Ireland’s Santa Claus!

You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny,  the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried.  Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny  – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!

‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?

It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.

That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.

Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!

I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.

Fortified Manor Houses in West Cork – a Tudor Status Symbol

Coppinger's Court, Ballyvireeen, near Rosscarbery

Fortified houses are a distinctly Irish phenomenon. The Tudor period in Britain ushered in a great era of manor house building with many distinctive features. But England was a peaceful place – the owners of these great houses did not expect to be attacked. Tudor Ireland was a very different environment: life was still dangerous and conflict between the native Irish and the planter class, or between Irish clans, was common.

Machicolations at Coppinger's Court

Fortifications at Coppinger’s Court – projecting machicolations

Up to the end of the 16th century the castle/tower house was the residence of choice of the powerful – a tall stone keep mainly focused on defensive features and horribly uncomfortable to live in. (See Illustrating the Tower House for a complete run-down on tower houses.) The new manor houses emphasised the horizontal rather than the vertical, and were built with comfort in mind. However, they incorporated some of the defensive features of the tower houses – they were “fashionable but defendable.”

Mullioned windows

While tower house windows were notoriously tiny, they became much larger in the new manor houses

In Ireland they represented

a public display of power and wealth…[and] a long-term investment in their owner’s regional future and were monuments to an aspiration for an English and Continental house style suited to local Irish conditions. On a basic level the construction of a fortified house represented the owners’ desire to modernise and Anglicize.

This quote and much of the information that follows are taken from The Fortified Houses of County Cork: Origin, Fabric, Form, Function and Social Use of Space, by Joe Nunan, who has generously made it and related material available on his website.

Gun loop at ground floor level, Coppinger's Court

At Coppinger’s Court, a small gun loop in the wall among the large windows

Fortified houses were built of stone but unlike tower houses all internal floors, stairs and partitions were of wood. Defensive features included machicolations, bartizans, wall walks, gun loops, corner towers or wings to provide for flanking fire. They were built starting about 1580 up to about 1650, in a style generally known as Elizabethan.

Coppinger’s Court marooned among the fields and modern houses, near Rosscarbery. Walter Coppinger had a vision of a large settlement along the Roury River here, but it never came to fruition

There are four surviving fortified houses in West Cork (although Joe Nunan would include Baltimore Castle as well). The most impressive is Coppinger’s Court, in Ballyvireen townland near Roscarbery: indeed it is one of the most magnificent examples of this type of dwelling in Ireland. Some of the mullions remain in upper windows, and a sharp eye will spot gun loops in the outer walls. The machicolations are particularly fine, with impressive cut stone supports. This was the home of the infamous Sir Walter Coppinger, whose plan was to build a complete settlement around him in this lovely spot on the banks of the Roury River. He was a despot who got rich through clever manipulations of mortgage documents and he was said to hang his enemies from one of his windows.

The chimney on top of this wall has fallen - note the pile of stones on the ground.

The pile of stones in the foreground is the remains of a fallen chimney

The house was so awe-inspiring in its time that the legend developed that it had a window for every day of the year, a chimney for every week and a door for every month. The house was eventually attacked and ransacked in 1641 and has sat in ruins ever since. Sadly, one of the magnificent chimneys fell down in the storms of early 2014. Evidence of a bawn wall remains, with possible outdoor cooking areas.

Gearhameen - a U shaped plan

Geerhameen Fortified House, also known as Coolnalong. This view shows the U-shape design

The fortified house at Gearhameen near Durrus, built by the MacCarthy Muclaghs, provides evidence of the comfort that these new ‘castles’ provided. The household work was done on the ground floor – large kitchens contained huge fireplaces, and in this house we can see the main kitchen fireplace had a bread oven to one side and a slop hole for sweeping out leftovers to the pigs (see below), who must have been in an attached pen (the smell!).

Large ground floor fireplace with bread oven

The first and second floors have large fireplaces, with magnificent herringbone chimneys still intact (and hosting nesting choughs).

Rather than the machicolations we see at Coppinger’s Court, corbels on the outside walls probably supported wooden or stone platforms.

Corbels supported a platform for defenders

Like Coppinger’s Court, the outer walls still stand to their full height, but the loss of a keystone above one arch, and the consequent development of a large crack above it (below), bodes ill for that section of the wall.

Missing keystone

The house at Reenadisert, near Ballylickey, (below) has been built onto and within over the centuries, serving as a modified dwelling place and as farm buildings. It was the stronghold of an O’Sullivan.

It is in a very ruinous state inside – the eeriness is enhanced by an enormous crows’ nest that has fallen from inside one of the chimneys to rest on the ground. There is evidence of a basement but this cannot be accessed.

Fallen nest

A corner tower sports an impressive bartizan (corner machicolation).

That this house is still standing is something of a miracle. It is on the same land as a ruined hotel and Celtic Tiger-era abandoned housing project and I cannot find out any information about its ownership or future.

The final house (below) is at Aghadown, once home to the Becher family, and consists only of one wall with attached towers. Ivy has threatened to take over most of it – I love Leask’s description of ivy – “destructive green mantle beloved of the sentimentalist.” The house occupies high ground and once had a commanding view. Nearby are the remains of a belvedere and pleasure garden that once formed part of the demesne. Have a look at Capturing the View: Belvederes in West Cork for more on this feature of Aughadown House

Aghadown Fortified house occupies high ground with a commanding view

Through all that ivy one can make out traces of the slate that once hung on the wall above the ground floor, the outline of corbels at roof level, and a string course between the ground and first floor.

One of the Fastnet Trails goes past Aughadown House now, and there is a neat little plaque giving more information about the house and the Bechers.

Joe Nunan provides useful summations of Irish fortified houses. Among other points, he says the following:

The fortified houses built in Co. Cork had a unique Irish architectural quality and a distinct southern English look and feel; the result of contacts built up between both regions, politically through plantation-immigration and economically, through trade with the port and fishing towns of Waterford, Cork, Kinsale, Youghal and Baltimore. The social changes that took place in Tudor England were reflected in architectural form by the elites in that society and it was the latter who spearheaded the Munster plantations. They were noblemen who viewed Munster as another region within a larger England and it was through these individuals that the initial architectural influence of the many gabled, oblong country manors with circular, square, rectangular and hexagonal corner-towers was introduced into Co. Cork.

We are lucky to have these fine examples of  fortified houses in West Cork still. However, all of them  are in a perilous state of dereliction. Gearhameen’s owner has tried to stabilise the building and stave off collapse but all of them may eventually succumb to the natural ravages of time. That’s a sad thought.

An earlier version of this post was written in 2015, now edited and updated.

Casino Marino

It’s a perfect little building: a gem of Irish architecture. It lies in an oasis of parkland on the outskirts of Dublin city – all that’s left of an expansive eighteenth century country house demesne, now all but engulfed by housing estates. But – perhaps in homage to the eccentric conceiver of this environmental idyll – the housing estates which have stood below it since the 1920s are quite out of the ordinary. Have a look at the layout on this contemporary plan of Merino townland, carved out of the larger Donnycarney which was granted to the Corporation of Dublin following the dissolution of The Priory of All Hallows in the reign of King Henry VIII. 

This plan is showing the location of Casino Marino, with the green areas around it being the remnants of a 238 acre demesne. The housing below the surviving Casino was Ireland’s first example, in the newly formed Irish state, of an affordable housing project and was the first local authority housing estate in the country. It was heavily influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, originating in the UK with the two revolutionary developments at Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City. This Dublin estate of about 1300 houses was built on the site of a planned formal garden for Marino House and the original design was followed when the streets were laid out. This gives the Marino estate its symmetrical layout. When it was first built, purchasers of houses were restricted to large families, while alcohol and dogs without leads were banned from the parks, as were children after dark.

Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform – diagram of the ideal city, dated 1898

Back to the eighteenth century, and the heroes of our piece today: James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont (1728 – 1799), and his friend, the architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). James (left, below – a portrait by Pompeo Batoni) was a cultivated man who disregarded the conventions of court and openly pursued Irish nationalism, having taken a leading part in the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He was the first President of the Royal Irish Academy and was a member of the Royal Dublin Society. In 1783 he was made a founding Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Like most of the wealthy young gentry of his time he went to Italy on The Grand Tour: he fell in love with that country and classical Roman culture and stayed away for nine years. When he returned he determined to bring the spirit of Italy to Dublin. Acquiring tracts of land by the coast that afforded unrivalled views over the entire bay and city, he poured his energies into creating an ideal landscape: he named his demesne ‘Marino’.

William Chambers (on the right, above – this portrait by Joshua Reynolds is in the Royal Academy) was also a great traveller: he was born in Gothenburg to a Scottish father and visited and studied architecture in China, Paris and Italy – where he met Charlemont. He established a practice in London, where he was appointed architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales, later George III. As the leading classicist of his day, it was unsurprising that Charlemont should turn to him to realise his dream of an Italian arcadia in Dublin. It was a commission that took many years to come to fruition, partly because of the Earl’s seemingly limitless ambitions and his attention to fine detail.

Charlemont’s Marino estate enjoyed fine unrestricted views across Dublin Bay. The culmination of the Earl’s work on his estate (and now the only surviving element) is the Casino, and this is sited on the highest point on the land: the painting above shows the view from the roof of the Casino, which was fully accessible from the building interior. So – what is a casino? It’s simply the Italian for small house, and in this case has been built as a garden room or, perhaps, a gazebo. Ornamental, but eminently functional. From the outside it appears small, but exquisitely detailed on all its elevations. In fact, the simple building houses 16 rooms over three storeys – plus the roof terrace.

Exercises in architectural scale. Upper – an almost contemporary view of the Casino painted by William Ashford (1746-1824), National gallery of Ireland: here the building seen in its landscape context looks like a miniature folly. Centre – a close-up of the roof detailing includes life-size statuary. Lower – Ava and Hugo, willing participants in our expedition to the Casino, help to give an impression of its true size.

The Casino is guarded by four large lions. Originally they were intended to be fountains – as you can see from the original architect’s drawing, above. In this drawing you can also get a good sense of how the designer plays tricks with scale: the doorway is perhaps three times the height of a normal door, and only a small section at the bottom is, in fact, an opening.

Symbolism and hidden messages abound: the architect, Sir William Chambers, left his signature – in the form of a ram – in many parts of the house. Every moulding, coving, frame detail has a meaning in terms of architecture and freemasonry – and also pays homage to the Greek and Roman classical orders – at the behest of the client. The parquet flooring is magnificent – and is at present kept covered by a vinyl replica to protect the original exotic woods.

The detailing of every element has been fully considered. I was impressed with the curved timber doors, which follow the line of circular wall partitions inside. And, particularly unusual, is the use of vertically curved glazing which causes reflections when seen from the outside, meaning that no shutters or blinds are needed at the windows.

Look carefully at these windows: they are crafted with vertically curved glass which make them reflective externally!

Examples of the plasterwork within the Casino include agricultural harvest symbols, every classical moulding motif and Apollo the sun-god. It would take several visits to absorb and catalogue the complete variety of images: every room has a different visual character.

There are hidden elements – and enigmas – to the building. These include ‘secret’ tunnels in the basement: one was used by Michael Collins to test-fire submachine guns during the War of Independence. The picture above shows a reconstruction. The basement of the Casino, including the tunnels, is currently undergoing further restoration and refurbishment and was not accessible during our visit. It is said that there are many other tunnels, including one that linked the Casino to the big demesne house (now demolished) – and some that, according to legend, run to the coast – miles away!

