Buried deep in the undergrowth: the remains of Bellanagare Castle, County Roscommon. This was formerly the seat of the O’Conor family including the antiquarian, proponent of ancient Gaelic culture and ardent advocate of Roman Catholic rights Charles O’Conor (1710-1791) who served as the O’Conor Don (that is, a descendant of the ancient line that provided one hundred Kings of Connacht and eleven High Kings of Ireland). Here he lived until the marriage of his son in 1760 after which he moved to a small cottage nearby. What survives suggests this was a late 17th/early 18th century house, of five bays and with a pedimented façade. Given the importance of Charles O’Conor in Irish history, the building’s present state, on the verge of being entirely overwhelmed by undergrowth, is another sad indictment of how this country treats its heritage.
Writing to his daughter Alicia in May 1747, Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin, County Roscommon described the new residence he was then building: ‘The Scaffolding is all down, and the House almost pointed, and It’s figure is vastly more beautifull than I expected it would be. Conceited people may censure its plainess. But I don’t wish it any further ornament than it has. As far as I can yet judge, the inside will be very commodious and comfortable.’ He had to wait a further two years to find out whether or not this was the case, but finally in early June 1749 was finally able to advise Alicia, ‘The House is as dry as you could wish. I lay last night as well and as Warm as ever I did in my life, and quite free from the only nuisance I fear’d, the smell of paint and am, I bless God, as well to day, as I was, when I wrote from Palmer’s…’ The design of the Bishop’s Palace at Elphin is attributed to Dublin architect Michael Wills, not least because a ‘Mr Wills’ is frequently mentioned in Synge’s correspondence in relation to the house’s construction. Very much in the Irish Palladian mode, it consisted of a three-storey, east-facing central block, its first-floor Venetian window of the same style and proportions as the main entrance below: quadrants linked this building to wings on either side. Unfortunately the main block was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1911 and subsequently demolished, leaving the quadrants and wings on either side looking rather lost. In recent years, the south wing as been restored as a family residence. However, its match to the north is a ruin with a bungalow built immediately in front, making the site look even more lop-sided.
The only remaining evidence of Ashfort, County Roscommon: its entrance gates, beyond which it is best not to venture. The estate formerly belonged to the Waldron family whose residence stood on raised ground behind the trees to the right. It was long-since demolished, and the lodge here is now used to house animal feed. Sic transit…
This week the Irish Aesthete marks its fourth anniversary. It is remarkable that an initiative started almost on a whim has continued for such a long period, and looks set to carry on doing so. The need to find ‘fresh’ (albeit old) material for this thrice-weekly site has encouraged me to take greater interest in, and investigation of, this country’s architectural heritage, providing opportunities to return to old favourites as well as abundant chances to explore other sites hitherto overlooked, at least by myself. There continues to be no shortage of places to visit, photograph (with mixed results) and write about. Sometimes the outcome is a feeling of despondency, but just as often one comes away elated, thrilled to learn there are people across Ireland who care passionately for the preservation of our country’s tangible history and are actively ensuring it has a viable, vibrant future. Such is the case with the house shown today.
Rush Hill, County Roscommon featured not long after the Irish Aesthete began (see The Folks Who Live at Rush Hill, November 12th 2012) and after an absence of almost four years was recently revisited. Listed as one of the four ‘gentlemen’s seats’ in the area in Samuel Lewis’s 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland it is the only one remaining. The core of the house dates from c.1700 and until almost the end of the 19th century it was the residence for successive generations of the same family of tenant farmers. A fire which broke out not long after it was taken on by another family resulted in a programme of rebuilding and augmentation, as can be seen by the ground floor bay windows. But much of the building would look familiar to earlier occupants, especially after the under the care of its present owners. Rush Hill’s renewal has been a gradual process, one by no means complete. It was fascinating to see how much more had been accomplished over the past four years, and to hear of intended work during the years to come. Thanks to such care the house looks as though it will continue to serve as a ‘gentleman’s seat’ long into the future.
The Irish Aesthete rather too often focusses on ruins, so it is a delight to feature a building which, prior to being taken on by the present owners, seemed destined to go the way of so many others in this country. One looks forward to reporting more such stories; please feel free to get in touch if you know of any. This site is always looking for further material, and welcomes your thoughts, comments and – provided politely phrased – criticisms and corrections. There are many plans for the year ahead, including expansion into other areas and media. In the meantime, please continue to follow the Irish Aesthete not just here but also on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete) Twitter (@IrishAesthete) and Instagram (the.irish.aesthete). And thank you as always to friends and followers for your kind words and encouragement, these are very much appreciated.
