Off the M8 – Searching out Péacáin

Once again we followed in the footsteps of our friends Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines. They had visited the Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary and pointed us to St Berrahert’s extraordinary site at Ardane which I described in this post. Not far away is another site, which Amanda reported on fully in her own post, here. It is equally remarkable, and related to St Berrahert’s Kyle in that they were both restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s. They are also both very easily accessible in a few minutes from the M8 motorway at Cahir.

We were delighted to be travelling again through the beautiful Glen in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains (above) as we searched out a boreen that led us down to the railway, as directed by Amanda. We parked and crossed at the gate, watching out carefully as this is the Waterford to Limerick Junction line used by two trains a day (except on Sundays!)

Once across, we were in an idyll. It’s a private lane, running alongside a gentle stream, but the Bourke family allow visitors to walk (as they have done for centuries) to the old church, the cell and the holy well of Saint Péacáin. Ancient stone walls line the way, and trees overhang, shading the dappled sunlight in this most exceptional of Irish seasons. We met Bill Bourke, who regaled us with tales of his life spent mostly far away from this, his birthplace – but who returned to rebuild the family home and to enjoy perpetual summer in what is, for him, the most beautiful setting in the world. He also told us of the crowds who used to come to celebrate St Péacáin at Lughnasa – 1st August – paying the rounds and saying the masses.

In her monumental work (it runs to over 700 pages) The Festival of Lughnasa – Oxford University Press 1962 – Máire MacNeill points out the harvest feast day was such an important ancient celebration that it survives as the focus of veneration of many local saints who would otherwise have been known for their own patron day, and she particularly mentions Tobar Phéacáin in this regard: a place well away from any large settlement where the great agricultural festival was so critical to the cycle of rural life.

The rural setting of St Péacáin’s Cell can be seen above, just in front of the trees; the church and the well are nearby. MacNeill provides a description of Tobar Phéacáin and includes some variant names:

. . . Tobar Phéacáin (Peakaun’s Well), Glen of Aherlow, Barony of Clanwilliam, Parish of Killardry, Townland of Toureen . . . On the northern slope of the Galtee Mountain at the entrance to the Glen of Aherlow and about three or four miles north-west of Caher there is a well and ruin of a small church. About a mile beyond Kilmoyler Cross Roads a path leads up to it . . . In 1840 O’Keefe, of the Ordnance Survey team, reported that the old church was called by the people Teampuillin Phéacáin, or just Péacán . . .

. . . The well, which he described as lying a few perches south-east of the church was called Peacan’s Well or Tobar Phéacáin. It was surrounded by a circular ring of stonework. He stated: ‘The pattern-day still observed at this place falls on the 1st of August, which day is, or at least until a few years since, has been kept as a strict holiday.’ Devotions were also, he said, performed there on Good Friday . . .

A hundred years after O’Keefe wrote this, the church ruins were tidied up by the Office of Public Works. As at St Berrihert’s Kyle, it seems there were numerous carved slabs on the site and remnants of high crosses, implying a significant ecclesiastical presence here. All these have been fixed in and around the church ruin for safekeeping, and in an intelligent grouping. It’s wonderful to be able to see such treasures in the place they were (presumably) made for, and to experience them in such a remote and peaceful ambience.

McNeill continues:

. . . Nearby is the shaft of a cross which tradition avers was broken in malice by a mason who was then stricken with an inward pain and died suddenly as a punishment for his sacrilege . . . O’Keefe was told a story of a small stone, 6 or 7 inches long and 4 or 5 in depth, having ten little hollows in it and resting in a hollow of the ‘altar’ of the old church. Christ, or according to others St Péacán, asked a woman, who had been churning, for some butter; she denied having any and when the visitor departed she found the butter had turned into stone which retained the impression of her fingers . . . Nuttall-Smith speaks also of a cave where the saint used to practice austerities . . .

The carved fragments are quite remarkable and are in all likelihood well over a thousand years old. I have yet to see anywhere in Ireland – outside of museums – which has such an extensive collection of fascinating medieval antiquities as these sites in the Glen of Aherlow. Here you can also see cross slabs and a sundial said to date from the eighth century.

