A limestone chimney piece and plaster overmantel located in the basement of Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. As now constituted, the house is mostly the work of Richard Castle in the 18th century and John Lynn in the 19th. We do know however, that an earlier building existed on the site, dating from the late 1700s. The survival of this chimneypiece, and indeed entire room, at the bottom of the present main block suggest that it was originally one of the main reception rooms. Thus when Strokestown was initially aggrandised, probably in the 1730s, additional storeys were added and what had been the ground floor became a basement.
So much attention is paid to country houses, their owners, contents and staff that the importance of auxiliary buildings on an estate can be overlooked. One thinks, for example, of a television series like the ubiquitous Downton Abbey in which all scenes are filmed either within or in close proximity to the main house. Scarcely any notice is paid to the people and properties required to sustain this seemingly contained world. Yet a country house required a vast range of services, and premises in which these could take place, if it were to operate satisfactorily. In this way, the place would resemble a self-sustaining village – and require just as much working space.
Even if we insufficiently appreciate an estate’s outlying buildings today, this was certainly not the case in previous centuries, as can be testified by how well designed and constructed are the majority of farm and stable blocks. Indeed frequently when the main house has fallen down, supposedly secondary complexes remain standing. This is not surprising given their primary purpose was functional rather than decorative. Nevertheless, because these structures were substantial and potentially visible in the landscape, an architect was commonly commissioned for their design. And just as much care had to be taken over their layout as was the case with the main house: an ill-considered scheme could hinder the smooth running of an estate. Externally and internally all had to be fit for purpose. Of course, the problem now for many owners of such properties is finding what that purpose might be. What is to be done after the horses have, so to speak, bolted?
In 1762 James Fitzgerald, first Duke of Leinster wrote to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then living on the outskirts of London, offering him £1,000 to cross the Irish Sea and create a picturesque garden at Carton, County Kildare. The invitation was declined, Brown allegedly replying ‘he had not yet finished England.’ It should not be imagined, however, that as a result of his refusal to make the journey this country missed the opportunity for its parklands to undergo what a contemporary admirer called ‘Brownifications.’ The links between Brown’s English patrons and Ireland were plentiful: one of his earliest supporters, the sixth Earl of Coventry for whom he worked at Croome Court, Worcestershire from 1751 onwards, was married to the beautiful Maria Gunning from County Roscommon. Twenty years after he had started in the gardens of Stowe, Buckinghamshire in 1741 on an annual salary of £25, Brown’s gross income was £6,000 a year, allowing him to send his sons to Eton and later to underwrite the cost of one of them becoming an MP. And he was besieged by requests for his services, hence the inability ever to cross the Irish Sea. Landowners sought Brown not just for the redesign of their parks, but also of their buildings: beginning with Croome he was the architect of several country houses in England. But even more, in his capacity as a landscape designer he frequently produced drawings for the offices and yards which were needed to sustain an estate. And so, although he never saw it in person, one example of such an endeavour can be found in Ireland: the stables at Slane Castle, County Meath.
The lands on which Slane Castle stands have belonged to the same family since 1701 when they were bought by General Henry Conyngham, veteran in the service of William III at the Battle of the Boyne eleven years earlier. Soon afterwards General Conyngham built himself a residence, Conyngham Hall, on the foundations of an older castle formerly belonging to the Flemings. It was his grandson, another Henry Conyngham who, although largely absent from his Irish estates, around 1770 invited Capability Brown to produce a design both for the landscaping of the parkland at Slane, and also for a new stable block. In the collection of the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin a drawing survives of Brown’s proposal for the latter. It is not unlike the finished building, but more elaborate than what we see today. For estate buildings Brown often liked to use the Gothick mode which he would likely have first seen at Stowe where James Gibbs’ Gothic Temple was begun around the time he started to work there. So at Slane he proposed, for example, quatrefoil windows above the arched openings on either side of the entrance, a line of gothic corbels beneath the breakfront cornice, and finials on top of the two extreme and centre castellations, not unlike those he designed a decade earlier for the Bath House at Corsham Court, Wiltshire. Minus those additional decorative elements and built of local limestone, the eventual stable block facade is a simplified version of Brown’s proposal but still clearly reflects his engagement with Gothick. Meanwhile the yard behind, for which an unattributed design also exists in the IAA is scrupulously utilitarian both externally and internally, but at the same time highly attractive.
