Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Kylemore Abbey, Co.Galway

Kylemore Abbey sits picturesquely on the shores of Pollacapall Lake in the heart of scenic Connemara. Kylemore, now occupied by Benedictine nuns, started life not as an abbey, but rather as a castle. The castle was the brainchild of local MP, Mitchel Henry. Henry had come to Ireland sometime in the 1860s, and fell in love with Connemara's rugged beauty. Enjoying considerable wealth, he had a varied career in medicine and business; one of his endeavors was setting up the Manchester Evening News in 1868. Construction commenced on the castle in 1864 to the designs of Samuel Ussher Roberts. Upon the death of his wife in 1875, Henry spent less and less time in Kylemore; the castle was eventually sold on to the ninth duke of Manchester in 1903. The castle came in to the hands of its present owners, the Benedictine nuns, in 1920. 

The castle was an irregular plan country house, largely Gothic in design. The architect, Ussher Roberts had experience working with Gothic houses having designed the similarly magnificent Gurteen le Poer, in Co. Waterford in 1862. Additions were made to Kylemore by the duke of Manchester, and more significantly by the Benedictine nuns, who added a  two block dormitory extension to the rear sometime after 1920. The nuns had previously resided in Ypres, Belgium, but had fled with the destruction of the city during the Great War. The Benedictines of Ypres had been an Irish community, set up in the wake of Reformation in Ireland, and founded in Brussels in 1598. The nuns at Kylemore ran an renowned international boarding school until its closure in 2010. 

One of the abbey's treasures is the nineteenth-century neo-Gothic chapel. The chapel owes its erection not to the nuns, as one might expect, but rather to Mitchell Henry. The chapel was built as a family mausoleum upon the death of his wife in 1875. The chapel, located on the lake shore, one mile from the castle, resembles a miniature cathedral both in appearance and form, and is considered one of the finest examples of the Gothic Revival in Ireland. Mitchell Henry, who had largely retired from residing at Kylemore after his tragedy, was interred there with his wife upon his death in 1910. 

The chapel interior 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Blarney House, Co. Cork

The Blarney estate was originally the possession of a Gaelic Irish family; the McCarthys, lords of Muskerry. Having passed from the McCarthys to the earls of Clancarthy, it eventually came into the hands of the Colthurst family, the present owners. Today the estate is the site of two historic, but very different buildings; a twelfth century medieval castle, and a Victorian baronial house. For most visitors though, Blarney is synonymous with one thing: the Blarney Stone!

In 1820 the large Georgian style house which stood adjacent to the medieval castle was destroyed by fire. It was not until the 1870s that the family decided to erect a new house, not on the same site but some 300 yards from the castle, on an elevated height. The architect chosen was John Lanyon, son of Sir Charles Lanyon, who had designed the central building at Queen's University, Belfast. The style chosen for the new house was Scottish Baronial. An offshoot of the nineteenth century Gothic Revival, the Scottish Baronial style was heavily influenced by Romanticism; one of the leader proponents being the writer, Sir Walter Scott. Lanyon's use of corbelled corner turrets with conical roofing, and pinnacles were all common features of the style. 

The twelfth century castle, with the remains of the Georgian house visible in the foreground

A group of Victorian visitors kissing the Blarney Stone

While there are many stories recalling the origins of the Blarney Stone, none appear to give a satisfactory explanation. Some suggest that the stone was a gift from the great Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, while others allege that a lord of Muskerry, Cormac Mac Dermot MacCarthy, had resolved a local dispute with silvery words, thus lending itself to the illusion of eloquence. Whatever its origins the stone had become well-known in popular culture by the late eighteenth century. It was, however, the Victorians desire for discovery and curiosity that propelled the stone to international fame. A nineteenth century local priest summed up the stone's powers, writing: 
  "There is a stone there that whoever kisses
   Oh! he never misses to grow eloquent"

As this nineteenth century illustration shows, kissing the stone was not a straightforward task, with a number of visitors falling to their death before safety precautions were installed. With the aid of guide who held the seeker's ankles, the visitor leaned backwards over a parapet's edge, the stone having been positioned on the exterior wall of the castle. They then kissed the stone and were immediately blessed with eloquence, so the legend goes.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Ormonde Castle, Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary

Ormonde Castle sits picturesquely along the banks of the River Suir, in the small town of Carrick-on-Suir, some ten miles upstream from Waterford City. The castle there integrates two fifteenth century towers with a sixteenth century manor house. Erected c. 1565 by Thomas Butler, tenth earl of Ormonde, the manor house is said to be the finest surviving example of an Elizabethan house built in Ireland. The house remained in the hands of the Butler family into the twentieth century, but by this stage had fallen into serious disrepair. Presented to the Irish state in 1947 the house was subsequently restored and is now open to the public. The castle was used frequently as part of the popular historical drama series 'The Tudors'.

Here one can see the two earlier medieval towers to the rear, fronted by the newer Elizabethan mansion. The house was largely bereft of any substantial defensive features, reflecting the new found confidence of the Butler family in their position as rulers of much of Ireland's southeast. This confidence in a lasting peace can be seen by the large number of windows in his new home; windows by the stage were an uncommon sight in Irish houses. The tenth earl, better-known as 'Black Tom'', had himself been a frequent visitor to court in London, and was on good terms with Elizabeth I; he was undoubtedly familiar with contemporary architectural styles in England. 'Black Tom' was a cousin to Elizabeth, the seventh earl of Ormonde having been a grandfather to Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn. 

A view of a ground floor room in a ruinous state 

The Butlers were an old Norman family who could trace their roots in Ireland to the Norman invasions of the twelfth century. The Butler lordship corresponded roughly to the modern-day counties of Tipperary and Kilkenny, and was second in size only to earldom of Desmond. Although in time the family became more associated with Kilkenny, where they built an impressive castle, initially their seat of power was at Carrick-on-Suir. The town's location on the Suir lent itself as a trading centre, with many wealthy merchant families establishing mantelshelves there. Recently a horde of seventeenth century gold coins has been discovered during an excavation of one of the town's many pubs. 

The fireplace in the long gallery is believed to date from 1565. Built of limestone, it was adorned with an elaborate overmantel, containing an ornate armorial. We are led to believe that Tom had such high hopes that Elizabeth would one day visit his castle that the stucco frieze contained a bust of the queen. His dream, however, went unrealized, Elizabeth never having visited Ireland.