Nuttall-Smith’s ‘cave’ – quoted by MacNeill above – is likely to be St Péacáin’s Cell, set in a field on the far side of the river. This was probably a clochán, or beehive-hut, of the type once used by anchorites. It is protected by a whitethorn tree, but was quite heavily overgrown on the day of our visit. We could make out the ballaun stones inside, said to be the knee prints of the Saint who made his constant devotions there. Amanda – in her post on the holy well – reports that Péacáin would also stand daily with arms outstretched against a stone cross, chanting the psalter.

McNeill discusses the significance of weather at the August celebrations:

. . . Paradoxically for a day of outing so fondly remembered, no tradition of the Lughnasa festival is stronger than that which says that it is nearly always rainy. No doubt this has been only too often experienced. Saint Patrick’s words to the Dési: ‘Bid frossaig far ndála co bráth’ (Your meetings shall always be showery) must be as well proved a prophecy as was ever made. Still there must be more significance in the weather beliefs than dampened observation. Certainly it was expected that rain should fall on that day, and sayings vary as to whether that was a good or bad sign . . . There are a few interesting beliefs about thunder, which was also expected on that day: the loud noise heard at Tristia when the woman made rounds there to have her jealous husband’s affection restored; the prophecy that no-one would be injured by lightning at Doonfeeny, a promise also made by St Péacán . . .

The holy well is tucked away in a stone-walled enclosure hidden under the trees on the edge of the field which contains the Saint’s cell. It’s also a tranquil place, obviously still much visited: the water is crystal clear, refreshing and will ensure protection from burns and drowning.  This is a magical setting to complete the day’s travels in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow.

A Visit to Knock

Our travels have taken us to quite a few Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland: they are all fascinating, and range from St Patrick’s holy mountain  – Croagh Patrick (where snakes were cast out of this country forever) – through the rather daunting Station Island on Lough Derg (where a medieval pilgrim entered, and returned from, Purgatory) to the more ‘unofficial’ shrine at Ballinspittle, here in West Cork, where a statue of the Virgin was seen to move (by hundreds of onlookers) in 1985. Recently we found ourselves in Mayo, so a trip to Ireland’s most impressive shrine – at Knock – was essential.

These illustrations show the evolution of the shrine. At the header is the updated interior of the Parish Church of Knock-Aghamore today, showing the beautiful high altar which was made by P J Scannell of Cork and which was presented as a gift during a pilgrimage in 1880. Behind this east wall is the gable where, on 1st August 1879, fifteen local people witnessed an apparition of Mary, Joseph, St John the Evangelist, and a lamb on an altar which seemed to float, stationary and silent, in front of the wall. It was 8pm and the rain was pouring down, yet the gable wall and the ground in front of it remained dry. The vision – which was also seen by others – seemed to last for about two hours. The upper picture above, which probably dates from around 1880, shows the gable and in front of it a rack of crutches and other paraphernalia apparently left by those cured at the shrine. The very first recorded cure, which happened soon after the vision, was of Delia Gordon, a young girl from nearby Claremorris, who was instantly cured of an acute ear infection and deafness after her mother scraped a little of the plaster off the gable wall and placed it into her ear. You can see in the upper picture where considerable amounts of the plaster appear to have been removed (presumably, following that first cure); by the 1930s (second picture) an iron fence had been erected to protect the wall. In 1963 (third picture), a dedicated chapel had been built in front of the gable, and today (fourth picture) a modern Apparition Chapel is in place to contain the large number of pilgrims who attend mass there on a daily basis. You can also see the elegant sculptures which have been installed on the wall to represent the figures of the apparition.

The vision is superbly depicted in this enormous mosaic which has recently been installed in the Basilica at Knock. P J Lynch, the artist who designed the mosaic, said he . . . tried hard to capture the sense of the wonder that the witnesses must have felt on that wet August evening back in 1879 . . . The mosaic measures 14 metres square and is one of the largest single flat pieces of religious mosaic of its kind in Europe: it is made predominantly from Venetian glass smalti and there are approximately 1.5 million individual pieces of mosaic in the complete work.

