An Unhappy Tale


It was the late Nuala O’Faolain who, almost 25 years ago, told me the unhappy story of Marianne Talbot, a story Nuala later incorporated into her 2001 novel, My Dream of You. The tale can be summarized as follows: in January 1845 John Talbot-Crosbie, a younger son of the Rev John Talbot-Crosbie of Ardfert Abbey, County Kerry, married Marianne McCausland. A year later the couple’s only child, a daughter also called Marianne, was born. In May 1851 John Talbot-Crosbie’s uncle William Talbot died, and left his nephew an estate in County Roscommon called Mount Talbot. However, the will stated that John was only to enjoy lifetime occupancy and full ownership rested on his having a male heir. A year later, John, who by royal licence had now dropped Crosbie from his surname, claimed to have discovered his wife Marianne with a groom called Mullen in the latter’s room, the door to which was locked; curiously the couple’s little daughter was also in the room. However, immediately separated from her child, the following day Marianne Talbot was brought by the local rector to Dublin and there kept in confinement. It is said that Mullen followed Marianne to the city and tried to see her there, but was not allowed to do so. Some time later she was declared insane, taken to England and placed in a lunatic asylum where she is believed to have spent the rest of her life. Meanwhile, her husband initiated divorce proceedings against Marianne on the grounds of adultery and although his application was granted, it was repeatedly challenged by Marianne’s family, the case going all the way to the House of Lords where the couple’s divorce was confirmed in July 1856. As can be imagined, the matter attracted considerable public attention, and it was widely believed that John Talbot, knowing his wife was unlikely to have any further children and certainly not a boy, had fabricated her adultery with the groom so as to allow a divorce. Having succeeded in this ambition, he was able to marry again – in October 1858 – and a year later his second wife, Gertrude Caroline Bayley, had a son. Divine justice then intervened: John Talbot died a fortnight after the birth.






The Talbots were a family long settled in Ireland, the first of them being Richard de Talbot who around 1185 was granted land in Malahide where his descendants lived in a castle until 1973. Another branch was based in Templeogue, County Dublin until, in the aftermath of the Cromwellian Wars, Sir Henry Talbot had his lands seized and was transplanted to County Roscommon. Restored to his original lands in the aftermath of the Restoration, all seemed well until Sir Henry’s son James took up the cause of James II and was killed at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691. Once again, the family lost its property in the Dublin region, but somehow managed to hold onto the Roscommon estate, which eventually passed to James Talbot’s nephew Henry. In the 1730s he embarked on building the core of what remains today of the house at Mount Talbot. The design of this has been attributed to that prolific architect of the period, Richard Castle. Certainly, the building as originally constructed conformed to the Castle’s Palladian model, the main block being flanked by wings set at an angle of 45 degrees and linked to them by curved open arcades with a series of urns along the parapets. So far, so standard but then around 1820 the era’s Tudor Gothic craze hit Mount Talbot’s then owner, the aforementioned William Talbot (the terms of whose will would later be the cause of so much unhappiness). The consequences were startling.






