On the Curve

The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.


With the Gates

The triumphal arch marking the entrance to Rosmead, County Westmeath. Its design attributed to English architect Samuel Woolley and dating from the mid-1790s, the arch is of limestone embellished with Coade stone ornamentation, now badly weathered: the design once also included urns and statuary but this has all long-since gone. The arch was originally erected at Glananea some seven miles away in the same county. The latter property had been built by Ralph Smyth, whose family owned several estates in the area, and who called his property Ralphsdale. Having had the arch erected, he came to be known locally as ‘Smyth with the Gates.’ Tiring of the nickname he disposed of the arch to its present home, only to find himself given the new title ‘Smyth without the Gates.’ Ironically, while Rosmead is now just a shell Glananea still stands, so perhaps it would have been better for the arch to have remained there.


The Missing Twin

Above are three images of the main staircase in the former Archbishop’s Palace, Cashel, County Tipperary. Long attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and dating from c.1730 this building is rightly deemed important for retaining much of its original interior, not least these stairs in red pine. Its features include a richly carved apron below the first-floor gallery and the balusters, those on the return capped with Corinthian columns, the others being fluted in their upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower.
One of the past year’s happiest moments has been the discovery of the Cashel Palace staircase’s ‘twin’ in a house in County Westmeath. Although the two buildings have little in common externally (and the latter is usually dated much later), both share this interior feature which in design and execution alike are essentially identical, the Westmeath apron being slightly more elaborate. More research needs to be undertaken on the subject: something to look forward to in 2017…


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.