The Irish countryside is replete with old graveyards, some of them better maintained than others. But oftentimes those left to fend for themselves are more appealing than well-ordered sites. That’s the case here, an old graveyard at a spot called Stone Cross in County Meath. Surrounded by fields and contained with the remains of a dry stone wall, the place holds a modest number of tombs, almost none of them upright, but instead looking as though they have been pitched about by high winds.
In the centre of Slane, County Meath stands the Square, which is actually an octagon and was laid out by the Conyngham family in the mid-18th century. Four of the sides are occupied by almost identical houses dating from c.1760, all being of three bays and three storeys over basement and fronted in the same limestone, with brick chimneystacks at either gable and hipped roof. Only the doorcases display modest differences in design, that above (on the north-east corner) featuring engaged columns while that below (south-east) corner has pilasters. The latter house is currently for sale.
As far back as the late 13th century Herbertstown, sometimes called Harbourstown, County Meath was associated with the Caddells, a family of Anglo-Norman origin who, despite the Penal Laws, remained true to the Roman Catholic faith and at the same time managed to hold onto their lands in this part of the country. Their residence here, of two storeys and six bays with the facade distinguished by an Ionic portico, was originally constructed in the mid-18th century but presumably later enlarged or altered, as it was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a handsome modern mansion, with a demesne comprising more than 400 acres tastefully laid out and well-planted, and commanding an extensive view from the summit of a tower within the grounds, which forms a conspicuous landmark to mariners.’ Herbertstown House was demolished at some date in the 1930s/40s but the ‘tower’ survives. Dating from c.1760, it is actually a polygonal limestown gazebo, with large round-headed openings on each side, one of which drops to the ground to provide access to the interior. Although now roofless and open to the elements, a balustraded platform around the top of the building (once section missing) indicates this once held a viewing platform, which makes sense as the gazebo stands at the summit of an artificial mound and offers superlative prospects of the surrounding countryside. Local legend has it that the Caddell responsible for constructing the building used it to watch racing at Bellewstown, some four miles away, after he had fallen out with the event’s organisers.
Attached to the south side of the now-ruinous medieval parish church in Stamullen, County Meath is a chantry chapel dedicated to St Christopher. Dating from c.1458, this chapel was erected by the Prestons, Viscounts Gormanston who until the middle of the last century lived nearby at Gormanston Castle. Inside are two remarkable tombs, the first featuring effigies of William Preston the second viscount (died 1532) and his second wife Eleanor Dowdall, he depicted in ‘white armour’ (fully covering the body in steel plate without the use of chain mail) with a sword at his side, she wearing a jewelled cap with veil, both their heads resting on pillows and their hands clasped in prayer.
Directly behind the Prestons, can be seen one of the oldest cadaver tombs in Ireland, this one believed to date from the mid-15th century. It shows the skeleton of an unidentified young woman, her shroud pulled back to expose vermin feasting on the remains: such funerary sculptures had become common throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death.
According to Burke’s guide to Irish Landed Gentry published in 1899, the Gerrards of Gibbstown, County Meath were ‘a branch of the family to which belonged Sir Gilbert Gerrard, 1st bart., of Fiskerton, co. Lincoln (a descendant of the Gerrards of Ince). During the English Civil War, Sir Gilbert had been an ardent royalist, which may explain why the Gerrards wished to claim association with him. In fact, they were an old Anglo-Norman family who for centuries had been based not far from Gibbstown at the now-ruined Clongill Castle. Gibbtown, meanwhile, belonged to a branch of the Plunket family, who built a tower house here. At some date in the second half of the 17th century, after the lands had been confiscated from the Plunkets, they were acquired by Thomas Gerrard, who died at Gibbstown in 1719, leaving it to his eldest son John. His two other sons were Thomas, who was left Liscarton (see Liscarton « The Irish Aesthete) and Samuel who lived at Clongill from where he corresponded with the likes of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Meanwhile, the main branch remained at Gibbstown, while also spending time at another County Meath property, Boyne Hill. When travelling through Ireland in 1776, Arthur Young visited Gibbstown and met its owner, another Thomas Gerrard with whose farming methods he was much impressed (‘he has made many covered drains with stones, the effect of which is great; and he has his fields fenced in the most perfect manner by deep ditches, high banks and well planted hedges’). At the time the estate ran to 1,200 acres bringing in annual rent of £1,300. Following the second Thomas’ death in 1784, Gibbstown was inherited by his only son John Gerrard, who married a County Galway heiress but the couple had no children, so in 1865 the estate passed to a nephew, once more called Thomas. He likewise had no children, and so following his death in 1913 the place was inherited by a nephew, Major Thomas Gerrard Collins, who two years later assumed the additional surname of Gerrard. He would be the last of the family to live here as by 1927 the Land Commission had moved in and the Gibbstown estate was broken up. The following decade it became a Gaeltacht area (now called Baile Ghib) in which Irish speakers from Donegal, Mayo and Kerry were settled on small holdings of 22 acres each.
