09 August 2009

The indescribable gifts of Orlagh

Orlagh Retreat Centre ... a spiritual haven just beyond the fringes of Dublin’s outer suburbs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

In the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, just a twenty or thirty-minute stroll from where I’ve been living for the past dozen years, the Orlagh Retreat Centre provides a spiritual haven just beyond the fringes of the city’s outer suburbs.

Orlagh is on the northern slopes of Mount Pelier, below the ruins of the Hellfire Club. The house is approached by a charming, winding, tree-lined avenue, and there are sweeping views from the front of the house out over Dublin Bay and across to Howth Head.

The Augustinian community and the retreat team provide a warm welcome at Orlagh – it was there I spent one of my pre-ordination retreats, and it is there I have brought students and ordinands from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute for our Ash Wednesday retreats for the last few years.

Sadly, Orlagh has had a threat of closure hanging over it in recent months, and although this threat has been deferred, the centre continues to need prayer and support. It is a unique resource, and its loss would leave a grave deficit in the spiritual life of all traditions in the Church in Ireland.

The centre offers retreats, days for yourself, and programmes and workshops on scripture, meditation, time apart, parish outreach, faith development, group facilitation, Lectio Divina and liturgy. The retreat team says that what they do best is:

● Present faith in a way that speaks to life;
● use scholarship that feeds the search for meaning and truth;
● celebrate a Liturgy that invites participation;
● offer a welcome that is inclusive and gives people a space to “be”;
● promote a spirituality that brings faith and experience together;
● and encourage a way of being and doing that promotes fellowship on life’s journey.

The retreat team includes Father John Byrne, a psychologist by training; Dr Kieran O’Mahony, who is head of Department of Scripture at the Milltown Institute; Dr Bernadette Toal, who teaches at Milltown; Dr Carmel McCarthy, who is Professor of Near Eastern Languages in University College Dublin; Sean Goan, who teaches RE and Spanish in Blackrock College; Mary Kearney, co-founder of Garnet Consulting and Development; and Eilis O’Malley.

A history of Orlagh

The history of Orlagh begins with the Foot family, who were descended from John Foot from Devon who settled in Dublin after the Battle of the Boyne. His son, Geoffrey Foot (1704-1773), a custom’s officer in Ringsend, married Jane Lundy and their son, Lundy Foot (1735-1805), bought the land at Orlagh from Simon and Lawes Luttrell on 3 January 1766.

Lundy Foot established himself in business in Dublin as a tobacconist and snuff maker in Blind Alley in 1758, moved to Essex Bridge (now Parliament Street) in 1774, and later set up shop in Westmorland Street. The family business thrived and one enthusiastic author claimed that in 1800 Lundy Foot’s snuff was as famous in Dublin as Guinness is today. The business was later bought out by PJ Carroll.

Lundy Foot’s eldest son, Geoffrey Foot, carried on the family business. He lived near Orlagh in Hollymount, which is now the core of the old building at Saint Columba’s College. He died in 1824. One of his sons, Canon Lundy Foot (1793-1873), was the first rector of Whitechurch Church of Ireland Parish (1824-1828) and established Whitechurch National School. He later moved to England and was a canon of Salisbury Cathedral until his death. A younger son, the Revd Frederick Foot (1808-1871), worked in a number of parishes in the south-east, including Rathdrum, Co Wicklow, Redcross, Co Wicklow, Cappoquin, Co Waterford, Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, and Fethard, Co Tipperary.

Geoffrey Foot’s younger brother, also named Lundy Foot, built the first house on the lands at Orlagh in 1790. The house was first called Footmount, and in his will Lundy Foot said he spent £10,000 in building the house. He surrounded the house with choice plantations, including tulip trees – one of which survives behind the apse of the present chapel. The road from Ballycullen House to the entrance gate at the Orlagh Estate, past Saint Colmcille’s Well, was also laid out by Lundy Foot too.

The view from Orlagh sweeps out over Dublin Bay towards Howth Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Lundy Foot had a reputation as a ruthless magistrate. In 1816, he was instrumental in bringing to trial the three Kearneys – a father and his two sons – for the murder of a gamekeeper. They were hanged on the banks of the River Dodder at Old Bawn, a ten-minute walk from Foot’s house. Local anger was high, and Lundy Foot was afterwards fired at and seriously injured. He recovered from his injuries and went to live in Rosbercon Castle, near New Ross, Co Wexford, selling Footmount to his son’s father-in-law, Nathaniel Callwell, about 1815.

Lundy Foot lived on in Rosbercon Castle for almost 20 years until 2 January 1835, when he was stoned and hacked to death while planting trees on his estate following a dispute over the eviction by the Tottenham family of a tenant named Murphy from a small holding of five acres that had been bought by Foot. He is buried in the family vault in Saint Matthew’s Church, Irishtown.

