Memento Mori

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In anticipation of next Monday, here is a particularly striking tombstone in the old graveyard at Dromiskin, County Louth. The limestone monument was erected by local man James Duffy (here spelled Duffey) in memory of his father Michael who died in February 1797 at the considerable age of 89. On the front of the stone are carved the Crucified Christ (with God the Father and Holy Spirit immediately above) and angels proffering directions to heaven on the left and hell on the right. The rear of the tomb carries the now-weather beaten Duffy coat of arms topped by a memento mori-serving skull. Happy All Hallows’ Eve…

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Pagan and Christian

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Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.

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Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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A Garden of Earthly Delights

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In the mid-1830s George Harpur, a merchant based in Drogheda, County Louth who had made his money in the salt trade, bought an estate called Killineer a few miles north of the town. A century earlier the land here had been granted by the local corporation on a 999-year lease to Sir Thomas Taylor, whose family lived at Headfort, County Meath. It then passed to the Pentlands whose main residence was to the immediate east at Blackhall. At some date in the 18th century a house was built on the property: it appears on early maps but little now remains other than one room which still retains sections of plaster panelling. Located to the rear of the walled garden, this space now serves as a toolshed.

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Following his purchase, George Harpur embarked on the construction of a new house, on a site a little below the earlier one. Unfortunately we do not know who was the architect responsible for designing this building, which is not dissimilar from the Pentlands’ nearby Blackhall. Of two storeys over basement, it has a six-bay rendered façade centred on a Tuscan portico. Deep windows admit abundant light into the four ground-floor reception rooms which have elaborate plasterwork cornice friezes. But the most striking features of the house are its octagonal entrance hall with arched niches on four sides, and the splendid imperial staircase leading to that long-standing feature of the Irish country house: the first floor top-lit gallery from which bedrooms are accessed. One of the reasons we know so little about the house’s early years is that when George Harpur died in 1888 he left no heir and Killineer accordingly changed hands, passing into the ownership of another local family, the Montgomerys of Beaulieu. When it was next offered for sale in 1918, the auction notice advised prospective purchasers ‘Everything that taste or comfort could suggest for the embellishment of the house and demesne was done by the late owner regardless of expense.’

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In addition to building himself a new house, George Harpur also laid out gardens at Killineer, beginning with a series of formal Italianate terraces that descend from the front of the main building. Eventually these reach a long serpentine stretch of water, created from what was shown on earlier maps as a relatively small pond. A series of islands on this lake help to break up the vista so that the prospect constantly alters as one wanders along paths meandering on either side. To the immediate east is a woodland garden, rich in ferns, mosses and other moisture-loving plants, while to the north west is a great laurel ‘lawn’, a piece of 19th century garden design once common but now more rare: that at Killineer is today the largest in the country. On this side also is a lakeside summer pavilion, its façade a miniature version of the house. Behind the stables and yards is the old walled garden which runs to an acre and a half and is still used for growing fruit, vegetables and flowers: it is here the remnant of the original Killineer can be found. Dotted around the grounds are garden ornaments originally made for other properties, some of which have since been lost, including St Anne’s in Clontarf, Dundalk House further north in County Louth, and Stackallen, County Meath. As today’s photographs testify, Killineer’s present owners keep the place in marvellous repair and make it a garden of earthly delights.

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Craic des Chevaliers

IMG_3802Pottering about the back lanes of County Louth, one’s attention is suddenly arrested by a limestone outcrop on which are the remains of a once-substantial fortification. This is Castle Roche, the name of which suggests that it was built by a northerly branch of the Roche family members of which are mostly found in Counties Wexford and Cork. Actually the origin of the castle’s title is more complex, as is the history of its construction. The building is believed to date from the 13th century and to have been erected by the Anglo-Norman de Verduns. An ancestor, Bertram de Verdun had come to England in 1066 as a retainer of Count Robert of Mortain, one of William the Conqueror’s principal commanders at the Battle of Hastings. His grandson, another Bertram, was appointed seneschal for the visit of Henry II to Ireland in 1171 and this was the beginning of the de Verduns’ association with this country. Bertram would die at Jaffa in 1192 while participating in the Third Crusade, but his son Nicholas inherited the family estates and especially after marrying Joan Fitz-Piers who likewise came into land in Ireland he spent much of his time here. The couple had a daughter, Rohesia de Verdun, and she is traditionally credited with building Castle Roche.

