The Irish Aesthete Recommends IV

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Anyone who has read Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond will be familiar with its opening lines: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon who owned a Levantine hotel near Palmyra.’
Those words always remind me of Melosina Lenox-Conyngham who, like the narrator’s aunt Dot was an inveterate and fearless traveller until her death almost two years ago. Melo, seen above wheeling her bicycle through the gates of Lavistown Cottage, County Kilkenny where she lived, wrote and broadcast many articles about her journeys, her low voice (Melo might have been short for Melodious) recounting all sorts of adventures with terrific gusto and humour. In one of these pieces, she described riding on a camel to Timbuktu, the silence of the desert reigning absolute until ‘it was broken by a familiar jingle, and Mahomet extracted from his long blue robes a mobile telephone that he poked into the folds of his turban.’
Back in Ireland, Melo entertained frequently – I remember an abundance of cobwebs but also very good home-made biscuits each topped with a blanched almond – and told still more tales of where she had been and what she had done. Between trips she served as indefatigable secretary of the Butler Society and did much to encourage interest in the history of this part of Ireland and its architectural heritage.
One greatly misses Melo but now a terrific selection of her writings A Life in Postcards has been published by the Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie). The book perfectly captures the author’s wry tone and is definitely to be recommended if you would like to know more about this very special woman and her distinctive outlook on life.

The Comet’s Pulsing Rose

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The Mussenden Temple erected in 1785 by Frederick Hervey, Bishop of Derry in memory of a deceased cousin. The temple is located in County Derry, the same part of the world in which poet Seamus Heaney was later born. A craftsman with words rather than with brick or stone, Seamus died yesterday and so this image commemorates his passing from our midst. He will be much missed by all of us fortunate to have known him.

The Irish Aesthete Recommends III

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The drawing room at Rossana, County Wicklow as painted by Maria Spilsbury Taylor (1777-1823) an English artist who moved to Ireland after marrying an Anglican clergyman and thereafter became friendly with the Tighes of Rossana, known for their religious fervour. Rossana was originally built around 1742 by William Tighe but extended later in the century when wings were added. One of these contained the drawing room with the elaborate panelling seen above and often attributed to Grinling Gibbons (which would suggest it came from another, earlier, building). In the last century the wings were demolished and the panelling taken to the United States.
Rossana was a house well-known to poet Mary Tighe (née Blachford) who often stayed there, although she would die in March 1810 at Woodstock, County Kilkenny (see Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th). Mary Tighe is the subject of a new biography by Miranda O’Connell which brings this once-famous author of the six-canto allegorical poem Psyche back to public attention after a long period of unjustified neglect. Acknowledged as much for her beauty as her literary skills, Tighe’s early death transformed her into a figurehead of the Romantic Movement. Miranda O’Connell’s book not only considers the poems but also places her subject in the context of Ireland before and after the Act of Union, a fascinating period in the country’s history. Much to be recommended, it also contains many fascinating pictures and photographs.
Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell is published by Somerville Press (see www.somervillepress.com).

A Woman of Substance

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Venturing outside the Irish Aesthete’s customary sphere, today we consider the career of Irish couturier Sybil Connolly who sixty years ago this month came to international prominence following a fashion show in County Meath. ‘Ireland,’ wrote former American Vogue editor Bettina Ballard in her 1960 memoir In My Fashion, ‘was a completely unexpected centre for fashion for everyone but Carmel Snow. We were drawn en-masse to Dublin by the personable, milk-skinned Irish charmer called Sybil Connolly who showed a small collection made of Irish tweeds and linens in Dunsany Castle and bewitched us all into buying models or filling our editorial pages with them.’
It comes as no surprise that the incomparable Carmel Snow, outstanding editor of Harper’s Bazaar for over a quarter century, should have championed Sybil since she too was Irish, having been born in Dalkey, County Dublin in 1887 (for more about Snow’s life and work I recommend Penelope Rowlands’ 2005 biography A Dash of Daring). Presumably she and the designer had met when the latter first visited New York in 1952 and thereafter they remained friends. Certainly Snow was responsible for ensuring a large group of American buyers and journalists, en route to Paris for the couture shows, stopped off in Ireland to see the work of a rising Irish star.

