Where there is Darkness, Light

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Passing through the village of Kilconnell, County Galway one sees an extensive range of ruins to the immediate west of the main street. Here in a field grazed by sheep who look blithely impervious to the architectural glories around them stand the remains of a former Franciscan friary.
There has been some discussion about the precise date of the building’s foundation, perhaps because it is proposed to be on the site of an earlier religious settlement established in the sixth century by St Conal, or Conall (of whom there seems to have been more than one). Hence the Irish placename Cil Chonaill, meaning Conall’s church. In any case, if monks did live here before the Franciscans arrived no evidence of their presence remains. It is most commonly suggested the friars established their house around 1414 at the request of and with assistance from William O’Kelly, Lord of Uí Maine – one of the oldest and largest kingdoms in Connacht that included much of this part of the country – who died in 1420.

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Kilconnell Friary is more elaborate than most such Franciscan establishments. The original body of the church consisted, as was always the case with this religious order, of a single long nave continuing into a choir of similar proportions. A cloister to the immediate north of the church then ran east to a two-storey domestic range that held offices below and a dormitory above. Only the east and part of the south range of the cloister arcades survive but these are notable for the variety of stonemason’s marks carved into them.
Later in the 15th century, and rather unusually, a large square tower was erected at the central point and running the full width of the church; it still rises three storeys higher than the former roof line and can be sighted across the surrounding countryside. It has very handsome vaulting the piers beneath which sport a couple of delicate carvings of an angel and an owl. Around the same period a south aisle was joined to the nave by an arcade as well as a south transept accessible from both nave and choir, with a small chapel added to the immediate east in the 16th century. These adjuncts make Kilconnell larger and finer than the majority of its sister houses in Ireland.

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What further distinguishes Kilconnell Friary from other such churches is its exceptionally impressive collection of niche tombs found lining the walls of both nave and choir. The former holds the most elaborate of all, located just inside the west entrance on the north wall. The upper section is dominated by an ogee canopy with flamboyant stone tracery and capped by a carved panel containing two figures widely believed to represent St Patrick and St Francis. The base of this monument is given over to a long slab featuring six further figures, each identified by name: St John the Evangelist, St Louis of Toulouse, the Virgin, St John the Baptist, St James Major and St Denis of Paris. There has been some speculation why two French saints should appear on this tomb, but perhaps the explanation lies with the family responsible for its erection; unfortunately it is unknown who that might have been.
Another similarly flamboyant gothic tomb, albeit without the carved figures, can be found on the north wall of the choir, this one associated with the O’Daly family and another on the opposite side is an O’Kelly tomb of marginally less splendour. The main windows are also particularly good, including those in the south aisle and transept but best of all, and probably latest, is that on the west wall.

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Kilconnell Friary’s prominence, apparent in its size and decoration, remained long after other religious establishments were closed as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s. Although occupied by English troops in 1596, twenty-one years later it was claimed that the buildings were intact and still in use, with a community of six friars. Their lands were granted by James I to the Norfolk-born judge Charles Calthorpe in 1616 and in 1667 Matthias Barnewall, 8th Baron Trimlestown, who on Oliver Cromwell’s orders had been transplanted to Connacht from his family estate in County Meath was interred inside the friary, as commemorated by an armorial tablet set into the wall of the former sacristy.
There were still friars on the site in 1709 and a few remained until 1766. Seemingly the last one, who had been acting as a parish priest, only left in 1801. Long before that date, however, the buildings had become ruinous: an engraving included in Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland published in 1791 shows the church roofless, its walls already half-smothered in foliage (in fact the image suggests the structure was in poorer condition then than is the case today).
In his Tour of Connaught (1839) the Rev. Caesar Otway wrote ‘The shell of the abbey is as picturesque as can be, where there are neither hills, rock, lake nor river, and but a few distant trees to improve the scenery; perhaps its ivy-mantled tower and time-tinted roofless gables, with all their salient angles, producing the happiest effects of light and shadow, are better in keeping with the waste and desolation that preside over the place, destitute as it is of any modern improvement or decoration whatsoever.’ So it remains to this day, a monument to the glories of late-mediaeval Ireland still unadorned by modern improvements and still mostly frequented only by a flock of disinterested sheep.

