We took a few steps over the border – from Cork County to Kerry Kingdom – to search out some vestiges of architecture which relate to the Orpen family, which claimed it could trace its history back to the sixth century. Probably the best-known member of that clan – certainly in Ireland – was William Orpen (1878 – 1931). Orpen was a ‘naturally talented painter’ who spent much of the First World War as an officially commissioned artist, producing strikingly graphic images of that depraved conflict, including the Battle of the Somme, from direct experience in the trenches.
Upper – Zonnebeke 1918, and lower – Self portrait 1917 by Orpen. William Orpen’s grandfather was Sir Richard Theodore Orpen (1788-1876), Born and brought up in Dublin, this Orpen married Elizabeth Stack in 1819 and they built a large mansion on the site of an earlier castle and medieval monastery beside the meeting of the rivers Obeg and Roughty, in the townland of Ardtully, Co Kerry. In Irish, the name is Ard Tuilithe, meaning ‘high flood’.
The Orpen’s Grand Design project consisted of a 27-roomed two-storey dwelling with a tower, in what can be loosely described as the ‘Baronial’ style. The house was the family’s residence throughout the rest of Sir Richard’s life, and was inherited by one of his sons, Right Reverend Dr Raymond D’Audemar Stack Orpen, who was the last to live there.
It’s useful to compare the first OS 6″ map (top) – which dates from around 1840, prior to the construction of the new house, which was completed in 1847 – with (lower) the OS 25″ version, dating to the late 1800s. the house is clear there, as is the bridge over the rivers, built by an earlier Orpen generation: it bears the date 1786.
That’s the 1847 Ardtully House, above, in its heyday. The illustration is from The County Seats of The Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland (published 1870). Here (below) is an aerial view of the dwelling within its immediate context. Below that is today’s view from the ‘Ardtully Old Bridge’.
The fine bridge once led to the Demesne; now it ignominiously ends in a field gate. The construction of it is worth a close look – there are some fascinating rocks and outcrops used in its foundation.
The house met its end in 1921 – a victim of IRA burnings. It stands, gaunt and crumbling: a symbol of a period in Irish history. It’s fully accessible, and the Kerry landscape is stunning on a wonderful sunny spring day. Well worth a visit.
The ‘Baronial’ style of architecture – sometimes called ‘Scottish Baronial’ is given short shrift by ‘The Irish Aesthete‘:
. . . Its architect unknown, the house is customarily summarised as being in the Scottish Baronial style but this seems more a flag of convenience than an accurate description. In truth Ardtully looks to have been a typically Victorian grab-bag of architectural elements, its most prominent feature being a castellated round tower and turret on the south-east corner. Looking towards the river Roughty, the entrance front features a porch topped by the Orpen coat of arms (now damaged), another attempt by Sir Richard to demonstrate his lineage. Inside the house looks to have contained the usual collection of reception and bedrooms ranged over two storeys, the roofline marked by a succession of stepped gables and dormers . . .
Certainly, the house in its present state doesn’t present much grace. The architectural style was fairly short-lived, and was said to have its origins in France, with references to the Gothic Revival and romanticism. There are further examples extant in Ireland: the nearest (probably) is Blarney House, Co Cork, altogether a more elaborate project, designed and built by Sir Thomas Lanyon of Belfast for the Colthurst family of Ardrum. Surviving today – close to the well-known Blarney Castle, it was also completed in the 1840s.
It’s taken me a while to visit this notorious site which is situated on a summit of the Dublin Mountains. The view across the city from the 390 metre peak is stunning:
It’s the stories and the folklore that attracted me to this place, long known as the Hell Fire Club. In the eighteenth century ‘Speaker’ Connolly built it as a hunting lodge. According to tradition he used the stones from a prehistoric monument that was previously on the hill. It’s now known from recent excavations that at this location was one – or two – passage tombs dating from the Neolithic Period (4500 – 2000 BC). This – or these – were surrounded by a circle of large boulders known as a cairn. Today, some fragmentary traces of the earliest use of the site can be detected. The best information on the neolithic site is found in the Abarta Heritage report, here. An earlier description, dating from 1779 in fact, was written by Austin Cooper, who visited in that year:
. . . Behind the house are still the remains of the cairn, the limits of which were composed of large stones set edgeways which made a sort of wall or boundary about 18 inches high and withinside these were the small stones heaped up. It is 34 yards diameter or 102 yards in circumference. In the very centre is a large stone 9 feet long and 6 feet broad and about 3 feet thick not raised upon large stones but lying low with the stones cleared away from about it. There are several other large stones lying upon the heap . . .
