September 23rd - Collon House and the Hill of Slane.



Leaders : Joan Semple and Claire Foley


We had a full coach for our excursion to Collon House and the Hill of Slane. Many members of the party expressed surprise when they realized they had often driven through Collon and had been unaware of Collon House and garden, which turned out to be a hidden treasure.


Anthony Foster, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, built the house in 1740 in the Irish long house style. In 1780 he built a ballroom and later an extra storey was built above the ballroom and over the old house. The house was inherited by Anthony’s son John Foster who was the Speaker of the Irish House of Commons up to its dissolution by the Act of Union in 1800. Speaker Foster’s only surviving son Col. Thomas Henry married Harriet Skiffington, daughter of the 4th Earl of Masserene who on the death of the 4th Earl in 1816 without male issue succeed in her own right as Viscountess Massereene and the title along with the substantial estate descended through her.


Around 1780 John built a lakeside garden folly near Collon, Oriel Temple, along with a grotto, a hermitage and a rustic "Cottage Ornée", and by 1812 had left Collon House and moved to Oriel Temple which had been greatly extended. Collon House was split in two after the death of John Foster and then after had chequered history. In the 20th century it was owned by two elderly bachelors who caused it to suffer from benign neglect. The present owner has lovingly restored it to its former glory and it is now run as a boutique country house B&B.


We were given a conducted tour of the house and shown the many restoration projects carried out over the last couple of decades and were able to admire the beautifully decorated and furnished rooms. One such room was the dining room, which has been panelled to resemble Handel’s house in Spittlefields. The gardens of Collon House have been restored with appropriate period planting. The main entrance to the house overlooks a sunken box parterre with topiary and an intricate design layout. In the ornamental garden there is a box edged herbaceous border leading to a Greek style summer house.


We then crossed the road to visit the Church of Ireland parish church the building of which was funded by the Foster family and several tablet memorials to the Foster family can still be seen there. It was built to a design by Daniel Augustine Beaufort who was the rector of Collon between 1789 and 1821. The design was inspired by the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and the seating, like King’s and other Cambridge chapels, is arranged in collegiate style, with the pews arranged in rows facing each other. The church is no longer used as a regular place of worship but as it is a Grade A listed building the local people are trying to find ways of raising funds to maintain the fabric of the building.


Joan Semple













After lunch we went up to the Hill of Slane which has extensive views towards Newgrange and the Irish sea and the Hill of Tara where the high kings of Ireland lived. Matthew Seaver of the Hill of Slane Archaeological Programme gave us an extensive tour of the archaeological features and an erudite account of the history of the various phases of activity: St Patrick is said to have lit the first Paschal fire here to be seen from pagan Tara but this is now challenged and the site may have been closer to Trim; the relics of Bishop Erc, who died in AD 513, may have been placed in a slab shrine which remains here as two gable-shaped stones in the graveyard (he may have been buried in nearby Duleek); by AD 802 this place was one of three important legal centres in Ireland and a place of inauguration for local kings; various church officials are mentioned in Annals between AD 751 and AD 1002; it was raided by Norsemen in the early 9th century and in 948 they burnt a round tower here killing people in it and destroying relics; it was raided by Irish kings in 1150 and 1161- and a king lived here in the later 12th century; fragments of a high cross of probably 10th century date were found built into the ruins here (they are now in storage) and in 1028 a Derteach (oak house) is said to have collapsed and an oratory (small church) was also mentioned. The present ruined church is 15th/16th century in date but hints of an earlier church have been recognised in re-used stonework.


The Fleming family were given land here by the Normans and they built a motte (an earthen castle mound) 7.8m high surrounded by a rock-cut ditch- they also built the first Slane Castle. Matthew believes that the motte, in nearby woodland, may be built on an earlier, possibly Neolithic burial mound and the Archaeological Programme has been studying it with geophysics with a view to excavating in the future.

The Flemings founded a three-storey college in medieval times which was the parish administrative centre. We were shown a wicker-centred vault on the ground floor- a particularly Irish feature. In the later 15th century a Chantry College was attached. This is recorded as having four priests, four choirboys and four clerks. We were able to view their living quarters and work out the number of fireplaces - each priest had one. Some unusual carved stone is set into the walls reflecting the relative wealth of the college and its extensive connections as far away as Northern France.


Fuelled with information and plenty of visual clues to the importance of this site members retraced their steps downhill to the waiting bus.


Claire Foley

 
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