God Bless the Kings

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The town of Mitchelstown, County Cork evolved around a mediaeval castle controlled by the FitzGibbons, otherwise known as the White Knights. Maurice FitzGibbon, twelth and last White Knight died in 1611 without male heirs and so the estate passed to his only sister Margaret; three years later she married Sir William Fenton whose English-born father Geoffrey had come to Ireland in 1580 with the country’s then-Lord Deputy Lord Grey de Wilton and subsequently risen to be Principal Secretary of State in Ireland. Sir William had two children, a son Maurice and a daughter Catherine, the latter marrying Sir John King, first Baron Kingston. The Kings were likewise English adventurers who received large grants of land around Boyle, County Roscommon (see Fit for a King, February 11th 2013). When Sir Maurice Fenton’s son William died in 1670 without male issue, once more the Mitchelstown property passed to a descendant through the female line, this time to his aunt Catherine. Thus her sons, the second and third Lords Kingston came to own land in County Cork although the latter, probably not expecting to inherit, had given his support to James III, moved to France and converted to Catholicism; within a year of his brother’s death he obtained a pardon from the Privy Seal and in 1715 took his seat in the Irish House of Lords. Some twelve years later his son James King, born in France, became the fourth Lord Kingston.

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The fourth Lord Kingston seems to have made a number of changes to his property in County Cork, not least improving his accommodation in the area. The original Mitchelstown Castle, a 14th century tower house with later additions, had been badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s but subsequently restored. Now it was aggrandised and transformed into a Palladian-style house, described by Charles Smith in his 1750 Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork as having a large hall ‘round which at the top runs a handsome corridor; the staircase is large and lightsome, on the ceiling of which is painted the rape of Prosperine. Above the hall is a gallery, seventy feet long and twenty feet broad, from whence a fine prospect of the Galty mountains…the high mountains of the Knockmealdowns and, in the centre of both, the Comeraghs in the county Waterford all ranged in the manner of the scenes of a vast theatre.’ Meanwhile the 1,300 acre demesne was likewise subject to improvements thanks to planting of trees and the addition of a canal. An Irish Privy Counsellor and Grand Master of the Freemasons in Ireland on several occasions (the country’s oldest warranted lodge was established in Mitchelstown in the early 1730s), Lord Kingston married twice but, as had already happened on several previous occasions, produced no male heir and so when he died in 1761, Mitchelstown passed to his daughter Margaret, wife of the Hon Richard FitzGerald, a son of the 19th Earl of Kildare. The FitzGeralds once more having no surviving sons, Mitchelstown was then inherited by their daughter Caroline who in 1769 married her kinsman Robert King, second Earl of Kingston.

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The fourth Lord Kingston’s will provided for the construction of a chapel and series of almshouses to be occupied by ‘poor Gentlemen and Gentlewomen members of the Church of Ireland as by law established.’ Known as Kingston College, this range of buildings was erected in Mitchelstown close to the main western entrance of the King estate and occupies the northern half of a new development called King Square: the southern portion was made up of private residences mainly occupied by family retainers and, on the south-east corner, the nine-bay former Kingston Arms described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a large and handsome hotel, which contains a news-room, supported by subscription.’
In 1771 in the premises of the Society of Artists in Ireland, Dublin (a building now being restored by the Irish Georgian Society) architect Francis Sandys exhibited an ‘elevation of a building proposed for an almshouse intended to be built at Mitchelstown…for reduced gentlemen and gentlewomen.’ However it appears that the eventual design chosen was by the Cork-born John Morrison (father and grandfather of the better-known Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison) and in turn his work may have been modified by another Dublin architect, Oliver Grace. We shall probably never know for certain.

