Ireland's Follies

Article excerpt

Touring the whimsical, intentionally pointless structures known as follies that dot the Irish landscape. By Sally Shivnan

I'm staring in awe- and not a little bewilderment-at an artfully stacked arrangement of immense stone arches. The arches are adorned by stone pineapples and eagles, and out of the top rises a single, tall stone spire. The whole creation is massive, 140 feet high and 100 feet wide. This is Conolly's Folly, built in 1740 at Castletown, in County Kildare. It is a striking structure, not quite art, not quite architecture. And it has no purpose whatsoever.

My driver for the day, Frank, is a trim, middle-aged man in a nice gray suit, with shiny black shoes-while I'm in my casual American tourist getup of jeans and hiking shoes. Frank has never seen anything like it. "What is it built for?"

"Nothing," I reply.

"Built for no purpose!" he exclaims. He gets it. I had explained to him earlier what we were after: odd, sort of pointless structures built for fun, often as famine-relief projects in the 18th and 19th centuries. Follies, as they are known, come in many shapes and sizes- towers, temples, sham castles, obelisks, forts, even fake caves. Now that he's seen one, Frank is enchanted. He's hooked.

We are folly hunters. We take off in hot pursuit, Frank refusing to use the GPS, determined to sniff them out without any help. As we drive, I explain how the follies were all the rage among the Irish grand-country-house-set 100 years ago and more, and how I am interested in the gentry who commissioned these structures and in the laborers who built them. I say to Frank, think how they must have felt, building these crazy structures for their wealthy landlords while trying to ignore the hollow gnawing in their stomachs. They would have been grateful for the work, I suppose, but at the same time...

Frank is an investment broker, who, since Ireland's economy tanked, mostly supports himself by driving foreign businessmen to and from the Dublin airport in his small black Mercedes sedan. Helping me with my research adventure is a departure from his routine. We chat about sports, the economy, our families. Frank's eldest child, just out of college, is about to emigrate in search of work. Today's hard times are hungry times, in their way. We float along in the car, through the green interior of Ireland, past pastures and golf courses, cottages, villages. I notice the cream-cobred leather upholstery of the armrest below my window is scuffed, grubby.

The grassy hilltop above the village of Killiney, half an hour south of Dublin, is dotted all over with follies: There's a blocky little building with a pointy white cement cone sticking up from it, a smaller cone-topped structure called the Witch's Hat, and a pyramid about 15 feet tall that kids can clamber up. Weirdest of all are a couple of spooky stone-slab structures that look like ancient sarcophagi.

I should have known better but couldn't help myself, I had to ask what they were for. A pair of austere, somber, fake, stone tombs sitting in the middle of the grass all by themselves? I stopped a guy who looked like he'd know; he was riding around in a golfcart spearing rubbish on a stick. A cigarette dangled from his lip, and he looked gruff and Irish.

"They're follies," he said, as if no further explanation were necessary.

As I said, I should have known better. "Yes, but what were these fori"

"Place to 'ave their tea on!" he called out, spearing a Fanta bottle. "They're all follies!" And he hopped in his buggy and putt-putted away.

Grand country homes like the one at Killiney, and at Castletown, are among a number of national historic sites anyone can visit, many just an hour or two from Dublin. These well-preserved sites are greatly outnumbered, though, by the ones in ruinsroofless shells overrun with ivy, gardens gone to grass and thistle. Their owners went bankrupt, or simply fled, many impoverished along with their tenants in the Great Famine of the 1840s. …