As a rule, old farm buildings in Ireland are allowed to slide into neglect and decay: it is rare to find an owner with the vision to see the possibility of alternative use. But as these photographs from County Cork show, it is possible to give a simple former barn new purpose and convert the building into an extremely attractive residence. If only there were more instances of such intelligent recycling to be found…
Here is a portrait of Richard Boyle, fourth Earl of Shannon painted by a relatively little-known mid-19th century artist, the Hon Henry Richard Graves. Prior to inheriting his title, Boyle sat in the House of Commons representing County Cork. However, in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act with its attendant increase in the size of the electorate, he lost his seat, one of those returned in his place being Garret Standish Barry, the first Roman Catholic to enter Parliament since the Catholic Relief Act three years earlier.
Once notable landowners in East Cork where they owned the Castlemartyr estate, the Earls of Shannon are a branch of the Boyle dynasty established in Ireland by Richard Boyle, the great Earl of Cork. Until the fourth Earl’s unseating, they had enjoyed an active association with this country’s politics: the first Lord Shannon Henry Boyle served as Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for more than two decades before being raised to the peerage in 1756.
The picture above is one of a collection depicting members of the family which from next week will be on show in the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, Dublin. To mark the opening of the exhibition, at 6pm on Tuesday, May 27th I will be holding a public discussion about his forebears with Harry Boyle, tenth Earl of Shannon. This event is free, but advance booking advised. For further information, see: http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/earls-of-shannon-portraits-launch
‘In an orderly country,’ chided the German travel writer and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl after a visit to Ireland in September 1842, ‘ruins should really not be tolerated. They should be demolished either in order that the material of which they consist can be availed of in constructing new and more useful buildings, or the site that they occupy can be put to different use, or because they threaten to collapse completely and endanger human activity, or because they present an unpleasant sight.’
Kohl believed that members of ‘an orderly, vigilant and progressive human community’ should eradicate all ruins, before he went to note that, ‘In Ireland, the opposite to all this has happened, as it is unique in all of Europe for its many ruins. One finds here a plethora of ruins from all periods of history, like in no other country.’ Furthermore, he remarked, this melancholy condition was not unique to ancient buildings since ‘down to our days every century – one could say every decade – has deposited its ruins on the land. For everywhere one sees a multitude of dilapidated houses that have only recently fallen into ruin but yet seem also to have been built only recently.’
More than 170 years after Kohl made his observations, they remain pertinent: Ireland continues to be a country of ruins, many of them of recent vintage. Indeed in the last decade we have acquired a fresh crop, so to speak, of ruins thanks to the advent of ‘ghost estates’, those ill-planned, ill-sited and incomplete spatterings of houses begun during the badly-managed economic boom and then abandoned at the onset of the downturn. They join the throng of architectural decrepitude which has been so noted by visitors to Ireland over hundreds of years and yet seems to pass unnoticed by the indigenous population.
What is especially noticeable is the gratuitous abandonment of buildings for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Hence throughout the countryside one comes across a superabundance of farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness and panache could be given a fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate, which is to moulder into ruin.
Such might well have been the fate of the house seen here today, had it not been discovered a decade ago by the present owner. Located in a remote part of County Cork and originally lying at the centre of a 100-acre holding, the building dates from the late 19th/early 20th century and is in a style that had remained almost unaltered over the previous hundred years. As the American historian Kerby Miller has noted, such houses which belonged to relatively affluent farmers, tended to be ‘well-built – perhaps two-storied, with stone walls and roofs which were slated rather than thatched – and well furnished.’
Whatever furniture it once contained had long since disappeared by the time the house was rescued and restored. Unoccupied for more than half a century since the death of a previous owner, its isolation seems to have discouraged anybody else from settling there. Today that remoteness gives the place romantic appeal, as do the surrounding vistas of rolling fields on three sides of the property, the fourth offering an uninterrupted view of the Irish Sea several hundred feet below: during the summer months, the owner has been known to descend to the shore for a swim.
Aside from inaccessibility, another reason why the building would not have won widespread favour is its understated design: unlike smaller and more overtly endearing thatched cottages, the average Irish farm house was never known for superfluous embellishment. Indeed this particular example possesses an unpretentious simplicity typical of the genus. It rightly celebrates the virtues of clean, unfussy composition.
But before these could be celebrated an extensive programme of refurbishment was called for because at the time of purchase the building was close to collapse. The roof demanded immediate attention, as did walls, doors and windows. Internally the main feature to be salvaged was the old staircase although even here sections required repair and replacement. While this was going on, changes were made to the south, sea-facing front with the three existing windows lowered to create a trio of double doors opening onto a terrace flagged with limestone. More recently the terrace has been enclosed by a full-length conservatory that now serves as sitting room, dining room and, as we Irish like to say, whatever you’re having yourself. In addition the first floor plate-glass windows were changed to double sashes with glazing bars, a modification which immediately softened the house’s unadorned exterior. As was the custom with such properties, the walls are cement-rendered and then left without even a lime wash but weathered by time and exposure to the elements. Several out-buildings have also been restored, a vegetable garden created and a secure area for hens and geese devised. Otherwise the rest of the 20 acres acquired by the owner has been left in its familiar state of fields interspersed with copses of trees.