The architect chosen to oversee Mount Talbot’s transformation was a local man, Richard Richards, of whom relatively little is known although he did design a number of churches. This was certainly his most important commission and he clearly wanted to make an impression. What presumably had been a symmetrical classical house was given a great square keep at one end of the façade and a smaller polygonal turret at the other; between them the entrance to the building was now flanked by similar turrets. The centre of the garden front received a three-storey projecting block with arched Gothic windows and pinnacles at the corners of the roofline, all of which was castellated. One more turret rose above all the others in the middle of the building. Further work undertaken in the early 1880s when a new entrance front approached by a grand stone staircase was added in the north-east corner of the house. Yet while the main block was dressed up to look like a castle, the arcades and wings retained their original classical appearance, an altogether bizarre juxtaposition of styles. It was not to last long. William John Talbot, the heir born to John Talbot just two weeks before his death, in due course came of age and into his inheritance when he embarked on the additional work mentioned above. Known as Johnnie, in 1897 he married a wealthy heiress, Julia Molyneux, only child of Sir Capel Molyneux of Castle Dillon, County Armagh, meaning the couple were exceedingly wealthy. All was well until the onset of the War of Independence and its aftermath, the Civil War. During the first of these, British troops were garrisoned in the house and grounds of Mount Talbot, the Talbots seemingly living during this period at Castle Dillon. Following the signing of the Treaty, they returned to Mount Talbot but in early April 1922, a group of armed Republicans arrived at the house and assaulted the now-elderly Johnnie Talbot, giving the couple 24 hours to leave the place or face worse. The next day the Talbots departed, never to return, he to go into a nursing home in Dublin, his wife to the Shelbourne Hotel, where she died that night, supposedly from shock brought on by the attack at Mount Talbot. Johnnie Talbot died the following year in London. Meanwhile, as the Civil War continued, Free State troops occupied Mount Talbot which in July 1922 was attacked by Anti-Treaty forces who placed a mine under the main entrance and other bombs around the building, causing considerable damage. The Talbots had no children, and following his death, the estate was broken up by the Land Commission and the house, along with its contents, sold. All that remains today is a stump of the central block and one of the wings. No trace survives of the other wing, nor of either linking arcade. After all that John Talbot had done to ensure Mount Talbot remained in his family, and all the suffering he had caused to his first wife Marianne, this was the end result.

A Hidden Gem



Clontuskert Priory, County Galway is a little-known religious site which yields ample pleasures for the traveller who troubles to find it. The present ruins date from the 15th century, but it is claimed that originally a monastic settlement was founded here around 800AD by Saint Baedán. If this were the case, no trace of that establishment survives. Later, probably towards the close of the 12th century, the prominent Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) family invited members of the Arrouasian order – a particularly austere division of the Augustinian canons – to found a house here, the Priory of St Mary. The Ó Ceallaighs remained closely associated with this establishment, which became one of the richest in this part of the country. Members of the family were consistently appointed to the position of Prior, even though, on a number of occasions, they were illegitimate (in the medieval church, illegitimacy was a barrier to holy orders or the holding of a benefice, so papal dispensation had to be sought). In 1444 Eoghan O’Kelly, then-Prior of Clontuskert was slain in a battle with a rival family, the McCoughlans. There were several instances when corruption seems to have been rampant: in 1463, for example, Thady O’Kelly, a canon in the priory, reported to Rome that the Prior, John O’Kelly was guilty of immorality, perjury and simony. Thady O’Kelly then in turn became Prior, after which another canon, Donatus O’Kelly accused him of killing a layman. Donatus next became Prior, after which he was accused by another canon Donald O’Kelly, of scattering the priory’s goods, keeping a concubine and committing homicide. And so it went on.





In 1404 Clontuskert Priory was struck by lightning and set alight, destroying the buildings and their contents. A Papal order was subsequently issued offering ten-year indulgences for those who contributed to the cost of its rebuilding. So what we see on the site today are the remains of a 15th century priory. The O’Kellys seem to have continued to be associated with the Priory up to the time of the Reformation in the 1540s, a number of them holding benefices under the control of the house. In the mid-16th century the lands hitherto owned by Clontuskert passed into the hands of the de Burgos, Earls of Clanricarde, in 1570 the second earl receiving a grant from the government of the priory. However, the family remained Catholic and the Augustinian canons remained on site, even though they had lost their possessions. A keystone inserted into the doorway leading from nave to choir is dated 1633 indicates they were still there then. But by the end of the 17th century the de Burgos had converted to the Established Church and it would appear that thereafter Clontuskert Priory was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.





