Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.
Last week, the Irish Aesthete featured the former Convent of Mercy in Ardee, County Louth, which is now for sale. Today, here are some pictures of the former St Joseph’s School which was run by the same order in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo; the main block may have been designed by busy Dublin architect William Henry Byrne who was certainly responsible for the adjacent convent. St Joseph’s School opened in October 1901, and closed in July 2012. Since then the property appears to have stood empty on a large site in the centre of the town and left to fall into its present decay. Not only does this make the centre of the town look unsightly, it is also gratuitous waste of sound building stock.
With shells and sea-weed mingled, on the shore,
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed, by life’s long storm oppressed,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.
On a peninsula that extends like a finger dipping into the waters of Lough Conn, County Mayo stand the remains of Errew Priory. Like so many other Irish religious houses, this one is believed to have been founded by an early Christian saint. Tigernan, otherwise known as Tiernan was said to have been born in this part of the country but otherwise little appears to be known about him. He is the patron saint of nearby Crossmolina where the Roman Catholic church and secondary school are named after him.
Errew Priory was re-founded in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman Barrett family which had settled in the area; a number of them became Bishops of Elphin (a local diocese) and one, Thomas Barrett, was buried at Errew in 1404. Ten years later, the establishment was given by the Barretts into the care of the Augustinian Canons Regular who already had a house in Crossmolina. Dedicated to the Virgin, Errew Priory was dissolved in 1585 on the orders of Elizabeth I.
Although the eastern side of the cloister at Errew Priory is reasonably well-preserved, not a lot of the priory buildings otherwise survive, since most of them have lost all trace of roofs. The surviving cloister walk is darker than customarily the case, since light only enters through narrow ogee windows. The other principal structure is the main body of the church, with simple windows at eastern and western end. The outer walls have few openings, suggesting that like many other such establishments, this one was subject to assault during the inter-familial wars that were such a feature of life in 14th and 15th century Ireland. Discovered at the end of a track through fields, Errew Priory’s appears singularly austere, but the setting on the edge of the lough is marvelous, making it easy to appreciate why a religious order would have wanted to established a presence here.
Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.
The shell of Summerhill, County Mayo, a house that retained its roof within living memory. Summerhill is believed to have been built in the 1770s for the Palmer family its five-bay façade centred on a pedimented breakfront with first-floor Venetian window. The site on raised ground was chosen to provide a view down towards the Palmerstown river beside which stand the ruins of the Dominican Rathfran Friary. Today the two complexes rival each other in decay.
On February 1st next it will be 95 years since Moore Hall, County Mayo was needlessly burnt by a group of anti-treaty forces during the Civil War. Since then the building has stood empty and falling ever further into ruin. Moore Hall’s history was discussed here some time ago, (see When Moore is Less, June 30th 2014), and at the time it looked as though the house, dating from the 1790s, had little viable future. For many years the surrounding land has been under the control of Coillte, the state-sponsored forestry company, which displayed no interest in the historic property for which it was responsible. However, yesterday Mayo County Council announced it had purchased Moore Hall and 80 acres. The council proposes ‘to develop the estate as a nationally important nature reserve and tourism attraction’, its chief executive declaring this will ‘ensure that the natural, built and cultural heritage of Moorehall is protected yet developed and managed in a sustainable manner for current and future generations.’ Further details have yet to be provided, but one initiative Moore Hall’s new owners could immediately undertake is to clear away the trees that now grow almost up to the front door, thereby reopening the view to Lough Carra and explaining why the house was built on this site.
‘Two miles from Killala, a Joice built this friary for the Franciscans of the third order. The family of Joices was very considerable in England and Ireland in the 14th century. The church is built of a bluish stone and not remarkable except that the tower is built on the middle of the gable end, and that in it is a confession box of hewn stone, in which the penitentiary sat and heard confessions on each side without being seen.’
From The Antiquities of Ireland, Francis Grose & Edward Ledwich, 1791.
‘Rosserick, in the Barony of Tirawley, Co. of Mayo, and Province of Connaught. It is situate on the river Moy, two miles South East from Killala. A Friary for the Third Order of Franciscans was founded here by — Joice; and a lease of the said Friary was afterwards granted to James Garvey. Here also is a tower built on the same plan as that of Moyne, but exactly on the middle of the gable end. It is remarkable that in each of these Monasteries there is a closet of hewn-stone, for two Confessors to sit in, with a hole on each side for the persons who confess to speak through.’
From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Nicholas Carlisle, 1810.
‘A few miles south-east of Killala, Rosserick, another of our monasteries, sees itself reflected in the waters of the Moy. It was founded early in the fifteenth century by the Joyces, a potent family, of Welsh extraction, singularly remarkable for their gigantic stature, who settled in West Connaught, in the thirteenth century, under the protection of the O’Flaherties. Rosserick occupies the site of a primitive Irish oratory, and the place derives its name from Searka, a holy woman, who is said to have blessed the Ross, or promontory, that runs out into the river. The site, indeed, was happily chosen, and the entire edifice is an exquisite specimen of the architect’s skill. The church and monastery are built of a compact bluish stone, and the former is surmounted by the graceful square bell-tower so peculiar to our Irish Franciscan houses. The view from the summit of that campanile is truly enchanting and as for the internal requirements of such an establishment – its cloisters, library, dormitory, refectory and schools – the munificence of the Joyces left nothing to be desired.’
From The Rise and Fall of the Irish Franciscan Monasteries, and Memoirs of the Irish Hierarchy in the Seventeenth Century by the Rev. C.P. Meehan, 1870.
In January 1854 Zachary Mudge paid the Encumbered Estates Commission £2,490 for an estate of 3, 635 acres in County Mayo. Mudge, whose father had been an admiral in the British navy, subsequently built a lodge at Glenlossera using local sandstone with yellow brick for the door- and windowcases. Gradually the estate was sold, much of it to the Land Commission, and finally the house itself passed into other hands in the late 1920s. In recent years Glenlossera Lodge was offered for sale but without a new owner the place has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair.
The remains of the Augustinian Priory in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. This was the first religious house established by the order in Connaught but there remains some uncertainty over who was responsible for its foundation: it has been suggested that the priory owed its origins to Elizabeth de Clare (a granddaughter of Edward I) who in 1308 married John de Burgh and four years later had a son William, in celebration of which Ballinrobe Priory was established. On the other hand, another proposal is that the priory was set up in 1337 by Roger Taaffe, perhaps on behalf of the de Burghs. Whatever the facts, the house thrived, despite a bad fire early in the 15th century and even survived suppression in the 1540s, with members of the order still in residence 100 years later. Thereafter it fell into ruin. Restoration work was carried out on the site some twenty-five years ago but, despite being surrounded by a graveyard (and by an increasing number of new houses) the priory looks to be falling into serious neglect again: a future as unclear as its past?