A Life’s Work in Ireland

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In December 1880 William Bence Jones published The Life’s Work in Ireland of a Landlord Who Tried to Do His Duty. Although intended as an apologia, the book only brought further notoriety to a man already widely reviled here: the Cork Examiner described him as ‘the most thoroughly disliked man in the county.’ How did this come about? Bence Jones had inherited an estate in County Cork originally bought by his grandfather William Jones, son of an Archdeacon of Llandaff, who came to Ireland after marrying Elinor Winthrop whose father had been Mayor of Cork in 1744. Both William Jones and Bence Jones’ father, another William, were absentee landlords, never even visiting their property, but in 1838 when still in his mid-twenties he had settled on the estate after discovering his agent had been embezzling the family. Bence Jones devoted himself to improving the 4,000 acres in his possession, directly farming a quarter of the land while the rest was let to tenants. However, he expected higher rents to be paid as a result of his improvements and this is what led to trouble. Following a number of bad summers and poor harvests in the late 1870s, his tenants sought to have their rents reduced. Bence Jones refused the request and the Irish National Land League, founded in October 1879 with Charles Stewart Parnell as its President, became involved in the dispute. A grave was dug outside the front door of the Bence Jones house, he was sent threatening letters, then boycotted and the workers on his land forced to leave. His elder son and unmarried daughter, assisted by the butler and a gardener, took over responsibility for feeding and milking the estate’s herd of cattle while soldiers from the local barracks guarded the property. It was under these circumstances that Bence Jones wrote his book, hoping thereby to elicit sympathy for his circumstances. However within Ireland the opposite was achieved, not least thanks to his disparaging comments on the indigenous population. Eventually a new work force came over from Britain and Bence Jones with his family moved to London from whence he engaged in a war of words with the County Cork Roman Catholic priest and Land League supporter, Fr John O’Leary. Bence Jones died in 1882, and his fight with the Land League might have been the only way the family was remembered in Ireland had it not been for the literary career of his great-grandson, Mark Bence-Jones.

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The estate owned by William Bence Jones was called Lisselane and here he built a house in 1851-53 to the designs of English architect Lewis Vulliamy. Currently on the market with 315 acres for €9 million, Lisselane is usually described as being in the ‘simplified’ French chateau style, no doubt thanks to its Mansard roof and a corner turret. Sited on rising ground above the Arigadeen river, the house was extended by William Bence Jones’ son Reginald who bought a large glass conservatory made for the Cork Exhibition of 1902 and five years later knocked several rooms together to create a large library-hall lined from floor to ceiling with oak bookcases. Reginald had sold most of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, using the money not only to improve his house but also to buy a smart Mercedes limousine with silver flower vases in the passenger compartment. Meanwhile his wife Ethel Bence Jones had the funds to improve the gardens at Lisselane: an existing terrace above the river was extended, the river itself widened, a rose garden created along with a bog garden, rock garden and American garden. Yet opportunity to enjoy these new features was limited: come the outbreak of the First World War, the house was closed up and then in the aftermath of the Troubles it was sold by the family. Reginald and Ethel Bence Jones’ younger son, Colonel Philip Bence-Jones, was an engineer who worked on the Blue Nile dam and had helped to rebuild the old Waterloo Bridge in London. The story is told that as a young soldier in the First World War he once told Winston Churchill he had got the wrong hat. ‘When Churchill looked doubtful, Bence-Jones threw the hat in the air and shot two holes clean through it with his revolver. “You’re right,” agreed the astounded Churchill.’ In 1925 Philip Bence-Jones married May Thomas, a Roman Catholic from Alexandria and converted to her faith; five years later their only child, Mark Bence-Jones was born.