Until 1865 the Gerrard family at Gibbstown had occupied what appears to have been a long, two-storey 18th century dwelling attached to the late-medieval tower house. However, when Thomas Gerrard inherited the estate from his uncle, despite being a bachelor he decided to embark on constructing a new residence for himself elsewhere on the estate. This was no modest building but a vast Italianate palazzo designed in the early 1770s by William Henry Lynn. Of three storeys and seven bays, faced with cut limestone and entered beneath a Doric portico, the house also featured a long colonnade which led to a free-standing campanile; it was commonly believed that the cost of building and fitting out the new Gibbstown had run to £250,000. A description of the property in the Irish Times in 1912 noted that the centre of the house was dominated by a hall rising some 80 feet and topped by a stained glass dome, with galleries running around the upper floors off which opened the main bedrooms, each of which were ‘vast and magnificently furnished, the adjacent dressing rooms also being large beyond custom, and each set of rooms was furnished with a different suite of furniture, which formed an interesting study in itself…A circular marble corridor formed an imposing feature of the building, and on the first floor were two great sitting rooms, a long and magnificent drawing room, and a dining room; where the roof and tapestried walls harmonised well with the richness of the furniture.’ Alas, Mr Gerrard and his nephew did not enjoy these surroundings for very long before much of them were destroyed: in April 1912 fire broke out in Gibbstown, largely gutting the two upper floors and destroying the aforementioned stained glass dome in the central hall. Fortunately many of the contents were rescued, including a large collection of Chinese porcelain including some pieces, according to the Irish Times, which had come from Paris’s Tuileries Palace, destroyed in 1871. In May 1913 Thomas Gerrard died at the age of 78, by which time Major Thomas Collins Gerrard had already embarked on a restoration of the house, the architect this time being the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. But as already noted above, change was in the air and Gibbstown would not be occupied for much longer. In June 1930, Battersby & Co began auctioning the house’s contents, so substantial that it took a fortnight to dispose of them all. Among the best-sellers was a Chinese Chippendale table that made 110 guineas, a satinwood reading table that went for 30 guineas, a carved Italian marble chimneypiece (33 guineas) and an ormolu and bronze clock surmounted by a figure representing Alexander the Great (22 guineas). So it went on, day after day until everything was gone. Five years later Major Gerrard presented the Royal Dublin Society with a bronze vase four feet, eight inches high on a two-foot high pedestal by Major Gerrard. The vase features the figures of Day and Night after Thorvaldsen from plaques exhibited at the Great Industrial Exhibition held in Dublin in 1853: now painted blue and white and beside a plaque announcing that it had been given on permanent loan by ‘the last Gerrard of Gibbstown’ it can still be seen outside the RDS’s premises.
Major Gerrard died in 1945, but even before then the great Italianate house, built barely 70 years earlier, and rebuilt after the fire just over 30 years before, stood an empty anachronism. In this instance however, unlike many other such buildings, it was not demolished but instead taken down, with the stones carefully numbered before being brought to the Cistercian monks at Mellifont, outside Collon, County Louth; the intention was that they would be used in the erection of a new church. However, that never happened and instead, over a period of time, the stonework was sold off piecemeal and used in various other properties around the area. Meanwhile, a wrought-iron aviary from Gibbstown ended up being used in an arcade in Drogheda, County Louth. So, the late 19th century house has gone, but its predecessor remains – just about. It will be remembered that before Thomas Gerrard embarked on his grandiose scheme, the family had lived in an older building, an extension to the late-medieval Plunket tower house. This structure was incorporated into an immense series of 18th and 19th century yards, including stables, coach houses, animal sheds, staff accommodation and much more. These are in turn linked to very substantial walled gardens, the whole offering testimony to the high standards of farming here noted by Arthur Young back in the 1770s. Internally the house consists of a series of rooms often opening one into the next or connected by long, narrow corridors, suggesting the building is relatively early in date and may even have originated in the 17th century. And a couple of the rooms retain at least some of their charming rococo plasterwork. How much they continue to do so is open to question, since in recent years the site has been used as an urban assault airsoft venue (in which participants attempt to eliminate each other using replica weapons). Good clean fun, no doubt, but not necessarily beneficial for the buildings. It will probably be only a matter of time before the surviving remnants of the Gibbstown estate disappear for good.
