Edifying and Eccentric – The Earl Bishop

Finola had always wanted to visit Mussenden Temple and the ruins of the nearby great house on the Downhill Demense: it’s only a few stones’ throws from Nead an Iolair, so off we went on a stormy Sunday – the first day of October.

The house was built by the eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803). Being the third son of the even more eccentric Lord John Hervey, he did not expect an inheritance and tried law (unsuccessfully) before entering the church. His eldest brother George was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766 and, although he never set foot in the country, he managed to engineer Frederick’s appointment as Bishop of Cloyne then, shortly afterwards, Bishop of Derry, one of the wealthiest Irish sees. While in this post Frederick had the notion to establish a huge estate (apparently with the help of Diocesan funds) on a windswept clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Dunbo, County Londonderry – now Northern Ireland.  Dunbo derives from the Irish Dún Bó, meaning ‘fort of the cows’.

It looks bleak today, and must have been in the Bishop’s time, although his plans for the new demense included classical landscaping and the planting of 300,000 trees: there’s not much sign of them now on that windswept terrain.

Both of Frederick’s older brothers died without leaving heirs and, in 1779, he found himself the Earl of Bristol and in control of a considerable fortune which helped greatly in the realisation of his plans for the Dunbo project, which he named Downhill Demense.

Everything about the Earl Bishop and Downhill Demense is ‘over the top’. Even though it is now a ruin, cared for by the National Trust, its former splendour is obvious. The residence was huge and grand, and Frederick went through a number of architects (beginning with Michael Shanahan of Cork) and including Placido Columbani from Milan, who was supervising plumbing and the installation of water closets – a considerable innovation at the time.

One of the most striking surviving buildings at Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome. It was built close to the cliff edge, but with enough land to enable a horse and carriage to be driven around it. When we looked out of the windows facing the sea we were shocked to see that the building is now teetering right on the cliff edge! Also, a railway line runs right underneath it near sea level, over 100 feet below – you can see the tunnel entrance in the header picture above.

The Temple was an ‘overflow library’ to the house, some distance away. It was constantly heated by a fire always burning in the basement room below, so the books didn’t get damp. The Earl Bishop was a great traveller and collector, and in its heyday the house was full of paintings, statuary and furniture. Students of the Northern Regional College together with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the University of the Third Age and the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group have put together a wealth of information and some reconstructions of the house, included here. Their website is a mine of good information.

Reconstruction by the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group of the Temple dome (upper picture) and (lower) the ‘raw’ brick dome visible today

It’s sobering to stand in the driving rain – as we did today – on this deserted site and imagine the treasures that were once on display in this great edifice. On the Earl Bishop’s death the Demense passed to his cousin. It stayed in the family and survived a devastating fire in 1851, although restoration was not completed until 1876.

Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the main gallery in the house and (lower) poignant piles of rubble on the site today

The family left the house in the 1920s and in the 1930s the house was empty and had been stripped of furniture. During World War 2, Downhill was requisitioned and occupied by the Royal Air Force. In 1946 a request was made for permission to demolish the building, thus avoiding a large rates bill. Consent was refused because …the castle is of general local interest… A tenant was found – Mrs Belgrave – who was the last person to live in the house – but briefly; by October 1949 the entire property had been gutted and the windows and roof removed. The building was listed in 1977, and was acquired by the National Trust in 1980 which has been engaged in continual efforts to preserve the remaining fabric ever since.

Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the Temple interior and (lower) today the Temple is a significant landmark on Northern Ireland’s main tourist route

Wherever you are on the island of Ireland it’s just a hop and a step up to the North: the coastline is stunning, and a journey there will be punctuated, as always, with fascinating history. Well worth a visit!

