Nano Nagle – Lady of the Lantern

A Cork heroine: Nano Nagle was given the accolade ‘Ireland’s Greatest Woman’ by RTE in 2005, and at that time it was suggested that she would be a Nobel Prize winner if she were alive today. Why? Because she devoted her own adult life to helping – and educating – deprived Catholic families during the ‘Penal times’ in which she lived: she was born in 1718.

Header, tailpiece and above: images from the audio-visual display which can be seen in Nano Nagle Place, located on Douglas Street, Cork – only five minutes’ walk from the English Market

While Nano Nagle was actively agitating for – and lived to see – some relaxation of the laws against Catholics, particularly the repeals of 1778, she died in 1784 and it was not until 1791 that the Roman Catholic Relief Act saw some significant lessening of discrimination – although one of the sorest points, the continuing requirement for Catholics to pay tithes to the Established (Protestant) Church, was not fully overturned until the Irish Church Act of 1869.

Above – the landscaped gardens at Nano Nagle Place, Cork, are a city centre oasis, and contain Nano Nagle’s tomb and the graves of the sisters of the communities which carried out Nagle’s work from the mid eighteenth century onward

Nano herself seemed able to work ‘above the law’: she was born in Ballygriffin, near Mallow, County Cork into a wealthy family and experienced an idyllic childhood. The Penal Laws of that time meant that education for Catholics was not available in Ireland unless they were willing to attend Church of Ireland schools, and Irish Catholics were forbidden from travelling to the continent to be educated. Despite this, Nano was educated in France, where she experienced an epiphanic moment and determined to devote the rest of her life to the service of the poor back home in Ireland. 

Above – part of a painting in the Nano Nagle Room at Díseart Institute of Irish Spirituality and Culture (formerly the Presentation Convent) in Dingle, Co Kerry. The painting, by Eleanor Yates, shows the moment when Nano, travelling from a ball in Paris, sees pauper children suffering on the streets and realises that her life mission should be to care for and educate the poor

When Nano’s father and sister died, she moved to live with her brother’s family on Cove Street, Cork – now named Douglas Street. There she began to carry out her mission and opened a girls’ school around 1750 focussing on reading, writing, catechism and needlework. She had to work in secret as, under the Penal Laws, operating a Catholic school could result in imprisonment. 

Nano Nagle Place in Cork City incorporates some of the earliest buildings dating from the time of the Ursuline Sisters: the buildings have been restored and extended to form the present day Centre

Within ten years Nano was operating seven schools across the city of Cork, teaching both boys and girls. When her brother’s family moved to Bath, Nano took a small cottage on Cove Street. By day she visited each of her schools, and by night she visited the poor. This was dangerous work:  the city streets were neither lit nor properly policed. Nano travelled by the light of the lantern she carried, and she became known as ‘Miss Nagle, the Lady of the Lantern’.

Today there are displays in Nano Nagle Place showing some original artefacts from Nano’s time, including an early Convent accounts book and Nano’s cap

In 1771 Nano Nagle used a family inheritance to build a convent for the Ursuline sisters, a teaching order, whom she invited from France. The Ursuline Order, however, is ‘cloistered’ – unable to leave the convent and only able to teach within the convent. Thus,  to continue with her work in the schools she had set up all over Cork, Nano founded her own order – The Society for Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart – in 1775. The name was changed in 1791 to The Presentation Sisters, and there were from that time two religious communities both established by Nano Nagle, working side by side on Cove Lane (now Douglas Street), all living in mutual harmony and support, and continuing the mission of Nano Nagle across the world and into the present day.

Above – the death notice of Nano Nagle, and a recent water sculpture adjacent to her grave in Cork. Below – Nano’s gravestone and some graves of Sisters from the communities which were set up in Douglas Street

The Nano Nagle Heritage Centre has been established on Douglas Street and is open to all. It houses a very good visual presentation on the history of Cork in Nano’s time – and of Nano herself. It has beautiful landscaped gardens – quite a surprise in this urban setting – and Good Day Deli: a restaurant serving excellent food. Nano’s grave can be visited, and has recently been given a sculptural treatment which blends well with the historic buildings and graveyard of the early convent.

