Patrick Hennessy’s 1957 portrait of Elizabeth Bowen presides over a room dedicated to her memory in Doneraile Court, County Cork (her own home, nearby Bowen’s Court, was irresponsibly demolished in 1961). After being closed to the public for the past 25 years, Doneraile Court has once more been taken in hand by the Office of Public Works and officially reopens today. The decoration and furnishing of the ground floor rooms displays terrific flair, with a wonderful mixture of items, some in state ownership, others on loan from private collections, all blended together with aplomb. Having woken from its quarter-century slumber, Doneraile Court proves to be the sleeping beauty of Irish country houses: visits are strongly urged.
Rathangan, County Kildare was once a prosperous market town and according to Samuel Lewis in the early 1830s, some 2911 people lived in the area (in the 2016 census, that figure was 2,611). Evidence of its former affluence can be seen in the many handsome houses dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries that line Main Street and Bridge Street. However, as is the case with so many towns around the country, while Rathangan’s outskirts are now ringed with new housing estates, much of the old centre has been allowed to fall into decay. One of the most visible victims of this neglect is the town’s largest and most prominent house, Rathangan Lodge.
The central block of Rathangan Lodge probably dates from c.1800 and is of five bays and three storeys over basement, the whole centred on doorcase with wide fanlight and sidelights. The sides of the building were hung with slates for additional insulation. It has been proposed that the house was originally built as a hunting lodge for the Duke of Leinster (who at the time owned much of the land around here) but more likely the first owner was a successful merchant. At some subsequent date, perhaps around 1840. seven-bay, two-storey wings were added on either side, each of them having a central entrance. The building appears to have been occupied, or at least used, until relatively recently but has now been permitted to fall into serious decay. It is of course listed for protection in the current Kildare County Development Plan, but none seems to be forthcoming. The neighbouring house, of slightly later date, has clinging to its gates a planning application from 2005, but no work looks to have been untaken here and the building is likewise now in near-derelict condition.
The name Athclare derives from the Irish Áth Cláir, meaning Ford on level land, and here in County Louth stands a mid-16th century tower house originally built for the Barnewell family, who were then prominent landowners in this part of the country. The building is of four storeys and, as was usual for such structures, has just an arched entrance on the ground floor, the sole point of access. A stone spiral staircase in the south-east corner leads to the upper levels, with a large hall on the first floor. Here can be found an enormous limestone chimneypiece, the border of which is decorated with fantastical animals amid trailing floral garlands.
Athclare Castle subsequently passed into the possession of the Taafe family who may have added the substantial wing to the east of the original building. The house was then acquired by London merchant Erasmus Smith who supplied provisions to Oliver Cromwell’s army and used the funds received to buy various parcels of land until eventually he owned over 46,000 acres. On his death, he left a trust arising from ‘the great and ardent desire which he hath that the children inhabiting upon any part of his lands in Ireland should be brought up in the fear of God and good literature and to speak the English tongue.’ The Erasmus Smith Trust went on to establish five grammar schools in Dublin, Tipperary, Ennis, Galway and Drogheda.
From the exterior, the Church of the Ascension in Timolegue, County Cork looks a typically modest product of the early 19th century. The original place of worship here is first mentioned in 1291, and in the Middle Ages much of the land in this part of the country was under the control of the Barrys, subsequently Earls of Barrymore. The notoriously spendthrift habits of the final holders of this title obliged them to sell their property, which then passed into the possession of the Tonsons, the first of whom had been granted land in Ireland in the mid-17th century. They too were eventually ennobled as Baron Riversdale, and it was the second holder of that title who in 1811, with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, commissioned a new church in Timoleague as the old one had become dangerously dilapidated. The third and last Lord Riversdale died in 1861, by which time the Travers family, who lived beside the church in Timoleague House, were involved with the building. No doubt the interior was still relatively plain, because around this date some controversy arose when, as part of additions to the church – including a new chancel and vestry – a large stained glass window designed by the firm of William Warrington was installed above the altar. Opposed to graven images, the then-Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, William FitzGerald refused to consecrate the chancel unless the window was first covered with a cloth. One suspects he would not have cared for work subsequently undertaken inside the church.
