For the Present III

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In 1972 Mariga Guinness claimed that Ireland ‘has more follies to the acre than anywhere else in the world.’ The assertion has yet to be verified (has anyone actually traversed every acre of the country in search of follies?) but we certainly have our ample share of these whimsical edifices. Some research on the subject has been published but usually of an academic nature and with no spirit of the playfulness which inspired the typical folly’s construction. For surely the essence of such a building’s character lies in its name, with the implication of common sense being absent and fun gaining the upper hand.
What a treat, therefore, to find a book which celebrates the irrational, glorifies the absurd and encourages the downright nonsensical. Fabulous Follies of Ireland is a collaboration between author William Laffan and illustrator Nesta FitzGerald. It explores fifteen of the country’s follies, some of them like the Casino at Marino (shown above) widely known, others such as McDermott’s Castle at Rockingham, County Roscommon insufficiently appreciated. And it does so with just the right balance of erudition and wit, ensuring readers are as much entertained as informed. The book is published by the Irish Georgian Society, the emblem of which – the Conolly Folly, County Kildare – can be seen below. It costs €7.50, making this a fabulous folly anyone can afford.

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For the Present II

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Russborough, County Wicklow has featured more than once on this site and why not since it is often judged to be the most beautiful country house in Ireland. Dating from the 1740s, Russborough was commissioned by Joseph Leeson, a wealthy brewer who in 1763 became first Earl of Milltown. His architect was German-born Richard Castle and work on the project seems to have proceeded fast because in his 1746 A Tour through Ireland William Chetwood found at Russborough ‘a noble new house, forming into perfection’, adding ‘if we may judge of the picture of the outlines, we shall, when finished, see a complete beauty’. This indeed has proven to be the case. Just as lovely is the newly-published Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections. Written by William Laffan and Kevin V Mulligan, the book covers over 300 years of history, travelling far in various directions but always returning to the building that lies at its core. And this is as it should be, the authors noting how the approach to the house is carefully managed ‘so that the main block is completely concealed, the first views taking in a finely articulated cupolaed gateway, the east wing and then its distant counterpart. These low ashlar-fronted blocks – to the east the kitchen wing, to the west the stables – are impressive in their own way, given deep plans with broad fronts, attractively articulated with Ionic pilasters to the centre bays and urns punctuating the parapets, but the void between seems to offer the greater distraction and an inducement to progress further. Once revealed in its entirety, the visual power and complexity of the composition, its symmetry and poise, is simply captivating…The viewer’s instinct is to draw back immediately so as to take in everything as one comes to realise the full extent of the plan. A symmetrical expanse, drawn out on either side beyond the wings to encompass a further complex of buildings on each side, is laid out to achieve a façade that extends from end to end a distance of some seven hundred feet.’ Scholarly and engaging (a too-rare combination) the prose is matched by James Fennell’s splendid and copious photographs, making this the most complete work yet produced on a single Irish house. An essential addition to any library this season.
Russborough: A Great Irish House, its Families and Collections is published by the Alfred Beit Foundation, €50.

For the Present I

 

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This is the first in a short series of suggestions for gifts this season. David Hicks’ Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is the successor to his 2012 book, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change. Like the latter, he features a number of properties from each of Ireland’s four provinces but here the conceit (using that word in the old-fashioned sense) is hanging the story of a building on a portrait, the kind of device once loved by film directors as a means of introducing audiences to what might otherwise be too unfamiliar territory. It works just as successfully here and means the text is as much social as architectural history.
Certain artists’ names recur, not least that of William Orpen who is represented in five of the 18 houses featured and they tend to date from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The buildings on the other hand, span a broader chronology, from 16th century Castle Taylor, County Galway to Kilteragh, the County Dublin Arts and Crafts house designed by William Douglas Caroe in 1905 for that consummate patriot, Sir Horace Plunkett: it was burnt out by the IRA in January 1923. Another house, featured on the cover, is Curraghmore, County Waterford, home of the Marquis of Waterford. The main block of Curraghmore has at its core a mediaeval tower house, and in this lies the billiard room with a rococo ceiling of the late 1740s, its decoration attributed to the Lafranchini brothers. (The picture below comes not from Hicks’ book but from the Sadleir and Dickinson volume featured here on Monday). The Irish Georgian Society has recently made a grant to assist in the conservation of this plasterwork.
Handsomely produced and with many excellent photographs taken by the author, Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters adds further to the genre especially when it covers places not hitherto the subject of much attention. It looks well and reads well: for what more could one wish?
Curraghmore 6Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is published by Collins Press, €39.99.

