The Wellspring of Health

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On the road leading from Kentstown to Balrath, County Meath can be seen this drinking fountain which, as the inscription explains, was erected by Sir William Somerville in 1855. Look at the way creeping moss has extended the lion’s beard all the way to the basin. The water for this amenity comes from a well some miles distant from which, according to ancient legend, St Patrick drank while on his way from Slane to Tara.
Sir William Somerville (1802-1873) was a Liberal politician who served as Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1847-1852; just over a decade later he was made a peer as Lord Athlumney. The fountain is set into the demesne wall of what was once his family seat, also called Somerville.

A Royal Progress

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This is an engraving of Broadstone on the north side of Dublin dating from 1821 and based on a picture by George Petrie. The most prominent building is the King’s Inns, designed by James Gandon in 1800 and by that date nearing completion. It looks little different today but the surprise is to find a harbour immediately in front since this has long gone. As the picture’s caption reveals, the harbour was constructed to serve the Royal Canal, its site chosen because of proximity to many key resources such as the city markets as well as the Linen Hall and various penitentiaries and workhouses.
Although Broadstone Harbour is no more the Royal Canal survives, despite sundry attempts over the past 150-plus years to damage it irreparably. Linking Dublin to the river Shannon and intended to encourage greater trade between the west and east of the country, the enterprise was plagued with problems from the very start. Not the least of these was the presence of the rival Grand Canal which follows a similar route further south and on which work had started in 1757. Construction of the Royal Canal on the other hand only began in 1790 by which time the senior waterway was almost finished and already taking large quantities of commercial and passenger traffic. So when a group of investors established the Royal Canal Company, they had to petition the Irish Parliament for financial support, receiving £66,000 to add to the £134,000 already raised from subscribers.

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Among the key shareholders of the Royal Canal scheme was the second Duke of Leinster, who insisted that the waterway pass by Maynooth, the County Kildare town beside his estate at Carton. This necessitated cutting through extensive rock at Clonsilla and creating an aqueduct to cross the river Ryewater at Leixlip, both of which added greatly to costs. By 1796 the canal had reached Kilcock and the first passengers were able to travel between this town and Dublin at a cost of one shilling and one penny, cheaper than a seat on the traditional stagecoach. However progress on moving the route further west was slow and more expensive than had been anticipated.
By 1811, despite being given almost £144,000 in government grants, the Royal Canal Company’s debts stood at £862,000. A parliamentary investigation into the business was undertaken and two years later the company was dissolved with responsibility for the project handed over to the Directors General of Inland Navigation who were instructed to complete work on the canal at public expense and with all due speed. In 1817 the Royal Canal finally joined the Shannon at a total cost of £1,421,954, seven times more than the original estimate. The following year a new Royal Canal Company assumed responsibility for the concern and built a branch line to Longford town which opened in 1830.
Now as then the Royal Canal runs for 90 miles (146 kilometres) through Counties Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath and Longford. The main water supply comes from Lough Owel near Mullingar which feeds the canal’s highest level. Its creation involved the building of 46 locks, four aqueducts and 86 bridges.

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By the mid-1830s, goods traffic on the canal had grown to 134,000 tons annually, and passenger numbers stood at 46,000 in 1837 by which time the journey between Dublin and Mullingar took an average eight hours. But even at its peak, the Royal Canal was never as successful as the Grand Canal. And the arrival of railways the following decade had an immediate and devastating effect. In 1845 the Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the canal in its entirety for £289,059 with the intention of laying railway tracks on top of the route. The government did not allow this plan to proceed, but it explains why trains heading west from Dublin do so directly alongside the canal for many miles. In 1877 the old Broadstone canal harbour was filled in and the site used as a forecourt for the railway company’s new termimus; a branch line of the canal had already connected it to the Liffey at what is now known as Spencer Dock.
Meanwhile, the Royal Canal went into steady decline, with the annual quantity of goods being carried on its route falling to 30,000 tons and passenger traffic gone. In 1938 ownership was transferred to the Great Southern Railway and six years later to the national rail company Coras Iompair Eireann. In 1955 the last boat officially to pass the length of the canal made its journey and the waterway was closed to navigation in 1961 after which it fell into serious disrepair. In the mid-1970s a group of enthusiasts started a Save the Royal Canal campaign and thanks to their sterling efforts, the route, which passed into the care of the Office of Public Works in 1978, was gradually restored. It took longer to refurbish than it had to construct: work on the last part of the Royal Canal was only completed in 2010.

