Central Leinster: some reflections on the architecture of County Offaly by Andrew Tierney


Medieval architecture
In a region crowded with fine buildings, County Offaly has a lot of significant works of architecture of which to be proud. It is rich in early Christian and Romanesque remains at Kinnitty, Durrow and Rahan, while the monastic settlement at Clonmacnoise is one of the outstanding survivals of this period in Ireland.

1. Clonony Castle
PHOTO 1. Clonony Castle, a seat of the MacCoghlan clan. From 1612 the home of German planter Mathew de Renzi

The county is less fortunate in its late medieval ecclesiastical buildings, but of the three Central Leinster counties (Laois, Offaly and Kildare) retains perhaps the most extensive architectural legacy of its Gaelic lordships – notably in tower houses such as Leap, Cloghan and Clonony, among others.

The Plantation period

The construction of walled enclosures with defensive corner towers is a marked feature of both settler and native houses in Co. Offaly during the plantation of James I. The solid rubble stone homestead at Newtown near Aghancon (c. 1621) built on a thousand acre grant by the Scottish family of Sinclair is perhaps the most evocative example of the period.


2. Newtown
PHOTO 2. Newtown near Aghancon, the fortified plantation homestead of the Sinclair family of Scotland, c. 1621

Native families who retained their lands (or were given new lands in the plantation) were soon building fortified manor houses reflecting increasingly Anglicized taste, such as the O’Carroll mansion at Ballymooney (Clareen), the finest surviving example. From this period also count some of its greatest losses: Kilcolgan Castle, Ferbane (MacCoghlan), and Broughal Castle, Kilcormac (O’Molloy), built inside large defensive enclosures (which probably contained gardens), and had fine curvilinear Jacobean-style parapets of the early to mid c17. An intriguing loss is Franckfort Castle (Dunkerrin), which still retains a moated enclosure wall. It is unclear whether this is original or was created later to match the old style prevalent in the county. The arched entrances are of early nineteenth century date, as attested by datestones. For Thomas Cooke of Birr, writing in 1826, the castle’s antiquity was unquestionable: ‘one of the few old baronial residences in Ireland still inhabitable . . . it is kept in very creditable style and preservation’.

Country house building

Given the prevalence of castles in Offaly, it is perhaps no surprise that their revival was more vigorously pursued here than elsewhere in Central Leinster. The county boasts two of the finest works of the Castle Revival style of the early nineteenth century in Charleville Forest by Francis Johnston (1800-1812) and Birr Castle by the unrelated John Johnston (the latter a remodelling of an earlier structure after 1801), which set a new standard of Picturesque design on a large scale in Ireland.

3. Charleville Forest, entrance front
PHOTO 3. Charleville Forest, the Gothic Revival masterpiece of architect Francis Johnston, 1800-1812

What had been until then confined largely to garden buildings and follies took on a new grandeur as the aristocracy became intent on romanticising their past. The architects James and George Richard Pain, also worked in the county, designing Durrow Abbey for the 1st Earl of Norbury (1831–9) and Castle Bernard (1833; now Kinnitty Castle), both in a castellated Tudor Gothic style, as well as an unexecuted design in the same style for the 1st Baron Bloomfield at Loughton (Moneygall; 1835).
Among the most important and prolific early nineteenth-century country house architects working in this style in Ireland were Sir Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison. But their work in Central Leinster was largely Neoclassical. While their magnum opus here is Ballyfin in County Laois, there are several smaller works attributable to them in County Offaly, such as the handsome twin villas of Cangort Park (Shinrone) and Bellair (Ballycumber), which have compact plans with handsome bows on the side elevations. A variation of their plan can be found at Tullynisk, outside Birr (1823), which combines elements of both the Gothic and Neoclassical styles. Most remarkable are its vaulted interiors which appear to take their cue from Birr Castle. The Morrisons’ influence can also be found at Killagally Park (Ferbane), which has a beautiful elliptical entrance hall and saloon on axis through the centre.