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The Irish Aesthete Recommends I

Enniskerry

Located by the Glencullen river, Enniskerry, County Wicklow is one of the most charming villages in Ireland and essentially owes both its existence and appearance to the Wingfield family, Viscounts Powerscourt who for over 350 years lived on the neighbouring Powerscourt estate. Its relative proximity to Dublin has always given Enniskerry a particular appeal to residents of the city, yet despite recent developments the place has managed to maintain its distinctive character and charm.
One of the reasons this may be the case is an abundance of ardent local historians; they have charted the village’s narrative, and thereby ensured memory cannot be obliterated by change. And none more enthusiastic than Michael Seery who in 2011 published Enniskerry: A History. Now he has produced a second volume, Enniskerry: Archives, Notes and Stories from the Village which, in addition to featuring all the above contains many photographs and images of village and surrounding area over the centuries. It is a model of local history diligence and brio and commitment, and deserves to be widely read – and emulated.
To buy a copy of the book or to learn more about Enniskerry, see http://www.enniskerryhistory.org

An Irishman’s Home is His Tower House

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All across Ireland can be seen buildings commonly known as castles but which ought more correctly be called tower houses. The tower house is not exclusive to this country, similar structures being found along the Scottish Borders. However, the sheer quantity of these edifices make them one of the most distinctive features of the Irish landscape: it has been estimated that between 1400 and 1650 in the region of 3,000 tower houses were constructed.
A statute issued by Henry VI in 1429 declared, ‘It is agreed and asserted that every liege man of our Lord, the King of the said Counties, who chooses to build a Castle or Tower House sufficiently embattled or fortified, wither the next ten years to wit 20 feet in length, 16 feet in width and 40 feet in height or more, that the commons of the said Counties shall pay to the said person, to build the said Castle or Tower ten pounds by way of subsidy.’ It is often proposed that this piece of legislation, with its financial incentive, did much to encourage the popularity of tower houses, and also their uniformity of design.

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There is some dispute whether the tower house’s primary purpose was defensive or residential; one suspects it varied according to geographic and political circumstances. Typically the building is rectangular and constructed of irregular stones, the walls in excess of four feet thick at base level and rising four or five storeys high. A single arch doorway offered admission with the large arched ground floor devoted to diverse purposes including storage of foodstuff and livestock. Above the entrance was an opening called the Murder Hole, through which boiling liquids or arrows could be directed in the event of an attack. Windows at this level were little more than slits although they were larger further up. The family lived on the tower’s top storeys, but levels of comfort were pretty minimal.
Various descriptions of life in a tower house have come down to us and none of them make it sound especially luxurious. For example the Spaniard Cuillar wrote in 1588 ‘The Irish have no furniture and sleep on the ground, on a bed of rushes, wet with rain and stiff with frost…’ Half a century later the French traveller, M. de la Bouillaye le Gouz observed ‘The castles of the nobility consist of four walls, extremely high and thatched with straw but to tell the truth, they are nothing but square towers without windows or at least having such small apertures as to give no more light than a prison. They have little furniture and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in Summer and straw in Winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.’

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In many respects Kilbline Castle, County Kilkenny is a typical Irish tower house. Rising five storeys high, it has round bartizans or wall-mounted turrets at each corner of the east front and a slender chimney-stack between them. The surrounding bawn wall survives in part but some sections were demolished in the last century to permit the erection of modern farm sheds. Kilbline is usually dated to the 14th/15th centuries but a large limestone chimneypiece on the first floor carries the date 1580 so it is possible that was when the building was completed. On the other hand, there is reference to Kilbline Castle being forfeited by one Thomas Comerford of Ballymac in 1566 so perhaps the chimneypiece was inserted into the tower by its subsequent owner.
That person may have been a member of the Shortall family of Rathardmore Castle in the same county. Thomas Shortall of Rathardmore died in 1628 and not long after his heir Peter moved to the castle of Kilbline, where he subsequently lived. His estates, which ran to some 1,500 acres were declared forfeited by the Cromwellian government in 1653 and his sons ordered to be sent to Connaught, although one of them seems to have returned to Kilbline, perhaps after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Nevertheless, Kilbline once more changed hands during this period.

