A few years ago, on one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!
Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula
You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).
Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews
Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!
Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.
The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!
It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.
Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.
This is an update of a post that originally appeared here 7 years ago. We find as time goes by that we need to go back and fix broken links, insert newer ones, update information, and make sure the photographs are still faithful to what’s on the ground. This is a revised and updated version of what I wrote at that time
It was the early 1960s and I was sitting in class in my convent school while Mother Francisca explained the purpose of our education and gave us a glimpse of our futures. “What we want for you, girls,” she said, “is to be Good Wives or Nuns.” This week, I landed back in that classroom with a bang. Did I visit my old school? No – I strayed into a time warp. In doing so I rediscovered part of my heritage I had almost forgotten and I met a brilliant young scholar who helped me access those dim memories again.
All Saints Catholic Church in Drimoleague is one of the most extraordinary buildings in West Cork. First of all, it’s a fine example of mid-century modern architecture (and there aren’t a lot of those in West Cork) and an engineering triumph. Built in the 1950s of concrete and limestone, its cavernous interior has no need for pillars: nothing intrudes between worshippers and altar. It’s like stepping into an enormous, curiously bright, almost empty box. Secondly, it has extraordinary artwork in the form of a giant mural behind the altar and a panel of stained glass windows above the balcony on the south wall. It was the stained glass that stopped me in my tracks.
The glass is laid out in a series of frames that takes the viewer from birth to death – no, beyond death, to heaven. The church was built in the 1950s and each frame represents the values of rural Catholic Ireland of that time. In a strange way it reminded me of a High Cross, in that the illustrations that we see on High Crosses were meant to tell a story – a biblical one in that case – and to instruct the viewer in the tenets of the religion. The purpose of this wall of glass was also educational – to provide a primer to mass-goers on the aspirations and actions that should guide their lives.
My parents, imbued with the message that the family that prays together stays together, developed an intermittent enthusiasm for saying the rosary. We would gather in the kitchen after dinner, each with our beads, and kneeling on the hard tiles we would tell off the Sorrowful or the Glorious Mysteries. The second frame shows just such a family, and I particularly love the toys on the floor and the statue of Mary on the mantlepiece. There’s a grandmother and a baby in a cot, and a little girl being inducted into the Mysteries by her older sister.
The next frame shows First Communion, with the girls in miniature bride outfits (as they are to this day) and the boys in their Communion suits with the short trousers and knee socks that all boys wore at that time. When my godson in Dublin made his First Communion I heard a lot about the process and I found that apart from the length of the boy’s trousers not a lot had changed in 60 years.
The one that brought me back to Mother Francisca shows earnest young men and women gazing at a directional sign which shows them their choices – marriage or the religious life. That was it! To hammer home the point the top of the panel shows a wedding, a priest and a nun. I’m casting my mind over the group of girls I went to school with – we didn’t produce any nuns and while most of us married I can’t think of a single one who hasn’t worked – we count among us an ambassador, teachers and principals, a town planner, an artist, a college dean, office administrators, a medical doctor, an international expert on child protection, a veterinary nurse, a parliamentary reporter, a lawyer…the list goes on. But none of this was discussed at school: we had no career guidance, no aptitude tests, no encouragement of any kind to think of ourselves as people who would work for a living. What’s curious is that we developed those careers in the complete absence of any kind of conscious preparation for them at the secondary school level.
The sixth frame might be my favourite. It’s the ‘work, rest and play’ lesson. At the bottom of the frame a happy family sits around the tea table. Above them men work on the fields and on top those men are playing Gaelic football while their wives sit on a bench on the sidelines and chat to each other. Men were to head the family, work and play hard, and women were to provide the supportive role. I doubt if anyone foresaw when that glass was designed in the 1950s that in the next century two Irish rugby squads – the men AND the women – would bring home the Six Nations Cup for Ireland.
The last three frames deal with end of life, including Last Rights, death, and reception into heaven – the reward for living the exemplary life presented in the stained glass wall.