This is original stonework from the gable wall to the Parish Church: the lower picture is a panel built in to the modern Apparition Chapel wall. The statements made by the 15 witnesses who saw the vision at the wall in 1879 are fully documented here – an official Commission of Enquiry was held by the Catholic Church in that same year and concluded . . . the words of the witnesses were trustworthy and satisfactory . . . a further investigation in 1936 interviewed the then surviving witnesses, who corroborated what they had seen. Mary Byrne, who was 29 at the time of the apparition and 86 during the second enquiry said . . . I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God . . . She died shortly afterwards. John Curry, the youngest witness, was 5 in 1879. The child said . . . he saw images, beautiful images, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. He could state no more than that he saw the fine images and the light, and heard the people talk of them, and stood upon the wall to see them . . . He confirmed his memories when interviewed in new York for the 1936 enquiry.

Over a million people a year come to Knock, in search of faith, enlightenment, cures perhaps: or just out of curiosity. It is a place with a great sense of purpose – and long may it continue. As a (now retired) church architect I was distinctly struck by the enormous Basilica which was constructed initially in the 1970s and which has been refurbished very recently. It is spectacular in its size and scale and is fittingly  furnished with powerful works of art. In particular I was impressed by the large, harrowing, painted Stations of the Cross: unfortunately – and strangely – I can find no record anywhere of the artist.

If you have a spare couple of hours it’s worth finding and watching this entertaining and fair-minded documentary about Knock, made by RTÉ in 2016:

I make no judgments as to the veracity or otherwise of what was witnessed on that day in 1879. There have been many theories put forward, ranging from magic lanterns to unrest provoked by the Land Acts! But why should we doubt the faith of anyone, whatever their religion? The Christian story is all about miracles, so surely miracles are just as possible in the 19th century as they were in the 1st… The village of Knock carries on its normal life around all the trappings of the shrine: shops selling statues and Holy Water bottles abound, and add to the colour. On the site you can look out the well-curated museum, and treat yourself to good refreshments. It’s all worth visiting, even if your interest is purely anthropological. The Pope himself will be there this August and all the 45,000 (free) tickets have been booked. If the sun keeps on shining – and perhaps it will – it’ll be a grand day for all!

Loughrea Cathedral and the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement

How did a church in an Irish country town become a repository for some of the greatest treasures of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century? That church is St Brendan’s Cathedral in Loughrea, Co Galway, which we visited last week.

Evie Hone’s St Brigid window

The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against soulless methods of industrial production which emphasised repetitive tasks and removed the link between the worker and the final product. Such factory processes were eventually applied to works of art, such as stained glass windows, where numerous workers would be employed to assemble a final product. Within the movement, artisans, artists and makers sought to get back to a former time, often conceived as medieval and highly romanticised, when craftsmen and women designed and executed exquisite works from start to finish.

Queen of Heaven window by Michael Healy

So where does Loughrea come in? Well, for a start, it was the home of Edward Martyn, a wealthy enthusiast for all things Gaelic Revival including language, theatre, literature, music and art. Heavily influenced by the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement, particularly by those of William Morris, he worked with Sarah Purser to found An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) as an artist/maker stained glass studio. Not a small part of their initial success was his ability to promise commissions from the decoration of St Brendan’s Cathedral.

The Stations of the Cross are by Túr Gloine artist Ethel Rhind and are executed in the unusual opus sectile mosaic technique

Thus it is that this church, in outward appearance very much like the prevailing neo-Gothic style of the end of the nineteenth century, is packed with the work of the most eminent women and men artists of the opening decades of the 20th century. Yes, that’s right, women and men – the Arts and Crafts movement empowered women artists like few such movement had before (or since, perhaps).

The Agony in the Garden by A E Child, detail

It takes a moment to realise what you have entered – initially the church interior seems familiar and unremarkable, almost heavy in its preponderance of marble, tile and dark wood.

But as the eyes adjust, you can be permitted a gasp or two as you realise that all the capitals are carved with scenes from the life of St Brendan, that there are fine sculptures here and there, that the arm of each pew has been individually decorated with idiosyncratic characters, that are are art-nouveau-looking light standards throughout the aisles, that the stations of the cross are unlike any you’ve seen before, and finally that the stained glass windows are numerous and beautiful.

Two scenes from the Death of Brendan, carvings by Michael Shortall

All the Túr Gloine stained glass arts are represented here: A E Child, Michael Healy, Ethel Rhind, Catherine O’Brien, Beatrice Elvery, Evie Hone and Hubert McGoldrick. There is even a small St Brendan window by Sarah Purser herself – a rarity as she mostly confined herself to the management of projects rather than glass-painting.

