Formerly known as Lisbrack House, this building in Newtownforbes, County Longford became an episcopal palace when enlarged and occupied in the early 1870s by George Conroy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. It continued to serve this purpose until c.1920 when used as a novitiate for the nearby Convent of Mercy before in turn becoming a secondary school in 1951 and finally a nursing home. However, in recent years the property has stood empty, surrounded by newly-constructed houses but left to fall into the present state of ruin. In other words, the all-too familiar scenario for an old building in an Irish town.
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round
The shell of Doory Hall, County Longford, the stable block of which was discussed here some time ago (see Future Uncertain « The Irish Aesthete). Doory Hall belonged for several centuries to the Jessop family who had settled here in the second half of the 17th century on land granted to them by Charles II. There was an earlier house on or near this site, as the present house – or what remains of it – dates from c.1820 and is attributed to Cork architect John Hargrave, much of whose work otherwise involved designing gaols and courthouses. Perhaps this accounts for the severity of the building’s neo-classical design, now softened only by the bows at either end, although it should be noted that originally the central pedimented breakfront had a single-storey Doric porch, since removed. Internally nothing survives to indicate how the house once looked.
Originally from County Durham in England, by 1651 Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh was living in Philipstown (now Daingean), County Offaly, the first of this family to settle in Ireland. His grandson Thomas married Mary Sherlock from Kildare and the couple moved to Ardagh, County Longford where around 1703 he bought some 235 acres of land from the Farrell family. At some point between this acquisition and his death in 1749 he commissioned a new residence in Ardagh; this building is said to have provided part of the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer since the playwright mistook the Fetherstonhaugh’s house for an inn. The couple’s eldest son Ralph sat in the House of Commons of the Irish Parliament for 12 years from 1768 onwards and in 1776 was created a baronet. He also simplified the family surname to Fetherston (other branches retained the name in full). His eldest son Thomas, the second baronet, likewise sat as an M.P., in the Irish Parliament until 1800 and thereafter at Westminster until his death in 1819. The third and fifth baronets, Sir George and Sir Thomas Fetherston respectively were responsible for giving the local village of Ardagh its present appearance, by commissioning new housing for the local population. In the early 1860s Sir Thomas employed Dublin-based architect James Rawson Carroll to design one- and two-storey cottages around a green featuring a clock tower erected to the memory of his uncle, Sir George (see Commemorating a Life-long Devotion « The Irish Aesthete)
Sir Thomas Fetherston had only one son, another George, who was only 13 when he inherited the estate. He later became an Anglican clergyman and travelled widely, meaning he did not spend as much time in Ardagh as had his father. Under the terms of the Wyndham Act, in 1903 Sir George sold most of the estate – by then running to some 11,000 acres – to his tenants, retaining only the house and demesne. When he died unmarried at the age of 70 in 1923 the baronetcy died out also. Within a few years, the former family home had been sold to an order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy who moved into the building and then gradually added extensions to the east side, from which they ran a home economics college. As in the case of so many other such properties, at the start of the present century the nuns gradually wound down operations here and in 2007 the house and surrounding 227 acres was sold at auction for €5.25 million. However, that sale fell through and it was back on the market for €5; by June 2009, as the effects of recession began to be felt, that price had dropped to €3.25 million. It was finally sold at auction in June 2012 for €1.36 million. Since then, the house has sat empty.
As mentioned, the main house at Ardagh is thought to date from the first half of the 18th century when constructed for Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. But much of its present appearance is 19th century, when it was refurbished first by Sir George Fetherston (who laid out the surrounding grounds) and then by his nephew Sir Thomas. The latter was responsible for the present stable block which, like a considerable portion of the adjacent village, was designed by architect James Rawson Carroll and features a series of cut-stone blocks with half-hipped roofs around a central courtyard. Sir Thomas is thought to have been responsible for adding a two-storey, three-bay ballroom wing to the immediate east of the eight-bay house, as well as the latter’s porch and arcaded conservatory. During the Civil War, an attempt was made to burn down the building, but this seems to have caused little damage. A more serious fire in 1948 led to the nuns then in residence removing the top floor, thereby making the house look longer and lower than would previously been the case. Anyone passing through Ardagh village cannot fail to see the building standing forlorn and unkempt across open ground. It seems unfortunate that a property linked to the family who did so much for the area, and which can claim associations with one of the finest comedies ever written in the English language, should today be left in this sad condition.