If you grew up like I did in 1950s Ireland, or if you are interested in the art and architecture or the social history of this period, the Church of All Saints in Drimoleague tells a fascinating story. In 2015 when I originally wrote this post there was little information available about it. Now I know that the church was designed by Frank Murphy, ‘Cork’s Modern Architect’, thanks to the sterling work by yet another brilliant young scholar, the architect Conor English. We attended Conor’s talk about Murphy at Nano Nagle place some years ago (that’s him on the right, along with Peter Murphy, Frank’s son) . You can read more about Frank Murphy and his achievements in this article.
My research revealed that one other person was as struck as I was by this church, although in a more scholarly way. Richard Butler is a gifted young historian from Bantry who completed a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. At the time I wrote this blog post, Richard was teaching at Leicester University, but is now the Director of Research at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. We first heard him speak at the Bantry Historical Society on the subject of the courthouses of West Cork – a topic we had no idea could be as interesting until we heard his erudite and engaging presentation. Now, he has written the definitive book on Irish Courthouses.
At that time, he had written a paper, All Saints, Drimoleague, and Catholic visual culture under Bishop Cornelius Lucey in Cork, 1952-9, for the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society*. He was very generous in sharing his findings with a fellow enthusiast. His paper (and a subsequent one with more information**) deals with the Catholic ethos within which that era of church construction operated, with the role of the local community in commissioning such an unusual edifice, with the enormous mural, and with the windows. It was only after communicating with Richard that I learned that the windows were the work of the Harry Clarke Studios*** and how unusual they were for their day in not being concerned solely with images of saints, the life of Christ, or Mary.
Richard’s paper not only details the commissioning of the windows, but the extraordinary interventions made by Bishop Lucey to dictate the content and form of the figures in them. It’s a fascinating read.
We have discovered, to our surprise, that not everyone is as enamoured of the Drimoleague Church as we are – the word ‘factory’ has been bandied about. Personally, I think Drimoleague should take great pride in having such an outstanding and unique building, by such a distinguished architect. There’s more to the story – all to be read in Richard’s papers.
*Richard Butler, ‘All Saints, Drimoleague, and Catholic visual culture under Bishop Cornelius Lucey in Cork, 1952-9’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 120 (2015), pp. 79-97.
**Richard Butler, ‘All Saints, Drimoleague: clarifications and new discoveries’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 121 (2016), pp. 141-43.
I’ll explain at the outset that Caheragh is (more or less) pronounced ‘corer’ (as in coring apples)! It’s a parish in West Cork that we have visited before. Have a look at my article on the Ilen River, here. This locality is brimming over with history and we go exploring as often as possible: there is always more to find. And – with wide views and cloud scapes in all directions from the high ground – it’s an uplifting place, especially when blessed with the August sun.
Here’s a vista to the north-east, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard that might just be a ring-fort, or possibly the site of a monastic centre dating from medieval times – more on that later. In the middle distance is the Ilen River with its wooded banks, heading out towards Castle Donovan and – eventually – to its source on Mullaghmesha (or, perhaps, Nowen Hill – we have yet to determine exactly where it rises. This post from the Sweet Ilen series covers the area). And that Donovan castle itself graces the cover of the latest Skibbereen Historical Journal (Volume 18, 2022), which you can get in bookshops locally, or online here. You will find a summary of some of my research on the Ilen River in this journal, together with many other fascinating and erudite articles.
But, going back to that sunlit vista, you’ll notice Tadhg’s Little Oak Tree is indicated. I can’t resist quoting the story of this feature that appears as a ‘Redundant Record’ in the Historic Environment Viewer:
. . . On E bank of River Ilen. Site of tree, ‘Darriheen Teige’ or ‘Daraichin Teige’ (Tadhg’s little oak tree), where Tadhg O’Donovan, chieftain of Clan Cahill, was slain c 1560 by rival group of O’Donovan’s (O’Donoghue 1986, 55). Nearby is Poll a’ Daraichin (pool of the little oak) . . .
Archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer – Record CO132-066
Well, it seems strange that the ‘site of a tree’ is a recorded monument. In fact, if the oak was still flourishing (we couldn’t find it), it would probably be just one of only a few trees included in Ireland’s vast record of archaeological monuments!
For today’s post I am indebted to our historian friend Pat Crowley, who directed us to a clip from The Southern Star newspaper dated January 12, 1929. It was a letter written to the newspaper by Captain Francis O’Neill, retired Chief of Police in Chicago and well-known prolific collector of traditional Irish music. O’Neill (1848-1936) was raised in his family home at Tralibane, in the parish of Caheragh. He has been mentioned in this journal, and I was fascinated to read his letter, which became a protracted discussion on the parish, the old graveyard, historic sites and archaeology in the area.
All this came about because Francis had returned from Chicago to West Cork in 1906 – after a long absence – ostensibly to visit the burial place of his parents, and to order a suitable monument to mark their graves (above).
. . . On my return to Ireland July 1906, after an absence of 41 years, I visited the bleak Caheragh graveyard, in which the remains of my parents, and O’Neill ancestors, were buried. There being nothing visible in the environment to indicate its origin as a cemetery, personal curiosity, abetted by that of the Downings of Tralibane – cousins of McCarthy Downing, MP – led to investigation . . . The result, somewhat disconnected and fragmentary, is herewith submitted for publication . . .
Southern Star 12.01.1929
The O’Neill burial plot at Caheragh. Francis ordered the large cross to mark the graves of his parents. The inscription reads:
Erected By Captain Daniel Francis O’Neill Chicago USA To the Memory of his Parents John O’Neill of Tralibane Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years And Catherine O’Mahoney (Cianach) Died 1900 Aged 88 Years Requiescant In Pace Amen
Quoting again from Francis O’Neill’s letter to the Southern Star:
. . . All available authorities in my library have been consulted, and I find that references to the parish of Caheragh are both meagre and obscure… The earliest mention of this parish which has come to my notice, is in the report of Dive Downes, Episcopal Bishop of Cork and Ross, who made a trip on horseback to all parishes in his diocese in the years 1699 – 1702. Following is the entry: –“Caheragh Church, about two miles distant from Drommaleage Church to the SW lies close to the Island River (he means Ilen). On the west side of the river are 35.5 lowlands in this parish, of which 20 lie on the west side of the river, and 6.5 lie on the east side of the said river . . . There are about 12 Protestant families in this parish. ’Tis thought there are forty Papists for one Protestant in this parish . . . Will Gureheen, a very old man, is priest of this parish. . . The church is ruinous. The north side is down . . .”
Southern Star 12.01.1929
A vista to the west, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard. The present-day village of Caheragh is distant beyond the green pasture (a long way from this ‘Old Graveyard’ – why…?), identifiable through the spire of the 1963 Holy Family Church. O’Neill continues, now quoting from Samuel Lewis “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” published in London in 1837:
“Near Lisangle are the ruins of a strong castle, once the residence of McCarthy, King of Cork. The ruins of the old church also remain, which the people here call the ‘Abbey of Cahir” . . . The absence of ruins at Caheragh, which, by the way, seems to have never attracted the attention of historians or antiquaries, is easily accounted for. The stones, conveniently at hand, were utilised in the building of the walls which encompassed the graveyard . . .
Southern Star 12.01.1929
Above – the western boundary wall of Caheragh Old Graveyard. The small road continues over the Ilen River: the bridge here was built by the Congested Districts Board for Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, to replace a ford, the stone flag bed of which can still be seen.
. . . The Irish word Cathair, spelled and pronounced in English Caher or Cahir, meant a circular stone fort, and therefore Caheragh, under any form of spelling, signifies the field of the stone fort. But where is the fort? one naturally asks. Remembering the descriptive nature of the Irish place names on my short call at Caheragh in 1906, I looked for something to justify the name and found it. In order to gain a vantage point, to view the country round about, I struggled through the thicket of furze to the top of the hill east of the road and, unexpectedly, to my great delight, found the outlines of the stone foundations of the Cahir, mostly covered with soil and grass, but quite distinct on the flat top. Again was the correctness of Irish topographical names vindicated . . .
Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929
This feature (the two pictures above) is the hilltop referred to by O’Neill, where he claims to have found the ruins of the ‘Cahir’. Today it is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a ‘ringfort’ or ‘rath’:
Class: Ringfort – rath
Description: In pasture, atop hillock broken by rock outcrop. Circular area (36.5m N-S; 37.5m E-W) enclosed by earthen bank (max H 3.8m). Break in bank to NNW (Wth 5m); and WSW (Wth 4m), where triangular feature adjoins inner bank face. Possible souterrain (CO132-017002-) in SW quadrant
Archaeology.IE National Monuments Record
Top: flat-topped mound with circular summit, very much in line with the expectation of a ringfort structure. Centre: stone embankment seen from the top of the ‘fort’. Lower: a defined ‘entrance’ through the ‘fort embankment’ on the summit of the mound. This could be ancient or modern: cattle use the fields in which this feature is located, and some of the topography could be shaped by this usage over centuries.
. . . The builders of Abbeys and Monasteries were wise in their day in the choice of locations for their establishment, and one essential desideratum was near to a plentiful supply of water, such as the banks of lakes and rivers, or adjoining never-failing springs. In this instance the River Ilen met all requirements, and taking everything into consideration, I am led to the conclusion that the graveyard at Caheragh was the site of the “Abbey of Cahir” mentioned by Lewis in the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland . . .
Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929
Above: evidence of built structures on the summit of the ‘ringfort’ mound at Caheragh. A significant circular foundation is clearly outlined. Perhaps, after all, there is some substance in the Captain’s musings on what occupied this site in earlier times? This account is from The county and city of Cork remembrancer; or, Annals of the county and city of Cork by Francis H Tuckey, Savage and Son, 1837:
. . . 1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan . . . ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be ‘situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard at Caheragh’ (possibly on the site of the ringfort). It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse . . .
So there – for your consideration – is the suggestion that the hill above Caheragh’s Old Graveyard (which may, in earlier times, have been a ringfort with a souterrain) was the monastic settlement Blessed Mary de Caheragh in medieval times. That’s quite a thought. My own opinion would be that the monastery would have been founded on the level ground close to the river: in fact where the graveyard is today. As the monastery declined, a church might have remained, eventually becoming a ruin. It was common for old churches and their environs to be used for burials and this might account for the comparative remoteness of this site from the village itself. Now – of course – there is no trace of a church ruin. This theory would hold good except for the annals quoted above, which state that a monastic site was situated on the hilltop overlooking what is now the graveyard.
Evidence of stone quarries on the hillside suggest that significant quantities of stone has been used locally. Graveyard wall, field fences, or built structures? But the most challenging feature has to be the ringed foundation, or base, clear to see on the edge of the hill (below). Could it be a souterrain entrance – or, more fanciful, the base of a round tower?
I’ll leave you with that conundrum (and my whimsical daydream below) for now, but we will continue with Francis O’Neill’s musings (which become even more complex) in a future post.
We had a great afternoon yesterday, exploring aspects of the history of Timoleague, in West Cork. Our Finola Finlay (above) was involved in an event organised by the Glass Society of Ireland. . . a professional all-island, non-profit association that opens a window onto the contemporary Irish Glass Community . . . The day’s proceedings were centred around the ecclesiastical buildings in the town, the earliest of which is the Franciscan Friary, now a substantial ruin beside the Argideen River.
This view of the ruined ‘abbey’, above, dates from 1830. It is located on the site of an early Christian monastic settlement founded by Saint Molaga, from whom the town of Timoleague derives its name. A story that I heard for the first time yesterday was told by local historian Donal Whooley: the Saint was trying to found his community back in the sixth century, but everything that he and his followers built fell down the following day. According to legend, it was originally to be built a mile west of Timoleague, but all work done on that site by day would fall down by morning. Interpreting this as God’s wish that the church should be built elsewhere, Molaga fixed a blessed candle on a sheaf of corn, and floated it down the Argideen river, siting his settlement on the spot that it came ashore, on the big bend in the waterway where the Friary ruins can be found today. Here is a view from the great three-light window which looks out to the east over the river. Finola told us that, in its heyday, this window would have been filled with beautiful medieval glass, bringing light and colour into the substantial nave of the church.