Religious buildings
Few eighteenth-century Catholic churches were constructed on a significant scale in the early post-penal period and even fewer survive. Offaly is particularly lucky then to have a rather interesting example at St Colman, Kilclonfert (near Daingean) of 1783, the earliest notable surviving Catholic hall-and-tower church in the three central Leinster counties. Though somewhat altered, it still retains its rusticated Neoclassical doorcase.

4. St Brendan, Birr
PHOTO 4. St Brendan, Birr (RC), by Bernard Mullins, 1817-24

The Gothic Revival style took hold early in the ecclesiastical architecture of the county with both Church of Ireland and Catholic churches at Birr dating to the second decade of the nineteenth century, as well as A. W. N. Pugin’s remarkable Mercy convent (1846–56), built within an enclosed precinct, with cloistered ranges and integrated chapel. It first showed the potential for the revival of medieval conventual architecture in Ireland – though it was too ambitious a model for most rural convents, and its lessons were not fully absorbed in central Leinster until 1880–4, with William Beardwood’s Mount St Joseph Abbey near Roscrea.


Leaving convent building aside, Pugin’s influence came relatively late to Offaly churches and it is not until the construction of J. J. McCarthy’s Church of the Nativity at Kilcormac in 1867 that we see something in the manner of Pugin’s Wexford churches of the 1840s, while the construction of St Brigid’s, Clara (1876-83) by J. J. O’Callaghan, saw the first full expression of the more archaeologically correct Gothic Revival church style in the county.

Many Central Leinster churches have been altered to accommodate the liturgical changes of Vatican II, often to their detriment. While the great chapel at Maynooth is the outstanding survivor in the central Leinster region, among schemes in Offaly’s parish churches, St Mary’s, Edenderry (1912–32), is almost complete and includes a superb mosaic sanctuary floor and scheme for the east wall of the chancel executed by Oppenheimer Ltd to designs by Ashlin & Coleman.

Civic buildings

In civic architecture there are several notable structures in the county, though none so imposing as J. B. Keane’s monumental court house in Tullamore (1833-35), which stands out – in its exterior architecture (the interior having been burnt in the Civil War) – as the grandest public building in Central Leinster of the mid nineteenth century.

6. Court house, Tullamore
PHOTO 6. Court house, Tullamore, by J. B. Keane, 1833

In its scale and ambition it overshadows the more modest Neoclassical courthouses attributed to Keane’s former master Richard Morrison in Portlaoise (c. 1805) and Naas (c. 1807). It is the first and finest of three court houses by Keane, the others being Nenagh, Co. Tipperary and Waterford. With its porticoed front and handsome ashlar stonework, its construction signalled Tullamore’s elevation to county town status in place of Philipstown (Daingean). The Court House at Daingean (1807), by an unknown hand, is nevertheless an interesting Neoclassical precursor, with impressive double-height relieving arches with niches above and rustication across a central three-bay arcade below. That at Birr (c. 1810), which has similar relieving arches, has a crenellated parapet in deference to the nearby church and castle. Both retain good remnants of their early 19th century interiors.

Offaly’s varied and complex history is well illustrated in this rich architectural legacy, which deserves to be better known outside the county. [The publicaton of Central Leinster in the Buildings of Ireland series will help greatly. The launch of this fine book is in Offaly History Centre, 10 October 8 pm (see featured image, Editor).

Bio: Andrew Tierney studied architectural history and archaeology at University College Dublin and has taught at UCD, NUI Maynooth and the University of Liverpool. He has worked on various Irish Research Council funded projects, including Making Victorian Dublin, Stonebuilt Ireland, and Craftvalue. In 2017 he published The Doctor’s Wife is Dead (Penguin) and in 2019 Central Leinster (Yale University Press), the fifth Irish volume in the series of Pevsner architectural guides. He is currently Irish Research Council Laureate Project Fellow at TRIARC in Trinity College Dublin.