We are very grateful to Dr Danielle O’Donovan, Programme Manager of Nano Nagle Place, for personally showing us around the Centre and explaining its considerable historical significance

Ballyfin Bliss

If the house at Ballyfin is beyond superb (see Robert’s post this week), the grounds are equally so. Originally based on the design philosophies of Capability Brown, the emphasis is on natural and sweeping vistas, pleasure gardens, mixtures of open lawn and woodlands, tea-houses and follies artfully dotted around, an expansive lake with an island and with lawns leading down to the edge, and of course a long winding driveway that eventually reveals the best view of the house.

Somehow all these landscape features have survived intact at Ballyfin, although some of them needed to be rediscovered or uncovered. What has been added is a masterpiece of both enhancement and restraint, and the genius behind that is Jim Reynolds, the Managing Director of the enterprise that is Ballyfin Demesne. Jim and I share a past in Boyne Valley Archaeology, although we were in different camps (that’s another story) and I visited his famous garden, The Butterstream in Meath, with my mother in the early 90s. That was the last time I saw him until this week. Genial and self-effacing, he gives credit to his marvellous team, while they, to a person, talk about his eye, his vision, his expansive knowledge and his drive.

We spent two days walking, riding (in a horse and carriage) and driving (in a golf cart) around the estate, and we still haven’t seen all of its 640 acres. Entrancing is the word that keeps coming to me. It’s spring still (late this year) and the woods are awash in bluebells, mixed with Ramsons, Herb Robert and Greater Celandine.

The extensive trail system takes you around the lake and into the old-growth woods, where chestnuts and oak trees shelter vast swathes of colourful undergrowth.

The path meanders past the Grotto (every house should have one) which is not your typical Irish Lourdes shrine, but a rustic construction created to convey a sense of ancient ‘druidic’ mystery. Impressing and amusing your guests was important and grottos, temples and such like were a vital element of 18th century pleasure gardens.

When it comes to follies, the jewel in the crown at Ballyfin is the Round Tower. It looks old because it was built that way, as a ruin. They say that from the top you can see 16 counties. It’s a pleasant thing, as a couple of our fellow-guests did, to take a book up to the little room at the top and while away an hour or two before wandering back down to the house for coffee and a scone, mid-morning.

Jim and his team’s commitment to wild flowers and to pollinators is everywhere in evidence. The meadows are only cut once a year and as a result they are alive with the hum of bees and the flash of butterflies. Even the formal and kitchen gardens have areas set aside to attract pollinators.

As seems inevitable in Ireland nowadays, we also saw Japanese Knotweed on the demesne. Robert Pywell, the head gardener, told us that the rock garden was originally hidden under an acre of Knotweed. Only constant spraying/injection can address a Knotweed problem, and the program is ongoing for this invasive and persistent species.

He told us about another pest too – Ireland has a mink problem. Originally imported from North America for the purpose of fur farming, several hundred mink were “liberated” by animal rights activists in a nearby county years ago. Others have escaped, or been released by fur farmers over the years. They have no predators in Ireland and they are ferocious killers of ducks, swans, fish, rabbits and small mammals. They have decimated the waterfowl population at Ballyfin. Trapping them is difficult, but it has to be done. Lady Coote would approve – she loved her peacocks and built an aviary for them (above) that was, as our driver said, better than some of the houses round about.

Back to that rock garden (above) – once it was salvaged it turned out to be a glorious addition to the demesne. Built around an old millstream and pond, it hosts some delightful plants. A new one for me was Saxifraga Cymbalaria (sometimes called Celandine Saxifrage), which is not native and only known in a few places in Ireland. It obviously loves the rockery as it is flourishing and providing an attractive yellow ground cover.

Beautiful as this designed landscape was, once fully restored, something was missing and Jim Reynold’s unerring eye for detail knew exactly what was needed. What he did was to build a cascade down the back lawn, from an ornamental temple at the top to a Neptune pond at the bottom. It is the perfect finishing touch and has quickly become an iconic aspect of Ballyfin’s landscaping.

We loved our break at Ballyfin. Special treats such as this don’t come around often in the normal course of life, so we are grateful that we can enjoy the odd sortie such as this now and then. It was such a privilege to be able to appreciate the incredible work that has gone into restoring this house to its former glory and the wonderful staff that looks after it (and looked after us!) so proudly.

Thank you, Ballyfin!

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.

