Reflecting on the Irish Country House


The 19th century boathouse on a stretch of the Rye Water at Carton, County Kildare, supposedly built in anticipation of a visit from Queen Victoria. Carton is among the properties I will be discussing next Saturday, October 10th when I speak on the subject of Building, contents, demesne: Understanding the Holy Trinity of the Country House. This will take place during next weekend’s Northern Ireland Heritage Gardens Committee conference, ‘Art and Architecture in Historic Garden Design’ being held at Hillsborough Castle, County Down. Further information on the event can be found on the NIHGC’s website,

When Nobody Cried Stop

How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.

Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.

In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.

We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…


Heaven’s Gate


One of the side gates leading into the grounds of the former Quaker Meeting House in Cahir, County Tipperary. Designed by an unknown architect and built of sandstone, the complex was completed in 1834 at a cost of £838 and three shillings. At the time the area’s resident Quaker population numbered some 80 persons but thereafter went into decline and towards the end of the 19th century meetings attracted just a handful of individuals. The building was first leased to the Presbyterian Church authorities and then sold to them in 1897; it continues to be maintained and used for services by this denomination.


On the Town IX

In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Nenagh, County Tipperary is described as being ‘a market and post town’ and so it remains today. The second largest urban centre in the county, Nenagh owes its origins to the family which for centuries dominated this part of Ireland: the Butlers. This territory was originally under the control of the O’Kennedys but it was granted to Theobald Walter after he accompanied Prince John (subsequently King John) to the country in 1185. Walter was also appointed Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had held the same office in England) from whence his descendants’ name derives. Theobald Walter began to build a circular stone keep here, completed by his son (also called Theobald). With walls five metres thick at its base and a diameter of 17.5 metres, it rises some thirty metres although the crenellations and windows beneath were added in the 19th century when a Roman Catholic cleric entertained notions of turning the keep into the bell tower of a never-built cathedral. The Butlers remained in occupation of the keep – once part of a larger castle with a ring of walls and large gatehouse – until the end of the 14th century when they moved first to Gowran and then to Kilkenny Castle which remained their base thereafter. During the 16th and 17th centuries the keep, and rest of the castle, changed hands many times but while other parts of the complex were lost it somehow survived: the keep even continued to stand in 1760 when a farmer detonated gunpowder at the base in order to get rid of sparrows ruining the local crops.

Nenagh’s keep is by no means the only evidence of the town’s distinguished past. There are also the ruins of a couple of ancient religious settlements within the town, their presence inevitable once the Butlers had established a base there. The most significant of these was the Franciscan friary, possibly founded by Theobald Butler but more certainly associated with Donal O’Kennedy, Bishop of Killaloe. It became the chief house of the Irish custody within the province, with a provincial synod held on the site in 1344. A work known as the Annals of Nenagh, principally concerned with obituaries of notable families in the district, was compiled here over the period 1336 to 1528. At the time of the Reformation, it was ostensibly shut but a more serious assault came in 1548 when the O’Carrolls burnt Nenagh, including the friary. Despite later efforts to remove them, the Franciscans pluckily lingered on, the last only dying in 1817. Today the main evidence of this important foundation are the walls of the former church, some forty-three metres in length and ten in width with a triple lancet window at the east end and a run of fifteen windows along the north wall. Nearby are other ecclesiastical ruins, this time of an Anglican church built c.1720: its square bell tower and adjacent lobby are another of Nenagh’s landmarks. Then there is the remarkable complex of judicial buildings designed around 1840 by John Benjamin Keane and including the courthouse, gaol, governor’s house (now a local heritage centre and museum) and gatehouse. The penitential element of this must have been especially fine when first completed: entering through the rusticated stone triumphal arch gatehouse, visitors advanced towards the three-storey governor’s house from which radiated a series of prison blocks. Unfortunately only one of these remains and it has been permitted to fall into a state of dereliction.