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IMG_3795Rohesia de Verdun was a considerable heiress, so it is not surprising that she should have become linked to another important Anglo-Norman family in Ireland, in 1225 marrying as his second wife Theobold le Boteler, a forebear of the Butler family. However by this time she already had a son, John de Verdun, perhaps the offspring of an illicit marriage or affair. It was John de Verdun, and not the children of Rohesia’s marriage to Theobold le Boteler, who would eventually inherit his mother’s Irish estates. In the meantime, she had become a widow, her husband dying in 1230 during an expedition to Gascony. Six years later, she is said to have undertaken the construction of a mighty fortress on her lands in what is now County Louth. Its name, Castle Roche, derives from a corruption of her own, Rohesia. It is likely that John de Verdun added much to the work his mother had begun, not least because in 1242 she founded the Augustinian Priory of Gracedieu near Thringstone in Leicestershire. This house is believed to have been the only one of its kind in England and, in line with the independent character of its founder, the nuns were independent of outside control. Rohesia died there five years after establishing the house. A persistent legend about Castle Roche may explain why she decided to become a member of a religious community. Although the Magna Carta enshrined in law that no widow could be compelled to remarry, it was not unusual for the crown to insist on such unions for various political and fiscal reasons. If she had taken another husband, Rohesia would have weakened the likelihood of her son John inheriting the family estates intact. It is said that she declared her intention only to marry the man who could build a castle to her satisfaction. Someone duly did so, but on their wedding night, as he showed his new bride the spectacular view from a window on the west side, she pushed him through it. Thereafter at Castle Roche it was known as the Murder Window.

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IMG_3783Built on the edge of a steep cliff, the plan of Castle Roche is almost triangular, this unusual form being dictated by the nature of the site. Rock formations provide protection to east, west, north and south so that the only access to the building lies on its easterly side. This was controlled by a bailey separated from the castle by a rock cut ditch. Entry to the castle was gained through the bailey, across a bridge over the ditch and through an arched gateway between two bastion towers. Like the battlemented curtain walls, these towers feature a series of slits through which arrows could be fired at the approaching enemy. Inside, the remains of a two-storey great hall can be found in the south-east corner, but otherwise little survives of any permanent structure as this was predominantly a walled enclosure. Castle Roche survived for several centuries. A meeting of all the English forces in Ireland took place here in 1561 but the building was devastated eighty years later during the Confederate Wars and has remained a ruin ever since. Given its dramatic position and relatively decent state of preservation, Castle Roche seems surprisingly little known. Last year the state tourist board launched an initiative called Ireland’s Ancient East designed to encourage more visitors to this part of the country. Castle Roche ought to feature in proposed itineraries but doesn’t. A missed opportunity – but at least those of us who come across the place can be confident of having it to ourselves.

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Take Three

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This week the Irish Aesthete celebrates its third birthday. When first posting in September 2012, I had no idea that the project would develop as it has since done, nor that it would attract such a loyal following (and certainly not that I would still be doing this now). A sincere thanks to everyone who has been reading these pages over the intervening period, and for your support and encouragement which – as any writer can confirm – make such a difference. Your own contributions and comments continue to be most welcome although a courteous tone is necessary if you wish for a response.
Over the past three years many posts have been gloomy or dispiriting in character, reflecting the problems faced by Ireland’s architectural heritage, and its want of sufficient support from public and private quarters alike. But given today’s occasion demands a more celebratory spirit, here is a trio of historic houses which have been featured before, all of them restored and brought back to vibrant life thanks to the imagination and passion of their respective owners.