While portions of Clontuskert Priory’s cloister survive, the main interest of the site lies in the church. Here the east wall, with its beautiful traceried window, collapsed in 1918 but the pieces were saved, allowing for reconstruction in the early 1970s. Much further restoration work was undertaken on the site in the previous decade. The north and south walls of the choir feature a number of fine tombs. The choir itself is accessed via a substantial arcaded stone rood screen, one of the features reconstructed some decades ago. Originally there would have been no end wall, so that the arches would have offered a view through to the choir where services were taking place. However, a wall was built at the east end of the rood screen (when the aforementioned door with the date 1633 was inserted) thereby fundamentally changing the appearance of the space. But the most attractive aspect of Clontuskert Priory is its west doorway, which carries the following inscription: ‘Matheu : Dei: gra : eps : Clonfertens : et : Patre’ oneacdavayn : canonie’ esti : domine : fi’ fecert : Ano : do : mcccclxxi’ (Matthew by the grace of God, Bishop of Clonfert and Patrick O’Naughton, canon of this house, caused me to be made. Anno Domini 1471). The exterior of the doorway is covered with carvings, including the figures of the Archangel Michael carrying a sword and scales (for weighing souls), Saints John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria and, it is thought, Augustine of Hippo; they are flanked by smiling angels each holding a shield. Stones on either side are carved with the likes of a pelican feeding her young, a pair of mythical beasts, two ibexes with intertwined necks, and a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. Just inside the door is a water stoup, again bearing two figures believed to be, again, Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo. Largely bereft of visitors, Clontuskert Priory is something of a hidden gem, but one definitely worth discovering.


Awaiting Development



In the centre of Navan, County Meath and on the banks of the river Blackwater, the unsalubrious remains of a mid-19th century mill that once helped bring prosperity to the town. The building dates back to 1851 when erected by William Morgan to provide flour for his bakery elsewhere in Navan. It continued to serve this purpose until early in the last century when converted into a sawmill, remaining in operation until 1999 when the enterprise closed down. Since then the property has stood empty, being seriously damaged by arsonists in July 2007. Two years ago the local authority turned down the planning application from a local developer to demolish the mill, and erect on the five-acre site a 186-bedroom nursing home and 40 apartments.


Viceregal Links



Johnstown, County Kildare derives its name from a now-ruined church dedicated to St John and believed to have been built in late-Medieval period by the Knights Hospitallers (now otherwise known as the Knights of Malta). The centre of the building is now dominated by a large High Cross commemorating Richard Bourke, sixth Earl of Mayo who was assassinated in 1872 while serving as Viceroy of India; his home was at nearby Palmerstown. An earlier owner of this property was the Flatesbury family, and set into the north wall of the church is a grave slab featuring their coat of arms and those of the Wogans, below an eight-armed cross. This carries the date 1289 although the slab is thought to date from the 15th century.


All the Town Gathered Together


On 17th June 1765 John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, wrote in his journal, ‘At seven I preached in the Market-house at Kilfinane [County Limerick]. Well nigh all the town, Irish, English and Germans, Protestants and Papists, presently gathered together. At first, most of the Papists stood aloof; and so did several of the genteeler people: but by degrees they drew in, and mixed with the congregation.’ Wesley returned to Kilfinane on several later occasions, each time preaching in the market house, of which these are now the sorry remains. Dating from c.1760 and of cut sandstone with three broad arches on its façade, the market house was described as ‘a large and commodious building’ by Samuel Lewis in 1837, having just been repaired the previous year. Having remained in use until the last century, how regrettable to see what was a part of the town’s history, and prosperity, for more than 250 years allowed to fall into such a shabby state.

A Pasteboard Castle



For a long time based in what is now north County Cork, the O’Keeffe (in Irish  Ó Caoimh) family used to claim descent from the Celtic goddess Clíodhna. She and another mythical woman Aibell were in love with the same man Caomh but Clíodhna triumphed by turning her rival into a white cat. Whatever about this legend, it is true that members of the family were Kings of Munster for several centuries but with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, they were driven from their original territory and obliged to settle a little further west, the senior branch having its seat at Dromagh, just a few miles east of the border with Kerry. Here a castle still stands as evidence of their former presence.