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After Sybil Connolly’s July 1953 fashion show, Carmel Snow wrote enthusiastically in her syndicated column of what she and the others present had been shown: ‘Miss Connolly is lovely, with jet black, curling hair and amazingly grey eyes. She came to America last spring and went back to Dublin with many orders. Today she has her foot firmly planted on the ladder of international success – a success that gives one a glow.’ As for the clothes, Snow attributed their appeal to a number of factors: ‘Her integrity in using exclusively Irish materials and using them with strict relevance to native needs; her imaginative adaptation of traditional Connemara garments for contemporary use; her colossal capacity for hard work; her respect for native craftsmanship and the age-old independence of weaver and dyer, and a parallel determination to guide and suggest where she is far too intelligent to demand.’
Throughout her career Sybil was fortunate to have women of influence and authority offering their support in this way. For example, the most powerful woman in American public relations Eleanor Lambert was a close friend for decades (indeed, it was through Sybil that I came to know Eleanor and to sit on the adjudicating panel for her International Best Dressed List – but all that is perhaps for another occasion). Then there were the well-connected women who helped by buying the clothes and promoting her name, not least Sheila, Lady Dunsany who offered the use of beautiful Dunsany Castle for that show in July 1953. (I remember Sheila Dunsany’s wry amusement as she told me some months before her death in July 1999 that Sybil, whose Welsh mother’s maiden name was Phillips, liked to claim an affinity since this was also Sheila’s family name). Then look at the pictures above and note that in the first of these the models photographed by Norman Parkinson for Vogue in July 1954 are Ladies Melissa and Caroline Wyndham-Quin, daughters of the sixth Earl of Dunraven, while that below, taken by Henry Clarke, shows one-time model Anne Gunning who by this date was married to English politician Sir Anthony Nutting.

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Sybil Connolly’s signature design was a dress made from pleated handkerchief linen. She used to say that she first discovered this featherweight fabric in a Northern Irish factory where it had been manufactured many years earlier for the crowned heads of Europe, but after the First World War ‘there weren’t enough of them left around.’ Sybil had the linen tightly pleated to produce lengths which were thed used to make clothes. Nine yards of linen were required to produce one yard of finished pleated material. The first garment made in this way to be shown in the United States, a white evening dress called First Love, required three hundred handkerchiefs and contained more than five thousand pleats (see bottom picture which shows Sybil wearing the item).
The great merit of her pleated linen was that it was uncrushable – and virtually indestructible. I recently came across one of her dresses in a box in Birr Castle; it had been made for the late Anne Rosse. Although not worn for decades after a quick shake the dress fell into place and looked much as it must have done when first produced. Harper’s Bazaar noted in June 1958 that a Connolly pleated linen skirt ‘will pack into a small duffle bag and emerge unscathed.’ Sybil’s pleated linen is as remarkable a contribution to fashion history as was Mariano Fortuny’s Delphos pleated silk dress half a century earlier and will similarly be forever associated with the name of one designer.

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As can be seen by the two pictures immediately above, Sybil did not only use pleated linen, but also worked with other fabrics, the majority of them associated with Ireland. So, for example, she bought bales of red flannel traditionally used for petticoats in Connemara and had the material made into quilted skirts which were then teamed with white cambric blouses and black shawls to create an early version of peasant chic. She was not above using seemingly mundane material: a dress called Kitchen Fugue from her summer 1954 collection, for example, had a full skirt made from lengths of striped tea towels. But her clothes more often featured the likes of hand-dyed tweed and hand-made Carrickmacross lace and crochet.
In her heyday – the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, Sybil Connolly was internationally renowned and enjoyed huge success, especially in the United States where her clientele included members of the du Pont, Mellon and Rockefeller families as well as the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Rosalind Russell and Merle Oberon. Jacqueline Kennedy’s official portrait for the White House (painted by Aaron Shikler) shows the former First Lady wearing one of Sybil’s outfits. Although she lived until May 1998 and always kept herself busy through such projects as designing fabrics for Brunschwig & Fils and china for Tiffany, already by 1970 her moment as a fashion leader had come to an end. Still, it is worth remembering just what a pioneer she was for Irish design and how, thanks to a show staged sixty years ago, she turned the global fashion spotlight on this country.

