On a site high above a bend in the river Boyne stand the remains of Ardmulchan church, County Meath. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a church was originally established here in the 12th century by the de Lacy family who also constructed fortifications in the vicinity. Little remains other than the square bell tower which may be 13th/14th century and small portions of the slightly later nave and chancel. As so often in Ireland, the graveyard remained in active use long after the church.
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 verses in it say and say:
“The ones who living come today
To read the stones and go away
Tomorrow dead will come to stay.”
So sure of death the marbles rhyme,
Yet can’t help marking all the time
How no one dead will seem to come.
What is it men are shrinking from?
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.
Galtrim, County Meath was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as being ‘a handsome residence in a well-planted demesne.’ By this date the building was some 35 years in existence, having been constructed c.1802 for the Rev. Thomas Vesey Dawson who was then the local rector. He was a member of the Dawson family, later Earls of Dartrey, who were responsible for developing the Dawson’s Grove estate in County Monaghan (for more on the Dawsons, see A Shining Distinction on Earth, 15th September 2014). Clearly the Rev. Vesey Dawson inherited an interest in architecture, since he invited Francis Johnston to design Gatrim. But there was an additional reason for the commission: during the previous decade Johnston had been employed by Blayney Townley Balfour on the design of Townley Hall, County Louth. The Rev Vesey Dawson’s wife Anne Maria was Townley Balfour’s sister (not his daughter, as is often stated) and was in her own right a talented architectural amateur who is believed to have had an input into Townley Hall (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, 10th June 2013) . And in 1806 Johnston would be hired by the Vesey Dawson’s to make alterations and additions to another of their properties, Loughgilly House (now derelict). Thus Galtrim is likely as much to reflect the taste of Mrs Vesey Dawson as her husband.
In Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, Maurice Craig described Galtrim as ‘probably the best of Francis Johnston’s smaller houses’ and drew attention to features of its design shared with a couple of other properties, Kilcarty close by in County Meath (by Thomas Ivory and from the 1770s) and Emsworth, County Dublin (by James Gandon, in the mid-1790s). Galtrim is a late-Palladian villa, with a central block of two storeys over basement and single storey wings. The four-bay entrance front is focussed on the tripartite Doric frame that incorporates both door and hall windows. The outer windows of the main block and those in the wings are set within shallow relieving arches. Meanwhile the dominant feature of the garden front is the generous central bow of the drawing room: Casey and Rowan suggest this was originally intended to be thatched ‘to give the house the picturesque cottage orne effect then in vogue during the Regency period. It is flanked by substantial tripartite windows lighting the dining room and morning room respectively. The bow theme is echoed by various features internally, in both the aforementioned morning room and in the staircase hall, and at the east side of the entrance hall. Rightly Casey and Rowan call the result both simple and sophisticated: ‘a meeting of vernacular farmhouse classicism with the suave neo-classicism associated with James Gandon. When Craig wrote of Galtrim in 1976 he noted that the house had been ‘hardly at all altered.’ By then it was occupied by the late Eileen, Countess of Mount Charles who lived there until shortly before her death last November and throughout this period took exemplary care of the place. Now the house is on the market. Time to pray that whoever buys it will respect the building’s distinguished architectural pedigree and ensure that Galtrim continues to be hardly at all altered.’