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Originally from Newcastle in Northumberland, William Candler is believed to have served as an officer in Oliver Cromwell’s army during the Irish wars of 1649-53. As a reward for his endeavours, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and granted lands in County Kilkenny, including those on which stands Kilbline Castle. He and his wife Anne Villiers had two sons, the younger of whom John is known to have lived at Kilbline. John Candler had a single son Thomas who, in turn, had only the one child, Walsingham; he never married and so that line of Candlers came to an end.
To return to Lt.Col. Candler, his older son Thomas who lived at Callan Castle had four sons, the youngest of whom Daniel caused a rumpus within the family by marrying an Irishwoman, possibly a Roman Catholic, called Hannah and as a result was obliged to leave first County Kilkenny and then Ireland. Around 1735 Daniel and Hannah Candler moved to the America Colonies, initially settling in North Carolina before they moved to Bedford, Virginia. Their great, great, great-grandson was Asa Griggs Candler, the entrepreneur who in 1888 bought the formula for Coca Cola and made himself fabulously rich as a result.

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Kilbline Castle continued to be occupied until just a few decades ago. At some point, probably in the 19th century, a two storey three-bay house was added on the west end of the tower house and a further single storey structure abuts this. The interior of the house remains relatively intact and suggests a degree of affluence on the part of the occupants.
However, the most architecturally significant feature of Kilbline is a wonderful panelled room on the south-east corner of the ground floor. Most likely of oak (it was hard to tell with certainty) this looks to date from the late 17th or early 18th centuries and must therefore have been created while the building was occupied by the Candlers. Although the ceiling is now covered in tongue-and-groove boards, all the wall panelling is intact, as is the old chimneypiece (the latter marred only by a shelf added at some later date). This rare instance of early Irish interior decoration is some 300 years old and given that the house has been empty for some time it remains in remarkably good condition, as can be seen in the pictures above. The present owners, although they do not live in the building, are aware of its importance and would dearly love to restore Kilbline and ensure its future.

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Practical Palladianism

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Palladian is a much-abused term in this country, frequently applied to buildings which visibly have no link with Palladio but which happen to be old. Rather than attempt to re-write an already admirable summary, I here quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ‘Palladianism, style of architecture based on the writings and buildings of the humanist and theorist from Vicenza, Andrea Palladio (1508–80), perhaps the greatest architect of the latter 16th century and certainly the most influential. Palladio felt that architecture should be governed by reason and by the principles of classical antiquity as it was known in surviving buildings and in the writings of the 1st-century-bc architect and theorist Vitruvius. Palladianism bespeaks rationality in its clarity, order, and symmetry, while it also pays homage to antiquity in its use of classical forms and decorative motifs.’
Palladianism as we see it in Ireland emerged in the early 18th century, heavily influenced by English practitioners and theorists such as Colen Campbell whose Vitruvius Britannicus was published in 1715, and his patron Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (and also, let it not be forgotten, 4th Earl of Cork, since he was a large landowner in this country). The first indisputably Irish Palladian house is Castletown, County Kildare on which work began c.1722 with its facade designed by Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737), today best known for his work at the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome.

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One aspect of Palladianism often overlooked is its functionality: seduced by the beauty of the overall design we are inclined to forget these buildings were intended to serve a practical purpose. In the 16th century many of Palladio’s clients were wealthy Venetians who owned country estates on which they wished to spend the summer months. The estates were working farms, and the houses Palladio created at their centre reflect this reality. Because of his admiration for classical design and the importance of symmetry, rather than permit a variety of stand-alone farm buildings scattered across the site as had customarily been the case, he consolidated them into a single unit.
Thus the archetypal Palladian villa is dominated by a central residence with a facade inspired by Roman temples (hence the frequency of pedimented porticos). On either side of this block run a series of lower wings symmetrical in appearance and practical in purpose. Behind their calm and orderly exteriors a quantity of different activities would take place, whether the preparation of meals or the storage of grain, the housing of livestock or the washing of clothes. There would be stables and dovecots, piggeries and chicken coops, all of them part of a single harmonious unit. The concept was both simple and yet sophisticated, rational yet handsome. In the late 19th century the American architect Louis Sullivan proclaimed ‘form ever follows function.’ Palladio’s villas demonstrate the truth of this maxim. As his influence spread beyond Italy, so too did his designs and the practical philosophy that underlay them. This approach found a particularly warm reception in Ireland where from the late 17th century onwards landowners sought to bring order to their estates and to create new residences at their core.