The name Nenagh derives from the Irish words ‘an’ (meaning the) and ‘aenagh’ (meaning fair), a reference to the ancient Fair of Ormond which was held here. Lewis’ description of the place as a market town remains true, and it continues to act as a commercial centre for the surrounding agricultural hinterland. When compared with many other similar Irish towns it seems to be performing well, not least thanks to the presence of several high-quality specialist shops. The food outlet Country Choice, run by Peter and Mary Ward since 1982, offers an inspirational example of what can be done by retailers with the right mix of imagination and industry. As a result of their persistence, other similar premises have emerged and all of them help to attract custom to Nenagh. The layout of the town centre reflects its reconstruction from the late 17th century onwards, with wide streets faced with substantial properties, the majority of which are still in place (aside from a few recent interventions such as the irredeemably ugly Allied Irish Bank building on a key site at the junction of Pearse and Kickham Streets). And the town has retained many of its old shop fronts, of The kind sadly lost elsewhere. Their retention raises the notion that perhaps Nenagh could establish itself as a national centre for traditional retail design, and thereby encourage more visitors, not least tourists. One has only to reflect on what a draw the village at Bunratty has proven to recognize the charms of our retail heritage should not be underestimated. Nenagh is situated on the main route from Dublin to Limerick/Shannon and could easily capitalize on its assets to lure some of that traffic into the town. Well-designed shop exteriors and interiors can be a powerful magnet (just look at the success of the ersatz traditional Kildare Village closer to the capital). Nenagh still has much of the real thing, ripe for discovery by a broader public.

Of course, there are problems here. The usual empty buildings can be found mouldering into ruin. There is a disgracefully decaying shopping centre right at the entry point coming from Roscrea (the old warehouse opposite also badly needs attention) and in the very centre a major site on the corner of Pearse and Mitchel Streets (its groundfloor poorly refaced some years ago) lies vacant, along with a neighbour: both appear to be suffering potentially lethal water damage due to unattended gutters. On almost every street businesses have closed (although, again, fewer than is the case in equivalent centres elsewhere). The appearance of a town always has repercussions on how it is perceived by locals and visitors alike: who wants to spend time in a run-down location?
At least some of the problems could be resolved by action on the part of the local authority. For example, why has the remaining block of Nenagh Gaol been allowed to fall into such a poor state? There exists a widespread interest in the nation’s penal history and here is a building which offers testimony to that aspect of our past. Yet instead of being utilized for educational purposes, it is sitting unused and neglected, and right next to the Courthouse. To the east of the town, official negligence is exemplified by the fate of the old military barracks. The complex was built in 1832 and occupied by members of the British army for the next ninety years, after which it was handed over to the new Irish state. Seemingly the property continued to be used for various purposes until some thirty years ago, since when it has sat empty and steadily sliding into the present parlous condition. A report in the local Tipperary Star newspaper in March 2010 commented ‘There have since 1981 been numerous reports and proposals geared towards preserving the barracks but no physical works have ever been carried out, leading to concerns that parts of the building are now irredeemable and that the structure will be allowed to succumb to the ravages of time.’ The following year then-Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter, in response to a parliamentary question, advised that the site ‘vested in the Minister for Finance but in the administration of the Department of Defence’ had been offered to the local authority in 2009 but this proposal was turned down. Mr Shatter added that the barracks would be ‘disposed of taking account of market conditions.’ That was four years ago, and in the interim the property has further deteriorated, making it proportionately less valuable to any potential purchaser. The state seems indifferent to the protection and maintenance of our collective patrimony, or the consequences of its blatant neglect. Many of Nenagh’s residents display admirable engagement with their town and its well-being; what a shame local and national authorities cannot do likewise.


A Capital Idea


Seen on a stand at this year’s Irish Antiques Fair in the RDS, Dublin: the four limestone capitals (one shown above) of the portico at Mote Park, County Roscommon. Demolished more than half a century ago, the house was built for the Crofton family in the 18th century but greatly enlarged around 1816 to the designs of Sir Richard Morrison; most likely the portico was added then. Although only the capitals are currently on show, the entire portico, for many years owned by a now-deceased cleric, still exists and could be reconstructed.

What Became of Them?

IMG_1423An old photograph of the Large Drawing Room at Shelton Abbey, County Wicklow former seat of the Howards, Earls of Wicklow. At mid-height on either side of the double doors to the right can be seen canvases in rococo frames. These were two of a set of four views of Naples painted by Gabriele Ricciardelli who came to Ireland in the 1750s at the request of Ralph Howard. Along with the rest of the contents of the house the pictures were sold during a thirteen-day sale held on the premises in October 1950. I will be discussing the fate of these items, and many others beside, at midday next Friday, September 25th when I speak on A Century of Irish Country House Sales at the 50th Irish Antique Dealers’ Fair in the Royal Dublin Society. Admission is free and more information can be found by consulting