A Stroll along the Mall



Today the word ‘mall’ is usually applied to shopping centres with pretensions to grandeur, but historically malls were outdoor urban spaces in which the local population would stroll and socialise. No doubt originally The Mall in Wicklow town was intended to perform just such a function. Situated on ground steeply rising above the point where the Vartry river flows into the Irish Sea ,and therefore overlooking the harbour, The Mall is separated from Main Street immediately below by a retaining wall built of local granite and dating from c.1875. A double flight of steps links the two areas and to go from one to the other pedestrians pass under a wrought-iron arch centred on a glazed lantern. There ends whatever charm The Mall has today, since much of it is now a muddle of traffic congestion and neglected buildings, not least the former Bayview Hotel which occupies a particularly prominent spot. Originally constructed as a private residence around 1810 and called Bellevue, the property became a library in 1925 and later an hotel. Before the economic recession, there had been plans that it form part of a shopping centre complex but this never happened and it has been in decline since then. A year ago, the building, along with its neighbours, was sold for €903,000. One must hope the new owners have plans to improve the prospects not just of this site but the entire area. A stroll along The Mall ought to be a pleasure.


Festina Lente


The Plunket family has been mentioned here before, not least the Hon Brinsley Plunket who in November 1927 married Aileen Guinness, eldest daughter of Ernest Guinness (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). The couple were related: the grandmother of Brinsley (always known as Brinny) Plunket had been a Guinness, sister to Aileen’s grandfather. Another curiosity: the groom’s great-great aunt, the Hon Katherine Plunket, who died in 1932 when a month short of her 112the birthday, is recorded as the longest-living person in Ireland. Brinny Plunket was younger brother of Terence (known as Teddy), sixth Lord Plunket. A talented cartoonist who later turned to painting portraits, in 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and American actress Fannie Ward. Teddy and Dorothé were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938 while on their way to attend a party at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate. Their close links to the royal family meant the couple’s eldest son Patrick, seventh Baron Plunket, would serve as Equerry to Elizabeth II and Deputy Master of the Royal Household until his death in 1975.






The rise of the Plunkets had begun in the late 18th century with William Conyngham Plunket. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he became a lawyer famous for having been lead prosecutor at Robert Emmet’s trial in 1803. Two years later he was made Attorney-General for Ireland and also became a member of the Irish Privy Council. A supporter of Catholic Emancipation, in 1827 he was created Baron Plunket, became Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas and later served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Obviously a man of such prominence needed to have a country seat and so in the mid-1780s he took a lease on an estate to the south of Dublin called Old Connaught. Originally there appears to have been a late-medieval tower house on this site, built by a branch of the Walsh family, but this was badly damaged by a fire in 1776 and seven years later the property was leased to an Anglican clergyman, the Rev William Gore, Bishop of Limerick. He embarked on building a new house for himself but died almost as soon as it was finished, and before long the lease was acquired, and then bought out, by William Conyngham Plunket, in whose family it would remain for the next 150 years. As demonstrated by the Hon Katherine, provided they weren’t killed in plane crashes, the Plunkets tended to live long, and the first baron was just six months shy of turning 90 when he died in 1854.  His eldest son, the second baron (father of the aforementioned Hon Katherine Plunket), was a clergyman who rose to become Bishop of Tuam but had no sons, so following his death the title, and Old Connaught, passed to a younger brother. On the third baron’s death, he was succeeded by his eldest son William Plunket who was another clergyman (for generations, male members of this family either joined the church or practised as lawyers). Like several forebears, the fourth baron rose through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Archbishop of Dublin where he was instrumental in establishing a teacher training school in Kildare Place. That building is long gone (replaced by a mediocre office block housing the Dept of Agriculture) but Archbishop Plunket is commemorated by a statue which depicts him pensively observing his surroundings. In 1863 he married Anne Lee Guinness, and her substantial marriage settlement allowed improvements and extensions to be undertaken at Old Connaught, with both house and gardens benefitting, the former not least by the addition of a large conservatory – since lost – to one side of the building. As mentioned, the archbishop was Brinny Plunket’s grandfather while Anne Lee Guinness was great-aunt of Aileen Guinness, hence the link between the later couple. The archbishop’s eldest son, also William, was a diplomat who served as Governor of New Zealand 1904-10.