William Connolly (Speaker of the Irish House of Commons) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland; he had a house in the city and a country estate at Castletown, near Celbridge. It is said that he deliberately used stones from the ancient tomb in the construction of the hunting lodge at Mountpelier. Shortly after it was built the roof, which was originally slated, was blown off in a great storm. Locals attributed this misfortune to the work of the devil, in revenge for the destruction of the cairn. Following this event the lodge gained a reputation as a place where evil prevailed. However, Connolly replaced the slated roof with a stone vault which still exists today, although the building is effectively a ruin.
The Irish Hell Fire Club members were some of the elite of society, and included peers of the realm, high ranking army officers as well as wealthy gentlemen and artists. Here is a portrait of some of them by James Worsdale (himself a Club member); it is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
Mountpelier is a significant mountain top overlooking Dublin, and is now fully accessible to all. A warning, though – in good weather the Coillte car-park very soon fills up (at all times of the year) and there is nowhere else nearby to leave your vehicle – get there early!
It could be said that the ruin of the lodge is ‘maintained’ in that it is stabilised and unlikely to fall down. If you are exploring, look out for the lintel over the large fireplace, which is supposed to be a standing stone removed from the passage grave site.
The Hell Fire Club is, of course, haunted! Not that we saw anything untoward when we visited on a glorious spring day. But the stories abound. They are probably best told through the accounts in the Schools Folklore Collection:
. . . About six miles from Dublin the Hell Fire Club is on a hill. It is a medium size old castle.When the owner of it died nobody else claimed it. All the men of the district came to play cards in it every night. One night when all the men were playing their nightly game one of the men cheated. The men rushed upon him over-powered him. The bound him hand and foot and put him in a barrel of whiskey. Then they set fire to it burning him alive. That was a cruel thing to do but then men did not care. From that day on that old castle was called the Hell Fire Club . . .
Stewart Somerville, Dundrum School
. . . There is an old ruin called Hell Fire Club on the very top of one of the Dublin Hills. This house was built by a man named Connelly, during the time of the Famine. It was built to give employment to the men. Many men used to got to Hell Fire Club to gamble. It is said that one night they were playing cards and there was much money on the table. One man dropped a card on the floor, and when he stooped down to pick it up he noticed a man with cows feet, and he wore a red cloak. The men were very frightened and they made a great uproar. The man turned into a ball of fire. All the men were burned in the fire. There was one man who had a bunch of medals attached to his coat and he was the only man who escaped from the burning house . . .
Mr Finlay, Rockbrook, Co Dublin
. . . The Hell Fire Club, or the Brass Castle is situated near Rathfarnham in the Co Dublin. My Great-grandfather used to pass by the Brass Castle on his way home from work, (he was a mason) he had a habit of hitting the wall with his trowel to hear the ring of the brass. One night a priest had to go on a sick call. When he was coming home through the mountains he lost his way. Seeing a light he went in that direction. He knocked at the door of the house, which happened to be the Brass Castle – The door was opened by a man who was dressed in black with a black mask on his face. The priest was brought in to a room. Sitting at a large table were twelve men dressed the same as the first one. The men were playing cards. On the table was seated a large black cat. The men defied the priest to put the cat away. The priest ordered the cat down, but it never moved. Again he ordered it down, but the cat did not move. The men laughed at the priest and jeered him. The third time the priest said “Begone Satan”. The cat jumped from the table and disappeared up the chimney with a loud roar. The priest told the men that the cat was the devil. The men were never heard of again. The priest got home safe, and from that time onward the Brass Castle was called the Hell Fire Club. This story is true. It was told to me by mother, because the Brass Castle belonged to her ancestors . . .