An excellent detailed article by The Irish Aesthete on the Earl Bishop and his Downhill Demense can be found here

Cloyne Connections

sir edward fanshawe 1856

During our anniversary trip to Ballymaloe (over the other side of Cork) we couldn’t resist a diversion to Cloyne, where Finola remembered having visited a round tower in her youth, just a few years ago. At that time it was possible to climb up inside the tower, after calling in at the local post office to collect the key. Round towers are a significant archaeological feature of Ireland and I like the enigma of them: no-one knows quite when they were built or why (a bit like Rock Art), but there are 65 of them still standing in the Republic in various states of repair. We proceeded to the post office to be told that it had been possible to climb up the tower up until ‘just a few years ago’ – now, health and safety regulations prevented it. Later, I read an account of someone who went to see this tower in 2004, 10 years before, and was told that it had been possible to climb up the tower ‘just a few years ago’… which shows that time and memory are relative.

tower

Although we were disappointed in our aspirations to climb the tower, our visit to the post office turned up a very friendly lady who said that she held the key to the adjacent cathedral, and would be pleased to let us go in there instead.St Colman's Cathedral at Cloyne - a print from 1853St Colman’s Cathedral at Cloyne – a print from 1853

Cloyne Cathedral: the worship area, a small part of the large building

Cloyne Cathedral: the worship area, a small part of the large building

An 11th century gilt bronze cross was found in the Cathedral grounds

An 11th century gilt bronze ‘pilgrims cross’ was found in the Cathedral grounds

The Cathedral of St Colman in Cloyne is well worth a visit. To this Englishman the term ‘cathedral’ conjures up images of Gothic magnificence with soaring spires, arches and intricate buttressing – and set picturesquely within a medieval city centre; this, however, is a humbler structure – although grand in size – constructed in 1250 and located in a somewhat overgrown graveyard in the back streets of a small East Cork town. For more detailed information on the cathedral, have a look at the excellent blog Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

blue flowers

Every day you should learn something new, and until then I had heard nothing of St Colman: St Colman mac Lenene lived in the sixth century and was a friend of St Finbarr, who we have encountered previously. He founded his monastery in Cloyne in 560 here and the cathedral is built over a network of caves, now inaccessible but used in the penal days by priests as a secret underground link from Cloyne House to the Catholic graveyard in order to say mass for the people.

pye window

A window by artist Patrick Pye

Nor did I know anything about the Bishop of Cloyne whose alabaster effigy rests in the north transept of the cathedral, watchfully guarded by a wonderfully personable Lion: it all made me think about how I would like the world to remember me after I’m gone…

bishop b

George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne – with Guardian

You may know – or you may not – that it was Bishop Berkeley who gave his name to the University of California, Berkeley, although he gets a very scant mention on the University’s website. George Berkeley (correctly pronounced bark-lee) was born on 12 March 1685 in Kilkenny and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he later became a lecturer in Greek. He was a radical thinker and philosopher whose best known achievement was the advancement of a theory he called Immaterialism, also known as Subjective Idealism. This theory denies the existence of material substance and contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived.

 

He left the British Isles for the American Colonies in 1729, settling in Rhode Island but determined to found a Utopian city in Bermuda based in principles which he set out. One was: …for the better supplying of churches in our foreign plantations and for converting the savage Americans to Christianity… while …being in Bermuda would prevent the Native American youngsters from “returning to their brutal customs, before they were thoroughly imbued with good principles and habits.”

The 'Bermuda Group' - George Berkeley with his family on Rhode Island

The ‘Bermuda Group’ – George Berkeley with his family and friends on Rhode Island (John Smibert)

Berkeley’s social experiments didn’t get off the ground, mainly due to lack of funding, and he returned to London in 1732 and then to Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, a post which he retained until his death in 1752.

It's a long way to Indian Rock: Berkeley, California - named after the Bishop of Cloyne

It’s a long way to Indian Rock: Berkeley, California – named after the Bishop of Cloyne

George Berkeley wrote Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America – inspired by the colonisation of the New World: …Westward the course of empire takes its way; The first four Acts already past, A fifth shall close the Drama with the day; Time’s noblest offspring is the last…  and it was these lines that were remembered when the city and University of Berkeley were founded in 1866. This Californian institution ‘…became a catalyst of economic growth and social innovation — the place where vitamin E was discovered, a lost Scarlatti opera found, the flu virus identified, and the nation’s first no-fault divorce law drafted…’

graves

From the time of Colman and Finnbarr Cloyne was a great centre of ecclesiastical power. Today the cathedral is a Church of Ireland (Protestant) house and in need of maintenance and repair – a problem for a small population of worshippers. The churchyard is overgrown, and a sanctuary for wild flowers; the ancient gravestones are leaning and barely decipherable. All in all, a place – like so many in Ireland – imbued with a fascinating history which embraces the world.

St Colman

St Colman