And today’s example of wasted public resources comes courtesy of Longford County Council. Dating from 1815, the former cavalry barracks in Longford town are believed to have been designed by John Behan, a measurer and architect (and timber merchant) employed by the Board of Works on such military properties. Historically, this is the most important area in the town, since it is where the dominant family, the O’Farrells built a castle (the last parts of which were demolished in the early 1970s: a shopping centre can now be found there instead). In the 17th century, Francis Aungier converted at least part of the site into a manor house with surrounding gardens, building a market house and square immediately adjacent. In 1774 his descendant sold the property to the British authorities for development as a military barracks. Post-Independence, these were occupied by the Irish army until 2009. Three years later, the buildings on some 5.1 hectares were bought by the county council for €450,000, since when the cavalry barracks has sat empty. A number of smaller ancillary blocks to the rear are used by local groups and there’s a large open field running down to the river Camlin. The same questions arise: why do local authorities purchase these places and then leave them unused for so long, meaning that whenever an eventual use is found, the relevant costs are higher? And what sort of example does this set to other owners of historic properties when the county council fails to take adequate care of an important building it owns? Only question always has the same answer. Who’ll eventually have to foot the bill? Answer: the Irish taxpayer.
The clock tower which stands in the centre of Ardagh, County Longford. The village was part of the estate belonging to Sir Thomas John Fetherston who in the early 1860s employed James Rawson Carroll to design new houses and amenities for its residents. Built in 1863 by the architect’s brother, Thomas Henry Carroll, the clock tower stands in the centre of Ardagh’s picturesque Green and was erected in memory of Sir Thomas’ uncle, Sir George Ralph Fetherston. His widow paid for the monument which, according to an inscription at the base, commemorates her late-husband’s ‘life-long devotion to the moral and social improvement of his tenantry.’
Situated at a strategic crossing point of the river Shannon, Lanesborough (originally called Béal Átha Liag) derives its present name from the Lane family, and specifically Sir George Lane who in the second half of the 17th century did much to improve the place. The son of Sir Richard Lane of Tulsk, County Roscommon, Sir George was a faithful royalist and had followed Charles II into exile. So when the king returned to the throne in 1660, he duly rewarded Sir Richard with additional grants of land in Ireland, as well as a number of high offices; in 1664 he was appointed to the Irish Privy Council, and the following year was made Secretary of State for Ireland, a position he held until his death in 1683. In 1676 he was created first Viscount Lanesborough.
Sir Richard’s primary residence in Ireland stood just a few miles south of Lanesborough, at Rathcline Castle, today a spectacular ruin. The lands here originally belonged to the Quinn or O’Quinn family who may have been responsible for constructing the original tower house here in the 15th or early 16th century. During the latter period, it had passed into the possession of the O’Farrells, but by 1620 Rathcline belonged to Sir Thomas Dutton, an English soldier granted some 2,000 acres by the crown as part of the plantation of Ireland. At least some of what remains here was due to Dutton but after he died, his son also called Thomas, sold Rathcline and the surrounding lands to Sir George Lane. In 1724 following the death of his son, the second Viscount Lanesborough without a son, the place was inherited by the latter’s nephew George Fox, who duly changed his surname to Fox-Lane. His heirs in due course sold the Longford estate to Luke White, who amongst other properties also owned Luttrellstown Castle on the outskirts of Dublin.
