In Ireland the term ‘castle’ is widely applied, on occasion to buildings which have nothing fortified about their appearance, and even lack relevant appurtenances such as towers and battlements. The most widespread appropriation has been for structures that are actually tower houses, built in large numbers between the 15th and early 17th centuries. A typical example is Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary believed to have been constructed for Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn, Chieftain of Ormond (died 1588). Cinneide is the Irish word for ‘Helmeted Head’: the Ua Cinneides were supposedly 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 Ireland. Although Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn’s son Donnchadh further fortified the castle, in 1653 it was surrendered to English forces. Nevertheless his descendants regained possession of the property and were in occupation in the 18th century. Lackeen is of four storeys and holds 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, once roofed and containing the main living chambers.
Lackeen is one of thirty-six properties featured in Tarquin Blake’s latest book, Exploring Ireland’s Castles. Some of them – such as those in Trim, Kilkenny and Limerick – really are castles in the original sense of the word and date back to the arrival here of the Normans. Others, like Lackeen, Leap in County Offaly and Fiddaun in County Galway follow the classic tower house form. Another group, including Kanturk, County Cork and Burncourt, County Tipperary are representative of that transitional period in the late 16th/early 17th century when fortified manor houses were constructed. And finally there are a substantial number of buildings dating from the 18th and 19th century like Tullynally, County Westmeath and Lough Cutra, County Galway that were given a castellated appearance in order to imply greater antiquity.
Many of the castles selected by Blake are now ruins, a common enough occurrence for old properties in this country. Others, like Birr Castle and Charleville Forest, both in County Offaly, still retain their roofs. The two latter are in private hands whereas examples are also included of castles in public ownership, like Malahide in County Dublin and Johnstown, County Wexford. It makes for an eclectic and heady mix, all photographed by Blake who accompanies his pictures with a short history of each property. An excellent introduction to the distinctive yet diverse character of Irish ‘castles’.
One of the gates at the entrance of the Keep Gate standing in the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly incorporating the Parsons family coat of arms. With machicolations, slit and loop windows, and crenellated battlements, this two-storey miniature castle was designed by Mary, third Countess of Rosse in 1847-8 and constructed as a famine relief project. Well inside the grounds of the estate, the Keep Gate forms part of a star-shaped moat around the castle, the moat being designed by the Countess’s uncle Captain Richard Wharton Middleton.
The Keep Gate is one of many buildings to feature in a splendid new publication Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly written by County Architect Rachel McKenna. After initial chapters investigating the nature of follies and other demesne architecture, McKenna goes on to consider in depth fifteen different estates in Offaly, some well-known – like Birr and Charleville – others less familiar such as Ballycumber, Prospect and Acres’ Hall. Running to 348 pages, the work is extensively and admirably illustrated with abundant colour photographs, maps and plans, drawings old and new and many other images to complement the text. Published by Offaly County Council, this is a model of the kind of book all local authorities should be producing: one hopes others will follow Offaly’s lead in demonstrating such pride in the region’s built heritage. Hard to fault and impossible to resist, not least because the volume’s price is a very affordable €30.
In September 1753 Michael O’Reilly wrote from Dublin to the Roscommon-based antiquarian Charles O’Conor ‘I think a man should read books as he eats victuals; surfeits of either cannot be digested; and too many books as too many dishes will cause surfeit.’ The problem for O’Reilly, as for many readers today, was that more volumes were being produced than could be consumed: the market seemed to be ahead of supply. Toby Barnard’s newly-published Brought to Book: Print in Ireland 1680-1784 examines the history of publication here during this period. Barnard notes the steady rise in work being brought out. In the 1680s the average number of new titles published in Dublin was 52: by the 1790s that figure had risen to 480. For a long time Irish authors preferred, if possible, to publish in England, the understandable expectation being that they would thereby earn more and reach a larger audience. Furthermore, because the British government’s Copyright Act of 1710 did not apply to Ireland, authors who published here enjoyed no legal entitlement to payment for their work. While this had an impact on the development of Irish publishing, ultimately the drive towards an indigenous industry was too strong to be resisted.
Barnard notes how many of the books produced here were local editions of work already successful in other countries. Initially interest in books about Ireland attracted little interest, one dealer noting that such volumes were ‘very little noticed by them whom they did most concern.’ But with the passage of time, increased communication and greater awareness of the need to improve the state of the country, work of Irish subject matter increased in appeal – and sales. Then as now, criticism was not always well-received: the English agronomist Arthur Young was much admired when he wrote about his own country – the Dublin Society made him an honorary member in 1771 – but drew a less favourable response when he turned his attention to matters Irish: the first edition of his Tour of Ireland had to be published in London when insufficient subscribers could be found here. Contrary to what is often thought and despite the Penal Laws, devotional books for Roman Catholics were published in Ireland from the 1720s onwards, albeit under a suppositious mainland European imprint. The first work in the Irish language known to have been produced in Dublin for Catholic readers appeared in 1736: intended as an aid for other members of the clergy, it was a series of sixteen sermons by Bishop Gallagher of Raphoe, County Donegal. By the end of the period covered, books such as Charlotte Brooke’s The reliques of Irish poetry (1788) were both recording and celebrating the nation’s ancient culture. As Barnard points out ‘the venerable was valued as evidence of the complex culture in an earlier Ireland.’ The course of this transition is traced in his own book, illustrating how complex cultures also existed here during the early modern period.
