Last weekend saw festivities marking the 250th anniversary of Monksgrange, County Wexford. Completed in 1769, the house has remained in the ownership of the original builder’s descendants, something of a rarity in Ireland as is also the property’s extensive archive of documents, thoroughly mined over many years by Philip Bull for his recently-published book, Monksgrange: Portrait of an Irish house and family, 1769–1969 (Four Courts Press). In its simplified Palladian design, the building is representative of the aspirations of the country’s landed gentry in the mid-18th century, adopting and adapting aristocratic taste better to secure its own place in the then-social hierarchy. While Monksgrange has undergone some alterations and modifications over the past two and a half centuries, it retains an important place in the history of our architectural evolution.
‘Ferns. A small town in the county of Wexford, Ireland. The history of this town commences with that of its religious establishments. It is said that in the year 598, an Irish king, named Brandubh, gave to St Maodhog, or as he is sometimes called St. Aedan, the lands of Ferns, where he founded an abbey and was consecrated bishop.’
‘The rising consequence of Ferns was interrupted early in the ninth century, by the incursions of the Danes who plundered and burned the abbey in the years 834, 836, 838, 917 and 928. By the same marauders it was, for the sixth time, consumed by fire A.D. 930; and the town was accidentally destroyed by conflagration in 1165. In the following year the town and abbey were reduced to ashes by the celebrated Dermod Macmurrough, king of Leinster. As some atonement for the crime of burning the ancient monastery of Ferns, he afterwards founded at this place a new abbey for canons regular of the order of St. Augustin, under the invocation of the Virgin Mary, which he richly endowed with lands.’
‘The remains of the abbey still excite great interest by their historical recollections. It was here that king Dermod was secreted and entertained, whilst waiting in the early part of 1169 for the arrival of his British allies; – a period pregnant with the future fortunes of Ireland! The remains of the fabric consist chiefly of two sides of a cloister, or of a narrow chapel, having two rows of tall windows, of the lancet form. The windows and the piers are uniformly of an equal breadth. Adjoining this architectural fragment is a church, the steeple of which is on a very unusual plan. The lower part represents an oblong square of confined proportions, the dimensions being about eleven feet by eight. At the height of twelve or thirteen feet from the ground, the steeple assumes a round form, seven feet in diameter and twenty in height. The whole is constructed of a reddish stone and, withinside, a flight of steps leads to the summit whence is obtained a delightful prospect over an immense extent of landscape.’
From The British cyclopaedia of the arts, sciences, history, geography, literature, natural history, and biography, London, 1838.
The Browne-Clayton Column stands on a rise in the middle of the Wexford countryside. Modelled on Pompey’s Pillar, erected by the Emperor Diocletian in Alexandria, Egypt in 297, the column climbs 94 feet to a fine Corinthian capital, the whole constructed of Mount Leinster granite. It was built on the instructions of General Robert Browne-Clayton in memory of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, his commanding officer in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars: Sir Ralph was killed at Alexandria in 1801. The folly is notable for being the only such column with an internal spiral staircase allowing remarkable views of the surrounding countryside from the top. In 1994 it was struck by lightning and the top section so badly damaged that collapse seemed inevitable. Ten years later, following the establishment of a charitable trust devoted to its restoration and financial aid from a number of sources, work ensuring the column’s future was complete and it remains solid to the present day.
From The Irish Times, March 7th 1923: ‘Wilton Castle, the residence of Captain P.C. Alcock, about three miles from Enniscorthy, was burned by armed men on Monday night. Nothing remains of the beautiful building but smoke-begrimed, roofless walls, broken windows, and a heap of smouldering debris. The Castle was occupied by a caretaker – Mr. James Stynes – the owner, with his wife and family, having gone to England about a year ago. Shortly after 9 o’clock on Monday night the caretaker was at the Steward’s residence…when he was approached by armed men, who demanded the keys to the Castle. When he asked why they wanted the keys, one of the armed men said: “We have come to burn the place. We are sorry”. The raiders told the caretaker that he could remove his personal belongings from the part of the Castle that he occupied, but they would not allow him to remove the furniture. Fearing that the Castle might be burned, however, Captain Alcock had removed the most valuable portion of his furniture some weeks ago, but a good many rooms were left furnished. When the caretaker had removed his property he was ordered back to the Steward’s house. Soon the noise of breaking glass was heard. It appears that the armed men broke all the windows on the ground floor, and having sprinkled the floors with petrol, set them alight. They did not hurry over their work of destruction, and they did not leave the Castle until near 12 o’clock, when the building was enveloped in flames. About thirty men took part in the raid. After the raiders left, the caretaker and Steward, with what help they could procure, tried to extinguish the flames, but their effort was hopeless’.
