Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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Outstanding in its Field

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Located in the middle of a field, the now-disused church at Ballynafagh, County Kildare. Built beside the remains of a mediaeval religious site, the building dates from 1831 when constructed with the support of £900 from the Board of First Fruits. It remained in use until 1959 when the last services were held there but retained its roof until as recently as 1985. The windows and doors have since been blocked up to stop access to the interior but the structure remains in good shape, with west and east ends marked by distinctively tall finials (although as can be seen below the top of that on the north-east corner has broken off).

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Waiting in the Wings

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When it comes to country houses, architectural historians and conservationists often, and understandably, focus their attention on the main property. But it is usually only one part of a larger conglomerate of buildings, all of which interact with each other and are also worthy of study – and preservation. Here are the two stable blocks at Bantry House, County Cork, added to the estate by Richard White, Viscount Berehaven (later second Earl of Bantry) around 1845 and very much intended to be seen as part of the site’s architectural ensemble. Distinguished by their copper-domed cupolas, from sufficient distance the pair appear to serve as free-standing wings to the house between them. While one has found alternative use in recent years, the other sadly awaits attention (and thus for the present is best seen from the aforementioned distance).

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End of the Road

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A fine five-bay townhouse on the Doneraile Road in Castletownroche, County Cork. Of two storeys over basement, this is the end of a terrace of such buildings on the street dating from c.1810 and distinguished by their handsome doorcases and wide roof eaves. Unfortunately in this instance the property’s condition suggests it may also soon be the end of the line here.

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The Past in Need of a Future

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While claims are made of 12th century origins, in its present form Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary is an example of the later Irish tower house. These defensive dwellings were built from the 15th to early 17th centuries, and it would appear that Lackeen was constructed for Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn, chieftain of Ormond, who died in 1588. Cinneide is the Irish word for ‘Helmeted Head’, it being said that the Ua Cinneides were the first people in this country to wear helmets when going into battle against the Vikings. The name was later anglicised to Kennedy and the family remains widespread in this part of north Tipperary. Although Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn’s son Donnchadh further fortified the castle, in 1653 it surrendered to English forces. Nevertheless his descendants regained possession of the property and were in occupation in the 18th century. Lackeen is of particular interest since it forms part of a group of buildings constructed within a bawn wall, considerable parts of which also survive. The tower house is of four storeys, and contains the remains of several chimneypieces as well as two flights of stairs, initially a straight run to the first floor, and then a spiral staircase to the upper levels concluding in a large open space which was once roofed and would have held the main living chambers.

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As mentioned, the original owners of Lackeen had regained possession of the site by the 18th century. In 1735 John O’Kennedy who was then undertaking work on the tower house discovered an ancient manuscript hidden inside one of its walls. Known as the Stowe Missal the work was written in Latin in the late eighth or early ninth century but in the mid-11th century had been annotated and some additional pages written in Irish. By that date the manuscript seems to have come into the safe keeping of a monastery at nearby Lorrha where it would have remained until the dissolution of such establishments in the mid-16th century; most likely the manuscript was then concealed for safekeeping at Lackeen Castle. Following its rediscovery the missal entered the collection of the Irish antiquarian Charles O’Conor, the O’Conor Don. In 1798 his grandson, a Roman Catholic priest also called Charles O’Conor, was invited to become chaplain to the first Marchioness of Buckingham, and to organize and translate a collection of historic material kept at her husband’s house, Stowe in Buckinghamshire. On moving to England, the younger O’Conor brought with him fifty-nine of his grandfather’s manuscripts including the missal found at Lackeen. Along with the others, this remained at Stowe until the entire collection was sold to the fourth Earl of Ashburnham in 1849: in turn his son sold all the manuscripts to the British government which returned Irish-related material to this country. The Stowe missal is now in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy.