Alas, the dilapidated remains of Athcarne Castle, County Meath now indicate little of its distinguished history, which go back at least 900 years. The name of the place is thought to derive from either Ath Cairn (the Bridge/Fording Point at the Cairn) or Ard Cairn (High Cairn). Whichever is the case, this indicates that it was originally the site of a pre-Christian cairn, or burial mound: it may well be that the structure seen today rests on top of or adjacent to a cairn. For hundreds of years, the lands in this part of the country belonged to the Bathe family, descendants of Hugo de Bathe, and Anglo-Norman knight who, as his name explains, came from Bath and who arrived in Ireland with Hugh de Lacy in 1171. It may be that Hugo de Bathe built some kind of castle or defensive fort here but eventually this was succeeded by the tower house which still survives and constitutes the eastern portion of the building. Rising four storeys and presumably erected in the 15th or 16th century, the tower has large window openings on the upper levels which were clearly later than the original structure; those on the topmost floor are topped with stone mouldings and there is a buttress on the north-east corner.
Until the mid-17th century the Bathes were a prominent family in Ireland, with large landholdings in north County Dublin, where they built a number of other castles at places such as Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Three of them would serve as the country’s Lord Chief Justice while John de Bathe was Attorney General in 1564 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer 1577-86. Around 1590 his son William Bathe, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and then married (as his second wife) Janet Dowdall (as her third husband) built what, from a surviving engraving, appears to have been an Elizabethan manor house onto the west side of the old tower house; it may well have been around this time that the latter’s windows were enlarged. The couple’s respective coats of arms can be seen on a slim tower on the south-west corner of the present building, seemingly having been moved to this location in the 19th century. Despite remaining Roman Catholic, the Bathes appear to have survived and held onto their estates until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when, along with other landed families of the same faith, they rose in rebellion. And, like so many other landed families of the same faith, upon the arrival of the Cromwellian forces towards the close of the decade, they found themselves on the losing side. As a result, their considerable lands were forfeited and distributed to members of the English army, Athcarne being granted to one Colonel Grace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bathes sought the return of their property, but were unsuccessful, since it was now granted to Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II). Following further appeals, the duke returned Athcarne and surrounding 1,200 acres on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent: the rest of their former lands he retained. When James II came to Ireland, it is claimed that he spent the night before the decisive Battle of the Boyne at Athcarne Castle, which was, after all, only rented to the Bathes. In any case, soon after the start of the following century, the family had gone, James II was in exile in France, and Athcarne passed into the hands of another family, the Somervilles who in turn rented it on a long lease to the Garnetts.
Athcarne Castle remained occupied by successive generations of Garnetts until the early 1830s when it was acquired by the Gernons, once more a family of Anglo-Norman origin (mentioned here recently, see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete). It appears the Gernons were responsible for pulling down the Elizabethan manor house and replacing it with a new residence, the remains of which can still be seen. This is a castellated three-storey block originally two rooms’ deep. A modest, single-storey entrance porch was added on the south side (previously access to the building had been from the north). It was probably also around this time that the little tower in the south-west corner was constructed and the Bathe/Dowdall coats of arms, previously on the exterior of the manor house, placed there as a souvenir of the castle’s earlier history. By the last century, the Gernons, rather like their predecessors on the site, were in decline. The surrounding land was sold and finally in 1939 an auction of the contents was held; among the lots, apparently, was a bed dating from the 17th century, the bed in which James II had slept the night before the Battle of the Boyne. In May of that year, the Land Commission offered the castle and remaining 88 acres for sale. Left empty, the building was unroofed and left as a shell in the early 1950s and so it has remained ever since.
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At a minor junction on a minor road in County Meath stands this rather fine stone cross, notable for being rather later in date than the many others found around the country. The monument was erected c.1675 by Cecilia Dowdall to mark the occasion of her marriage to Sir Luke Bathe who lived nearby at Athcarne Castle (of which more shortly). Standing some eight feet high, the cross’s east face features a high relief carving of the crucifixion, Christ’s arms raised above his head, and his feet resting on a skull. The west side has a shield containing the arms of the Dowdall and Bathe families and the instruments of Christ’s Passion, below which is a tender carving of the Virgin and Child which displays the influence of Renaissance art not previously seen in such work here in Ireland (Raphael’s Sistine Madonna immediately comes to mind).
For many centuries Kells, County Meath – like Kells, County Kilkenny – was the location of a substantial religious establishment, but in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Meath town came under the control of the Taylour family, who lived close by at Headfort (and eventually became Marquesses of Headfort). Not surprisingly therefore, the focal point here, a wide thoroughfare has the name of Headfort Place and is lined with a sequence of handsome and substantial houses, evidence of the area’s prosperity in the late 18th/early 19th century. A short terrace of three-bay properties, constructed c.1780 and given identical pedimented limestone doorcases, occupies a stretch of the north side of Headfort Place. These buildings are all in excellent condition, and offer a contrast to what can be seen on the other side of the street. Here a detached house of slightly later date (note its starkly plain limestone doorcase) stands empty and in poor condition.