Seán Ó Nuamáin, Kilbride, Co Wicklow
The Mountpelier Woods consist of around 5.5 kilometres of forest roads and tracks. The woods offer nature trails and a permanent orienteering course. Lord Massy’s Estate and Mountpelier Hill are also traversed by the Dublin Mountains Way hiking trail that runs between Shankill and Tallaght. It’s an attractive walk at all times of the year, with easy access from Dublin city centre.
A comprehensive application to An Bord Pleanála was submitted in July 2017, seeking permission to establish a Dublin Mountains Visitor Centre with associated works relating to tourism, leisure and recreational activities which would embrace the Hell Fire Club site and the mountain trails. Permission was granted, subject to conditions, on 25 June 2020. Another chapter in the story of this notorious locality unfolds . . .
As a tailpiece, I found this image of a ‘Hell Fire Club Goblet’ dating from c1745. It’s currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it must originate from Ireland: James Worsdale, whose name appears on this glass, was appointed Master of the Revels in the Dublin Hell Fire Club in 1741. It was also he who painted the portrait of Club members illustrated in this post: look at their goblets in the painting!
This is Cork city in the 1940s. The subject of today’s post is a Cork man – the sculptor Séamus Murphy. Born in 1907 near Mallow, Murphy took classes at the Crawford School of Art before apprenticing as a stone carver at O’Connell’s Stone Yard in Blackpool, a parish in the city, for seven years. Murphy and his work could occupy several posts, but today we concentrate on his only architectural building project, the Church of the Annunciation in Blackpool. Séamus Murphy can fairly claim to be the ‘sculptural designer’ of this building – as he conceived the way it would appear – while the architect Edmond Patrick O’Flynn most likely carried out the technical drawings and specifications.
According to the Murphy family, Séamus found inspiration for Blackpool from pictures of churches in South America. In particular, the roughly textured render on the external walls is said to have derived from the adobe finish common in Spanish missionary churches there. The Cork church was commenced in January 1945, and the picture above (courtesy of Cork City Library) dates from around that time. The picture below – also courtesy Cork City Library – shows the dedication ceremony in the church on 7 October 1945.
This picture of Séamus, above, is from the RTE archives. The Blackpool project is a good area of study, as the church shows the sculptor’s ability to conceive large, three-dimensional spaces as well as his skills in producing his own figurative and relief works, a number of which are used in the church furnishings: they are of polished Portland stone.
While the church is a valuable repository of Séamus Murphy’s design and carving skills, the work of many other contemporary artists can also be found in the building. The stained glass windows are from the Harry Clarke Studios, designed by William Dowling.
Particularly striking is the crucifix window at the east end. Above is the original cartoon (courtesy of Trinity College Library Dublin) by Dowling, side-by-side with an image of the window today. All the windows are of fine quality.
A full view of the east end of the church. The interior has changed very little over 77 years and is, therefore, a great tribute to Séamus Murphy and the the commissioning family of William Dwyer, then head of the nearby Sunbeam Wolsey factory. Dwyer funded the whole project as a memorial to his daughter Maeve who had sadly passed away in 1943.
This fine font cover was carved by hand by Bart, a younger brother of Séamus.
Murphy’s Church of the Annunciation is certainly a landmark building – not just for Cork, but for the whole of Ireland. And Séamus himself must rank as one of the outstanding artists of the Free State. You will come across his distinctive work in many locations; I will be directing you to some of them in future posts.
Many thanks to Orla Murphy for giving me valuable insights on her father’s works
This engraving from the Illustrated London News shows the ‘Fine Arts Hall’ which was part of the Cork National Industrial Exhibition held in 1852:
. . . The site of the Cork Exhibition was the Corn Market, where ships carrying visitors and goods could dock and unload at the entrance gates. The old Corn Exchange building, lent for the occasion, formed one end of the structure, while a new mart served as a principal show room. This ran across the southern part of the old building, parallel to the quay, for 300 feet in length and 30 feet in breadth, giving the impression of a contemporary railway station, even to the strip of glass along the roof to admit daylight. By the opening day ad hoc extensions had been added which converted the original elongated T – shape into a cross, with covered galleries and passageways running from the central structure to an adjacent building used as a hall for banquets, balls and public lectures . . .
