Located on high ground some distance from the main house at Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary: the remains of what appears to be an 18th century folly, perhaps once serving as a tea house. Constructed from uncut stone, the partially-restored building is circular with arched openings of three sides and a domed roof. What remains of a wall on the upper section suggests this might once have served as a viewing platform, offering visitors the opportunity to admire the surrounding countryside. Francis Bindon has long been credited as architect for Sopwell Hall, so might he have been responsible for the design of this structure also?
The outer walls of the former Church of Ireland church at Derrylossary, County Wicklow. The present structure stands on the site of a much older one, thought to have been associated with the monastic centre at Glendalough, located some six miles to the south-west. Possibly incorporating parts of the original structure, this church was rebuilt in the 1820s thanks to financial support from the Board of First Fruits, with a tower added the following decade. The site is noteworthy for being the burial place of two well-known figures in 20th century Ireland, the first being Robert Barton who lived not far away at Glendalough House and was one of the signatories of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (although he then opposed it). The second is his cousin Erskine Childers’ son, of the same name, who briefly served as Ireland’s fourth President until his death in November 1974; his father, Childers senior, had been executed during the Civil War after being arrested by Free State while staying at Glendalough House. Derrylossary church continued to be used for religious services until the late 1960s, after which it was closed and eventually unroofed.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
On a rise to the north-west of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath can be seen one of the former estate’s most distinctive features: a mid-18th century dovecote: like other buildings on the site, its design has traditionally been attributed to Richard Castle and, once again, the building features a decidedly eccentric use of classical motifs. On top of a square base rises an octagonal tower, each with a blind window. The tower is in turn topped by a spire concluding in a delicate weather vane. Near the summit of the spire are a series of square openings with landing ledges: the only overt evidence of the dovecote’s function.
Holding a great vaulted chamber, the square base was originally open to the elements: about two-thirds up each side a key-stoned arch sprung from the projecting string-course. However, at some later date, most of the openings were filled with rubble stone, and smaller windows inserted on three sides: a large fireplace was created on the fourth. Presumably the intention was to convert the space into a summer or tea house. Alas, like everything else at Waterstown, the building’s present condition is perilous.
Not far away from the old church in Castledermot, County Kildare with its round tower and pair of High Crosses, stand the remains of a Franciscan friary. This is thought to have been founded in the early 13th century by Walter de Riddlesford the younger; his father, of the same name, had been granted the lands in this part of the country by Strongbow. The friary was plundered and badly damaged by Edward Bruce and his army in 1317, so it is likely that at least some of what can be seen today dates from a subsequent rebuilding programme.
Like all such establishments, the friary in Castledermot was officially closed down by government authorities in the 1540s, although there were still Franciscans living on the site 100 years later. However, it was badly damaged by English soldiers in 1650 and thereafter fell into ruin. What survives is a large, long church typical of the medieval mendicant orders. An opening on the north wall gives access to the transept, with what is left of three small chapels; in two instances the windows here retain their tracery windows but alas the gable end’s fine tracery shown in a late 18th century engraving by Daniel Grose, has long since been lost. A tower on the north side of the chancel was probably added in the 14th century as protection for the friary’s residents continued to be necessary during this period. The south side of the church, which would have opened into the long-disappeared cloister is less well preserved.
Motor traffic used to crawl through Castledermot, County Kildare but the advent of motorways in Ireland means that today the town is now relatively visited, meaning fewer people get to see – even through the windows of a car – the fine ruins it holds. Its name derived from Diseart Diarmada (Dermot’s Hermitage), Castledermot was established as a monastic settlement founded around 800. Seemingly much raided by Vikings, all that remains of the monastery is a reconstructed 12th century Romanesque doorway. Behind this stands the present St James’s church, given its present form in the 19th century. To the north of the building rises a round tower, somewhat truncated and likely given battlements at a later date. Unusually the entrance to the tower is on the ground floor and this is accessed via a short vaulted corridor linking it to the church.
The graveyard here contains two High Crosses, one on either side of the church, both dating from the ninth century. That to the north rises over 10 feet and while weathering of the granite over the course of more than 1,000 years makes some of the panels challenging to interpret, but the centre of the head on the east side is thought to show Adam and Eve (representing the Fall of Man) and on the west side Christ’s crucifixion (Man’s Redemption). The west face of the High Cross to the south of the church is better preserved than its equivalent on the other side of the graveyard, not least the central panel which once again features the Crucifixion, with a series of familiar tales below on the shaft, including Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Temptation of St Anthony and, once more, Adam and Eve. In this instance, the east side of the cross is not figurative but given over to abstract patterns, geometric shapes and scrolls, like those found in illuminated manuscripts of the same period.
The sad end of the main house at Loughcrew, County Meath is well-known. The building was said to be the subject of a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ And so it came to pass. The house, designed in severe neo-classical style by architect Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s, did indeed suffer three fires, the last occurring in 1964 and leading to the demolition of its remains a few years later, so that now the Naper family, resident on the estate since the 1650s, live in the former yard buildings. Today just parts of the facade’s great Greek Ionic portico show where it once stood, but elsewhere on the surrounding land, more active restoration has taken place.
