In Circe’s Circle

Mount Stewart, County Down formerly belonged to the Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry but was given to the National Trust in 1977. However the family retain private quarters in the house including this drawing room which opens onto the gardens created by Edith, 7th Marchioness between the two World Wars. Known as Circe, she can be seen over the chimney piece in a 1913 portrait by Philip de László.

The Abomination of Desolation

Lying two miles south of the town of Claremorris, County Mayo, Castle MacGarret was associated with the Browne family for more than 350 years. The present house has a complicated history. The original castle stood closer to the river Robe but was found to be unsafe and abandoned towards the end of the 17th century; its ruins, smothered in ivy, can still be seen. Meanwhile, a new residence was built further from the water and served successive generations until largely destroyed by fire in 1811. A contemporary report in The Gentleman’s Magazine noted the blaze had originated in the kitchen ‘and the Cook perished.’
Following this disaster, the house’s stables were converted for use as a house. The architect Sir Richard Morrison drew up various plans for a new, elaborately gothic building but none of these was executed, presumably because Castle MacGarret’s then-owner Dominick Browne was too busy realising his political ambitions. Between 1814 and 1836 he managed to represent County Mayo for the Whig interest in seven Parliaments. This enterprise was his undoing since he was obliged to spend a fortune on each election to ensure success; one of them is said to have cost him £40,000 of which £600 alone went on lemons for whiskey punch.

As a reward for his political diligence, Dominick Browne was made a Privy Councillor of Ireland in 1834 and two years later created an Irish peer as Baron Oranmore of Carrabrowne Castle and Baron Browne of Castle Macgarret. But an Irish title did not automatically carry the right to sit in the House of Lords at Westminster and he therefore energetically lobbied for an English peerage. Three British Prime Ministers turned down his request, the reason being they had heard the newly-ennobled Lord Oranmore and Browne was on the verge of bankruptcy. This he denied, even though his debts amounted to an astonishing £199,320. The Irish Great Famine of 1845-8 completed his ruin and in a series of sales during the first half of the following decade, the majority of the Browne lands, including a large portion of Galway city, were sold through the Encumbered Estates Court.
Having lost most of their land, and therefore income, the Brownes were in no position to improve their accommodation. Finally in the early 1900s the third Lord Oranmore and Browne employed Richard Caulfield Orpen to remodel and extend the old stables. An older brother of the painter Sir William Orpen, this architect has the questionable honour of being credited with introducing the bungalow into Ireland.

Although claims have been made for the house as exemplifying Arts and Crafts principles Orpen’s revamped Castle MacGarret cannot be deemed particularly alluring, at least on the exterior. Its cement-rendered form lacks grace, the two irregular wings that jut out to create a forecourt each featuring a small crenellated tower as though to justify the building’s use of the title castle. The interior is more successful, beginning with the staircase hall that rises to a first floor gallery, the walls carrying plaster swags in which the Browne arms are quartered with those of heiresses the family had married. The well-proportioned drawing and dining rooms have elaborate neoclassical stucco ceilings copied from those designed by James Wyatt for Leinster House in Dublin. The drawing room contained a notable collection of Meissen porcelain, the hall a large number of miniatures by Anne Mee. The library, previously the billiard room, had a beamed ceiling and walls lined with mahogany bookcases. Hicks of Dublin made the chimneypieces while the panelling came from Crowthers of London. The cost of the refurbishment was £21,422.7s.6d.

In the early 1920s Castle MacGarret survived the War of Independence and the Civil War, although the house was raided by armed men one night in May 1922. The following year it was occupied by Free State troops who only left in June 1924. Despite being responsible for its rebuilding, understandably Lord Oranmore and Browne preferred to live in England, where he bought the Palladian Mereworth Castle in Kent. However, following his death in 1927, the next Lord Oranmore and Browne returned to Castle MacGarret, remaining there for more than thirty years.
While married to heiress Oonagh Guinness he had access to ample funds for the house’s upkeep, but after the couple divorced in 1950 it became a struggle to make the place economically viable. Eventually he had to abandon the struggle. In July 1960 the contents of Castle MacGarret, everything from a pair of old Waterford glass decanters to a Chippendale mahogany side table, were dispersed in a four-day auction held on the premises after which Lord Oranmore and Browne moved to London.
In 1964 Castle MacGarret, along with its surrounding 1,750 acres, was bought by the Irish Land Commission for £95,000. Having parcelled out most of the estate among local farmers, the organisation offered the house and surrounding 125 acres for sale. An order of nuns, the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, bought the place and tacked on an extension evidently inspired by the worst excesses of Soviet social housing. Castle MacGarret was run as a retirement home until 2005 when, at the height of Ireland’s economic boom, the canny nuns sold house and 120 acres for some €5 million to a business consortium. The latter’s members intended to convert the house into a hotel and spa. That plan never came to fruition and Castle Macgarret now sits empty, a prey to the damp that seeps through every missing slate. So another part of Ireland’s architectural and social heritage disappears forever into already-saturated ground.