The remains of Rathcline Castle date from several different periods, beginning with the original three-storey tower house with battered base which stands on the south-east corner of the site. At the north-east corner is another tower, of also of three-storeys but rectangular and projecting eastwards; this looks to be of a slightly later date. At some point, perhaps in the 17th century, a long range was built linking the two towers, and forming one wall of an enclosed courtyard behind. It had a sequence of large window openings, long since blocked up. Sir George Lane apparently intended to carry out extensive improvements on the property, perhaps inspired by his links with the Duke of Ormonde who did undertake major work on his residence, Kilkenny Castle. In 1664 plans for Rathcline were secured from John Westley, a Dublin-based lawyer and amateur architect married to the daughter of John Webb (Inigo Jones’ pupil); incidentally, Westley also devised plans for Phoenix House, the royal lodge near Dublin, and proposed himself to undertake the construction of new buildings in Dublin Castle. Whether his scheme for Rathcline Castle was carried out even in part is unknown, but in a description of this part of the country written in 1682, Nicholas Dowdall called the building ‘A very noble and spacious house’ which was ‘very pleasant and well Improved with Orchards, Gardens, Fishponds and a Deer Park.’
Whatever it once looked like, as can be seen from within the courtyard, Rathcline Castle was never very deep, perhaps going back no further than a single, admittedly substantial, room: what survives of a great moulded limestone chimneypiece can be found on the first floor of the north wall. Elsewhere in the courtyard the ruins of a range of farm buildings, perhaps erected in the 19th century, occupy one section of the west wall. Otherwise the space stands empty, and evidently much pillaged for stone over 100s of years: it appears that Rathcline Castle suffered badly during the Williamite Wars and may never have been occupied thereafter. The most arresting feature of the site is a limestone classical archway inserted into the south wall, although it too is incomplete, since there were evidently free-standing columns on either side. A second carved limestone archway also survives on the west side. The design of this looks earlier than the classical arch and, given that it occupies the base of a gable wall, suggests this was the public entrance to a chapel on the site. Given its long-term neglect, trying to understand much more about the layout of the castle is a challenge.
The three-storey, octagonal dovecote at Mosstown, County Longford. Believed to date from the mid-18th century, it once stood inside the walled garden of Mosstown, an estate that for a long period belonged to the Newcomen baronets. At some date in the 17th century they built Mosstown, a long house of at least 11 bays and two-storeys with dormered attics and double gables. It passed into other hands in the 19th century but was still occupied until the 1930s, after which the property stood empty until regrettably demolished in 1962. Now sharing a field with a number of horses, this dovecote is one of the few remaining buildings to recall the estate’s existence. The two upper levels, with blind round-headed openings on the first floor and blind oculi on the second, had an interior housing pigeons but the ground floor is a single open space with handsome domed brick ceiling.
The Fox family of County Longford were of ancient origin, their name being Ó Sionnaigh before it was anglicized. In the 11th century Tadhg O Catharnaigh (Kearney) was Chief of Teffia in Co. Meath and as a result of his wiliness came to be known as ‘An Sionnach’ – The Fox. His descendants kept the title, and eventually gained control of the Barony of Kilcoursey, County Offaly, the head of the family continuing to be known as The Fox. Among these descendants was one Patrick Fox, who appears to have been based in Dublin in the late 16th century when he worked closely with English government forces and as a result managed to secure lands in what is now County Longford which had hitherto belonged to the O’Farrells. On his death in 1618 he passed the estate to his eldest son Nathaniel, then aged 30, who built a house there, seemingly incorporating parts of the old O’Farrell castle of Rathreagh. This residence was called Foxhall.
Close to the house at Foxhall, Sir Nathaniel Fox erected a small church, now roofless and in poor condition, the south wall of which is dominated by his tomb (he died in 1634). This wonderful monument takes the form of a limestone altar tomb on which can be seen the reclining figure of Sir Nathaniel, garbed as a knight in full armour lying on his side: the head, right hand and left leg of the effigy are long gone, so that just the truncated torso and thigh remain. An orb and skull can be seen at his feet while what remains of his right arm rests on a tasselled cushion. On either side of the effigy are paired Ionic pilasters supporting an arch on which rest sphinxes. Winged putti can be seen within the arch above which is an entablature with obelisks and elaborate scrollwork. A panel above Sir Nathaniel contains the Fox coat of arms, and below two shields is a Latin inscription which translates as follows: ‘Here lies Nathaniel Fox, of Rathreagh, founder of this church, eldest son and heir of Patrick Fox of Moyvore in Co. Westmeath, who had as wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Walter Hussey of Moyhussey Knight. By whom he had 8 sons and 5 daughters, of whom 8 sons and 3 daughters survived. Patrick, son of the aforesaid Nath., sole heir, had as wife, Barbara, daughter of Lord Patrick Plunkett, Baron of Dunsany. The same Nath. and Elizabeth, lived for 25 years as man and wife, and he died at Rathreagh,2nd of Feb. A.D. 1634, aged 46.’ The entrance to the church at the west end is through a fine cut-limestone classical doorcase with a plaque noting that the building was enlarged and restored in 1772. Presumably this work was undertaken by Francis Fox of Foxhall who in 1759 married Mary Edgeworth of Edgeworthstown, linking the two families. This connection was further strengthened in 1824 when their grandson, Major Barry Fox married Mary Edgeworth’s great-niece Sophia, half-sister of writer Maris Edgeworth.
