A recent post here about the neglect of historic buildings in Drogheda, County Louth attracted quite a lot of comment (see: Where The Streets Have No Shame « The Irish Aesthete) but its miserable condition is by no means unique. Everywhere one travels in Ireland, the same circumstances prevail, the core of cities, towns and villages suffering the same shameful neglect, buildings left boarded up (in the midst of a universally acknowledged housing shortage), sites covered in rubbish and graffiti, potential homes and businesses allowed to fall into ruin. This is Kilcock, County Kildare – but it could be anywhere because it represents everywhere.
Today the word ‘mall’ is usually applied to shopping centres with pretensions to grandeur, but historically malls were outdoor urban spaces in which the local population would stroll and socialise. No doubt originally The Mall in Wicklow town was intended to perform just such a function. Situated on ground steeply rising above the point where the Vartry river flows into the Irish Sea ,and therefore overlooking the harbour, The Mall is separated from Main Street immediately below by a retaining wall built of local granite and dating from c.1875. A double flight of steps links the two areas and to go from one to the other pedestrians pass under a wrought-iron arch centred on a glazed lantern. There ends whatever charm The Mall has today, since much of it is now a muddle of traffic congestion and neglected buildings, not least the former Bayview Hotel which occupies a particularly prominent spot. Originally constructed as a private residence around 1810 and called Bellevue, the property became a library in 1925 and later an hotel. Before the economic recession, there had been plans that it form part of a shopping centre complex but this never happened and it has been in decline since then. A year ago, the building, along with its neighbours, was sold for €903,000. One must hope the new owners have plans to improve the prospects not just of this site but the entire area. A stroll along The Mall ought to be a pleasure.
Kilbeggan, County Westmeath is barely five miles west of Tyrellspass, but the two places couldn’t be more different in character. Both have a crescent but that in Kilbeggan occupies one portion of a bleak traffic roundabout and has suffered badly from neglect and mistreatment. The building dates from c.1830 when constructed in the then-popular Tudor-Gothic style as an hotel, indicating the prosperity of the period and the amount of traffic then passing through the village. The gables on the left-hand portion have been removed, as have the cut-limestone hooded doorcases, replaced by a brutish cement-rendered opening that makes nonsense of the composition. Alas, elsewhere things don’t get much better, with many buildings standing empty and neglected. Typical in this respect is the former Bank of Ireland, dating from c.1890, which closed early in the present century and presents a forlorn face on Market Square.
In Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath the Crescent looks as though it could provide the setting for a novel by the likes of Mrs Gaskell. This part of the village was mostly laid out during the second decade of the 19th century, thanks to the endeavours of Jane, second Countess of Belvedere, whose elderly husband died in 1814, and to whom she erected a monument inside the church of St Sinian (although just a year later she married again). Around the open green are a number of domestic residences as well as a former single storey schoolhouse and a two-storey former courthouse. All are well maintained, although some of the fenestration shows evidence of the insidious uPVC virus (when will local authorities take steps to halt the spread of this blight across our architectural heritage?). On the outskirts of the village is a cluster of buildings constructed in the early 1840s as a girl’s orphanage thanks to a bequest left by the countess on her death the previous decade. In the Tudor-Gothic style, these were restored by the county council some years ago and now serve as housing scheme.
The bungalow-strewn village of Stratford on Slaney, County Wicklow looks as though it could be a modern suburb almost anywhere. However a handful of houses indicate the place has an older pedigree. The name derives from founder Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough whose architectural ambitions have been discussed here before (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017). He developed the village during the last quarter of the 18th century, intending it to be a centre for the textile industry, specifically cotton and printing works. At its height in the 1830s, Stratford on Slaney contained 104 houses (and thirteen public houses) with a population of 2,833 people, 1,00o of them employed in the fabric factory. Lord Aldborough built places of worship for Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, a dispensary and several shops. The famine and its attendant woes in the following decade put an end to the business, and so to Stratford where the factory closed and people moved away: in the census of 2016, the village had a population of just 241 persons. These few houses, dating from c.1840 are all that remain of Lord Aldborough’s ambitions.
In 1837 Samuel Lewis described Cloghan, County Offaly as a ‘village and post-town’ containing 84 dwellings and 460 inhabitants. Evidently some of the latter enjoyed prosperity because the dwellings they occupied were substantial, not least one on Hill Street which has this handsome doorcase. The five-bay property is believed to date from around 1820, a time when the country experienced greater affluence than would be the case just a couple of decades later, and which led to something of a building boom. Another house on nearby Castle Street was constructed during the same period and features a similar, albeit slightly plainer, doorcase.
As its name indicates, the little coastal village of Castletownshend, County Cork grew up around a castle occupied from c.1665 onwards by Richard Townsend, and still in the ownership of his descendants. Castletownshend offers an example of how a small urban settlement can retain its character and charm, and thereby attract visitors who during the summer months throng the place. Located on a small side-street rather grandly called The Mall, the mid-18th century house above has retained much of its original appearance, as is the case for the majority of other properties in the village. A number have benefitted from more recent sympathetic owners such as the house below: dating from the 1880s, prior to independence it was occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Castletownshend is a model of how to get it right.
A rare survivor in an Irish country town: an 18th century shopfront in Fethard, County Tipperary. Dating from c.1770, it features handsome fluted columns with Corinthian capitals on either side of the main windows at the centre of which is the shop entrance with double doors. A separate entrance to the right provides access to the upper storeys. Sadly the building is now disused and being permitted to fall into irreparable disrepair, a great loss to the architectural heritage of the town, and indeed the country.
Handsome doorcases such as this testify to the prosperity of Clones, County Monaghan in the 18th century when it became a market town benefitting from the growth of the linen industry. A series of large properties were built around The Diamond, a triangular open area to the immediate south of the monastery said to have been founded here in the early sixth century by St Tigernach and while some have been refaced, and others demolished, enough survive to give an idea of how Clones might have looked prior to suffering the same, more recent decline as so many other regional urban centres in Ireland.
Looking distinctly down-at-heel, the once-dapper Naper Arms Hotel which occupies a prominent site on The Square in Oldcastle, County Meath. Built in the mid-19th century when the town enjoyed commercial prosperity, the building now offers vivid evidence of the way in which Ireland’s smaller urban centres are embarked on what seems to be irreversible decline. If national and local government are serious about attempting to halt the phenomenon – a new €60 million initiative called ‘Action Plan for Rural Ireland’ was announced on Monday – a good place to start would be obliging owners to give them purpose, on the premise of ‘use it or lose it.’ Otherwise one suspects little will change…