As it now exists, Dromagh Castle is thought to date from around the late 16th century when constructed by Art Ó Caoimh who in 1582 received a re-grant of his lands from the English authorities (a common device during this period, which not only ensures the loyalty of Irish chiefs to the crown, but also changed the nature of land ownership from collective to individual). The family seems to have stayed out of the conflict until the time of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s onwards, when Dromagh was until the control of Donal Ó Caoimh. The last great battle of this conflict took place a few miles away at Knocknaclashy in July 1651 and it is said that the leader of the Catholic Confederate forces, Donough MacCarthy, Viscount Muskerry, marched out of Dromagh to face General Roger Boyle, Lord Broghill, head of the Cromwellian forces. The latter’s victory on this occasion signalled the imminent end of Roman Catholic opposition to the English government. It appears that Dromagh Castle may have suffered some damage at this time, and was also taken from Ó Caoimh but following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the property was returned to the family. Its history thereafter seems unclear but the original owners may have supported the cause of James II at the end of the 1680s, after which they lost their lands for good. When next mentioned in the second quarter of the 18th century, Dromagh Castle was owned, or at least occupied, by a William Philpot whose daughter Christabelle married Henry Leader in 1741. The Leaders had arrived in Ireland in the middle of the previous century and acquired land in this part of the country, their seat being the now-ruined Mount Leader a few miles to the south-west. Through judicious marriage, the Leaders acquired not just Dromagh Castle but also other estates in the vicinity, and in the early 19th century established a number of profitable collieries. In the early 19th century, Nicholas Philpot Leader was a keen supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the cause of Catholic Emancipation, and as an MP criticized the lack of government measures to relieve the ‘mass of misery, distress and destitution’ in Ireland.





Given that they owned other houses not far away, the Leader family did not live in Dromagh Castle but instead farmed the land. They fitted out the interior courtyard with offfices and other buildings along the two longer walls, as well as a certain amount of accommodation in the circular corner towers. Much of what can be seen today is due to their work on the site. It is likely that here, as elsewhere, the centre of the space would have been occupied by a tower but this has long since vanished. The Leaders added battlements to the outer bawn walls and then raised the height of the corner towers, making them five storeys to the front and and three to the rear. The join between original and later sections can clearly be seen on the outside of the building. Battlements were again added, as they were to the small square towers flanking the main entrance fore and aft. The upper portions of the corner towers have thinner walls – and larger window openings – than the original lower parts, showing their purpose was more decorative than defensive. It had become, in effect, a pasteboard castle. Unfortunately this lack of substance has meant the towers are vulnerable if not maintained. Indeed a section of that in the south-east corner has already fallen down, and a large crack down the front of what still stands suggests more could soon follow suit. Dromagh Castle remained in use until the War of Independence when members of the IRA set fire to the property in March 1921. While some of the lower buildings inside the walls were subsequently used, in more recent years it has stood empty and gradually falling into decay. Perhaps some wealthy descendants of the original O’Keeffes might like to consider rescuing their former family seat?


A Noble and Spacious House



Situated at a strategic crossing point of the river Shannon, Lanesborough (originally called Béal Átha Liag) derives its present name from the Lane family, and specifically Sir George Lane who in the second half of the 17th century did much to improve the place. The son of Sir Richard Lane of Tulsk, County Roscommon, Sir George was a faithful royalist and had followed Charles II into exile. So when the king returned to the throne in 1660, he duly rewarded Sir Richard with additional grants of land in Ireland, as well as a number of high offices; in 1664 he was appointed to the Irish Privy Council, and the following year was made Secretary of State for Ireland, a position he held until his death in 1683. In 1676 he was created first Viscount Lanesborough.
Sir Richard’s primary residence in Ireland stood just a few miles south of Lanesborough, at Rathcline Castle, today a spectacular ruin. The lands here originally belonged to the Quinn or O’Quinn family who may have been responsible for constructing the original tower house here in the 15th or early 16th century. During the latter period, it had passed into the possession of the O’Farrells, but by 1620 Rathcline belonged to Sir Thomas Dutton, an English soldier granted some 2,000 acres by the crown as part of the plantation of Ireland. At least some of what remains here was due to Dutton but after he died, his son also called Thomas, sold Rathcline and the surrounding lands to Sir George Lane. In 1724 following the death of his son, the second Viscount Lanesborough without a son, the place was inherited by the latter’s nephew George Fox, who duly changed his surname to Fox-Lane. His heirs in due course sold the Longford estate to Luke White, who amongst other properties also owned Luttrellstown Castle on the outskirts of Dublin.