One of the very few stained glass windows actually executed by Sarah Purser herself – a Brendan image in the porch of the church

The stone carving is mostly the work of Michael Shortall, a student of John Hughes, the foremost sculptor of his day who provided bronze figures for the church. Eminent architect William Scott was engaged to design church furnishings and was responsible for the side altars, the entrance gates, the altar vessels and candlesticks, the baptismal font and altar rail.

Each pew arm has a whimsical creature – this one was no doubt intended to concentrate the mind on mortality

The woodwork was all done locally, with the workers encouraged to use their skills to depicts beasts and mythical figures, in much the same way that medieval craftsmen had done.

The museum contains an outstanding collection of sodality banners designed by Jack B Yeats and his wife, Cottie, and embroidered by the Dun Emer Guild. Above is the original design and the finished product

But that’s not all. Beside the church is a small museum, similarly packed with treasures. In particular, here is where you will see the work of the Dún Emer Guild, a women’s cooperative enterprise that designed and supplied materials (altar cloths, vestments, rugs, tapestries) to churches and others. Strongly influenced by traditional Irish designs such as scrollwork, interlacing, high crosses and Book of Kells symbols, the works supplied to St Brendan’s are wonderful examples of Irish Revival motifs, skillfully embroidered in gorgeous colours.

The Museum holds other artefacts too, including extremely rare medieval wooden carvings: most wooden statues were destroyed by the Puritans and very few have survived. There are also fifteenth century vestments, original drawings and sketches by Irish artists, altar vessels, and stained glass cartoons.

Twelfth or Thirteenth century wooden statue of the Virgin or Child

This post is a small introduction to the wonders of Loughrea Cathedral. About 40 minutes east of Galway and just south of the M6, this church is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Ireland and its Arts and Crafts movement. The only comparable experience is the Honan Chapel in Cork.

Michael Healy’s magnificent Resurrection window

All I can do here is show you a representative sample of what we saw and encourage you to go see the totality for yourself. You won’t regret it.

The massive cathedral gates, designed by William Scott

Uillinn – Surviving and Thriving

Uillinn, Skibereen’s unique contemporary art gallery, is thriving and surviving while apparently ‘under siege’ from the onslaught of the major engineering works engulfing the town centre at the moment. It’s all about making the town and its buildings safe from future flooding: extreme weather conditions – which are likely to get worse as the years go by – are threatening Cork city and many of the low-lying  West Cork communities and works are now in hand to protect these settlements against serious flooding into the foreseeable future. The result is a whole lot of disruption but, as always, imperturbable Cork Rebels are just getting on with life in spite of it all.

Peace and quiet in Skibbereen, before the works commenced. Header picture – the Caol Stream reflected on the canopy of the cantilevered gallery

When the West Cork Arts Centre took the plunge to propose a significant arts gallery in Skibbereen back in the early years of the new Millennium, an architectural competition was held. In 2009, the winning design, by Dublin based Donaghy and Dimond Architects, proposed a dramatic 5-storey high Corten steel-clad box cantilevering over the Caol Stream that runs beside the site, gaining valuable ‘bonus’ space for accommodating the work of the Centre. In fact, the name Uillinn means ‘elbow’, and the gallery is situated on a bend – or elbow – of the stream. Economically – after the collapse of the Tiger years – it was a difficult time for Ireland and numerous projects were being cut or shelved, but work on the gallery went ahead, although not without compromise. Here’s an excellent article from the Irish Times which charts the progress of the building process.

Now, the gallery is facing new challenges as the flood relief works are encroaching on the surroundings of the building. The basis of the engineering solution to protect Skibbereen from further floods is to build high, waterproof walls around every watercourse in and around the town. The principal one of these is the River Ilen, which skirts the north side of the town. However, the Caol Stream – a tributary of the river – runs right through the commercial centre, and right by Uillinn. Finola has written about the abundant natural life that was contained in this stream, albeit much of it partly hidden from view. Everything is changing now, as the sides of the waterway are being steel-piled and concrete walls are being built up to a height of 1100mm all the way around it, as you can see in the photographs below. In places, toughened glass sheets will be inserted in perforations in the retaining walls to enhance the structure and allow views to the water.