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To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of her July 1953 fashion show, I shall be giving a talk on Sybil Connolly at the Little Museum of Dublin next Wednesday 24th July at 7pm. For further information, see www.littlemuseum.ie

Lane’s Lore

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Art dealer and collector Sir Hugh Lane drawn by the artist John Butler Yeats in August 1905. At the time, Yeats was engaged in producing a series of portraits of notable Irish men and women, a commission he received from Lane who intended these works to form the core of a National Portrait Gallery for Ireland. Within three years he had instead established a modern art gallery in Dublin which continues to this day. To learn more about Lane, and about the controversy over a collection of Impressionist paintings after his unexpected death in 1915, you can now watch two short films featuring the Irish Aesthete:

Ave Maria

Maria Edgeworth

On this day in 1849 the wondrous Maria Edgeworth died at the age of 81. She is rightly best remembered for her 1800 novel Castle Rackrent, a remarkable work that had no precedent but many successors, both in Ireland and elsewhere. While nothing else in her output matched its originality, at the same time Edgeworth’s other Irish novels in particular The Absentee (1812) are worth reading for insights into the state of the country in the aftermath of the Act of Union. Her family home, and the place where she produced many of her books, was Edgeworthstown House, County Longford. From around 1770 onwards it was much enlarged and altered by her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the result notable for the distinctive interiors which he designed in an idiosyncratic fashion. The house still stands and has long been a nursing home run by a religious order: the last time I visited the nuns in charge seemed to have little knowledge of or interest in its most famous resident. Sadly the building today bears little resemblance to its appearance during Maria Edgeworth’s lifetime having been ruthlessly stripped of decoration and character. Below is an engraving showing the house’s library as it looked a few years after her death.

Library in Edgeworthstown House

Good Golly Miss Molly

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‘For the last fifty years of my life I have lived in a cottage – a cottage hanging above Ardmore bay, above the village and the Catholic church, its east window lighted over the sea on winter evenings. Beyond my cottage one of the finest round towers in Ireland reaches up to the sky above the ruined and beautiful church and monastery at its foot.’ Part of novelist Molly Keane’s charm is her ability to exaggerate to just the right extent. In this instance, the length of time she lived at Dysart in Ardmore, County Waterford has been amplified to half a century. In fact, she remained in the house for forty-four years, from 1952 until her death at the age of 91 in 1996, and as a result Dysart is replete with memories of its former chatelaine.

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Anyone interested in Ireland’s historic houses and their near-universal decay during the course of the last century will be familiar with the work of Molly Keane. In the words of my clever friend Polly Devlin, she ‘observed and preserved…the sounding of the tocsins and the minutiae of the last days of the Irish Raj,’ a surveillance which had begun back in 1800 with the publication of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Molly Keane was successor to Edgeworth, just as she was to Somerville and Ross, and like these earlier writers she combined keen scrutiny with black humour, fully aware she was chronicling the decline and fall of her own people but refusing to be cast down by the prospect. As her older daughter Sally has commented, ‘Her long life almost spanned the century. She has to be the last of the Anglo-Irish writers, because she bore witness to the dying away of her world.’

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I never had the good fortune to meet Molly Keane but know well both Sally and her younger sister Virginia who now has charge of their mother’s house in Ardmore. This is a charming coastal town which has been a favourite holiday resort in the area since the 19th century. As already mentioned, it became the last stop in the peregrinations of Molly Keane, born Mary Nesta Skrine in County Kildare in 1904. When she was aged six her family moved to Ballyrankin House, County Wexford; in July 1921 the building and its contents were burnt out by members of the IRA and its owners forced to walk to the nearest town in their nightwear. Despite this Molly’s father Walter declared, ‘I would rather be shot in Ireland than exiled to England’ and remained in the country until his death nine years later. By that time, his daughter was well established as a writer.

