02 March 2015

Newbrook House – an abandoned
Georgian gem in Rathfarnham

Newbrook House has a history going back over 250 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

It was encouraging at the weekend to see the restoration work on Laurelmere Lodge in Marlay Park is almost completed, and the once tumbledown cottage known to generation of children as “Goldilocks Cottage” has received a new lease of life.

But sometimes I wonder whether we truly cherish our architectural heritage in this part of south Dublin. For example, I have written in past about the sorry state of the 18th century “Ely triumphal arch” built on the banks of the Dodder by the Loftus family of Rathfarnham Castle.

On my way back from Marlay Park on Saturday evening, I noticed the sad state of neglect of Newbrook House, an interesting small Georgian on Taylor’s Lane, Rathfarnham.

Newbrook House is on the market as part of the larger site once associated with 'Merchant Meade Builders Providers. The site covers 0.63 ha (1.56 acres) on a prime location fronting Taylor’s Lane, with 80 metres road frontage.

Because Taylor’s Lane is a newly aligned road, linking the suburbs of Sandyford with Knocklyon, Firhouse, Edmondstown and Templeogue, the selling agents suggest the house and site should be of interest to developers, nursing home operators, or potential owner occupiers, subject to planning permission.

But Newbrook House should also attract the attention of local historians and conservations. Newbrook House, is a two-storey detached residential house with an internal area of about 67 sq m (1,798 sq ft).The house dates back to the mid-18th century, when Newbrook House and neighbouring Kingston were built as part of Newbrook Mill on Taylor’s Lane.

The paper mill and manufacturing business that was carried on for many years was started in the mid-18th century by John Mansergh, who died in 1763.

The Manserghs, originally from Barwicke Hall, Yorkshire, came to Ireland in the mid-17th century, and the properties they acquired included Ballybur Castle, which belonged to the Comerford family until the Cromwellian confiscations in the 1650s.

In the 18th century, there was a large number of mills in the area around Rathfarnham and Whitechurch on the banks of the River Dodder and the Owendoher River. Each of these mills had a mill pond and they were fed by the same mill stream, which was taken from the Owendoher River at Edmonstown. The Newbrook stream enters the present site and could still be developed as an attractive feature in any future development of the house and the site.

At the beginning of the 19th century most of them switched to cotton and wool and later to flour mills. However, extensive paper manufacturing continued to be carried on for many years at Newbrook Mill under the name of the Mansergh family until 1846.

The McDonagh family then lived at Newbrook House for most of the Victorian period and ran Newbrook Mill until 1897 as John McDonough & Sons.

James McDonagh, JP, who was a magistrate for Rathfarnham, lived at Kingston House, which has since been demolished but it is remembered in street names nearby. His sons Richard McDonagh, also a Justice of the Peace for Rathfarnham, and Thomas McDonagh lived at Newbrook House.

However, Newbrook later returned to the Irwin family, and from 1901 to 1935 the mill was operated by Sir John Irwin, who lived in Newbrook House.

Soon after Irwin moved into Newbrook, a poem was published in 1904 referring to Newbrook House. ‘The Palm Tree on the Dublin Mountains at Newbrook, Rathfarnham’ was written by Ameenah (Emily) Lincoln, a celebrated Victorian convert to Islam, who lived in both India and Liverpool, and was published on 13 July 1904 in The Crescent, the weekly magazine of the Liverpool Muslim Institute.

She says “Newrbook’s master is good and kind,” and describes how he mourned the death of a palm tree he had brought form India to be planted in his house in Rathfarnham, only to mourn its death in the harsh Irish winter:

In the emerald isle, on a mountain side,
There grew a stately palm.
I saw it in its towering pride,
And I said, “Oh friend, salaam!”
How came you to this climate cold
Where the sun is seldom seen?
Do you miss his reflugent rays of gold
When our winds blow sharp and keen? …

Now, Newbrook’s master mourns the palm,
Its beauty he’ll ne’er forget.
And I for it now write this psalm
To testify regret.