At some date after he had commissioned the stables at Slane, Henry Conyngham asked Brown to come up with a design for the house in order to make it likewise more gothic in spirit. Perhaps this happened around the time he was created Earl of Mount Charles in January 1781, but unfortunately he died two months later (as did Brown two years after) and while a number of drawings exist (also in the IAA’s collection), the proposal was not executed. Conyngham’s nephew and heir, Francis Burton, second Baron Conyngham, subsequently invited James Wyatt to design the exterior of Slane Castle as it is today, and in turn his son (the first Marquess Conyngham) employed Francis Johnston to design the main rooms. Thus the only completed example of Capability Brown’s architectural practice at Slane, and indeed in Ireland, is the stable block. Unfortunately, like many such complexes on estates throughout the country, over the past century this one became increasingly redundant and began falling into disrepair. The good news is that the stables at Slane are about to find a new use: housing a whiskey distillery and visitors’ centre. Restoration work has already begun and the premises are expected to open by 2016. As his nickname suggests, Capability Brown would be delighted to see that a range of buildings he designed to serve one practical purpose have found another, and will thus continue to help keep an estate functioning successfully.
A mural above the drawing room chimney piece of Mount Ievers Court, County Clare showing the house and its surrounding parkland. Mount Ievers was built between 1733 and 1737 for Henry Ievers to the design of John Rothery who seems to have been a local architect and who died before the building’s completion. Depicting the north facade of the house, the mural is usually considered to have been painted not long after work finished and to be an accurate record of Mount Ievers. Yet a quick look at images of the building then and now shows one crucial difference. In the picture, the entrance is shown as accessed via a horseshoe staircase, whereas today, as can be seen below, a double-flight of stone steps runs directly up to the door. So did the painting show what was intended but not executed, or what was constructed but subsequently altered?
(For more on Mount Ievers, see A Place of Magic, December 16th 2013).
It was the misfortune of Edward Martyn that his appearance and character so frequently encouraged ridicule. A large, lumbering man with a passion for beauty in all its manifestations, he devoted the greater part of his life and income attempting to convert others in Ireland to his aesthetic beliefs, with only limited success. In his former friend George Moore’s entertaining, irreverent but not always credible memoir Hail and Farewell, Martyn is described as being ‘not very sure-footed on new ground, and being a heavy man, his stumblings are loud. Moreover, he is obsessed by a certain part of his person which he speaks of as his soul; it demands Mass in the morning, Vespers in the afternoon, and compels him to believe in the efficacy of Sacraments and the Pope’s indulgences…’ W.B. Yeats, another friend-turned-opponent with whom Martyn and Lady Gregory had helped to found Ireland’s National Theatre, was still less charitable, not least on the subject of his old comrade’s religiosity which the poet thought ill-became a member of the ruling gentry. Yeats proposed, ‘The whole system of Irish Catholicism pulls down the able and well-born if it pulls up the peasant, as I think it does.’ From this, he wrote snobbishly of Martyn, ‘I used to think that the two traditions met and destroyed each other in his blood, creating the sterility of the mule…His father’s family was old and honoured; his mother but one generation from the peasant.’ On another occasion Yeats called Martyn, ‘An unhappy, childless, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away’. Both Moore and Yeats were baffled by the seeming contradictions in Martyn’s persona, not least his revelling in discomfort. Moore has left an account of Martyn’s accommodation in Dublin, a modest flat above a tobacconist shop on Leinster Street: ‘Two short flights of stairs, and we are in his room. It never changes – the same litter, from day to day, from year to year, the same old and broken mahogany furniture, the same musty wall-paper, dusty manuscripts lying about in heaps, and many dusty books … old prints that he tacks on the wall … a torn, dusty, ragged screen … between the folds of the screen … a small harmonium of about three octaves, and on it a score of Palestrina … on the table is a candlestick made out of white tin, designed probably by Edward himself, for it holds four candles…Is there another man in this world whose income is two thousand a year, and who sleeps in a bare bedroom, without dressing room, or bathroom, or servant in the house to brush his clothes and who has to go to the baker’s for his breakfast?’ Yet Martyn was wont to abandon himself to the same self-imposed hardship even when staying in his country house, Tulira Castle, County Galway.
