19 October 2020
I have visited Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, a number of times in recent years, enriched spiritually by the hospitality of the Benedictine monastic community. I have spoken at conferences and meetings, and I have spent time there on my retreats.
Like many visitors, I have found a contrast between the stately castle built by the Barrington family and the simplicity of the abbey church. I have also been blessed by walks through the woods and the flowers and by the lakes.
Two of us returned to Glenstal at the end of last week, for a walk in the grounds and for some quiet time for reflection, walking from one end of the grounds to the other. And as I walked that distance, I wondered how many visitors ever stopped to admire the architectural beauty of the two former gate lodges at Glenstal Castle that are curious examples of Norman Revival architecture.
Both lodges are of high quality in their design and execution. The English architect William Bardwell (1795-1890) designed Glenstal Castle for Sir Matthew Barrington of Limerick from 1839, who also designed the earlier gate lodge. However, there are hints that the later grate lodge, near Murroe village, may be the work of the Cork-born architect Joshua Hargrave or the Dublin-born architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911).
Glenstal Castle was built for Sir Matthew Barrington (1788-1861), 2nd baronet, who bought part of the Co Limerick estate of Lord Carbery in 1818, and soon afterwards built Barrington’s Bridge to link the area to Limerick.
During the 1830s, Barrington invited proposals to build a castle-style house from the Pain brothers in Limerick, William O’Hara in Dublin, and Decimus Burton. But he rejected their proposals, which were derived from the castle-style houses of John Nash and Sir Jeffrey Wyatville – especially Wyatville’s alterations to Windsor Castle.
Barrington wanted something more innovative or more striking, and turned to Bardwell, who had been a pupil of George Wyatt and George Maddox before studying in Paris for two years.
Bardwell may have come to Barrington’s attention through his unsuccessful but widely publicised entry for the Palace of Westminster competition in 1835, an entry intended to embody all the different styles of mediaeval architecture, from Norman to Tudor.
The neo-Norman elements of the design offered the novelty Barrington felt was missing in earlier Gothic proposals. The concept evolved through several designs in 1836 but was based on English rather than Irish precedents and it is reminiscent of Thomas Hopper’s neo-Norman houses at Penrhyn Castle (1821-1837) in north Wales and Gosford Castle, Co Armagh.
Bardwell also designed the Prior’s Chapel and the Barrington memorial in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick. He may be the same person as the ‘Bardell’ or ‘Burdell’ who entered the competition to design Kingsbridge Station, Dublin, in 1845.
However, Bardwell’s work at Glenstal was fitful, with many stoppages, and a number of architects were called in to complete his work on the castle, including William Dargan in 1846-1847, John Kelly in 1849-1851 and Joshua Hargrave (1853), with later additions by John Murray Robertson in 1898-1899, the architect who did much to transform Dundee in the late 19th century.
The earlier gate lodge or ‘back lodge’ to the east of Glentsal Castle is seldom seen by visitors, although its well-known to people who live in the area. It was designed by Barwell and was built in 1839, along with the square limestone piers and cast-iron gate beside it.
This gate lodge is marked by high quality work by 19th-century masons, and the Barrington coat of arms is above the front door.
This gate lodge has a canted three-bay entrance block with a limestone pedimented porch at the front (south) and a square-plan, two-stage tower with a lean-to at the front.
The porch has a limestone pediment with an inset carved heraldic plaque representing the Barrington family and the date ‘1839,’ a limestone stringcourse with foliate stops and a shouldered square-headed opening with a timber panelled door. The tower also has a timber panelled door in a square-headed opening on the north side.
The lodge has dressed limestone walls with limestone plinth courses. The shouldered, square-headed window openings in the canted block have quarry glazed windows, while the round-headed openings in the tower now have replacement casement windows.
The lodge has hipped slate roofs with limestone bracketed eaves courses, and the lean-to has a single-pitched roof with limestone coping.
Visitors to Glenstal are more familiar with the front gate lodge near Murroe village, with its wealth of finely-carved details, including the keystone and capitals. The Norman details in the stonework such as the chevron detailing are particularly eye-catching.
This two-bay, single-storey, Norman Revival style gate lodge was built in the 1860s. It may have been designed by Joshua Hargrave, whose main works included his railway stations at Victoria Road, Albert Quay, Glanmire Road and Albert Street, Cork, stations on the Killarney to Mallow line, including Killarney, Co Kerry, and Millstreet, Co Cork, and three stations on the Limerick to Foynes line at Patrickswell, Adare and Rathkeale, Co Limerick.
However, I think a more likely candidate as the architect of the front gate lodge is the Dublin-born architect James Rawson Carroll (1830-1911), who was then working on the nearby Church of Ireland parish church of Saint John’s, Abington.
Carroll had built up a considerable country house practice as well as designing several churches and other public buildings. His works include the Molyneux Church and Asylum, Leeson Park; Saint John the Baptist Church, Clontarf; Sandford Parochial Hall; the Mageough Homes, Rathmines; the Guinness Mahon Bank in Dublin; Sligo Courthouse; Classiebawn House, Mullaghmore; the de Vesci Memorial, Abbeyleix; and many of the houses and the public clock in Ardagh, Co Longford.
