As you know our last post examined the history of the name Midleton House associated with two different houses, each on opposite banks of the Roxborough or Dungourney River in Midleton. The National Library of Ireland has a lovely early twentieth century image showing part of Midleton House , The Rock. What is of note is not just the dominant position of the newly built Holy Rosary Church (spire completed in 1908) but the fine gardens around the house. Today there are a lot more large trees around the house.
In the early hours of Christmas morning 2009 the people of Longford woke to the horrific sight of their cathedral on fire. They had celebrated Midnight Mass just a few hours before in the grandest building in the town, and now it was violently consumed by flames which left the building a gutted shell by daybreak.
Apart from the loss of the liturgical space, Longford also lost its important diocesan museum which was located in the former presbytery. Such diocesan museums are an extreme rarity in Ireland. The presbytery was built into the back of the structure according to the original plans. Among the treasures damaged and there were items of national importance – the so-called ‘crozier of St Mel’ and the Shrine of St Caillin. The thousand year old crozier was severely damaged but the Shrine of St Cailin survived despite considerable damage. The collection of historic vestments was completely lost. For genealogists, there is some relief in that although the old church records were destroyed, they have been microfilmed.
St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford was begun in 1840 under the direction of Bishop William O’Higgins. It was designed by John Benjamin Keane, a Dublin-born architect who had worked as an assistant to Richard Morrison. Morrison’s father, John Morrison, also an architect, was based in Midleton in the 1770s and 1780s. But that’s not the real Midleton connection with St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. (Note: John B Keane is the name given by the Irish Architectural Archive, but recent news reports give the name as Joseph B Keane! I’ll stick with the IAA version until I am reliably corrected! And, no, I’m not aware of any family connection between the architect and the more recent Listowel publican and author, John B Keane.)
Anyone who knows their Irish history will be aware that 1840 was not the most auspicious timing for starting such a large project, much of it financed by the pennies of the poor. From the autumn of 1845 to 1850 Ireland was stricken by the Great Famine caused by widespread potato blight, and the money for building the cathedral was diverted to more urgent causes. Once the famine ended, the work resumed, but Keane had long left the scene and died in debt in 1859. His successors included John Bourke who designed the cathedral’s belfry that has presided over over the town since 1860.
Then in the 1880s it was decided to embellish the rather plain front, and the architect of the fine portico was none other than George Coppinger Ashlin (1837-1921). From 1888 to 1893 the portico was built and some interior furnishings such as altars were designed and supervised by Ashlin. This is where the Midleton connection comes in. Ashlin was the third son of John Musson Ashlin JP (of Rush Hill, Wandsworth, Surrey, England) and Dorinda Coppinger, who came from Carrigrenane House in, Little Island near Glounthaune, County Cork. Sadly this house no longer exists. Dorinda was part of a clan of very influential Catholics who supplied a Bishop of Cloyne in the person of William Coppinger, and the curate of Midleton, Stephen Coppinger, who introduced the Presentation Sisters to the town. And, yes, Dorinda Coppinger was related to the Joseph Coppinger discussed in a previous post.
George Ashlin became apprenticed to Edward Pugin, the son of the more celebrated Augustus WN Pugin (the man who designed the interiors of the Palace of Westminster and its clock tower (also popularly called the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben). Primarily considered an architect of the gothic revival, it turns out that Ashlin was accomplished enough to work in the classical style too. He went on to become Edward Pugin’s business partner, and even married Edward’s sister, Mary – so he was the son-in-law of the more celebrated Augustus Pugin, who had died in 1852. With Edward Pugin and Thomas Coleman, Ashlin designed St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh (then Queenstown), one of the last sights Irish emigrants saw when they left the country from Cork Harbour.