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There are many reasons to celebrate the Royal Canal the most frequently cited being that it is an amenity beneficial to the tourist industry. That is certainly true and boats navigating its length bring visitors and income to towns and villages along the route. But let us leave matters economic to one side, not least because for over two centuries the Royal Canal has failed as a viable commercial proposition, inevitably costing more money than it generates. Though it might seem perverse to do so, this aspect of the waterway should be judged a cause for celebration, especially in the present era when the merit of everything and everyone seems to be based solely on the grounds of cost-effectiveness. Applying that criterion to the Royal Canal makes no sense, but instead demonstrates the fatuity of assessing value on economic grounds alone.
What’s more important in this instance is that the Royal Canal provides an example of successful intervention in the natural landscape. We are inclined to believe all man-made intrusions damage the environment, but the Royal Canal offers conclusive evidence this need not be the case: far from impairing its surroundings, the waterway often enhances them. And that is what matters most: the Royal Canal as an object of beauty. The original scheme may have been ill-conceived and sometimes ill-executed, over-time and over-budget in its completion, but we are all now the grateful beneficiaries. That gives it a value beyond price.

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Taking to the Air

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Woodbrook, County Wexford is believed to date from the 1770s but was badly damaged during the 1798 Rising. As a result, the building appears to have undergone considerable reconstruction in the first decade of the 19th century which is presumably when the tripartite Wyatt windows were inserted. One of them provides ample light to the rear hall which contains the house’s principal feature: a wooden flying spiral staircase, the only one of its kind in Ireland. As you ascend or descend, the steps lightly quiver with every tread.

Lest We Forget

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On a road leading out of Castlepollard, County Westmeath can be found this souvenir of an era when, to use an apt Irish expression, we lost the run of ourselves. A year after this sign was hammered into the ground, the nation’s banks crumpled under the weight of over-extended credit and the proposed scheme – for six townhouses and two blocks of eight apartments no doubt all of exquisitely faultless design – failed to materialise. Meanwhile, immediately beside the undeveloped site, another old building continues to moulder…

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La Belle au Bois Dormant

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Here is Bellamont Forest, County Cavan which can lay claim to being the most beautiful house in Ireland. Certainly its situation is unparalleled, since the building sits on a rise at the end of a mile-long drive, the ground to either side dropping to lakes, the world beyond screened by dense woodland. Bellamont is an unexpected delight, hidden from view until one rounds the last turn of the drive and sees the house ahead.
In purest Palladian style and looking like a villa in the Veneto, Bellamont is believed to have been designed c.1725-30 by the pre-eminent architect then working in Ireland, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce who was also responsible for the Houses of Parliament in Dublin (now the Bank of Ireland), and a number of since-lost country houses such as Desart Court, County Kilkenny and Summerhill, County Meath. Pearce was a cousin of Bellamont’s builder Thomas Coote, a Lord Justice of the King’s Bench. The Cootes had come to Ireland at the start of the 17th century and prospered so well that within 100 years their various descendants owned estates throughout the country. Ballyfin, County Laois which has recently undergone a superlative restoration was another Coote property.