The remains of Rathcline Castle date from several different periods, beginning with the original three-storey tower house with battered base which stands on the south-east corner of the site. At the north-east corner is another tower, of also of three-storeys but rectangular and projecting eastwards; this looks to be of a slightly later date. At some point, perhaps in the 17th century, a long range was built linking the two towers, and forming one wall of an enclosed courtyard behind. It had a sequence of large window openings, long since blocked up. Sir George Lane apparently intended to carry out extensive improvements on the property, perhaps inspired by his links with the Duke of Ormonde who did undertake major work on his residence, Kilkenny Castle. In 1664 plans for Rathcline were secured from John Westley, a Dublin-based lawyer and amateur architect married to the daughter of John Webb (Inigo Jones’ pupil); incidentally, Westley also devised plans for Phoenix House, the royal lodge near Dublin, and proposed himself to undertake the construction of new buildings in Dublin Castle. Whether his scheme for Rathcline Castle was carried out even in part is unknown, but in a description of this part of the country written in 1682, Nicholas Dowdall called the building ‘A very noble and spacious house’ which was ‘very pleasant and well Improved with Orchards, Gardens, Fishponds and a Deer Park.’
Whatever it once looked like, as can be seen from within the courtyard, Rathcline Castle was never very deep, perhaps going back no further than a single, admittedly substantial, room: what survives of a great moulded limestone chimneypiece can be found on the first floor of the north wall. Elsewhere in the courtyard the ruins of a range of farm buildings, perhaps erected in the 19th century, occupy one section of the west wall. Otherwise the space stands empty, and evidently much pillaged for stone over 100s of years: it appears that Rathcline Castle suffered badly during the Williamite Wars and may never have been occupied thereafter. The most arresting feature of the site is a limestone classical archway inserted into the south wall, although it too is incomplete, since there were evidently free-standing columns on either side. A second carved limestone archway also survives on the west side. The design of this looks earlier than the classical arch and, given that it occupies the base of a gable wall, suggests this was the public entrance to a chapel on the site. Given its long-term neglect, trying to understand much more about the layout of the castle is a challenge.


Destined to be Lost


As has been mentioned on this site more than once, Ireland is a country replete with ruins; indeed, scarcely a week or month seems to pass without additions to their number. It is perhaps the sheer quantity of decay and dereliction that has made us, if not indifferent then certainly unsurprised to the fact that so many buildings across the country are in various stages of decline. Nevertheless, it is still possible to be startled by an example of neglect, such as that found in Liscarton, County Meath, where a range of structures are seemingly of interest today only to the livestock grazing on the adjacent land.






It appears there was a church at Liscarton at least by the beginning of the 14th century, since in 1305 there is a reference to the building in the ecclesiastical taxation register of Pope Nicholas IV. Seemingly dedicated to St Nicholas, the church may then have been reconstructed in the following century but little is heard of it until 1622 when James Ussher, created Bishop of Meath the previous year, described it as being in reasonable repair. A further report some 60 years later confirms that it was still standing and evidently in the 18th century alterations were undertaken, since large, round-headed windows were then inserted on both the north and south sides. When it fell out of use and into disrepair is unclear, but this was evidently the case by the time Sir William Wilde came to write The Beauties of the Boyne, and its tributary, the Blackwater (1849) in which he notes ‘the church is remarkable for the extreme beauty of its eastern and western windows,  each of which consists of one great light, divided by a shaft branching off on a level with the spring of the arch into two members, which join the arch-head about the centre of the curve. An exquisite variety of tracery, in the decorated style of gothic architecture, fills the head of both windows, and the mouldings are deep and well executed.  Upon the exterior face may be observed well carved human heads projecting from the dripstone.’ The carved heads, of a king, a queen and a bishop, can still be seen decorating the hood of the western window, but its equivalent at the east end is threatened by ivy and other vegetation, and the entire site risks falling ever-further into ruin.




