The following article is taken from the 2017 edition of the Irish Georgian Society Review, our annual members' magazine.
Entrance of Myrtle Grove, Youghal, Co. Cork (Image courtesy of Failte Ireland)
In an article in The Irish Times of 2 April 2011, “How do you fix a broken town?”, Carl O’Brien described setbacks experienced by the seaside town of Youghal in recent decades. O’Brien attributed much of this decline to planning decisions, enabling supermarkets to be built on the periphery. O’Brien looked back over Youghal’s history, to the 15th century, when it was one of the important port in Ireland, rivalling Bristol in wealth and trading activity. Youghal’s decline has also been chronicled by local history teacher Michael Twomey, in Town Out of Time, a film highlighting the seemingly fatalistic attitude of its fortunes.
The key to reviving the fortunes of Youghal lies in the fabric of the town itself, in its fascinating history and extraordinary architectural heritage. The term “steeped in history” is apt here. As a once-thriving seaport, Youghal has a rich past, peopled with individuals such as the Earls of Desmond, Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Boyle. From early Viking origins, it grew into a settler community, inhabited by relative newcomers, who gradually assimilated into Irish life while also retaining a separate identity.
Myrtle Grove chimneypiece depicting Faith, Hope and Charity
A century before the ill-fated rebellion, under a charter granted by Gerald’s ancestor, Thomas Fitzgerald, 8th Earl of Desmond, Richard Benet restored St. Mary’s Abbey in Youghal and founded a college of choristers. The Abbey was already a venerable building in Benet’s time; the original roof beams survive and have been dated to the late 12th century. Referred to in 1464 as “Our Lady’s College of Yoghill”, it was mentioned thirty 30 years later in a papal bull as the “university of the city of Youghal”. Apart from the monastery schools, this was the earliest college of higher education in Ireland, pre-dating Trinity College in Dublin by over a century. Benet also built himself a mortuary chapel in St. Mary’s, in which he and his wife Ellis Barry are interred.
Today, ‘“The College’”, a large square three-storey Georgian house, with circular towers at the corners, is located immediately to the south of St. Mary’s Abbey. Extensively remodelled, little remains of its original structure. The Warden’s House, on the other hand, is very old, and is generally accepted as the Tudor house located immediately to the north of the abbey. It has been known since the nineteenth 19th century as ‘“Myrtle Grove’”. Both College and Warden’s House are mentioned in old accounts of Youghal, and appear almost interchangeable, so it is possible that Myrtle Grove pre-dates the building of the College and, for a time, served both purposes. Later in the sixteenth 16th century—--following this theory—--the new College was completed and choristers and fellows moved to the new building, leaving Myrtle Grove for the exclusive use of the Warden. It was later the townhouse of the Earl of Desmond, for use when he was in Youghal. In 1579, during the Desmond Rebellion, the Earl was reduced to destroying his own property. Myrtle Grove appears to have been escaped serious damage. After the suppression of the Rebellion, Walter Raleigh, who had served in the army, was granted over 40,000 acres of the Earl of Desmond’s land, including properties in Lismore and Youghal. In 1602, Richard Boyle purchased Raleigh’s estates in Ireland, including the College in Youghal, from Sir George Carew Lord President of Munster, who had been granted them by James I. Another version of this land transfer has Raleigh selling his property directly to Boyle. In 1617, when Raleigh was leading an expedition to America, Boyle, perhaps feeling guilty about having got the better side of the deal, helped fit out his ships for the voyage. Because one of his captains attacked a Spanish settlement on the Orinoco, on his return to England Raleigh was tried for treason, and shortly afterwards beheaded, outside the Tower of London. This left Boyle free to create an agricultural, banking and business empire, bringing infrastructural development to Munster, and founding the towns of Bandon and Clonakilty. The future Earl of Cork immediately set to work, carrying out extensive renovations at Lismore Castle and Youghal, in many cases finishing work that Raleigh had begun during his brief tenure.