Although County Limerick has a rich stock of historic buildings dating back as far as the early Christian era, much of its architectural heritage is insufficiently known or celebrated. A newly published little gem of a book should help to rectify this situation. An Architectural Tour of County Limerick does exactly what its title proposes, offering visitors to the area an opportunity to discover a wealth of sites ranging from that piece of 19th century gothic whimsy, Dromore (shown on the cover above) to the 13th century Trinitarian Abbey dovecote in Adare (below), and taking in many other properties along the way. With a text written by historian Declan Downey and delightfully illustrated by Nesta FitzGerald, the book deserves to encourage a rash of informed readers to descend on County Limerick and see for themselves what delights this part of the country has to offer.
Like many words in the English language, ‘lost’ is open to diverse use. It can, for example, mean missing or misplaced but just as often is employed to denote something that has vanished, perished or been destroyed. Such is the case with an engrossing – albeit chastening – book recently published, Lost Ireland: 1860-1960. Author William Derham has trawled through thousands of photographs to select 500 images of buildings throughout the island, the majority of which have entirely disappeared or else been so altered/mutilated that they no longer bear any semblance to their original state.
In a thoughtful introductory essay, Derham provides an historical context for why so many older buildings in Ireland should come to have been lost and laments the disappearance of certain building types such as the early unfortified house represented by Eyrecourt, County Galway: dating from the second half of the 17th century and still intact less than 100 years ago, it is now a roofless shell. Likewise Ireland has no examples of the ‘cagework’ urban house in which the frame would be of wood and the spaces between filled with wattle and daub. The last of these to survive, in Dublin on the corner of Castle and Werburgh Streets, was demolished as long ago as 1812. Likewise the once-widespread brick gabled townhouses known as Dutch Billies are now almost extinct, or else subsumed into later buildings.
Some losses – notably among the ranks of the Irish country house – are already well-known, but even here Derham finds examples likely to be unfamiliar to most readers, and explains the shameful role played in the erosion of their number by that state body the Land Commission. However he covers many other areas of depletion and, frankly, dissipation, such as the damage inflicted on Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals in the aftermath of the second Vatican Council. Using the excuse of a new liturgy, members of the Irish clergy stripped interiors of the buildings for which they were responsible: one of the most egregious examples being the gutting of Pugin’s Killarney Cathedral at the instigation of then-bishop Eamon Casey. Tellingly their clerical equivalents in other countries did not feel impelled to engage in similar acts of vandalism. But valuable secular buildings were also squandered for no good reason, such as the demolition in 1964 of a fine mid-18th century market house in Mountrath, County Laois – supposedly because a public lavatory was needed (although this was never built). As much as an exhortation to protect what remains as a requiem to what has gone, this is a beautifully produced book and allows us to find again, if only in photographic form, what has been lost. Do acquire a copy while you can as it is certain to sell out.
Lost Ireland: 1860-1960 by William Derham is published by Hyde Park Editions, price £39.95/€49.95. The photographs above were taken at a recent exhibition in Dublin Castle to coincide with the launch of the book. They show (from top), Roxborough Castle, County Tyrone (burnt 1922), Longford Castle, Longford (demolished 1972), Woodstock, County Kilkenny (burnt 1922) and Ballynastragh, County Wexford (burnt 1923). The exhibition has now ended but deserves to travel to other venues around the country in coming months; why not encourage your local arts centre/library to borrow it?