A short distance to the east of the church stand what remains of a pair of adjacent towers; just 40-odd feet apart, at one time they were linked by a great hall. Believed to date from the 15th century, the property is recorded in 1633 as having been held by Sir William Talbot (owner of what is now the Carton estate in County Kildare) and, in the following decade by his elder son Robert: Sir William’s youngest son Richard Talbot, was one of the most ardent supporters of James II, who created him Lord Deputy of Ireland and Duke of Tyrconnell. In the second half of the 17th century, the lands and castle of Liscarton passed into the possession of the Cadogan family: it is supposed to have been the birthplace of General William Cadogan, first Earl Cadogan, second only to the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The Cadogans appear to have remained at Liscarton until at least the middle of the 18th century (Richard Pococke refers to it being in their hands in 1752) but at some date thereafter it was occupied by the Gerrard family, whose main estate was not far away at Gibbstown, of which more in the coming weeks. In 1841 the Gerrards gave a lease for the lands of Liscarton, including a ‘dwelling house, corn mill, kilns, water courses and stores’ to three brothers, James, Michael and Thomas Cullen. Incidentally, another of the siblings was Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Armagh and the first Irish cardinal, a key figure in the country during the mid-19th century. It is known that he spent time at Liscarton Castle, since its address appears on a number of his letters. By this time the larger of the two towers, rising three storeys, had fallen into picturesque ruin but the smaller, two-storey building and adjacent hall remained sound and, as can be seen in an old postcard, were attractively thatched. A large collection of yard buildings and stables were built, probably in the 18th century, behind the larger tower and some of these remain in various states of repair. However, like so many other old buildings, the castle site was abandoned in the last century and left to decay. It seems extraordinary that there should be so little interest in or concern for a site connected with successive aspects of Irish history, whether the Duke of Tyrconnell or Cardinal Cullen. But seemingly not. This looks like another part of the country’s collective heritage – and memory – destined to be lost forever.

Very Plain, Too Bald


The limestone portico of Loughcrew, County Meath re-erected, at least in part. This singularly unlucky house was thrice burnt within a century and twice re-constructed. But after the third fire the building was demolished and Greek Ionic portico lay in pieces on the surrounding ground until partially reassembled a few years ago. Loughcrew was a neo-classical house designed by Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s for the Naper family. It was always an exceptionally severe looking building, and as has been noted, recalled a courthouse rather than a residence. Even its architect judged the finished work ‘very plain, too bald’, whereas what remains of the portico is wonderfully evocative and might almost serve as a symbol for all the other ruined country houses in Ireland.

Kept in Repair


Although the second-largest town in County Kilkenny, Callan has a charmingly sleepy atmosphere, much of its centre blessedly free of contemporary intervention, or dereliction. Many of the shops still retain their original frontages, such as O’Brien’s, a delightful old-fashioned menswear business where visitors can borrow a key giving access to St Mary’s church on the other side of Green Street. The church, like the town in which it stands, is thought to have been founded by the Anglo-Norman knight William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, at the start of the 13th century (although other accounts attribute the construction of St Mary’s to Hugh de Mapilton, Bishop of Ossory in c.1250). The great square tower to the west is all that survives of that original building today.






Other than its tower, the older St Mary’s was demolished in the 15th century and the present church built in its place, consisting of a nave with aisles 15 feet wide each with four-arch arcades, and a long – almost 60 feet – rectangular chancel. Like all such buildings, it suffered badly during the religious and civil upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, passing back and forth between Roman Catholic and Established Church authorities until finally the latter gained the upper hand. Thereafter it served the local Church of Ireland community which here, as elsewhere, was not large enough to require such a substantial building, only the chancel being used for services. As a result, as early as 1731 the Bishop of Ossory noted that ‘Callan Church, next to St Canice’s, the largest in the diocese; west end needs repairing.’ By the end of the century, it was reported that the nave was ‘now a ruin, but the chancel is kept in repair and used as the parish church.’






Perhaps because the Callan Union was a relatively wealthy parish, no funds for the restoration or refurbishment of St Mary’s was provided by the Board of First Fruits (it may be that no financial assistance, either as grant or loan, was sought). However, in 1837 the board’s successor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, provided £393 for the restoration of the chancel, in particular the re-roofing of this portion of the building. Little then happened until almost the middle of the last century when the Office of Public Works assumed responsibility for the main body of the building. Once services were discontinued in the chancel in 1974, it too passed into the care of the same body which subsequently carried out various structural repairs, necessary because the nave had long been used as a burial site which resulted in subsidence. Many handsome tombs survive inside the church but regrettably this is not accessible, so only the exterior may be examined, its finest features being the limestone doorcases at the western end of the north and south aisles; both carry carvings of angels and other decorative designs (that on the north side features the head of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress).