The Power of Ruins

by Terence Dooley

The Irish Aesthete’s excellent blog (https://theirishaesthete.com/) frequently explores the iconology and semiotics of ruins in Irish visual culture. To some, the ruins of big houses in Ireland are reminders of the grandeur of the past to be lamented; to others they are yet the evidence of the end of colonial oppression, and class rule to be celebrated.

Giovanni Batista Piranesi (1720-78), the Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome, evocatively reflected shortly after his first visit to the city: ‘Speaking ruins have filled my spirit with images that accurate drawings could never have succeeded in conveying’. Piranesi’s life in Italy spanned the heyday of country house construction in Ireland; his words reflected the fact that for many of their architects the same ruins served as their touchstones when they began to design the great Palladian and Classical Houses that characterised Ireland’s building boom. Ruins of classical antiquity not only prompted laments upon what had been lost but inspired what might be recreated in a different form.

Ruins took on different significances at different times. When the FitzGeralds re-emerged to prominence around the 1720s, and built their Palladian mansion at Carton, they treated the ruins of their medieval castle in Maynooth as the physical symbol of their ancient lineage in Ireland, their historical greatness, and a signifier of their once great power and magnificent wealth. The ruins were for a time compromised by the building of a distillery and private residences within their confines, but, in 1848, at the height of the Great Famine, and in preparation for the visit of Queen Victoria to Carton in 1849, Augustus Frederick FitzGerald, 3rd duke of Leinster, cleared the site to present a more authentic symbol to the queen of his family’s once pre-eminent position.

Augustus Frederick FitzGerald, 3rd Duke of Leinster

1848 was also the golden jubilee of the United Irishman rebellion in which Augustus’ granduncle, Lord Edward FitzGerald, had played a prominent role. The ruins of his house in Kildare town were a reminder of a more embarrassing episode in the family’s history that Augustus was determined to erase, so he simply demolished the house, obliterated it from the landscape. Now the ruins meant something different to someone else: the salvage was purchased by a Limerick nationalist and used to build a hotel which he named the Kildare Arms.

On the wider Leinster estate, the tenantry understood the importance of the castle ruins to the FitzGeralds, so when Gerald, later 5th duke, came of age in 1872, a committee made sure to include an image of Maynooth Castle on their illuminated address reminding him that his ancestors had been landlords who had ‘loved to dwell’ for centuries in Ireland and, by the powers of suggestion, advising that the future stability and prosperity of the estate was inextricably tied to his residency.     

Ruins of Maynooth Castle c. 1803 by permission of St. Patrick’s College

I have often walked through the ruins of country houses maliciously burned during the Irish revolutionary period 1919-23, and imagined the sound of banging on front doors in the dark of night, the fear and trepidation felt inside by family and servants, listened for the hungry flames, the crashing timbers, exploding glass, cracking slates, or the smells of paraffin, burning carpets and other fabrics. And then the mind might turn to the melting silver, the splintering of magnificent furniture, but always to the burning archives, the destruction of a community’s history, sometimes part of a country’s history, all lost forever. Often overlooked have been the family portraits, no surviving images of distant ancestors or recent loved ones. Outside, were the concomitant ruins of the gardens and landscape, front lawns trampled by curious onlookers, gardens and woods later pillaged and denuded of exotic plants and functional trees.

The ruins of Irish country houses have been seen as a portal into the socio-political history of a relatively recent past; but the ruins are all too often associated with the depradations of the 1919-23 period alone. The majority of ruins came about more because of a socio-economic revolution than a political one. In a very changed national, and, indeed, global economic climate from the 1880s Big Houses became unsustainable.

By the 1920s, it became more expedient to demolish, dismantle, abandon houses than pay un-affordably high taxes and local government rates. Simon Jenkins, former chairman of the National Trust, once wrote that ‘Most ruins are almost meaningless to the layman – just mounds of masonry.’ That has resonance for Ireland where the masonry of demolished country houses was often carted away by locals to construct roads, build power stations, or farmers’ outoffices.

In the 2000s, when Ireland experienced an economic phenomenon now remembered as the era of the Celtic Tiger, architects entered into the surviving ruins and exercised their creative abilities. As Limerick-based conservation architect Mattie Shinnors once said to me: ‘there is enough evidence in most ruins to allow for informed deductions about the vocabulary of the interiors.’ Or as Chris Ridgway likes to put it: Rather like the way in which paleontolgists can reconstruct a dinosaur from a single bone’; a rather apt analogy for the old order! 

Killua Castle during restoration (Mattie Shinnors)

Mattie Shinnors was part of a team that resurrected Killua Castle for Allen and Lorena Krause; this phoenix-like rise from the ashes of ruins was spectacular.  Again, according to Mattie: ‘Very few ruins of the scale of this surviving castle have been restored in Ireland. The current restoration … making Killua into a family home has been carried out in the belief that the nineteenth-century fantasy still has currency today.’    

Killua Castle after restoration

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