That’s Donal, above, leading our group of almost fifty keenly attentive people who shared an interest in the town and its history. To the right (in a blue jacket) is Father Patrick Hickey. He told us of the symbolism of the cockerel you can see on the large headstone in the nave (below), dating from 1821. Evidently some of the disciples were standing together while Christ was being crucified: nearby stood a pot in which a rooster was being boiled for supper. Judas reportedly said: do you think there’s any chance that our Lord will rise again? Mrs Judas retorted: there’s about as much chance of that as there is of that rooster jumping out of the pot and crowing! At which point – of course – the cockerel did just that!
It was the custom to place burials in ruined church buildings. Here’s another fine headstone in Timoleague Abbey, to Michael Deasy, ” . . . who departed this life on the 23 December 1755, aged 33. May he rest in peace. Amen . . . “
Lively discussions ensued on the efficacy of wart wells, and Donal suggested that this repurposed bullaun stone, above could be the oldest human element on the whole site!
Here’s an aerial overview of the geography of Timoleague. The Friary ruin is only one of many historic sites of interest which caught our interest yesterday. It was Finola’s task to introduce us (or those of us who had never seen it) to the little Church of the Ascension.
This building is currently undergoing major improvement works: the lime rendered tower has created a striking landmark in the town. This work has become necessary by water penetration through the stonework leading to deterioration of the fabric. The conservation project is led by a hard-working Parish committee who also served us delicious tea and cakes since the tour was a fund-raiser for their efforts.
The early OS map extracts, above, give further context to the town’s history. The top map dates from the 1830s and comparison of the plan forms of the Church and Chapel buildings with those in the lower map, which dates from c1900, and then the present day aerial view (higher up the page) shows the degree of change which has taken place. We finished our town tour in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here’s Finola standing outside it, below, prior to giving us an introduction to the history of the building, and its windows.
The fine Harry Clarke Studio window (one panel of which is shown in the upper picture) is a ‘must-see’, as is the mosaic work from the same church. The building work for this Catholic church, replacing an earlier chapel, dates from 1912.
Father Patrick Hickey nicely rounded off our day of Timoleague history by showing us the replica of the ‘Timoleague Chalice’ (above). The replica is kept in this Catholic church. According to Fr Hickey, ‘back in the penal days’ three monks were found floating in an open boat just off the island of Cape Clear. They had with them a box, or trunk. They were brought ashore but two of them died. The other asked that the box be kept on the island – but unopened – until he could return to retrieve it. He never returned, and in later years another visiting Priest said it could be opened. Inside was a gold chalice – blackened with age – and some liturgical vestments. The vestments fell to dust immediately, but the chalice was sent away for inspection, and was confirmed as coming from the Friary at Timoleague, where the replica is now kept.
Here is another ‘souvenir’ of Timoleague – it’s an extract from a poem written in Irish: The Mourner’s Soliloquy in the Ruined Abbey of Timoleague. The poet, Seághan Ó Coileáin, ” . . . was a Gaelic-language poet born in County Cork, in a time of faded Irish glory. He lived as a village schoolmaster, with a large family and no patron . . . “
Abroad one night in loneliness I stroll’d, Along the wave-worn beach my footpath lay; Struggling the while with sorrows yet untold, Yielding to cares that wore my strength away: On as I mov’d, my wayward musings ran O’er the strange turns that mark the fleeting life of man.
The little stars shone sweetly in the sky; Not one faint murmur rose from sea or shore; The wind with silent wing went slowly by, As tho’ some secret on its path it bore: All, all was calm, — tree, flower, and shrub stood still, And the soft moonlight slept on valley and on hill.
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!
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