A C Davies – Irish Economic and Social History, Vol 2, 1975
. . . The exhibition remained open for three months, until 10 September. The opening ceremony had been performed by the Lord Lieutenant after a procession watched by the townspeople, ‘in all the pomp and circumstance of majesty, with waving banners, prancing horses, peals of artillery, and multitudinous shouts’. At first attendance was sparse. It rained steadily for the whole of the first week, but then the weather improved and the number of visitors increased. It amounted to about 140,000. Ten thousand free admissions were granted to children from over seventy schools in the area . . .
A C Davies – Irish Economic and Social History, Vol 2, 1975
When the 1852 exhibition closed, the people of Cork decided their city should have a venue suitable for the holding of public lectures, meetings and concerts. Within a few years the building above was constructed. Known as the The Athenaeum, it was designed by Sir john Benson, who had been responsible for the Great Hall of the Cork Exhibition. It is said that many of the materials which had been used in Benson’s exhibition hall were salvaged and re-used in The Athenaeum. The new building was renamed The Munster Hall in 1875 and then became the Cork Opera House in 1877. It survived until 1955, when it was destroyed by fire. The present Opera House, on the same site, was opened by President Eamon de Valera in 1965. It was extensively remodelled, with the glazed facade added, in 2000.
Half a century later Cork city embarked on another major ‘world fair’ class event. In 1902 the Lord Mayor of Cork, Edward Fitzgerald, presided over creating Cork International Exhibition, which ran from May to October. Reclaimed marshland beside the river at Mardyke was used for the site, which occupied an area of about 44 acres. Here are the ‘leading lights’ of the exhibition organisers, with Fitzgerald on the right:
This exhibition was considered such a success that it was repeated the following year – 1903 – and the site plan above bears this date. The artist’s aerial view of the site, below, gives a good impression of the extent of the grounds. Note the ‘switchback railway’ to the left: this was a precursor to roller-coaster fairground rides and was immensely popular…
…As was the ‘Water Chute’ from which it was unlikely that you would emerge dry!
Such attractions were very popular with the general public, but the exhibition had a more serious commercial side:
Several large exhibition halls and pavilions housed a range of industrial and agricultural exhibits from many countries including Canada, Turkey and China. There were displays of industrial and agricultural machinery as well as horticulture, fisheries, art, craft and ceramics . . . The Irish Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction had a strong presence at The Exhibition with exhibits on dairying, cheese-making, cottage gardening, forestry, bee-keeping, poultry, fruit and vegetable drying and preserving . . .
National Museum of Ireland Collections & Research
Hadji Bey is a name that will be familiar to any Cork person with a sweet tooth! The true story goes that Armenian immigrants Harutun Batmazian and his wife Esther chose Cork as their new home during the early years of the 20th century, after escaping the persecution and violence against Armenian Christians taking place in the Ottoman Empire at the time. In 1902, the Batmazians participated in the Cork International Exhibition and introduced their Turkish Delight – a skill Harutun learned while studying in Istanbul – to the market. Although they spoke no English at the time, the city was to became their home and the popularity of their sweets – still made in Ireland today – is legendary. After their success at the Exhibition they opened a shop on MacCurtain Street: this survived for many decades.
Turkish Delight is just one success story from Cork’s International Exhibitions. The 1902 event attracted nearly two million visitors. Surely, it’s time for another one?
After all the clamour and excitement had died down the Exhibition buildings (below) were dismantled and auctioned off. In 1906 the park and Shrubberies House were taken over by Cork Corporation with the proviso that the Corporation would levy a rate of half penny in the pound for annual upkeep and maintenance. A further proviso stipulated that the Shrubberies House would be used by the Corporation as a municipal museum. Today we can all enjoy enjoy Fitzgerald’s Park and the Cork Public Museum, where Finola and I put on an exhibition about Rock Art back in 2015.
If you want to know more, I thoroughly recommend this book, written by Daniel Breen (now Curator of the Cork Public Museum) and Tom Spalding, published by the Irish Academic Press.
We have been spending a little time over on the east side of the country, not too far from Dublin. We like exploring, and the built-up areas have much to offer in terms of history so I’m returning – for a brief moment – to one of my favourite subjects: the canals of Ireland. You may remember my forays back in 2016 to seek out the journeys taken by L T C Rolt seventy years before that, and recorded in his classic book Green & Silver. You can find all those posts here. Earlier this year I added a further post to the series, examining in greater detail the meeting of the waters of Grand and Royal Canals, within Dublin. Today I’m simply concentrating mainly on one place, to the south of the city: Portobello.
This wonderfully drawn map (the two extracts above) dates from 1797, and was complied by William Faden (1749-1836) and Samuel John Neele (1758-1824): it was published in London and Dublin. You can see from it that the Grand Canal at that time virtually created the southern boundary of the city, with the canal basin at Portobello being a significant location to serve the growing conurbation south of the River Liffey.
This extract from the 6″ first edition of the Ordnance Survey shows Portobello Harbour with its significant warehouses, the ‘City Basin’ and a lock and bridge – known as La Touche Bridge. We have encountered the La Touche family in an earlier post – Glen of the Downs – and learned there that the family had built a big house – ‘Bellevue’ – on their estates near Greystones and Delgany.
The bridge (photo courtesy of excellentstreetimages.com) was named after William Digges La Touche (1747–1803), a director of the Grand Canal Company. The waterway was, of course, an important business venture in its heyday, contributing to the prosperity of the city merchants. Prior to its construction the area was farmland, and the name Portobello is said (curiously) to have come from the Irish Cuan Aoibhinn, meaning ‘beautiful harbour’. Note the ‘City Basin’ marked on the OS map: this was used from 1812 to provide a drinking water reservoir for the south side of the city. In the 1860s the water was found to contain a high concentration of sulphuric acid, and this source was eventually superseded by the new reservoir at Dartry, in Co Wicklow.
This is a fine early print of the Harbour, showing the Grand Canal Hotel designed by James Colbourne and opened in 1797. In the foreground is a passenger or ‘packet’ boat. We might forget how important the transport of people was in the early days of canal transport, before the advent of railways (see Trollope’s account in my post here): roads were often in a poor state and the boats provided a smooth – if not exactly speedy – way of getting about.
…the company’s hotels were simply the posting houses of this water-road…There was considerable interchange of passenger as well as goods traffic at Shannon Harbour. Travellers changed here from the Dublin passage boats into Bianconi’s ‘long cars’ which operated between Birr, Shannon Harbour and Athlone in connection with the boats. Alternatively they might board the paddle steamers The Lady Lansdowne or The Lady Burgoyne which plied between Killaloe pier head and Athlone, calling at a jetty on the river near the mouth of the canal. Smaller craft sailed from Killaloe pier head to the transatlantic port of Limerick, and so the Grand Canal became a link in the route between Dublin and America…
L T C ROLT, Green & Silver, 1949
The hotel at Portobello was one of five constructed along the length of the Grand Canal: all were fine buildings – probably state-of-the-art in terms of accommodation for travellers by water. You will find a post which I wrote about them here. On the header picture is a view of a packet boat at Harcourt Lock, and you can see a stage-coach there waiting to transfer passengers. The Portobello hotel closed in 1835 but the building has survived to the present day through many incarnations.
This is a great photo if you are a transport history enthusiast! It must date from the 1940s, as the Dublin tram system declined at that time, the last one in the city being phased out on 9 July 1949. The bridge and former canal hotel are clearly seen.
Portobello House – the canal hotel in the 1960s. Some fine classic cars in this picture! At this time it was a nursing home: one of its elderly residents was Jack B Yeats, the celebrated Irish painter who currently has a major exhibition in the National Gallery.
The former canal hotel was completely refurbished in 1972 (the photograph above dates from that year) and survives today – in good order – as a private educational establishment. Here it is again (below), as you’ve never seen it before – through the eagle-eye of Google Earth!
I can’t resist finishing with this plate from from The Graphic, a British weekly newspaper set up to rival the popular Illustrated London News. Published on May 13, 1882, this shows “. . . the lighting of tar-barrels in Portobello Harbour, on the Grand Canal in Dublin, to celebrate the release from prison of Charles Stewart Parnell and two colleagues . . .”
It was an ‘odd’ Olympic year – 2021. Firmly etched in my mind is the knowledge that years in which Olympic Games are held – like leap years – are divisible by 4! This one was different, because of Covid. But that didn’t prevent Ireland producing its heroes: gold for rowing and boxing, and bronze, also for rowing and boxing: a total of 8 sports heroes bringing medals home. If you will forgive the pun, the small country of Ireland punched well above its weight! All the rowers trained at the Skibbereen Rowing Club in West Cork, under the expert eye of their coach Dominic Casey. No surprise, then, that the town was in celebratory mood for weeks after the event, as you can see from many of my photographs, taken around the town at the end of August.
The town, from its situation in a wild, unenclosed part of the country, has frequently been the rendezvous of disaffected parties, but it has been much improved of late years, and is now a very flourishing place. It is situated on the southern bank of the river Ilen, and comprises seven streets; that part which extends into the parish of Abbeystrowry is called Bridgetown, and consists of three streets, one of which has been recently formed. The number of houses in the whole town is 1014, many of which, in the eastern part and in the parish of Creagh, are large and well built: the approaches have been much improved by the formation of new lines of road at each extremity . . .
LEWIS TOPOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IRELAND 1837
It’s interesting that Lewis – in 1837 – describes the number of houses as just over a thousand. He also states elsewhere that there were 4,429 inhabitants in 1691: in the 2011 census the town recorded a population of 2,568.
The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6″ map was produced around 1840, just after the Lewis Topographical Dictionary was published. From the extract above, the layout of the town we know today had been broadly established by then. Compare this to today’s OS map (below) and the annotated aerial view.
There are a few theories as to the earliest origins of the town. Oft quoted is the story of the survivors from the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates in 1631 having moved upriver to found, or expand, the settlement that is now Skibbereen. It is likely that there was already a community on this part of the river, which was tidal and probably easily navigable up to its sheltered reaches at this point: at one time there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House within the town – this post will tell you more.
Skibbereen today is defined by its river – as it always has been. The waterside deserves a bit more attention – and is being opened up a little in some of the new civic improvement schemes that have been enabled by major flood relief works in the town. There are many opportunities yet to be explored.
All towns evolve and, hopefully, move into the future: Skibbereen – we’ll be keeping an eye on you! But it’s a great town already: it has the busiest market in West Cork on a Saturday; lively shopping streets; easy (and free) parking – and a very healthy ‘pavement cafe’ culture that has grown up during the pandemic, and is likely to continue to flourish. Let’s walk the streets and see the town as its best in the late summer sunshine . . .
Here at Roaringwater Journal we will always sing the praises of this town, and it has been the subject of a good deal of our historical research and writing. Have a look at our posts on Agnes Clerke, Ireland’s first and foremost female astronomer; Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the famed nationalist and Fenian: Uillinn – one of Ireland’s most innovative art galleries – here, here and here. We also must not forget that Skibbereen was at one time an important part of Ireland’s railway network: you could travel to and from Cork and Baltimore, and it was a terminus for the narrow gauge railway that trundled off to Schull, and whose loss is now much mourned.
I hope my post inspires you to explore this prominent West Cork town, if you haven’t already done so. It has historic foundations – too numerous to list in this one, short article. Choose a sunny afternoon – or go there to shelter from the infrequent showers. Whatever the day, make the Skibbereen Heritage Centre your starting point: you will find a wealth of information which will help to guide you on your way. The building itself is a piece of history: it used to be Skibbereen’s gas works!
The town name was familiar to me long before I settled in Ireland a decade ago. I lived in the fishing village of Newlyn, Cornwall, for many years and got to know the history of the artists’ colony in West Penwith, centred on that town and St Ives. One artist – Stanhope Alexander Forbes – was known as ‘The Father of the Newlyn School of Artists’ – he was Irish born, and lived from 1857 to 1947. I vividly remember one of his works, displayed in the Penlee Gallery in Penzance. It shows fishermen leaving Newlyn to follow the shoals of herring and pilchards to the waters of Roaringwater Bay. The title of that picture? Goodbye – Off To Skibbereen!
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