One Acre

Marsh Thistle

That’s what we have in West Cork – one miraculous acre. We don’t sow potatoes nor barley nor wheat – we just try to let the grass grow and see what happens.

Above: Scented Mayweed along our boreen/right of way. Below: Wildflowers behind the house – Self-heal, Scented Mayweed (the daisy-like flower) and Bog Pimpernel (the tiny pink ones)

This year was my year for leaving part of my acre un-mowed. I’ve been reading Zoe Devlin’s new book, Blooming Marvellous, and as she suggests, I started with the September chapter which happens to be, among other things, about growing a wildflower meadow. I have a better idea now as to what I should have done, and I’ll be able to improve things as I go along, but for a first year, it didn’t work out too badly.

Common Sorrel, A delicate grass called Bent, and Red and White Clover with Plantain

Essentially, I chose one section not to mow at all until a couple of weeks ago. I was pleased with the flowers that appeared in my little ‘meadow,’ as well as the grasses and the plants we commonly call weeds (ragwort and thistles) because they all added to the variety of what was there and provided food for the bugs.

Ragwort (above) is toxic to cattle and horses and is considered a noxious weed. Known in much of Ireland as Buachalláns (boo-ka-lawns) it is also a superb food source for insects. A recent Guardian article spells out the dilemma we face with Ragwort.

Sheep’s-bit rewards getting up close and personal

Thing is, even the parts I hadn’t intended as a wildflower haven flourished as well. Maybe it’s because I have an eye for what’s growing now (and didn’t before), or maybe it was a particularly good year, but whatever the case, I was living this spring and summer on an acre of wildflowers, a feast for the sense, and a joy to walk upon.

The flowers I found on my own acre are a testament to what happens when you try not to mow too often or too short. Lying in the grass on a warm summer morning you become intensely aware of the activity all around you – bees, bumble bees, hoverflies, butterflies and bugs of all sizes and description are busily flitting from flower to flower, alighting on the Clover, the Cat’s-ear or the Mayweed, investigating the Bindweed and the Bramble flowers, and then buzzing off again.

Slender St John’s-wort and Bramble (blackberry) flowers

And it wasn’t just the lawn – random flowers started to poke out of the gravel driveway, as if sensing friendly territory, and all sorts of stuff popped up in my herb patch (the only actual gardening I do). I let the herbs go fairly wild too, once I saw how the insects loved them. 

From the top: Common Ramping Fumitory among my Tarragon; this Field Woundwort just appeared in the gravel one day; Wood Sage growing on the boundary wall, a soldier beetle on Parsley flower

The rock walls hosted Foxglove and Stonecrop and Wood Sage and around the periphery Heathers and Vetches fought the Gorse for space.

Common Vetch

I’ve just chosen a selection of wildflowers from my acre for this post, to give you a flavour of what will grow if you let it. 

Above: Heath Speedwell; Below: Common Mouse-ear

There were more and I don’t know that I can identify them all, especially all those yellow members of the Asteraceae family – the ones that I always used to think were just Dandelions but now I know that this family has enormous variety of flowers. One of my goals for next year is to advance my knowledge in this area so I am comfortable with distinguishing more of them.

There are fewer bright blooms now that it’s well into autumn. But, like the sweet little Scarlet Pimpernel about to open, below, it’s amazing what’s still flowering sturdily on – on our one acre.

Where Art and History Meet

Perhaps I should say where they collide! West Cork has both, in abundance, and we’ve just lived through one of those once-in-a-lifetime conjunctions of  the artistic and the historical that leave you stimulated, thoughtful and reeling all at once.

Clockwise from top left: Coverage of the Festival in the Southern Star – the headline says it all; Roy Foster delivered an acclaimed opening address; Finola introduces Kevin Vickers, Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland; Canon Salter and his daughter Brigid at the screening of An Tost Fada, perhaps the most controversial (and certainly one of the most interesting) moments of the Festival

First of all, as our readers must be tired of hearing by now, we participated in the brand new West Cork History Festival. It was a great success, with well over 400 people enjoying a huge variety of talks, films, and panels, augmented with lashings of food and drink. It was so well planned, in fact, that the rain showers obliged by only appearing during the talks, and clearing off when it was time to be outside mixing and mingling and moving between marquees. The Festival wasn’t short on controversy. Sparks flew at several sessions, mainly between speakers and audience members, proving, if we didn’t already know it, that history is very much alive in West Cork. Depressingly, it also signals that, 100 years on, some people are still fighting the old battles. However, to judge from the general climate, those folks are in the minority.