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One such estate was Ardbraccan, County Meath. This had been the seat of a bishopric for over a thousand years and in the 16th century a large Tudor house called St Mary’s stood there. However by the early 18th century the old residence had become so dilapidated that a new house was deemed essential. In 1734 then-Bishop of Meath Arthur Price made a start on the project but within a few years he had been transferred to the Archbishopric of Cashel (where incidentally he was responsible for unroofing the old cathedral, seemingly because he found his carriage could not easily be driven to the top of the hill on which it stands). It would be another 30 years before the work initiated by Price was brought to completion, but the two wings of the building he commissioned were completed before his departure.
The architect employed for this task was Richard Castle, whose personal history remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. He is believed to have grown up in Dresden, where his father, an English-born Jew named Joseph Riccardo, served as Director of Munitions and Mines to Friedrich Augustus, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. By 1725 Castle, sometimes called Cassels, had come to England where he is likely to have encountered Lord Burlington and his circle of Palladians. Three years later he moved to Ireland, supposedly at the request of Sir Gustavus Hume, to design Castle Hume, County Fermanagh. Not long after Castle began working as a draughtsman for Sir Edward Lovett Pearce on the plans of the new Parliament House then being built in Dublin. Following Pearce’s death in 1733 Castle took over some of his unfinished commissions and also became the most notable designer of country houses in Ireland. He was, therefore, the obvious choice when Bishop Price sought an architect for the new residence at Ardbraccan.

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Understandably visitors to Ardbraccan focus their attention on the main house, finished in the 1770s to the designs of no less than three architects: James Wyatt, Thomas Cooley and the Rev. Daniel Beaufort. As a result, the rest of the structure receives less notice, even though it offers one of the purest examples of Palladianism in Ireland. To north and south of the central block run arcaded quadrants that link to two-storey, five-bay wings, their entrances facing one another across the house’s forecourt. The facade presented to the world is one of order and equilibrium, harmony and proportion. In classic Palladian fashion Castle provided facilities for a wealth of complementary domestic and agricultural activities, all housed in splendidly constructed outbuildings that remain intact. These include stables and carriage houses, kitchens and laundry yard, pump yard and slaughter house, piggeries, granary, dovecotes, cattle sheds and fowl yards, accommodation for the large community of workers who engaged in diverse activities, and rising above them all a clock tower to ensure time was kept on the day’s tasks.
One of the pleasures of these buildings is the quality of their finish, a tribute to Irish workmanship at the time. It is worth noting the way different sections interact; the mixture of cut and uncut stone within the stable block to the north, for example, is surprisingly successful. On this side of the house a Gibbsian door permitted the bishop to descend to the yard via a flight of handsome steps, and then climb another short sequence to the mounting block for his horse. Inside the wing itself look at the superlative groin vaulting in the stables, the vaults carried on solid Tuscan column. Elsewhere the interplay of curved wall and staircase is another delight. These were all practical spaces, intended to ensure the estate operated smoothly and would be almost self-sufficient. Nonetheless as much attention was paid to their design and construction as to the episcopal residence. Here are the tenets of Palladianism put into practice and showing their mettle.

