The village of Villierstown, County Waterford was established in the 1740s by John Villiers, first Earl Grandison who wished to have a settlement for weavers and other personnel working in the linen industry he was then establishing in the area. The industry has long-since gone, but two monuments still stand in the centre of the village recalling later members of the family. In front of the church (constructed by Lord Grandison in 1748) is a High Cross erected by Henry Villiers-Stuart in memory of his parents, Henry, Baron Stuart de Decies and his Austrian-born wife Pauline. Due to doubts over the validity of their marriage, following Lord Stuart de Decies’ death in 1874 the title was not inherited by the next generation. To the immediate west is a second monument, this one a public fountain in rock-faced limestone ashlar; it was erected in 1910 by the younger Henry’s children in memory of their mother Mary who had died three years earlier.
Sixty-five years ago, in July 1957, the Irish Times announced that the gardens of Mount Congreve, County Waterford ‘are to be open to the public for the first time’ on three afternoons each week over the following two months. The unnamed writer declared that few finer gardens of their kind were to be found on either side of the Irish Sea, those at Mount Congreve including a large 18th century conservatory and a walled garden where the quarter-mile of herbaceous borders held some 15,000 plants in hundreds of varieties ‘timed to flower in the coming weeks.’ In addition, there were rare trees and shrubs, and lawns offering attractive views of the adjacent river Suir. The owner of this property, the Irish Times correspondent explained, was Ambrose Congreve, then-Chairman of Humphreys & Glasgow Limited, the London fuel and chemical engineers ‘who are marketing small nuclear power plants.’
Originally from Staffordshire (and collaterally related to the Restoration playwright William Congreve), members of the Congreve family first came to Ireland in the 17th century, one of them, the Rev. John Congreve, settling in County Waterford. His grandson, another John, was responsible for building Mount Congreve c.1760, its design sometimes attributed to local architect John Roberts but this is conjectural. As built, the house was of three storeys and seven bays, with slightly projecting two-storey wings on either side beyond which lay the service yards. Successive generations of the family lived there, alternating the first names John and Ambrose until the last of these, Ambrose Christian Congreve who died in 2011 at the age of 104 leaving no heir. Thanks to his considerable wealth, he was responsible for transforming both the house and surrounding gardens. The former he enlarged in the 1960s, not least by the addition of a substantial bow at the centre of the entrance front, centred on a rather modest Baroque limestone doorcase. Additions were also made to the wings and yards which were given cupolas and more limestone doorcases. Mr Congreve had a plutocrat’s taste: he liked everything large and abundant and almost to the end of his life he was making changes to the building and its contents, both of which might be described as plush. Outdoors, as a young man he was inspired by what he saw Lionel de Rothschild had created in his own garden at Exbury in Hampshire. From the early 1930s onwards Mr Congreve set about emulating this example, not least by planting the same species in large groups. ‘When one plants anything,’ he declared, ‘whether it involves five or fifty plants, they should be planted together and not dotted here and there’: as a result, at Mount Congreve, enormous numbers of one variety of magnolia or azalea can be found in the same location to spectacular effect. Thanks to its size – it runs to some 70 acres – Mount Congreve’s garden holds over 3,000 different trees and shrubs, more than 2,000 Rhododendrons, 600 Camellias, 300 Acer cultivars, 600 conifers, 250 climbers and 1,500 herbaceous plants.
