The Earl Bishop

Interesting BBC article on an upcoming presentation and talk [Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, 17 August] by lecturer and broadcaster Stephen Price on the subject of his new book – The Earl Bishop.

The 18th Century “Earl Bishop” was Frederick Augustus Hervey, fourth Earl of Bristol and Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry.  Hervey was also elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on interpreting the Giants’ Causeway.  And it was near there that he built the Downhill estate, and the Mussenden Temple.

From the BBC article

It was in Rome that Hervey fell in love with a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Vesta.

“Hervey wanted to buy the temple and bring it back to Ireland and re-erect it,” Stephen explained.

“But the Pope refused his offer. So he gets his architect to sketch the temple and he builds his own copy at the edge of the cliff at Downhill.”

The building was dedicated to the Earl Bishop’s cousin Frideswide Mussenden – hence Mussenden Temple.

Once built, it was used by Hervey as a cliff-top library and was ornately decorated inside.

Underneath the building, Hervey built a room for Catholic priests to say Mass, a provocative decision during the time of the anti-Catholic penal laws.

Although a bishop in the Church of Ireland, Hervey was a powerful proponent of religious equality and dedicated himself to improving the lot of Catholics and Presbyterians in 18th Century Ireland.

He financially supported, not only his own church, but those of his Catholic and Presbyterian neighbours.

“He saw that Ireland would never be a peaceful place until religious discrimination was effectively ended,” Stephen said.

“There are things that he said in the 1780s and you read them now and you think ‘my god, there’s the next 200 years of Irish history’.”

However, Stephen thinks the Sisyphean task the Earl Bishop had set for himself eventually ground him down.

“I think that as he went on he became disenchanted with Ireland.

“He saw Ireland was never going to be at peace, he saw that people were going to keep fighting here and he was right. So he ended up spending the last ten years of his life in Italy.”

Wikipedia has a slightly different take on those final years

He favoured complete religious equality, and was opposed to the system of tithes. In December 1779 he succeeded his second brother, the 3rd Earl, as Earl of Bristol, and in spite of his brother’s will succeeded to a considerable property. Having again passed some time in Italy, he returned to Ireland and in 1782 threw himself ardently into the Irish volunteer movement, quickly attaining a prominent position among the volunteers, and in great state attending the convention held in Dublin in November 1783.

Carried away by his position and his popularity he talked loudly of rebellion, and his violent language led the government to contemplate his arrest. Subsequently he took no part in politics, spending his later years mainly on the continent of Europe. In 1798 he was imprisoned by the French at Milan as a suspected spy, remaining in custody for eighteen months. He died outdoors at Albano, denied refuge, and was buried in Ickworth Church.

None of which prevented his portrait being stolen and ending up atop an internment bonfire in Londonderry in 2009.

Update  A fellow blogger informs me that National Trust archaeologist Malachy Conway is leading an excavation project working at Downhill Demesne. 

It’s the third season of work within domestic yards at the northern end of the former mansion house built by the Earl Bishop, Frederick Augustus Hervey.

So far they have excavated remains of outbuildings including laundry, poultry and cow houses, dairy, stables, carpenters shop and a domestic gas works.

The excavation work started this year on 1st June and continues to 10th July, Wednesdays to Sundays, and is being undertaken within areas of the property that are open to public access.