in Europe, their full potential would be exploited as a centrepiece for urban renewal and as a means of encouraging visitors to Portarlington. Let’s wait to see what the county council now does with the building and what is for now a bleak and desolate setting…
Incidentally, the Irish branch of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is now running a Maintenance Week with plenty of advice and help for owners of historic properties. Find out more through the organisation’s twitter account (@SPABIreland) or Instagram page (@spabireland).
‘The lodge was built all over and each side of the gate, in two two-storey octagonal turrets joined by a Gothic arch. Four octagonal rooms in the turrets and an up and down room in the arch housed the Conarchy family, who were all, however, quite ordinary shapes.’
The above passage describes the gatelodge entrance to the fictional Kilskour Castle in Sheila Pim’s A Brush with Death, published in 1950. An ardent gardener who wrote extensively on the subject, Pim (1909-1995) also produced four detective novels (often with a strong horticultural theme) from the mid-1940s onwards, although A Brush with Death is more concerned with art and provides an amusing portrait of Dublin’s cultural world in the middle of the last century.
As for the lodge shown here, it was the original entrance to Heywood, County Laois and is thought to have been designed around 1810 by the estate’s then-owner Michael Frederick Trench, who was also responsible for erecting a number of Gothic follies in the grounds (for more on these, see https://theirishaesthete.com/2018/08/27/heywood/)
The doorcase of a house standing on the north side of The Square in Durrow, County Laois. It is one of a number of properties developed here in the late 18th century by the Flower family, Viscounts Ashbrook, the entrance to whose estate lies to the immediate west of the terrace, adjacent to the Church of Ireland church. This house, of five bays and three storeys, has the finest doorcase, with carved limestone pilasters and entablature below the fanlight. Another in the same group can be seen below with its contrasting Gibbsian doorcase approached via charming wrought iron railings.
As David Skinner explains in his 2014 monograph on Wallpaper in Ireland, in the early 19th century some French manufacturers began to produce narrative papers, each one different and intended to be hung in sequence so as to tell a story. These ‘papiers-peints paysages’ as they were called, became popular throughour Europe and North America, and a number of them were hung in Irish houses. One particular monochrome set, telling the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche was first created in 1816 by Joseph Dufour of Paris, based on a series of pictures specially produced by two neo-classical artists of the time, Louis Lafitte and Merry-Joseph Blondel. At least three Cupid and Psyche sets could once be found here but two of the houses where they were installed, Kinlough, County Leitrim and Piltown, County Louth, are now ruins (for the latter, see https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/03/13/pourquoi-me-reveiller). The third set remains in situ in the library/ballroom of Stradbally Hall, County Laois where in the 1860s it was placed not on the walls but rather unusually in sequence around the outer perimeter of the ceiling.
A reminder of a family that once had a powerful presence in County Laois: the early 19th century, five-arched stone bridge across the river Nore at Watercastle. As the inscription advises, it was built (or more correctly rebuilt) in 1808 by Sir Robert Staples who lived not far away in a house called Dunmore. Sir Robert married three times, his third wife being the Hon Jane Vesey, sister of the first Viscount de Vesci who lived not far away at Abbey Leix: the Staples’ and de Vescis are regularly mentioned in the correspondence of Caroline, Countess of Portarlington. Both her former home, Emo Court and that of the de Vescis still stand, but Dunmore is gone. Built in the early 18th century and of three storeys with projecting two storey wings, it was unroofed in the last century and allowed to fall into ruin before being eventually demolished.
‘The house is one of the most extensive in the kingdom, the front exceeding upwards of two hundred feet and one of the most beautiful, being built of the quarries on this estate, and mostly hewn, which gives the whole a magnificent appearance’. So wrote William Wilson in 1803 of the recently built Capard, County Laois. This neo-classical house, situated on high ground with panoramic views across the surrounding countryside, has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the past two centuries with its future uncertain on more than one occasion. However since 2015 its current owners have undertaken a meticulous restoration of both building and demesne so that it is now without doubt one of Ireland’s finest country houses. This week saw the publication of a book chronicling Capard’s history, written by Ciarán Reilly and placing the estate within the context of time and place, allowing readers better to understand the evolution of the midlands region. As handsome as the place itself, Capard: An Irish Country House and Estate is a welcome addition to the field of Irish country house studies
Capard: An Irish Country House and Estate is now available from the Irish Georgian Society, for more information see: https://shop.igs.ie/products/capard-an-irish-country-house-estate
Coote Terrace is a row of three late Georgian three-bay, two-storey over basement villas in Mountrath, County Laois, the name derived from the Coote family who lived nearby in Ballyfin. They are in diverse condition, this one being well-maintained and with a handsome front garden. Its neighbour, on the other hand, looks in need of serious attention if the house is to survive.
When John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington commissioned designs for a residence from architect James Gandon in 1790, he already lived in a fine house. This was Dawson Court, presumably built earlier in the 18th century by his grandfather Ephraim Dawson following the latter’s marriage to Ann Preston, heiress to an estate at Emo, County Laois. Since no pictures or descriptions exist, we know very little about that building, other than it was called Dawson Court and stood somewhere in the vicinity of the present, Gandon-designed Emo Court. The only surviving parts of the building are a pair of carved limestone chimney pieces, one of which remains in a former bedroom on the first floor. The other, once protected by a since-demolished passageway, now sits exposed against a wall to the immediate west of the house.