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In 1934 Philip Bence-Jones was appointed head of the engineering school at Lahore and the family moved to India. On their return to Europe in 1945 they returned to the country of his birth and bought Annemount on the north shores of Cork Harbour. Four years later the house was destroyed by fire and so the family moved again, this time to Glenville Park. The land on which the house stands originally belonged to the Nagles whose main residence was Carrigacunna Castle overlooking the Blackwater river. Sir Richard Nagle was James II’s Attorney-General in Ireland and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. In the aftermath of the Williamite Wars, this portion of the Nagle property passed to the Coppingers, an old Cork mercantile family: in 1319 Stephen Coppinger was Mayor of the city, and several of his descendants held this position as well as becoming Bailiffs and Sheriffs of Cork. The Coppingers remained Roman Catholic and could therefore only afford to build a relatively modest residence at Glenville, of two storeys and five bays fronted by a semi-circular courtyard with a gate at either end. At some point in the late 1770s/early 1780s they sold the place to Dr Edward Hudson, a successful dentist who otherwise lived at the Hermitage, County Dublin, a house renamed St Enda’s in 1910 when Patrick Pearse moved his school there.
At Glenville, Dr Hudson constructed a new house not far from the old one and at right angles to it, a three-storey, three-bay property with two-storey single bay wings on either side. This was subsequently inherited by his eldest son, the Rev. Edward Hudson an Anglican clergyman who became Dean of Armagh. On his death without children, Glenville passed to his brother William Elliott Hudson, a barrister renowned for collecting ancient Irish literature and music: he was also a composer whose work includes The Memory of the Dead (better known as ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98). Following his death in 1853 Glenville passed to a nephew, Edward Kinahan who in 1887 was created a baronet and became Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan. That same year he enlarged and remodelled Glenville to the designs of Dublin architect Sandham Symes. A new two-storey front was built onto the old house, thereby making it twice as deep as had previously been the case. The building was also considerably extended in length, the whole faced in grey cement. This is the house bought in 1949 by Colonel Bence-Jones from Sir Edward Hudson-Kinahan’s grandson.

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In April 1963 the late Mark Bence-Jones, doyen of Irish country houses and their owners, published an article in the Irish Times about the property his parents had bought fourteen years earlier. The piece is affectionate in tone, although he acknowledges that when there is rain, ‘the grey stucco of Glenville looks dark, almost forbidding. But the morning sun makes the long low facade and the gate piers in front of it turn almost pink; the lines of windows shimmer.’ The cement render can indeed the make the east-facing front of the building look harsh, but that impression disappears once inside the building which rambles in an agreeably disordered fashion. The entrance hall is twice its original size, the former entrance now marked by a large arch halfway down its length. To left and right, tall slender doorframes with segmental pediments lead to drawing room and dining room respectively, the latter’s walls still retaining their 19th century wallpaper in a now-faded yellow and grey and featuring an older inlaid marble chimney piece which may have survived the Victorian make-over. Beyond the drawing room is a smaller sitting room and behind this a pair of book rooms (not surprisingly the house is overflowing with books). In the dining room, its walls painted a Pompeian red by the Bence-Joneses, hang a variety of family pictures. Behind it lies the old inner hall with an immense fire place. From here a passage runs down to a single-storey bow-fronted pavilion, presumably built for use as a billiards room.
Back in the main block, to the rear of the entrance hall rises the staircase with its original arched window on the return and leading to a substantial first floor landing off which run sequences of bedrooms along north and south corridors. At the end of the north a short flight of steps descend into a chapel created from three small rooms by Colonel and Mrs Bence-Jones; it contains stained glass windows by Stanley Tomlin and Patrick Pollen, and a letter dated December 1949 from the then-Bishop of Cork granting permission for services to be held here whenever a priest stays in the house. Glenville Park was Mark Bence-Jones’ home until his death in April 2010 and remains a testament to his own life’s work in Ireland.

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Quays to the City

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Camden Quay in Cork derives its name from John Pratt, second Earl Camden who, following his appointment as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1795, visited the city in August of that year. Around 1885 a large commercial premises was erected on the corner of the quay and Pine Street. This takes the form of a Ruskinian-Venetian palazzo with a double-height arcade incorporating the first floor and then a continuous arcade on the second. Four arched windows feature elaborate cast-iron balconies with an Hibernian note introduced by the inclusion of a shamrock motif. After serving diverse purposes, for the past five years the building has served as an independent arts centre. Given its prominent location overlooking the Lee, it is a pity the façade has not been better maintained.