The Judgement of Posterity

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The 18th century soldier and politician Sir Boyle Roche is remembered for having once asked during the course of a debate in the Irish House of Commons, ‘Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?’ His near contemporary, James Caulfeild, first Earl of Charlemont, could have provided a suitable riposte, since posterity has judged him a worthy patriot and citizen of this country. Above is a photograph of one of Lord Charlemont’s greatest legacies, the Casino he commissioned to the design of Sir William Chambers in the grounds of Marino, Dublin. The building appears on the cover of a volume dealing with architecture in the Royal Irish Academy’s new series on Art and Architecture of Ireland. This splendid five-volume project is due to be launched tomorrow in Dublin’s Mansion House by An Taoiseach, Mr Enda Kenny. No doubt kind words will be said all round, and no mention will be made of the cuts inflicted on the country’s cultural heritage by Mr Kenny and his government. Nobody will speak of the 40 per cent fall in the National Museum of Ireland’s annual grant-in-aid over the past five years (and the resultant failure to carry out essential maintenance works to the structure of the Natural History Museum thereby causing it to fall further into disrepair), or the 44 per cent diminution of the National Library of Ireland’s grant over the same period. And the subject of the 12 per cent drop in funding to heritage in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s 2015 budget allocation is unlikely to feature in any speech made at tomorrow’s event.* Such is the nature of celebratory occasions, especially when politicians are present. So while nothing of import will be uttered tomorrow, we must derive comfort from the knowledge that posterity will have plenty to say about Mr Kenny and his cabinet colleagues, and their resolutely philistine ways.

*Before anyone points out this RIA project has been part-funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, it should be noted that state support was agreed in 2008, three years before the present government came into office; the latter cannot therefore claim any credit for financial assistance committed to the volumes’ publication.

