The 15th century de Burgo tower house which forms the core of Tulira Castle, County Galway. This was one of a number of country houses acquired by new owners during the course of 2015, significant others including Bellamont Forest, County Cavan and Capard, County Laois. But many others remain on the market, such as Milltown Park, County Offaly, Newhall, County Clare, Kilcooley, County Tipperary and Furness, County Kildare, all of which have been discussed here on earlier occasions. Let us hope the coming year is kind to them and all of Ireland’s architectural heritage.
One of the stained glass windows in the 16th century tower house at Tulira Castle, County Galway. This is in Edward Martyn’s former private library, redecorated by George Ashlin when he made over the whole property in the 1880s. The windows, featuring luminaries such as Chaucer and Shakespeare shown here, were designed by English artist Edward Frampton in 1882. The irony, of course, is that within decades of the windows’ installation many key figures in Ireland’s literary revival – not least another pair of giants, Martyn’s neighbour Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats – would gather at Tulira. Their presence there went unrecorded, at least in glass.
For more on Tulira Castle, see The Ascetic Aesthete, October 13th 2014.
It was the misfortune of Edward Martyn that his appearance and character so frequently encouraged ridicule. A large, lumbering man with a passion for beauty in all its manifestations, he devoted the greater part of his life and income attempting to convert others in Ireland to his aesthetic beliefs, with only limited success. In his former friend George Moore’s entertaining, irreverent but not always credible memoir Hail and Farewell, Martyn is described as being ‘not very sure-footed on new ground, and being a heavy man, his stumblings are loud. Moreover, he is obsessed by a certain part of his person which he speaks of as his soul; it demands Mass in the morning, Vespers in the afternoon, and compels him to believe in the efficacy of Sacraments and the Pope’s indulgences…’ W.B. Yeats, another friend-turned-opponent with whom Martyn and Lady Gregory had helped to found Ireland’s National Theatre, was still less charitable, not least on the subject of his old comrade’s religiosity which the poet thought ill-became a member of the ruling gentry. Yeats proposed, ‘The whole system of Irish Catholicism pulls down the able and well-born if it pulls up the peasant, as I think it does.’ From this, he wrote snobbishly of Martyn, ‘I used to think that the two traditions met and destroyed each other in his blood, creating the sterility of the mule…His father’s family was old and honoured; his mother but one generation from the peasant.’ On another occasion Yeats called Martyn, ‘An unhappy, childless, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away’. Both Moore and Yeats were baffled by the seeming contradictions in Martyn’s persona, not least his revelling in discomfort. Moore has left an account of Martyn’s accommodation in Dublin, a modest flat above a tobacconist shop on Leinster Street: ‘Two short flights of stairs, and we are in his room. It never changes – the same litter, from day to day, from year to year, the same old and broken mahogany furniture, the same musty wall-paper, dusty manuscripts lying about in heaps, and many dusty books … old prints that he tacks on the wall … a torn, dusty, ragged screen … between the folds of the screen … a small harmonium of about three octaves, and on it a score of Palestrina … on the table is a candlestick made out of white tin, designed probably by Edward himself, for it holds four candles…Is there another man in this world whose income is two thousand a year, and who sleeps in a bare bedroom, without dressing room, or bathroom, or servant in the house to brush his clothes and who has to go to the baker’s for his breakfast?’ Yet Martyn was wont to abandon himself to the same self-imposed hardship even when staying in his country house, Tulira Castle, County Galway.
To understand Tulira and how it now looks, one needs to know something of the history of the Martyn family. Supposedly descended from a Norman supporter of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow, they liked to claim one of their number, Oliver Martyn, had accompanied Richard I on the Third Crusade. In return for this support, the king presented him with armorial bearings. More significantly, the Martyns settled in Galway and became one of the city’s mercantile ‘tribes.’ Like so many of the others of their ilk, during the upheavals of the 16th century they moved into the countryside and acquired large amounts of land, not least that around an old de Burgo castle which was in their possession by 1598. Somehow they survived the turbulence of the following century and were confirmed in the possession of their estates in 1710 when they were specifically exempted by Queen Anne in an Act of Parliament passed ‘to prevent the growth of Popery.’ This was thanks to another Oliver Martyn who, it was noted, during the recent Williamite wars, ‘behaved himself with great moderation, and was remarkably kind to Protestants in distress, many of whom he supported in his family and by his charity and goodness, saved their lives.’ As a result the Martyns of Tulira were confirmed in ‘their very extensive estates and in all their rights as citizens, proprietors, and Catholics.’ At some time in the 18th century, another generation of Martyns built a new house beside the old de Burgo tower. Nothing of this Georgian structure, seemingly three-storeys over basement, has survived, although the stable yard immediately behind the castle dates from that period. In the 1870s when Edward Martyn was still a minor the old house was demolished and replaced with a new residence. The impetus for this transformation seems to have come from his formidable mother. Mrs Martyn was born Annie Josephine Smyth of Masonbrook, County Galway. When she married John Martyn in 1857, her self-made father presented his son-in-law with Annie Josephine’s weight in gold: the sum was supposed to amount to £20,000. After only three years of marriage, John Martyn died, leaving his heir Edward aged just 14 months to be raised by the widowed Annie. The following decade, she embarked on Tulira’s transformation, the eventual cost of which is said to have been £20,000, the same amount as was handed over by her father at the time of her marriage.
