When Nobody Cried Stop

How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.

Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.

In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.

We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…


A Mere Shell

Above is a photograph taken some time ago of Cloverhill, County Cavan. The original house was built by a branch of the Saunderson family in 1758 but then extended from 1799 onwards to a design by Francis Johnston. It is his work which can be seen here: a two-storey, three bay house with east-facing breakfront entrance bay focussed on a pedimented Ionic portico: on the south side was a bow with Wyatt windows. In 1958 the property was sold by a descendant of the original owners and has since been allowed to fall into ruin. As can be seen below, it is now a roofless shell, the portico seemingly removed more than two decades ago and moved to a house in County Wexford.


The Age of Austerity

The Irish countryside: so littered with the remnants of once-fine houses. Now their walls, if these still stand, are smothered in ivy, their interiors providing a shelter for species of trees and shrubs formerly permitted only in the garden, and a habitat for wildlife which would never have been allowed indoors. Here runs a tumbling line of estate wall, there the suggestion of a former gate lodge, across the fields can be seen the remains of a stableyard, closer to hand lifestock grazes in what was clearly once a landscaped demesne. Until recently, and aided by fictional accounts such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, a widespread belief persisted that the majority of these properties were burnt during the upheavals of the 1920s. We now know this was not the case, that while a number of significant country houses were destroyed in the course of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War, many more survived. Their ruin came later, when the Land Commission had taken away the surrounding acreage necessary to sustain their upkeep, when rates grew too high, and the cost of employing sufficient workers too great. Unable to afford maintenance, owners departed their houses, sold up the contents, watched a new owner to remove chimneypieces and other fittings, saw the roof taken off and accepted the inevitable: yet another ruin to add to Ireland’s already substantial number. Such was the fate of Dromdihy, County Cork.

Dromdihy, sometimes called Dromdiah, stands on raised ground with superlative views for many miles north-eastwards as far as the Irish Sea close to Youghal. The original owner was one Roger Green Davis who acted as land agent for Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke, an absentee landlord. Despite his surname, de Capell-Brooke’s family was actually of Irish origin. The first of their number had probably come to the country with the Normans when they were called de la Chappelle, Des Chapelles or De Capella. This was later hibernicised to Sheapallh and then converted in English to Supple. There were many Supples in East Cork but the majority of them lost their lands during the 17th century. One branch however, through familial association with the Boyles, Earls of Cork and by converting to the Anglican church, retained an estate based around the town of Killeagh. In the mid-18th century Richard Supple married Mary Brooke,of daughter of Arthur Brooke, of Great Oakley, Northamptonshire. In 1797 their son, Richard Brooke Supple inherited the English estate from his great-uncle Wheeler Brooke in obedience to whose wishes he assumed the surname Brooke, at the same time adding the orignal surname of his own family: six years later he was created a baronet. His heir Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke was an explorer who travelled through Scandinavia and published several books about what he had seen. When not engaged in these activities, he lived in Northamptonshire, hence the need for an agent to look after his Irish estate.

One wonders how much attention Sir Arthur paid to his property in Ireland since Roger Green Davis, who had inherited the position of agent from his own father William, was able to build up a landholding of more than 2,250 acres in County Cork, albeit some of it rented from the de Capell-Brooke estate. Thus the need to build a residence befitting his status, which Dromdihy was intended to proclaim. Completed in 1833 according to Samuel Lewis, the architect responsible for the house’s design is unknown: in some accounts it is attributed to Roger Green Davis. If so, he must have been a man of austere taste since Dromdihy demonstrates a predilection for the most distilled form of neo-classicism. The central block, of five bays and two storeys over basement, is rendered with cut limestone employed for parapets and cornices, quoins and window surrounds, varying treatment of the window’s architraves relieving what might otherwise be a monotonous facade. On either side of this are single-storey wings, that to the left (now entirely submerged in overgrowth) having Doric columns flanking a window and concluding in a bow. At the other end of the building, the wing served as entrance to the house, approached via a flight of steps and accessed through a pedimented portico with four fluted Doric columns, all in crisp limestone. The design is so pared back, so devoid of extraneous ornament, so uncompromisingly faithful to the ideology of Greek Revivalism it might have come from the hand of a Schinkel or von Klenze.

A description of Dromdihy in the 1860s noted that it ‘consists of a centre and two wings, ornamented with Doric columns and with a portico at the eastern end, by the hall is entered, and off which are hot, cold, vapour and shower baths. The first floor comprises five sitting-rooms; on the second floor are four best bedrooms, with dressing-rooms and water-closet…’ Evidently Green Davis spared no expense on the property: it is said that the stone was cut by craftsmen brought from Italy for the purpose. But if the design was admirable, its execution left something to be desired since seemingly from the start Dromdihy suffered from damp, the roof leaking and the interior manifesting both dry and wet rot. Roger Green Davis’ son John, a barrister, sold the place to William Stopford Hunt, an Assistant Land Commissioner and well-known cricketer. At the start of the last century, he had let the place to Lieutenant-General Sir Lawrence Parsons (a cousin of the Earls of Rosse) whose daughter Nora Robertson would later write the memoir Crowned Harp. However Stopford Hunt retained ownership of the estate until he sold up in 1923 at which time the house and surrounding ninety acres were purchased by the O’Mahony family. They ran a manufacturing and timber business on the estate but by 1944 the house was deemed uninhabitable and its roof removed. Dromdihy has been in steady decline ever since, an empty shell high on the rise visible to anyone travelling south from Youghal.


A Note on New Ruins

‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’

‘But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern…’

‘We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’

‘But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm. What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left…’

‘”Ruinenlust” has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Ckude, Monsti Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.’

The above texts come from the concluding chapter (‘A Note on New Ruins’) of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. The photographs above show the interiors of a set of now-abandoned farmyard buildings in County Westmeath.

On the Town VI


In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 Samuel Lewis observes that Downpatrick, County Down ‘is built upon a group of little hills, on the south shore of the western branch of…Strangford Lough, and consists of four principal streets rising with a steep ascent from the market place in the centre, and intersected by several smaller streets or lanes: on the eastern side the hills rise abruptly behind it, commanding views of a fertile and well-cultivated tract abounding with richly diversified and picturesque scenery. It is divided according to ancient usage into three districts called respectively the English, Irish and Scottish quarters, and contains about 900 houses, most of which are well built: the streets are well paved, and were first lighted with oil in 1830; and the inhabitants are amply supplied with water.’ Lewis then proceeds to give a very full account of Downpatrick’s history, deservedly since this is one of the most ancient urban settlements in Ireland, mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century as Dunum. Originally it was called Rath Celtair, after the mythological warrior Celtchar who was said to have lived there and who appears in many old texts, not least The Táin. Later the town served as the chief royal site and religious centre of Ulster’s dominant dynasty, the Dál Fiatach. By the 13th century it had been given the name of Downpatrick after the country’s patron saint, Patrick who was said to have been buried on Cathedral Hill in the year 461; later he was joined there by Saints Bridget and Columkille, ensuring the town became the base for several religious settlements and a place of pilgrimage. Towards the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy took possession of the place and established the Benedictine order on the site reputed to hold the remains of the saintly triumvirate, where a cathedral was then built. Like the rest of the country, Downpatrick was attacked, changed hands, suffered spoliation during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries but somehow survived to enjoy prosperity from the late 1600s onwards.

When Richard Pococke made his extensive tour of Ireland in 1752 he described Downpatrick as being a spot ‘where the hills form a beautiful Amphitheatre; on two of these hills the town is built, and the third side is covered with the wood and gardens that are about a house…and on the western hill are the walls of the ancient Cathedral, called the Abby, which is not large but has a very venerable aspect; near it are the remains of a round tower. [for more on the travails of Down Cathedral, see Down Patrick’s Way, December 23rd 2013]…Below the Abbey is a very handsom brick building, in the middle part an apartment for six men, and six women, and at each end a School for ten girls, at the other for as many boys, who are to be fed and lodged as well as cloth’d and taught. All the foundation of Mr. Southwell of Kings Weston. At the lower end of the town is the Townhouse, and above it a handsom portico of twenty-four Arches for the linnen Market, which is very considerable at this place, and adjoyning to that is a School, to teach the poor children of the town, who are not in the other Schools. Near this is a good new-built Church, and beyond that a free School house for teaching Latin, which seemed to be in a ruinous way. The chief support of this place is a market and Fairs for linnen. This is the proper place of Residence for the Bishop and Dean of Down, but neither of them have houses here. I had almost forgot to mention four Apartments for Clergymen’s widows, which are maintained as well as I could be informed by subscription…Near Down Patrick is a famous horse course for races; here two or three plates are run for, which are given by the Corporation of Horse Breeders in the County of Down, erected by King James II under a charter into a Corporation, with liberty to purchase £200 a-year in lands, and a power to have a treasurer, register and other officers, and that a fair should be held for six days at the time of the races, Customs to be paid belonging to the Corporation, during which fairs, they have power to hold a Court for certain purposes.’

Among the structures to which Pococke refers are the red brick Southwell School, named after its eponymous founder and dating from 1733 and, further down English Street, a terrace of four houses built during the same period for the widows of diocesan clergymen. As he also notes neither the Bishop nor Dean of Down then maintained permanent residences in the town, perhaps because its cathedral had fallen into such a ruinous state. At the time of his visit, the Dean was Patrick Delany, appointed to the position in 1744 not long after his marriage to Mary Pendarves (née Granville) today often better remembered than her husband. When he took up the post Dr Delany discovered his predecessor had only stayed in Down for two days over a six-year period. He and his wife on the other hand tried to spend their summers in the area (the rest of the year they lived at Delville outside Dublin) renting a now-ruinous house called Mount Panther just a few miles outside the town. Despite being only in attendance for a few months annually, the Dean was assiduous in his duties: ‘Never did any flock want more the presence and assistance of a shepherd than this Deanery where there has been a most shameful neglect,’ wrote his devoted wife. ‘I trust in God it will be a very happy thing for the poor people that D.D. is come among them.’ No doubt he had to compete with the clergy of other denominations for the attention of his flock: Downpatrick contains an especially handsome Presbyterian church built in 1711. It was a century of expansion for the town, a new gaol being erected, again on English Street: after the construction of a new gaol in the 1790s (now the County Museum) the former premises became, and continue to be, the meeting rooms of the Down Hunt. Elsewhere houses were built up and down Downpatrick’s hills as the excellent land in the surrounding area made this a prosperous market town, testified by the presence of Denvirs Hotel, first established in 1641 and still with the appearance of an old coaching inn.

Sadly Downpatrick today appears to enjoy little enough of its former prosperity. This is a town replete with opportunities, not least the association with St Patrick. Since 2001 a centre at the base of Cathedral Hill has been dedicated to celebrating the town’s link with Ireland’s patron saint but the building is unsympathetically brutalist and furthermore tucked to the rear of a shopping plaza. As a consequence it is easy to overlook, like so many of Downpatrick’s other charms. The most obvious damage done to the town has been the construction of new retail outlets outside the historic core. As elsewhere, the effect has been to draw footfall away from the older district and to encourage consumers to travel by car: typically a large Lidl outlet almost directly across the road from the St Patrick Centre is set far back from the original street frontage to allow for ample parking. Meanwhile former retail premises in the heart of the town are boarded up and falling into decay, often in key locations such as at the junction of Irish, English and Scotch Streets. It does not help that all traffic must go via this location, making the area hazardous and unfriendly for pedestrians: Downpatrick ought to have been by-passed many years ago. Instead the preferential treatment given to cars means visitors attempting to move around the town on foot must constantly be on their guard. However Downpatrick’s problems don’t just spring from a want of concern for pedestrians; more seriously there appears to be an indifference to safeguarding the town’s broader built heritage. While certain key buildings like the Cathedral are given due attention, many others – especially examples of 18th and 19th century domestic architecture – have been allowed to slide into decay. A house on Irish Street next to the police station, for example, is completely ruinous. Further out on Pound Lane, the old Downe Hospital, vacant since 2009, has fallen prey to vandals and, given its location, is now a prominent blight on the urban landscape. Furthermore, these buildings suggest official indifference, a want of interest in preserving evidence of Downpatrick’s history. Residents and visitors alike will draw their own conclusions. While the real thing slips into dilapidation, ersatz Georgian townhouses are being constructed on the outskirts of the town. Downpatrick’s past looks more distinguished than its future.


Neglected and Oppress’d


The area around Frenchpark, County Roscommon contains  little of any architectural note: the remains of the great Palladian house designed by Richard Castle in the late 1720s were demolished more than forty years ago. Now it would seem that the town’s one remaining historic building is destined to go the same way. Dating from 1840, the two-storey, three bay former market house has for a long time stood forlorn on Frenchpark’s main street. Although listed in the county survey as being of ‘social and historic importance’ no one seems troubled that this final remnant of the locale’s history is on the verge of being lost forever.

Of Russborough and Its Predicament


In December 2006 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of more than sixty 15th and 16th century Italian bronzes at Christie’s for some €3.8 million. There was no public outcry.
In November 2013 the Alfred Beit Foundation sold a collection of antique Chinese porcelain at Sotheby’s for €1.2 million. There was no public outcry.
Last month the Alfred Beit Foundation announced its intention to sell eight old master paintings at Christie’s next July. An outcry ensued.