In 1894 Robert Augustus Travers commissioned the decoration of the church’s chancel in memory of his wife Alice. What makes this work exceptional is that it is all in mosaic, supposedly thanks to Italian craftsmen who first laid out each section on the lawns of Timoleague House. The latter building was burnt in December 1920 during the War of Independence, and material relating to the chancel decoration was probably then lost. As a result, today the designer is unknown, but the late Jeremy Williams proposed William Henry Hill of Cork who had earlier served as Diocesan Architect for Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and therefore would have been well-known in Church of Ireland circles. Whoever was responsible displayed tremendous flair. The walls are mostly covered in abstract and floral patterns, with the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega set in oval frames on either side of the East window and elsewhere the Paschal Lamb. Meanwhile the ceiling is likewise decorated, this time a set of eight painted panels each featuring an angel carrying an appropriate text of mourning. In most churches, this might have been deemed sufficient, but more was to follow in due course.
Following the death of Robert Augustus Travers in 1904, the Timoleague estate was inherited by his elder son, another Robert. He decided to continue the decoration of the Church of the Ascension, initially in memory of his father. However, in August 1915 his son Spenser, a Lieutenant in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, was killed at Gallipoli, and so he too is commemorated in a mosaic frieze running beneath stained glass windows on the south wall. Much of the rest of the space is filled with further geometric shapes, along with stylised plants and flowers. As has been widely noted, only on the west wall does the design falter. Here above the entrance door a large panel depicts the Ascension of Christ, eleven Apostles gathered below him and a view of Jerusalem and its Temple shown behind. Both in colour and form, the result is somewhat insipid, a contrast with the boldness found everywhere else in the building. However, all the work might not have been realised, had it not been for assistance from an Indian Maharajah.
Born in 1876, Sir Madho Rao Scindia was ten when, on the death of his father, he became fifth Maharajah of Gwalior. As an adult, one of his closest friends was a man born in the Timoleague area, Aylmer Martin Crofts. The latter studied at what is now University College Cork and became a doctor before joining the British army where he saw service in Afghanistan and Egypt, finally settling in India. For the last twenty years of his professional life, Surgeon-General Crofts acted as chief medical officer for the state of Gwalior, hence his links with the Maharajah. Crofts died in 1915, and it was in memory of his ‘faithful and devoted’ friend that Madho Rao Scindia paid for the remaining decoration of the Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. Work here only finished in 1925, the year in which the Maharajah himself died. A section of the mosaic on the north wall of the nave provides testimony of his support, and the reason he gave it. His involvement helps to explain why much of the semi-abstract floral designs found in the main body of the church is reminiscent of Mughal art. As Jeremy Williams rightly noted, the building is a monument to ‘a living friendship that is being recorded in an extraordinary blend of the European and the Islamic – a hidden masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland.’ It is one which ‘transcended the sectarian divide between Irish Catholic and Protestant, The Indian Muslim and Hindu, personal friendship breaking up distinctions of caste and colour.’
Set into the estate walls of Castle Durrow, County Laois, the little church of St Fintan’s dates from the late 18th century when built either by, or with the support of, William Flower, third Viscount Ashbrook. Internally the building is plain, but distinguished by the presence of this organ which was originally installed in the chapel at Trinity College Dublin in 1797. The manufacturer was Samuel Green, ‘Organ builder to their Majesties Isleworth Middx 1797’, the instrument commissioned at a cost of five hundred guineas by George III who then donated it to the college. Forty years later William Telford made a new organ for Trinity College, this one being brought to Durrow in 1842 and placed inside St Fintan’s by the fourth Lord Ashbrook: he had to add a transept to the south side of the building to accommodate the instrument. Today the only Green organ in Ireland, it sits inside a case which looks to date from the installation in Durrow: pipes at either end rest on piers that feature angels carrying the Flower family crest.
St John’s church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath featured here three years ago (see Community Spirit, March 28th 2016). A couple of pictures above give an idea of its appearance then. At that time the building was in a state of serious disrepair, but plans were already afoot for its restoration, thanks to a local initiative.
Since 2016, major work has been undertaken to St John’s and the building has now been fully restored and brought back for a wide variety of community uses. It’s hard to believe that as recently as 2016 it looked beyond salvation, but this is another example of how, with sufficient determination and imagination, none of our architectural heritage need be lost. Congratulations (and thanks) to those responsible.