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The appeal of Bellamont lies in its exquisite simplicity, beginning with an exterior which is of mellow red brick with stone window dressings. Of two storeys over a raised rusticated basement, the front is dominated by a full-height limestone portico reached by a broad flight of steps. The imposing effect is achieved by the most effortless means and using the plainest materials, but there can be no doubt that Bellamont was always intended to impress. The Portland stone-flagged entrance hall, with its coved ceiling and pairs of flanking doors, sets the tone for what is follow.
While there are small rooms immediately to right and left, the latter traditionally used as a cosy winter library, the main reception areas lie to the rear of the building, a sequence of drawing room, saloon and dining room which retain their 18th century decoration including the chimneypieces. The first of these is believed to have once been a series of rooms, but following a fire in 1760 acquired its present form including the elaborate recessed ceiling which was probably intended to complement that in the dining room on the other side of the saloon. The walls of this central room contain contain stucco panels once filled with family portraits, the best-known of which – painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1773 and showing the Charles Coote, Earl of Bellamont resplendent in his robes as a Knight of Bath – now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland.

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The aforementioned Earldom of Bellamont was a second creation of the title for a member of the family. Evidently an ostentatious and pompous man – seemingly he insisted on making his maiden speech in the House of Lords in French, to the bemusement of his fellow peers – Lord Bellamont can at least be credited with having the good taste to enhance the house built by his grandfather. He married a daughter of the first Duke of Leinster and by her had four daughters and just one son who died in Toulouse at the age of 12, his body being brought back to Bellamont to lie for three days on the upper landing before burial in the family vault.
As a result of there being no legitimate heir, the earldom again lapsed on Lord Bellamont’s death in 1800. However, despite being seriously wounded in the groin during a duel with Lord Townshend, he managed to have at least 16 offsring out of wedlock by four different women, and one of these sons, also called Charles Coote, inherited Bellamont Forest. Ultimately it was sold out of the family in the middle of the 19th century and bought by the Smiths (later Dorman-Smiths), one of whom Major-General Eric Dorman-Smith served in the British army during both the First and Second World Wars after which, having changed his surname to O’Gowan, he became involved with the IRA.

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In 1987 Bellamont Forest was bought by John Coote, an Australian interior designer whose family had emigrated from Ireland at the start of the last century. John dearly loved the house and undertook to restore it to a pristine condition, keeping the decoration spare so that the beauty of the rooms’ architecture would be more apparent. There was never a great deal of furniture, just a few large pieces he had specifically made and which were inspired by Georgian workmanship. In revealing the building’s purity he not only demonstrated the splendid taste of Pearce but his own also, since it would have been tempting to intervene in the interiors.
Those interiors served wonderfully for entertaining, which John did frequently. I have been to a great many terrific parties at Bellamont, and even hosted a few there, one of which – a birthday dinner for 30 – is thankfully uncommemorated by any photographs. But there are ample souvenirs and joyous memories of John’s own sundry social gatherings, such as the thé dansants he loved to throw, when a 16-piece orchestra would play in the saloon and Jack Leslie would demonstrate how to dance the Black Bottom. The last great party at Bellamont took place during the summer of 2009 to mark John’s 60th birthday and was spectacular even by his standards, with drinks in the lower gardens followed by dinner and dancing outdoors in the balmy air.
The following year John was obliged to put Bellamont Forest up for sale, and thereafter he rarely visited the place. Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of his death, which happened unexpectedly while he was working in Indonesia. He is still sorely mourned by all of us who knew him in Ireland. Meanwhile Bellamont slumbers, awaiting a new owner who will kiss the place back to life; there is talk now of an auction in March. One prays that whoever next assumes responsibility for Bellamont will bring to the house the same flair and fun as did John Coote for so many years.

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All photographs by René Kramers (http://www.reneez.com/)

All That Glitters

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A door on the top floor of Tullynally, County Westmeath, formerly Pakenham Hall and home to generations of the Pakenham family. Note the traces of gilt on the brass handle, and also the manner in which its quatrefoil design is echoed by that of a panel to the left.