Charlemont was a liberal and believed that everyone should have access to his parklands: there were no gates. He was so protective of his project, however, that he married in middle age, having been a confirmed bachelor. He had overheard his then presumed heir (his brother) talking about how he was going to exploit and commercialise the demesne once he got his hands on it: this prompted Charlemont to ensure he produced an heir that he could have some direct influence over! Evidently, the marriage was a happy one. The image above shows the Casino in a sad state of disrepair around 1900: the estate was broken up by the third Earl in 1876.

The Casino was adopted as a National Monument in the 1930s, and a full restoration was begun in the 1970s. A further phase of this restoration is currently under way, and the property is only open on limited occasions when suitable areas are accessible: we were fortunate to get there on one of those times. If you plan to visit, contact the Office of Public Works to make sure that you will get in. Charles Topham Bowden made the journey in 1791, and recorded it in his journal A Tour Through Ireland: here is an extract:

. . . This is one of the most beautiful and elegant seats in the world, happily situated, and in a demesne improved in the highest taste, comprehending 238 acres, laid out in plantations, lawns, and a delightful park . . . The temple is situated in the park – a monument of his Lordship’s refined taste. The Gothic room is a very curious and beautiful structure. The hermitage is nature itself. Art and nature unite in rendering this a most desirable residence. What obligation are not the citizens of Dublin under to his Lordship for having the gates of this terrestrial paradise opened to them whenever they chuse [sic] to walk through it . . .

Keeping Time in Youghal

I had time to pass in East Cork on Saturday, so I went off to Youghal (pronounce it ‘yawl’), a substantial town with a great deal of history. I had a purpose in mind: to check out a recently opened museum, dedicated to the way that the time of day was chronicled here over a number of centuries.

The museum is housed in an iconic building that has spanned the main street of the town for 250 years: the Clock Gate Tower. That’s it bottom centre in the aerial view below, and underneath that is the more usual view of it, from the road. It’s the most visible building in Youghal town, and you can see one of its three clock faces (which all show exactly the same time) in this photograph.

In medieval times Youghal was a walled town, and the site of the Clock Gate Tower was one of the defended entrance points at the south end of the enclosed settlement; Finola has written about the walls here. Masonry walls were fine in the days of bows and arrows but became obsolete when heavy artillery took over: by the late 1700s the town had expanded beyond the walls and the southern gate was redundant: before the Clock Gate Tower was completed in 1777 a medieval gateway known as the Iron Gate stood on the site.

Upper – a map from the Pacata Hibernia showing Youghal – first published in 1633: we are looking at the town from the east. The Iron gate is highlighted: even then the town had expanded beyond the original walls. Lower – the Iron Gate in 1681: by that time the original defensive towers had been embellished with a clock and bell tower

It was perhaps whimsical – in the 18th century – to replace the earlier gate with a building which could be seen as a pastiche of what was there before, but it has certainly succeeded in creating a distinctive landmark which has lasted to the present day, and continues to fulfil the function of a clock and bell tower central to the town.

This early photograph of Youghal’s main street with the Clock Tower probably dates from around 1900

I took the Clock Gate Tower Tour and can assure you that a great time was had by all who were on it. Before you go, however, make sure you are able for climbing the six flights of steps from street level to the very top: there were no lifts in the 1770s, and no way that any mechanical assistance could now be fitted into the restricted spaces in the building. However, the staircases are safe and easy, and there is plenty of time to pause on each floor to see the fascinating displays that have been installed. I’m not going to reveal everything that the tour includes, or you might think you don’t need to take part! Just a few tasters will suffice.