Lady Ardilaun Requests the Pleasure…

IMG_6894 Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born at Macroom Castle, County Cork in August 1850. Her father, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White was the second son of the first Earl of Bantry; he had added Hedges to his own surname in 1840 on inheriting the Macroom estate from a cousin, Robert Hedges Eyre. Following the death of his elder brother, the second Earl of Bantry, in 1868 William Hedges-White also succeeded to the Bantry estates, meaning he owned almost 70,000 acres of land in the county (for more on Bantry and the White family, see When It’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th last). The third earl married Jane Herbert whose family had owned the Muckross estate in neighbouring County Kerry since the mid-1650s: when the Herberts became immured in debt in the late 1890s, Muckross would be bought by Lady Olive’s husband. She had been the first of the third Earl of Bantry’s daughters to marry, followed in 1874 by her elder sister Lady Elizabeth to Egerton Leigh and then in 1885 by her younger sister Lady Ina to Sewallis Edward Shirley, 10th Earl Ferrers. Lady Olive’s husband, who she married in February 1871, was Sir Arthur Edward Guinness. IMG_6903 IMG_6895 IMG_6917 IMG_6919 IMG_6907 Arthur Edward Guinness was the eldest son of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, first baronet, who greatly expanded the brewery in Dublin and thereby enhanced the family’s fortunes. He married his cousin Elizabeth Guinness with whom he had four children. Arthur Guinness might have been expected to enter the business like his father before him, but in fact he left this task to his younger brother Edward (later first Earl of Iveagh) to whom he sold his half-share of the brewery in 1876. Arthur Guinness’s interests were political and he was elected to his father’s seat in Parliament following a by-election after the latter’s death in 1868. He retained his place at a General Election the same year; unfortunately it was subsequently discovered his agent had bribed an elector and so he was forced to give up the seat. He was re-elected again in 1874 and remained a committed Unionist MP (and lifelong opponent of Home Rule) until raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. IMG_6921 IMG_6927 IMG_6929 IMG_6935 IMG_6932 In 1852 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness bought the Ashford estate on the shores of Ireland’s second largest lake, Lough Corrib, in County Galway. The house at its centre was originally a de Burgo castle and then a shooting lodge belonging to the Browne family. However in the aftermath of the Great Famine the first Lord Oranmore and Browne had been forced to sell the greater part of his land holdings; Ashford and its surrounding 1,179 acres were acquired through the Encumbered Estates Court by the Guinnesses for £11,005. Benjamin Lee and then Arthur Edward greatly enlarged both the house and estate, the latter eventually covering some 33,000 acres, much of which benefitted from judicious tree planting. As for the building, this likewise increased in size from 1873 onwards when Arthur Edward Guinness commissioned a large west wing designed initially by James Franklin Fuller and – following a deterioration in the relationship between architect and client – George Ashlin; by 1915 £1 million had been spent on this project. The new work connected the 18th-century chateau-style lodge of the Brownes with two de Burgo towers and then the greater part of the structure was encased in battlements so that the whole became known as Ashford Castle. Recalling a visit he made there in the 1880s, George Moore would later write, ‘Below us, falling in sweet inclining plain, a sea of green turf flows in and out of stone walls and occasional clumps of trees down to the rocky promontories, the reedy reaches and the long curved woods which sweep about the castle – such a castle as Gautier would have loved to describe – that Lord Ardilaun has built on this beautiful Irish land. There it stands on that green headland with the billows of a tideless sea, lashing about its base; and oh! the towers and battlements rising out of the bending foliage.’IMG_7037 IMG_7042 IMG_7044 IMG_7075 IMG_7082 Ashford was never a permanent residence for the Guinness family but used during winter months for shooting parties and as somewhere to entertain large groups of friends. The photographs above give an idea of such occasions; the first of them, taken in October 1878, featurs a young Oscar Wilde (whose father had a place on Lough Corrib) leaning on a balustrade on the extreme right. Even before his marriage, Arthur Edward Guinness would host weekends in the house, one of which was recorded in a privately-printed book, A Lay of Ashford, which seems to date from around 1869/70. Text and drawings were both by Colonel James O’Hara who lived with his wife and child at Lenaboy Castle on the outskirts of Galway city, a property only built earlier in the decade to the design of Samuel Ussher Roberts (grandson of the famous 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts). The book describes the entertainment laid on for the guests, not least the creation of a temporary ballroom so that a dance could be held for them. There was also boating on the lake and a picnic. Among those present who have been identified were the host’s youngest brother, Captain Lee Guinness, David Plunket, later first Lord Rathmore (whose older brother was married to the host’s aunt), Lord and Lady Clanmorris, Lord and Lady John Manners, Robert Algernon Persse of Roxborough, County Galway (a brother of Augusta, Lady Gregory), Miss Alice Eyre of Eyrecourt and sundry other members of local families: all appear in Colonel O’Hara’s book, as does Ashford itself before the house was so extensively altered. IMG_6982 IMG_6963 IMG_6973 IMG_6967 IMG_6971 Olive Ardilaun liked to paint, and collected her watercolour in a bound album. Most of them depict the landscape around Ashford but as can be seen in the first painting above, she also reproduced scenes from the family house on the north side of Dublin Bay. This was St Anne’s, originally called Thornhill, an 18th century property which Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness had bought with fifty-two acres in 1835 from John Venables Vernon of neighbouring Clontarf Castle. The old house was pulled down in 1850 and replaced with another in the Italianate style. At the same time the name was changed to St Anne’s (after an old well on the site) and more land acquired so that the grounds eventually amounted to some 500 acres. As at Ashford, from 1873 onwards Arthur and Olive Guinness embarked on an ambitious extension to the main house, once more using the designs of James Franklin Fuller. The result, Mark Bence-Jones later wrote was ‘a palace comparable to the best of the mansions that were being built at that period in the USA by people like the Vanderbilts, in taste no less than in grandeur.’ This, the Ardilauns’ main residence, was where they held parties and balls during the annual season, hosting a house party each year during the week of the Dublin Horse Show and entertaining visiting dignitaries, not least Queen Victoria who came here for dinner in April 1900 (the future George V’s signature and that of his wife Mary can be seen in the visitors’ book for August 22nd 1897; he would spend a week shooting at Ashford in 1905). IMG_6954 IMG_7088 IMG_6949 IMG_6962 IMG_6955 Even during their lifetimes, the hospitality offered by the Ardilauns was exceptional: few if any other Irish landowners had the income to entertain in such a grand manner. And with the dawn of the new century and changes in this country’s economic and political circumstances they increasingly became anachronisms, reflections of another era. Lord Ardilaun died in January 1915 but his wife lived another decade. The couple had no offspring and the widowed Lady Ardilaun, while materially comfortable, was an isolated figure during her final years: Lady Gregory described her as ‘a lonely figure in her wealth, childless and feeling the old life shattered around her.’ She gave up Ashford which went to her husband’s nephew, the Hon Ernest Guinness, and Macroom Castle, which she had inherited from her father and to which she was devoted as a descendant of the original MacCarthy family, was burnt out by Anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War; the grounds were sold to a group of local businessmen two years later. In a 1949 memoir Bricks and Flowers, her cousin Katherine Everett (née Herbert) gives a description of Lady Ardilaun at this time, fearful of the world in which she now found herself and, despite the Guinness money, occupying an increasingly decrepit St Anne’s, its gardens falling into decay, the roof of the winter garden leaking whenever it rained, the quantity of water sometimes so great it would knock out the central heating boiler in the basement. When the cold and damp became too intense, she would move with her maid and secretary to the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. Lady Ardilaun finally died in December 1925 at the age of 75. IMG_6975 All the pictures shown here come from a series of albums being sold by Adam’s at this year’s Country House Collections auction in Slane Castle, County Meath next Sunday and Monday, 12th and 13th October. For more information, please see: http://www.adams.ie/Country-House-Collections-at-Slane-Castle/12-10-2014?gridtype=listview

