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.
The late Desmond FitzGerald has been mentioned here before more than once (Knight and Day, October 1st 2012 and Shanid A Boo, July 8th last). I am now happy to advise that my new book The Last Knight which celebrates Desmond’s many achievements has been published and is available from the Irish Georgian Society (see: http://www.igs.ie). Thanks to the generosity of a number of benefactors, all proceeds from the sale of this work go to benefit the IGS.
A photograph of Dromore Castle, County Limerick built in the late 1860s for William Pery, third Earl of Limerick to the designs of Edward William Godwin (also responsible for James Whistler’s ‘aesthetic’ house on Tite Street, London). On a hill overlooking a lake and with views across the Shannon to County Clare, the castle looked ravishing but suffered from chronic damp (seemingly paint never stayed long on the walls) and was not occupied by the Perys for more than a few decades. The family sold Dromore in 1939 and since the middle of the last century it has grown steadily more ruinous: the roof was removed in the 1950s in order to avoid paying tax on the building. Today it can still be seen, a striking sight some twelve miles west of Limerick city.
Dating from around 1920 this photograph was taken by Franz S. Haselbeck, the son of German emigrants who had settled in Limerick in the early 1900s. Haselbeck was a professional photographer who lived and worked in the area until his death in 1973 and now a book of his images has been published by The Collins Press. With an introduction by his granddaughter who has been responsible for preserving the material, Franz S. Haselbeck’s Ireland includes pictures spanning the entire course of his long career, and shows scenes of a world which has since disappeared, many of them taken in the years before Independence. What makes the work especially fascinating are the photographs of buildings which subsequently fell into serious disrepair, not just Dromore but also Mountshannon House in Castleconnell, immediately east of Limerick city. Acquired and greatly enlarged in the late 18th century by John FitzGibbon, first Earl of Clare (notoriously one of the most hated men of his generation), the house and its contents were sold by the family in the 1880s when they had run through all their money. After changing hands on a couple of occasions, it was burnt out in 1921 during the Troubles, so the picture below, which shows the rear of the building with its fine conservatory intact, must have been taken before that date. There are many other such photographs in the book, not all of them featuring country houses but all meriting close study.
2013 being the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, inevitably particular attention is being paid to the novel’s author. Earlier this year, for example, a Jane Austen Society of Ireland was formed; one hopes its members will grant at least some notice to the writer’s Irish near-contemporary Maria Edgeworth who was much the better-known author during their respective lifetimes and whose books ought to be more widely appreciated in this country. A cheer too for Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan whose 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl is a remarkable piece of work.
Be that as it may, various events have been taking place in Ireland in recent months to celebrate Jane Austen and her links here, not least through the three daughters of her brother Edward whose lives are recalled in Sophia Hillan’s 2011 book May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland. On Sunday October 6th Dr Hillan will be speaking about the three sisters at Salterbridge, County Waterford (seen above). Sitting high above the Blackwater, this is a most interesting house, originally built c.1750 but enlarged by the addition of a new front almost a century later.
Salterbridge is the location for a day of Jane-ite festivities, since after Dr Hillan’s talk there is to be a splendid Regency lunch (guests are promised jelly shapes galore) followed by an afternoon performance by Vanessa Hyde of Empire Line Productions of ‘Ladies of Jane: Scenes and Musings from the Pen of Jane Austen.’ Those attending are encouraged to wear appropriate costume and rather charmingly, as in Miss Austen’s day, changing rooms will be available for those who wish to complete their toilette on arrival. All proceeds from the occasion go to a restoration fund for Lismore Hall not far away.
Anyone interested in attending the day should telephone +353-058-54952/087-2030763 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyone who has read Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond will be familiar with its opening lines: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon who owned a Levantine hotel near Palmyra.’
Those words always remind me of Melosina Lenox-Conyngham who, like the narrator’s aunt Dot was an inveterate and fearless traveller until her death almost two years ago. Melo, seen above wheeling her bicycle through the gates of Lavistown Cottage, County Kilkenny where she lived, wrote and broadcast many articles about her journeys, her low voice (Melo might have been short for Melodious) recounting all sorts of adventures with terrific gusto and humour. In one of these pieces, she described riding on a camel to Timbuktu, the silence of the desert reigning absolute until ‘it was broken by a familiar jingle, and Mahomet extracted from his long blue robes a mobile telephone that he poked into the folds of his turban.’
Back in Ireland, Melo entertained frequently – I remember an abundance of cobwebs but also very good home-made biscuits each topped with a blanched almond – and told still more tales of where she had been and what she had done. Between trips she served as indefatigable secretary of the Butler Society and did much to encourage interest in the history of this part of Ireland and its architectural heritage.
One greatly misses Melo but now a terrific selection of her writings A Life in Postcards has been published by the Lilliput Press (www.lilliputpress.ie). The book perfectly captures the author’s wry tone and is definitely to be recommended if you would like to know more about this very special woman and her distinctive outlook on life.
The drawing room at Rossana, County Wicklow as painted by Maria Spilsbury Taylor (1777-1823) an English artist who moved to Ireland after marrying an Anglican clergyman and thereafter became friendly with the Tighes of Rossana, known for their religious fervour. Rossana was originally built around 1742 by William Tighe but extended later in the century when wings were added. One of these contained the drawing room with the elaborate panelling seen above and often attributed to Grinling Gibbons (which would suggest it came from another, earlier, building). In the last century the wings were demolished and the panelling taken to the United States.
Rossana was a house well-known to poet Mary Tighe (née Blachford) who often stayed there, although she would die in March 1810 at Woodstock, County Kilkenny (see Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th). Mary Tighe is the subject of a new biography by Miranda O’Connell which brings this once-famous author of the six-canto allegorical poem Psyche back to public attention after a long period of unjustified neglect. Acknowledged as much for her beauty as her literary skills, Tighe’s early death transformed her into a figurehead of the Romantic Movement. Miranda O’Connell’s book not only considers the poems but also places her subject in the context of Ireland before and after the Act of Union, a fascinating period in the country’s history. Much to be recommended, it also contains many fascinating pictures and photographs.
Mary Tighe by Miranda O’Connell is published by Somerville Press (see http://www.somervillepress.com).
The Buildings of England architectural series begun by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner in 1945 is justifiably celebrated, but the Irish equivalent is less well-known most likely because this remains a work-in-progress. The first volume, devoted to North-West Ulster and written by Professor Alistair Rowan, appeared in 1979 and since then a handful more have been published. The latest to come out covers South Ulster (Counties Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan) and has been compiled by Kevin Mulligan. Like its predecessors, the book makes for fascinating reading, not least thanks to the author’s engaging prose (I like his description of Gosford Castle as ‘a great brawny pile’). One of the most important aspects of these books is that they are not unduly reverential about either the past or the present: there is a frankness of language that one rarely finds in architectural discussion. And the work comes with ample illustration, both colour and black and white. Included here are two illustrations by the author’s brother Liam Mulligan, that above showing the main staircase at Castle Leslie, County Monaghan (designed by W.H. Lynn and dating from the 1870s) and that below of the 17th century oak staircase at Richhill Castle, County Armagh. Text and pictures alike make this an essential addition to the library – together with the earlier volumes, of course.
The Buildings of Ireland: South Ulster by Kevin V Mulligan is published by Yale University Press at £35.