GC Ashlin’s mother held property in Midleton, where she had several relatives living. Indeed the Coppingers were the wealthiest Catholics in the town in the early and middle nineteenth century. Ashlin’s oldest brother was John Coppinger Ashlin, who lived at Castleredmond House on……Ashlin Road (!). I walked to school along that road every day! It was these family connections to Midleton that led Ashlin to be commissioned to design Holy Rosary Catholic Church in 1893, and to supervise its construction from 1894 to 1896, and then again when the spire was completed in 1907-1908 Between these dates GC Ashlin designed the finest bank building in Midleton – the redbrick Dutch renaissance style Munster and Leinster Bank, now the Allied Irish Bank at the northern end of Main Street.
Today, Saturday 20th December 2014 will be long remembered in Longford town as the day the people of the town were allowed to enter and view their newly restored cathedral. Five years after the fire, the Cathedral of St Mel also saw the celebration of its first Mass. Although the interior was damaged, Ashlin’s great portico seems to have suffered only minor damage. It now welcomes the people of Longford back into their resurrected cathedral.
Well done to everyone who contributed to the restoration of the ‘Longford Phoenix!’
Last week I had an email from Grace Fox at SECAD (South & East Cork Area Development). She asked me to give a tour of Midleton to a group taking a new Tourism and Heritage Programme at SECAD. Her suggestion was to do the tour on Tuesday 21st October. I said ‘yes’ subject to the weather – the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo was due to arrive overnight on Monday and continue into the next day. Fortunately the worst of the storm went north, and we got away lightly here in the deep south.
I met the group of about twelve people at the Courthouse at the northern end of Main Street (and believe me the wind was bitter – thermal underwear weather!). First we looked around the Fair Green and old Goose’s Acre area with the old Workhouse (now the Community Hospital), Allen’s Mill (now apartments), Neville’s garage (formerly part of the old US Naval Air Station at Aghada – moved here in 1921!), the Courthouse (by George and Richard Pain, 1829), the Munster & Leinster Bank by George Coppinger Ashlin (now the Allied Irish Bank).
The northern end of Main Street. Yes, that is a blue sky in the background! The red brick structure is the Allied Irish Bank, designed in a Dutch Renaissance style by George Coppinger Ashlin and built for the Munster and Leinster Bank in 1902. The Courthouse stands directly opposite (out of picture). The yellow building is one half of a structure that once contained the Post Office and was built in 1910. The building now houses a bookshop on the ground floor and law offices upstairs, convenient for the Courthouse.
It’s so nice to have an attentive group!
We then proceeded down Main Street looking Old Bank House, the predecessor of the Munster & Leinster Bank, the older of the two Market Houses in Midleton (the town is unique in having TWO Market Houses), the different building plots on Main Street, and then on to Connolly Street to look at Midleton College (founded 1696). This is a secondary school (boarding and day school) not a third level institution. It was also the site of one of the earliest known experiments in medical anesthesia in Ireland in the 1830s. The wind dropped and the temperature seemed more pleasant once we had the shelter of the buildings in Main Street.
From there we returned to Main Street, crossing over to Church Lane, to view St John the Baptist’s Church (Church of Ireland) and the oldest cemetery in Midleton, going back to the seveneeth century – I have ancestors buried there. This was also the site of the Cistercian Abbey of Chore (Mainistir na Corann in Irish, meaning the Monastery of the Weir, the weit being the most valuable asset of the monastery at the Dissolution). At one period the settlement was known as Corabbey, until the charter of King Charles II in 1670 gave the town an official corporate identity and a new name – MIDLETON. Even the spelling is by royal appointment! St John the Baptist’s Church is the third Anglican church on the site since 1670 and was also designed by George and Richard Pain (1825).
Moving on to Main Street, we stopped to look at the library which is now housed in the ‘new’ Market House. Well, it was new in 1789 when it was built – just in time for the French Revolution! It later became known as the ‘Town Hall‘ – that is, a place used by the town as a reading room (how appropriate that it houses the library) and as a place of assembly for public meetings, dinners and even dances. Bear in mind the shambles was on the ground floor (the butchers’ market)! I’m sure this added a delightful aroma to the genteel proceedings upstairs.
