Literary Links

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On Main Street, Doneraile, County Cork a three-storey, three bay house dating from c.1810. Typical of the domestic buildings in this handsome town, for a long time it served as parochial house for the Roman Catholic priest. The property’s most famous residence was the Reverend Patrick Sheehan who occupied the premises from the time of his appointment to the parish in 1895 until his death in 1913. It was here that he wrote the novels such as My New Curate and Glenanaar, once found in many Irish homes but now more likely to be discovered in second-hand bookshops.

Weathering the Storms

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The castle from which Castlemartyr takes its name was likely built in the middle of the 15th century when the lands in this part of the country passed into the control of the FitzGeralds of Imokilly. For more than 100 years from 1580 it was subject to successive sieges and assaults; in 1581, for example, Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormond captured the building and hanged the ancient mother of John Fitzedmund FitzGerald from its walls. Castlemartyr became part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s estate which he then sold to Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork in 1602. It is likely that the Boyles built the two-storey manor with tall gable-ended chimney stacks that runs behind the older castle. But the property had to withstand attack again during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s and once more in 1690, after which it was finally abandoned to become a picturesque ruin while a new residence went up on a site to the immediate west.

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An Assiduous Collector

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Although now a dormitory town, for centuries Carrigaline, County Cork was a small, single street village where the main employment came from local corn and flax mills. These were operated by successive generations of the Roberts family, of which the original member, the Rev. Thomas Roberts, moved from England to Ireland in the 1630s. Until 1927 his successors lived at Kilmony Abbey near Carrigaline but in 1784 William Roberts acquired a house called Mount Rivers which had been built some twenty years before by a wealthy Cork merchant James Morrison. The building is of unusual design since its facade originally had a recessed centre between two projections with curved corners. A scale model in the main bedroom shows what the building now looks like because in the 1830s the central space was filled in, a portico created and a third storey added to the house. However as a souveenir of its original and unique appearance the outer corners of Mount Rivers still retain their rounded windows and the ground floor porch is a convex-sided recess.

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Mount Rivers never had much land attached and its owners were always businessmen, some more successful than others. Following the closure of the Carrigaline mills in 1928 the house’s then-owner Hodder Roberts converted some of his old industrial buildings into a pottery, having noted that bricks were already being produced not far away. He took a sample of Carrigaline clay to the English potteries at Stoke-on-Trent to see whether it would be possible to interest any of the established companies there in his project. Receiving no offers of support Roberts was about to leave when, through a local landlady, he met the young pottery designer Louis Keeling. The latter took the Irish clay and used it to make a teapot; today this item stands in the drawingroom at Mount Rivers. Initially employing just Louis Keeling and six workers, the Carrigaline Potteries proved to be an outstanding success and grew to have a 250-strong workforce. Demand for its wares meant that by the end of the 1930s it became necessary to import clay from the south of England, with boats travelling up the river Owenabue and docking at Carrigaline. While much of the output was strictly functional, it was also distinguished by the beautiful colour of the glazes, in particular a lustrous turquoise that remains highly distinctive.

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Although the Carrigaline pottery business continued through various travails into the new millennium, after Hodder Roberts’ death in 1952 his family had little further involvement in the pottery. As for Mount Rivers, it passed to the present owner – the sixth generation of Roberts to live there – when his elder brother showed no interest in taking on the responsibility. By then the house had plenty of problems, since it had not been occupied by the family since the early 1950s but instead let to a succession of tenants: at one stage there were 15 of them were living on the groundfloor alone. When these all moved out in 1974 the local authority condemned Mount Rivers as being unfit for human habitation. Fortunately this did not deter the present owner, and nor did the amount of restoration work that lay ahead of him. One of the tenants, for example, drilled holes in the hall ceiling to release rainwater that had come into the house through gaps in the roof; as a result of the constant damp, the ceiling on the floor above had partially collapsed.

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After taking on the role of Mount Rivers’ saviour, the present owner also started to salvage what he could of other buildings once belonging to members of his extended family. The weather slating on the exterior of Mount Rivers, for example, was rescued from a now-demolished house called Hoddersfield. Similarly the limestone step outside the backdoor came from the front door of another now-lost property, Britfieldstown which stood at a place directly associated with the family, Roberts Cove. Inside Mount Rivers spilling out of drawers and cabinets, and covering the top of every possible surface are innumerable items with some Roberts connection, the majority carefully tagged to advise on their origins. In truth, the present owner is an inveterate and assiduous collector, and objects linked to his family’s history provide only one of several outlets for his passion. A room on the top floor of Mount Rivers is filled with boxes containing tens of thousands of postmarks, mostly Irish. Then there is a collection of old signatures and anything to do with th Irish country house: letters, bookplates, sheets of note paper. Books fill every shelf and continue to be heaped on whatever surface might still have space; failing that, they are stacked on the stairs. Not everyone could live in this fashion but it clearly suits Mount Rivers’ current occupants. It also makes their house that rare and absorbing phenomenon: a living museum.