Photographs by Cosmo Brockway

Perfection is the Child of Time

Russborough, County Wicklow on a fresh morning earlier this week. Built in the 1740s to the design of Richard Castle, at almost 700 feet it has the longest facade of any house in Ireland, the entirety fronted in granite from a local quarry. Even after some 270 years the stone has kept its crispness, as can be seen in the march of parapet urns, but mellowed through exposure to the elements, bringing Russborough to a perfection only achieved by the passage of sufficient time.

Ol’ Man River

The Blackwater is aptly named. Called in Irish An Abhainn Mhór (The Great River) it is the second longest waterway in Ireland, exceeded only by the Shannon. Rising in County Kerry’s Mullaghareirk Mountains, the Blackwater flows for more than 100 miles to drain into the sea at Youghal, County Cork. Here outside Cappoquin, County Waterford, the river turns abruptly south, grows broad and tidal, and is thereafter largely bordered by ancient woodland.

Music Sent Up to God

For many centuries the Plunketts were among the principal families of County Meath, thanks to a judicious alliance made by one of their ancestors. In 1403 Sir Christopher Plunkett married Joan, daughter and heiress of Sir Lucas Cusack, and through her acquired extensive lands in the regions of Dunsany and Killeen, becoming Lord of the latter which was in turn left to his eldest son. The descendants of that line subsequently became Earls of Fingall, a title which only died out with the death of the twelth holder in 1984. Meanwhile, Sir Christopher’s second son received Dunsany Castle, where his descendant, Randal, 21st Baron Dunsany, now lives.
Not having an estate to inherit, Sir Christopher’s third son Sir Thomas Plunkett moved to London where he became a successful lawyer. Eventually he returned to Ireland and was appointed the country’s Lord Chief Justice. At some point before his death in 1471 he ordered the construction of a church dedicated to St Lawrence at Rathmore, County Meath on land adjacent to the castle where he lived. Here he was buried in a tomb, together with his wife Marion after her own death some years later. She had been the heiress of Rathmore, but it was not in her possession at the time of the Plunketts’ marriage. An old story, most likely apocryphal but nonetheless charming, tells how thanks to a song she gained a husband and regained her ancestral lands.

Marion, or as she is sometimes called Mary Ann, Plunkett was the daughter of Sir Christopher Cruise (original spelling Cruys) who late in life had married, much to the displeasure of several nephews waiting to inherit their uncle’s estates. Disappointment turned to wrath when the young Lady Cruise became pregnant and one evening while the couple were out walking at another of their properties, Cruicetown, they were set upon by a gang of assassins. Sir Christopher was struck down, but his wife managed to run back to the castle and barricade herself inside with the help of loyal followers.
Later that night Lady Cruise had her husband buried by torchlight and encouraged a rumour her absence from the occasion was due to terminal illness. As the funeral was taking place she gathered all the family plate and jewels and had them sunk in strong chests in a little lake at Cruicetown. Together with the Cruise deeds, she then had herself placed in a coffin (holes bored into its side so that she could breathe) which was brought to Rathmore. Arriving there Lady Cruise got out of the coffin, into which she put more valuable plate and organised for this to be buried in a nearby graveyard. Meanwhile, she slipped away to Dublin and from there took a boat to London.

Soon after arriving in London, Lady Cruise gave birth to her only child, a girl she named Marion. For some years mother and daughter were able to survive on various items of jewellery brought from Ireland, but once all these had been sold the pair became so poor that they had to earn a living by washing laundry on the banks of the Thames. One day the able young lawyer Sir Thomas Plunkett was passing close to the river’s edge and heard a young girl singing in Irish. The opening words of her song, both a roll-call of the former Cruise estates and a prayer for divine intervention, ran as follows:
‘Ah ! Blessed Mary ! hear me singing,
On this cold stone, mean labours plying
Yet Rathmore’s heiress might I name me
And broad lands rich and many claim me.’
Understanding the language in which she sang, Sir Thomas stopped and spoke to Marion Cruise, who brought him to her mother where he was shown the deeds to the family estates. Not long afterwards he married the putative heiress and on the couple’s return to Ireland was able to reclaim all the lands stolen by her cousins. His mother-in-law remembered where the old plate and valuables had been hidden and this added to the Plunketts’ wealth.
It may be for this reason that the couple decided to build a church next to their castle, in thanksgiving for the return of what had been thought forever lost. Built of limestone rubble, it has a number of fine features, such as the large east window with its curvilinear tracery and a handsome belltower (now roofless) in the south-west corner. Diagonally opposite, in what had been the sacristy, you can find the Plunkett tomb, moved from the body of the church for better preservation. While the armoured Sir Thomas, his feet resting on a recumbent dog, has survived the intervening five centuries, his wife has since lost her head. If only that were the sum total of the family’s losses. In the 17th century, this branch of the Plunketts stayed loyal to the Catholic faith and ultimately had their lands and lives taken from them by Oliver Cromwell. In 1654 Rathmore and much of the surrounding area came into the possession of John Bligh whose descendants, later Earls of Darnley, continued to be significant landowners here until the early 1900s. Today Rathmore Castle is an ivy-shrouded ruin and the church serves as no more than a picturesque backdrop for grazing cattle.

