Religious History at the Rock of Cashel and Hore Abbey

Cathedral at Rock of Cashel

Following a great evening in Kilkenny I traveled to the Rock of Cashel also known as St. Patrick’s Rock in Tipperary County.  The Rock of Cashel was the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster until 1101 when the site was transferred to the Catholic Church in Ireland. The majority of the ruins remaining on the site are from the 12th and 13th centuries during the Church’s ownership of the site.

I participated in a guided tour as part of my visit the Rock of Cashel.  The tour guide was very knowledgeable about the site and did a good job of contextualizing the numerous structures with the political and social movements of the period.  She also did a good job of interjecting humor into the tour through Irish folk stories and jokes.

Cormac’s Chapel is one of the larger ruins on the site and was completed in 1134.  The Chapel was undergoing exterior preservation work during the time of my visit as the sandstone which makes up the majority of the building has been susceptible to water damage.  Despite this exterior work visitors are still able to enter the chapel and see the vaulted ceiling and the small pieces of Irish frescoes which survive on the ceiling.  The interior of the Chapel has a musty damp smell which makes sense given the water damage of the stone.

View of Hore Abbey from Rock of Cashel

The majority of the other buildings on the site are made from limestone, as the Rock of Cashel is located on a huge outcropping of limestone. These buildings mainly date from the 12th and 13th century and include a round tower, a cathedral, castle, and a newer Hall of the Vicars Choral that was built in the 15th century.

After the guided tour and exploring the site I visited the ruins of  Hore Abbey which is located within walking distance of the Rock of Cashel.  Like the Rock, the Abbey is maintained by the Office of Public Works.  However, the Abbey is not staffed and is located in the middle of a farmers field.   The Abbey dates from the 1200s and I found it interesting that the Rock of Cashel gains so much attention when the Abbey sits looking somewhat abandoned. Granted, the Rock of Cashel does look more imposing but the character and history behind the Abbey is just as interesting.

Photographs by Andrew Mackay

Kilkenny Castle: Architecture and Design Through the Ages

The Kilkenny Castle located on the River Nore in Kilkenny City was built in the early 13th century.  Throughout the history of the castle the building was renovated a number of times as the building changed owners, making the site today a mixture of architectural styles and time periods.

There are guided tours available at the Castle, however I arrived in between tours so the staff provided a map and sent me off on a self-guided tour.  The layout of the castle was a bit confusing at times, mostly because of the numerous renovations and additions that the building as undergone.  Resulting in the walk through the space feeling disjointed.

This disjointed feeling might also come from the fact that because the Castle was occupied for centuries the interpretation of the site tries to include elements from different time periods.  So the medieval period is seen in the basement of the castle where there are arrow loops, defensive rooms, and a wicker style ceiling. This is contrasted with a dinning room that reflects life in the castle during the 1860s and the library which is decorated in late 19th century style.

Perhaps the most striking architectural addition to the Castle is the Picture Gallery Wing which was added to the building in the early 1800s by architect William Robertson.  The high painted pitched roof is remarkable and the Gallery contains many of the portraits and paintings that were collected by former residents of the castle. 

The Castle is surrounded by gardens and parkland that is open to the public.  Elements of the older gardens have been maintained including a rose garden, sculptures, and walking paths.  Though many of the trees have been removed to provide open park space.

Former Carriage Building

Across the road from the Castle are the former carriage buildings and stable yard which were built in 1790.  The former stable buildings are now owned by Kilkenny Civic Trust and feature a number of craft studies, the Kilkenny Design Centre, and the Crafts Council of Ireland. The buildings are beautiful with a number of rounded arches, circular windows, and copper-domed tower being highlights.  The Design Centre also has a variety of handmade Irish crafts, which I could have spent hours looking at — I ended up buying a hat that was made locally. It was great to see the stables buildings being used and the exteriors of the buildings being preserved.

