A Family Home

Seen from the shore of Lough Derravaragh: Coolure, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. The couple immediately embarked on building their new home and when Lady Louisa Conolly, who had brought up the motherless Louisa Staples (her husband’s niece) at Castletown, County Kildare came to visit, she wrote, ‘The Coolure House is in vast forwardness, and a sweet pretty thing it will be. Tom Pakenham and Louisa seem equally engaged about it, though in different lines. He minds the farm only, and leaves the house, plantation and gardening entirely to her. But both agree in loving the place and wishing to spend their lives there.’ As indeed they duly did, further extending the house in the early 1820s presumably to accommodate their substantial family (Louisa Pakenham had fifteen children). The building’s finest external feature is the tripartite cut limestone Doric doorcase, with sidelights and spoked fanlight beneath a pediment.


Out of Place

On the west wall of St Michael’s church in Castlepollard, County Westmeath hangs this memorial to Catherine Gunning who, as can be read, died in 1751 aged just nineteen (‘Here underlies too sad a truth/Discretion, innocence and youth/Death veil thy face, thy cruel Dart/Has Virtue pierc’d thro’ beauty’s heart’). Catherine was a cousin of those famous 18th century beauties, the Gunning sisters, Maria who married the sixth Earl of Coventry (but then died aged 27, most likely from lead poisoning due to efforts to maintain her pale skin) and Elizabeth who married first the sixth Duke of Hamilton and then the fifth Duke of Argyll (as well as being made a baroness in her own right). The Gunnings had settled in County Roscommon in the 17th century and through the marriage of Catherine’s surviving sister Bridget, this branch of the family’s property at Hollywell would pass to the Blakeneys. The plaque was likely moved from the older church of Killafree when the present St Michael’s was built c.1827 but a puzzle is why Catherine Gunning was laid to rest in this part of the country and not closer to her home?

Another Commemoration 

After Monday’s post about St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath, here is an image of another monument in the same part of the world: the obelisk in the grounds of Killua Castle. It was erected in 1810 by Sir Thomas Chapman to honour the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh who supposedly first introduced the potato into Ireland in 1589; the Chapmans originally came to this country thanks to the support of Raleigh who was a maternal first cousin.

Community Spirit

The word community is now much bandied about: it has become the easy-to-reach generic term whenever a group of people needs to be described collectively. And perhaps as a result, the concept behind community – the notion of a number of persons sharing not just the same space but also the same social values and sense of civic responsibility – can be overlooked. Today readers are offered an example of community spirit put into action, and an opportunity to participate in this.

St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath dates from c.1790 when it was built with funds provided by Sir Benjamin Chapman who lived nearby in Killua Castle. (Note that the last Chapman baronet, Sir Thomas, was the father of T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’). Lying at the end of a long, tree-lined avenue off the main street of the village and in the middle of a graveyard, the building was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a neat structure with a handsome spire.’ Some two years earlier it had been repaired at a cost of £251 granted by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The spire admired by Lewis has long been lost but otherwise the church, at least externally, remains much as he would have seen it. The raised east end suggests the present structure may have been erected on the site of an earlier one, as was often the case. Designed in the simple hall style found throughout the country, the north side of its nave, which is first seen on approach, is completely plain whereas that on the south has three pointed-arch windows retaining remnants of latticed glass. So too does the east end triple-light window while at the west end smaller windows flank the tower in which a door provided access for parishioners. The castellated tower is of dressed limestone whereas the main body of the church was built of rubble formerly covered in render.

St John’s Church remained in active use for 200 years until taken out of service by the Church of Ireland in 1990 when most of its fittings were removed (the altar table was subsequently moved to the Church of Ireland in Ballee, County Down). St John’s and its surrounding land were sold in 1997 but the new owner seems to have done little work on the building which thereafter fell into disrepair. A few years ago the family which has long been engaged in restoring Killua Castle also bought St John’s and began work to ensure this key feature of the local heritage was not lost. At some date the exterior had been covered in cement render which did not allow the building to breathe and encouraged damp, as did the loss of slates from its roof. The entire roof has since been restored, using old slates, while the walls were stripped of their cement. Internally some of the plasterwork also had to be removed due to damage, and the ceiling has been repaired.
All this work was done from the family’s own funds, and using the same workmen they have employed at Killua Castle. Their motive was to save St John’s. But what of its future? The present owners propose to complete the task of restoration of the building both inside and out, as well as the surrounding graveyard. They will then offer it free of charge to people in the area for use as an exhibition gallery, meeting hall and any other purpose for which it might be needed, since no such venue currently exists in or near Clonmellon. This philanthropic gesture truly represents what is meant by community spirit, encapsulating civic engagement and an active wish to better the area in which one lives. The owners are committed to finishing what they have started but understandably would like others to share their spirit and have opened a kickstarter fund for this purpose. Anyone can contribute and in doing help to counter the prevailing notion that rural Ireland has no future. Now is the chance to demonstrate a full understanding of the word community.

Anyone interested in assisting with the restoration of St John’s Church can do so by visiting https://kickstarter.com/projects/1429745501/st-john-s-church-clonmellon before April 15th next.

