A Fine Past, A Sad Present


Alas, the dilapidated remains of Athcarne Castle, County Meath now indicate little of its distinguished history, which go back at least 900 years. The name of the place is thought to derive from either Ath Cairn (the Bridge/Fording Point at the Cairn) or Ard Cairn (High Cairn). Whichever is the case, this indicates that it was originally the site of a pre-Christian cairn, or burial mound: it may well be that the structure seen today rests on top of or adjacent to a cairn. For hundreds of years, the lands in this part of the country belonged to the Bathe family, descendants of Hugo de Bathe, and Anglo-Norman knight who, as his name explains, came from Bath and who arrived in Ireland with Hugh de Lacy in 1171. It may be that Hugo de Bathe built some kind of castle or defensive fort here but eventually this was succeeded by the tower house which still survives and constitutes the eastern portion of the building. Rising four storeys and presumably erected in the 15th or 16th century, the tower has large window openings on the upper levels which were clearly later than the original structure; those on the topmost floor are topped with stone mouldings and there is a buttress on the north-east corner.






Until the mid-17th century the Bathes were a prominent family in Ireland, with large landholdings in north County Dublin, where they built a number of other castles at places such as Drumcondra and Glasnevin. Three of them would serve as the country’s Lord Chief Justice while John de Bathe was Attorney General in 1564 and then Chancellor of the Exchequer 1577-86. Around 1590 his son William Bathe, a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas and then married (as his second wife) Janet Dowdall (as her third husband) built what, from a surviving engraving, appears to have been an Elizabethan manor house onto the west side of the old tower house; it may well have been around this time that the latter’s windows were enlarged. The couple’s respective coats of arms can be seen on a slim tower on the south-west corner of the present building, seemingly having been moved to this location in the 19th century. Despite remaining Roman Catholic, the Bathes appear to have survived and held onto their estates until the outbreak of the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when, along with other landed families of the same faith, they rose in rebellion. And, like so many other landed families of the same faith, upon the arrival of the Cromwellian forces towards the close of the decade, they found themselves on the losing side. As a result, their considerable lands were forfeited and distributed to members of the English army, Athcarne being granted to one Colonel Grace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Bathes sought the return of their property, but were unsuccessful, since it was now granted to Charles II’s brother, James, Duke of York (the future James II). Following further appeals, the duke returned Athcarne and surrounding 1,200 acres on a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent: the rest of their former lands he retained. When James II came to Ireland, it is claimed that he spent the night before the decisive Battle of the Boyne at Athcarne Castle, which was, after all, only rented to the Bathes. In any case, soon after the start of the following century, the family had gone, James II was in exile in France, and Athcarne passed into the hands of another family, the Somervilles who in turn rented it on a long lease to the Garnetts.






Athcarne Castle remained occupied by successive generations of Garnetts until the early 1830s when it was acquired by the Gernons, once more a family of Anglo-Norman origin (mentioned here recently, see Alms and the Man « The Irish Aesthete). It appears the Gernons were responsible for pulling down the Elizabethan manor house and replacing it with a new residence, the remains of which can still be seen. This is a castellated three-storey block originally two rooms’ deep. A modest, single-storey entrance porch was added on the south side (previously access to the building had been from the north). It was probably also around this time that the little tower in the south-west corner was constructed and the Bathe/Dowdall coats of arms, previously on the exterior of the manor house, placed there as a souvenir of the castle’s earlier history. By the last century, the Gernons, rather like their predecessors on the site, were in decline. The surrounding land was sold and finally in 1939 an auction of the contents was held; among the lots, apparently, was a bed dating from the 17th century, the bed in which James II had slept the night before the Battle of the Boyne. In May of that year, the Land Commission offered the castle and remaining 88 acres for sale. Left empty, the building was unroofed and left as a shell in the early 1950s and so it has remained ever since. 

For more information about Athcarne Castle and its history, an invaluable source is Athcarne Castle | Facebook

Elsewhere in Town…


Thanks to the presence of the Trench family at Garbally on the edge of the town, the historic centre of Ballinasloe, County Galway has handsomestreets lined with fine stone buildings dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Alas, many of them have fallen into poor condition, such as this dwelling on the corner of Duggan Avenue and Church Hill (and therefore at a crucial space facing the St Joseph’s Church of Ireland). Dating from c.1810, more than a decade ago it was cruelly, and crudely, stripped of the original render during an apparent renovation scheme long since abandoned. The building is notable for its carved limestone doorcase and remains of a leaded fanlight. Alas its immediate neighbour is in little better condition and the house directly opposite retains only its ground floor walls. Disappointing to see what could be an enchanting spot in the town allowed to remain in such neglect.

Church Going


Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.





Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,





Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round


Church Going by Philip Larkin (1954)
Photographs of Moydow church, County Longford, opened for services 1765, closed for services 1987. 

From One Kells…



The shell of St Kieran’s church in Kells, County Kilkenny. Standing adjacent to the ruins of the better-known former priory (see The Secret of Kells « The Irish Aesthete), this little single-cell building is thought to have been established long before the arrival here of the Augustinians at the end of the 12th century. In the aftermath of the Reformation, it was adapted for use by the local Church of Ireland community, services being held on the site until 1844 when a new church opened for worship not far away. Since then it has stood empty, although the surrounding graveyard appears still to be in use.


The True Interest of his Country at Heart


Tucked away down a grassy boreen stands the now-abandoned church of St Helen, Moviddy, County Cork (closed for services 1961, unroofed 1968). The surrounding graveyard contains this early 18th century mausoleum (also now without a roof) constructed by the Bailey family who were then living close by in Castlemore Castle. Inside the little building, the south wall is dominated by a large memorial carrying the following inscription: ‘This monument erected at the cost of Mrs Anne Bayly widow of John Bayly of Castlemore Esquire to preserve his memory, who died the 15th of June Anno Christi, 1719. He was a gent who had the true interest of his country at heart. At the revolution he served in person in the wars of Ireland, till the kingdom was reduced to peace and quietness. Quitting the war he returned to his wife and children and shewed himself as good a husband as indulgent a father as he was a true subject being honored with a commission of the peace. He always administered justice so uprightly that he never blemished his commission and dyed lamented by all good men who did know him.’

Forlorn



Stripped not just of contents but also all character, this is what remains of the former Presbyterian church in Creggs, County Galway. Outside Ulster, there were always relatively few Presbyterians outside faith, and this is a rare example of such a building in Connaught. It opened for services in 1863 but clearly never attracted much of a congregation as the church was closed just over sixty years later in 1925. The west front displays a playful engagement with form, the Gothic arched doorcase below a trefoil window, and then on the tower above, and slightly recessed, a circular opening below rounded arch. The roofless walls now stand, forlorn and purposeless, in a puddle of gravel.


Time for Tea?



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?


Out of Service



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.


An Extravagant Folly


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

The Wings of the Dove



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.