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A stone plaque on one of the walls of King Square carries the date August 1780 indicating work on the scheme was by then well-advanced if not completed. As originally conceived Kingston College consisted of twenty-four houses, some larger than others and the majority running along the extended north side of the square. However, in the late 19th century internal changes were made to increase the amount of accommodation so that there are now 31 units. Evidence of this modification can be seen outside by the blocking of some doors and windows and opening of others. While this interrupts the harmony of the original design, it does not fundamentally spoil the character of the whole but rather adds to the impression of age and changing circumstances.
Kingston College is centred on a chapel which stands in the middle of the north range, a pedimented building with a projecting limestone entrance tower. The houses to west and east are all two storey over basement, the latter having natural light thanks to a low wall, sometimes topped by iron railings, several feet from the building access to which is often gained by a couple of steps and a small bridge. On either side of the chapel were the largest residences, of five bays with a cut limestone Gibbsian doorcase: that on the east has since been subdivided so that the original door is now a window. Most of the smaller properties have brick surrounds on their openings, but the middle of the north-west and north-east ranges are broken by the intervention of two-storey pedimented stone breakfronts with piers topped by corbels and a Diocletian window below the pediment: the lower section is then split to provide admission to two houses. There are also a number of round topped blind brick niches, either immediately to the side of one door or between a pair of them. In both cases, above is a brick windowcase filled in with rubble, which seems to be part of the original design.

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Established under the terms of the original benefactor’s will, the Kingston Charity Trust continues to own and manage the college, the only significant change being that residency is now open to people of all ages and faiths, traditionally referred to as ‘Collegians.’ There is still a Church of Ireland chaplain and a warden appointed by the trustees. To quote from the local diocese website, ‘The foundation was intended originally for former tenants of Lord Kingston’s estate, which is long since gone. The houses are now occupied mostly by retired people from all walks of life and from all parts of Ireland and beyond. The houses are not identical, but each is a separate, self-contained unit, with garden and out-offices, and the residents live completely independently, while still enjoying the benefits of being part of a community. As well as a chapel, there is a community room, which is used from time to time for various functions.’
Seemingly in recent years many of the properties have been renovated and modernised but it does seem a pity that more effort has not been made to harmonise such work: while there is no harm in a degree of diversity (just look at the various plant pots outside many of the front doors) a certain coherence in the design of doors and windows would benefit the entire site. Some landscaping of the communal green and the removal of so many intrusive telegraph poles and wires (not least in front of the chapel – would also improve the college’s appearance immensely. But these are relatively minor matters. Not many examples of 18th century philanthropic housing survive in Ireland: that in Mitchelstown is thriving. God bless the Kings.

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Built for the Bride

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One of a pair of highly distinctive lodges with polygonal towers that flank the gates to Bridestown, County Cork. According to Mark Bence-Jones, these and the range of forecourt buildings behind were built in the middle of the 18th century by a local merchant Jonathan Morgan, to please his French bride who he had met while on business in Bordeaux. As he notes, ‘The towers at Bridestown are certainly rather French in flavour; they have round-headed windows and niches below elliptical oeils-de-boeuf, now blocked up.’ Originally both had pyramidal roofs although one of these is now gone, and the original house which stood at the back of the courtyard was replaced by another in the 1820s.

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Going, Going, Gone

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Above is a photograph of the library at Bantry House, County Cork taken in the early 1970s for Irish Houses and Castles by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan. With its marble columns and pilasters topped by gilded Corinthian capitals below a compartmented ceiling, the room is part of the enlargement of the building undertaken by the second Earl of Bantry in the 1840s. Below is a photograph taken from much the same point and showing the room today: as is widely known, many of its remaining contents, along with those elsewhere in the house, are due to be sold this autumn.
I shall be speaking of Bantry House next Tuesday, August 26th when, as part of Heritage Week, I am giving a talk on Some Irish Houses and Demesnes at the Market House, Monaghan at 8pm, admission is free. For more information, see: http://www.heritageweek.ie/whats-on/event-details?EventID=296

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The Big House Triumphant

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The so-called Triumphal Arch into the grounds of Doneraile Court, County Cork. Believed to date from c.1830 and sometimes attributed to George Pain, it was erected during the lifetime of Hayes St Leger, third Viscount Doneraile whose family had occupied the estate since 1629 when Sir William St. Leger, Lord President of Munster acquired the lands for £1,800. The gateway was erected soon after a new road was made around the edge of the parkland to replace that which had previously run directly in front of the house. The Ionic capitals on the pillars to either side of the main arch contrast with the Doric order used for the pedimented lodge immediately inside the gates, although both presumably date from the same time. The two have recently been restored by the Office of Public Works.

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Intelligent Recycling

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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…

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Amongst the Elect

Shannon portrait

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

A Dash of Panache

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‘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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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