Although Irwin’s mill benefitted from harnessing the power of local streams and rivers, he wrote a letter to The Irish Times in 1925 opposing the planned hydroelectric station on the Shannon at Ardnacrusha. This was the major infrastructural project of the first decade of Irish independence, but it was seen by some as a grandiose waste of money, as Irwin’s letter shows.

He argued that “national capital which is urgently required for housing, road improvement, harbour development and arterial drainage” was about “to be diverted to force a risky enterprise which, in any event, would be more efficiently established upon commercial lines with necessary State supervision.”

He added: “Such an hypothecation of public money and national credit at this moment would be an act of extreme folly ...”

But Irwin’s days at Newbrook were numbered. Newbrook Mill was extensively damaged in a fire in 1942 and it was demolished later.

Later in the 1940s, Newbrook was born Edward ‘Ned’ Meade who founded the business Merchant Meade. He was a natural entrepreneur, and the business continued until at least the 1990s.

The site and Newbrook House are now on the market. I hope that is not yet another historic house that is at risk in this part of south Dublin.

For other postings on the architectural heritage of South Dublin see:

Berwick Hall.
The Bottle Tower, Churchtown.
Brookvale House, Rathfarnham.
Camberley House, Churchtown.
Dartry House, Orwell Park, Rathfarnham.
Ely Arch, Rathfarnham.
Ely House, Nutgrove Avenue, Rathfarnham.
Fernhurst, 14 Orwell Road, Rathgar.
Fortfield House, Hyde Park, Terenure.
No 201 Harold’s Cross Road, the birthplace of Richard Allen.
Homestead, Sandyford Road, Dundrum.
Kilvare House, also known as Cheeverstown House, Templeogue Road.
Knocklyon Castle.
Laurelmere Lodge, Marlay Park.
Marlay Park.
Mountain View House, Beaumont Avenue, Churchtown.
Newbrook House, Taylor’s Lane, Rathfarnham.
Old Bawn House, Tallaght.
Rathfarnham Castle.
Sally Park, Fihouse.
Scholarstown House, Knocklyon.
Silveracre House, off Sarah Curran Avenue, Rathfarnham.
Synge House, Newtwon Villas, Churchtown, and No 4 Orwell Park, Rathgar.
Templeogue House.
Washington House, Butterfield Avenue, Rathfarnham.
Westbourne House, off Rathfarnham Road.

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (13):
On Wenlock Edge, 1, ‘On Wenlock Edge’

Wilderhope Manor, on Wenlock Edge, Shropshire … here I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams (Photograph: Graham Taylor. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For the rest of this week, I intend listening to On Wenlock Edge, a setting by Vaughan Williams of six poems from AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

I wrote over the past few days that I was first introduced to the music of Vaughan Williams when I was a 19-year-old and while I was spending some days in Shropshire.

I was staying in Wilderhope Manor, a 16th-century Elizabethan manor house on Wenlock Edge, seven miles south-west of Much Wenlock, seven miles east of Church Stretton. Wilderhope Manor was built in 1585 for Francis Smallman. The house was in a poor state and uninhabited when it was bought in 1936 by the WA Cadbury Trust and opened as a youth hostel in 1937. Many of the original features, including the oaken stairways, oak spiral stairs and plaster ceilings have survived.

In the early 1970s, although I had little musical education and no musical background, I was interested in English folk music, and I was enjoying the way it was being interpreted by folk rock bands such as I was enjoying the music of English folk rock bands such as Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Lindisfarne and Jethro Thull.

That interest drew the suggestion while I was staying in Wilderhope Manor that I should listen to the music of Vaughan Williams, and, as I was staying on Wenlock Edge in rural Shropshire, that I should listen to On Wenlock Edge and read Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

This became my first memorable introduction to the great English composers. I spent some time on Wenlock Edge and visiting the neighbouring villages before hitch-hiking back to Lichfield – a journey of about 50 miles.