The same low-key approach has been adopted inside the house. The kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. The diningroom opposite is equally understated, with clay plaster used to cover the walls, an old oven used as open fireplace and the furnishings of plain pine. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of the two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the pictures were acquired in the same way or were painted by friends.
The result offers a model of how to convert an old farmhouse into a comfortable, smart private residence. In every county throughout Ireland, there are many similar properties sliding into what looks like inexorable decay and thus adding to our already ample list of ruins. Were Johann Georg Kohl to visit our island today, he would find little had changed since the last time he was here – except in this little corner of the country. Here, for once, a house has been saved from ruin and its character improved rather than destroyed in the process.
On the edge of a country road in County Cork, this cottage testifies to centuries of living for the greater part of the Irish population. Its simple allure lies in the uneven slope of the thatched roof, the use of colour inside the window surrounds, the retention of the old double door, the whitewashed walls: all these factors combine to make the building as irresistibly photogenic as any grand country house.
The main entrance to Killinardrish, County Cork. In 1837 Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland describes the house as being ‘an elegant Italian lodge, lately built by R. J. O’Donoghue, Esq.’ While still in the hands of Mr O’Donoghue’s children, late 19th and early 20th century photographs show the entrance without its present limestone pedimented and pillastered frame which clearly dates from the 1700s. It must therefore have been added after the death of the last member of the O’Donoghue family in January 1934, but when and by whom? The house was subsequently occupied for a period by one of the Ryes whose own home just a few miles away, Ryecourt, was burnt out in 1921 like so many others in this part of the country. Might the door surround have been salvaged from 18th century Ryecourt and installed at Killinardrish? Any assistance with solving this puzzle would be much appreciated.
A beautifully-carved stone plaque attached to the wall of a single-room extension built onto the south-west end of the early 18th century St Colman’s church in Farahy, County Cork. As Charles Smith noted in his survey of the county (published 1750) this little structure served as ‘an English Protestant school, with an acre of land set apart by virtue of the statute for the education of poor children in the Protestant religion.’ Perhaps because of its diminutive size, the school does not seem to have lasted long: by the time Nicholas Carlisle produced the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1810 there was no mention of it in the entry on Farahy. One longs to know why Mrs Elizabeth Bridges of the City of London had chosen to endow such an establishment in this part of Ireland in 1721. Farahy today is best-known as the parish beside which stood Bowen’s Court, ancestral home of Elizabeth Bowen which was sadly demolished soon after she sold the estate in 1959.
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
These two portraits of James Barry, fourth Earl of Barrymore and his third wife Lady Anne Chichester are being offered for sale today at Sotheby’s in London. The Barrys were an old, but relatively impoverished Irish family although their finances were greatly improved by the fourth Earl making a succession of advantageous marriages. In the later 18th century they also became noted for their eccentricity: the seventh (and penultimate) Earl who died at the age of 23 in 1793 was one of the period’s most infamous rakes, commonly known as ‘Hellgate.’ (His sister was nicknamed ‘Billingsgate’ owing to her dreadful language, while his younger brothers were respectively called ‘Cripplegate’ due to a club foot and ‘Newgate’ since, as it was a women’s prison, he had never spent time there; in 1791 James Gillray produced a splendid caricature of the three men mocking their various distinctive characteristics). Their rackety lives were not dissimilar from that of another man with the same surname, Redmond Barry, eponymous hero of Thackeray’s 1844 picaresque novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and like him they all ended badly.
Meanwhile descendants of the fourth Earl’s fourth son became Smith Barrys and inherited a large estate on Fota Island, County Cork at the centre of which stood what was originally a hunting lodge. This building was enlarged and embellished c.1820 to the designs of Sir Richard Morrison and his son William Vitruvius Morrison. In their charming George II rococo fames, the two portraits (that above judged to be from the studio of Sir Godfrey Kneller, that below attributed to Philip Hussey) formerly hung in Fota House which today is managed by the Irish Heritage Trust and open to the public. How wonderful it would be if this tale concluded better than did that of the Barrys, and after today the portraits once more returned to the house…
Update: on Tuesday, 24th September the two portraits sold for ₤60,000 and ₤43,750 respectively.
One of a pair of fluted stone urns flanking the entrance to Kinoith, home of Darina and Tim Allen. Deep overhanging eaves indicate this plain three-bay, two-storey house dates from the first quarter of the 19th century. For a long time it was owned by a Quaker family called Strangman, which explains the building’s want of adornment. Last week Nature provided her own embellishment thanks to the torrent of wisteria in full bloom.
Sir Hugh Lane, the original Irish Aesthete and the subject of my first book (published by Lilliput Press in 2000) drowned ninety eight years ago today after the RMS Lusitania on which he was returning from New York, was torpedoed by a German U-Boat off the coast of Cork. This portrait, now in the collection of the municipal art gallery in Dublin founded by Lane in 1908 was commissioned by his friends from John Singer Sargent two years earlier. One always wonders what Lane, still not yet forty at the time of his death, might have achieved had he lived longer.