To understand Tulira and how it now looks, one needs to know something of the history of the Martyn family. Supposedly descended from a Norman supporter of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow, they liked to claim one of their number, Oliver Martyn, had accompanied Richard I on the Third Crusade. In return for this support, the king presented him with armorial bearings. More significantly, the Martyns settled in Galway and became one of the city’s mercantile ‘tribes.’ Like so many of the others of their ilk, during the upheavals of the 16th century they moved into the countryside and acquired large amounts of land, not least that around an old de Burgo castle which was in their possession by 1598. Somehow they survived the turbulence of the following century and were confirmed in the possession of their estates in 1710 when they were specifically exempted by Queen Anne in an Act of Parliament passed ‘to prevent the growth of Popery.’ This was thanks to another Oliver Martyn who, it was noted, during the recent Williamite wars, ‘behaved himself with great moderation, and was remarkably kind to Protestants in distress, many of whom he supported in his family and by his charity and goodness, saved their lives.’ As a result the Martyns of Tulira were confirmed in ‘their very extensive estates and in all their rights as citizens, proprietors, and Catholics.’ At some time in the 18th century, another generation of Martyns built a new house beside the old de Burgo tower. Nothing of this Georgian structure, seemingly three-storeys over basement, has survived, although the stable yard immediately behind the castle dates from that period. In the 1870s when Edward Martyn was still a minor the old house was demolished and replaced with a new residence. The impetus for this transformation seems to have come from his formidable mother. Mrs Martyn was born Annie Josephine Smyth of Masonbrook, County Galway. When she married John Martyn in 1857, her self-made father presented his son-in-law with Annie Josephine’s weight in gold: the sum was supposed to amount to £20,000. After only three years of marriage, John Martyn died, leaving his heir Edward aged just 14 months to be raised by the widowed Annie. The following decade, she embarked on Tulira’s transformation, the eventual cost of which is said to have been £20,000, the same amount as was handed over by her father at the time of her marriage.
Given that Edward Martyn was only in his teens when Tulira was rebuilt, it seems likely his mother was responsible for choosing the architect. Since she was an ardent Roman Catholic, it is not altogether surprising the commission should have gone to George Ashlin, who otherwise worked primarily for clerical clients. Ashlin was born in County Cork in 1837 and in his late teens was articled in England to E W Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin (whose daughter Ashlin married in 1860). When, in 1859, the younger Pugin received the commission for the church of SS Peter and Paul, Cork, he made Ashlin a partner with responsibility for their Irish work, which included St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. Ashlin remained in partnership with Pugin until about 1870 after which he set up his own highly successful practice. Tulira was his only major secular commission and regrettably no documents relating to the castle’s design or construction have survived.