A Mysterious Mound

On a hillock rising above Lough Bane, County Westmeath stands this small circular building. When was it originally constructed, and for what purpose? Clearly the upper section has been lost but the space inside is still roofed. A series of windows, some large others more like rifle holes, run around the walls, and there are a couple of large openings to permit access, which invalidates the idea that it might have been intended for defensive purposes. The interior also contains the remains of a fireplace. The views from this spot are spectacular, and allow 360 degree panoramas for many miles, so it may have served as a lookout point. Any ideas?


Abandoned Farmhouse

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm—a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser (1980)
Photographs are of an abandoned farmhouse in County Westmeath.

On the Town XI


The skyline of Mullingar, County Westmeath is dominated by the twin campaniles of the town’s Roman Catholic cathedral: a testament to religious triumphalism’s predilection for blandness, it officially opened in the same week the Second World War began. The building was designed by Ralph Byrne, a Dublin-based architect who ran one of the busiest practices in the first half of the last century, specializing in churches, convents and diverse clerical premises. Byrne’s hallmark was eclectic classicism, as can likewise be seen in his near-contemporaneous Catholic cathedral in Cavan town and the church of SS. Peter and Paul in Athlone. Like Mullingar cathedral, they do not welcome close attention since a muddle of elements and orders soon becomes apparent. This is a case of never mind the quality, just relish the quantity because Mullingar cathedral is enormous, seemingly capable of holding 5,000 persons. That figure represents approximately a quarter of the town’s present population, testifying to Mullingar’s growth in recent years. Located in the Irish midlands and therefore benefitting from travelers passing from one side of the island to the other, Mullingar was founded around 1186 when the Norman knight William Petit received a grant of land between Lough Owel and Lough Ennell by then Lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy. Petit built a stone castle on the site where now stand the town’s County Buildings and his brother Ralph Petit erected a church nearby. The Augustinian and Dominican orders later established houses in the area. The earliest grant of a market was given in 1207 and Mullingar subsequently acquired the right to hold four fairs a week as well as a weekly market. When Westmeath was separated from Meath in 1543 Mullingar was designated the county town. It was almost entirely burned by the forces of Hugh O’Neill in 1597 and then a fire, this time accidental, again destroyed the greater part of the town in 1747. Thus Mullingar’s present form and appearance essentially date from the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The Royal Canal reached Mullingar in 1806 and the town therefore became a base for both passenger and freight traffic (some of the original bridges connected with this enterprise survive). The canal grew steadily less important with the arrival of rail, the first train coming to Mullingar in 1848 and soon this became one of the country’s major junctions. In addition the main road from Dublin to both Galway and Sligo passed through the town, further boosting business. Mullingar’s expansion in the 19th century is evident in the number of prominent public buildings erected during this period, not least a neo-Gothic predecessor to the present Roman Catholic cathedral. Then there are the barracks, originally built between 1814 and 1819 to accommodate 1,000 troops. Other vast complexes include the former workhouse – now part of St Mary’s Hospital – designed by Poor Law Commission architect George Wilkinson and built in the Tudor Gothic style in the early 1840s, and the not dissimilar St Loman’s, a psychiatric hospital from the following decade with a three-storey façade that runs to an astonishing forty-one bays arranged in a series of symmetrical gable- and canted-fronted projections. In 1858 the town, which had been owned by the Forbes family, Earls of Granard since the 1660s, was sold to Fulke Greville-Nugent, later first Lord Greville. He instigated the rebuilding of the town’s main hotel, today still called the Greville Arms, and also the old market house, the architect for both these projects being William Caldbeck. Not far away is a fine early 19th century classical courthouse, once part of a larger complex that included a gaol: its site is now in part occupied by the Italianate-style County Hall dating from 1913.

Mullingar’s long-time role as a market and county town is evident in its centre neatly contained within the boundaries of the Royal Canal which encircles it on three sides with only the south unencompassed, although a second canal on this side runs towards Lough Ennell. Widening and narrowing in different sections a main street runs through the town from east to west, the old route from Dublin to the other side of the country: the broader sections were intended to accommodate trade on market and fair days. Much of the main thoroughfare is still occupied by retail premises, although there are vacant properties found intermittently along its length (and, as elsewhere around the country, occupation of the upper storeys appears almost non-existent with inevitable consequences for the building’s well-being). It is on the side streets and laneways that greater dereliction can be found. Here are many boarded-up structures or empty sites where demolition has taken place. And naturally the local authority has not assisted matters by granting permission for a number of shopping centres to be developed outside the old town, thereby taking consumers away from Mullingar’s original commercial district. As so often is the case, the state has likewise shown little concern for the town’s long-term welfare: in 2012 the old barracks, after being in use for almost two centuries, were closed. This meant a loss of trade in the immediate locality, but it has also left a reserve of historic buildings vacant close to the town centre: last September it was reported the barracks might be used to house some of the Syrian refugees expected to come to Ireland but nothing further has been heard on the subject. A large commercial, residential and retail development, Mullingar Central, was announced just before the economic downturn but never took place and this has left a considerable parcel of land in poor condition. Elsewhere while a certain amount of attention is paid to the canal and its facilities, one feels more could be done especially to ensure that buildings close to its banks are better maintained: a block of old warehouses immediately behind Dominick Street, for example, have slid into total disrepair. Mullingar’s story is little different from that seen elsewhere: an inability to think ahead, a reliance on short-term fixes, the lack of an overall masterplan and, above all, a failure to understand properly what successful urban living requires. Like its cathedral, on at superficial glance this town might look well enough, but closer examination indicates otherwise.