Looking to the Future

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The garden pavilion at Glenville Park, County Cork. The core of the present house dates from the last quarter of the 18th century but 100 years later substantial additions were made to both front and rear, the pavilion, which holds a single large room, concluding the latter part of the building. After belonging to the Hudson, later Hudson-Kinahan, family Glenville was bought in 1949 by Colonel Philip Bence-Jones and later inherited by his son, Mark Bence-Jones who died four years ago. Bence-Jones was the doyen of Irish country house enthusiasts and his guide to these properties, first published by Burke’s in 1978, remains an invaluable resource.
Next Tuesday, October 14th at 8pm I shall be speaking on The Future of the Irish Country House in the 21st Century at 2 Pery Square, Limerick. This is the annual Knight of Glin Memorial Lecture hosted by the Limerick Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society and further information on the event can be found by contacting limerickgeorgiansociety@gmail.com

When it’s Gone, It’s Gone

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‘The interior of the house is quite a curiosity. The walls, staircase, and bedrooms, are all covered with tapestry – even the ceilings of the staircases and passages. Some of it is very good, especially that in the drawing room, which once adorned the palace of the Tuileries.
The rooms abound with objects of virtù, and the ceilings of some are covered with paintings which formed the plafond of a palace at Venice. Most of the doors are covered with that stamped and gilded leather which was formerly so extensively used to decorate the palaces of Spain. The dining room has a very rich buffet, which reaches nearly to the ceiling. Some of the ornaments are in brass, and belonged to a Spanish convent. They consist of five or six large dishes, with embossed figures very finely executed. A curious old bust of Saint Patrick is in the centre.
Some beautiful stained glass, also from a Spanish convent, is placed in the windows of this room, the walls of which are covered in pictures instead of tapestry. Some of these pictures are very good, and have frames of richly carved oak. I remarked a curious vase, which is covered with coins of Henry III. They were found in Lord Berehaven’s grounds, and placed, I believe, by himself in this very fanciful and very ornamental manner. In the drawing-room, amongst many other beautiful and interesting objects, there is a curious old book-stand, of an octagon shape, forming a table at the top, which is embellished with old miniatures set into the carving.
The collection was made by Lord Berehaven during his travels. For fourteen years he usually made an annual tour abroad, having the decoration of his house constantly in view. How delightful it would be for Ireland if many more of its young Peers followed Lord Berehaven’s example, and brought back with them from the foreign lands which they visited choice works of art and taste to enrich their own!’
From Rambles In The South Of Ireland During The Year 1838 by Lady Chatterton.

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In the late 17th century Captain Richard White, member of a Limerick mercantile and mayoral family, settled on Whiddy, the largest island in Bantry Bay, County Cork. He and his descendants seem to have prospered, it is believed through their involvement in a variety of activities including pilchard fishing, iron smelting and, most probably, smuggling. The National Library of Ireland archives contain an article of transfer of lands dated 1717 showing that even at this date the Whites were acquiring property on the mainland at Bantry. Here 1720 a house called Blackrock was built by the Hutchinson family which for some time had been leasing the property from the Earls of Anglesey. This building, of five bays and three storeys, forms the core of what is now known as Bantry House: in the early 1760s it passed into the ownership of the second Richard White, born on Whiddy in 1701, and thus the family moved from their island residence, White noting in his account book, ‘…this farm would set for upwards of £56, but I think no lease ought to be made thereof least any of my family should live at Blackrock, in which Case that farm would be a most convenient Domean.’
In 1734 the second Richard, who was called to the Irish Bar where he made a considerable fortune, had married Martha Davis. Her father, the Very Rev Rowland Davis was Dean of Cork and Ross. Their son, Simon White, born in 1739, likewise studied law, was called to the English Bar but did not practice. Instead he, like his own heir, seems to have concentrated on increasing the size of its estate so that before the end of the century the Whites were the greatest landowners in this part of the country. In 1766 Simon White married Frances Jane Hedges Eyre of Macroom Castle, and the following year their first son – another Richard – was born.

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The third Richard White would today most likely only be remembered for having taken part in a schoolboy rebellion against the headmaster while at Harrow, had he not unexpectedly become involved in an important incident in Irish history. On achieving his majority, he settled at Bantry and seems to have concentrated on consolidating and improving his inheritance.
However in December 1796 a fleet of 43 ships carrying in the region of 16,000 French soldiers under the command of General Hoche and accompanied by the United Irishman Wolfe Tone set sail from Brest with the intention of invading this country. The fleet encountered terrible weather en route, was split up, and on Christmas Eve just sixteen vessels and 6,000 men reached Bere Island in Bantry Bay. Hearing of their arrival, Richard White sent out a small boat with ten men on board to ascertain the intentions of these unexpected visitors: they were not seen again. As a result, White sent word of the threatened invasion to British army headquarters in Cork city, organised the local Bantry Cavalry (the standard of which still hangs in Bantry House’s entrance hall) and placed his home at the disposal of the military. General Dalrymple duly arrived from Cork and everyone prepared for a tremendous fight. It never happened because the French vessels, ill-prepared for Irish winter weather, were driven out of the bay by another storm on December 28th. ‘We were,’ wrote a crushed Wolfe Tone in his journal, ‘close enough to toss a biscuit ashore.’
But all was not yet over. On New Year’s Eve another group of French ships, also part of the scattered armada, arrived in Bantry Bay and attacked two merchant vessels, one American, the other English. But they did little else and on January 4th when a local trader boldly went out to sell the sailors some produce, he advised there were some 20,000 members of the military on shore (in fact, there were only 400). He also warned that Lord Bridport, commander of the Channel Fleet, was close at hand, whereas news of the threatened invasion had only reached London on December 31st. The French, separated from their commander and suffering from acute sea sickness, lost whatever remained of their urge to invade Ireland and ignominiously headed back to their own country. In March 1797, ‘in consideration of the zeal and loyalty he displayed…during a period of great trouble,’ Richard White was raised to the peerage as Baron Bantry. In 1800 he was made a Viscount, and in 1816 Earl of Bantry.

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In 1799 Lord Bantry married Lady Margaret Hare, daughter of the first Earl of Listowel and with a fortune of £30,000. Their first child, a son christened Richard, was born in 1800 and, after his father became an earl, was known by the courtesy title Viscount Berehaven. In character he was very different from his parent, a man happy to live on his own estate in a remote part of Ireland. Indeed, long before his death in 1851 Lord Bantry had handed over responsibility for Bantry House to his heir and retired to a rustic lodge he had built at Glengarriff some eight miles away.
Both before and after his marriage in 1836 to Lady Mary O’Brien, a daughter of the second Marquis of Thomond, Lord Berehaven embarked on extensive travels throughout Europe and even as far as Russia. In the course of these journeys he acquired countless items of furniture, paintings, tapestries and objets d’art with which to embellish Bantry House. The building had been extended by his father with the addition of a two-storey, six bay front overlooking Bantry Bay; this contains a pair of bow-ended drawing rooms with bedrooms above. In the mid-1840s the house was further enlarged by Lord Berehaven who added a fourteen-bay block to the rear, comprising a six-bay centre of two storeys over basement flanked by four-storey bow-ended wings. The exterior was given coherence by a sequence of giant red-brick pilasters with Coade-stone Corinthian capitals, the intervening spaces filled by grey stucco and the whole topped by a parapet with stone balustrade. In addition, no doubt inspired by their travels, during the 1850s Lord and Lady Berehaven laid out the elaborate Italianate gardens, including the terraces focussed on the stone Hundred Steps set amidst azaleas and rhododendron behind the house and, at its base, a south-facing parterre surrounding a wisteria circle centred on a fountain. An immense winter garden (now gone) accessed via the library was also added.