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An August Establishment

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At some date between 1202 and 1216 Alexander FitzHugh, Anglo-Norman Lord of Castletownroche, County Cork settled a group of Augustinian Canons Regular on the western bank of the Blackwater: the Augustinians had already been popular with reformers of the Irish church over the previous decades. To ensure the occupants of Bridgetown Priory would flourish FitzHugh provided them with thirteen carucates of woodland, pasture and arable land. A carucate was a mediaeval unit of land approximating the amount of ground a plough team of eight oxen could till in an annual season and is reckoned to have been the equivalent of 100-120 acres: therefore FitzHugh’s gift covered some 1,300-1,500 acres. In addition he gave the canons a third of the revenue from his mills and fisheries, and all income from tolls collected on the bridge that once crossed the river here. The first canons came from two existing Augustinian houses, those at Newtown Trim, County Meath and at the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr in Dublin, both of which were wealthy establishments. Although Bridgetown Priory was never as affluent, in the Papal Taxation rolls for 1306 the house was reckoned to have the substantial value of £40.

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By this time responsibility for the place had passed into the hands of the Roche family from which nearby Castletownroche derives its name. The Roches were descendants of Richard FitzGodebert who had come to Ireland with Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow in 1170. Like him, the FitzGodeberts had a castle in Pembrokeshire, in their case built on an outcrop of stone. As a result they became known as FitzGodebert de la Roch, a name eventually abbreviated to Roche. An early 15th century altar tomb in the chancel of Bridgetown Priory testifies to the authority of the Roches:  carved on its west side is an upside-down shield featuring a fish, one of the Roche devices (the inverted shield indicates its bearer is now dead). Despite the support of this powerful family and although Bridgetown Priory may have housed as many as three hundred persons at its height, decline had already set in during the 14th century. This seems to have had less to do with internal problems and more with the state of the country. Widespread warfare and economic stagnation left its mark on this, as well as many other religious houses, and Bridgetown Priory’s fortunes never recovered. When closed in 1541 its buildings, including a ‘church with belfry, domitory, hall, buttery, kitchen, cloister, and cellar,’ were already largely in ruins and the site valued at just £13. The last Prior was pensioned off and Bridgetown granted to an English solder, Robert Browne.

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A 17th century tower built into the western end of the church at Bridgetown Priory indicates the site was still occupied in the post-Reformation period. But given its semi-ruinous condition then, the property soon became derelict thereafter although still used for local burials as various tombstones testify. When Cork antiquarian John Windele visited Bridgetown in the 1830s he noted the remains were ‘low, covered with ivy and afford no picture.’ On the other hand, they were not entirely without occupants: for the two previous years an elderly woman and her cats had been living in a tomb vault and supplied with food by kind local people. In 1905 local parish priest the Rev Michael Higgins commented the existing remains would likely fall to pieces in a short time and that Bridgetown Priory ‘will be but a memory.’ Just over a decade later the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society remarked ‘Alas! That it must be recorded, 20th century vandalism, aided by the corroding tooth of Time, has rendered the ruins of the Priory an object of pity to the antiquary.’ Fortunately those ruins survived and in the 1970s were cleared of vegetation by the local authority so that they might continue to be enjoyed. Not easily found, Bridgetown Priory receives few visitors but that makes it even more alluring to those who do find their way there and are able to experience the place alone.

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Dieu et Mon Droit

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Hanging high on the north wall and immediately below the pitch-pine roof of the nave in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cloyne, County Cork are the coat of arms of George I. According to a plaque nearby, in 1722 the cathedral chapter commissioned this work from a Mr Maguire. It was specifically requested the work be undertaken for a sum not exceeding £10.

His Snug Little Farm

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The popular image of the Irish farm house has long been fixed in the global mind. Invariably consisting of just one storey, it has white-washed walls and a thatched roof, as well as an equally simple, mud-floored interior in which a turf fire is forever smoking. Few such houses exist anymore and no wonder: they were almost invariably dank, miserable places that bred ill-health and unhappiness. Fortunately some of the country’s larger, better-constructed farm houses have survived, although the majority of them are today abandoned and in a poor state of repair. On the other hand, in recent years some of these dwellings have been restored by those with enough imagination to recognise their inherent charm and potential.
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The Palladian house first introduced to Ireland in the early 18th century quickly became popular throughout the country and while intended for homes of the wealthy, the design was modified to suit the domestic requirements of all levels of society: even the humblest Irish farmhouse might contain echoes of its grander neighbours. In particular, the formal placement of outbuildings such as barns, sheds and byres around the main residence was borrowed from the Palladian model. These additional secondary structures were located to either side of a forecourt before the front door or else in a similar fashion to the rear. The second layout is seen at the farmhouse shown here. Located in County Cork, it is an archetype of the genre in its functionality and absence of superfluous decoration. It is impossible to date the building, since stylistically it could have been erected at any point between the late 18th and mid-20th centuries.

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From the start, farmhouses of this kind conformed to certain norms in all having the same thick walls made from rubble stone covered in render as well as small, almost square, windows and single pitch slated roofs. Inside they were equally understated with a narrow entrance hall leading to the best room, or parlour on the left (a room rarely used except on special occasions such as a visit from the parish priest) while to the right stood the family room and kitchen. A staircase would lead to several bedrooms on the first floor. The starkness of design led to the houses falling from favour in recent decades as Ireland grew more affluent and farming families sought a greater degree of comfort. Throughout the country large numbers of old properties were simply abandoned in favour of new bungalows and the majority of them fell into complete ruin. It takes a particular eye to recognize the merits of this housing type and fortunately the owner of the house in question possesses just such an eye.

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When the present owner first saw his home 18 years ago it had been unoccupied for more than two decades and, as he says, ‘the place was in rag order.’ Cattle had been permitted access to the ground floor which as a result had turned into a mess of churned mud. Neither plumbing nor electrical wiring had ever been installed and most of the windows were missing. Thankfully the slate roof had somehow survived but even so the restoration programme took some 12 months, with the owner acting as his own architect. Ten years ago he embarked on further building work to add a large kitchen at the back of the house, constructing it on the footprint of an old outbuilding. Just as much attention has been paid to the building’s surroundings: the owner has created a vegetable garden and planted an orchard containing forty different trees: apple, pear, quince, medlar and damson. Other sections of the garden are given over to pot with herbs and flowering plants.

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At all stages, while comforts such as bathrooms were added, the owner wisely never attempted to disguise his home’s relatively humble origins. So, for example, the original tongue-and-groove paneled ceilings have been retained. Likewise in the kitchen/dining areas the floor is covered in nothing grander than untreated concrete tiles, albeit they enjoy the benefit of underfloor heating; elsewhere plain seagrass matting has been used. On the first floor, the old doors and their surrounds were kept intact since these had been carefully ‘grained’ by a previous occupant to give the impression that they were made from expensive dark wood rather than cheap pine. And former residents would have appreciated some of the present furniture, such as the stained kitchen table surrounded by dark green chairs; timber was often painted in Irish farmhouses both to disguise the fact that different woods had been used in the same piece and to provide some very necessary colour. That was certainly the case with the large painted dresser dominating the kitchen. Once a staple in every Irish farmhouse, thousands of these pieces were thrown out of homes in the closing decades of the last century and whatever survives is now highly collectible. This example, with its paneled doors and carved board, is especially fine and acts as an ideal display unit for some of the owner’s substantial collection of John ffrench pottery. Seemingly destined to become a ruin like so many of its ilk, instead this old Irish farmhouse has been returned to vibrant life.

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Exuberance

 

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Paolo Lafranchini (1695-1776) and his younger brothers Filippo (1702-79) and Pietro-Natale (1705-88) were three of fifteen children born to Carlo and Isabella Lafranchini in the parish of Bironico which lies within the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino. This part of the world produced a number of distinguished stuccodores including Giovanni Bagutti, and Giovanni Batista Artaria and his son Giuseppe. The two Artarias were employed to decorate the interior of the cathedral in the German city-state of Fulda. In 1720 Paolo Lafranchini is recorded as working for Fulda’s Prince-Bishop at his castle of Johannisberg, after which he is believed to have moved to England whence the Artarias had also gone. Giovanni Bagutti likewise relocated during this period and worked in several English houses including Castle Howard.

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In A Book of Architecture (published 1728) James Gibbs made reference to Artaria and Bagutti but not to the Lafranchini brothers who had yet to arrive in England: evidently Filippo and Pietro-Natale followed the example of their elder brother and emigrated in pursuit of work. Carlo Palumbo-Fossati who investigated the careers of the siblings in 1982 proposes that while in England, ‘they almost certainly met James Gibbs, Daniel Garrett and, possibly Lord Burlington.’ Who can say for certain? It has been suggested that around 1730 a Lafrancini worked with Artaria and Bagutti at Moor Park, Hertfordshire, a Palladian house designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni. More specifically in the archives of Drummond’s Bank, London are listed payments from James Gibbs’ accounts to ‘la Franchino’ in December 1731 (for ten guineas) and to ‘Mr Lafranchini’ in August 1736 (for £95). And the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford contains a design for an unknown house of two ceilings by Gibbs with an agreement in Italian on the verso for their execution signed Paolo Lafranchini.

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By 1739 Paolo Lafranchini was in Ireland and working at Carton, County Kildare alongside his brother Filippo; according to an article written by Lord Walter FitzGerald, the pair was paid £501 that year, presumably for the decoration of the saloon at Carton. The youngest of the trio, Pietro-Natale does not seem ever to have worked in this country but to have remained in England where among other properties he was employed at Wallington Hall, Northumberland, Hylton Castle, County Durham (both redesigned by the aforementioned Daniel Garrett) and Northumberland House, London. Meanwhile in Ireland, after finishing in Carton Paolo and Filippo moved on to 85 St Stephen’s Green (see The Most Beautiful Room in Ireland?, November 17th 2014) and possibly Tyrone House (now the Department of Education), Marlborough Street, as well as at Russborough, County Wicklow, Curraghmore, County Waterford and two houses in County Cork, Riverstown and Castle Saffron. By the mid-1750s Paolo Lafranchini was back in the family’s native town of Bironico and appears to have remained there until his death over twenty years later.

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Unlike his elder brother Filippo Lafranchini, although he returned to Bironico in 1757, spent the greater part of his later years in Ireland. Here as surviving documents attest he worked at Castletown, County Kildare. In May 1759 the house’s chatelaine Lady Louisa Conolly wrote to her sister, the future Duchess of Leinster, ‘Mr Conolly and I are excessively diverted at Franchini’s impertinence and if he charges anything of that sort to Mr Conolly there is a fine scold in store for his honour.’ Whatever might have been the difference of opinion between the Conollys and their stuccodore – who would be responsible for the decoration of the house’s staircase hall – it passed and he appears to have remained close to the family for the remainder of his life, possibly even dying at Castletown in 1779. Lady Louisa’s accounts note in October 1765 ‘Paid John Earsum his bill for Claret on Frankinys acct. when I was absent. 14s.’ There are also a couple of references to Filippo Lafranchini having a room at Castletown. Meanwhile Mr Conolly had paid the craftsman for his work, a total of £96, thirteen shillings and nine pence at the end of 1765 and the balance owed of £298, thirteen shillings and three pence the following year.

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In the mid-1760s, around the time he was being paid for his work at Castletown, Filippo Lafranchini is believed to have undertaken another commission: the decoration of Kilshannig, County Cork. Built to the designs of the Italian-born engineer and architect Davis Ducart for a rich banker, Abraham Devonsher, Kilshannig is a Palladian house with outstanding interiors. While the Lafranchini’s earlier work was inclined to baroque formalism, here the prevailing spirit is exuberantly rococo. The entrance hall has a coved and sectioned ceiling filled with an abundance of swags and foliage and baskets of fruit. It provides access to the central reception room, a saloon that is half as high again as the entrance hall, and has a ceiling centred on three exquisitely worked figures of Bacchus, Ariadne and Pan. Around them double medallions contain the four elements, as well as Justice and Minerva. To the left lies the dining room the ceiling of which like that in the entrance hall is predominantly given over to foliage and fruit but also contains clusters of dead game and masks. At the other end of the saloon, the library has a ceiling with a central frame containing the figures of Apollo and Diana, as well as corner sections featuring the Four Seasons and immediately above the cornice, framed female heads in profile believed to represent membes of the Devonsher family. Both the passage outside and the circular Portland stone staircase to which it provides access, also contain further stucco decoration. Kilshannig represents the apogee of the Lafranchinis’ work in Ireland and is a testament to this expertise of this exceptional family who chose to spend time in Ireland and left behind such an outstanding legacy of stucco work.

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More about Kilshannig at a later date.