Detail of hermaphrodite from Myrtle Grove's oak chimneypiece
Myrtle Grove is therefore a key architectural element in the complex, bounded by the town walls, that includes St. Mary’s Abbey, the College and various gate-houses and stables. The town wall that bounds Myrtle Grove is around thirty 30 feet high, and very solid, and it was this that enabled the house to be built unfortified, with large windows—--unusual for the time in Ireland. Three gables dominate the front façade, and a roof ridge runs parallel with the spine of the house, surmounted by five tall chimneystacks. Three of these chimneys rise from the apexes of gables to the rear, with one more at each end of the house. The stack at the north end is particularly massive, representing the oldest part of the house. The windows on the front, facing east, were enlarged at some point; the originals would probably have had stone mullions, as at Carrick-on-Suir. At Myrtle Grove, the principal rooms are on the first floor, and have the largest windows. The present windows in the house, frames and glass, date mainly from the eighteenth 18th and early-19th nineteenth century. All are Georgian in style; those at the rear are hinged, while the front windows lack the counterweights needed for sliding sashes, perhaps because the thick walls prevented weight boxes being built. A stone porch protects the front door and also supports a large bay window above: another bay window allows light into the first floor room on the south side. Raleigh referred fondly to his “Oriel window” at Youghal, and a similar window can be found over the front door of his childhood home, Hayes Barton in Devon.
Photographed by Francis Edmund Currey in the 1840’s, shortly before their demolition, the south -west range at Lismore had gabled roofs facing towards the courtyard, with chimneystacks rising from the apexes. While not as massive as those at Myrtle Grove, the gables and chimneys are nonetheless closely comparable. This gable-fronted style, common in domestic Tudor buildings, was also found in colleges such as Exeter, Christchurch and Oriel, as recorded in David Loggan’s Oxonia Illustrata of 1675. However, there are few images or engravings of Myrtle Grove from these times. In 1680 Thomas Dineley made a crude drawing of Youghal that was later included in the book of his travels, published in the mid-nineteenth 19th century. This engraving shows Myrtle Grove, identifiable by three large chimneystacks and three gables. In front is another, lower, building, with four gables. To the left stands an ecclesiastical building or church, with a lower building alongside— - two very tall chimneystacks suggest it might be a refectory. In front is a battlemented gatehouse, while the whole ensemble is surrounded by fortified walls. As was often the case in those times, this engraving may be partly based on observation and partly on written accounts. Lismore also has a yew walk, as does Myrtle Grove. This link between Lismore and Myrtle Grove certainly dates back to the Raleigh-Boyle era, but may pre-date it, to a time when both the Castle and the College and Warden’s House at Youghal were ecclesiastical residences.
Detail of piper from Myrtle Grove's oak chimneypiece
In plans of Myrtle Grove, drawn by architect W.C.. C. Ryder in 1893, the main upstairs room, with its oak panelling and carved chimneypiece, is marked “The Oak Room”. Possibly modelled on the “Great Oak Room” of the Red Lodge in Bristol, created in the late- 1570’s by merchant John Young, the room at Myrtle Grove is dominated by an elaborate oak chimneypiece, extending from floor to ceiling, containing carved representations of Faith, Hope and Charity, along with ‘Sheelagh-na-Gig’-like figures. While most of the chimneypiece is in the ‘Elizabethan Exeter’ style, the figure carving is very individual and appears to be by the one, perhaps local, hand. The flanking hermaphrodite figures, bearing pineapples, suggest a connection with Raleigh. Several rooms at Myrtle Grove are wainscoted in dark oak panels, said to have been salvaged from monasteries suppressed during the Reformation. Behind one section was discovered, in the nineteenth 19th century, a cache of books hidden at an unknown date. The books included a Biblical compendium, printed at Mantua in 1479, and Peter Comestor’s 1483 Historia Scolastica.