In any case, for Mrs Martyn and her son, Ashlin designed a densely-castellated two-storey house directly linked to the old castle. In the centre of the asymmetric facade is a projecting three storey tower containing an arched Gothic door case and an oriel window immediately above; on the corbels of the latter are carved Edward Martyn’s initials and the date 1882 indicating this was when work concluded. On either side of the tower are polygonal corner turrets which once more are raised slightly higher than the roof parapet. The garden front shows a similar differentiation in surface rhythm thanks to the presence of further projecting towers. The house has always inspired mixed feelings. Moore, in his usual imaginative way, claimed he attempted to dissuade Martyn from undertaking the project: ‘walking on the lawn, I remember trying to persuade him that the eighteenth-century house which one of his ancestors had built alongside of the old castle, on the decline of brigandage, would be sufficient for his want.’ However, since Mrs Martyn was the driving force behind the enterprise, this recollection seems defective. However in 1896 Yeats and the English critic Arthur Symons stayed in Tulira after which Symons wrote in The Savoy that here he discovered ‘a castle of dreams’, where ‘in the morning, I climb the winding staircase in the tower, creep through the secret passage, and find myself in a vast deserted room above the chapel which is my retiring room for meditation; or following the winding staircase, come out of the battlements, where I can look widely across Galway, to the hills.’ Yeats was also enchanted, although his preference was for ‘the many rookeries, the square old tower, and the great yard where medieval soldiers had exercised.’ Much later, his verdict was more harsh, dismissing Ashlin’s design as being nothing better than ‘a pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families.’
It is generally accepted that Mrs Martyn’s reason for rebuilding Tulira was to provide a comfortable home for future generations of the ancient family into which she had married. George Moore, most likely apochryally, claimed Annie Martyn had proclaimed, ‘Edward must build a large and substantial house of family importance, and when this house was finished he could not do otherwise than marry.’ Unfortunately she had not reckoned on her son’s lifelong dedication to celibacy and reluctance to linger in the company of women. When he endowed the foundation of the Palestrina Choir in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin in 1904, for example, he stipulated ‘the said choir shall consist of men and boys only’ and that ‘on no occasion shall females be employed.’
Mrs Martyn also under-estimated her son’s partiality for asceticism: although Tulira was splendidly finished, Martyn preferred to live in the old tower. Here a stone staircase ascending the full height of the building leads to the first floor which served as his private library and still retains its oak floor and oak-panelled walls, as well as stained glass windows designed by Edward Frampton in 1882 and featuring literary figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dante. A door at the far end of the library provides access to a simple room where Martyn slept, according to Moore ‘with the bed as narrow as a monk’s and the walls whitewashed like a cell and nothing upon them but a crucifix.’ Above this is his private chapel, its fittings, including the benches and altar, apparently designed by Irish architect William A Scott, although the chimneypiece has the dates 1613 and 1681 carved into the limestone. An even more impressive chimneypiece is found on the third floor where the ceiling rises to the roof, allowing for the inclusion of a small minstrels’ gallery at one gable end.
Meanwhile inside the Ashlin-designed house, after passing through a modest entrance one reaches the great hall measuring some 31 by 32 feet and rising 42 feet, the full height of Ashlin’s castle. Here Edward Martyn would play the polyphonic music of Palestrina and Vittoria on a long-since lost organ. On a richly-tiled floor repeatedly decorated with the Martyn motto of Sic hur Ad Astra (‘Thus One Climbs to the Stars’) rest the bases of black marble columns, their capitals elaborately carved with figures. From here a massive staircase with quatrefoil balustrading leads to the galleried first floor where a sequence of arches is supported by further marble columns. Much of this room’s decoration is attributed to John Dibblee Crace, the English designer and decorator whose father had worked with Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in London. Crace produced designs for the hall’s main window but these were never executed, as it seems Martyn lost interest in completing the scheme for the castle’s interior decoration. However, on the ground floor a series of reception rooms, intended to impress those prospective brides who were never invited, have compartmented timber ceilings with the recessed panels painted in a delicate design, also by Crace. The drawing and dining rooms retain their polychromatic marble chimneypieces as well as stained glass bearing the crests of Galway’s tribes. The embossed red and bronze wallpaper in the dining room was hung when the castle was first built, with certain sections restored more recently by David Skinner who also made paper for a number of other rooms in the house.