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On the Streets Where We Lived

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The photograph above was taken in autumn 1913 by John Cooke, then Hon. Treasurer of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, for presentation to the Dublin Housing Inquiry in November of that year. Showing Chancery Lane, off Bride Street, it is one of a number of Cooke’s images on exhibition until April 2nd in the Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St Stephen’s Green.
I imagine that for most people the photographs are of interest because they serve as a record of the dreadful conditions in which far too many Dubliners then lived: at the time the city enjoyed a dubious reputation for having the worst tenement slums in Europe. To me, however, the pictures also provide a poignant record of Dublin’s architectural losses: not a building featured in the photograph of Chancery Lane remains. Look at the handsome projecting lamp towards the end of the street, and the wonderful cut-stone doorway just beyond. Gone, all gone.
During the second half of the last century accommodation in large parts of the city centre was rightly improved, but was it absolutely necessary that this should have been at the expense of so much old housing stock? No structure, however dilapidated, is ever beyond repair provided sufficient will to restore it exists. I have always thought it was more because of what they symbolised rather than owing to their poor condition that so many buildings were torn down – and even today some continue to be at risk for the same reason.
We must learn to understand our architecture, not for what we believe it represents – whether that be British colonial rule or an expression of our yearning to be ‘modern’ – but for its inherent merits. These lost buildings, even in the shocking state seen here, could have been salvaged and preserved for future generations to appreciate. So too might have been the terrace seen towards the back of the photograph below. Another image by Cooke, it shows the rear of Summerhill, part of the Gardiner estate begun c.1733 but largely developed in the 1780s. I remember those immense brick houses, each with a splendid bow from which the original occupants were offered unimpeded views of Dublin Bay. Now none remain: after lasting for 200 years they were swept away in their entirety around 1980. No matter how much better housed, we are the poorer for their loss.

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Photographs reproduced by permission of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Risen from the Ashes

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In 1913, Sir John Keane, who had succeeded his father as fifth baronet twenty-one years earlier, decided to carry out some embellishments of the family seat, Belmont, more commonly known as Cappoquin House, County Waterford. Sir John was a descendant of the O’Cahans of Ulster who had lost their lands during the province’s plantation in the early 1600s and, like so many others, been forced to resettle west of the Shannon. Towards the end of the 17th century, one of them changed his name to Keane, converted to Anglicanism and entered government service as a lawyer. In 1738 his son John Keane acquired three 999-year leases on the town of Cappoquin and surrounding estate from Richard Boyle, fourth Earl of Cork and Burlington. John Keane’s grandson, also called John (1757-1829) and created a baronet in 1801, was responsible for building Cappoquin House on the site of an old Fitzgerald castle around 1779.

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We will probably never know the architect responsible, although the name of John Roberts (1712-96), responsible for many other notable buildings in Waterford City and County, has often been proposed. Located on a prominent site above the point where the river Blackwater turns 90 degrees en route to the Irish Sea, the house’s south-facing seven-bay ashlar facade with three-bay breakfront rises two storeys over basement, its parapet finished with a line of urns. There are scarcely any images of the house before 1930 other than an 1843 watercolour signed R Armstrong. This shows the old conservatory to the immediate east side of the house and also a servants’ wing unattached to the main house, which explains the former’s survival after the latter went up in flames in 1923.
Seemingly much of the interior of Cappoquin had charming Adamesque plasterwork but this did not extend to the drawing room. So in 1913 Sir John Keane engaged the services of Page L Dickinson to embellish that part of the house. Dickinson is a curious character, the author of a memoir The Dublin of Yesterday published in 1929 after he had moved to England in voluntary exile from post-independence Ireland and filled with laments for a since-lost ancien regime. But he also wrote, in conjunction with Thomas Sadleir, the excellent Georgian Mansions in Ireland (1915) which contains detailed accounts of, among many other houses, Dowth Hall (see Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?* of December 24th).