This seeming folly closes a vista inside the walled garden of Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. In fact the main feature here, the limestone Venetian window, was originally sited on the first floor of the main house and formed part of Richard Castle’s design dating from the 1730s. When Strokestown underwent modifications around 1819 – the architect on that occasion being John Lynn – the window was removed (presumably because a large Ionic portico was added directly beneath) and put into storage. It only found a new home in the walled garden when this was restored in the 1990s.
Seen on a stand at this year’s Irish Antiques Fair in the RDS, Dublin: the four limestone capitals (one shown above) of the portico at Mote Park, County Roscommon. Demolished more than half a century ago, the house was built for the Crofton family in the 18th century but greatly enlarged around 1816 to the designs of Sir Richard Morrison; most likely the portico was added then. Although only the capitals are currently on show, the entire portico, for many years owned by a now-deceased cleric, still exists and could be reconstructed.
Cistercian monks first appeared in Ireland in 1142 with the foundation of Mellifont Abbey, County Louth on the instructions of St Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh. The Cistercians were a reforming order established in Cîteaux, Burgundy at the very end of the previous century to counter what was perceived to be the decadence of the Benedictines in houses like Cluny. Cistercian monks sought to live in remote sites far from existing settlements and their buildings reflected the same desire for austerity: as a rule the order’s monasteries were designed to be simple and utilitarian, and devoid of superfluous decoration. The same was also true of their churches where ornamentation might distract the monks from prayer and reflection. In a much-quoted and influential passage from his Apologia written in 1124 St Bernard of Clairvaux denounced the overly-elaborate religious buildings of the period: ‘But in the cloister, in the sight of the reading monks, what is the point of such ridiculous monstrosity, the strange kind of shapely shapelessness? Why these unsightly monkeys, why these fierce lions, why the monstrous centaurs, why semi-humans, why spotted tigers, why fighting soldiers, why trumpeting huntsmen?…In short there is such a variety and such a diversity of strange shapes everywhere that we may prefer to read the marbles rather than the books.’ The outcome was that Cistercian abbeys remained notable for the purity of their architecture such as can still be seen in the ruins of the former house at Boyle, County Roscommon.
Under its abbot Maurice O’Duffy the monastery at Boyle was the first successful Cistercian settlement in Connaught, the monks from Mellifont arriving on the site in 1161. Several efforts had been made in the years immediately preceding to establish a house elsewhere in the area but to no avail. Fortunately the Boyle monastery received support from the MacDermots, Lords of Moylurg who governed over this part of north Roscommon. Nevertheless, even before the building’s completion Boyle Abbey was sacked by the Anglo-Norman adventurer William de Burgo in 1202. Twenty-five years later, the abbey had become involved in a religious dispute known as the ‘Conspiracy of Mellifont.’ In essence, this was an argument between Irish monks and those from France and England about what form the cloistered life should take. Whereas the latter wished to impose uniformity of practice among members of the order, the Irish appear to have retained some of their own traditions, such as monks occupying individual cells rather than participating in communal living. Eventually in 1228 Stephen of Lexington, abbot of Stanley Abbey in Wiltshire (and future abbot of Clairvaux) was sent by the Cistercian General Chapter on a visitation to Ireland with the intent of ensuring obedience. Several abbots, including that of Boyle, were removed from their position (and often sent to houses in England or France) and Boyle itself was affiliated to Clairvaux rather than Mellifont so as to ensure it did not slip back into the old ways. A mere seven years later, the monastery was was attacked and plundered by forces under the command of the Lords Justices including Maurice FitzGerald; this army took possession of the premises, seized all goods, vestments and chalices, and stripped the monks of their habits in the cloister. There were further attacks in the later Middle Ages when Boyle became caught up in feuds between the warring MacDermot and O’Conor clans.