We moved on further to look at a building designed by Augustus WN Pugin but executed under the supervision of his son Edward – now called McDaid’s Bar, but known to long established Midleton residents as the former Midleton Arms Hotel. This structure was originally two houses (with shops on the ground floor, but Viscount Midleton didn’t have the money to complete the rebuilding of the entire street in the same fashion. Main Street would have looked spectacular if the project had been completed. The building was occuppied by Crown Forces during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). There are still traces of bullet marks on the building where the IRA had fired on the British troops who were stationed there to secure the southern end of the street (the Royal Irish Constabulary were based at the Northern end of the street).
From there we went on to Brodrick Street or Coolbawn as locals call it. In fact Coolbawn refers to the area in which Brodrick Street stands. And no, there’s no ‘e‘ in Brodrick – despite the official street sign! The Brodricks were the family who developed Midleton into the town we see today. Crossing Main Street (it’s a LONG street, about eight hundred yards) we entered the old Coppinger brewery. I had some funny looks when I told them this! Midleton is noted for distilling whiskey, not for brewing beer. However the Coppinger family had closed down the brewery by the time the first Ordnance Survey map of Midleton was surveyed in the late 1830s. The business almost certainly failed because of Fr Theobald Mathew’s spectacularly successful campaign against the demon drink – the Famine drove us back to drink! We then gathered at Distillery Walk (it should really be called Distillery Drive given all the cars parked there) to discuss the Coppingers and their importance in Midleton, with their house on the other side of Main Street. (More about that house below!)
Holding forth about the Coppinger family at Distillery Walk, with Lewis Bridge in the background (beyond the railings). The scene is dominated by Ashlin’s Holy Rosary Church (1896 & 1908). Just visible over the parapet of the bridge is the former Lewis Place, now called Midleton House, one of two houses with that name in Midleton. Later, I realized that I had forgotten to tell them about General John Joseph Coppinger (1834-1909), who fought on the Union side in the US Civil War – he’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery (yes, the one across the Potomac from DC!).
Note the attentive note taking by most of the group. There were plenty of questions too!
Then crossing over Lewis Bridge (which traverses the Roxborough River) we turned off to look at one of the two houses called Midleton House. There I explained that this house was originally called Lewis Place (queue shock and surprise in the group – NOBODY had EVER heard called THAT!). This house was probably built around 1760 (perhaps earlier!) and only later acquired the name Midleton House. People in the town believe this is the ONLY house entitled to that name, whereas, in fact, the house directly across the Roxborough River was also called Midleton House from the 1890s. That house was the home of the Coppinger family that I noted above. The Coppingers were prosperous brewers, maltsters, grain merchants and bankers, and were the most important, and wealthiest, Catholic residents of Midleton in the nineteenth century. We also considered the 1867 Fenian ‘incident’ in Midleton (I refuse to call it a rebellion, it was plain murder!) and the buildings of the area called the Rock (from a large rock that had to be cut away to create the road to Youghal). Among the buildings there are Bank House – built by the Coppingers as the Midleton branch of the National Bank of Ireland in the 1830s, as well as Rock Terrace (1861) and some earlier terraces and a lovely pair of late Georgian townhouses to complete the scene. We didn’t do the Holy Rosary Catholic Church because we could all see it from where we stood – this was also designed by George Coppinger Ashlin in 1894 and built in two years, opening in 1896! The spire was added to Ashlin’s original design in 1907/08. They knew how to build them back then! So, curiously, the Main Street and Rock are bracketed by George Coppinger Ashlin’s buildings.
In all the tour took just over two hours – and it was the first component of the group’s tourism studies. I hope they learned more about Midleton in those two hours than they had expected. A huge ‘thank you’ to the group for their enthusiastic attendance on a very chilly afternoon. And the best of luck to them in their course.