What has all the above to do with today’s photographs? These show the restored walled gardens of Old Connaught House. Following his parents’ death in California in 1938, the estate was inherited by their eldest son Patrick, but he and his siblings were raised by a paternal aunt in London and had little to do with Ireland. But even before then the family had largely abandoned the place, leasing it in 1935 to the Christian Brothers who used the house as a senior novitiate school under the name Colaiste Ciaran. The surrounding land was run as a farm and the old gardens used for growing fruit and vegetables. Having subsequently bought the estate from the Plunkets, the order remained there until 1972 when it was decided to close the novitiate school and sell or lease sections of the estate. The house itself remained in the hands of the Christian Brothers until 1999 when finally put on the market with just 12 acres; today the building is divided into a series of flats. Meanwhile, the old walled garden, long cultivated first by the Plunkets and then the brothers, was left to fall into ruin. In 1996 the gardens and stableyard were leased to a charity founded eight years earlier to provide a range of programmes for the disabled and disadvantaged. This body is called Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly) taking its name from the Plunket family motto, and reflects the process whereby the old walled gardens, running to some two and a half acres, were gradually resuscitated, one section reflecting the character of the site in the mid-19th century when Archbishop Plunket and his family would have lived at Old Connaught. Another part of the gardens is largely divided into allotments, filled with vegetables, fruit trees and flowers, just as would once have been the case. Incidentally, the wooden platforms seen on the middle garden’s long ponds are for the sake of terrapins who live here. The gardens (which also feature a shop and cafe) are open daily to the public for free, although donations are always welcome. Well worth supporting, so do consider hurrying along there (and not slowly).

 

 

…To the Other End of Town



Located at the northern end of Rathdrum, County Wicklow, this is what remains of Ardavon, once home to the Comerfords, a family responsible for building a mill in the lower part of the town in the mid-19th century. The mill eventually closed in 1935 but the buildings still stand on one side of the bridge crossing the river Avonmore. Meanwhile the Comerfords remained at Ardavon until 1958 when the house was acquired by the Wicklow County Vocational Education Committee. It was then used as a school but in 1991 Avondale Community College opened and Ardavon became redundant, a property owned, but not used, by the local authority. Soon enough the inevitable happened: in 1997 the house was badly damaged by fire and despite undertakings by Wicklow Council to undertake restoration work, it has remained a roofless ruin ever since.


From One End of Town…



Located at one end of Rathdrum, County Wicklow, this is the former Royal Fitzwilliam Hotel, opened in October 1863 beside the station by the Dublin & South Eastern Railway. Although trains still stop here, the hotel closed in 1931 and appears to have been left empty for many years, although for a brief period earlier this century it was used to house asylum seekers. At the height of the economic boom, it was offered for sale at €1.9 million, but failed to find a buyer: by 2013 the price had plunged to €150,000, but still there were no takers. In the interim it was subject to vandalism before finally, in December 2009, being badly damaged by fire. Since then its condition has further deteriorated and is now in a pitiful state, with the handful of distinguishing features such as the cast-iron drinking fountain, being allowed to rot.


Out of Service



The outer walls of the former Church of Ireland church at Derrylossary, County Wicklow. The present structure stands on the site of a much older one, thought to have been associated with the monastic centre at Glendalough, located some six miles to the south-west. Possibly incorporating parts of the original structure, this church was rebuilt in the 1820s thanks to financial support from the Board of First Fruits, with a tower added the following decade. The site is noteworthy for being the burial place of two well-known figures in 20th century Ireland, the first being Robert Barton who lived not far away at Glendalough House and was one of the signatories of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (although he then opposed it). The second is his cousin Erskine Childers’ son, of the same name, who briefly served as Ireland’s fourth President until his death in November 1974; his father, Childers senior, had been executed during the Civil War after being arrested by Free State while staying at Glendalough House. Derrylossary church continued to be used for religious services until the late 1960s, after which it was closed and eventually unroofed.


Another World


Powerscourt, 1925

Frank Browne, better known as Fr Browne, was without doubt the finest photographer working in Ireland during the middle decades of the last century. Taking some 42,000 pictures, all of which he carefully catalogued before his death in 1960, he left behind an astonishingly rich record of daily life throughout the country over that period. Even more remarkably, photography began, and remained, an extra-curricular hobby because Frank Browne was first and foremost a Jesuit priest. His activities as a photographer had to be fitted in – and sometimes set aside – as and when was required by his superiors in the order. This makes his achievement in the medium all the more impressive. It is clear that he could have made a comfortable living from his work, but chose not to do so. All financial compensation he received for his work, and during certain busy periods the amounts were substantial, he was not permitted to retain: the money was immediately forwarded to the Provincial Treasurer of the Jesuit order. Among the payments he received were those for a series of images of Ireland’s country houses, commissioned by the Irish Tatler & Sketch. Published monthly, the photographs were accompanied by Browne’s own texts, in which he discussed the building in question and its history. It says a great deal about the man’s character that he managed to gain the trust of so many owners, who allowed him access to their properties, which were then still private and not open to the public. The pictures he took on these occasions are a fantastic but hitherto insufficiently explored resource, since they show interiors of many houses either since lost or radically altered. What’s particularly interesting is to look at how such buildings, still occupied by their original families, were then furnished as it is indicative of decorative taste at the time, often little altered from the 19th century. The pictures also provide viewers with a wistful awareness of what has been lost, usually sold at auction and frequently taken out of the country. Some of these images are included in a newly-published book, Wandering Wicklow with Father Browne, and they are shown here.