Boyle Abbey exemplifies mediaeval Cistercian architecture while in some respects differing from it. In addition, owing to the length of time taken to construct the church, this building includes elements of both the Romanesque and Early Gothic styles: it was only in 1218, almost sixty years after the monks first settled on the site that the church was solemnly consecrated. The monastery was laid out according to the usual Cistercian plan, around a central cloister garth. To the immediate north of this lies the church, with the chapter house and abbot’s parlour on the east side, and the kitchen and refectory on the south. and the dormitory a church on the north side of a roughly rectangular cloister area, with a chapter house for meetings of the monks on a second side, and a kitchen and a refectory on the third (with access to clean water from the river immediately behind this range). The gatehouse lay on the west side, as did public access to the church. The last of these remains the best preserved part of the complex. It features a barrel-vaulted 12th century chancel with 13th century lancet windows above the crossing. To the west of this, the main body has a nave with side aisles, a transept to the north and south of the crossing, each with a pair of chapels on the east wall. A massive tower at the crossing rises to some sixty feet. In the nave the most striking feature is the difference between the piers on the south and north sides. The former are squatter with rounded arches, the latter’s pointed. And contrary to Cistercian disapproval of ornament, many of the corbels and capitals, especially those to the west end of the church, are carved with elaborate designs, some featuring humans and animals.
The Cistercians remained at Boyle Abbey until the 16th century when the turmoil experienced some three hundred years earlier befell them again. Although Henry VIII introduced legislation in the Irish Parliament in 1537 for the the dissolution of the country’s monasteries, his authority did not actually run throughout Ireland and so the majority of houses continued as before. However, Boyle became caught up in a family dispute among the MacDermotts and in 1555 the abbey was burnt, followed by further assaults in the following years. In 1569 the abbey as granted by the English crown to Patrick Cusack of Gerrardstown, County Meath although ostensibly there was still an abbot of Boyle, Tomaltach MacDermot. In fact its last abbot was Glaisne O Cuilleanain, executed in Dublin in 1584. Five years later it was granted to William Ussher on a lease of twenty-one years and six years after that the old abbey was besieged by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone with a force of some 2,300 men. In 1603 Boyle was leased to two English soldiers, John Bingley and John King, the latter finally taking possession of the property, along with more than 4,000 acres in 1617: the Kings remained a dominant presence in the area until the last century. As for the abbey, now renamed Boyle Castle it became a military barracks and accordingly suffered further, with much of the stone of the cloisters being dismantled and recycled elsewhere. Only the main body of the church remained relatively immune to deprecation, hence its condition today. Boyle Abbey is now in the care of the state and in recent years has benefitted from an extensive programme of restoration, although the large glass corridor built along the north side of the church will not be to everyone’s taste. Resembling a bloated greenhouse it is supposed to protect the building from the elements. However given the rest of the site has no such covering the protection on offer is rather limited. Ignore this latest addition and revel in the superior taste of the Cistercians.
The area around Frenchpark, County Roscommon contains little of any architectural note: the remains of the great Palladian house designed by Richard Castle in the late 1720s were demolished more than forty years ago. Now it would seem that the town’s one remaining historic building is destined to go the same way. Dating from 1840, the two-storey, three bay former market house has for a long time stood forlorn on Frenchpark’s main street. Although listed in the county survey as being of ‘social and historic importance’ no one seems troubled that this final remnant of the locale’s history is on the verge of being lost forever.
One of the quadrants linking the main block to its pavilions at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. This part of the building dates from the 1730s when Thomas Mahon commissioned architect Richard Castle to enlarge and modify an earlier house on the site. Castle undertook the project with exceptional skill by deploying a handful of familiar motifs, in this instance a pedimented doorframe below a recessed niche, both flanked by regular windows and oculi on their respective floors. The crispness of the cut limestone contrasting with the rendered surface of the walls enhances the overall impression of refined simplicity.
A section of the dining room wall at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Although the main part of the house dates from c.1730 when designed by Richard Castle, it underwent alterations and redecoration in the first decades of the following century, which is when the rose-pink damask paper was hung in this room, its patinated surface indicating the movement of pictures over the past 200 years (and the sale of some of them during the later part of this period).
The interiors of Strokestown feature in a new book Wallpaper in Ireland 1700-1900 written by David Skinner, the doyen on the subject and this country’s most skilled producer and restorer of papers. The book, itself an object of beauty, is published by the Churchill House Press with all proceeds from its sale going to the Irish Georgian Society. It also contains images of Strokestown’s library paper, some of which can be seen below. Again some two centuries old, this has a wide flock border above the dado rail which has suffered somewhat from pieces of furniture rubbing against the surface, but surely that only adds to its appeal?
You can read an article written by me and discussing David Skinner’s book in today’s Irish Times magazine. : http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/on-a-roll-wallpaper-from-great-irish-houses-1.1854262