Of course, a fresh ecosystem will establish itself in the new, concrete-encased channel, although the character of it is sure to change. Uillinn’s problem is that it is bounded by the stream all the way along its east elevation – and the main entrance is via a bridge (now temporarily dismantled) over the waterway.

Close work: the channel of the Caol Stream is being excavated and then lined as it passes beside Uillinn. The bridge providing the main access to the gallery has been removed to allow these works to proceed

In spite of all these works (which, for Skibbereen as a whole, won’t be finished until 2019) Uillinn – and the renowned Kalbo’s Café which it embraces – have to remain open and viable at all times. This is being achieved by constant liaison and close co-operation with the contractors, Jons Civil Engineering, appointed by Cork County Council, as agents of, and in partnership with the Office of Public Works. Although delayed by the ravages of Hurricane Ophelia and other severe winter storms, the contractors have pulled out all the stops in order to restore normality to the centre of the town as soon as possible and have managed to maintain full access to the gallery and cafe, and all premises in the path of the works, although some disruption to businesses in such circumstances is inevitable. On the west side of the Caol Stream, between Uillinn and Skibbereen’s Main Street, a disused single story shop has been purchased and demolished, and its site now provides a new pedestrian access to the gallery – and it’s one which will continue to be used once everything is finished and the bridge is restored. Suitably streetscaped, the overall approach to Uillinn will be much improved as a consequence of all these works.

The ‘old shoe shop’ (top) was an unusual structure, partly cantilevered out over the Caol Stream. Its removal (lower pictures) has enabled an extra pedestrian access to be established from Main Street

As a member of the Board of Uillinn, closely involved with much of the liaison between the gallery personnel and the contractors, I can confirm that relations have at all times been caring, cordial and helpful, and I commend those involved in the physical work for their skills and approachability through all the potential difficulties. I also commend the Director, Anne Davoren, and her dedicated team at the gallery for keeping cheerful and smiling throughout, and always maintaining a smooth efficiency. The staff of Kalbo’s Café have also kept up their impeccable standard of service and remain such an asset to Uillinn.

It’s unlikely that things will be back to normal before the opening of Uillinn’s momentous venture on 20 July this year – Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger

. . . The exhibition of artworks at Uillinn, including work by major Irish and Irish American artists of the past 170 years such as Daniel Macdonald, Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats, William Crozier, Hughie O’Donoghue, Dorothy Cross and Alanna O’Kelly, will be accompanied by a rich and diverse programme of performances, talks, lectures and events at Uillinn, and off-site in other locations in West Cork. These will resonate with the history and legacy of the Great Hunger and also amplify the contemporary themes explored in the exhibition. The themes include famine, the politics of food, poverty, displacement of peoples, refugees, emigration, identity, memory and loss . . .

We are all looking forward to the launch of this unique event in Skibbereen, and we know our contractors will ensure that everything will be done to prioritise good access and presentation of the gallery through the duration of the exhibition.

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger runs from 20 July to 13 October at Uillinn, Skibbereen

Ballyfin – Part 2: Decline and Revival

Last week Roaringwater Journal visited Ballyfin Demesne: I sketched out the early history of the house and Finola looked at the magnificent grounds. Today I’m bringing the story up to date. We got as far as the gracious Victorian and Edwardian days, when the Coote family were in residence, as they had been since 1813. The photo above dates from 1903 and shows a jaunting car waiting at the entrance to the house (Magan Collection): perhaps those days were not quite as settled as the halcyon period when the children of Sir Charles Coote were painted so fancifully in the early nineteenth century (artist: George Hayter – with the addition of a whippet painted by Edwin Lanseer!). The painting (below) is now a centrepiece in the Gold Room at Ballyfin.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were clouds on the horizon for the Anglo Irish families and their big houses, although life at Ballyfin seemed to maintain a continuum up until the commencement of the Great War. Generations of Cootes are remembered as having been good landlords and employers: on Sir Charles’ death in 1864 the most important members of staff were ‘handsomely rewarded’ in his will, while in the early 20th century the 12th Baronet, Sir Algernon Coote, paid the highest wages in the county – and ‘provided a comfortable house’ – to all outside labourers. In 1920, Sir Algernon died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph,  the 13th Baronet. In the atmosphere of the Irish War of Independence, Ralph could no longer see a future in remaining at Ballyfin: ‘ . . . nothing would ever be the same again . . . ‘

A sad picture of Ballyfin – the house now abandoned and awaiting its fate in 1926

Sensibly – and most fortunately for today’s owners, Sir Ralph determined that the demesne should not be broken up and dispersed. He insisted that it should be marketed as one lot:

‘ . . . I have no intention whatever of dividing the demesne, the price is £10,000 . . . The figure is final and you need not bother to waste any time with anyone trying to reduce it. I would let the place fall down first . . . ‘

It was precisely one hundred years after the 9th Baronet had rebuilt Ballyfin to re-establish a permanent residence there.

So it was that, in 1930, Ballyfin set out on a new path in its development – as a school owned and run by the Patrician Brothers – a Roman Catholic teaching brotherhood. The only significant alterations to the house were the creation of a College Chapel in the old Dining Room (above), a dormitory across the north front of the first floor, and improved services. The immediate grounds were retained to provide productive gardens and the yards were filled with livestock.

Reports of life at the school from those who have memories of it are generally very positive, particularly because of the idyllic surroundings and features of the estate.  While the Patricians did their best to ensure that Ballyfin catered for the needs of a large secondary school and also strove to keep the entire demesne intact, in the end economic pressures and decades of slow decline took their toll. The Brothers closed the College in September, 2001, after 74 years of stewardship: once vacated, Ballyfin House was considered  by the Irish Georgian Society to be foremost amongst Ireland’s endangered buildings. It needed a saviour to rescue it. Fortunately, three appeared.

Above – an example of the declining fabric of Ballyfin during the twentieth century: Richard Turner’s iconic iron conservatory seems beyond repair, yet the reincarnation of the estate that commenced in 2004 has magnificently returned this architectural gem to prime condition, along with the rest of the house and Demesne. The conservatory was completely dismantled and – piece by piece – the ironwork was restored, then reassembled. Then a complete reglazing took place (practically every pane is a different size): in the days of the school the boys had found the glass an irresistible target!

In 2002, a Chicago based couple, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, became the new owners of Ballyfin and invited Jim Reynolds – one of Ireland’s leading landscape designers (who incidentally shared an archaeology education with Finola!) – to join them as shareholder and managing director on a project that was ‘ . . . a fundamental desire to recreate, primarily through restoration, the great hospitable tradition. the luxury and the atmosphere of the Irish country house . . . ‘ Ballyfin encompassed everything they had been searching for: ‘ . . . a great endangered house in a beautiful landscape that needed rescuing . . . ‘

The source of much of the history of the demesne recorded here is the impressive volume by Kevin V Mulligan, to which I referred last week. This extract is a good summary of the ethos and achievement of those who drove the project:

‘ . . . The primary aim of the new owners and Jim Reynolds has been to re-establish the integrity of the house and everything within the demesne walls – its historic buildings, gardens and parklands, and by opening the house to guests, to fulfil the hospitable intentions of the Irish country house. Since 2004 an extensive programme of restoration works has brought the house closest to its state following completion almost two centuries ago. It has taken eight years to achieve this, longer in fact than it had taken to complete the house in the first instance . . . ‘

This photo compendium indicates the high quality of the restoration and the attention paid to every detail, including the recovery and hanging of many of the original portraits showing the owners of the estate during its history.

Ballyfin today reflects one piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is the history of Ireland. It paints a picture of way of life now in the past.  In today’s incarnation as a first class, small hotel it offers a distilled and polished experience of the best of contemporary Irish hospitality.

Ireland’s Finest Prospect – The Story of Ballyfin Demesne, Part 1

There are two reasons why Ballyfin, in County Laois, was high on our list of Important Places To See In Ireland. One was the story that the name – An Baile Fionn in Irish – could mean ‘The Place of Fionn’ – and there is a legend that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill was raised here, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Fionn has left behind him so many traces all over Ireland that the place where he was – perhaps – born and grew up deserves pilgrimage status.