An Irish Childhood

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‘A four-year-old child sits on her father’s knee, in the pony-trap, holding the reins. She is conscious of the touch of his hand guiding her own, the rough texture of the sleeve of his jacket, the pony’s silvery white haunches moving to the rythym of a steady trot, its alert pricked ears, the polished harness, the rings, buckles and mounts. Presently at a curve of the avenue Mount John comes into view: solid, cream-coloured house, its low-pitched blue lead roof just visible above the parapet. From this angle it is partly hidden by trees – among them a copper beech, a tall bluish green Wellingtonia tapering to a point, a monkey puzzle and a walnut tree. Only when the trap has passed between the white gate-posts on the half-circle of gravel, to the left the pleasure ground, to the right a weeping ash, can one see to advantage the sash windows – two either side the hall-door, matched by similar pairs above and an additional window over the fanlight; the slim Ionic pillars; the oak door and the shining brass knocker that on closer inspection reveals itself as a Greek urn narrowing to the base where the hand takes hold.’

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‘Mount John was built in the early seventeen hundreds. Like many other Irish houses belonging to the same period – when the settlers began to embellish the country that hitherto they had ravaged, building themselves homes of distinction – it combines solidity with a spacious elegance. The walls are thick – in places several feet in width. I remember a great bulge by the landing window; another in the bathroom wall in which, if I am to believe an old cottager – he worked for my father and still lives on the Wicklow road – part of the Russian crown jewels are concealed.
In common with other houses designed not in isolation, but in a manner that has regard for the landscape – house and landscape making a single picture – it is seen at its best from a distance. There is a pleasing view from the road, through a gap between beeches and limes – the house standing above a sweep of lawn, set about by trees and shrubs, and, beyond it, a glimpse of mountains. Even so it looks smaller than it is – an illusion created by a facade broken by the relatively few flat windows. Inside, one is taken unawares by the spaciousness, whether it be the airy hall, the curving staircase, or the rooms with their high ceilings, pleasant proportions and the light coming in the tall windows. It seems to hold within itself something of the largeness and the quiet of the countryside.’