The only major change made to Footmount while Nathaniel Callwell lived there was changing the name of the house to Orlagh. Callwell was a director of the Bank of Ireland, and in 1837 he sold the house to its third owner, Andrew Carew O’Dwyer (1800-1877) – a barrister, MP and political activist.

Carew O’Dwyer, the son of a merchant in Cork and Waterford, was called to the bar in 1830. He was a close, personal friend of Daniel O’Connell, and one of the earliest and most active members of the Reform Club. He was elected MP for Drogheda in 1832 and again in 1834, but was unseated on a petition in 1835 due to a clerical error – his address had been given as in the City of Dublin when it was in the County of Dublin.

Carew O’Dwyer had a gift with words and one observer described him as “a charming gentleman and a most persuasive orator.” He married Selina Gillespie, daughter of Sir Rollo Gillespie, and they had five children. His friend Daniel O’Connell was one of the witnesses to his purchase of Orlagh on 31 May 1837. He extended the house, adding a great drawing room and a big dining room, the pantries and the servants’ quarters. Tapestries from Marie Antoinette’s palace in the Tuilleries hung in the dining room, and the portraits in the drawing room included Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Thomas Moore. The stucco plasterwork is by César, who is said to have been “the last of the hand artificers in plaster living then.”

Among the many visitors to Orlagh at this time were Daniel O’Connell and William Smith O’Brien. However, as the years progressed, Carew O’Dwyer spent more and more of his time in London and less and less of it in Orlagh. Eventually he leased the house to the Brodie family from Scotland. He died in London on 15 November 1877, but his sons had sold the house to the Augustinians five years earlier in 1872.

Father Francis Doyle OSA of the Augustinian Priory in Drogheda and his advisers planned to use the house as a novitiate. Orlagh was bought for £4,500 from Joseph Gillespie O’Dwyer and Andrew Vigors O’Dwyer on 12 July 1872, and Father John Hutchinson was the first Prior. Over the next 20 years, the Augustinians extended the building in two stages, adding an extra storey and converting the dining room – the present conference room – into an oratory. Later, in the late 1880s, the present East Wing was added with an oratory and additional accommodation so that from about 1890 the building from the front looks more or less as it does today.

The present oratory was designed by the architect Ray Carroll. Orlagh continued to serve as a novitiate and student house until the late 1980s. Since then, Orlagh has been a retreat house and a conference centre.

Welcome at the liturgy

The chapel at Orlagh, designed by the architect Ray Carroll (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

A little tired and worn down, I was present at the liturgy in the chapel in Orlagh this morning and received a warm welcome from retreat team members, including Father John Byrne, Father Kieran O’Mahony and Dr Bernadette Toal.

John and Bernadette regaled me with their stories of some recent pilgrimages to Greece and Iona. Kieran has published two new books in recent weeks: What the Bible says about the stranger (Dublin and Belfast: Irish Inter-Church Meeting); and Do we still need St Paul? (Dublin: Veritas).

Concluding his acknowledgments at the beginning of his new book on Saint Paul, Kieran says “living in the Orlagh Retreat Centre brings many opportunities, formal and informal, to speak about the Pauline letters and their continued potential today. ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ (2 Corinthians 9:15).”

It would be an irreplaceable loss for the whole Church if Orlagh ever closed. Thank God for its indescribable gifts.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. The Orlagh Retreat Centre is at: http://www.orlagh.ie/Orlagh_Retreat_Centre/Welcome.html .


Anonymous said...

I found this article to be most interesting,no less so than the house itself-most varied and colourful

Anonymous said...

A most interesting article, a house with a history

Unknown said...

A fascinating insight into life in the big house and it's history. I visited Beaulieu House at Baltray, nr.Drogheda recently and believe that there may be O'Dwyer connections there also.

Bronia said...

This is heart warming article. Orlagh is more than just a retreat centre, it is a home for many. In this beautiful and full of it's history house, the God News of the gospels is communicated in the very attractive and life -giving way. Congratulation for the most interesting and creative website.

Tom Power said...

I spent a year at Orlagh in 1940-50.
I am saddened to hear that such a wonderful place is about to be vacated by the Augustinians. I do hope it will be cared for by the new owners as it has been in the past and with any luck it will remain a peaceful place for prayer and contemplation'

Tom Power,Sydney, Australia

Drabhlasach said...

Many thanks for a wonderful history lesson on Orlagh. I have spent many memorable times here including a week in silence in 2006. It’s a mystical place where time seems absent or at least asleep and the presence of the great mystery abounds. It is with great sadness that I hear it is to be closed as it has brought rest, healing and solace to so many.

Fred said...

What a wonderful place at least that bad bad man who grazed his cattle will be go e