13 November 2008

Decaying arch hides stories of adversity and triumph

The decaying arch on the slopes beneath the Church of Ireland Theological Institute was built to commemorate the return of the Loftus family to Rathfarnham Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Triumphal Arch on the slopes beneath the grounds of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute was built on the banks of the River Dodder by Henry Loftus to celebrate the return of the Loftus family to nearby Rathfarnham Castle. But the arch is decaying, desolate and abandoned, covered in graffiti, its former dignity betrayed by cement blocks, and access is denied by boulders.

Unlike triumphal arches in other capital cities, this isolated memorial serves only as an indecorous traffic island. As I look down on this arch from the corridor outside my study, I am sure that unless remedial restoration work begins immediately, this sad relic that once told a story of adversity and triumph may soon be lost to our neighbourhood and to future generations.

Henry Loftus built the Roman-style Triumphal Arch as an entrance to Rathfarnham Castle to celebrate the return of the Loftus family to Rathfarnham in 1767 after an absence of almost half a century.

The castle was built in the late 16th century by Archbishop Adam Loftus (1533-1605), whose career included being Archbishop of Armagh, Archbishop of Dublin, Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, first Provost of Trinity College Dublin, and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, the last position making him effectively the Prime Minister or Taoiseach of his day.

When the archbishop bought Rathfarnham in the 1580s, it was described as a “waste village.” But by the time he died in 1605, the archbishop was also the owner of vast estates in this area, including Rathfarnham, Knocklyon Scholarstown, Oldcourt, Tymon, Woodtown, Killakee, Ballycragh, Ballycullen and Mount Pelier Hill or the Hell Fire Mountain. His descendants became one of the most prominent, manipulative and long-tailed families in Irish politics.

However, the estates passed out of the family hands due to the dissolute life of the archbishop’s descendant, Philip Wharton (1698-1731), Duke of Wharton, whose gambling debts forced him to sell his inheritance to Speaker Conolly for £62,000 in 1723. When Conolly died in 1729, Rathfarnham and the neighbouring estates passed to his nephews, Thomas Conolly, MP, and then William Conolly, MP.

In 1742, the Conolly family sold Rathfarnham to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr John Hoadly (1678-1746), who had rebuilt the episcopal palace at Tallaght Castle. Archbishop Hoadly lovingly lavished money on the restoration of Rathfarnham Castle and made it his home. He died in 1746 and was buried in Saint Maelruain’s Church, Tallaght. His son-in-law, Bellingham Boyle, sold Rathfarnham Castle and demesne back to the Loftus family in 1767 for a mere £17,500.

The castle was bought on behalf of Nicholas Loftus (1738-1769), 2nd Earl of Ely, by his uncle, Henry Loftus (1709-1783). Young Nicholas had been violently mistreated by his abusive father throughout his childhood. When he tried to establish his rights to the Loftus estates, he became the subject of a celebrated legal case in which his soundness of mind was challenged. But he was successfully defended by his uncle Henry.

Nicholas died a few months after his legal victory in 1769, probably as a consequence of the grave hardships he suffered in his youth. His uncle Henry Loftus inherited the estate, becoming 4th Viscount Loftus, and in 1771 he was also made Earl of Ely. He set about remodelling Rathfarnham Castle, using the best architects, artists and craftsmen of the day, including Sir William Chambers, James “Athenian” Stuart and Angelica Kaufmann.

Rathfarnham Castle is within walking distance of the college, and worth visiting. Meanwhile, the arch – an integral part of an important work of 18th century architectural art – is crumbling beneath our windows, and I wonder what the future holds for this piece of our heritage.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This opinion piece was first published in the Michaelmas Term (November 2008) edition of the Community Review.

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