Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Athy's entries in 'The Birthday of Ireland' by Dr. Andrew Tierney

The fifth book in the series ‘The Buildings of Ireland’ has just been published by Yale University Press under the title ‘Central Leinster – The Counties of Kildare Laois and Offaly’. It follows several years after earlier publications on Dublin, North Leinster, North-West Ulster, South Ulster which were the initial publications in a sister series to those on English, Scottish and Welsh buildings compiled over many years by Nikolaus Pevsner. The author of the Central Leinster book is Dr. Andrew Tierney who has produced what the Times Literary Supplement rightly describes as a ‘great feat of publishing in the best traditions of architectural history.’ The buildings in Athy receive extensive coverage in the book which offers a tremendous amount of detail of which I was not previously aware. St. Michael’s Church of Ireland, designed by Frederick Darley, architect for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners for the Archdioceses of Dublin, was the architect for the Offaly Street church, also the Model School on the Dublin Road, the church in Kilberry and the former Corn Exchange, now the Courthouse in Emily Square. Darley’s wooden communion rail in St. Michael’s Church was replaced by brass rails in 1893, while the original pulpit entered from a doorway high up in the wall left of the altar was replaced in 1861 by a pulpit erected in memory of Rev. Frederick Trench who was killed following an accident at Preston’s Gate the previous year. Tierney describes the church interior as ‘chaste’, while he refers to the church organ as ‘a large and ungainly imposition in the ritual south transept.’ The nearby rector’s house on Church Road was designed by Deane & Woodward, the contractor being local man Mark Cross who built many houses in and around Athy in the mid-1800s including houses in Janeville Lane and Connolly’s Lane. Hammer dressed limestone blocks taken from the nearby town jail which had closed in 1860 were used in the building of the rector’s house. St. Michael’s Catholic Church opened in 1964 is described as a rehash of O’Connor and Aylward’s design for Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean McDermott Street Dublin which was built ten years earlier. The most interesting features of St. Michael’s Church are the furnishings from the earlier church including the pulpit which was erected in 1901 by James Pearse, father of Padraig and William Pearse. The former Dominican Church designed by John Thompson and Partners and opened the year after the Parish Church was the first example in Ireland of the type of roof structure popularised by Felix Candela in Mexico and Sam Scorer in England in the late 1950s. The dramatic hyperbolic paraboloid roof of reinforced concrete was Fr. Pollock’s choice of modern church design which attracted huge interest when the church first opened and continues today to attract much attention as the town’s library. The Presbyterian Church, built in 1857, to David Taylor’s design is described by Tierney as ‘a rather plain early English gothic hall’. The adjoining manse, which was built by a local builder William Crampton in 1866 finds favour with Tierney who sees it as ‘a delightful composition with bargeboards.’ The Methodist Church built in 1874 is mentioned as an early Decorated T-plan building designed by Darley and Holbrook. The Athy churches are indicative of the religious diversity of the south Kildare population and are a valid expression of the developing architectural styles since the 1830s. The Model School and former Agricultural School on the Dublin Road in 1851 was the work of Frederick Darley who was engaged by the Board of National Education in the last year of the Great Famine to design model schools for every county in Ireland. Tierney acknowledges that Darley’s building is ‘eye catching and picturesque in its massing’. Not so impressive in his judgment is the 1858 Convent of Mercy school building at Mount Hawkins which he describes as ‘large and stately if cumbersomely asymmetrical.’ The Town Hall is surprisingly noted in the book as ‘ungainly looking’, while the Courthouse is stated to be an early Irish example of a neo Jacobean public building. St. Vincent’s Hospital, the former Workhouse built to George Wilkinson’s design, has been much changed over the years but in the double gabled wings are to be found the narrow gangways between raised wooden floors on which the inmates once bedded down for the night. White’s Castle, which Tierney describes as an ‘unusually substantial three storey tower at the heart of Athy’ is described by him as a good example of the use of castles as jails in the 19th century given its ‘haggard, decaying exteriors and forbiddingly small post medieval windows.’ Woodstock Castle, built of loosely coarse rubble as was the medieval church at Bothar Bui, are also mentioned but both sadly are now fenced off and have been for some years. There are no plans that I am aware of to carry out any restoration work on these the oldest buildings in Athy, both of which will deteriorate further if nothing is done to protect and preserve them.

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