Looking north across the Boyne almost mid-point between Slane and Navan, one sees the impressive remains of Dunmoe Castle, County Meath. Sitting high on a bluff above the river, the building presents a high, near blank face (there are a few window openings towards the top) flanked by circular towers. From this position, it is easy to imagine the rest of the building being equally substantial. But the notion quickly proves erroneous. Despite putting on a good front, Dunmoe is the Potemkin village of Irish castles: nothing lies behind its fine façade.
It is believed the original castle at Dunmoe was built in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy. However, by the mid-15th century when the present building is thought to have been constructed the land on which it stands had passed into the hands of another family of Norman origin, the d’Arcys. Much intermarried with other local families like the Plunkets, Nugents and St Lawrences, their main residence was elsewhere in the county at Platten but by the 16th century Dunmoe belonged to the descendants of a younger d’Arcy son. Inevitably they were caught up in the troubles of the Confederate Wars, Dunmoe being taken by the Irish forces in 1641 and later fired at across the Boyne by the passing Cromwellian Army. Following the restoration of Charles II, in 1663 Thomas d’Arcy was declared ‘an innocent Papist.’ It was he who is said to have entertained James II at Dunmoe on the night before the Battle of the Boyne, and the victorious William III on the night after. This is supposed to have inspired the couplet, ‘Who will be king, I do not know/But I’ll be d’Arcy of Dunmoe.’
The d’Arcys remained at Dunmoe for much of the 18th century, converting what had been a fortress into a more comfortable house. The last of them to occupy appears to have been Judge d’Arcy (his first name deriving from the surname of his mother, Elizabeth Judge). Dying young in 1766, he left an infant heiress Elizabeth who would later marry Major Gorges Irvine of Castle Irvine, County Fermanagh (for the unhappy fate of this house, see A White Elephant, October 3rd 2016): thereafter that family were called the d’Arcy-Irvines. As for Dunmoe, it survived until the end of the century before being largely destroyed by fire during the 1798 rebellion (presumably around the time of the Battle of Tara Hill on May 26th of that year). It has since fallen into the present ruinous state so that only one of the four outer walls remains, and only two of the equivalent number of corner towers. To the immediate west inside a low walled enclosure are likewise the remains of an old church and graveyard containing what had been the d’Arcy mausoleum.
In the seventh century an Irish monk called Muirchú moccu Machtheni composed his Life of St Patrick from which derives much of our knowledge about the latter. Muirchú’s work was very much a hagiography and ought not necessarily be taken as historically accurate. For example, he tells a story of Patrick coming to the Hill of Slane in County Meath and lighting a Paschal fire there in the year 433. This act was in defiance of orders issued by the High King Laoire who forbade any other fires being lit while that on the Hill of Tara (some ten miles from Slane) burned to mark the pagan Spring festival of Beltaine. According to Muirchú King Laoire, although angry, was sufficiently impressed by Patrick’s bold non-compliance that he allowed him to continue proselytizing. The same source also proposes that one of the king’s druids called Erc was even more affected by what had occurred and converted to Christianity, after which he was made Bishop of Slane by Patrick. Later moving to Kerry, Erc is said to have been the teacher of St Brendan, the sixth century ‘Voyager.’
Although a religious house was established on the Hill of Slane, the present remains date from a later foundation created for the Franciscan order by the Flemings, a prominent Norman family, members of which were Barons Slane from 1370 until the death of the last of the direct line some four centuries later. Like many others, the Flemings remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith and suffered the consequences: Christopher, twenty-second Lord Slane was attainted in 1691 owing to his support of James II and subsequently moved to mainland Europe. He was eventually reconciled to the British government and in 1713 Queen Anne created him first Viscount Longford, but since no letters patent were issued before her death a year later the title had no validity (in any case, he in turn died without male heirs in 1726). Meanwhile the Franciscans saw their friary closed in the 16th century but then temporarily restored to them by the Flemings. Members of the Capuchin order also took up residence here at one stage but the site seems to have been abandoned for good in 1723, after which it fell into ruin.
What can be seen today on the Hill of Slane is primarily a rebuilding of the friary undertaken for the Franciscans in 1512 by Christopher Fleming, fourteenth Lord Slane. It is divided into two sections: the church and the college. The former is surrounded by a walled graveyard and its most striking feature is the tower at the west end of the building. This rises some sixty-two feet and incorporates a fine 15th century Gothic window above the doorcase. Relatively little remains of the main body of the church. The adjacent college buildings were intended to house four priests, four lay brothers and four choristers, with three ranges grouped around a central courtyard and the fourth side to the west closed by a curtain wall. A spiral staircase in one corner provides access to the upper levels, the views from which explain why this location was always likely to be of significance; from here it is possible to scan the surrounding countryside for several miles to south and east. Nearby are the remains of a motte and bailey believed to have been constructed by the Flemings before they moved their residence to a lower site which is the present Slane Castle.
The difference a few months can make: the north lodge at Ardbraccan, County Meath in high summer (above) and now (below).
The concept of ‘rural Ireland’ and its preservation are much touted, especially by those who live in the countryside and believe their traditional way of life should be given more attention. In practice however little has been done to ensure the traditional appearance of rural Ireland is preserved. Across the country old houses are abandoned, their replacements – often built on sites immediately adjacent to an abandoned property – looking no different from those found in Britain or the United States. This cottage in County Meath, although habitable until recently, has now been left to fall into ruin.
Seen beneath a thunderous sky and across its parkland, the façade of Swainstown, County Meath. This idiosyncratic house dates from c.1750 and was built for Nathaniel Preston whose elder brother John during the same period was building Bellinter, some ten miles away, to the designs of Richard Castle: accordingly the latter may have had a hand in Swainstown. The house follows the classic Palladian model, the main block being of two storeys with wings on either side linked by quadrants. But thereafter an element of whimsical caprice is apparent, beginning with the limestone window lintels and a front doorcase which is exaggeratedly tall and narrow, and finished with a segmental pediment. Swainstown continues to be occupied by Nathaniel Preston’s descendants.
The entrance to Annesbrook, County Meath. The design of the main house with its towering Ionic portico and gothick dining chamber in the north wing is sometimes attributed to Francis Johnston (see When Royalty Comes to Call, October 12th 2015). Perhaps he was also responsible for this building which might also have been constructed in anticipation of a visit by George IV in 1821. With the character of a miniature castle, it holds just two rooms, a kitchen/living area on one side of the arch and a sleeping chamber on the other.
A moment when the Virginia Creeper perfectly matches the colour of the door: the façade of Ardbraccan, County Meath. Dating from the late 1760s the building has a complex history, since Henry Maxwell, Bishop of Meath commissioned designs from three architects: James Wyatt, Thomas Cooley and Daniel Beaufort, the last of these also being a local Anglican clergyman. In the end the façade reflects elements of all their proposals, although it is closest to that of Wyatt.
The pointed gable entrance front of a former national school in Ballinlough, County Meath. Dating from around 1850, the neo-gothic building still retains many of its original features, not least the separate entrances for boys and girls. Unlike many such school houses which have been abandoned or demolished, it is now in use as a community centre.