In 1979, recognising that he had no direct heir, Ambrose Congreve transferred ownership of his family house and some 71 surrounding acres to a charitable organisation, the Mount Congreve Trust with the understanding that all of this property would eventually pass to the Irish state. However, part of the arrangement was that 66 acres of gardens would only become national property 21 years after his death, and the house and immediate five acres only in 2059. Thus, when he died in 2011, it appeared that the greater part of the gardens would not be taken under state care until 2032 – and the house and balance of land still not for a further 27 years. Inevitably, dispute followed, with unfortunate consequences, not least that the contents of the house – including a library dating back to the 18th century – were dispersed in a number of auctions, leaving the place empty. Meanwhile, the gardens on which he had lavished so much care and expense also deteriorated – today a very large 18th century greenhouse is in very poor condition – as discussions took place over who should be responsible for their upkeep. Only in 2019 was agreement reached whereby the trust transferred both the house and gardens to the local authority, which subsequently received a grant of €3.7 million from a Department for Rural and Community Development programme targeting regional development to restore and improve Mount Congreve. At the moment, the entire site is closed to the public (the house itself swathed in scaffolding, hence no pictures of it today), while necessary work takes place. It appears a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the main building will be accessible when the project is completed, along with one of the adjacent yards used to welcome visitors. But what will become of the rest of what is a very substantial house, which for more than a decade has sat vacant and shuttered? It remains to be seen if some new purpose is proposed for the place.
Located in the nave of one of the Irish Aesthete’s favourite buildings, St Carthage’s Cathedral, Lismore, this early Christian carving of a man holding a book was discovered in the 19th century when the old well near Lismore Castle was being cleared. The figure likely formed some part of a support for the monastery that once stood on that site. St Carthage’s needs funds at present to improve the lighting, heating and sound and so, determined to ensure the cathedral has a viable future, not just as a place of worship but also a venue for other events, a number of locals have come together with a clever initiative. Verso Arts is an online auction which will be held two weeks’ hence on Saturday November 6th and feature more than 800 postcard-sized works by artists, some well-known (who would have guessed Joanna Lumley was such a dab hand with the paintbrush), others less familiar. All are being offered for the same price of €50 and all are listed anonymously, on a first-bid, first-secure basis. (They are all on exhibition at present in Lismore Castle Art Gallery). Absolutely all proceeds from the auction will go to St Carthage’s Cathedral, thereby helping to guarantee the old man above will still be visible for many years to come, as well as the wonderful McGrath Tomb below, dating from 1543 and without doubt one of the finest surviving examples of 16th century carving in Ireland.
All works included in the Verso Art auction are currently on view in Lismore Castle Arts Gallery, County Waterford until October 31st. For more information on the auction and how to bid, please see: Verso Art – VersoArt
Another abandoned Church of Ireland church, this one in Affane, County Waterford. Set in the midst of a substantial graveyard, the building dates from 1819 when erected at a cost of £500 with the usual support from the Board of First Fruits. This was a period when considerable numbers of such churches were being either built or restored across the country as part of an effort by the Church of Ireland to provide better facilities for worshippers and, it was hoped, increase the number of persons attending services: Affane church could accommodate 200 people although it is unlikely it did so very often. Already by 1874 the parish had been united with that of Cappoquin and by the condition of the building – today a relic from the Anglican Church’s age of improvement – it looks to have been long out of use.
An entrance into the former demesne of Affane, County Waterford. The core of the house here dated from the 17th century but had a new front added in the first half of the 19th century with canted bows on either side of the entrance. These ashlar gateposts with screen walls on either side and arched pedestrian openings on either side were probably erected around the same time. Once leading towards the main building, now they go nowhere but provide a reminder of what used to be here: the house itself is a ruined shell.
The little church at Clonagam, County Waterford sits on high ground almost directly north of Curraghmore, with superlative views from the graveyard down to the house and gardens. The present building dates from 1741 when on the instructions of Marcus Beresford, Earl of Tyrone and his heiress wife Catherine de la Poer it replaced an older building on the site. Although there were subsequent alterations, essentially this is still the same structure, taking the form of a simple Roman barn, the rendered entrance front relieved only by a cut-stone Gibbsian doorcase and diagonal stepped buttresses on either corner topped with crocketed pinnacles. Round-headed windows on either side and on the east front were probably of clear glass originally but now contain some stained glass panels. Otherwise there is nothing to distinguish the church from many others throughout the country. The real interest lies inside, where generations of the de la Poer Beresford family are remembered.