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Adjacent to Lackeen Castle and on the edge of the bawn wall is a group of domestic buildings which look to be from the 17th and early 18th centuries: it would seem at least some of this cluster was erected in the aftermath of 1660 when peace, for a time, returned to Ireland. The most striking, and most intact, of the group is a two-storey, five-bay farmhouse, one-room deep, with a single living space on either side of the entrance hall. The latter is interesting because on coming through the front door one faces a pair of panelled doors, that to the left leading to the staircase (now in part collapsed) that to the right being a cupboard. This decorative flourish, together with simple plasterwork on the ceilings of the ground floor rooms suggest aspirations towards gentry status on the part of the earliest occupants, and make Lackeen House all the more important since such buildings are now relatively rare. In the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, the building’s association with the adjacent tower house is described as being ‘of great importance and illustrates the development of this site for domestic use over several centuries.’ Photographs taken only a few years ago show the house unoccupied but still in reasonable condition. Unfortunately such is no longer the case: there are holes in the roof where slates have slipped, resultant water ingress has led to partial ceiling collapse, a portion of the stairs has given way and the signs are that Lackeen House will soon be just an empty shell. This is a s0-called ‘Protected Structure’ but once again the term is meaningless as no protection is being offered to the house. Time is running out fast here: unless an intervention occurs soon a nationally important collection of historic buildings is set to be lose one of its key elements.

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Lip Service 

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As is still remembered, legislation collectively known as the Penal Laws meant that for much of the 18th century Roman Catholics under the authority of the British government found it hard to practice or express their faith publicly. It is worth pointing out that these laws were as much an affliction in England, Wales and Scotland as they were in Ireland, but the numbers of Catholics here were proportionately far greater than in those other countries. only in the late 1700s/early 1800s was the legislation gradually relaxed, ultimately leading up to the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 which created full emancipation for members of this faith. But even prior to that date, Catholics had begun to embark on the construction of what at the time were always called chapels, buildings in which they could gather to hold their services. The great age of Catholic church building came in the post-emancipation era, which makes these early buildings all the more precious since relatively few of them still survive. They tended to be simple in form and design, not least because the costs involved in putting them up were borne by the local population, few of whom would have been wealthy. Weekly collections among the faithful led to the creation of a fund which was then used to pay for construction costs: Thackeray’s account of visiting various chapels during his tour of Ireland in 1842 make plain that the majority of those in attendance were the poorest of the poor.

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St Brigid’s in Portumna, County Galway dates from 1825, and was therefore constructed a few years before full Catholic Emancipation had been achieved. A basic T-plan in form, it has a three-bay nave leading up to a pair of wide single-bay transepts, this simple design being a reflection of the limited resources then available. In 1858 a three-bay wide and one-bay deep porch was added to the west end, rising two storeys before being topped by a square-plan tower drum. It may be around this time that the exterior of St Brigid’s received its neo-gothic ornamentation such as the crenellated parapets and towers, and corner buttresses, thereby dressing up the original structure. In this form it remained in use for the next century. However in the late 1950s a new St Brigid’s was built on the adjacent former market square, using stone from the Portumna Castle which had been built in the 1860s and gutted by fire in 1922: evidently the local community felt their old church was no longer good enough for services. The now redundant church was converted into a sports hall, and served as such for some time before being deemed unfit for that purpose also. Since then it would appear the building (transferred into private ownership) and an adjacent abandoned convent, has sat empty, a prey to the elements and to vandalism.

