One of Ireland’s lesser known mediaeval monuments: the 15th century Desmond Banqueting Hall in Newcastle West, County Limerick. Built on the remains of an earlier structure (the remains of lancet windows on the south wall suggest it may once have served as a chapel), the hall sits above a vaulted lower chamber. The building was part of a castle complex developed here by the FitzGerald family, Earls of Desmond who remained in occupation until the end of the 16th century. The castle then passed into the possession of the Courtenays, later Earls of Devon, but was badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and likely not occupied thereafter (an adjacent house, occupied by the Courtenays’ agent, was burnt in 1922 during the Civil War). The Banqueting Hall was restored some years ago when an oak screen and musicians’ gallery were installed, along with a hooded limestone chimneypiece.
Evening light falls on the remains of the ‘New Church’ by Lough Gur, County Limerick. Originally dating from the 15th century when built by the Earls of Desmond, in 1642 it was described as a ruin. However, the church was restored in 1679 when Rachel, Dowager Countess of Bath (whose late husband had inherited a large amount of land in the area) presented a chalice and patten to what she described as her ‘chapel-of-ease’ as well as an endowment of £20 to provide for a chaplain. By the 19th century it once again became a ruin but conservation work was undertaken in 1900 on the instruction of the seventh Count de Salis, whose forebears had inherited the Bath estates here. Today the church is once more a ruin. Tradition has it that the composer and harpist Thomas Connellan who died nearby in 1698 is buried here in an unmarked grave.
The County Limerick town of Kilmallock derives its name from a Saint Mocheallóg who in the late sixth/early seventh centuries established a religious house in the vicinity: the name thus derives from the Irish Cill Mocheallóg meaning ‘the church of Mocheallóg.’ Following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, Kilmallock grew in importance to become second only to the city of Limerick in this part of the country. It subsequently became a stronghold of the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and owing to a location between Cork and Limerick became a centre for both trade and government.
Evidence of Kilmallock’s former significance can be found in various old buildings, not least the Dominican priory of St Saviour. Located outside the town walls close to the river Loobagh, this house was established in 1291 when with the consent of King Edward I the friars bought land from one of Kilmallock’s burgesses John Bluet. However, Gerald le Marshall, then-bishop of Limerick who held authority over the area disapproved of this transaction taking place without his approval and had the Dominicans expelled from the site. An inquiry held in Cashel by William de Vesci, one of the country’s Lords Justices, ruled that le Marshall should not acted as he did since the friars owed no rent or service to the bishop for their priory. Soon afterwards they returned and remained in residence for several centuries.
St Saviour’s Priory retains a number of fine features, many of them added thanks to patronage by the local FitzGerald family: a niche-tomb believed to commemorate one of them can be seen on the northern wall of the chancel. The core of the extant buildings date from the late 13th/early 14th centuries when the main body of the church was constructed. The tall crossing tower was added in the 15th century, as was the southern transept with its elaborate window. To the north lies the cloister, one side of which has been reconstructed to give an impression of how it would once have appeared. Throughout the site are various carvings in different states of preservation featuring human heads and foliage.
Kilmallock’s strategic importance made it vulnerable to attack from which religious houses were not protected. In 1570 during the first Desmond Rebellion James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, cousin of the fifteenth Earl of Desmond (then in custody in London) burnt the town, leaving it, as the Annals of the Four Masters reported, ‘the receptacle and abode of wolves.’ Already by that date the priory had officially been closed but it appears the friars were still in the area, if not in occupation of the buildings. In 1648 during the Confederate War, Murrough O’Brien, first Earl of Inchiquin sacked the priory and executed two of the remaining friars. Yet even in the 18th century the Dominicans continued to be a presence, three of them recorded in Kilmallock in 1756. The site was finally abandoned thereafter and fell into ruin but has been the scene of extensive restoration work in more recent times.
What remains of The Grange, County Limerick. Dating from the second half of the 18th century, it was described by William Wilson in 1786 as ‘the beautiful and well improved seat of Standish O’Grady.’ The property remained with the O’Gradys until that branch of the family died out in 1861 after which it passed to the Crokers, to whom they were related by marriage. But Captain Edward Croker likewise had no heirs and The Grange was inherited by his two sisters. The house was still intact in the 1940s but thereafter began to deteriorate and is now just a shell. The 19th century entrance gates give an idea how this beautiful and well improved seat must once have looked.
Although County Limerick has a rich stock of historic buildings dating back as far as the early Christian era, much of its architectural heritage is insufficiently known or celebrated. A newly published little gem of a book should help to rectify this situation. An Architectural Tour of County Limerick does exactly what its title proposes, offering visitors to the area an opportunity to discover a wealth of sites ranging from that piece of 19th century gothic whimsy, Dromore (shown on the cover above) to the 13th century Trinitarian Abbey dovecote in Adare (below), and taking in many other properties along the way. With a text written by historian Declan Downey and delightfully illustrated by Nesta FitzGerald, the book deserves to encourage a rash of informed readers to descend on County Limerick and see for themselves what delights this part of the country has to offer.
Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick. Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.
Some buildings announce their sense of worth on first sight, while others are more self-effacing and require discovery. Kilpeacon, County Limerick belongs to the second category, initially making little impression on the visitor who will only note a modestly-proportioned, wide-eaved villa and assume there is nothing more to find here.
Certainly the house’s exterior gives little indication of the riches within. Kilpeacon presents itself as a two-storey, three-bay property, the main walls faced in roughly dressed limestone, with the two ground floor Wyatt windows given red brick surrounds: this would originally have been concealed by rendering. Cut limestone is used sparingly except for the facade’s most notable feature, a single storey breakfronted and balustraded bow porch with carved Ionic columns, and for the surrounds of the aforementioned pair of Wyatt windows which have acanthus brackets and a patera decoration within their arches. Nevertheless, these elements are unlikely to alter the notion that this is a house of only passing architectural interest.
Kilpeacon dates from c.1810-20 and was built for a local land owner Edward Cripps Villiers. It appears that in the mid-17th century the estate had come into the possession of Sir William King, a Cromwellian soldier who in 1665 served as Mayor of Limerick (and in 1690 was Governor of the city, during which time he was held captive by the supporters of King James). Having been granted lands to the extent of 21,600 acres in the county, he settled at Kilpeacon on which stood a castle previously belonging to the royalist Sir David Bourke: in 1653 the latter, then aged 64, and his family were dispossessed of all their property. Although married to Barbara Boyle, daughter of the Bishop of Cork, Sir William King had no direct heirs. Therefore on his death in 1706 Kilpeacon passed to a pair of grand nephews, Richard and Edward Villiers: a marble monument to their great-uncle was duly erected in the local church and remains there to the present. The Villiers brothers also died childless and so the estate was in turn inherited by one of their nephews Joseph Cripps of Edwardstown, who added the Villiers name to his own. Edward Villiers who was responsible for building the present house appears to have been his grandson.
In Limerick: Its History and Antiquities (published 1866) Maurice Lenihan writes that ‘Kilpeacon Court’, which he describes as ‘exceedingly tasteful and beautiful’ was built by Edward Cripps Villiers at a cost of £12,000. Its design is customarily ascribed to Sir Richard Morrison, not least on the basis of strong similarities with several other houses for which he was responsible, in particular Bearforest, County Cork (1807-8) which likewise had a bowed entrance porch flanked by Wyatt windows, and Hyde Park, County Wexford (1807), although the latter instead has a tetrastyle Doric porch. Nevertheless, the links are strong enough to make the attribution to Morrison hard to refute.
The three houses have certain characteristics in common, especially a top-lit staircase hall from which radiate the main reception rooms. Kilpeacon is larger than one might suppose, since in addition to the staircase hall the ground floor holds an oval entrance hall, library, morning room, dining and drawing rooms, all of substantial proportions, while the first floor contained six bedrooms. This may look like a humble villa but it is actually a very decent-sized country house.
The surprise and delight of Kilpeacon lies in its decoration, far more elaborate than would be expected given its exterior reserve. This begins in the oval entrance hall where the heavily ornamented entablature breaks forward on both sides and is supported by three columns with composite capitals. The doors here, as elsewhere, are panelled and inlaid with the style varying from one room to the next. The stair hall rises to a glass dome and has a gallery running around three sides, barrel-vaulted corridors providing access to the bedrooms. As for the reception rooms, they also benefit from sumptuous decoration both in the plasterwork and the white marble chimneypieces which feature a variety of classical gods and goddesses. The drawing room ceiling, for example, is decorated with oval wreaths of flowers and foliage, the outermost entwined with shamrock.
The expense of building Kilpeacon must have been more than the estate could sustain, because by 1850 the place was being offered for sale. Lenihan reports that Major George O’Halloran Gavin, ‘late of the 16th Lancers, in which he served with distinction in India’ first bought the house and demesne of 429 acres that year and then in the following acquired an additional 250 adjoining acres, all from the Encumbered Estates Court. He paid £12,000, the same price as the house had cost barely a generation earlier.
Following his retirement from the army Major Gavin served as an M.P. for Limerick City. He died in 1880 and the estate passed to his son Montiford Westropp Gavin who played cricket for Ireland in 1890. In the 1911 census he is recorded as resident in the house with his wife, four daughters and four servants: he died in 1922 and five years later Kilpeacon was sold. It has since passed through a number of hands and of late has been offered for sale again. One must hope it finds a sympathetic new owner, ideally somebody who appreciates the house’s exceptional qualities cleverly concealed behind a plain exterior.