Despite all that he had done, and all that he had tried to do in the fields of art, music and literature, Edward Martyn’s final years were grim, not least due to creeping ill-health. In her journal for September 1921, Lady Gregory his neighbour and former collaborator, noted, ‘He is anxious about money, has fears of his investment in the English railways, and is very crippled by rheumatism.’ Two years later she visited him at Tulira for the last time and afterwards wrote, ‘In the bow window of the library I saw Edward sitting. I thought he would turn and look round at the noise, but he stayed quite quite immovable, like a stuffed figure, it was quite uncanny…I went in, but he did not turn his head, gazed before him. I touched his hands (one could not shake them, all crippled, Dolan [the butler] says he has to be fed) and spoke to him. He slowly turned his eyes but without recognition. I went on talking without response till I asked him if he had any pain and he whispered: “No, thank God”. I didn’t know if he knew me, but talked a little, and presently, he whispered: “How is Robert?” I said: “He is well, as all are in God’s hands, he has gone before me and before you.” Then I said: “My little grandson, Richard, is well”, and he said with difficulty and in a whisper: “I am very glad of that.” Then I came away, there was no use staying…’
Three months later Edward Martyn was dead at the age of sixty-four, leaving instructions that his body be donated to medical science and the remains afterwards buried in a pauper’s grave. Along with his papers, he left the contents of his personal library to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street, Dublin and they are there still. His collection of paintings, mostly by Irish artists but including a Monet landscape and two works by Degas bought while holidaying in Paris with George Moore in April 1885, Martyn bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. The rest of the castle’s contents, it can be conjectured, were still in Tulira after it was left to a cousin Mary, Lady Hemphill. In 1982 the fifth Lord Hemphill sold Tulira and its surrounding land, and at that time Sotheby’s conducted a house contents auction on the premises when many of the 430 lots once owned by Martyn were dispersed. Between 1982 and 1996, Tulira changed hands no less than five times, on one occasion being exchanged for a yacht, before being sold to its present owners. Since taking possession of Tulira, they have tried to acquire any items of furniture that formerly belonged to the house and have come onto the market, such as a Victorian oak centre table (from a house sale in Oxfordshire) and a set of four oak Gothic chairs of the same period all of which have been returned to the castle’s library. Under their guardianship one feels the spirit of Edward Martyn has returned to Tulira.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born at Macroom Castle, County Cork in August 1850. Her father, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White was the second son of the first Earl of Bantry; he had added Hedges to his own surname in 1840 on inheriting the Macroom estate from a cousin, Robert Hedges Eyre. Following the death of his elder brother, the second Earl of Bantry, in 1868 William Hedges-White also succeeded to the Bantry estates, meaning he owned almost 70,000 acres of land in the county (for more on Bantry and the White family, see When It’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th last). The third earl married Jane Herbert whose family had owned the Muckross estate in neighbouring County Kerry since the mid-1650s: when the Herberts became immured in debt in the late 1890s, Muckross would be bought by Lady Olive’s husband. She had been the first of the third Earl of Bantry’s daughters to marry, followed in 1874 by her elder sister Lady Elizabeth to Egerton Leigh and then in 1885 by her younger sister Lady Ina to Sewallis Edward Shirley, 10th Earl Ferrers. Lady Olive’s husband, who she married in February 1871, was Sir Arthur Edward Guinness. Arthur Edward Guinness was the eldest son of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, first baronet, who greatly expanded the brewery in Dublin and thereby enhanced the family’s fortunes. He married his cousin Elizabeth Guinness with whom he had four children. Arthur Guinness might have been expected to enter the business like his father before him, but in fact he left this task to his younger brother Edward (later first Earl of Iveagh) to whom he sold his half-share of the brewery in 1876. Arthur Guinness’s interests were political and he was elected to his father’s seat in Parliament following a by-election after the latter’s death in 1868. He retained his place at a General Election the same year; unfortunately it was subsequently discovered his agent had bribed an elector and so he was forced to give up the seat. He was re-elected again in 1874 and remained a committed Unionist MP (and lifelong opponent of Home Rule) until raised to the peerage in 1880 as Baron Ardilaun. In 1852 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness bought the Ashford estate on the shores of Ireland’s second largest lake, Lough Corrib, in County Galway. The house at its centre was originally a de Burgo castle and then a shooting lodge belonging to the Browne family. However in the aftermath of the Great Famine the first Lord Oranmore and Browne had been forced to sell the greater part of his land holdings; Ashford and its surrounding 1,179 acres were acquired through the Encumbered Estates Court by the Guinnesses for £11,005. Benjamin Lee and then Arthur Edward greatly enlarged both the house and estate, the latter eventually covering some 33,000 acres, much of which benefitted from judicious tree planting. As for the building, this likewise increased in size from 1873 onwards when Arthur Edward Guinness commissioned a large west wing designed initially by James Franklin Fuller and – following a deterioration in the relationship between architect and client – George Ashlin; by 1915 £1 million had been spent on this project. The new work connected the 18th-century chateau-style lodge of the Brownes with two de Burgo towers and then the greater part of the structure was encased in battlements so that the whole became known as Ashford Castle. Recalling a visit he made there in the 1880s, George Moore would later write, ‘Below us, falling in sweet inclining plain, a sea of green turf flows in and out of stone walls and occasional clumps of trees down to the rocky promontories, the reedy reaches and the long curved woods which sweep about the castle – such a castle as Gautier would have loved to describe – that Lord Ardilaun has built on this beautiful Irish land. There it stands on that green headland with the billows of a tideless sea, lashing about its base; and oh! the towers and battlements rising out of the bending foliage.’ Ashford was never a permanent residence for the Guinness family but used during winter months for shooting parties and as somewhere to entertain large groups of friends. The photographs above give an idea of such occasions; the first of them, taken in October 1878, featurs a young Oscar Wilde (whose father had a place on Lough Corrib) leaning on a balustrade on the extreme right. Even before his marriage, Arthur Edward Guinness would host weekends in the house, one of which was recorded in a privately-printed book, A Lay of Ashford, which seems to date from around 1869/70. Text and drawings were both by Colonel James O’Hara who lived with his wife and child at Lenaboy Castle on the outskirts of Galway city, a property only built earlier in the decade to the design of Samuel Ussher Roberts (grandson of the famous 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts). The book describes the entertainment laid on for the guests, not least the creation of a temporary ballroom so that a dance could be held for them. There was also boating on the lake and a picnic. Among those present who have been identified were the host’s youngest brother, Captain Lee Guinness, David Plunket, later first Lord Rathmore (whose older brother was married to the host’s aunt), Lord and Lady Clanmorris, Lord and Lady John Manners, Robert Algernon Persse of Roxborough, County Galway (a brother of Augusta, Lady Gregory), Miss Alice Eyre of Eyrecourt and sundry other members of local families: all appear in Colonel O’Hara’s book, as does Ashford itself before the house was so extensively altered. Olive Ardilaun liked to paint, and collected her watercolour in a bound album. Most of them depict the landscape around Ashford but as can be seen in the first painting above, she also reproduced scenes from the family house on the north side of Dublin Bay. This was St Anne’s, originally called Thornhill, an 18th century property which Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness had bought with fifty-two acres in 1835 from John Venables Vernon of neighbouring Clontarf Castle. The old house was pulled down in 1850 and replaced with another in the Italianate style. At the same time the name was changed to St Anne’s (after an old well on the site) and more land acquired so that the grounds eventually amounted to some 500 acres. As at Ashford, from 1873 onwards Arthur and Olive Guinness embarked on an ambitious extension to the main house, once more using the designs of James Franklin Fuller. The result, Mark Bence-Jones later wrote was ‘a palace comparable to the best of the mansions that were being built at that period in the USA by people like the Vanderbilts, in taste no less than in grandeur.’ This, the Ardilauns’ main residence, was where they held parties and balls during the annual season, hosting a house party each year during the week of the Dublin Horse Show and entertaining visiting dignitaries, not least Queen Victoria who came here for dinner in April 1900 (the future George V’s signature and that of his wife Mary can be seen in the visitors’ book for August 22nd 1897; he would spend a week shooting at Ashford in 1905). Even during their lifetimes, the hospitality offered by the Ardilauns was exceptional: few if any other Irish landowners had the income to entertain in such a grand manner. And with the dawn of the new century and changes in this country’s economic and political circumstances they increasingly became anachronisms, reflections of another era. Lord Ardilaun died in January 1915 but his wife lived another decade. The couple had no offspring and the widowed Lady Ardilaun, while materially comfortable, was an isolated figure during her final years: Lady Gregory described her as ‘a lonely figure in her wealth, childless and feeling the old life shattered around her.’ She gave up Ashford which went to her husband’s nephew, the Hon Ernest Guinness, and Macroom Castle, which she had inherited from her father and to which she was devoted as a descendant of the original MacCarthy family, was burnt out by Anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War; the grounds were sold to a group of local businessmen two years later. In a 1949 memoir Bricks and Flowers, her cousin Katherine Everett (née Herbert) gives a description of Lady Ardilaun at this time, fearful of the world in which she now found herself and, despite the Guinness money, occupying an increasingly decrepit St Anne’s, its gardens falling into decay, the roof of the winter garden leaking whenever it rained, the quantity of water sometimes so great it would knock out the central heating boiler in the basement. When the cold and damp became too intense, she would move with her maid and secretary to the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. Lady Ardilaun finally died in December 1925 at the age of 75. All the pictures shown here come from a series of albums being sold by Adam’s at this year’s Country House Collections auction in Slane Castle, County Meath next Sunday and Monday, 12th and 13th October. For more information, please see: http://www.adams.ie/Country-House-Collections-at-Slane-Castle/12-10-2014?gridtype=listview
‘A four-year-old child sits on her father’s knee, in the pony-trap, holding the reins. She is conscious of the touch of his hand guiding her own, the rough texture of the sleeve of his jacket, the pony’s silvery white haunches moving to the rythym of a steady trot, its alert pricked ears, the polished harness, the rings, buckles and mounts. Presently at a curve of the avenue Mount John comes into view: solid, cream-coloured house, its low-pitched blue lead roof just visible above the parapet. From this angle it is partly hidden by trees – among them a copper beech, a tall bluish green Wellingtonia tapering to a point, a monkey puzzle and a walnut tree. Only when the trap has passed between the white gate-posts on the half-circle of gravel, to the left the pleasure ground, to the right a weeping ash, can one see to advantage the sash windows – two either side the hall-door, matched by similar pairs above and an additional window over the fanlight; the slim Ionic pillars; the oak door and the shining brass knocker that on closer inspection reveals itself as a Greek urn narrowing to the base where the hand takes hold.’
‘Mount John was built in the early seventeen hundreds. Like many other Irish houses belonging to the same period – when the settlers began to embellish the country that hitherto they had ravaged, building themselves homes of distinction – it combines solidity with a spacious elegance. The walls are thick – in places several feet in width. I remember a great bulge by the landing window; another in the bathroom wall in which, if I am to believe an old cottager – he worked for my father and still lives on the Wicklow road – part of the Russian crown jewels are concealed.
In common with other houses designed not in isolation, but in a manner that has regard for the landscape – house and landscape making a single picture – it is seen at its best from a distance. There is a pleasing view from the road, through a gap between beeches and limes – the house standing above a sweep of lawn, set about by trees and shrubs, and, beyond it, a glimpse of mountains. Even so it looks smaller than it is – an illusion created by a facade broken by the relatively few flat windows. Inside, one is taken unawares by the spaciousness, whether it be the airy hall, the curving staircase, or the rooms with their high ceilings, pleasant proportions and the light coming in the tall windows. It seems to hold within itself something of the largeness and the quiet of the countryside.’