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Fifth son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin, Page L Dickinson was first apprenticed to the architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (brother of artist William Orpen), and then became his partner in the practice. In 1913 he was asked to improve the appearance of Cappoquin House’s drawing room primarily through the addition of plasterwork decoration. Lack of photographs, which the building’s owner would lament after it had been gutted by fire, means we do not know how the finished room looked. But an idea of its appearance can be gleaned from surviving correspondence between the two men because in some of his letters Dickinson not only described what he proposed to do but included sketches of same. The latter show oval wall panels and swags in the Adam-revival style then fashionable. The work was carried out by a Dublin craftsman, Michael Creedon of Clare Lane and again extant documentation shows that he expected to complete the job at a cost of £130 ‘as the ornament would be rather close to the eye & would consequently have to be modelled with special care.’
In addition to the drawing room decoration, Dickinson also designed a new loggia immediately outside on the west front of the house. This was to replace a flimsier 19th century timber and slate structure, and was sufficiently robust to survive the 1923 fire. Once more, Dickinson’s letters show the evolution of the design to its final form, an excellent example of architect and client working together to produce a satisfactory result. All the work was completed in late spring 1914, just months before the outbreak of the First World War.

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So how was it that Cappoquin House came to be gutted by fire in February 1923? The explanation lies in Ireland’s complicated history during this period. In December 1921 representatives of the British government and those of the fledgling Irish state had signed a treaty concluding hostilities and providing for Ireland’s independence – except for six counties in Ulster which remained part of the United Kingdom. Not everyone in this country welcomed the treaty’s outcome and an extremely violent civil war ensued. Among those targeted by anti-Treaty supporters were members of the new state’s upper parliamentary house, the Senate: no less than 37 houses belonging to Senators were deliberately burnt out. In December 1922 Sir John Keane had accepted an invitation from the Free State government to become a Senator. The consequences were inevitable.
In fact, he had already realised that Cappoquin House, like many other similar properties in Ireland, was vulnerable to attack. His wife and children had moved to England and he had arranged to have the best furniture, pictures and silver taken away and put into storage. Much was lost when the house was set on fire, not least an historic library, but a great many of the contents were spared destruction. Immediately Sir John set about applying to the Irish government for compensation for his losses and investigating how best to go about restoring the hollow structure. Although he received less financial support than had been requested, he still went ahead with the project, initially intending to work with the same architect as ten years before. But by this time Dickinson had already moved to England, so he recommended his former partner Richard Orpen who did take on the job.

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Cappoquin House is a very rare example of an historic Irish property rebuilt following its deliberate destruction, and it stands as a tribute to the tenacity of the redoubtable Sir John Keane who, incidentally, also remained as an active Senator until 1944, by which time he was aged over seventy. A lot of trouble was taken to ensure the house’s interiors were as splendid as they had been before the fire, and the extensive papers dealing with its gradual reconstruction make for fascinating reading. This time the exquisite plasterwork decoration in most of the main reception rooms had to come from the London firm of G Jackson & Sons – one can only assume Mr Creedon was no longer in business in Dublin – and all their invoices remain. For example plasterwork of the octagon above the main stairs (seen at the start of this piece) cost £166. Ironically due to insufficient funds the only area not redecorated was the old drawing room which had been given its splendid new appearance just a decade before the fire. Today Cappoquin House and its equally delightful gardens remain in the ownership of the same family, admirably cared for by Sir John’s grandson, Sir Charles Keane and his wife Corinne. They welcome visitors so here is an opportunity to see for yourself an Irish house that rose like a phoenix from the ashes of destruction (see http://www.cappoquinhouseandgardens.com/).

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For more about the restoration of Cappoquin House after the 1923 fire, see my article on the subject in the current spring issue of the Irish Arts Review.

Fit for a King

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Boyle, County Roscommon is a provincial market town, seemingly indistinguishable from many others throughout the country. Once of importance as a centre of trade for the locality, it now appears to have slipped into irreversible decline. Somewhere, in other words, to by-pass except that rising in the middle of the town and towering over all other buildings is an immense early 18th century townhouse.
Known as King House, the name taken from the family responsible for its construction, this marvellous edifice is reminiscent of the seigneurial chateaux one finds in regional French urban centres, evidence of a powerful dynasty determined to wield and enforce authority. The family association with Boyle was due to John King (d.1637), an English adventurer who had come to Ireland with Sir Richard Bingham, the royal-appointed Governor of Connacht. In 1603 the Boyle estate running to over 4,000 acres and originally developed by the Cistercian monks whose abbey had since been dissolved, was leased to King and another soldier but in 1617 the former was granted the entire property as a reward for ‘reducing the Irish to obedience.’ One of his children Edward King, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge drowned while on a boat sailing to Ireland in August 1637 and was soon eulogised by his friend John Milton in the poem Lycidas. However, Sir John had six sons and thereafter successive generations of the family increased its holdings until the Kings became the area’s most prominent land owner.