Photographs by Andrew MacKay

Natural Landscape and Monastic Ruins in Glendalough

On the way to Kinsale, in Cork County I stopped at the Glendalough Monastic Settlement in Wicklow County.  The Glendalough monastic site is located in the Wicklow Mountains National Park.  I imagine the drive towards Glendalough from Dublin would be beautiful on a clear day as it takes you through the mountains.  It was foggy during my drive so the views were mostly of mist and a few sheep.

It was pouring rain during my visit to Glendalough but there were still a number of visitors exploring the 6th century Christian monastic site. There is a small visitors center located at the site with an attached exhibition space.  I didn’t go into the museum space during my visit but I did go into the center to get maps of the site which outlined the monastic ruins as well as the walking trails on the site.  Having a description of the monastic ruins was helpful as there is very little signage near the ruins themselves. 

There are a number of monastic ruins on the site including: an arched gateway, a round tower, cathedral, church, and smaller out buildings.  The round tower is the most visible from a distance  and is still in surprisingly good shaping considering portions of the other buildings have collapsed.  The tower is around 30 meters high and served as a landmark, a storehouse, and a safe space during times of pillaging.  The monastic ruins are surrounded by graves and memorials to the brethren who occupied the site.

After exploring the monastic ruins I walked towards the upper lake on one of the walking paths.   The walk was nice though probably would have been more enjoyable in better weather.  The walk did provide a nice glimpse at some of the natural landscape encompassed by the National Park and extensive efforts that have gone into creating trails, walking paths, and nature walks. 

Corporate History at the Guinness Storehouse

Brand or corporate museums have never been high on my list of places to visit.  But, while in Dublin I did visit the Guinness Storehouse.  The Storehouse is really more of a corporate museum than a traditional brewery and the visitor experience has more in common with a museum visit than a brewery tour.

Visits to the Storehouse are self guided and well labelled routes direct visitors to displays about Guinness ingredients, the brewing processing, the Guinness family legacy, worldwide distribution, and past advertising campaigns.  Many of the displays had interactive video or audio components and the shear size of the operation was pretty amazing.  

While some of the displays were educational, the whole experience reminded me a bit of the Biff Tannen Museum from the Back to the Future II movie — where the museum is really just a form of promotional advertising.  Given the corporate nature of the attraction I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Made from old wooden Guinness barrels

Despite the corporate undertones there was some neat components of the visit.  Upon arrival in the main atrium visitors get to see the well known 9000 year lease that Arthur Guinness signed for the St. James’s Gate Brewery site.  One floor also contains an optional tasting experience.  During the tasting experience visitors are directed into a room that has four stations of what looks like dry ice (there is billowing white mist everywhere).  The stations turn out to be different Guinness ingredients and visitors are given the opportunity to smell the ‘smoke’ and guess which ingredient is which.  It’s a neat visual experience and if nothing else it’s worth doing just to see how excited children get at the prospect of a room filled with mist.

 
With the price of admission visitors are given the opportunity to ‘cash-in’ their ticket for a pint of Guinness.  Visitors have the choice of their enjoying a pint in the Gravity Bar that overlooks Dublin or learning to pour a ‘perfect’ pint of Guinness in a bar on the fourth floor. 

My partner and I opted to learn to pour a Guinness — it was a fun interactive part of the tour which I’m

View from Gravity Bar

glad we decided to do.  And at the end of the pouring experience everyone receives a slightly cheesy certificate that denotes their ability to pour Guinness.  We still went up to the Gravity Bar at the conclusion of our visit and there was some interesting views of the city.  Popular landmarks and heritage sites are labelled on the glass windows in the Gravity Bar so visitors can tell what they are looking at.  The only downside to the spectacular views was how crowded the small Gravity Bar space was.

The Guinness Storehouse was about what I expected it to be, an interesting experience but definitely not one of my favourites.  The building the Guinness Storehouse is located in part of the original brewery site and is quite old.  But the experience doesn’t really touch on any of the built heritage features of the site and focuses more on the “Yay Guinness” experience.

Royal Hospital Kilmainham: Modern Art and Heritage Site

Following my trip to the Kilmainham Goal I visited the nearby Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) that is located in the former Royal Hospital Kilmainham building. Unfortunately during my visit the main Hospital building was closed for renovations and only a small new gallery space was open.  Despite this closure the grounds are beautiful and the small exhibition I had the opportunity to see was well done.

The Royal Hospital opened in 1684 as a home for retired soldiers.  The building continued to be used for this purposed for 250 years.  In 1984 it was taken over and restored by the government.  In 1991 the building opened as the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The IMMA gardens are done in a classical style that reflects the heritage of the site.  This traditional 
atmosphere is contrasted with outdoor sculptural art.  The contrast highlights the usage of the space in a modern purposeful way while still maintaining elements of the long history of the site.

During my visit the only exhibition that was open was “Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist” located in the Garden Galleries.  The exhibit was framed as a retrospective of Carrington’s work and featured over 80 examples of her work in a variety of mediums including paintings, tapestries, works on paper, and sculptures.  Some of the works exhibited refer to Irish and Celtic lore while others explored the influence of Mexican culture.  Her artwork was also accompanied by a number of examples of her written work and journals.  It was interesting to see a mixture of archival material on display alongside the art exhibition.

The exhibit was organized thematically and was had interesting signage explaining the different styles and influences on Carrington’s artwork.  However, the exhibit space is fairly small.  During my visit there was a number of students in the building as part a formal class visit.  The shear number of students seemed overwhelming in the tight space, with many of them sitting on the floor sketching as there was very little gallery seating. 

Photographs by Andrew MacKay

Built Heritage in Montreal: Old Montreal Neighbourhood

One of the things I learned during my trip to Montreal is that a lot of businesses and heritage sites are closed on Mondays.  Since none of the museums I was interested in seeing were open on Monday, I spent part of the day exploring the built heritage of the Old Montreal neighbourhood.

The narrow streets, cobblestone, and intricate building facades in Old Montreal and Old Port were fascinating.  The neighbourhood has a bit of a touristy feel, but there are a number of green spaces, walking paths and plenty to of gorgeous old buildings to gawk at.

The oldest buildings in this neighbourhood date back to the 1600s and the neighbourhood grew out of the early Catholic settlers from France. The architecture, street style, and open communal spaces contribute to a European feel.  Place Jacques-Cartier is a square built in the early 19th century that has the feel of an open air market and public square.  The square was somewhat quiet during my visit. But the pedestrian friendly nature of the square and the Old Port boardwalk was great and made for an enjoyable morning of wondering. Photographs of built heritage in Old Montreal, photo credit goes to Andrew MacKay.

Built Heritage in Montreal: Churches

One of my favourite parts of the built heritage landscape that I explored in Montreal was the old churches that are located throughout the city.  These churches are often tucked in amongst office buildings, hotels, and other modern day amenities.  Additionally, a number of the churches have multiple buildings on their properties such as: a rectory, lodging for religious orders, and office space in addition to the sanctuary space.  The pure size of the church properties often surprised me.  I had thought that many of the churches would have given up land or been torn down to make space for development.  I was also happy to see one church that was in the process of being renovated (with keeping the great architecture in tact) for adaptive reuse as a condo and recreation facility.
I also loved the decorative copper sculpture and roof work that was prominent on a number of the Catholic and Anglican churches in the city. Here are photos of some of my favourites.  The first two photographs are of Cath├ędrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, which has been designated as a national historical site. Photo credit goes to Andrew MacKay. 

Preservation of the Northern Michigan Asylum

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Traverse City was visiting The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.  The built heritage preservation and adaptive reuse of the buildings contained in the 63 acre site is amazing and serves as a reminder of the possibilities encompassed by built heritage.  The Village is built on the site that was home to the Northern Michigan Asylum, later known as the Traverse City State Hospital from 1885-1989. 

The site comprises a large complex of buildings, with the main building being surrounded by cottages and smaller out buildings.  The main building (Building 50) is the last remaining Kirkbride style building in Michigan and large portions of it have been renovated and turned into public and private spaces.

The renovated building features a Mercato market space which features shops, restaurants, and  hallways filled with artwork.  The building also includes a number of residential spaces and office space.  During my visit the space was also home to an indoor farmers market.  The variety of adaptive reuse options that have been used on this one building are amazing, historical spaces have been converted to a variety of modern uses that have broad appeal and sustainability. 

In addition to the amazing adaptive reuse the site is located amongst 480 acres of preserved parkland.  The village grounds also contain a  heritage arboretum.  This arboretum developed out of Dr. James Decker Munson’s belief in beauty is therapy, which resulted in a variety of beautiful trees being planted around the Hospital. It’s nice to see a space preserving aspects of the natural landscape which complement the built heritage features.  

Overall, the site is an amazing preservation project that has garnered tremendous local support and inspired contemplation of the history of the site.  Visitors to the Village can’t help but notice the rich history of their surroundings.  During our visit I heard more than one person talking about the social history of the site and explaining aspects of the local history–the space is a great model for communities looking to reinvigorate unused heritage buildings. 

Canada’s Churches: A Struggle of Built Heritage and Social Services

It won’t be surprising to anyone to note that Christan church attendance in Canada has been declining in recent years.  The United Church of Canada, which has been seen as one of the more forward thinking and social activist churches (ordaining women ministers in the 1930s, tolerant and supportive of gay rights since the 1980s and promoting rational thought in the church since the 1990s) has had a declining membership since 1965. The once dominant Protestant churches in Canada are feeling a similar decline in membership.

In the small town of 1200 people where I live, there are five Christian churches which hold services on Sundays.  On the average non-holiday Sunday most of these churches see under 30 people in the pews.  Many congregations are struggling with financial concerns, lack of new members, and aging congregations. 

Looking at the United Churches in the North Shore region of Ontario paints a rather dismal picture.  Many of these churches are struggling to keep their doors open.  The congregations simply do not have the financial means to heat, maintain, and repair the historic buildings the churches call home.  In many cases the unwillingness to let go of these historic buildings is slowly resulting in the demise of congregations.  Ministers, secretaries, organists and other once essential staff are let go in hopes of saving money to support a building.  These decisions to discontinue with paid staff often result in further instability and additional church members leaving the church.  All for a building.

I find this instance on identifying a church with a building mind boggling.  Similar to service clubs (which are also facing declining membership), churches have long been community staples, providing community services and a sense of working for the less fortunate/the greater good.  Churches have served as gathering places and places of community spirit.

Historically, the social role of church has been just as significant as the heritage buildings the church communities have built. Many early church congregations met in community halls, private homes, and schools.  The location where these congregations gathered didn’t make them any less of a church.  The congregations still worshiped and worked together to improve their community.  The Church buildings came much later, as the congregations grew in size and prosperity.  Logically, if there has been a drastic decline in size and prosperity the church building should reflect that. 

 By no means would I want a historic building to be torn down or simply abandoned.  But, I can’t see the value in a handful of people holding onto a building after the worship and social components of a church have been lost.  The financial burden of a large church is huge. The winter heating costs alone can be crippling.  Desperately holding onto a building that you can’t afford in the long run seems like a form of denial and simply delaying the inevitable. 

There are a number of adaptive reuse possibilities for churches.  In the small town of five active churches which I spoke about earlier.  There is a sixth church building which stopped operating as a church in the 1990s.  Since that time, the building as been a public library, town offices, and an arts center.  The building still exists and many people have entered it that never would have had it stayed a church. Church buildings in larger cities have been turned into condos, office space, fitness centers and used for a whole range of other purposes. 

People don’t like change.  But, declining membership numbers and financial reports speak for themselves, ignoring them doesn’t make them go away.  Many church congregations and communities need to take a serious look at their future and decide how to move forth in an increasingly secular society.

Additional Reading:
The Globe and Mail article on “The Collapse of the Liberal Church” from June 2012 is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the place of liberal Christianity in Canada and the United States.