Drumcondra House, County Dublin was discussed here a month ago (see An Italian in Ireland, February 11th 2019). That property was built for the early 18th century lawyer and politician Marmaduke Coghill who had inherited land in the area from his father. Prior to having a new residence constructed, Coghill lived in an existing house close by called Belvedere (sometimes spelled Belvidere). The Civil Survey of 1654-56 notes ‘There is upon the premises a faire brick house, slated…’ That building was extensively altered in the following decade by another lawyer, Sir Robert Booth and it was after his death in 1681 that Marmaduke Coghill’s father moved there. Once Drumcondra House was built, Belvedere was let to Henry Singleton, who in 1740 became Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and fourteen years later Master of the Rolls. Mrs Delany records that in 1750 he was making extensive alterations to Belvedere, including the addition of a large drawing room to the rear of the building. This room has a wonderful ceiling with elaborate plasterwork. The stuccodore responsible is unknown, but stylistically the ceiling bears similarities to those a few miles away in Glasnevin House (see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd 2014) which is attributed to the St Peter’s Stuccodore. Might this be another example of his craftsmanship?
The Catholic Committee (sometimes called the Catholic Convention) was a body set up in 1757 to campaign for the repeal of the Penal Laws, and greater religious and political freedom for members of the Roman Catholic church. One of its founders was the antiquarian Charles O’Conor who lived in County Roscommon, and it is likely that as a result of his involvement other men in the same part of the country became involved with the committee. Hugh O’Beirne was among this number, a merchant based in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim who eventually became sufficiently affluent that he was able to acquire several thousand acres of land and build himself a residence at Jamestown, County Leitrim. In late 1792 Theobald Wolfe Tone, then Assistant Secretary of the Catholic Committee, encountered Hugh O’Beirne at a gathering in Dublin and wrote, ‘Met “Met Mr. O’Beirne of Co Leitrim, a sensible man. . . says the common people are up in high spirits and anxious for the event. Bravo! Better to have the peasantry of one county than twenty members of Parliament.’
Hugh O’Beirne took the Oath of Allegiance to the United Irishmen but does not seem to have been penalized for his association with the society in the aftermath of 1798: in the years before his death in 1813, he was a Justice of the Peace for Roscommon. He was succeeded by his son Francis, likewise a J.P. and also Deputy Lieutenant for County Leitrim. In 1843 he enlarged the small Catholic chapel built by his father for the people of Jamestown; behind this Francis also erected a school and schoolmaster’s house. On his death in 1854, the estate – which at its height ran to over 7,500 acres in County Leitrim (and almost another 250 in neighbouring Roscommon) – passed to his son Hugh. His children seem to have been the last of the O’Beirnes to have lived in Jamestown, one son, likewise called Hugh, entered the British Diplomatic Service and along with Lord Kitchener drowned when the vessel they were on, HMS Hampshire, was sunk by a German U-boat off the Orkney coast in June 1916.
The house shown in today’s photographs, Tinny Park, County Roscommon, was until recently owned by a branch of the same family. It is believed to date from around the mid-19th century and is a typical gentleman farmer’s residence, complete with handsome yard to the rear. Of two storeys over basement with a central door approached via a short flight of stone steps, the interior conforms to the usual country house plan, albeit on a small scale: double doors to the rear of the two main reception rooms lead to smaller spaces, and the entrance hall is largely taken up by a staircase. Unoccupied for the previous ten years, Tinny Park was offered for sale for the first time in the summer of 2016, the price on just over six acres was a modest €250,000. It duly sold and, evidently, refurbishment work began, not all of it advantageous: old photographs show the exterior covered in render, all of which has been stripped away. This work now looks to have stalled and when visited last winter the house wore a forsaken appearance. One can only hope that restoration has since resumed (and that in due course the exterior will be correctly re-rendered).