‘The drawing-room was a golden room. The curtains were old-gold with a flutter of white muslin, rhe carpet a similar, deeper shade. The sun poured in the tall windows of which two faced east, the third south on to the pleasure ground – picking out the gilded oval frames enclosing portraits of my Hamilton grandparents and over the mantelshelf a gilt-edged mirror. There was a sofa upholstered in a rich gilded brocade; two yellow wooden chairs with painted on the back of each a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon – the tiny blossoms picked out in red and blue and violet; and in front of the piano a stool with ends similarly decorated. My mother’s Sheraton writing desk stood in one corner, and in the window as you came into the room there was a Sheraton table massed in spring with daffodils in a crystal bowl, in summer with golden-pink Gloire de Dijon roses, in autumn with chrysanthemums. I remember on the same table a tortoise-shell paper knife, a busby chain, regimental badges, a pair of spurs and a number of small silver objects that included a windmill, a filigree round table with chairs to match, a poodle dog with a leg missing. The white Adam’s mantelshelf was decorated with a carving of two gryphons staring at each other and on the side panels acanthus flowers rising on twirling stems from a Greek urn.’
‘It is an evening in spring. The hall-door is open – as it often was, so that the house used to be permeated with the scents and freshness of the garden. The light is a pale silver, as after rain. A breeze sirs one of the West African fetish masks (relics of my father’s soldiering days) making it sway and scrape against the red-washed wall above an oak table on which there is a black-and-gold lacquer tray for visiting cards and, behind this, a pair of elephant’s tusks crossing each other. My mother comes in from the garden with violets in her hand. She holds them out to me to smell, then lays them on the table and sighing (not plaintively, but as if in satisfaction at a task well done) slips her slender, ringed hands out of a pair of crumpled gardening gloves. Spring in childhood has become crystallised in this memory of the open door, the silvery light, the scraping of the fetish mask against the wall, my mother holding out the violets.’
‘A path ran north of the house through the shrubbery to the faded greenish blue garden door set in a wall and opening on to a box-edged path arched with ramblers. To the right was a deep border brilliant with flowers: maroon and lemon and sapphire columbines – these backed by a hedge of beech on the further side of which was a paddock where my mother kept her poultry. There were more flowers to the left of the path: deep blue cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, sweet Williams, bachelors’ buttons, flame-bright montbretia and a double row of sweet-peas. And, beyond these, raspberries and currants and strawberry beds. There was an apple tree with a twisted trunk and crumpled lichen-coated branches. Overnight – so it used to seem to us – it became in the spring a could of blossom soon to drift away upon the wind.’
The above extracts are taken from Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir An Irish Childhood, telling the story of a period before the First World War when she and her family lived at Mount John, County Wicklow. The author’s parents had both grown up in County Meath but her father, as a younger son, did not inherit property there and so bought another small estate. For many years owned by generations of Archers, Mount John appears to have been built over several phases, the rear portion probably being the earlier part to which the east-facing front with its large reception rooms was added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. On either side of this section of the building are bows, that to the north two-storeys high, that to the south (off the drawing room) single-storey.
Financial circumstances forced Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents to leave Mount John in early 1914 and her book is an evocation of a lost Arcadia, a magical world she recalled for the rest of her life. An Irish Childhood, with its charming line drawings by Norah McGuinness, is too little known; the work provides readers with an insight into life in Ireland across all sections of society just before the onset of the upheavals that so changed this country. Many years later the author returned to Mount John and, having walked once more around the place where she had been born and spent her earliest years, she wrote ‘As I went through the white gate into the dusk it was as though there had been a transference of time. A moment belonging to a past beyond the reach of my memory, yet familiar from hearsay, had stepped forward into the present…’
Mount John, County Wicklow is now for sale, and waiting to be brought back to the condition so redolently described by Elizabeth Hamilton. For more information, see: http://www.sherryfitz.ie/resi/buy/7-bed-Farms-and-Estates-For-Sale-by-Private-Treaty-Newcastle-Mount-John-House-Newcastle-Co.-Wicklow-propertydetail.aspx?id=328894&ST=1&pc=1