Carroll’s pupils and assistants included his nephew, John Howard Pentland, Frederick Batchelor and Frederick George Hicks, who designed Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church (1938), Kilmallock, Co Limerick, which I described last week.
This ‘front lodge’ has a gabled porch at the front (south side) and a timber extension at the rear (north side).
The round-headed openings at the porch have carved limestone and sandstone chevroned voussoirs with a carved head at the keystone and a carved limestone impost course. The recessed shouldered square-headed opening has a timber battened door.
The snecked sandstone walls have a carved heraldic plaque above the porch, with another version of the Barrington coat-of-arms, and a quatrefoil motif on the porch. The shouldered, square-headed openings have limestone block-and-start surrounds and quarry glazed windows.
The recessed square-headed openings at the corners of the front elevation have marble columns with carved limestone caps and quarry glazed windows.
The pitched slate roof has a brick chimneystack, limestone copings, cast-iron ridge crestings and finials. The pitched slate roof on the porch has limestone copings, a pinnacle and cast-iron ridge crestings.
The iron finial has the letters ‘C’ and ‘B’ entwined, probably for Sir Matthew Barrington’s widow, Charlotte (née Hartigan), who died in 1858 and was buried in Saint Mary’s Cathedral Limerick, or for their son, Sir Croker Barrington (1817-1890), who succeeded his brother as the fourth baronet in 1872.
Beside the lodge, a pair of square-profile limestone piers have carved caps wit pinnacles and double-leaf cast-iron gates.
The well-carved limestone piers further enhance the coherent decorative scheme presented by the gate lodge, and together they offer a welcoming sight to visitors arriving at Glenstal Abbey.
Knockfierna, at 949 ft, is the highest point in Co Limerick, and said to be the cone of an extinct volcano. It stands within this group of parishes in West Limerick, but I climbed it for the first time only last week.
Two of us climbed Knockfierna (Cnoc Dhoinn Firinne, ‘Truthful Hill’) late one morning, along one of the many tracks and pathways that start in Ballingarry. The views from the top are spectacular.
The spires of the churches and the roofs of the houses in Ballingarry were immediately below. From there, rich green fields and farms spread out into the Golden Vale and Co Limerick. We could see beyond to parts of Clare, Kerry, Tipperary and Cork, from the Shannon Estuary to MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in Co Kerry, to the hills of Co Tipperary and north Cork.
The 18th century Limerick poet Andrias Mac Craith from Kilmallock, known as An Mangaire Súgach, described it as ‘the Ultima Thule of our imagination … Beyond it stretched the unknown and the unknowable. It stood there as solitary as Etna, as majestic as Olympus, as awe-inspiring as Everest.’
Samuel Lewis said in 1837 a conical pile on Knockfierna was ‘raised on the spot where stood the ancient temple of Stuadhraicin.’ The conical pile is a great cairn.
Local lore says the Fianna stood watching the chase from its summit, and Midheach came along up the plains from the Shannon to lure them away to the Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees. Other legends in the area speak of this as a ‘fairy hill’ and the abode of leprechauns.
We began our walk at the Knockfierna Famine Memorial Park. The path goes all the way to the top of the mountain, making it easy to reach, and on the way we passed a number of cottages abandoned during the Famine.
The paths, tracks, trails and monuments were first proposed over four decades ago when the Knockfierna Heritage Society was established.
The late Biddy Alymer could remember every house, recall every name of every field and every well, and helped to provide information about the area when the ‘Rambling House’ started in 1986.
In total, three miles of pathways around the hillside take walkers past partially-restored famine cottages and potato ridges or ‘lazy beds’ dating back to famine times, as well as a mass rock, and a number of other ancient sites, including forts, dolmens, cromlechs and cairns.
Knockfierna was common land so anyone could live there. In the early 19th century, it became a refuge for many evicted and dispossessed families who moved to its upper slopes between 1830 and 1845. The mountain became heavily populated, with over 600 people and 123 houses at its peak.
The foundations of scores of primitive shacks have remained in place on Knockfierna since it was deserted in 1847. Spread over some 200 acres are the remnants of many houses – some as small as 8 ft by 8 ft – with nothing more than walls and clay floors with sod roofs. It is estimated that about 130 families lived here at one time.
However, this population was devastated with the arrival of the Great Famine in 1845. On 6 May 1847, 1,000 people Knockfierna Hill, and a flag of distress was raised on a pole. They marched to the town of Ballingarry below, where their numbers grew to 2,000 people demanding relief and work. They were given porridge and yellow meal to eat and relief schemes were organised to provide them with employment.
As the death tolls rose, their emaciated bodies were brought to the graveyard in Ballingarry without any coffins bodies to be buried in pits without gravestones, names or identities.
It is not known how many men, women and children died on Knockfierna during the Great Famine between 1847 and 1851. But they had starved to death in sight of the lush green fields of the Golden Vale below, one of the richest and most prosperous agricultural areas in Ireland.
Half a century later, the population had declined to just 91 people in 26 houses by 1901. The houses are now preserved in memory of the people who died during the Great Famine, and the names of many of those who died are inscribed on the walls of the Knockfierna Famine Memorial Park at the beginning of the walk to the summit.