The Lesser of Two Evils

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So Ireland’s national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála has turned down the proposal for Liberty Hall on Dublin’s Eden Quay to be demolished and replaced by a still-taller building, ruling that the alternative would be ‘unacceptably dominant in the city.’ Completed in 1965 and rising 16 storeys, for many years this was the capital’s highest structure. Liberty Hall is not an work of great beauty or architectural merit. However, what might have gone up in its place would have been far worse. And if the present Liberty Hall is, as was often claimed by supporters of the new scheme, dilapidated and no longer fit for purpose, then that is the fault of its union owner SIPTU which, for all the pontification about iconic status, has signally failed to maintain the building.

The Folks Who Live at Rush Hill

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The Irish term ‘strong farmer’ refers not to the title holder’s physical strength but to the size of his land holding. Until sequential legislation in the late 19th/early 20th centuries collectively known as the Land Acts, the greater part of this country lay in the possession of a relatively small number of wealthy families, their tenants obliged to survive on tiny holdings of just a couple of acres. Tenantry leasing larger, more economically viable plots of land came to be known as strong farmers and their fiscal strength allowed them to build bigger houses than the usual one- or two-roomed thatched cottage.
Rush Hill in County Roscommon is just such a house. This has never been a particularly fashionable, or indeed affluent, part of the country but it used to sustain many more such properties; of the four ‘gentlemen’s seats’ identified in the immediate parish by Samuel Lewis in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Rush Hill is the only one still standing. The core of the house dates from c.1700. By that date, and for the next 200-odd years, much of the region was owned by the King family, beneficiaries of extensive land acquisitions made in the first decades of the 17th century by an ancestor, Edward King, Anglican Bishop of Elphin.

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Rush Hill’s clerical connections are frequent. Within a century of Bishop King taking possession of the land on which the house stands, it was leased together with some 400 acres to a relation of his descendants, the Rev. George Blackburne who became rector of the local parish and built a new church at the end of what was effectively Rush Hill’s drive. Described by Lewis as ‘a neat, plain building with a small spire,’ this survived an ever-dwindling congregation until demolished in 1971. The graveyard survives.
Unmarried, Blackburne left control of the property to his nephew William Devenish; generations of the same family remained there as major tenant farmers and minor Protestant gentry for the next 150 years. In 1884 the last of the line to live at Rush Hill, Robert Devenish gave up the tenancy and two years later it was let to George Acheson whose heirs continued to live there until 1943, during which time they acquired the freehold of the house and 109 acres from the King estate. Next it passed into the hands of a local farmer but after fifty years the house was abandoned and began to slide into decay, a condition only partially arrested when a Dutch family bought the place in 1997. Ten years ago Rush Hill was acquired by its present owners who ever since have been engaged in diligently restoring house and grounds.

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By the time they assumed responsibility for the place, Rush Hill was in poor shape; it had not been rewired since the mid-1950s when electricity was first introduced to the premises, the only sink was in the kitchen, supplied with water via a rubber hose through a window, and the only lavatory was broken. Almost all the windows needed to be replaced, as did many floorboards and parts of the roof, while the majority of original fittings like chimney pieces had long since been sold or stolen. Likewise outdoors the gardens were overgrown and the yard buildings in a state of total dereliction.
Given the scale of work required, inevitably it has taken time to achieve the present results. Looking at Rush Hill today, it is hard to imagine the property’s shambolic state a mere ten years ago. While most of the finance for this enterprise has come from the owners’ own resources, they did receive assistance on a couple of occasions from the Heritage Council; one worries the organisation may not be able to provide such support for much longer, given the present government’s apparent determination to emasculate it.

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Rush Hill is precisely the kind of property that deserves help from state agencies, especially when relatively small sums can make a substantial difference. Too often, because the national mindset is fixed on the extremes of Big House and peasant cottage, the idea that our architectural heritage might include other kinds of domestic building tends to be overlooked. Not being one of the region’s more significant properties, Rush Hill could easily have slipped out of existence, like the other three ‘gentlemen’s seats’ in the parish, had it not been rescued just in time. The evolution of Rush Hill took place over three centuries; the core five-bay house probably began as just one-room deep and without the lop-sided extensions to either side of the central block or indeed the latter’s projecting groundfloor bows. Gradually the house grew to reflect successive owners’ affluence and aspirations until achieving its present form. In the process, it came to represent one lesser-known but still important strand of our nation’s history. Without Rush Hill’s patient preservation we should all be the poorer.

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