A view of the formal gardens at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, lying directly below the building’s north face. The hospital’s minutes in 1695 note, ‘The garden walls to be arranged so the garden may lie open to the north part…for the greater grace of the house.’ Although the design here is a 20th century reconstruction, it gives an idea of the style of classical garden once common in Ireland but now rarely seen. A recently published book by Vandra Costello, Irish Desmesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 gives an idea of what has been lost, as well as what remains. She rightly chooses 1660 as her starting date, since that was the year Charles II was restored to the throne and his supporters, including James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, returned from mainland Europe. During their years in exile, these royalists had observed the French fashion for gardening epitomised by the work of André Le Nôtre and in due course introduced these ideas to their own countries. These gardens, as Costello observes, were guided by the principle of utile et dulci: the notion that landowners, in addition to following contemporary fashion and devising idealised landscapes in which to enjoy themselves ought at the same time ‘to make their fruit growing endeavours, timber plantations and parklands economically profitable and sustainable as well as aesthetically pleasing.’ Thus the garden at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – the building of which had been initiated by the Duke of Ormond – was expected to provide not just elegant surroundings for the main structure but also produce for its occupants. In the course of her highly informative and elegantly written book, Costello also explodes a few well-cherished myths, such as the notion that the 17th century formal gardens at Kilruddery, County Wicklow, the finest such example remaining in this country, were designed by a Frenchman called Bonnet, possibly a pupil of Le Nôtre himself: this error, she points out, has arisen from confusion over a reference in the papers of Sir William Petty. And she discusses how it was that the classical garden fell out of favour with Irish landowners in the 18th century, noting the process was less attributable to politics – it is often proposed that Tories liked formality while Whigs preferred the ‘natural’ – than to straightforward changes in taste. In her garden at Delville, County Dublin Mrs Delaney, who was unquestionably a Whig, incorporated many elements of the formal style including a bowling green, terrace walk, parterre and orangery. As so often in Irish history, the simple interpretation is rarely correct. A terrific read, and definitely worth adding to every library.
Although the Board of First Fruits is no longer much remembered, for more than a century it was an important organization in this country. Established in 1711 during the reign of Queen Anne, the board was devised to provide financial assistance for the building and improvement of the Church of Ireland’s places of worship and glebe houses. Initially funded by a tax on clerical incomes, from 1778 onwards the body benefitted from grants given by the Irish Parliament, the amount varying until 1785 after which it received an annual sum of £5,000. Following the abolition of the country’s parliament in 1800, just as Ireland’s elected representatives were more closely bound to their English equivalents, so too were Irish Anglican clergy, thanks to the creation of the United Church of England and Ireland. One consequence of this merger was a substantial increase in money available to the Board of First Fruits: its annual grant doubled to £10,000 in 1808 and then climbed to a remarkable £60,000 between 1810-26 before dropping first to £30,000 and then £10,000 after 1822. This largesse led to a massive building boom, with almost 700 churches either constructed or renovated, as well as 550 glebes and 172 schoolhouses. Of course the Church of Ireland population was never large (just over 10 per cent in the 1831 census) and has steadily declined (today it is less than three per cent), rendering increasing numbers of these buildings surplus to need. Over the past century, parishes have been amalgamated and properties let go, with many churches falling into dereliction. Readers may already be familiar with photographer Tarquin Blake’s previous books including two featuring Abandoned Mansions of Ireland. Now he has produced a new volume Abandoned Churches of Ireland, which contains accounts of 82 properties spread across twenty-five counties. In varying stages of decline, they represent the Church of Ireland’s history from dominant faith – in authority if not in numbers – to minority denomination. Blake’s pictures and text eloquently tell the story of churches like that at Burnchurch, County Kilkenny (seen above and below), its present form dating from 1810 when the Board of First Fruits provided the parish with a grant and loan for this purpose. Built on the site of an older church, it remained in use until 1961 and is now a roofless shell.
The Romanesque west doorway of St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, founded by Donal Mór O’Brian, King of munster in 1168 but said to incorporate elements of an older palace on the same site. This is one of a number of such buildings considered in Niamh NicGhabhann’s recently published Medieval Ecclesiastical Buildings in Ireland, 1178-1915. The fascinating text explores changing attitudes to gothic architecture during the period, and increased academic interest in the subject as antiquarians like George Wilkinson and George Petrie carried out detailed surveys of old monuments. Equally interesting is how over the course of the 19th century Ireland’s built heritage became politicised, with debate focussed on what elements might be judged ‘authentically’ Irish and what foreign imports. As NicGhabhann writes, ‘In Ireland, debates on the meaning of architectural style were complicated by issues of religious identity, as well as by ideas of political symbolism and national representation.’ If not necessarily in the field of gothic architecture, these debates continue to resonate in some quarters to the present day. They became immediately applicable in Limerick when work on a new Roman Catholic cathedral, designed by Philip Charles Hardwicke, began in 1856: this stands in the area known since the Middle Ages as ‘Irishtown’ whereas St Mary’s is on King’s Island, otherwise known as ‘Englishtown.’ ‘The public and religious celebrations surrounding the consecration of St John’s Cathedral,’ writes NicGhabhann of this event in 1894, ‘can be read as a performance of both Catholic identity within the city, and the negotiation between the religious and political significance of the two cathedrals.’ That negotiation could be fractious, not least in Dublin where the Church of Ireland had possession of the capital’s two ancient gothic cathedrals, and the Catholic church had to settle for a neo-Catholic Pro-Cathedral. The choir of one of the former, St Patrick’s Cathedral , can be seen below. The building underwent a controversial ‘restoration’ in the 1860s, since Sir Benjamin Guinness, who funded the entire enterprise, chose to dispense with the services of an architect.