Two of Clonagam church’s most prominent monuments are located at the east end of the building, that on the north wall carrying the following inscription: To the Memory of Marcus Beresford, Earl, and Viscount of Tyrone, Baron Beresford, and Baronet who departed this life on the 4th of April 1763 in the 69th year of his Age, and of Catherine, Baroness Le Poer in Fee, his Countess, Daughter and Heiress to James Power, Earl of Tyrone, Viscount Decies, and Baron Le Poer, who dyed in the 68th year of her Age on the 16th of July 1769 this Monument is Erected by their Son, George de la Poer Beresford, Marquis of Waterford, in Testimony of his Duty, Gratitude and Affection. In front of a polished limestone pyramid, the white marble monument features portrait busts of the couple, similar to those seen in Imperial Roman tombs, their deaths mourned by a pair of disconsolate putti. Unfortunately the sculptor responsible for the work is not known, unlike the monument on the opposite wall which recalls Florence Grosvenor Rowley, who in August 1872 married John Henry de la Poer Beresford, fifth Marquess of Waterford: the following April she died in childbirth. Set into the wall of the church and dramatically lit by a concealed window, the sculpture shows both the deceased marchioness as though asleep and cradling her baby, who also did not survive. This work was created by the Viennese-born Vienna-born Joseph Edgar Boehm, who had settled in London in the early 1860s, exhibiting at the Royal Academy (where he was elected a member in 1782) and becoming the favourite sculptor of Queen Victoria who awarded him a knighthood. Boehm was also responsible for the St Hubert stag that sits atop the façade of the main house at Curraghmore.
The body of the church at Clonagam is dominated by two lifesize recumbent figures, that on the north side representing Henry de la Poer Beresford, third Marquess of Waterford who was killed in a hunting accident in March 1859. In polished granite, it shows the deceased clad in his robes as a Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Since the third marquess and his wife Louisa had no children, the title and Curraghmore estate were inherited by his brother, John de la Poer Beresford. Before becoming the fourth Marquess, he had served as a Church of Ireland clergyman and so the white marble monument shows him in clerical robes; he died just six years after his elder brother. Several other members of the family also became clergymen, and one of them is similarly commemorated in the church: the Most Rev. John George de la Poer Beresford, a younger son of the first marquess. He briefly served as Archbishop of Dublin before becoming Archbishop of Armagh in 1822, holding the position for the next forty years. In Armagh, he was responsible for undertaking the restoration of the ancient cathedral of St Patrick, then in a perilous state of disrepair. There he was buried, but the monument on the south wall of Clonagam church was erected in his memory by the wives of the third and fourth marquesses. Incidentally, he was succeeded as Archbishop of Armagh by a cousin, Marcus Gervais Beresford. Finally, one other curious sculpture deserves attention. This is a semi-recumbent male figure looking to date from the late 17th century, his right hand resting on a knee (from which a stocking has untidily slipped) his left supporting his head as he leans backwards. His present position is on a shelf inside the church’s marble baroque chimney piece, but this appears not to be the original setting. Elsewhere in the building a number of wall plaques were repositioned after the Church of Ireland church in Carrick-on-Suir, their original home, closed its doors in the early 1980s. Presumably this figure was moved here at the same time and tucked inside the chimney piece. Who he represents is unclear but one of the plaques commemorates John Power, second Earl of Tyrone who died in 1693 at the age of 29: might he be the reclining figure? Whatever the answer, like the others inside the church – and indeed in the graveyard outside – he awaits the Day of Judgement.
