‘It is extraordinary how women’s figures change according to the fashion of the times. Then, hers seemed to be absolutely perfect. She had that wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that, like Mary Queen of Scots, when she swallowed, you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat. I have never seen such a skin or such flesh…Her face was lovely, with soft brown eyes, a delicately formed, slightly retroussé nose, and brilliant, pouting lips. It was before the days of make-up and her wonderful colour was her own. Alas! That colour told its own tragic story. It was the beauty of the consumptive.’
Thus Hermione, fifth Duchess of Leinster as described by her friend Daisy Fingall (whose memoirs, Seventy Years Young cannot be sufficiently recommended to anyone who has yet to discover them). Judged one of the great beauties of the late Victorian era, at the age of 19 she had married Gerald FitzGerald, then Marquess of Kildare. Although the couple had two sons, Maurice and Desmond – Hermione can be seen with them both above – the marriage was not happy: while living in Kilkea Castle, County Kildare she once wrote the couplet, ‘Kilkea Castle and Lord Kildare/Are more than any woman can bear.’
She then embarked on an affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) the brother of another friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, and with him had a third son Edward. It was the misfortune of the FitzGeralds that following the early deaths of both the fifth Duke and Duchess of Leinster their eldest child should have suffered psychiatric problems and been institutionalised before he too died young, while the second son was killed in the First World War.
The next heir was Hermione’s third child, Lord Edward FitzGerald, a notorious spendthrift and wastrel who was barely 21 before being declared bankrupt for the first of several occasions. As is well-known, in 1917 he sold his birthright for £67,000 worth of debts and an annuity of £1,000: five years later he became the seventh Duke of Leinster. The outcome was, and has been ever since, catastrophic for the FitzGeralds and for their old estate at Carton, County Kildare. A photograph of how the saloon looked in the 1890s before any of this misfortune occurred can be seen below. The story is now told in Terence Dooley’s new book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1872-1948 (Four Courts Press) which makes for a grim but gripping read. In recent months there has been extensive media coverage of several once-wealthy Irish plutocrats brought crashing down: Terence Dooley’s book demonstrates this is no new phenomenon.
A section of the dining room wall at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Although the main part of the house dates from c.1730 when designed by Richard Castle, it underwent alterations and redecoration in the first decades of the following century, which is when the rose-pink damask paper was hung in this room, its patinated surface indicating the movement of pictures over the past 200 years (and the sale of some of them during the later part of this period).
The interiors of Strokestown feature in a new book Wallpaper in Ireland 1700-1900 written by David Skinner, the doyen on the subject and this country’s most skilled producer and restorer of papers. The book, itself an object of beauty, is published by the Churchill House Press with all proceeds from its sale going to the Irish Georgian Society. It also contains images of Strokestown’s library paper, some of which can be seen below. Again some two centuries old, this has a wide flock border above the dado rail which has suffered somewhat from pieces of furniture rubbing against the surface, but surely that only adds to its appeal?
A page from the 1897/98 visitors’ book of Dunsandle, County Galway, one of a number of such items being sold today by auctioneer Oliver Usher in Kells, County Meath. Dunsandle itself is now a roofless ruin, although traces of its exquisite interior plasterwork somehow still remain (see Dun and Dusted, December 9th 2013). Therefore surviving remnants of life in the establishment, such as this book, are precious. Curiously visitors to the house had their weight and height taken on arrival: was this common procedure one wonders?
A survey conducted in Northern Ireland in 2005 concluded that while there had been 40,000 thatched dwellings in the six counties half a century earlier, only 150 of these now remained. Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson, authors of Traditional Cottages of County Donegal, believe the situation is no better, and very possibly worse, in that county despite it being ‘home to one of the largest surviving concentrations of such vernacular cottages in Ireland.’ They also note that ‘One of the most enduring images of Ireland and Irishness is that of the traditional rural cottage.’ In 1935 the Swedish ethnologist Dr Åke Campbell who had arried out a survey of rural housing in this country, wrote ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’ One might add that being made of natural, local materials when these dwellings are forsaken, they dissolve back into the soil from whence they came. Would that the same could be said of the bungalow which is the most common form of housing type found in rural Ireland today.
One must avoid succumbing to excessive sentimentality: despite what we perceive as its inherent charm the traditional cottage tended to be small, dark, with poor insulation and extremely limited facilities. It is understandable that anyone inhabiting such a place would wish to replace it with a more comfortable residence. Still, it remains a matter of shame and disappointment that so little has been done to ensure the conservation of our historic dwellings since their loss means part of the nation’s collective history also disappears; tellingly many of the best examples featured by Gallagher and Stevenson have been preserved in open air museums and folk parks, or else converted into holiday homes. But very many more have fallen into dereliction and this book is as much a lament as a celebration of Donegal’s traditional cottages. The book is splendidly produced and illustrated, and with a text both informative and engaging. It also serves as an invaluable record of what still survives, but may not do so for much longer… Traditional Cottages of County Donegal is published by Under the Thatch Ltd. For further information, see: http://www.underthethatch.co.uk/book
This year Derry has been celebrating its title as inaugural UK City of Culture with a wide programme of events. One might wish that the programme of events had paid more attention to Derry’s architectural heritage: it is the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland, those walls (seen in an old photograph above) dating from the second decade of the 17th century. Thankfully also this year a truly excellent guide to the place’s buildings has been published: City of Derry: An Historical Gazetteer to the Buildings of Londonderry written by Daniel Calley and published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.