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Molly’s first novel, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, came out in 1926; she was later rather disparaging about it but I find the book admirable and already full of the themes that recur in her later work, not least love of the Irish countryside and of hunting. It was because of her involvement with the latter that she published the majority of her books under the pseudonym of M.J. Farrell, the name borrowed from a pub she regularly passed on her horse. ‘For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm,’ she later explained. As for her own books, ‘no-one connected them with me. I didn’t want to be recognised as a writer. I only wanted to be good in the hunting field and to be popular at hunt balls. I was so starved of fun when I was young, and I loved fun so much.’ Her books – and the plays she wrote with John Perry – provided her with that fun, and with much-needed income both before her marriage and during her long widowhood. In 1938 she married Bobby Keane but he died only eight years later after what was supposed to be a routine operation in London.

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During her marriage and for the first years of widowhood, Molly Keane lived at Belleville outside Cappoquin, a house dating from around 1830. The drawing room, Sally remembers, ‘had a 1930s flavour. It was sort of glamorous, with plumped cushions and a cocktail shaker in the corner. It was decorated in peaceful shades of pale grey, dark blue and rust colours. It had tall windows, crossed with thin glazing bars, facing to the south.’ Above are a couple of photographs from that period, the first showing her working in the garden with Belleville behind, the second of Molly with her daughters Sally and Virginia as small children. However for various reasons, not least monetary, by 1952 she was obliged to move and hence settled into a much smaller property at Ardmore. This was the same year Treasure Hunt her last novel under the name M.J. Farrell appeared; it would be almost three decades before a new book written by her was published. In 1961 Dazzling Prospect, her final play co-authored with John Perry, received such poor reviews from London critics that she gave up writing altogether.
Instead she concentrated on her children, and on her house in Ardmore. Sally has written that gardening grounded her mother, ‘It was very important to her. She loved plants and digging. It assuaged the depressive moods of her artist’s temperament. Its imagery pervades her work and is part of a wider, intense response to the natural world of the Irish landscape…’ The garden Molly Keane created at Ardmore is still there, now tended by Virginia, and so too is the kitchen where, Sally believes, she spent some of her happiest times. ‘She delighted in domesticity and was brilliant at it. For a long period, she stopped writing, and I think she replaced it by cooking. She cooked with the precision and care she spent on words, balancing sweet and sour, and creating subtle unique flavours.’

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The story of Molly Keane’s rediscovery is well-known. In 1981 at the age of 77 and under her own name she published Good Behaviour which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and led to all her earlier books being reprinted and their author receiving the credit she was due. Molly Keane went on to write two further, equally acclaimed novels, Time after Time and Loving and Giving. She always liked to write in her own bed, seen above; the lower of the two photographs (a film still courtesy of RoseAnn and Catherine Foley) shows her working away in self-same bed with her dog Hero (she called him ‘My Hero) tucked under an arm.
The special charm of Dysart is that it remains imbued with Molly Keane’s spirit; aside from her novels nowhere else will you be better able to experience the character of this clever, witty, plucky woman. Virginia is very much her mother’s daughter and forever finding ways to encourage greater use of the house, as a writers’ retreat, a centre for creative writing and a venue for one-off events, such as those presented by her own husband, film historian Kevin Brownlow. You can find out more about all these occasions on www.mollykeanewritersretreats.com. I will close with some lines written by the Cappoquin-born poet Thomas McCarthy who knew Molly Keane well and is a terrific supporter of Virginia’s endeavours: ‘When you lift the gate and walk down the steps into Molly Keane’s house in Ardmore you know you are coming down into a creative lair, into an eagle’s nest, into a writer’s heaven. I descend into a pillow of voices, an atmosphere that is thick with the scent of white roses, with the memories of some of the loveliest days of my youth. There is old Brigadier FitzGerald before me, happy to have another lost novel of Molly’s in his hand, impatient for Molly’s signature, impatient to get down to a right good gossip about the residents of the Blackwater valley; there is Hurd Hatfield, always hovering, ready to be charming or morose (depending upon whether a visitor remembers who he is), there is Hero, yapping, sniffling in Molly’s arms. But when you enter this house it is not just the place of personal memory: it is the house as a writer’s working space, the house as workshop where the work gets done. Here is a place to come to in County Waterford if you want to attend to the writer’s task.’