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How, one wonders, might the generation which contributed often very tiny sums of money judge what has become of St Brigid’s church in our own age? Would they consider the shillings and pence they could scarcely have afforded to hand over well-spent on a building which their descendants seem willing to leave fall into dereliction? Would they be satisfied that this is how their legacy, the hard-earned – and hard-paid for – right to free and open expression of faith, should be treated in such a fashion? Asking these questions is not intended to offend or to criticise the burghers of Portumna. The present circumstances of St Brigid’s are by no means unique: they are replicated in towns right across the country and are symptomatic of a greater problem.  Like so many other historic properties in Ireland, this one is listed by the local county council as being a ‘protected structure’ but one wonders what protection it is being offered. According to information provided by the Citizens Information Board, ‘A protected structure is a structure that a planning authority considers to be of special interest from an architectural, historical, archaeological, artistic, cultural, scientific, social or technical point of view. If you are the owner or occupier of a protected structure, you are legally obliged to prevent it becoming endangered, whether through damage or neglect.’ That legal obligation is meant to be enforced by the relevant local authority: there is no evidence of enforcement here but again that is hardly unusual. Last week, after two months’ negotiation between political parties, this country finally got a new government. When the various ministerial portfolios were announced, there was no reference to anyone being responsible for the department of heritage: apparently it comes under the remit of the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts & the Gaeltacht but is of so little consequence that the name wasn’t even judged worthy of inclusion in this long-winded title. Too often the excuse offered for neglect of the country’s architectural heritage is that it represents the interests or legacy of alien others: this is the explanation customarily proffered to explain the wasteful abandonment of our country houses, for example. Nothing could more truly be representative of the national narrative than St Brigid’s, raised by and for the local population to serve their needs and to express their beliefs. Its neglect, like the title of new government ministries and the manner in which legislation regarding protected structures fails to be enforced, accurately express Ireland’s attitude towards our heritage: we may pay lip service to the visible evidence of our past but really we don’t care what becomes of it.

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In Limbo

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Tyrrell is a common Irish surname but as with so many others, its origin is Anglo-Norman. At a date around the 1170s Hugh Tyrel (or Tirrell) came to this country and acquired the Barony of Fertullagh, County Westmeath running to some 39,000 acres, as well as land in Castleknock closer to Dublin. The Tyrrells thereafter flourished, in part because like so many others of their ilk they gradually became integrated with the indigenous population. The best-remembered member of the family is Captain Richard Tyrrell who in July 1597 defeated a superior force of English soldiers at a place in Westmeath thereafter known as Tyrrellspass. The Berminghams likewise were a Norman family, the first of whom Richard de Bermingham came to Ireland in the 1170s. Initially they settled in County Galway but also became established further east. Thomas Bermingham, the last Baron of Athenry and Earl of Louth died without a male heir in 1799 and with his death the main branch came to an end. More than half a century earlier, the Tyrrells and the Berminghams had coincided when in 1735 Walter Bermingham sold Grange Castle, County Kildare to Thomas Tyrrell.

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Today set in the midst of a series of stone enclosures Grange Castle is most likely a 15th century tower house, one of a number of defensive properties built by the Berminghams in this part of the country, not least nearby Carrick Castle, which is earlier in date but now in poorer condition. Grange has survived better no doubt because it remained in use as a domestic residence. In addition, at some date in the late 16th/early 17th century it was modernised, as can be seen by the larger window openings, the tall chimney stacks (indicating an increased number of hearths) and the ornamental crenellations around the roofline. Further improvements appear to have occurred not long after the castle was acquired by the Tyrrells when a single storey house was added to the immediate west. Linked to the castle at the rear, this evidently contained the main reception rooms, with the older section presumably being utilised as sleeping quarters. The main point of access was through the house, via a fine carved limestone doorcase, its pediment containing the Tyrrell coat of arms and their motto Veritas Via Vitae (a variant of Christ’s words in St John’s Gospel, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’).

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Grange Castle remained in the ownership of the Tyrrells until 1988 when responsibility for the mediaeval structure was handed over to the state. However the later house, and surrounding outbuildings remain in the ownership of the family. In the mid-1990s a charitable trust was established to restore the property with the intention that it be opened to the public. Over the course of several years a considerable amount of work was undertaken to improve both house and grounds. However in 2003 this enterprise came to a close and it appears that ever since the place has sat empty, and a prey to vandals. The castle itself is secure, the only access being via a locked door to the rear of the house. The latter however is easily accessed and accordingly has suffered some despoliation. At the same time the damage is not so grave to render the project beyond re-activation, and perhaps this will occur. For the moment Grange Castle appears to be in limbo.

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