A place fit for a legendary Irish hero? Ballyfinn has associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The lake which is central to the prospect from Ballyfin today was constructed by William Pole in the second half of the eighteenth century

An alternative translation of An Baile Fionn is ‘The White Town’, and the location has long had a reputation as a place of great beauty. Emily Fitzgerald, the Countess of Kildare – a remarkable lady who was illegitimately descended from King Charles II and who bore twenty-two children – wrote in 1759: 

. . . Yesterday, I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin . . .

The beauty of the Irish Midlands in the eighteenth century: Ballyfinn House can be seen in the centre distance of this pastoral view from 1784: beyond are the Slieve Bloom Mountains (painting by William Ashford)

In medieval times Ballyfin belonged to the O ‘Mordha clan but was lost during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The process of Plantation (in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown) was first implemented in Laois – then known as ‘Queen’s County’ after Queen Mary I – in the mid sixteenth century. It was a complicated and unstable period in British and Irish history, and Ballyfin saw many possessors ascend and fall until in May 1666 the estate of approximately 3,500 acres was conferred on Periam Pole, a recent arrival from Exeter in Devon. Pole and his son William expanded the estate, built a ‘modern’ house and reshaped the entire gardens and demesne. William planted woodlands and constructed the 30 acre artificial lake which is there to this day. The improvements were ‘grand and expensive and their designs were elegant’.

A view of Ballyfin engraved by William Beauford and published in 1794 shows the woodland, landscaped grounds and lake. The house  – which the Poles extended and improved – was described as ‘a rambling Georgian house’ although with no particular architectural merit

In the time of the Poles, Ballyfin began to build its reputation as one of Ireland’s grandest estates. However, it was not until the Poles were succeeded by the Cootes, in 1813, that the significant architectural statement that is Ballyfin today came into being.

Progenitors of Ballyfin: left – William Pole who died in 1781 (artist unknown) and right – Sir Charles Henry Coote who died in 1864 (artist John Hoppner). The legacy of these two families is a house and demense which are acknowledged as outstanding examples of their period – probably the finest in Ireland

Sir Charles Henry Coote already owned substantial estates close to Ballyfin, and it was timely and appropriate that he was able to purchase the demesne. He employed the father and son team of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison as architects to rebuild the house, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design.

A print showing the ‘new’ house designed by the Morrisons in the neo-classical style (1828 British Library). below – views of the house today

The picture above shows the west elevation of the house with the finely-wrought conservatory that was added in around 1855, designed and constructed by ironfounder Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the great Palm Houses at Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens and the range of glasshouses at the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. It’s my favourite part of the architecture – lightweight and elegant: seemingly timeless – it could be a contemporary structure.

Fine though the house is, it would fail without its context. The demesne is so important as a setting for the rather uncompromising architecture of the elevations. Finola has looked at the grounds and the surroundings. But it’s also the interior that sets Ballyfin apart as an icon of its time.

The Library at Ballyfin: upper – in Victorian days (Coote Archive); lower – splendidly restored, today

The Saloon: upper – a sketch from c 1855 by the Marquis de Massigny de la Pierre (Coote Archive); lower (and header picture) – the restored Saloon forms the centrepiece of the house today. Note the magnificent parquet floor

The Entrance Hall incorporates a Roman mosaic pavement: one of the art treasures brought over by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of 1822. The hall also displays a far more ancient antiquity: the antlers of Megaloceros Giganteus – the Irish Elk, recovered from an Irish bog and some 10,000 years old!
Details from the superbly restored marquetry flooring in the saloon – the most exotic examples to be found anywhere in Ireland

The first part of our story ends with the Cootes: the family owned Ballyfin until the 1920s. But there’s much more to tell about its succeeding time as a school – periods of neglect and decline – and, most remarkably,  its revival and return to distinction through one of the most complete and elaborate architectural restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century. Ballyfin is now a first-class 5 star hotel where attention to detail in the service it offers is absolute: it has justifiably won many accolades and awards.

Afternoon tea on the Dining Room terrace at Ballyfin, c 1903 (Magan Collection)

The story of Ballyfin has been expertly and completely documented by Kevin V Mulligan in the volume Ballyfin – The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne, Churchill House Press 2018. We are indebted to this author and his work. The architectural restoration and the incarnation of the house today is described in Part 2 of this post: Decline and Revival.