John Kelly the Irish/British/Australian artist, and West Cork resident

Two days after the Festival, we moved on to art. Or so we thought. We had signed up for a guided tour of Reen Farm, the Sculpture Garden that is the home, studio and inspiration for the artist John Kelly. This event was part of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival that has been running all week.

Two upside-down kangaroos in the tennis court – don’t ask me to explain this one, my head was spinning at that point

We’ve met John a couple of times and had seen an exhibition of his at Uillinn that focused on his experiences in the Antarctic. We were aware that, as a sculptor, a painter, and a writer John is internationally esteemed and has exhibited world-wide.

The Turrell-inspired crater with passages leading through it to the sea. (We have our reason to relate to John’s version of the famous Sky Garden at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen)

You’ve probably all visited a sculpture garden at some point – but I guarantee you, you’ve never had an experience like this. Being led around by John himself was a privilege, but it’s also a must in order to understand his inspirations, because it’s all about history, and eclectic history at that. 

His Tate Modern piece (above) was a response to the famine in his townland, Reen, as reported in 1846 by a local resident, N M Cummins. Now, looking at it, you would never arrive at that conclusion by yourself, but once you stand there and listen to John recounting the grim happenings that took place there 170 years ago and how that led him to contemplating the food abundance that made Henry Tate a millionaire around the same time, it all starts to come together.

Robert and the Cow up a Tree – just to give you a sense of the scale of the sculpture

I won’t recount the story of the Cow up a Tree, because you have to go yourself and hear it from John in all its convoluted glory. (If you really need to know you can read about it on John’s website.) It’s the highlight of the tour, but definitely only one part of a whole fascinating set of experiences that goes on and on. 

Besides the art (some of which will make you laugh out loud), stunning views greet you as you follow the trail, and finally Christina’s garden and John’s studio round out the day. The Garden is now part of the West Cork Garden Trail and is open from August 7th (tomorrow) until the 13th.

The Golden Hour at Bantry House

Urns

You know that amazing quality of light just after sunrise and before sunset?  Well, photographers call it the Golden Hour (or Magic Hour), when the light takes on particular hues and becomes softer and more diffuse. There are scientific explanations, of course, but for most of us, we just know it when we see it.

Long Shadow

The low sun produces a golden glow and anything lit by it takes on those same reddish and amber hues. The harsh midday sun, which results in glaring highlights and deep shadows, is replaced by  gentler and longer shadows. Everything looks warmer, more romantic.

Roses

The perfect place to see this in West Cork is Bantry House. Because it faces due west, it is bathed in the low evening light. The construction materials, stone and brick, are warm-toned to begin with, but in the twilight hour they take on a mellow blush that is particularly entrancing. The sunsets over Bantry Bay, needless to say, are spectacular.

Ready for Zorro

Waiting for Zorro

We  had the perfect opportunity to observe this on several occasions. We attended a performance of Zorro on the lawn in August, and we usually take in several of the concerts at the Masters of Tradition Festival each year.

Back of the House

This photograph was taken during an interval at a Masters of Tradition Concert: the Library, at the back of the house, is the concert hall

Bantry House dates from the 18th century. The gardens were laid out in the second half of the 19th century in the formal continental style, with parterres, stepped lawns and avenues of statuary. The Second Earl was a great traveller and came back from his grand tour with ideas and artefacts to make the best use of the elevated site.

Up the steps

Rear Garden and StableIt  was he who added the stable yards with the cupolas, and laid out the gardens, including the hundred steps. All of this was somewhat at variance with the prevailing fashions in garden design at the time, which favoured more naturalistic settings with sweeping lawns dotted with groves of trees. However, it suited the restricted site and its formality has stood the test of time.

Statuesque

Restored Stable BlockA visit to the gardens at Bantry House is a wonderful experience. It’s open from March to October but the gates close at 5, so if you want to experience the Golden Hour, you’ll have to attend an evening event. Fortunately, these are abundant in the summer, as it’s a favourite venue for festivals and concerts.

Palms and HouseDuring the break, stroll about and just, well, bask. 

Trees and Flowers

Canons

And don’t forget to admire the sunset itself.

Sunset over the Bay