In May 1717 Robert, first Viscount Molesworth wrote from England to his wife Letitia with advice of a planned return to Ireland and the fact that ‘I will carry with me the best architect in Europe.’ The latter was a young Florentine, Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737) who had been brought to London in 1714 by Lord Molesworth’s eldest son John, for the previous three years British Envoy to Florence. It was presumably there that he met Galilei and when Molesworth was recalled to London, he invited the architect, then aged 23, to accompany him with the expectation of commissions from English clients. The Molesworths, père et fils, were key figures in a group of enthusiastic cultural patrons described by the viscount as the ‘new Junta for Architecture.’ Their mission: to reconfigure architectural design on these islands in the neo-classical style, or what one of them called ‘Grecian & best taste’. Although Galilei spent four years in England, with a six-month interlude in Ireland in 1718, and despite backing from the Molesworths and other members of their circle, he achieved almost no success: for example, he made designs for new churches then being commissioned in London but none of them was executed. Similarly, despite being recommended by Lord Molesworth to design St Werburgh’s in Dublin in 1715, he did not get the job: the viscount later wrote that those behind the commission were ‘uncapable of comprehending what an artist Galilei is’. The fact that he was a Roman Catholic is thought also not to have helped his cause. Understandably in August 1719 he returned to Florence, where he was created Engineer of Court Buildings and Fortresses by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Despite further importuning from the Molesworths and others, he never returned to this part of the world. In 1730, the Florentine pope Clement XII invited him to Rome where his best-known work, the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano (1732) can still be seen: he died in the city five years after its completion.
Marmaduke Coghill was born in Dublin in 1673, eldest son of Sir John Coghill, Judge of the Prerogative Court and one of the Masters in Chancery. Marmaduke was something of an infant prodigy, entering Trinity College at the age of fourteen and graduating as a Bachelor of Law four years later. At 19 he was a member of the Irish House of Commons, sitting for the next 50 years first representing the Borough of Armagh and then Dublin University. In due course liken his father before him he served as a judge of the Prerogative Court and later became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland. He was described by a contemporary as being ‘a zealous and active friend, and of an engaging and affable manner, but he was not blessed with good looks’ (another account called him ‘a fat apoplectic looking old gentleman with short legs and a shorter throat’).
Following his father’s death in 1699 Marmaduke Coghill inherited land on the outskirts of Dublin, in an area called Clonturk but now known as Drumcondra. Initially he lived there in an extant house which still stands, Belvedere (or Belvidere), of which more on another occasion. However, in the early 1720s he embarked on building a new residence not far away, Drumcondra House. Here he lived with his sister Mary, like him unmarried, until his death in 1738; five years later she built a church close to the house and inside erected a monument to her brother sculpted by Peter Scheemakers. Following her death, Drumcondra House passed to a niece, Hester Coghill who was married to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville. The family subsequently rented out the property as a private residence until the early 1840s when acquired by a Vincentian priest who established a Missionary College on the site, All Hallows. A few years ago the property passed into the hands of Dublin City University to become part of that institution’s campus.
So what are the links between Drumcondra House and Alessandro Galilei? As mentioned, the latter had scant success gaining commissions while in either England or Ireland, but the one building with which he has always been associated is Castletown, County Kildare. While Galilei was in Ireland with the Molesworths, he seems to have met William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and the country’s richest man: it was for Conolly that the architect proposed the basic design of Castletown’s façade, although work on the building did not begin until 1722 (by which time Galilei had long since returned to Italy) and is thought to have been overseen by Edward Lovett Pearce. Marmaduke Coghill was a friend and political ally of Conolly, so there is no reason why he should not also have met Galilei and indeed likewise have asked him for advice and designs for his own new residence in Drumcondra. To the immediate east of the main house is the shell of a classical temple (see below), its pedimented stone façade featuring a central doorcase with segmental pediment flanked by windows with regular pediments on either side of which is a pilaster topped with Corinthian capital. The design for this building has long been attributed to Galilei, but why not also therefore the façade of the house which the temple faces? As can be seen by the photograph on the top of this page, it has many of the same features albeit on a larger scale, suggesting that whoever was responsible for one was also architect of the other. As Maurice Craig once wrote of the façade, ‘there is nothing much resembling it anywhere else in Ireland.’ Matters are complicated because the south face of Drumcondra House, altogether more severe and pure (a two-storey pedimented breakfront imposed on the central portion of an otherwise plain, three-storey, seven-bay block) was designed Coghill by Edward Lovett Pearce in 1726. And of course, that was precisely when Pearce was also working at Castletown for Coghill’s friend William Conolly. All of which suggests that Galilei achieved more in Ireland than is usually thought, and certainly more than he ever did in England. Meanwhile, as these other images will show, the interiors of Drumcondra House, currently undergoing a gradual programme of restoration and refurbishment, reveal some of the most intact early 18th century panelled rooms in the country. A building worthy of further study.