The book runs alphabetically through all of Derry, street by street, discoursing on each site, its history and architectural merits – or lack of same. One always appreciates an author who is unafraid to express a well-informed opinion. For example, of 34-40 Shipquay Street (one of the principal thoroughfares in the old city, lined with 18th and 19th century houses), he writes, ‘The round-headed rythym on the ground floor is utterly destroyed by the crass left-hand shopfront which replaced two-bays; definitely a homage to philistinism with its fascia signage and recessed expanse of plate-glass which is known in the retail industry as a deep-throat.’
Calley gives praise where it is due, and Derry is blessed that despite decades of disruption and the best efforts of urban despoilers so much of the city remains to delight. Replete with colour photographs this is an admirable book to take if visiting Derry, not just during its tenure as a City of Culture, but at any time. Below is a view of the former Bishop’s Palace, the core of which probably dates from the mid-18th century although its appearance was much altered in the first decades of the 19th. ‘Since 1945,’ Calley explains, ‘the building has served as a Masonic Hall whose custodianship has, despite the bst efforts of bombers bent on informal reordering, been on the whole well intentioned.’
City of Derry: An Historical Gazetteer to the Buildings of Londonderry by Daniel Calley can be purchased from the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society: http://uahs.org.uk/shop/
The entrance front to Dromore Castle, County Kerry. Located above the Kenmare river Dromore is what might be described as a ‘pocket castle’, a middle-sized country house dressed up with turrets and battlements to provide a phantom historicism; although there was an earlier house close by, the present building only dates from c.1831-38 when built to the designs of Sir Thomas Deane for the Rev. Denis Mahony. Dromore Castle remained with his descendants until 1994 when it was sold by Jane Waller.
She tells her story and the history of the house in Jane O’Hea O’Keefe’s recently-published Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry which chronicles a number of properties in these two counties, some of which survive (and still in the ownership of the original families) while others are lost. The book is based on recordings made by O’Keefe and her husband which were then transcribed and edited; thus these really are authentic voices of people who came from what in Ireland is traditionally known as the ‘Big House.’
Inevitably, given that so much has been lost, often needlessly, a certain poignancy hangs over the work, an impression of a world which has now gone. However, it is worth pointing out that not all the people featured are of English origin. Elizabeth, Lady O’Connell, for example, was born MacCarthy-O’Leary, her bloodline representing both these Irish families united around 1780 when Denis MacCarthy married Helen, only child of The O’Leary. It was the next generation who in 1805 built Coomlogane, County Cork on the site of the O’Leary ancestral home, but by the middle of the last century the house was in ruins and the property sold by Lady O’Connell’s aunt. Likewise Kilcoleman Abbey, County Kerry, built on land owned by the Godfrey family since the mid-17th century, eventually succumbed to dry rot: ‘I remember the stairs were falling down,’ recalls one relative who visited in the late 1950s, ‘but there was a gallery which was still fairly solid, running round in front of the bedrooms.’ Abandoned not long afterwards, Kilcoleman was eventually demolished by the local authority in the 1970s.
Below is an another image of Dromore Castle which happily still stands. Mark Bence-Jones damned the entrance front for possessing ‘a certain grimness’ but judged this, the garden front, as ‘more graceful and friendly.’
Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry is published by Mercier Press. The original oral histories from which the book derives can be found at http://www.irishlifeandlore.com
Dating from c.1816 this watercolour is deemed to be J.M.W Turner’s only Irish view and shows Clontarf Castle, County Dublin. The picture was painted for one of the artist’s closest friends, Walter Fawkes of Farnley Hall, Yorkshire who owned a large collection of Turner’s work. The watercolour is of particular interest because Turner never visited Ireland and therefore must have been working from an image of Clontarf Castle produced by someone else; the connection is that Fawkes’ second wife Maria Sophia Vernon – who he married precisely around the time this watercolour was produced – had grown up at Clontarf Castle, so presumably it was intended to act as a souvenir of her childhood home. Twenty years later the building, originally constructed in the 12th century by the Knights Templar and acquired by the Vernons in the second half of the 17th century, was very extensively remodelled by William Vitruvius Morrison at the request of Maria Sophia’s nephew, John Edward Venables Vernon. Thus the picture also serves as a guide to what the house looked like in its earlier incarnation. Today Clontarf is a suburb of Dublin and the castle, greatly enlarged, an hotel. It is possible to gain a sense of what the building and surrounding lands were like a century ago by reading ‘A Georgian Boyhood’ the third part of Cyril Connolly’s wonderful Enemies of Promise published in 1938. His mother was a Vernon and he therefore spent holidays as a child in the house. Estimated to fetch €20,000-€40,000, the watercolour is due to be auctioned next Monday by Adam’s as part of its country house sale at Slane Castle, County Meath (see: http://www.adams.ie). Update: the Turner watercolour of Clontarf Castle sold for €65,000.