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Rokeby Hall, County Louth which first featured here in February 2013 (Building on a Prelate’s Ambition) was built in the 1780s as a country retreat for then-Archbishop of Armagh Richard Robinson. As his architect Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston: born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. The house’s severe limestone façade hides a more inviting interior, of three storeys over basement, since Rokeby contains a particularly generous attic concealed behind the parapet, centred on a circular room lit by glazed dome. A similar circular landing on the first floor provides access to the main bedrooms.
Descendants of the Robinson family remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation, of Rokeby until the middle of the last century. Thereafter the property passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen. Over the past twenty years, a process of reclamation has taken place, driven by the correct balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. Most recently the present owners have impeccably restored Rokeby’s mid-19th century conservatory.

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The County Cork farmhouse shown above was discussed here in May 2014 (A Dash of Panache). when I noted that far too many such buildings in Ireland are abandoned to the elements ‘for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose.’ This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Indeed, one has only to venture into the countryside to see bungalows considered the ne plus ultra of modernity a few decades ago now drifting into a ruinous condition. More regrettably the same fate befalls far too many of Ireland’s handsome old farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness could be given fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate: mouldering into dereliction.
That looked the only prospect for this property until it was taken on by the present owner and brought back to life after a half-century of being left unoccupied. A low-key and sympathetic approach was adopted to the rescue programme. The old kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building, as does the large glazed space that now runs along the ground floor. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the artwork was acquired in the same way or came via friends. The result serves as a model of how to transform an apparently unsalvageable old farmhouse into a comfortable and smart private residence

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The double-height entrance hall of Gloster, County Offaly featured here last month (Spectacle as Drama) but the rest of this house merits equal attention. Gloster is believed to date from the third decade of the 18th century and to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, a cousin of then-owner Trevor Lloyd. The original two-storey building was of nine bays but two further bays were later added on either side making the facade exceptionally long. A series of terraces in front offer views to a lake and then mountains beyond, while another vista is closed by an arch flanked by obelisks. The sense of baroque theatre evident in Gloster’s siting continues indoors, and not just thanks to its spectacular entrance hall. To left and right run further rooms providing a wonderful enfilade rarely found in Ireland. These reflect changes in taste after the house was first constructed. The cornicing in the sitting room above, for example, is evidently from later in the 18th century as is the chimney piece but there is no sense of disharmony anywhere and diverse stylistic elements comfortably co-exist.
Gloster remained in the ownership of the Lloyds until 1958 when it was sold to the Salesian order of nuns who opened a convalescent home in the house and built a large school to the rear. When I first visited in the early 1980s the nuns were still in occupation but it was already evident that they were struggling to maintain the property. Indeed in 1990 they closed down operations and Gloster’s future looked uncertain, especially since it changed hands on a couple of occasions. Thankfully the present owners bought the place in 2001 and since then they have worked tirelessly and splendidly to turn around Gloster’s prospects. Inevitably, given the scale of the undertaking, this remains a work in progress. But already an enormous and admirable programme of restoration and refurbishment has been undertaken. Gloser demonstrates what can be done, even on limited means, provided the task is accompanied by sufficient courage and verve.

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My thanks again to all readers and followers of the Irish Aesthete for your ongoing support. Please encourage more people to become interested and engaged in Ireland’s architectural heritage. You can also discover me on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete), Twitter (@IrishAesthete), Pinterest (irishaesthete) and Instagram (The.Irish.Aesthete).

Last Remains

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Set into the eastern section of a wall surrounding St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth, the tombstone slab of a funerary monument dating from 1520 and commemorating Sir Edmond Golding and his wife Elizabeth Flemyng. Depicting the couple as cadavers, this stone would originally have sat on top of a free-standing tomb but was presumably moved to its present position when St Peter’s was rebuilt in the 1750s. Sections of the lower portion of the tomb can also be found elsewhere on the same wall.

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