I will disclose that you will get a feeling for what prison life was like two or three hundred years ago, as this was then one of the main functions of the tower, and one of the floors has been set out as a cell. Our enthusiastic ‘storyteller’ guide, Katy (above) pointed out that the restricted space could have held a large number of inmates, unsegregated and crowded together with no sanitation (other than a window). Prisoners had to pay for their own food, which was hauled up through the same window from friends outside. Even in 1841 the conditions that prevailed here were considered appalling – and Youghal was specifically mentioned in the Report of Inspectors General on the General State of the Prisons of Ireland of that year:

My favourite room was one dedicated to the workings of the clock (header picture and above). From the earliest days the Clock Keeper was also responsible for ringing the town bell:

. . . In 1622 Balltazar Portingale was appointed as clock-keeper and was given free quarters in return for ringing the clock at four in the morning from Easter to Michaelmas, and at five in the morning from Michaelmas to Easter, and at nine at night all the year. . .

In more modern times the bell was also employed to summon the fire brigade. Following complaints from some outlying residents of the town that it could not be heard, the original bell was replaced with a larger version, still in use today and connected to the clock mechanism for striking the hours.

From 1915 to 1955 three generations of the McGrath family lived as tenants in the tower: they had responsibility for winding its clock and announcing a death by ringing the town bell. John McGrath, now 80, was born in the Clock Gate and has great memories of his childhood there: he provided a lot of the information to help fit out the fourth floor of the museum as a 1950s interior, and he can be heard talking about his youthful experiences on one of the audio-visual screens:

As someone who also grew up in the 1950s (but not in a clock tower!) I can confirm the authenticity of some of the exhibits in the highest room of the museum

Probably the most exciting part of Youghal’s Clock Gate Tower Tour is the culmination: being allowed to ascend to the viewing platform at the very top. It’s a small area, but safely enclosed with unobtrusive glass balustrades. From it you get a panoramic vista in all directions over the whole town and the sea beyond. And, knowing how much history you are standing above, it’s well worth the modest tour fee. It will be time well spent!

This museum experience is proving justly popular: if you plan a visit check in advance with the Clock Gate website. In the summer tours are run seven days a week – I believe winter opening hours are being assessed; there is a phone number on the website. Have a great time . . .

Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven

Roaringwater Journal has featured Crookhaven many times. This far south-western outpost of Ireland has layers of history: thousands of years ago people lived in this area and made marks on the rocky landscape while countless generations of seafarers forged a ‘haven’ from the naturally sheltered ‘crook’ of land upon which the settlement is based. Even into the twentieth century pioneering technological advances were being made in Crookhaven: in the early 1900s Marconi sent some of the world’s earliest radio communications from Brow Head to vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Header – the ‘old roadstone quarry’ dominates the landscape to the north of Crookhaven Harbour. Above – looking across the harbour from the ‘quarry quay’ towards Brow Head, one of the scenes of operation of Marconi in Ireland

I am fascinated by all traces of industrial history: for me it’s ‘modern archaeology’: some of it might survive long enough to puzzle historians of the far future. I couldn’t ignore, therefore, the huge steel and concrete structures which line the R591 road which approaches Crookhaven when travelling from Goleen. They are built into the hillside above the road, and tie in with a substantial stone quay which has been constructed below it.

The quay which was presumably built to serve the quarry to the north of Crookhaven: the village can be seen across the water

Looking at the construction of this quay, and particularly the wear on the masonry steps leading down to the water, it would be reasonable to assume that the quay predates the concrete and steel structures which abut the road above it – by a long way. You might suppose that such significant edifices would have a history attached to them which would be easy to find, either from local informants, or in written or electronic record. However, I have so far drawn a blank. Well – not quite: there are countless identical references in contemporary accounts of Crookhaven to ‘…the old roadstone quarry on the side of the mountain, which provided metalling for the roads of Wales until 1945…’ I did find one variant, a caption to a general view of the area: ‘…Looking up to the Roadstone Quarry along the north shore of Crookhaven Harbour. The quarry was a source of gravel for Welsh tarred gravel roads until the 1930s…’

The quay below the ‘roadstone quarry’ is a paradise for industrial archaeologists and photographers! It must have had generations of users, up to fairly recent times, all of whom have left behind traces of their presence, but no solid history. I’m hopeful that readers of this post might be stirred to recall stories or memories – or even point me to some documented history to explain the provenance of this little piece of the complex West Cork jigsaw.