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‘The drawing-room was a golden room. The curtains were old-gold with a flutter of white muslin, rhe carpet a similar, deeper shade. The sun poured in the tall windows of which two faced east, the third south on to the pleasure ground – picking out the gilded oval frames enclosing portraits of my Hamilton grandparents and over the mantelshelf a gilt-edged mirror. There was a sofa upholstered in a rich gilded brocade; two yellow wooden chairs with painted on the back of each a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon – the tiny blossoms picked out in red and blue and violet; and in front of the piano a stool with ends similarly decorated. My mother’s Sheraton writing desk stood in one corner, and in the window as you came into the room there was a Sheraton table massed in spring with daffodils in a crystal bowl, in summer with golden-pink Gloire de Dijon roses, in autumn with chrysanthemums. I remember on the same table a tortoise-shell paper knife, a busby chain, regimental badges, a pair of spurs and a number of small silver objects that included a windmill, a filigree round table with chairs to match, a poodle dog with a leg missing. The white Adam’s mantelshelf was decorated with a carving of two gryphons staring at each other and on the side panels acanthus flowers rising on twirling stems from a Greek urn.’

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‘It is an evening in spring. The hall-door is open – as it often was, so that the house used to be permeated with the scents and freshness of the garden. The light is a pale silver, as after rain. A breeze sirs one of the West African fetish masks (relics of my father’s soldiering days) making it sway and scrape against the red-washed wall above an oak table on which there is a black-and-gold lacquer tray for visiting cards and, behind this, a pair of elephant’s tusks crossing each other. My mother comes in from the garden with violets in her hand. She holds them out to me to smell, then lays them on the table and sighing (not plaintively, but as if in satisfaction at a task well done) slips her slender, ringed hands out of a pair of crumpled gardening gloves. Spring in childhood has become crystallised in this memory of the open door, the silvery light, the scraping of the fetish mask against the wall, my mother holding out the violets.’

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‘A path ran north of the house through the shrubbery to the faded greenish blue garden door set in a wall and opening on to a box-edged path arched with ramblers. To the right was a deep border brilliant with flowers: maroon and lemon and sapphire columbines – these backed by a hedge of beech on the further side of which was a paddock where my mother kept her poultry. There were more flowers to the left of the path: deep blue cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, sweet Williams, bachelors’ buttons, flame-bright montbretia and a double row of sweet-peas. And, beyond these, raspberries and currants and strawberry beds. There was an apple tree with a twisted trunk and crumpled lichen-coated branches. Overnight – so it used to seem to us – it became in the spring a could of blossom soon to drift away upon the wind.’

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The above extracts are taken from Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir An Irish Childhood, telling the story of a period before the First World War when she and her family lived at Mount John, County Wicklow. The author’s parents had both grown up in County Meath but her father, as a younger son, did not inherit property there and so bought another small estate. For many years owned by generations of Archers, Mount John appears to have been built over several phases, the rear portion probably being the earlier part to which the east-facing front with its large reception rooms was added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. On either side of this section of the building are bows, that to the north two-storeys high, that to the south (off the drawing room) single-storey.
Financial circumstances forced Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents to leave Mount John in early 1914 and her book is an evocation of a lost Arcadia, a magical world she recalled for the rest of her life. An Irish Childhood, with its charming line drawings by Norah McGuinness, is too little known; the work provides readers with an insight into life in Ireland across all sections of society just before the onset of the upheavals that so changed this country. Many years later the author returned to Mount John and, having walked once more around the place where she had been born and spent her earliest years, she wrote ‘As I went through the white gate into the dusk it was as though there had been a transference of time. A moment belonging to a past beyond the reach of my memory, yet familiar from hearsay, had stepped forward into the present…’

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Mount John, County Wicklow is now for sale, and waiting to be brought back to the condition so redolently described by Elizabeth Hamilton. For more information, see: http://www.sherryfitz.ie/resi/buy/7-bed-Farms-and-Estates-For-Sale-by-Private-Treaty-Newcastle-Mount-John-House-Newcastle-Co.-Wicklow-propertydetail.aspx?id=328894&ST=1&pc=1

How It All Came Crashing Down

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‘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.

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