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Of Wonderous Beauty Did the Vision Seem*

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Writing to a friend in September 1795, the English Romantic poet Anna Seward, known during her lifetime as the Swan of Lichfield, reported ‘I must not conclude my letter without observing, that, on my second visit to the fairy palace [Llangollen Vale], a lovely Being cast around its apartments the soft lunar rays of her congenial beauty. — Mrs. Tighe, the wife of one of my friend’s nephews, an elegant and intelligent young woman, whom I should have observed more had his wife’s beauty been less. I used the word “lunar” as characteristic of that beauty, for it is not resplendent and sunny, like Mrs. Plummer’s, but, as it were, shaded, though exquisite. She is scarce two-and-twenty. Is it not too much that Aonian inspiration should be added to the cestus of Venus? She left an elegant and accurate sonnet, addressed to Lady E. Butler and her friend, on leaving their enchanting bowers.’
The ‘Mrs Tighe’ to whom Seward here refers was another poet, Mary Tighe, while ‘Lady E. Butler and her friend’ were the famous Ladies of Llangollen, and a house in Ireland, today a ruin, links them all together: Woodstock, County Kilkenny. Lady Elinor, who grew up in Kilkenny Castle, knew the place well since it was here in 1768 that she met her lifelong companion, Sarah Ponsonby. Lady Elinor was then aged 28, Miss Butler some fifteen years younger but they formed so close a bond that more than a decade later, braving the opprobrium of their respective families, and of society at large, they ran away together and set up home at Plas Newydd, near the Welsh town of Llangollen. Although living quietly and on a relatively modest income, they soon became famous and attracted visitors from throughout Britain and Ireland: Queen Charlotte wanted to see their house and persuaded George III to grant them a pension. Writers in particular were especially fascinated by the Ladies of Llangollen and among those who travelled to see them were Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. Plus, of course, both Anna Seward and Mary Tighe.

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Mary Tighe (née Blachford) was born in 1772, the daughter of a Church of Ireland clergyman who died when she was very young. Her mother Theodosia Tighe was an early supporter of John Wesley and Mary had a severely religious upbringing. At the age of twenty-one she married her first cousin Henry Tighe but it appears the union was not happy. In addition Mary soon began to manifest signs of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her.
From an early age she had written both poetry and prose but only in 1805 was her long poem Psyche, or the Legend of Love privately printed in an edition of just fifty copies. Nevertheless, it brought her considerable fame: in the same year Thomas Moore wrote his own poem To Mrs Henry Tighe on Reading her Psyche which opens with the lines, ‘Tell me the witching tale again/For never has my heart or ear/Hung on so sweet, so pure a strain/So pure to feel, so sweet to hear.’
Psyche is a six-canto allegorical poem in Spenserian stanzas recounting the classical myth of the love between Cupid and Psyche, and the travails the couple must endure before they can achieve happiness. In sentiment it is of its own era and not of ours, but stylistically the work is highly accomplished and one can understand why it achieved such renown in the early 19th century. A year after the death of the poem’s lovely young author in 1810 a new edition of Psyche, along with some of her other verses, was published and this helped to cement Mary Tighe’s fame across Europe.

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Mary Tighe spent the final months of her short life at Woodstock which belonged to her brother-in-law William Tighe. Wonderfully located on high ground above the village of Inistioge and the river Nore, the house dates from around 1745 and is believed to have been designed by the architect Francis Bindon for Sir William Fownes. Its north-east front of six bays and three storeys over part-raised basement is notable for having an elaborate central doorway comprising the door itself and two flanking windows immediately above which is a niche which originally contained a life-size statue, and an oculus over that again. So deep is the building that it has a small inner courtyard to light the central rooms.
Woodstock was inherited by Sir William Fownes’ grandson William Tighe and c. 1804 he was responsible for adding the flanking single-storey wings with pedimented breakfronts, the designer of these being local architect William Robertson. The interior was especially noted for its fine library and a couple of old photographs show ceilings with elaborate rococo plasterwork. The main hall contained a white marble figure representing Mary Tighe carved by the Tuscan Lorenzo Bartolini some five years after her death. This has gone but her mausoleum survives in the graveyard attached to the former Augustinian priory of St Columbkill is Inistioge. Inside the severe neo-classical limestone structure is another life size figure carved by the English sculptor John Flaxman and showing the recumbent poet with a small winged figure – Inspiration perhaps? – crouching beside her head.