A stretch of the Dublin quays on the south side of the river Liffey known as Usher’s Island takes its name from what was once a prominent family in the fields of both commerce and religion. The Ushers/Usshers liked to believe they were descended from Gilbert de Neville, admiral of William the Conqueror’s fleet in 1066. Whatever their origins, in the 14th century John le Uscher was made Constable of Dublin Castle by Edward I, held the office for several years, and was reappointed to the same position by Edward II (who seems to have been his friend or patron, the original appointment having been given “at the instance of King Edward’s son”). Although he returned to his native Yorkshire on retirement, a presumed grandson Arland Ussher (born c. 1420) settled in Dublin, where he became one of the city’s leading merchants; in 1461, he was bailiff of Dublin and, in 1469, mayor. It was from two sons of his second marriage, John and Christopher Ussher that later Irish Usshers were descended. In the late 16th century, John Ussher built a fine residence for himself called Bridgefoot House: where this once stood is now called Bridgefoot Street, while its former riverside gardens are today covered by the buildings of Usher’s Island and Usher’s Quay. It was on this property that the very first book printed in the Gaelic language, containing an alphabet and Christian catechism, was produced. Its title page contains the following information: ‘Printed in Irish in the town of the Ford of the Hurdles, at the cost of Master John Ussher, alderman, at the head of the Bridge, the 20th day of June 1571.” John Usher’s son, Sir William Usher, paid for the publication of the first New Testament printed in the Irish language; this appeared in 1602. Given their strong adherence to the Protestant faith, it is not surprising the family produced several distinguished Anglican clerics, notably Henry Ussher (c. 1550–1613), one of the founders of Trinity College Dublin and, from 1595, Archbishop of Armagh. One of his nephews, James Ussher (1581–1656), held the same position from 1625 onward. Archbishop James Ussher’s scrupulous study of the Bible and early history led him to write the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (‘Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world’), which first appeared in 1650, together with its continuation, Annalium pars posterior published four years later. Famously his research allowed him to calculate the moment of Earth’s creation: around 6pm on 22 October 4004 BC.
As was so often the case, with the passage of time the Usshers distanced themselves from trade and became increasingly gentrified, acquiring land in different parts of the country, and forming advantageous familial alliances. For example, in 1695 a grandson of Sir William Ussher of Dublin, also called William, married Lettice, daughter and co heiress of Sir Henry Waddington; as a result, part of the Waddington estates in county Galway passed into the possession of the Ussher family. Meanwhile, another of Sir William’s grandsons, Beverley Ussher moved south to County Waterford where he made two successive marriages to heiresses, one being a daughter of Sir Percy Smyth of Ballynatray and the other a daughter of Sir Richard Osborne of Ballintaylor. As a result, a branch of the family settled in the south east of the country, where they built up estates and properties in which to live. Cappagh was one of those houses, constructed during the first decade of the 19th century by Beverley Ussher’s great-grandson Richard Ussher. However, in 1875 the old house was abandoned by Richard’s son, Richard John Ussher in favour of a newer residence on higher grounds and with better views across the surrounding landscape. This building was designed by James Otway and Robert Watt, architects and railway engineers who were also responsible for the line that linked Dungarvan to Mallow, County Cork. A keen fossil hunter, Richard John Ussher was seemingly the first person to discover the remains of a mammoth and a saber-tooth cat in Ireland, as well as that of a Great Auk (the last of these excavated in the sand dunes of Tramore, Co. Waterford). He also developed a passionate interest in ornithology and was a keen collector of bird’s eggs. With co-author Robert Warren, the results of his extensive research were published in 1906 as The Birds of Ireland. However, just a few decades later, the Usshers sold what remained of the Cappagh estate to the family of the present owners.