I’m borrowing this photograph of the Crookhaven quarry from the log of the MV Dirona, with thanks to Jennifer and James Hamilton, who hail from Victoria, British Columbia and are currently cruising the world in their Nordhaven 5263 vessel. They explored the south west coast of Ireland in June 2017 and, from the water, took this perfect view of the quay, the ‘roadstone quarry’ and the mountain face above it, from which the stone has been extracted. It’s my opinion that the face was worked for construction stone possibly from the 1800s: in September 1846 a road was proposed between Rock island and Crookhaven, and the county surveyor provided an estimate of £1,857. Prior to this, the road which had been built by Richard Griffith, civil engineer for Munster, extended as far as Rock Island, and passage from there to Crookhaven itself could only be made by water. The 1846 road is today the R591 which passes below the quarry. It would be reasonable to suppose that locally available stone suitable for roadmaking would have been used, and the quarry may have had its origins at this time. The construction of the adjacent quay could have been contemporary with this early use of the quarry, but the huge concrete and steel structures we see today are probably an incarnation of the revival of the quarry in the early 20th century. I stand to be corrected.

One of the fascinations of old industrial sites is the way they are taken over by nature if left relatively undisturbed. This one is no exception. There is a monumentality here which is being eroded and softened as time goes by. What does the future hold? Interestingly a -presumably serious – proposal was made in a not-too-long-ago iteration of the Goleen & District Community Council Development Plan:

PROPOSALS

2.24 The old Roadstone quarry-works at Crookhaven Harbour should be developed as an amenity – perhaps a hotel with a restaurant with observation deck at the top…

Hmmm… notions of grandeur there, perhaps – and little regard for practicalities, but it shows the power of imagination! I think it’s far more likely that the area will remain in its present state for many years to come and, perhaps, attract a level of ‘industrial architecture tourism’. Incidentally, it’s not too far away from the site of a fish palace run by William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork in the early seventeenth century: the remains of this are there to see to this day, although almost entirely returned to nature.

Below – a now impassable tunnel under the road connects the quarry workings with the quay; nature entangled with the leftovers of human activity

Endpiece – the old workings and quay are directly opposite the centre of Crookhaven – here’s a view towards the quarry from the village:

Larchill – A Pastoral Paradise

One thing always leads to another, and when Finola took an interest in the lost demense at New Court, on the Ilen River close to Skibbereen, she didn’t know that she was going to discover the concept of Arcadian Gardens and – more particularly – the Ferme Ornée. On our latest expedition towards Galway, therefore, we couldn’t miss a visit to Larchill in County Kildare, which claims to be ‘the only surviving, near complete, garden of its type in Europe’.

Header – the ‘Shell Tower’ within the walled garden at Larchill. The garden walls are built up to, but not incorporated in, the tower structure, suggesting that the tower is earlier than the garden enclosure. Centre – the walled garden has been beautifully re-established and maintained. Lower – a typical view across the demense to the artificial lake

Ferme Ornée means, literally, ‘ornamental farm’, and was a departure from the idea of a farm or farmland being purely practical: from the middle of the 18th century, there was a move away from the formal gardens of the time and an embracing and enhancing of the natural landscape. Larchill’s leaflet for visitors explains:

Emulating Arcadia, a pastoral paradise was created to reflect Man’s harmony with the perfection of nature. As is the case at Larchill, a working farm with decorative buildings (often containing specimen breeds of farm animal) was situated in landscaped parkland ornamented with follies, grottos and statuary.  Tree lined avenues, flowing water, lakes, areas of light and shade and beautiful framed views combined to create an inspirational experience enabling Man’s spirit to rejoice at the wonder of nature. At this time in Versailles, Marie Antoinette enjoyed extravagant pastoral pageants, housed specimen cattle in highly decorated barns, while she herself is said to have dressed as a milk maid complete with porcelain milk churns.  Freed from the restrictions of the 17th century formal garden, the Ferme Ornée represented the first move towards the fully fledged landscape parkland designs of Capability Browne.