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Set on sloping ground, the gardens of Woodstock were originally laid out in the ‘natural’ style popularized by Capability Brown. However they were transformed in the middle of the 19th century by Lady Louisa Tighe, wife of another William Tighe; Lady Louisa was the daughter of the fourth Duke of Richmond and therefore the great-niece of the Lennox sisters who made such an impact on Ireland during the previous century (as anyone familiar with Stella Tillyard’s 1995 book Aristocrats will remember). Late in life, Lady Louisa who was born in 1803 recalled attending her mother the Duchess of Richmond’s legendary ball in Brussels, held three days before the Battle of Waterloo: ‘I well remember the Gordon Highlanders dancing reels at the ball. My mother thought it would interest foreigners to see them…some of the poor men who danced in our house died at Waterloo.’ (A piece of trivial information: four years after Waterloo, the Duke, by then Governor General of Canada, was bitten by a pet fox and subsequently died of rabies.)
Working with her then-head gardener Pierce Butler, Lady Louisa’s interventions at Woodstock were extensive, beginning with a series of three terraces to the immediate west of the walled garden. The middle of these three was aligned to the south with a large circular conservatory designed by the Dublin iron master Richard Turner. This work completed and Pierce Butler having died, Lady Louisa then embarked on another major project with her new head gardener Scotsman Charles McDonald: the creation of a winter garden to the immediate rear of the house. Consisting of four sunken panels each filled with elaborately planted parterres, its creation involved the removal of more than 200,000 cubic yards of soil and the building of massive granite embankments. Extant photographs indicate the style of these gardens to be of the kind now found only in municipal parks, with lines of bright bedding plants and even at Woodstock pathways of different coloured gravel. Less lurid elements elsewhere in the demesne included an arboretum, yew walk and rose garden, Monkey Puzzle and Noble Fir avenues, a grotto, rustic summer house and various other features.

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Lady Louisa and William Tighe had no living children and although she remained in residence at Woodstock until her death in 1900 the estate passed to her husband’s nephew Frederick Tighe who in turn left it to his son Edward. Perhaps because Lady Louisa continued to live in the house, this branch of the family spent less time at Woodstock and once the War of Independence broke out the Tighes brought the house’s more valuable furniture and pictures to England. It proved a judicious move since the building was occupied first by members of the hated Black and Tans and then by the Free State Army. The latter left Woodstock on July 1st 1922 and the following day it was set alight, most probably by anti-Treaty forces. All the remaining contents, including the library and Bartolini’s statue of Mary Tighe, were destroyed in the blaze. It was, like so many similar occurrences of the period, an entirely gratuitous act of vandalism that did nothing other than rob Ireland of another part of her cultural heritage.
Woodstock has stood a ruin ever since, its external walls now needing support if they are not to fall down. In recent years Kilkenny County Council has undertaken extensive restoration of the gardens which are open to the public and much prized. The pity is that the once splendid house which was their centerpiece and source of meaning provided should remain a hollow shell. If only in memory of the poet Mary Tighe, Woodstock deserves better than its present condition.

Mary Tighe

*From the first Canto of Psyche.
A new biography of Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell has just been published by the Somerville Press.

A Lamentable Loss

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Sir Hugh Lane, the original Irish Aesthete and the subject of my first book (published by Lilliput Press in 2000) drowned ninety eight years ago today after the RMS Lusitania on which he was returning from New York, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Cork. This portrait, now in the collection of the municipal art gallery in Dublin founded by Lane in 1908 was commissioned by his friends from John Singer Sargent two years earlier. One always wonders what Lane, still not yet forty at the time of his death, might have achieved had he lived longer.