Back in Lichfield, I experienced a self-defining moment in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, and was invited for the first time to the Folk Masses in the Dominican Retreat Centre at Spode House, near Rugeley, about six miles north of Lichfield.

Ever since, I have associated the music of Vaughan Williams, especially his setting of On Wenlock Edge, with my understanding of my own spiritual growth and development.

This morning [2 March 2015], I am listening to ‘On Wenlock Edge,’ the first of the six settings by Vaughan Williams of these poems by AE Housman (1859-1936), published in March 1896.

Alfred Edward Housman was born at Fockbury, near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, on 26 March 1859, the eldest child of Sarah and Edward Housman. His mother died on his twelfth birthday, and the anguished created by this cruel coincidence, led to strong questioning of his Christian faith, although he did not abandon the idea of a God.

Housman studied Classics at Saint John’s College, Oxford, and was Professor of Greek and Latin, University College, London (1892), Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge (1911), and a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, where Vaughan Williams had been an undergraduate from 1892 to 1895. He died on 30 April 1936.

In reacting to the Boer War, in which his brother Herbert was killed, Housman also anticipated the horror and futility of World War I, and his poems would find fresh relevance of with the outbreak of World War I.

His landscape is a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex of the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

A younger brother, the author and playwright Laurence Housman (1865-1959), first worked as a book illustrator, and the first authors he illustrated included the poet Christina Rossetti. Laurence Housman also wrote and published several volumes of poetry, a number of hymns and carols, and socialist and pacifist pamphlets, and he edited his brother’s poems which were published posthumously.

In 1945, Laurence Housman opened Housman’s Bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, founded in his honour by the Peace Pledge Union, of which he was a sponsor. In 1959, shortly after his death, the shop moved to 5 Caledonian Road, London. I was first introduced to Housman’s in 1976 by its co-founder and manager, Harry Mister, after meeting him with Bruce Kent at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick that year. Housman’s Bookshop remains a prime source of publications on pacifism and other radical values.

Vaughan Williams composed On Wenlock Edge – a cycle of six songs for tenor, piano and string quartet – in 1909, a year after he had spent three months in Paris studying under Maurice Ravel, the French composer, who was three years younger than him. The first performance took place in the Aeolian Hall in London on 15 November 1909.

After a performance of the cycle in May 1920, Ivor Gurney wrote: “The French mannerisms must be forgotten in the strong Englishness of the prevailing mood – in the unmistakable spirit of the time of creation. England is the spring of emotion, the centre of power, and the pictures of her, the breath of her earth and growing things are continually felt through the lovely sound.”

Housman, who only heard the first two songs, wrote to his publisher in December 1920: “I am told that composers in some cases have mutilated my poems – that Vaughan Williams cut two verses out of ‘Is my team ploughing?’ I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music.”

When he was asked about this after Housman’s death in 1936, Vaughan Williams showed no remorse, claiming “the composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense … I also feel that a poet should be grateful to anyone who fails to perpetuate such lines as ‘The goal stands up, the keeper/Stands up to keep the goal’.”

In the 1920s, Vaughan Williams made an arrangement of On Wenlock Edge for full orchestra that was first performed on 24 January 1924 by John Booth, with the composer conducting. Vaughan Williams preferred this version to his original.

In the accompaniment of the first song, ‘On Wenlock Edge,’ the strings are flaring and quivering in powerful simulation of the gales that trouble Wenlock’s woods, and the emotional gales that have troubled the life of humanity since time began.

Vaughan Williams’ approach to the text works on two levels – that of word-painting, and that of bringing out the meanings inherent in phrases or in an entire text. In this first song, for example, he paints words like “high” and “gale,” and depicts the sense of foreboding in phrases like “the wood’s in trouble” and “His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves” in the accompaniment.

1, On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the world’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it piles the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through hot and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it piles the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

Tomorrow: 2, From far, from eve and morning