Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.
In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.
Increasing study of country houses, here and elsewhere, has led to better understanding of these properties’ decorative histories. Almost without exception the process has been one of consistent change as successive generations adapt buildings for their own specific needs and uses, and reflect differences in taste. There can be no absolutes, nor notions that a particular style of decoration is ‘right’, only a willingness to respond to the present while respecting the past. Above is a view of the dining room in Borris, County Carlow as it was until recently, and below a view of the same room as it is now. A new wall colour and a re-hang of pictures has brought forth another aspect of the space’s character.
In mid-December 1761 outside Lifford Gaol, County Donegal John MacNaghten was hanged not once but twice. A month earlier he had killed a young woman to whom he claimed to be married. More than twenty years earlier MacNaghten had inherited an estate at Benvarden, County Antrim with an annual income of some £600, but his addiction to gambling meant he was obliged to sell or mortgage the greater part of the property. Circumstances improved following marriage to Sophie Daniel, daughter of the Dean of Down who brought with her an impressive dowry. Unfortunately MacNaghten soon resumed his old ways and by 1756 had accumulated such significant debts that a warrant was issued for his arrest. Around this time his wife died in childbirth, leaving him penniless once more. In a further attempt to improve his fortune he managed to be appointed to the lucrative post of tax collector for Coleraine but then gambled away £800 of the state’s money: his estate was now sequestered and by 1760 he was without recourse to funds. An old family friend, Andrew Knox who lived at Prehen, County Derry took pity of MacNaghten and offered him support. Knox had a fifteen-year old daughter Mary Anne who was already in line to inherit £6,000 and possibly much more should her elder brother not have any children. MacNaghten and Mary Anne Knox developed some kind of romantic relationship and even seem to have gone through a form of marriage ceremony before her father discovered what was taking place and forbade further contact between the two. He was in the process of travelling with his daughter to Dublin in November 1761 when their carriage was intercepted by MacNaghten, intent on carrying off the young girl. In an exchange of gunfire, Mary Anne was accidentally and fatally wounded. It did not take long before MacNaghten was arrested, tried at Lifford Courthouse and sentenced to death for her murder. When the day came for him to be hanged, the rope broke and so he had to be strung up a second time. Forever after he has been remembered as Half-Hanged MacNaghten.
Originally from Scotland, the Knox family settled in Ireland during the 17th century, the first of them to come here being an Anglican clergyman Andrew Knox who in 1610 was appointed Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal. In 1738 his great-grandson, the aforementioned Andrew Knox, father of the unfortunate Mary Anne and long-time MP for Donegal in the Irish Parliament, married Honoria Tomkins, heiress to the Prehen estate. The following decade the couple built themselves a new residence here overlooking the river Foyle and some two miles upstream from the city of Derry. The house’s design is attributed to Michael Priestley, about whom relatively little is known except that he was responsible for a number of buildings in north-west Ulster. Incidentally, among his other commissions was Lifford Courthouse and Gaol, outside which John MacNaghten was twice-hanged: a curious architectural link with Prehen, although probably of little interest to the condemned man. Built of rubble with ashlar dressings, the house has two storeys over basement and is of four bays, the centre two being slightly advanced and featuring a handsome sandstone Gibbsian doorcase and at the top a pediment with the Knox coat of arms. The interior is equally fine for the period, beginning with a substantial flagged entrance hall off which open a series of reception rooms to left and right while symmetrical doors to the rear give access to a main and service stairs respectively. A similar arrangement pertains on the first floor where the central space to the front of the building is taken up by a substantial gallery with coved ceiling.
The Knoxes remained at Prehen until the outbreak of the First World War when, for reasons that need to be explained, the estate was seized by the British government. Back in the mid-19th century Colonel George Knox married a Swiss girl, Rose Virgine Grimm and in turn one of their daughters Virginia was married to the German scholar and former student of Nietzsche Dr Ludwig von Scheffler of Weimar. Their son, Georg Carl Otto Ludwig von Scheffler became Adjutant to the Commander of the Cadet Corps Governor of the Royal Pages in the Prussian Army and was raised to the rank of baron by the Kaiser. On the death of his maternal grandfather George Knox in 1910, he inherited Prehen and assumed the additional surname of Knox. The Baron stayed at Prehen until August 1914 when war was declared between Britain and Germany. Initially placed under house arrest, he escaped and returned to Germany. In his absence, however, Prehen and its lands were confiscated by the government as enemy property. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the estate was liquidated at public auction under the terms of the 1916 Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act: Baron von Scheffler Knox only returned to see Prehen in the 1950s accompanied by his son, Johann Von Scheffler Prehen Knox who only died five years ago.
By the early 1970s Prehen was in poor condition. Requisitioned during the Second World War for troop accommodation, the house had been internally subdivided, a secondary door inserted into one of the main entrance’s sidelights, and there were large holes in the roof. On the verge of complete dereliction the property was then bought by Julian Peck and his American-born wife Carola: the couple had previously restored Rathbeale, County Dublin. Julian Peck had a family link with the place, his mother being author Winifred Peck (née Knox), one of a remarkable band of siblings whose other members included Monsignor Ronald Knox, Roman Catholic priest and detective story writer, Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, who worked as a code breaker during both the First and Second World Wars (he was employed at Bletchley Park until his death in 1943), the Church of England clergyman Wilfred Knox, and the poet and editor of Punch Edmund Knox (whose daughter was the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald). The Pecks rescued Prehen, bringing the house back to life and filling it with animation. Several of the rooms have had their walls painted, those in the entrance hall being covered with frescoes by Alec Cobbe. Meanwhile the dining room was decorated by Carola Peck in a style that blends Pompeii with Puvis de Chavannes. Julian Peck lived in the house until his death in 2001, followed by his wife in 2014. Their surviving son Colin sadly died last August, thereby ending a long connection between the Knoxes and Prehen. However the house survives as a testament to this remarkable family, and to the curious history of Half-Hanged MacNaghten.
While much excitement – and publicity – was generated by a house contents sale conducted by Mealy’s Auctioneers at Lotabeg, Cork for some of us the building proved as interesting as what it held. Dating from c.1800 Lotabeg is a relatively late work by Abraham Hargrave, an English-born architect who appears to have come to Ireland in 1791 to supervise the construction of St Patrick’s Bridge over the river Lee in Cork. He then stayed on and was responsible for work on a number of other country houses in the vicinity, including Fota and Castle Hyde, in both cases making alterations/additions to the original structure. Lotabeg on the other hand is entirely by Hargrave, its most notable feature being the large bow on the north-facing seven-bay entrance front. Behind this lies the house’s finest internal space: an immense circular domed entrance hall, around the walls of which snakes a cantilevered timber staircase up to the first floor gallery with access to a series of bedrooms.
The staircase in Ashbrook, County Derry, one of the oldest continuously occupied houses in this part of the country. The land on which it sits was granted to General Thomas Ash by Elizabeth I in the 1590s as a reward for his aid in quashing the O’Neill Rebellion during the Nine Years War and the family (later Beresford-Ash) has remained there ever since. The rear section of Ashbrook is a 17th century house but in the 1760s a new section was added to the front providing ground floor rooms with higher ceilings than had hitherto been the case. As a result, upper floor levels had to be altered resulting in the present arrangement, seen below, whereby a single flight of stairs leads from a top-lit gallery to bedrooms at the front of the house.
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.
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.
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.