Killruddery, 1947

Killruddery, County Wicklow is today one of Ireland’s most popular and visited country houses, enjoying the benefits of being located on the edge of Dublin. It has been home to successive generations of the Brabazon family, Earls of Meath, since the early 17th century. The core of the building dates from that period, but heavily encased in a number of later additions, the most substantial being made by father and son architects Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison during the 1820s when they greatly enlarged the house and transformed its exterior to resemble an immense Tudor mansion, further alterations being made some forty years later when William Slater added a Dutch gable and Oriel window to the south front. A decade earlier, the present conservatory was constructed, replacing an earlier one that was part of the Morrisons’ contribution. Browne’s photographs were taken in 1947 when all of this was still in place. But just a few years later, extensive dry rot was discovered in parts of the building and the fourteenth Earl of Meath took the decision that demolition was the only option. Accordingly, in the early 1950s the entire entrance front on the north side was pulled down and the remainder remodelled by Claud Phillimore. At least a third of the house was lost including the double-height entrance hall seen here, along with an equally monumental dining room and other spaces. Browne’s pictures provide an invaluable record of how Killruddery appeared before these revolutionary changes were instigated.





Shelton Abbey, 1947

The Howard family came from the village of Shelton in Nottinghamshire, and remembered this when they chose to name their Irish house Shelton Abbey. The original building here is thought to have been constructed for Ralph Howard, first Viscount Wicklow, in the mid-1750s, its design attributed to English architect Matthew Brettingham. In 1819 Howard’s grandson, William-Forward Howard, 4th Earl of Wicklow invited the Morrisons père et fils to remodel the building so that it might resemble ‘an Abbey erected in the fourteenth century, and…formed into a baronial residence shortly after the Reformation’ although the architects complained the result was less perfect than they might have wished since the owner wished to retain as much as possible of the original fabric. Some of the interiors, such as the library and dining room, retained their classical decoration but others, not least the main drawing room, were made over in Tudor Gothic style with wonderful fan vaulted ceilings. During the 1740s the first Ralph Howard had undertaken a Grand Tour during which he was painted by Pompeo Batoni and acquired a number of old master works and antiquities. Subsequent further generations of the family married well and added to Shelton Abbey’s contents so that by the time the eighth, and last, Earl of Wicklow inherited the place it was filled with treasures. Unfortunately, his bank balance was less well stocked and in 1947 he decided to open his home as an hotel. Just before this happened, Browne was invited to photograph the building, the first such job he undertook for Irish Tatler & Sketch. His pictures therefore show Shelton Abbey when still a private property. Sadly, the earl’s scheme was not a success  – it was perhaps too early for the allure of a country house hotel to be appreciated – and in 1950 he made the decision to sell the estate. A sale of the contents duly followed and took an astonishing 13 days, an indication of how impressive they were, with dealers coming from England and the United States to snatch up many bargains. Today Shelton Abbey is an open prison and its interiors, bereft of their former contents, have suffered from indifferent maintenance. This gives Browne’s pictures a particular poignancy, not least one showing Mr Virtue, the house’s long-serving butler, looking apprehensively out the front door as he awaits the arrival of paying guests.


Humewood, 1947

Wandering Wicklow with Father Browne is published by Messenger Publications (www.messenger.ie) and now available in all good bookshops.

 

Charm and Merit



The market house in the centre of Dunlavin, County Wicklow The building dates from 1743 when constructed for local landlord Robert Tynte who was keen to improve the economic prospects of the town. Entirely of granite, the market house is cruciform in shape, the base rising up to a cylindrical tower topped with fluted dome; each of the four corners is occupied by Doric colonnades. Originally the arches around the building were open, but these have since been filled in and today it serves as a library. The market house’s design was attributed by the Knight of Glin to Richard Castle, but Maurice Craig begged to differ, declaring ‘it seems to me for all its charm and merit too clumsy to be the work of an academically accomplished designer.’


Back and Front


Fortgranite, County Wicklow was discussed here a month ago (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2019/04/15/fortgranite). The estate’s best-known gatelodge takes the form of a rusticated toy castle, but this one greets visitors at the start of another drive. Of local granite, of course, and dating from c.1840, it is unusual in presenting identical facades both front and rear: on both sides, there is a canted breakfront at the centre of the building featuring a doorcase. Other than for reasons of symmetry, one wonders why the necessity for two entrances in such a small lodge?