A short distance to the west of the remains of the old house at Loughcrew stands a late-medieval church associated with St Oliver Plunkett who was born here in 1629. The church has a large, three-storey residential tower at the west end, as was often the case with such buildings erected during the late 14th and 15th centuries when much of the country was disturbed by feuding between different families and not even religious buildings were safe from attack. Entrance to the church was via a door at the west end and the interior appears always to have been relatively simple, with a single chapel opening on the south side, the upper portion of the window here being divided in two by a central spandrel featuring the Naper coat of arms. Unlike many such sites, the church continued to be used for services throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite being renovated and re-roofed in 1818, it was abandoned 25 years later when a new place of worship was built elsewhere.
Immediately adjacent to the old church lies the Loughcrew estate’s walled garden, parts of which are believed to date back to the arrival of the Naper family here in the mid-17th century; there is, for example, a classical arched gateway dated 1673. Over the past couple of decades, much of the garden, which had fallen into neglect has been restored and a number of the earlier features – such as a canal and a formal parterre, been re-instated. Some features of an earlier settlement on the site have also been uncovered. Meanwhile, later aspects of a fashionable country house garden, like the 19th century taste for deep herbaceous borders, can once more be found. Loughcrew and its gardens are a work in progress, but already much has been achieved and the future promises even more.
Over the coming weeks, every evening Loughcrew gardens are hosting a musical Lightscape open to the public. Further details, and information on ticket purchase, can be found at https://loughcrew.com/loughcrew-lightscape
And the remains of a third medieval church in County Kilkenny, this one about four miles to the south of Newtown Jerpoint in Knocktopher. St David’s was founded by Griffin FitzWilliam (mentioned earlier this week for having established the settlement of Newtown Jerpoint) and occupied by Augustinian Canons Regular. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, at least some of the building survived as a place of worship for members of the Established Church but in the late 1820s they moved to another site and most of this older church either fell or was pulled down. What survives is a section of the north wall incorporating a 15th century window and an altar tomb beneath, and the former entrance tower to the west: this has a square trunk but the upper section is octagonal and castellated, so might have been added in the 18th century to give the church a more whimsical character. Inside the tower is a double funeral effigy of a man and a woman, also believed to date from the 15th century. The rest of the site is given over to graves
Still in County Kilkenny, and around seven miles west of Newtown Jerpoint (see last Monday) is another Newtown: when it came to naming places in this part of the country, someone wasn’t feeling terribly imaginative. In this instance, the remains include a tower house, officially dating from the 1620s but by general consent probably constructed at least 100 years earlier, perhaps for the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country. Rising four storeys, the building is fairly plain (hence the suggestion that it dates from well before the 17th century) and as usual is accessed by a single arched doorcase with a murder hole immediately inside. Not far away lie the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the surrounding graveyard still in use as is so often the case in Ireland. Dedicated to All Saints, the building’s only surviving feature is a window on the east gable. Internally, much of the ground is covered with the remains of old tombstones.
Jerpoint, County Kilkenny is home to the remains of one of the country’s best-known medieval Cistercian abbeys (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2016/12/12/majestic-in-its-ruins). But less than a mile to the west lies another fascinating site, today called Jerpoint Park. Here, at the time when the monastery flourished, was a small busy urban centre, called Newtown Jerpoint, which has since all but disappeared, its remains only cleared of vegetation in recent years. The settlement here is thought to have been founded towards the end of the 12th century, either by William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (also responsible for building the core of what is today Kilkenny Castle) or by another Norman knight, Griffin FitzWilliam, a brother of Raymond le Gros.
Newtown Jerpoint seems to have reached its peak in the mid-15th century when it contained some 27 residential dwellings, a courthouse, woollen mill, tannery and brewery. One suspects that the town’s fortunes were closely connected with those of the nearby abbey (that woollen mill probably used raw material provided by the Cistercians, who were renowned for their sheep farms). So with the advent of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-16th century, Newtown Jerpoint likely went into decline and never recovered. It would appear that even by the 17th century it had ceased to function (the larger urban centre of Thomastown, less than two miles to the north-east, would have absorbed much of its business). And so it largely disappeared and today scant traces survive except for the remains of a parish church, dedicated to St Nicholas.
By the late 18th century, the lands on which Newtown Jerpoint had stood were owned by the Lowry-Corrys, who became Earls of Belmore. At some date, seemingly around 1775, a range of outbuildings were erected here, incorporating stables and service quarters. Then in 1817 the second earl built the Grand Yard at his main residence, Castle Coole, County Fermanagh; this was designed by architect Richard Morrison. It may have been around the same time that the second earl also commissioned Morrison to produce designs for the lodge at Jerpoint, as drawings exist of a three-bay, two-storey building of this character. However, it appears the lodge was never constructed and instead the existing property adapted as a residence; this stands on high ground above the ruins of St Nicholas’ church. When the present owners bought the place, the medieval site was completely overgrown, but since 2012 they have undertaken huge amounts of work to clear the old buildings of ivy and make it accessible to interested visitors. Just outside the church, a large early 14th century tomb slab with low relief carving of a bishop is supposed to mark the burial place of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra who died in the year 343. According to local legend, the saint is buried here in Jerpoint, his bones having been brought to Ireland by crusaders. This story is likely to be disputed by the burghers of Bari in southern Italy, where the the aforementioned Nicholas’ relics have been preserved in the Basilica di San Nicola since 1087. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from making a pilgrimage to County Kilkenny and experiencing first-hand the delights of Jerpoint Park.
For more information, see: https://jerpointpark.com