As seen today Wilton Castle, County Wexford dates from the mid-1830s when designed by Daniel Robertson for Harry Alcock. His great-great-grandfather, William Alcock, whose family were said to have settled in County Down in the 12th century, had bought the estate on which the house stands in 1695. Prior to that the place, originally known as Clogh na Kayer (The Castle of the Sheep), had been owned first by the de Denes and then a branch of the Butlers before being briefly in the possession of the Thornhills who had come to Ireland with Oliver Cromwell’s army. William Alcock built a new residence for himself on the site of an old castle, and this was occupied by his descendants for several generations. A handsome classical doorcase of granite with segmental pediment above fluted pilasters survives on the façade of the former steward’s house at Wilton to indicate the appearance of the original Alcock house, dismissed by Martin Doyle in his 1868 book on the county as being ‘in the dull style of William and Mary.’ Although the youngest son of the family, Harry Alcock inherited this property as all his brothers died unmarried. Famously one of them, William Congreve Alcock was involved in the last duel fought in County Wexford: this took place during the election campaign of 1807 when he shot dead one of his political opponents, John Colclough. Alcock was subsequently tried for murder and although acquitted lost his reason and spent the final years of his life in an asylum.
Wilton Castle may incorporate portions of the earlier house: the large slate-covered block to the rear, facing south-west and on land that drops steeply to the river Boro, looks as though it might predate the front section. Robertson’s design, surely one of his very best, is rich in detail, not least the main entrance where a neo-Tudor doorcase with hooded moulding stands beneath a double-height oriel window. This is flanked by projecting three-storey towers that to the right being extended by a great square tower with two stone balconies, one above the other. The roofline is dominated by castellation carried on projecting corbels, above which rise the chimneystacks with octagonal shafts. To the south-east the building is considerably extended by a two-storey former service wing, almost as substantial as the main block. This part is dominated by a three-storey octagonal tower with a smaller turret above. Deliberately intended to evoke antiquity and encourage belief in the long lineage of the Alcock family, Wilton is surrounded by a pseudo-moat so that the forecourt must be reached via a bridge. In Houses of Wexford (published 2004) David Rowe and Eithne Scallan wrote that ‘this superb example of neo-Tudor architecture awaits some very rich man to restore it.’ However, just at that date the building’s owner, dairy farmer Sean Windsor whose grandfather had once been the Alcocks’ estate steward, pluckily embarked on a programme of conservation work at Wilton. Initially this involved clearing the site of vegetation and taking care of the stonework. More recently he re-roofed and fitted out the southern section of the castle and for the past three years has been renting this for weddings and short-term lets. An admirable initiative and one that other owners of historic ruins might like to consider emulating.
Creacon, County Wexford, an exceptionally tall and broad strong farmer’s house dating from the mid-18th century. Of three storeys over raised basement, Creacon has five bays with the rendered facade centred on a simple Gibbsian limestone door approached by a flight of steps. A pleasure to find a house of this calibre still in use and well-maintained.
What remains of Ferns Castle, County Wexford. It is believed to have been constructed in the mid-1220s by William Marshal, second Earl of Pembroke. The family is said to have suffered from a curse placed on it by Ailbe Ua Maíl Mhuaidh, Bishop of Ferns after the first Earl of Pembroke had seized some of his property. The bishop declared that the male line of the Marshals should die out, as indeed it did as all five sons of the first earl failed to leave behind an heir. The fate of Ferns Castle was not much better: during the Confederate Wars, it was blown up in 1641 by Sir Charles Coote (future Earl of Mountrath) to prevent the building falling into his opponents’ hands. Only one of the original four corner towers survives and large sections of the walls are entirely lost, but enough survives to give an idea of how it must have looked.
Dusk at Dunbrody Abbey, County Wexford. This Cistercian monastery was founded in 1182 by Hervé de Montmorency, uncle of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow. The site was initially offered to the monks of Buldwas, Shropshire but after they declined it came under the care of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin. Most of the extant buildings, including the substantial church, date from the first half of the 13th century. Dunbrody was officially dissolved in 1536 and nine years later the buildings and surrounding land were acquired by Sir Osborne Etchingham.
Wexford in the second half of October is filled with opera lovers who come for the annual festival specialising in the rediscovery of lost musical gems. Some of them might like to take a break from this activity and explore another under-appreciated gem: the town’s walls. Wexford was established by the Vikings in the mid-ninth century and named ‘Weissfjord’ meaning Bay of the Mud Flats. Its walls were likely constructed three centuries later, following the arrival of the Normans. Originally they ran in a loose C-shape around Wexford’s land border, the town being left open to the sea. Covering more than 24 hectares, the walls were punctuated by seven gates, only one of which remains: the Selskar Gate. However while large sections of the old defences were demolished in the 18th century, a number of ‘mural towers’ survive along stretches of the wall. That above is located close to George’s Street, that below on Rowe Street. Both merit discovery – and provide an opportunity to clear the head of all that music.
The granite portico of Oaklands, County Wexford. This late Georgian house is associated with the Tyndall family, the last of whom died in 1957: soon afterwards Oaklands was gutted by fire and pulled down. This is all that remains to indicate its appearance, although large blocks of cut stone litter the surrounding area. A bungalow has been built on the site.
Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.
Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’
There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.