Writing of Foxhall in July 1797, Maria Edgeworth noted that ‘The house is partly an old castle, and the place quite out of order, run to ruin during [Mr Fox’s] two year absence with his regiment of Militia, besides it rained the whole time we were there and the prospect is bounded by black bogs.’ The Mr Fox to whom she here refers was the aforementioned Francis Fox, Colonel of the Longford Militia. One must presume that the condition of the house improved as three years later Maria Edgeworth again wrote to one of her siblings, ‘We – that is my father, Mrs E, Charlotte and Maria are just returned from Foxhall where we have been dining and making merry with excellent raisin wine and walking and seeing the monument and statue recumbent of that valiant knight Sir Nat Fox who has a one foot upon a globe and the other upon a skull.’ Her host Francis Fox had in 1787 married Lady Anne Maxwell, daughter of the first Earl of Farnham. This may be of relevance when one looks at the photograph of Foxhall (the last below), as there are strong similarities between the house and Farnham, the latter remodelled and enlarged from 1802 onwards for the second Lord Farnham (Lady Anne’s brother) to the designs of Francis Johnston (this is even allowing for major alterations made to Farnham in 1961). Both buildings are were of three-storeys and with a three-bay breakfront, the respective owner’s coat of arms being featured in the pediment above. Farnham was certainly larger, suggesting that Francis Fox having found his house, in Maria Edgeworth’s words, ‘run to ruin’ decided to undertake a major refurbishment and to emulate his brother-in-law’s residence. We shall likely never know because the house no longer stands. The last of the male Foxes to live here, Richard Maxwell Fox, died in 1885 and having no living sons the estate was inherited by his eldest daughter Adeline. It would appear neither she nor her two sisters married, and that they preferred to live in England. The greater part of the Fox land having already been sold, the house and demesne went the same way in the 1920s, and the former was eventually demolished by the Land Commission in 1946. The yard buildings, which stood directly behind the house, still survive to give some idea of what the place must once have been like.
Please note: In Ireland, as in so much of the world, a great many buildings are closed to the public at present. On the other hand, locations that are in decay or ruin, and open to the elements are often accessible. As a result, this site is likely to feature many such properties over the coming weeks. The Irish Aesthete apologises, but promises to keep the tone as upbeat and cheerful as possible.
The stable block on the former estate of Doory Hall, County Longford. The lands here were granted by Charles II to the Jessop family, said to have moved to this country from Derbyshire. The long-forgotten 19th century writer and novelist George H Jessop (who wrote the libretto for Charles Villiers Stanford’s 1896 comic opera Shamus O’Brien) was born here, together with his sister, poet and story writer Mary Kathleen Jessop Another branch of the same family owned an estate in the same county, Mount Jessop but like Doory Hall this long ago went to ruin.
The main house at Doory Hall, now just a shell, is thought to have been designed in the 1820s by John Hargrave, a son of the successful Cork architect Abraham Hargrave; the younger man was responsible for designing a number of buildings, including churches and glebe houses, in County Longford. The stable block is also attributed to him, but could be earlier; the 1820s house replaced an earlier one on the site, so perhaps this is a residue of the previous development? Whatever the past history, at the moment its future does not look promising.