Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Boyle’s Almshouses: 400 years
of social housing in Youghal

Boyle’s Almshouses on Main Street, Youghal, Co Cork … a 400-year-old example of social housing (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing in recent days about the former Benedictine priory in Youghal, Co Cork, the former Franciscan Abbey or South Abbey, and the nuns who maintained the mediaeval lighthouse in Youghal.

When the monastic houses were dissolved at the Tudor Reformation, towns throughout Ireland and England lost not only the spiritual life of these foundations, but also the hospitals and hostels that cared for the sick and offered care and hospitality to pilgrims and travellers.

To meet this need in the decades that followed, many wealthy and powerful individuals founded charitable institutions. A surviving example of one of these foundations is Boyle’s Almshouses on the corner of Main Street and Church Street in Youghal, founded by Richard Boyle (1566-1643), 1st Earl of Cork or the ‘Great Earl of Cork.’

These almshouses are a short walk down Church Street from Saint Mary’s Collegiate Church. They were built in 1624 by Richard Boyle, who had become Lord Boyle, Baron of Youghal, in 1616, and Earl of Cork and Viscount Dungarvan in 1620.

The almshouses are said to stand on the site of an earlier town house that was the residence in Youghal of the Earls of Desmond. The were built of local old red sandstone, probably taken from the former Dominican friary or North Abbey in Youghal.

Boyle had the support of the Corporation or town council of Youghal, and initially the almshouses housed six old soldiers, ‘six old decayed soldiers or alms men’, who also received a pension of £5 a year each.

The first residents were probably retired soldiers engaged in the Desmond rebellion. Later, the houses were extended to accommodate poor widows too. Widows and widowers were normally kept apart by assigning them to different floors. In their days, these were an early example of social housing.

Four of the six almshouses face onto Main Street, and the remaining two facing onto Church Street. Although they were built four decades after the death of James I, they have been described as being ‘most convincingly Jacobean’ in their style of architecture.

A carved plaque on the Main Street façade displays Richard Boyle’s coat of arms (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Main Street or east façade presents a four-bay, three storey building, with a plain gable at the north end. The almshouses were originally gabled at the front, with heavy mullioned windows and thick hood mouldings above.

Some of the architectural details include six pointed arched doorways, the two mullioned windows on Church Street, and a carved plaque on the Main Street façade displaying Richard Boyle’s coat of arms.

These buildings have been described as the oldest surviving almshouses in Ireland, although they were built about 30 years after Sir Richard Shee’s almshouse in Kilkenny.

When a poll tax of two shillings was introduced in 1697, the residents of the almshouses were exempt. In later years, the residents were provided with fuel and an annual allowance from the Duke of Devonshire.

Two of the six almshouses face onto Church Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The almshouses retained their original form until the mid-19th century, when some of the houses were modified substantially. The flat elevation seen on Main Street today was created when a new roofline was put in, removing the original pointed gables. The building was stonewalled all round and the original interior was formed with two floors and timber partitions between the houses.

Bernard Powell, a local man who lived in one of the houses in recent years. He suffered from gigantism, and stood almost 7 ft tall. But the front door was little more than 5 ft high. Despite this obvious disadvantage, he continued to live in the almshouses until he died.

Under a proposal in 1976, the former almshouse were to become a library space. Only the façade of the almshouse was to be preserved, a new entrance was to be created, an interior garden would be created off a corridor on the way to the adult and reference sections of the library.

Instead, however, in recent years alterations and modifications were made to the buildings and they now accommodate senior citizens.

The original gables survive on the Church Street façade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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