Walking through history in Goldsmith Country
Following the footsteps of Oliver Goldsmith, and exploring the area where the novelist, poet and playwright spent his formative years is a truly fascinating walk through history. Goldsmith was born in 1730 and spent the formative years of his life in the barony known as Kilkenny West, not far from Glasson in Co. Westmeath His father Charles was curate of Kilkenny West from 1730-1747, and the parsonage at Lissoy was his childhood home.
We know that Goldsmith enjoyed roaming the surrounding countryside, and those quiet country roads were a strong influence on his work. Though he lived in London from 1756 until his untimely death in 1774, he never forgot his roots, and reflections on his life in the Irish midlands are a recurring theme in his novels, poems and plays. A sharp and witty observer of the socio-political landscape at the time, he is commemorated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. I feel, however, he does not get the credit he deserves in his home country.
The historical, archaeological and architectural significance of this area cannot be overestimated, and there is much to see, if you know where to look. St Canice’s church in Kilkenny West is a good place to start. We know from the Annals of Ulster that a 6th century monastic site was founded here by St Canice, and the picturesque ruins of the church stand at the heart of it. Dating to 1840, the edifice we see today was built on the site of the original church where Goldsmith’s father was a rector. In fact, his father is buried in the adjoining graveyard.
The church is referenced in his poem ‘The Deserted Village’ as “the decent church that topped the neighbouring hill”. Though now roofless and slightly overgrown, it’s still an impressive sight: the bellcote over the west entrance is intact, the brickwork and mouldings around the windows are attractive, and slivers of diamond windowpanes are still visible.
A fortuitous stop to ask for directions led me to Terry and Anne-Marie, one of whom has a Masters in local history and was a font of information. Not only that, they were happy to share a photograph of an engraving, dated 1811, of the original church where Goldsmith’s father served. You can view it here. It was interesting to compare the two buildings: the current incarnation is a much simpler one, but they have a bellcote in common. The earlier church had an entrance porch at the front, a smaller chapel at the back, and a tall chimney-type structure to the left of the door.
At the back of the church today stands a smaller building referred to as a ‘Mortuary Chapel’, thought to date to 1680. It is barrel-vaulted with round-headed windows and an entrance arch surrounded with an ornate hood moulding. The stone roof is still intact though completely overgrown with foliage. It’s best viewed from the interior, though access is obstructed somewhat by brambles and weeds. The site’s association with the Hiberno-Norman Dillon family, who once owned vast estates across Westmeath and Longford, is noted in a dedication on a flat tombstone within the chapel. In fact, the Dillons once owned so much land that Westmeath was referred to as ‘Dillon's County’.
From there, it’s a short distance to the parsonage at Lissoy which served as inspiration for Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield and was immortalised as ‘Auburn’ in his lengthy poem ‘The Deserted Village: “Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain”. The parsonage is sadly now in a ruinous state and can be tricky to find, despite signposting. It’s located off the main N55 road between The Pigeons and Tubberclair, though there is now a private house beside the ruins. You can get a sense of the former majesty of Lissoy from a series of engravings which are available to view on the British Museum’s website here. The engravings are illustrations of Reverend Newell’s 'Poetical Works of Oliver Goldsmith dating to 1811” and there are six images in the collection, including one of the original church at Kilkenny West.
Of architectural interest in the area is the former Waterstown Estate, originally in the hands of the Dillon family but confiscated during the Cromwellian settlement in the mid-17th century. Under the subsequent Handcock family ownership, the addition of extensive gardens made it one of the largest estates in Westmeath. Richard Castle, renowned architect of Belvedere House near Mullingar, and Leinster House in Dublin, was hired to design a house and various other buildings on site. Historian Jeremiah Sheehan’s ‘South Westmeath: Farm & Folk” features an image of this house from 1890: a magnificent seven-bay mansion described by Desmond Guinness as the finest example of Georgian architecture in Westmeath. This makes it all the more tragic to see the ruinous condition of the house today, standing forlornly as a shell of a building, covered in moss and ivy.
The only glimpse of its former glory is in the fine detailing on the façade which is still visible in places. However, a wonderfully strange example of Castle’s work can be seen across the fields: an 18th century dovecote known as the Pigeon House. This is in good condition and features a squat octagonal tower with a spire, topped with an intricate weather vane. And it seems that birds are still making good use of it today.
To read some of my other articles published in the Westmeath Examiner, click here.