Edith Blake watercolours in Myrtle Grove
While Myrtle Grove has had many owners and occupiers over the centuries, the present owners, the Murrays, are descendants of Lawrence Parsons, who in 1616 leased Myrtle Grove from Richard Boyle. In 1661, Parsons’s grandson leased the house to Robert Hedges, whose son sold it to John Atkin, who in turn bequeathed it to his grandson John Hayman. When Walter Atkin Hayman died in 1816, it went to Joseph Wakefield Pim, and in 1874 was purchased by John Pope Hennessy. Twenty years later Sir Henry Blake bought Myrtle Grove and commissioned architect W. C. Ryder to survey the house. Conveyancing took years to complete, due to the complicated title and many owners. Dating the architecture is equally complicated: the house is essentially fifteenth 15th or sixteenth 16th century; the Oak Room with its large chimneypiece probably dates from Raleigh’s time, while the windows were probably enlarged in the seventeenth 17th century. The rooms were probably panelled in the post-Reformation period. The present windows date from the eighteenth 18th and nineteenth 19th centuries. The staircase may follow the general pattern of the original, but was certainly reconfigured in the nineteenth 19th century, at a time when outbuildings and a small courtyard were added at the north end of the house.
In the 1890’s, the Blakes carried out improvements, including digging away ground at the rear, and shortening the chimneystacks—while tall today, they were even taller before 1895. The Blakes also set up a museum of Asian art, in a former brewery at the rear of the house, while the entrance hall at Myrtle Grove was embellished with a dazzling array of botanical watercolours painted by Edith Blake , painted while she was in the West Indies and in Asia. Downstairs, in the library, is a marble bust of Lady Blake, carved in 1862 by the celebrated Florentine sculptor Pio Fedi (1815-1892) when she was just eighteen years old.
Cmdr. Bernard and Rosemary Arbuthnot c. 1940
One of the Osborne family of Newtown Anner in Co. Tipperary, Edith had eloped with an RIC inspector named Henry Blake, much to her parents’ disapproval. The marriage was a success, however, and Blake’s subsequent career as a colonial administrator brought them to Newfoundland, the West Indies and Asia. After he had served as governor of Jamaica, the Bahamas, Hong Kong and Ceylon—, with Edith taking an active role in improving health and education facilities wherever they were stationed—the couple retired to Myrtle Grove, where they lived until the 1920’s. Their tombs are side by side, close to the house, in a small grove of trees, just outside the town walls. Their daughter Olive married Jack Arbuthnot, army officer and ADC to her father. Jack was also a talented artist, and in 1916 sketched portraits of Roger Casement, whilst the latter was imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of treason. Olive and Jack had six children, four sons and two daughters. Their son Bernard served as a naval officer in the Second World War and later founded a fishermans’ cooperative in Youghal, and was a keen member of the local lifeboat crew. Bernard’s youngest sister Patricia, who spent some of her childhood at Youghal, married the radical journalist Claud Cockburn and herself was a talented writer and artist. Her time at Youghal is recorded in the autobiographical, Figure of Eight, while her shell pictures, made in the eighteenth-century manner with shells collected from the seashore, are fine and delicate works of art. Myrtle Grove survives into the twenty-first century under the stewardship of Bernard’s daughter Shirley Murray, her son Simon, and by her daughter Iona, who lives in the house.
While Myrtle Grove is a private family residence, in Youghal there is much to enthral visitors bent in search of Irish history and the legacies of remarkable men and women. Town walls, college, almshouses and friaries—all can be found within a short distance of the Clock Tower, a venerable structure that straddles the town’s main street, as it has done for centuries, where in old times prisoners languished before being hanged, and nowadays tour guides bring the town’s vibrant history to life.
Peter Murray is the former Director of the Crawford Art Gallery, Co. Cork
Myrtle Grove was a recipient of grant aid through the Society's Conservation Grants Programme in 2018.
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