Putting on a Good Front

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Broad Street, Limerick, November 1949

Thirty years ago I was involved in the production of a little book about the traditional shopfronts of Roscrea, County Tipperary. A typical midlands market town, Roscrea had many old stores the appearance of which both inside and out dated back to the late 19th century. Largely due to insufficient funds the majority of these properties had since remained unaltered. However from the late 1960s onwards retailers here as elsewhere embarked on a determined programme of modernisation for their premises. Anything old was regarded as outmoded and a bar to progress, and so the old shopfronts with their painted fascias were swept away. Up in their place went expanses of plastic and fluorescent lighting, the same as could be found in innumerable other towns around the world. It may be that on strictly economic grounds the decision to discard the old made sense, but at what cost to the town’s character?
Awareness of this rapidly vanishing element of Roscrea’s heritage led to the project to record its still-extant shopfronts. The book contained pen and ink drawings of each premises included, together with as much information as could be ascertained about the shop and its history. It was a timely exercise: last time I passed through the town very few of the old shopfronts were still to be seen. Had the book not been published, today there would most likely be no record of what had gone.

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Cigar Divan, Carlow, October 1958

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Shopfronts, Askeaton, County Limerick, February 1978

I remembered the little book of Roscrea shopfronts when looking through a recently published collection of photographs taken by the late Maurice Craig. For the best part of a half century wherever he travelled about Ireland Maurice brought his camera, and the result was a wondrous record of a country which within living memory has all but disappeared. ‘I do not think of myself as a photographer,’ he writes in his Introduction, ‘merely somebody who has taken a great many photographs, usually with a purpose in mind…Unconsciously I was collecting the materials for a history of buildings, which I came to realise were at risk of destruction or mutilation.’
A brief biography of Maurice will be helpful for those to whom his name is unfamiliar. Born of Presbyterian stock in Belfast in 1919 he was educated at Shrewsbury before winning a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge where he occupied the same rooms as had the nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell some eighty years earlier. Maurice then went on to write a doctorate on the poet Walter Savage Landor at Trinity College, Dublin. His first book, a biography of the Earl of Charlemont (see Casino Royale, March 25th) appeared in 1948 but four years later he wrote the work with which he has ever after been associated: Dublin 1660-1860. It took 13 years for the 2,000 copies of the book’s first edition to sell but since being republished in 1969 Dublin 166-1860 has rightly been regarded as a peerless piece of architectural history. Impeccably written, packed with information and anecdote, more than sixty years after first appearing this remains the best work to read about the city’s evolution during the Georgian period. If I were to choose only one of his other books to recommend it would have to be Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976), a volume as distinctive – and memorable – as its title indicates.

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Shopfront, Rathcormick, County Cork, March 1979

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Hacketts Shop, Killkenny, June 1948

At the close of his preface to Dublin 1660-1860, Maurice comments, ‘I have done my best to get out of the way of the buildings and let them be seen for themselves, relying on a possibly fallacious belief that architecture cannot lie.’ He adopted the same approach to his photography, allowing buildings to make their own eloquent case. Amateur though he was Maurice proved an instinctively gifted photographer. Other people, of course, were taking pictures of Irish architecture before he started doing so in the 1940s, but usually the focus was on friends or family standing in front of or inside a building, or the place was being photographed for commercial purposes, most often to be reproduced as a postcard. Maurice was interested in a structure’s inherent qualities and in capturing these for posterity (somehow he knew of the wave of demolition that lay ahead). But he brought a romantic’s eye to his self-imposed task. Look at the way he frames the house in Limerick in the first picture by enclosing it with the sides of a lane on the other side of the street. And one must be either brave or perhaps foolhardy to devote so much of an image to empty roadway as in the photograph immediately above. Yet that expanse enhances appreciation of the building, not least because the outlines of this are lightly echoed on the surface of wet tarmac.
At the age of 91 Maurice died some eighteen months before the publication of the book from which these pictures are taken, having spent his last years in a little house in Monkstown, County Dublin. Anyone who visited him there will recall walls densely packed with books, Maurice contented in the midst of them with his pipe and a cat called Minna, seemingly surrounded by chaos but actually anchored by a wealth of index cards on which all necessary information on countless subjects was inscribed in impeccable script. Like the old shopfronts of Roscrea he has now gone, but there remains ample testimony to his presence on this earth in words and pictures alike. The photographs shown here are just a handful of those featured in his last book, which includes buildings great and small, many of them long since lost, all of them worthy of being immortalised by Maurice’s camera.

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O’Carroll Street, Tullamore, County Offaly, July 1957

Maurice Craig: Photographs is published by Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie)