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Bucolic Offaly: the illustrated diary of Rev John Plunket Joly

We are pleased to present a post by architect Rachel McKenna who, in research for her several publications on the architectural history of County Offaly, made a particular study of the diaries of Rev John Joly, the subject of an earlier post:

Reverend John Plunket Joly was a clergyman based at Hollywood House, Bracknagh, Clonbullogue and the Rector of Clonsast. He was born in 1826, married Julia (née Countess de Lusi), on 4 June 1853, daughter of a Prussian Count, and they had three sons. He died aged 32, 3 March 1858 before his youngest son John (scientist and polymath, graduate of Trinity College Dublin, who went on to become Professor of Geology and Mineralogy) was born, four months before the death of his father.

During his time as a young rector in Bracknagh, Reverend John Plunket Joly, kept up frequent diary entries. The diaries were written during a significant period in Irish history, including the Famine years, and they now form part of the Research Collections in the Library (MS 2299/1 (1843-1848) and MS 2299/2 (1852-1858)).

Entries are short and succinct covering Joly’s main interests in gardening, music and the local community. It is the beautiful sketches, throughout the diary, that bring to life the man, his gardens and the people around him. Some of these drawings and entries were used to bring a contemporary account to my recent publication on Traditional Architecture in Offaly, History Materials and Furniture, 1800 to Present Day

‘restored the evergreen bower and completed one row of espaliers’
Summerhouse built out of ‘branches of trees’ with a pyramidal roof of ‘moor sods’ and surrounded with a low rustic fence.

The gardening entries are fascinating, providing wonderful insight into the variety of food that was grown in the garden of a country house in Offaly. Fruit growing was a competitive undertaking in the great estates across Ireland, with brick-lined orchards and heated glasshouses providing new, elusive varieties year round. The range of fruit grown by Rev. Joly varied from rhubarb, a gooseberry ‘tree’, apple and pear trees, apricot trees, strawberries, raspberries and cherries and even melons in a hotbed. Additional garden structures were planned to allow for rarer fruit such as grapes in the greenhouse: ‘…sent Pat Bedding to make for me eight sashes and a door for a small glass house to be erected over the peach and nectarine trees’ and ‘set up rafters for a small peach house, or vinery’. ‘The grapes are now very fine; there are four good bunches on each of the three white kinds and eight on the black Hamburg…’. He spent time preparing the highly cherished espaliers for training fruit trees against a warm, usually brick garden wall; ‘restored the evergreen bower and completed one row of espaliers’.

The array of fruit is almost equaled by vegetables such as cauliflower, cucumber, celery, ‘broccoly’, spinach, asparagus and cabbage. One of Joly’s great interests was in managing bees which were esteemed at the time: ‘Henry and his men carried off two hives of his bees…’ and ‘constructed a little shed, to shelter bees in the garden’.

His beautiful drawing of a bee skep of handmade, coiled rope or súgán, indicates the personal time he devoted to beekeeping. ‘The bees have not swarmed, so I enlarged the hive, to prevent their do so at this late season’.

Skep, or beehive, made of straw.

Straw was used in a variety of ways and Joly provided a particularly poignant example as he wrote in his diary in 1852 (when he was just 26, a year before his own marriage): ‘Married Hannah … to William Payne made a ring of straw for them they having forgot the ring’.

Straw wedding ring.

Other areas described relate to thatching a number of farm buildings within the grounds. ‘We reheaded the old hay rick in the haggard’, thatched a turfhouse and later ‘completed a shed for four bullocks’.

Across Ireland at the time, as the tenants struggled to maintain their unsatisfactory dwellings, a fashion developed among the upper classes to adorn their grounds with romanticised versions of ‘thatched cabins’. These follies became popular places to take tea and provided interest on designed walks through the grounds. Offaly examples are beautifully illustrated by Rev. Joly, in 1856, where he sketches his ‘large rustic summerhouse’ made of roughly-hewn timber with a pitched thatched roof, a central, pitched and trellised entrance porch flanked by two windows. He built a second, square summerhouse out of ‘branches of trees’ on the front lawn. It is finished with a pyramidal roof of ‘moor sods’ and surrounded with a low rustic fence’.

The detail provided in these sketches show the great interest the young man took in his home and gardens. He was also very musical as he describes making a case for a harp, transcribing violin music and making part of a bass fiddle. Both a talented carpenter and inventor he designed and ‘made a barrow for bringing water into the garden’ and ‘finished armchair with a reclining back’.

‘a barrow for bringing water into the garden’

Rachel McKenna, MRIAI, Senior Executive Architect, Offaly County Council .

Author of: Flights of Fancy – Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly and Traditional Architecture in Offaly – history, materials and furniture 1800 to present day