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Of three storeys over basement, King House was built for Sir Henry King, dates from 1720-30 and is believed to occupy the site of an earlier structure. As ever, we do not know the architect responsible. Both Pearce and Castle have been mentioned, but so too has William Halfpenny (d.1755), an Englishman who worked in Ireland during the 1730s in Dublin, Hillsborough, County Down and Waterford City. There is also some speculation that the building as seen today is incomplete; the pedimented north front is strikingly plain, so it has been posited that the two-bay projecting wings were meant to be joined by another block so as to form an enclosed courtyard. If this was the intention, then it helps to explain the want of external decoration. The rear of the house, which looks south to the river Boyle and would once have had a pleasure garden running down to water’s edge, is more satisfactory if rather too rigorously symmetrical. In fact the best views are those of the two sides, where a pair of Venetian windows sits one above the other. Roughcast render suggests a variety of material was used for the building, although all the window and door surrounds are of fine cut limestone.
Not a lot of the original interior remains, but there is an explanation why this should be the case. The Kings used their house for little more than half a century before it was damaged by fire in 1788. By this date tastes had changed and it was considered more desirable to reside in the countryside, so the family moved to the nearby estate of Rockingham (of which more in the months ahead). King House was first leased and then in 1795 sold for £3,000 to the government. Subsequently it was converted into an army barracks and during the 19th century was occupied by the Connaught Rangers; presumably during this period was added the large extension to the south-west of the main block. As evidence of its size the house was able to accommodate 12 officers and 260 non-commissioned officers and private foot soldiers, as well as a 30-bed hospital and stabling for horses. Following Independence, the building continued to serve the same purpose for members of the Free State Army until the 1960s when King House passed into private hands and was used as a store and fuel depot. Its condition quickly deteriorated and by the 1970s tenders were invited for the building’s demolition to make way for a car park. I remember first seeing the place at that time, when the chances of its survival looked slim. Thankfully in 1987 King House was acquired by Roscommon County Council with a full programme of restoration work beginning two years later.

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Today King House is a public amenity, a museum and a facility used for various purposes, from wedding receptions to library services. Given its chequered history, the building’s want of interior ornamentation does not come as a surprise. The 1788 fire, followed by conversion for use as a barracks helps to explain the lack of an elaborate staircase, for example, and also the absence of much plasterwork embellishment. The most striking extant feature is the gallery found running the length of the house on each floor and lit at either end by the aforementioned Venetian windows. That on the groundfloor retains a splendid stone flagging and two immense baroque chimneypieces of Kilkenny marble. The vaulted ceilings of red brick are unusual since this is customarily only found in basements. Seemingly the notion was that vaulting would prevent the spread of fire, a theory soundly disproved by the conflagration of 1788. Elsewhere some rooms have decorative cornicing but overall the impression is of refined purity.
Or at least that would be the case if those responsible for King House would allow the building to speak for itself. Loath as one is to speak ill of any organisation prepared to ensure a future for the country’s architectural heritage, what a shame that in this case the relevant authorities have shown scant confidence in the house’s inherent qualities. The restoration work has been exemplary but rather than allow the interior’s handsome proportions to make an impression, everywhere is filled with furniture, display units, information panels, mannequins and assorted bric-a-brac relating to a disparate variety of topics. The place is so busy one is constantly denied an opportunity to assess architectural merit (or, incidentally, to take a decent picture). A dissapointment as the building is of such rare merit it deserves to be cherished as and for itself, and not treated as the setting in which much less interesting material is shown. The current style of presentation is unquestionably to the building’s detriment. King House dominates not just Boyle but much of the surrounding region since nothing else can begin to approach its resplendence. Accordingly nothing else ought to be required. Here is an instance where less would achieve more.

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This last is an old photograph of King House when still a military barracks (and, by the looks of it, already in poor shape).