As can be seen in these photographs, old Cappagh is a most curious building, one that suggests a disparity between ambition and income. The front of the house forms the southern portion of a courtyard. At either end of the façade, the building rises two storeys but then, after just one bay, it becomes single storey and turns into a long, narrow villa. Evidently the Usshers embarked on its construction intending the central portion to be of the same dimensions as those at either end, but then – presumably for economic reasons – this project was abandoned and a more modest scheme accepted. Seemingly its builder, the elder Richard Ussher, participated in the Napoleonic Wars and perhaps on returning from these he realized that he needed to re-evaluate the project. Whatever the explanation, it makes for an unusual frontage. The rear of the building is almost as odd, since a high wall soon cuts off the house – centred on a bow which contains its main staircase – from the rest of the courtyard. The latter features all the usual elements found in proximity to a country house, stables, storerooms, staff accommodation and so forth. Inside old Cappagh, the main entrance leads to a hall at the rear of which climbs the aforementioned principle staircase, with reception rooms to left and right; a number of bedrooms upstairs are accessed either by the main staircase or by other flights of steps at either end of the building. Given its unfinished state, it is easy to understand why the Usshers chose to move to another site and start again in the 1870s, leaving the old house to be used for various purposes. It has stood empty for many years and while the present owners of the property resolutely do their best to maintain the site, inevitably the condition of old Cappagh has deteriorated.
Yet another of Ireland’s pocket cathedrals can be found at Ardmore, County Waterford. A religious settlement is said to have been established here by local saint Declan, one of a small number of missionaries who are supposed to have preached the Christian message before the arrival of Saint Patrick. An 8th century oratory is supposed to be Declan’s burial place. The cathedral stands immediately adjacent to it, and dates from the 12th century.
The remains of Ardmore Cathedral look much like those of other Irish Romanesque churches, but the surprise lies on the west gable. A long blind arcade here features various Biblical scenes, and although some of these are well-worn, or now blank, it is still possible to work out certain images, such as those showing Adam and Eve on either side of the Tree of Knowledge, and the Judgement of Solomon. The same site also contains one of the country’s tallest Round Towers, of the same date as the cathedral.
Everywhere one travels in Ireland, ranges of abandoned old farm buildings can be found in varying states of dereliction. It’s easy to understand why this should be the case; in many instances, the structures were poorly constructed and are unsuitable for adaptation to modern farming methods. The buildings may no longer be in the right location for whoever is working the land, and not have immediate access to electricity and mains water. None of these drawbacks is incapable of resolution, but frequently the simplest answer looks to be the construction of new facilities and abandonment of old. However, an alternative option does exist for those interested in the conservation of traditional buildings in the Irish countryside.
For the past decade, the Heritage Council has been administering distribution of GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environmental Scheme) Traditional Farm Buildings Grants. As the relevant documentation states, ‘The principal objective of this scheme is to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Only farmers approved in the GLAS scheme are eligible, and grants are never for more than 75% of the cost of work with a maximum of €25,000 available. There have been some constraints to the scheme – for example, this year grant offers were only made in April yet all work has to be completed by October – but overall it is hard to fault a programme designed to ensure that not all of Ireland’s traditional agricultural buildings, and the impression they make on our landscape, are lost forever.
Not all agricultural complexes are necessarily best-suited to continue performing their original function, thereby making them ineligible for a Traditional Farm Building Grant. Nevertheless, alternative uses have been found in a number of instances, some of which have featured here in the past, such as the complex at Ballilogue, County Kilkenny (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/10/14/in-the-vernacular) and a not-dissimilar property in County Tipperary (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/09/11/making-the-most-of-our-own) . Both cases make it clear that older farm buildings can have an afterlife, provided they are perceived with sufficient vision and imagination. This has also been true of another agricultural range at Dromore Yard, County Waterford. Dating back several centuries, the buildings were in a very poor state until taken in hand a few years ago and adapted as a site for performances and associated entertainment. The complex was used last year on a number of occasions during the annual Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, and will serve a similar purpose during the festival again this year (May 29th-June 3rd). Aside from stabilising the buildings and ensuring their future, intervention has been minimal but masterful: their original character and purpose remain apparent. No effort has been made to give them the architectural equivalent of a face-lift. Their age is apparent, their weather-beaten elevations and interiors left unaltered. Dromore Yard shows how easy it can be to give new life and purpose to an old structure: it offers an example that deserves to be more widely emulated.
For further information on this year’s Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, including events at Dromore Yard, see: https://blackwatervalleyoperafestival.com