Although only portions remain, enough of St Thomas’ Priory in Ballybeg, County Cork survives to give an idea of how important this religious house once was. Founded by Philip de Barry for the Canons Regular of St Augustine in 1229, the buildings included a church measuring 166 feet in length and 26 feet in width: today only the towering western end with its pair of lancet windows still stands. This fortified section dates from the late 14th/15th centuries, together with a similar tower further west (used for accommodation) and testifies to the uncertain state of the country during this period, when even ecclesiastical property was not safe from attack. In Monasticon Hibernicum, published in 1786, Mervyn Archdall wrote of Ballybeg Priory, ‘the traces of the foundation, with a high tower a considerable way to the south-west, prove it to have been a truly magnificent structure.’
Buried in the midst of trees, the remains of a neo-classical gate lodge in County Fermanagh. Likely dating from the early 19th century, its entrance at the top of a short flight of steps features a fine Tuscan portico flanked by windows each set within a shallow arched niche. Although almost beyond redemption (the rear wall has bulged out and looks on the verge of collapse), the building’s quality of stonework for key features, together with an evident consideration of the overall design, is testament to the care once paid even to such modest dwellings.
The remains of the Augustinian Priory in Ballinrobe, County Mayo. This was the first religious house established by the order in Connaught but there remains some uncertainty over who was responsible for its foundation: it has been suggested that the priory owed its origins to Elizabeth de Clare (a granddaughter of Edward I) who in 1308 married John de Burgh and four years later had a son William, in celebration of which Ballinrobe Priory was established. On the other hand, another proposal is that the priory was set up in 1337 by Roger Taaffe, perhaps on behalf of the de Burghs. Whatever the facts, the house thrived, despite a bad fire early in the 15th century and even survived suppression in the 1540s, with members of the order still in residence 100 years later. Thereafter it fell into ruin. Restoration work was carried out on the site some twenty-five years ago but, despite being surrounded by a graveyard (and by an increasing number of new houses) the priory looks to be falling into serious neglect again: a future as unclear as its past?
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Pourquoi me réveiller?
Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.
In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.
Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.
The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.
Readers of a certain vintage may remember a long-running English soap opera called Crossroads in which notoriously the sets were as flimsy as the plots. Set in a midlands motel, the series ran for over twenty years with three or four episodes every week, an astonishing achievement considering how little real drama they ever featured. Yet for much of its history Crossroads regularly attracted audiences of up to 15 million. In 1926 the American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote, ‘No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.’ The success of Crossroads demonstrates the truth of this observation.
Today’s building looks as though it could have been constructed for an Irish version of Crossroads. Located in the north-west corner of County Meath, it appears to have been originally a modest farmhouse which was then much-extended to incorporate outbuildings around a central courtyard, the result being a budget hotel with twenty-seven bedrooms and sundry other spaces including a restaurant, bar and conference hall. Everything about the place seems insubstantial and gimcrack, except an enormous Baroque-style sandstone doorcase with open segmental pediment on one side of the property: can this have been salvaged from somewhere else? Is it even Irish? In any case, otherwise the fittings are of poor quality and are correspondingly today in poor condition.
The hotel closed down some years ago and has since been offered for sale, with the option of alternative use as a residential nursing home. Wandering about the site, it is unclear whether or not a new owner has assumed responsibility for the building, which at present has the eerie atmosphere of a Bates Motel. Neglect has taken its toll on what was never a very robust building and the place reeks of damp and decay. Not quite as flimsy as a Crossroads set, but not much better either: testament to the transitory nature of deficient design and cheap materials.