Buildings in Borderland
Opening an old world with a new gazeteer
‘In the best traditions of his legendary predecessor, Nikolaus Pevsner, a German refugee and original founder of the “Buildings of England” series in the 1950s, Kevin Mulligan is delightfully opinionated.’ Above, scene near Castleblayney from The Buildings of Ireland: South Ulster, by Kevin Mulligan
White gates creak slowly open after I punch in a secret four-figure code. Ahead of me, in a place that has attracted many artists to a remote corner of rural south Ulster, a tree-lined avenue leads the way to a million creative possibilities.
The countryside is still looking green when I arrive at Annaghmakerrig near Newbliss on September 22nd, the day of the autumn equinox. Hedges and fields across a swathe of drumlins with small farms and church steeples stand out in the undulating scenery. An autumnal expectancy hangs in the air but red admirals still flirt in the sun.
The dreamy landscape and built heritage of south Ulster tends to be overlooked. It is an area rarely sought out by visitors, more a drive through on the way elsewhere. But I have brought with me a new gazetteer which firmly places counties Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan on the architectural map. The book, the fourth in the Irish series, is published by Yale University Press in the magisterial survey of the “Buildings of Ireland”.
The 600-page volume stretches alphabetically from Annaghmakerrig, (home of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan and my home for a week) to Virginia in Cavan. Its author, Kevin Mulligan, an architectural historian, has documented hundreds of vernacular buildings from grandiose cathedrals, flamboyant castles and stylish Palladian mansions to dilapidated market houses, abandoned railway stations and humble roughcast halls. “The simple buildings of the countryside,” he writes, “the tidy farmhouse in a cluster of barns or the tree-girt parish church, fix the landscape in our minds’.
In the best traditions of his legendary predecessor, Nikolaus Pevsner, a German refugee and original founder of the “Buildings of England” series in the 1950s, Mulligan is delightfully opinionated. If he feels strongly about changes, he is suitably critical. The library in Cootehill, built in 2001, is a “ponderous pyramid-roofed block with all the usual gracelessness of local authority architecture”. In his declarative style, he does not mince words, describing St Mary’s Church at the rural crossroads of Billis Bridge in Cavan as, “A downright ugly building unworthy of its purpose . . . Interior unimaginably poor”.
Candidly, he states that if Paddy Reilly decided to come back to Ballyjamesduff where historic buildings have been “disfigured by unsympathetic alterations”, he would be “confused and saddened by the generic overdeveloped suburbia sprawling out to greet him”.
Annaghmakerrig is “a straightforward two-storey block of five bays, modestly romanced and enlarged into a charming Tudor Revival house”. The book is in my satchel, a vade mecum to the treasures of the countryside as I cycle traffic-free back roads and meandering lanes. Hedgerows are a riot of blackberries, sloes and haws. Red berries glow in the sun with dazzling brightness while honeysuckle, bindweed and pink-tinged flowers add colour.
Intrigued by the listing for the evocatively named Tea Pot Row in Rockcorry, I set off in search of it, on what Kavanagh called “an apple-ripe September morning”. Cycling from Newbliss (whose courthouse “has an air of sophistication” and market house “an unhappy mix of materials”), I anticipate the possibility of a welcome cuppa. But when I reach the village, the mill workers’ cottages are sadly derelict. Roofs have caved in, chimneys fallen over and the whole row is boarded up.
I head north to Monaghan town. In the Diamond, the “curiously exotic” Rossmore monument stands on eight grey polished granite columns. It commemorates the 4th Baron Rossmore, “Rosie”, killed at 22 while steeple-chasing at Windsor in 1874. Queen Victoria, who witnessed his death, called off the next day’s racing as a mark of respect.
Over coffee in the “reassuringly red brick” Westenra Arms, I leaf through other entries. Fascinating titbits jump out, such as the fact that the burials in the graveyard of the ruins of a late Georgian church in Bailieborough include the forebears of the novelist Henry James.
The expressive lingua franca of architecture lends itself to colourful description. The book’s informative glossary brings the reader from abacus to weepers – the latter small figures in niches along the sides of medieval tombs.
Be warned: if you dip into this book you will go on dipping, or perhaps weeping, at the beauty of it all. It is the standard work for anyone even vaguely interested in the history of landmark buildings in these three counties. The stimulating details are best inhaled in short bursts on location as you puzzle over a fenestration, study a hammerbeam roof, or gaze at the wonders of a little-celebrated south Ulster squinch.
Paul Clements is a contributing writer to the newly published Fodor’s Ireland 2014