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The description provided by Lady Chatterton above gives an idea of how Bantry House looked even before it was enlarged by Lord Berehaven, who finally became second Earl of Bantry on his father’s death, aged 84, in 1851. The rooms were crammed with outstanding examples of Spanish leather and brasswork, French tapestries, Italian paintings and much more besides. The second earl seems to have been an obsessive collector and an eccentric decorator, working on the more-is-more principle and inclined to heap one item on top of another so that the eventual effect must have been overwhelming, not least because of ceilings covered in either tapestries or canvases. The black and white photographs, probably dating from around a century ago or so, offer us a sense of the interiors as he had left them.
We have other, more recent, accounts of the house. For example, Geoffrey Shelswell-White (father of the late Egerton Shelswell-White) wrote in 1951 of Italy being ‘represented by stained glass, ceiling paintings from a Venetian Palace, and plaster-work executed by Italian craftsmen said to have been brought to Bantry expressly for the purpose. A Russian household shrine contains 15th and 16th Century icons. There is stained and painted glass from Switzerland and France, Germany and Flanders, and specimens of Cork, Waterford and ruby-coloured Bohemian glass. Among the French pieces, which are the most numerous, those having special interest are a pair of bookcases and a work table reputed to have been the property of Marie-Antoinette, and fireplaces which are thought to have come from the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Lord Bantry’s outstanding contribution, however, was unquestionably the collection of tapestries that adorn the walls of several of the rooms. With the exception of a set, 17th Century Dutch in origin, the panels are French having come from the workshops of Gobelins, Beauvais and Aubusson in the late 18th Century. One Gobelins panel is said to have hung in the Palace of Versailles and there is a particularly beautiful rose-coloured set of Aubusson which is said to have been made by order of Louis XV for Marie Antoinette on her marriage to the Dauphin of France. Two other panels formed part of the Royal Garde Meuble of the Tuileries.’

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The second Earl of Bantry had no children – in a sense the house was his offspring – and so when he died in 1868 the title and property passed to his brother William. The third earl had five daughters and one son, William Henry Hare Hedges-White who in 1884 became fourth Earl of Bantry. However he only survived until 1891 and, although married, had no children so that on his death the title became extinct. Bantry was inherited by Edward Egerton Leigh, son of the fourth earl’s eldest sister Elizabeth. He duly changed his surname to Leigh-White and when he died in 1920 Bantry passed to his elder daughter Clodagh whose husband Geoffrey Shelswell likewise took the White name to become Shelswell-White. The latter worked for the British Colonial Service but following the outbreak of the Second World War his wife and children moved into Bantry where the house was used by the Irish Army until the return of peace in 1945. A year later Clodagh Bantry House opened to the public, the first historic property in the Republic to take this step. In her book The Big House in Ireland, Valerie Pakenham remembers being taken around Bantry in the 1960s by Clodagh Shelswell-White ‘swathed splendidly in two fur coats, and observing with fascination a large Nescafe tin filled with pot-pourri among the family silver.’ On her death in 1978 responsibility for the house passed to Egerton Shelswell-White who in turn died in December 2012.
Over the preceding century or more, Bantry’s resources had been steadily depleted. It is clear that the second earl’s lavish expenditure on the house was not without consequences: in November 1853, over 33,000 acres of the Bantry estate were offered for sale in the Encumbered Estates Court, and a separate sale disposed of Bere Island. The following year more than 6,000 further acres were sold, again through the Encumbered Estates Court. Nevertheless in the 1870s the third earl still owned 69,500 acres of land in County Cork. Within decades most of this had gone: by March 1916 Edward Egerton Leigh-White had accepted an offer from the Congested Districts’ Board had been accepted for 61,589 tenanted acres of the estate. What remained was thereafter sold until a mere hundred acres remained. Meanwhile the vast house continued to demand large sums to be spent on its maintenance, money that could only come from the gradual sale of its contents.

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In the first half of the last century, the author Stephen Gwynn described the contents of Bantry House as being ‘the Wallace Collection of Ireland.’ It is, however, impossible to imagine the British government and people would have watched with disinterest while the Wallace Collection was piecemeal broken up and sold; there would have been state intervention and support to keep such a valuable resource within the country. Such is the difference between our two nations. Successive owners of Bantry House have been forced to dispose of their assets in order to keep a roof on the building they struggled to preserve. The greater part of a remarkable collection assembled by the second Earl of Bantry, which ought to have enhanced the Irish patrimony, has instead been allowed to be lost forever, most of it leaving the country. In the summer 2014 issue of the Irish Arts Review, for example, Peter Murray writes a scrupulous account of certain dealers’ scurrilous behaviour which resulted in a series of eight canvases painted in Venice by the Guardi brothers in the 18th century and installed on the ceiling of Bantry House’s dining room, being removed not just from the building but from the state, and sold for a fraction of their worth even at the time.
It may come as a surprise to readers to learn that there is legislation in place which requires licences to be sought for the export of art works from Ireland, this being the Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act dating as far back as 1945 and supplemented by the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997. In theory this legislation means the export of any item over a certain fairly low value has to be approved by government-appointed authorities; in practice one suspects – as in so many other areas of Irish life – the law is more honoured in the breach than the observance. The situation is not helped by lack of basic knowledge of what is and isn’t here. For example, any work that appears on the Register of Cultural Objects cannot leave the country without first being given a licence. In 2005 this register was extended to cover all cultural objects, but to-date the list continues to comprise items from certain state institutions like the National Gallery of Ireland. There is no inventory of cultural objects in this country. Thus we cannot be certain what remains here, what has been sold, what might go in the coming days or weeks or months. We don’t know what we have, which makes it impossible to know what we have to lose.
What we do know, on the other hand, is that on October 21st next the final portions of Ireland’s Wallace Collection – which can be seen in the pictures above – will be auctioned and most likely depart Ireland forever. So far the Irish state has shown itself unconcerned that this should be so, indifferent that another part of what ought to be our collective inheritance will disappear, untroubled that the region around Bantry – which is heavily dependent on tourism – will be deprived of a valuable attraction for visitors. In May 1976, the contents of Malahide Castle, Dublin were sold as a result of state stupidity; almost forty years and many more country house sales later, nothing seems to have changed. It is time to understand that our cultural heritage is not a renewable asset: when it’s gone, it’s gone.

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Dispossessed Kings

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Monday’s piece on Kingston College (see God Bless the Kings, September 1st) seems to have excited some interest, so readers might be interested to know what became of the King family’s adjacent residence, Mitchelstown Castle. This building, shown above, dated from the early 1820s when the third Earl of Kingston demolished the old house, replacing it with an immense castle designed by James and George Pain and costing in the region of £100,000. With 60 principal rooms, including a 93 feet-long gallery, drawing room, three libraries, morning room and vast dining room, Lord Kingston entertained lavishly until 1830 when, his candidate of choice having failed to win a local by-election, he lost his mind and had to be taken to England where he died towards the close of the decade. The fourth Earl followed his father’s example by being both a reckless spendthrift and then descending into madness. Ultimately the castle was occupied by the fifth Earl’s widow and her second husband, and by the latter alone after his wife’s death. In the summer of 1922 he was driven from the building by anti-Treaty forces who, on their departure, set the castle on fire: it has since been proposed that this only happened after the building’s valuable contents – including the King silver, family portraits and furniture – had been looted from the property. Although efforts were later made to seek compensation the sum offered by the Irish Free State was insufficient to allow Mitchelstown Castle be reconstructed. Instead its cut stone was sold to the Cistercian monks of Mount Melleray, County Waterford who used it to build a new abbey. As can be seen below, the site on which the castle stood is today occupied by the Dairygold Food Co-Operative Society’s factory, which like the earlier building dominates the horizon, albeit in a somewhat less attractive fashion.

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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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