Given that Edward Martyn was only in his teens when Tulira was rebuilt, it seems likely his mother was responsible for choosing the architect. Since she was an ardent Roman Catholic, it is not altogether surprising the commission should have gone to George Ashlin, who otherwise worked primarily for clerical clients. Ashlin was born in County Cork in 1837 and in his late teens was articled in England to E W Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin (whose daughter Ashlin married in 1860). When, in 1859, the younger Pugin received the commission for the church of SS Peter and Paul, Cork, he made Ashlin a partner with responsibility for their Irish work, which included St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. Ashlin remained in partnership with Pugin until about 1870 after which he set up his own highly successful practice. Tulira was his only major secular commission and regrettably no documents relating to the castle’s design or construction have survived.
In any case, for Mrs Martyn and her son, Ashlin designed a densely-castellated two-storey house directly linked to the old castle. In the centre of the asymmetric facade is a projecting three storey tower containing an arched Gothic door case and an oriel window immediately above; on the corbels of the latter are carved Edward Martyn’s initials and the date 1882 indicating this was when work concluded. On either side of the tower are polygonal corner turrets which once more are raised slightly higher than the roof parapet. The garden front shows a similar differentiation in surface rhythm thanks to the presence of further projecting towers. The house has always inspired mixed feelings. Moore, in his usual imaginative way, claimed he attempted to dissuade Martyn from undertaking the project: ‘walking on the lawn, I remember trying to persuade him that the eighteenth-century house which one of his ancestors had built alongside of the old castle, on the decline of brigandage, would be sufficient for his want.’ However, since Mrs Martyn was the driving force behind the enterprise, this recollection seems defective. However in 1896 Yeats and the English critic Arthur Symons stayed in Tulira after which Symons wrote in The Savoy that here he discovered ‘a castle of dreams’, where ‘in the morning, I climb the winding staircase in the tower, creep through the secret passage, and find myself in a vast deserted room above the chapel which is my retiring room for meditation; or following the winding staircase, come out of the battlements, where I can look widely across Galway, to the hills.’ Yeats was also enchanted, although his preference was for ‘the many rookeries, the square old tower, and the great yard where medieval soldiers had exercised.’ Much later, his verdict was more harsh, dismissing Ashlin’s design as being nothing better than ‘a pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families.’
It is generally accepted that Mrs Martyn’s reason for rebuilding Tulira was to provide a comfortable home for future generations of the ancient family into which she had married. George Moore, most likely apochryally, claimed Annie Martyn had proclaimed, ‘Edward must build a large and substantial house of family importance, and when this house was finished he could not do otherwise than marry.’ Unfortunately she had not reckoned on her son’s lifelong dedication to celibacy and reluctance to linger in the company of women. When he endowed the foundation of the Palestrina Choir in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin in 1904, for example, he stipulated ‘the said choir shall consist of men and boys only’ and that ‘on no occasion shall females be employed.’
Mrs Martyn also under-estimated her son’s partiality for asceticism: although Tulira was splendidly finished, Martyn preferred to live in the old tower. Here a stone staircase ascending the full height of the building leads to the first floor which served as his private library and still retains its oak floor and oak-panelled walls, as well as stained glass windows designed by Edward Frampton in 1882 and featuring literary figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dante. A door at the far end of the library provides access to a simple room where Martyn slept, according to Moore ‘with the bed as narrow as a monk’s and the walls whitewashed like a cell and nothing upon them but a crucifix.’ Above this is his private chapel, its fittings, including the benches and altar, apparently designed by Irish architect William A Scott, although the chimneypiece has the dates 1613 and 1681 carved into the limestone. An even more impressive chimneypiece is found on the third floor where the ceiling rises to the roof, allowing for the inclusion of a small minstrels’ gallery at one gable end.
Meanwhile inside the Ashlin-designed house, after passing through a modest entrance one reaches the great hall measuring some 31 by 32 feet and rising 42 feet, the full height of Ashlin’s castle. Here Edward Martyn would play the polyphonic music of Palestrina and Vittoria on a long-since lost organ. On a richly-tiled floor repeatedly decorated with the Martyn motto of Sic hur Ad Astra (‘Thus One Climbs to the Stars’) rest the bases of black marble columns, their capitals elaborately carved with figures. From here a massive staircase with quatrefoil balustrading leads to the galleried first floor where a sequence of arches is supported by further marble columns. Much of this room’s decoration is attributed to John Dibblee Crace, the English designer and decorator whose father had worked with Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in London. Crace produced designs for the hall’s main window but these were never executed, as it seems Martyn lost interest in completing the scheme for the castle’s interior decoration. However, on the ground floor a series of reception rooms, intended to impress those prospective brides who were never invited, have compartmented timber ceilings with the recessed panels painted in a delicate design, also by Crace. The drawing and dining rooms retain their polychromatic marble chimneypieces as well as stained glass bearing the crests of Galway’s tribes. The embossed red and bronze wallpaper in the dining room was hung when the castle was first built, with certain sections restored more recently by David Skinner who also made paper for a number of other rooms in the house.
Despite all that he had done, and all that he had tried to do in the fields of art, music and literature, Edward Martyn’s final years were grim, not least due to creeping ill-health. In her journal for September 1921, Lady Gregory his neighbour and former collaborator, noted, ‘He is anxious about money, has fears of his investment in the English railways, and is very crippled by rheumatism.’ Two years later she visited him at Tulira for the last time and afterwards wrote, ‘In the bow window of the library I saw Edward sitting. I thought he would turn and look round at the noise, but he stayed quite quite immovable, like a stuffed figure, it was quite uncanny…I went in, but he did not turn his head, gazed before him. I touched his hands (one could not shake them, all crippled, Dolan [the butler] says he has to be fed) and spoke to him. He slowly turned his eyes but without recognition. I went on talking without response till I asked him if he had any pain and he whispered: “No, thank God”. I didn’t know if he knew me, but talked a little, and presently, he whispered: “How is Robert?” I said: “He is well, as all are in God’s hands, he has gone before me and before you.” Then I said: “My little grandson, Richard, is well”, and he said with difficulty and in a whisper: “I am very glad of that.” Then I came away, there was no use staying…’
Three months later Edward Martyn was dead at the age of sixty-four, leaving instructions that his body be donated to medical science and the remains afterwards buried in a pauper’s grave. Along with his papers, he left the contents of his personal library to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street, Dublin and they are there still. His collection of paintings, mostly by Irish artists but including a Monet landscape and two works by Degas bought while holidaying in Paris with George Moore in April 1885, Martyn bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. The rest of the castle’s contents, it can be conjectured, were still in Tulira after it was left to a cousin Mary, Lady Hemphill. In 1982 the fifth Lord Hemphill sold Tulira and its surrounding land, and at that time Sotheby’s conducted a house contents auction on the premises when many of the 430 lots once owned by Martyn were dispersed. Between 1982 and 1996, Tulira changed hands no less than five times, on one occasion being exchanged for a yacht, before being sold to its present owners. Since taking possession of Tulira, they have tried to acquire any items of furniture that formerly belonged to the house and have come onto the market, such as a Victorian oak centre table (from a house sale in Oxfordshire) and a set of four oak Gothic chairs of the same period all of which have been returned to the castle’s library. Under their guardianship one feels the spirit of Edward Martyn has returned to Tulira.
A view of Tulira Castle, County Galway. The tower house to the right dates from the 15th century although resting on earlier foundations. Around 1880 the estate’s then-owner Edward Martyn commissioned the new castellated residence to the immediate left from architect George Ashlin who hitherto had been primarily known for his ecclesiastical architecture (he worked on no less than eight of Ireland’s new Roman Catholic cathedrals as well as designing countless churches). Indeed the High Gothic interiors would not look out of place in a religious establishment: Martyn was an ardently pious man who directed his body be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Now on the market, Tulira has been extensively and sensitively restored in recent years. It will be among the properties discussed in a talk on The State of the Irish Country House Today that I am giving next Sunday afternoon, June 22nd at the National Gallery of Ireland. For more information, see: http://www.nationalgallery.ie/whatson/Talks/Sunday_Talks/June-22.aspx