Fit for a King

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Boyle, County Roscommon is a provincial market town, seemingly indistinguishable from many others throughout the country. Once of importance as a centre of trade for the locality, it now appears to have slipped into irreversible decline. Somewhere, in other words, to by-pass except that rising in the middle of the town and towering over all other buildings is an immense early 18th century townhouse.
Known as King House, the name taken from the family responsible for its construction, this marvellous edifice is reminiscent of the seigneurial chateaux one finds in regional French urban centres, evidence of a powerful dynasty determined to wield and enforce authority. The family association with Boyle was due to John King (d.1637), an English adventurer who had come to Ireland with Sir Richard Bingham, the royal-appointed Governor of Connacht. In 1603 the Boyle estate running to over 4,000 acres and originally developed by the Cistercian monks whose abbey had since been dissolved, was leased to King and another soldier but in 1617 the former was granted the entire property as a reward for ‘reducing the Irish to obedience.’ One of his children Edward King, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge drowned while on a boat sailing to Ireland in August 1637 and was soon eulogised by his friend John Milton in the poem Lycidas. However, Sir John had six sons and thereafter successive generations of the family increased its holdings until the Kings became the area’s most prominent land owner.

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Of three storeys over basement, King House was built for Sir Henry King, dates from 1720-30 and is believed to occupy the site of an earlier structure. As ever, we do not know the architect responsible. Both Pearce and Castle have been mentioned, but so too has William Halfpenny (d.1755), an Englishman who worked in Ireland during the 1730s in Dublin, Hillsborough, County Down and Waterford City. There is also some speculation that the building as seen today is incomplete; the pedimented north front is strikingly plain, so it has been posited that the two-bay projecting wings were meant to be joined by another block so as to form an enclosed courtyard. If this was the intention, then it helps to explain the want of external decoration. The rear of the house, which looks south to the river Boyle and would once have had a pleasure garden running down to water’s edge, is more satisfactory if rather too rigorously symmetrical. In fact the best views are those of the two sides, where a pair of Venetian windows sits one above the other. Roughcast render suggests a variety of material was used for the building, although all the window and door surrounds are of fine cut limestone.
Not a lot of the original interior remains, but there is an explanation why this should be the case. The Kings used their house for little more than half a century before it was damaged by fire in 1788. By this date tastes had changed and it was considered more desirable to reside in the countryside, so the family moved to the nearby estate of Rockingham (of which more in the months ahead). King House was first leased and then in 1795 sold for £3,000 to the government. Subsequently it was converted into an army barracks and during the 19th century was occupied by the Connaught Rangers; presumably during this period was added the large extension to the south-west of the main block. As evidence of its size the house was able to accommodate 12 officers and 260 non-commissioned officers and private foot soldiers, as well as a 30-bed hospital and stabling for horses. Following Independence, the building continued to serve the same purpose for members of the Free State Army until the 1960s when King House passed into private hands and was used as a store and fuel depot. Its condition quickly deteriorated and by the 1970s tenders were invited for the building’s demolition to make way for a car park. I remember first seeing the place at that time, when the chances of its survival looked slim. Thankfully in 1987 King House was acquired by Roscommon County Council with a full programme of restoration work beginning two years later.

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Today King House is a public amenity, a museum and a facility used for various purposes, from wedding receptions to library services. Given its chequered history, the building’s want of interior ornamentation does not come as a surprise. The 1788 fire, followed by conversion for use as a barracks helps to explain the lack of an elaborate staircase, for example, and also the absence of much plasterwork embellishment. The most striking extant feature is the gallery found running the length of the house on each floor and lit at either end by the aforementioned Venetian windows. That on the groundfloor retains a splendid stone flagging and two immense baroque chimneypieces of Kilkenny marble. The vaulted ceilings of red brick are unusual since this is customarily only found in basements. Seemingly the notion was that vaulting would prevent the spread of fire, a theory soundly disproved by the conflagration of 1788. Elsewhere some rooms have decorative cornicing but overall the impression is of refined purity.
Or at least that would be the case if those responsible for King House would allow the building to speak for itself. Loath as one is to speak ill of any organisation prepared to ensure a future for the country’s architectural heritage, what a shame that in this case the relevant authorities have shown scant confidence in the house’s inherent qualities. The restoration work has been exemplary but rather than allow the interior’s handsome proportions to make an impression, everywhere is filled with furniture, display units, information panels, mannequins and assorted bric-a-brac relating to a disparate variety of topics. The place is so busy one is constantly denied an opportunity to assess architectural merit (or, incidentally, to take a decent picture). A dissapointment as the building is of such rare merit it deserves to be cherished as and for itself, and not treated as the setting in which much less interesting material is shown. The current style of presentation is unquestionably to the building’s detriment. King House dominates not just Boyle but much of the surrounding region since nothing else can begin to approach its resplendence. Accordingly nothing else ought to be required. Here is an instance where less would achieve more.

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This last is an old photograph of King House when still a military barracks (and, by the looks of it, already in poor shape).

2 comments on “Fit for a King

  1. columnist says:

    A great shame as you say, but perhaps due to limited resources and multi facility requirements. Perhaps better this than complete demolition?

    • Well of course you’re right, it’s infinitely preferable to demolition (the sad fate of too many buildings in this country). I think the problem is a want of confidence in the building’s ability to work its own magic, hence the notion that every room should be filled with stuff. And as a result, the inherent character of King House has been swamped.

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