Upper – the elegant facade of the farmhouse at Larchill which commands views of the water meadows and lake (centre image). Lower – looking across the bullrushes towards one of the islands on the lake, known as ‘Gibraltar’

The word Arcadia is derived from a province in Greece, said to have been the home of the god Pan. In the European Renaissance, Arcadia was celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arcadia remained a beautiful, secluded area, and its inhabitants were depicted as herdsmen leading simple, happy lives. The name has become associated with an imagined idyllic paradise, which the designers of Ferme Ornée tried to reflect in the use of vistas, landscaping, elegant buildings and follies. Finola has also touched on some aspects of this philosophy in her exploration of Belvederes in West Cork.

Upper – Thomas Cole The Arcadian State 1834: a romantic image of pastoral perfection. Lower – Ferme Ornée: architectural drawings by John Plaw (1746 – 1820) showing how the layout of villages (left) and the design of farm buildings (centre) and cottages (right) are conceived to reflect the principles of Arcadia

The gardens at Larchill are exceptional in that all the features of ‘The Arcadian State’ are clearly visible and have been rescued from decline by the de las Casas family who bought the demesne in 1994. Its 18th century glory has passed, perhaps, but everything is clear to see and the visitor can conjure up the elegance of life in this slightly off-the-beaten-track corner of rural Ireland. We enjoyed the hours we spent there and – after an enlightening meeting with Michael and Louisa de las Casas – we had the extensive grounds to ourselves. Larchill is a gem!

Above: details from Larchill – ‘shell houses’ were a feature of ornamental gardens. This ‘Cockle Shell Tower’ was made by the Watsons who leased the estate in the late 18th century: some restoration has been undertaken but most of the shells are as originally placed. There are some exotic and rare varieties from far flung regions of the world.

Views of the lake which is central to the vista from the farm at Larchill. The artificially constructed lake (which had been drained and has been refilled by the present owners as part of the overall restoration work) has four carefully placed features: an earth covered boathouse; ‘Gibraltar Island’, based on the fortifications on the Rock; a statue of Bacchus; and a temple which had a plunge pool. There are stories of guests who visited the house being cajoled into taking part in mock battles aboard boats on the lake!

Upper – the Feuillé: a mound landscaped with beech trees made from soil excavated when the lake was dug in the 18th century. Lower – the Foxes’ Earth

My favourite story from Larchill involves the Foxes’ Earth. This folly was made by the Watsons: Mr Watson was the Master of Foxhounds and had an epiphany moment one day when he realised how many foxes he had been responsible for despatching. He became convinced that he would be reincarnated as a fox and would suffer the fate he had visited upon so many animals. He built the Foxes’ Earth to provide an escape for any foxes who were being hunted on the estate (including himself in his next life!), and consists of a number of deep burrows which could not be accessed by the hounds: because of his repentance, I hope he managed to successfully escape the fate which he feared.

Larchill has dovecotes in its farmyard, but also the ‘owl roost’ or owlery shown in the upper picture. This is a rare feature, built to encourage owls which would hunt the vermin on the farm. The lower picture shows a stone lantern hidden away in the woods, close to an eel pond and ‘eel tower’ where the fish were harvested (below).

Please visit Larchill when you get the chance. In 1830 the Ordnance Survey described it as ‘…the most fashionable garden in all of Ireland…’ It’s certainly one of the most unusual and attractive designed estates we have visited. Check opening hours on the website or ring 01 628 7354.