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.
Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.
Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’
There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.
It is easy to miss Roscommon Castle: despite the building’s immensity, it scarcely seems to impinge on the horizon. Such was obviously not the case when the castle was first constructed, since there would have been nothing of similar scale anywhere in the area. Work was initiated here in 1269 on the instructions of the Anglo-Norman knight Roger de Ufford, who served as Justiciar, or chief governor, of Ireland for Henry III. There were constant setbacks due to attacks on the site by Aedh O’Conor, King of Connacht; it appears the greater part of the castle was erected only in the years following his death in 1274. Originally much of this area was a lake, Lough Nea, and the castle stood on raised ground to the immediate south-east, surrounded by a moat fed by the lake’s waters. A stone wall stood immediately inside this ditch but the main structure was set further back and featured substantial three-storey D-shaped towers at each corner. The main entrance on the eastern side was flanked by three-storey gate houses, and there was a secondary point of access on the western front. Despite impressive fortifications, Roscommon Castle continued to be subject to attack from the native population and by the mid-14th century had passed into the hands of the O’Conors who remained in occupancy there for the next two hundred years.
In 1569 the then-O’Conor Don Diarmaid mac Cairbre surrendered Roscommon Castle to Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Eight years later the building and 17,000 acres were granted by the English government to Sir Nicholas Malby, who was Governor (later Lord President) of Connacht. Malby fundamentally altered the appearance of the castle by transforming it into a Renaissance fortified mansion. The northern side, which had never been of stone, was made into a three-storey domestic dwelling linked to the eastern range to form an L-shaped block: large stone mullion windows were inserted into the upper floors of the latter to admit more light than had hitherto been the case. Within the outer walls a new garden was created. On the northern side, for example, the ditch was turned into a long fish pond while formal geometric parterres were planted to the east and a grand tree-lined avenue to the south. None of these features survive.
Sir Nicholas Malby died in 1584, seemingly a disappointed man since he felt slighted by Elizabeth I who had listened to charges of corruption and violence presented by his political opponents. His estate was inherited by a son who is reported as having been slain in a battle against the Irish at Aughrim in January 1603. But even before that date Roscommon Castle had once more been subject to attack, besieged by Hugh O’Donnell for three months in 1596 and again assaulted in 1599. It changed hands on a couple of occasions during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s before being taken by a Cromwellian force in 1652. In the aftermath of this event, some of the defensive features may have been removed but further damage was apparently done to the structure during the Williamite Wars of the early 1690s. Since then it has stood in a state of decay, and today the castle’s appearance is not much different from that described almost 200 years ago by Isaac Weld in his Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832): ‘It remains merely to say a few words of the general effect of the ruins in a picturesque point of view. From several positions they make a grand and noble appearance, more particularly on the eastern side, where the towers of the portal range in a commanding line with those at the angles…In the evening, when the gleams of the setting sun are seen darting through the ruined casements and narrow loop holes, whilst the main body of the ruins remains involved in deep shade, the effect of the scene is more than usually impressive.’
Buried deep in the undergrowth: the remains of Bellanagare Castle, County Roscommon. This was formerly the seat of the O’Conor family including the antiquarian, proponent of ancient Gaelic culture and ardent advocate of Roman Catholic rights Charles O’Conor (1710-1791) who served as the O’Conor Don (that is, a descendant of the ancient line that provided one hundred Kings of Connacht and eleven High Kings of Ireland). Here he lived until the marriage of his son in 1760 after which he moved to a small cottage nearby. What survives suggests this was a late 17th/early 18th century house, of five bays and with a pedimented façade. Given the importance of Charles O’Conor in Irish history, the building’s present state, on the verge of being entirely overwhelmed by undergrowth, is another sad indictment of how this country treats its heritage.
‘…No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choaked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries.
Sunk are thy bowers, in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall…’
Like almost every urban settlement in Ireland, the origins of Trim, County Meath seem to depend on an early saint, in this case Lommán (or Loman) who is believed to have been involved with a monastery here in the late 5th/early 6th century. But the town really owes its importance to the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy, granted the Lordship of Meath by Henry II in 1172. De Lacy was responsible for initiating construction of the immense castle that still dominates the skyline in this part of the country, but not far away are other striking ruins that receive far less attention. These are the remains of Newtown Trim, established in 1206 by Simon de Rochfort who fourteen years earlier had become Bishop of Meath. Until then the diocesan seat had been in Clonard but after the abbey thehre was attacked and destroyed by the Irish in 1200 de Rochfort took advantage of the situation to have the see transferred to Trim.
Located about half a mile from Trim and on the other side of the river Boyne, Newtown centred on a priory of Canons Regular, its church dedicated to SS Peter and Paul effectively acting as a cathedral. Little enough of this remains, but sufficient to indicate its immensity: this was one of the largest such buildings in mediaeval Ireland, and vaulted in stone which was not always the case. The greater part of the remaining area is the chancel leading towards a now-lost east window: some on either side do survive. At the western end of the choir section lay the nave but this has also disappeared. Of the ancillary buildings, only small portions of the chapter house and refectory (the latter immediately above the river bank) still stand but the distances between these ruins provide an excellent sense of how important was this religious house. The scale of the site is made all the more apparent by the remains of a parish church to the immediate east, its walls dwarfed by those of the adjacent priory. Inside the little church is a well-preserved limestone altar tomb of 1586 commemorating Sir Lucas Dillon and his wife Jane Bathe who lie on the top while around the sides are family coats of arms and a scene showing a family group, presumably the Dillons.
A little to the south-east lie a second set of ruins, those of the former Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist which, like the Augustinian priory, was founded by Simon de Rochfort. Some of the surviving walls, not least those to the west, have a defensive character, suggesting the need for protection from attack, a not-unusual occurrence in Ireland during the upheavals of the later Middle Ages. The long church, without aisles, concludes at the east end in three lancet windows but there is little other extant decoration. The living quarters here are in somewhat better condition than in the other religious house, as in the post-Reformation era St John’s was granted to Robert Dillon, an attorney general to the crown and then passed to the Ashe family who made some alterations for domestic use. In other words, like Bective Abbey a few miles away, it was converted for secular purposes. Whereas visitors tend to be drawn to Trim Castle and its attendant attractions, Newtown Trim is comparatively little known. As a result, it retains the kind of romantic appeal that many other ruins have lost. This is especially apparent on a winter afternoon when the sun sinks behind these remains, but not before bathing the stone in a roseate glow.