A Swift Exit


Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and author of sundry celebrated works including Gulliver’s Travels and A Modest Proposal, is associated with Fortgranite, a County Wicklow house, the contents of which are being sold tomorrow. The Swift family’s rise in fortune originated with an earlier cleric, the Rev Thomas Swift who in 1566 became vicar of St Andrew’s church in Canterbury, Kent and subsequently married the heiress daughter of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Thomas Godwin. The latter was recalled in the first name of the Rev Thomas’ eldest great-grandson, Godwin Swift, a lawyer who after 1660 served as Attorney General to the Viceroy the Duke of Ormonde, and was duly rewarded for his service with an estate in County Kilkenny, Swifte’s Heath. One of Godwin Swift’s younger brothers, Jonathan, also moved to Ireland but died within a year, aged only 27. He left a pregnant wife who seven months later gave birth to a son, also called Jonathan, the future dean. He benefitted from the support of his uncle Godwin (who incidentally had fifteen sons and four daughters by four wives), and then from the latter’s son Willoughby (Jonathan Swift’s cousin) who paid for his education and secured employment as secretary with Sir William Temple. His later clerical and literary careers are well known. What has any of this to do with Rockgranite? In 1711, Godwin Swift’s grandson Thomas Swift married Frances Dennis, heiress of a timber merchant from Kinsale, County Cork: the couple had two sons, the Rev. Meade Swift-Dennis and John Swift-Dennis. In 1782, these two men were joint beneficiaries of the substantial estate left by their late uncle, James Dennis, former Chief Baron of the Exchequer and first (and last) Lord Tracton. The only condition was that they adopt the arms and name of Dennis. They duly did so, the Rev. Meade Dennis subsequently acquiring the Fortgranite estate which was left to his son Thomas Stratford Dennis. As the latter’s middle name indicates, he was related to the Stratford family, his grandmother being a daughter of the first Earl of Aldborough, a name that has been discussed here more than once (see in particular Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017).






Fortgranite is a house originally dating from c.1730, although sections of the basement suggest that there might already have been a tower house on the site, a not-unusual circumstance. The house was built for one George Pendred, whose family may have been Cornish in origin. He married an heiress Cordelia Saunders, daughter of lawyer and politician Morley Saunders, who c.1716 built a splendid house in County Wicklow, Saunders Grove (burnt 1923). As elsewhere in this take, the son of George and Cordelia Pendred changed his surname to Saunders in order to benefit from a family legacy, and was called Morley Pendred Saunders. His daughter Delia married the Rev. Meade Swift (later Dennis) and in turn their eldest son Thomas Stratford Dennis married his cousin Katherine Saunders. Thus two generations of one family benefitted from marrying two generations of another. In turn Fortgranite appears to have gone through two remodellings in the 19th century, the first c.1810-15 following the marriage of Thomas Dennis to Katherine Saunders, the second undertaken by the couple’s eldest son Meade Dennis in the early 1870s, the last occasion when such enterprises were made before the onset of the Land Wars and consequent decline of Big House estates in the following decade. As a result of these two refurbishments, Fortgranite shows little evidence of its earlier manifestations, displaying the gravitas typical of a high-Victorian country house. Still, until recently the interior was filled with evidence of former eras, and of the diverse families who had both inherited the place and, through marriage and other connections, bequeathed items to it. All either now gone, or about to do so following tomorrow’s contents sale. With them are dispersed the collective links to Patrick Swift, to the Earls of Aldborough, to timber merchants of Cork and Anglican clergy of Westmeath, to an entire history of Ireland’s gentry. All scattered, never to be brought together again.



For further information on tomorrow’s sale at Fortgranite, County Wicklow, see https://fonsiemealy.ie

Scant Evidence


The bungalow-strewn village of Stratford on Slaney, County Wicklow looks as though it could be a modern suburb almost anywhere. However a handful of houses indicate the place has an older pedigree. The name derives from founder Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough whose architectural ambitions have been discussed here before (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017). He developed the village during the last quarter of the 18th century, intending it to be a centre for the textile industry, specifically cotton and printing works. At its height in the 1830s, Stratford on Slaney contained 104 houses (and thirteen public houses) with a population of 2,833 people, 1,00o of them employed in the fabric factory. Lord Aldborough built places of worship for Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, a dispensary and several shops. The famine and its attendant woes in the following decade put an end to the business, and so to Stratford where the factory closed and people moved away: in the census of 2016, the village had a population of just 241 persons. These few houses, dating from c.1840 are all that remain of Lord Aldborough’s ambitions.