In 1952 Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Clementine moved to Ireland following their purchase of Russborough, County Wicklow. Designed by Richard Castle, the 18th century Palladian house was originally built for the Leesons, subsequently Earls of Milltown. In the 20th century it had passed through two other owners before being acquired by the Beits. The couple had no immediate connection with Ireland, although Lady Beit’s maternal grandmother had been raised in this country and being a Mitford, she was first cousin of the Hon Desmond Guinness’s mother. Sir Alfred had inherited a fortune derived from South African mining and an art collection created by his uncle (likewise called Alfred) and father Otto. This collection was displayed in Russborough and, as is well known, was subjected to a series of robberies, the first taking place in 1974. Despite these outrages, the Beits remained loyal to their adopted country and eventually donated seventeen of the best pictures, including works by Vermeer, Metsu, Murillo, Hobbema and Ruisdael, to the National Gallery of Ireland: in 1993 their generosity was acknowledged with the conferring of honorary Irish citizenship.
Many years before, in 1976, having no heirs to whom Russborough could be bequeathed the couple established the Alfred Beit Foundation. This is an educational trust with charitable status, its members charged with responsibility for the house and estate so that both are preserved for the benefit of the Irish people. Unfortunately at the time neither the Beits nor their advisors nor the original trustees appear to have realised the necessity of providing the Foundation with an adequate endowment. If an historic house is to have a long-term, sustainable future it must be partnered with an endowment. In Britain for example, the National Trust will not consider taking on a property unless it conforms to what since 1968 has been known as the ‘Chorley Formula’ which calculates the endowment lump sum required to sustain the building(s), taking into account expected levels of maintenance and ongoing repairs, likely revenues, wages and many other factors. The NT has long recognised that even houses which attract large numbers of paying visitors still need additional financial resources if they are to survive. The same is true of Russborough where the trustees of the Beit Foundation must now establish a permanent, ring-fenced endowment to guarantee the future of house and estate.

In March of this year the owners of Castle Howard, Yorkshire announced that in July they intend to dispose of some £10 million of artworks in order to pay for the building’s upkeep and to secure the estate’s future. Internationally famous thanks to its appearance in the 1981 television series of Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard sits on almost 10,000 acres and receives some 250,000 paying visitors a year. Yet still the owners are obliged to sell some of its contents in order to stay open.
Compare this scenario with Russborough, which now stands on some 250 acres – not enough to generate any revenue of substance – and last year attracted 24,000 paying visitors for tours of the house. The figure is barely one tenth of that at Castle Howard but has increased from around 11,000 eight years ago. Likewise the number of overall visitors to the estate during the same period has risen from at best 20,000 to over 100,000. Since 2007 a considerable amount of work has taken place both within the house and throughout the grounds with the aim of improving visitor numbers. The more visible evidence of this includes reordering and redecorating of the main rooms, the basement exhibition devoted to the Beits, artisan workshops and outlets in the courtyards, the ongoing restoration of the walled garden thanks to the participation of the RHSI, and the creation of new paths and walkways around the estate. Less visible but more critical work over the same period covers substantial repair of the roof and main drainage system, the replacement of a fifty-year old boiler and of unsafe waste water treatment plants, the creation of a new coach entrance, road and coach park, as well as the current creation of a new (paying) car park. A lot more remains to be done.
The Foundation’s trustees have sought to improve and upgrade Russborough in order to encourage more visitors and thereby generate additional income. This has covered everything from holding concerts and valuation days to converting the west wing into two self-contained apartments which are now let. Nevertheless, the amount of money raised by such endeavours is, and will remain, finite and does not begin to cover the annual operating deficit which in 2013 ran to €564,213 (in 2012 it stood at €425,984: these figures are taken from the filed financial statements and are in the public domain). Repairs and maintenance, security, light and heat, staff salaries, insurance and professional fees are just some of the costs that result in a shortfall but which are essential to keep Russborough open to the public, in a safe environment, and in order to fulfil the objectives of the Foundation. However the losses are clearly unsustainable and if continued they must, sooner rather than later, lead to the closure of Russborough.
Comparisons have been made in some quarters with Powerscourt, County Wicklow but they do not stand up to scrutiny. According to its website Powerscourt attracts 250,000 visitors annually – the same number as Castle Howard. But Powerscourt permitted a sprawling housing estate to be built immediately inside its main gates. It has two golf courses covering large portions of its once-intact demesne. It has given over additional land to a 200-bedroom hotel. Its main house contains a shopping arcade and food outlets. Every property must seek its own best means of staying open and the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have hitherto preferred not to embark on a range of commercial ventures such as those seen at Powerscourt. Yet the need to create an endowment fund remains.

In April 2007 the Marquess of Bute announced his intention to sell Drumfries, Ayrshire and its contents, the majority of these commissioned for the house when it was first built in the 1750s. Understandably the news caused consternation in many quarters but made no difference to the vendor’s decision. The sale almost went ahead – Christie’s had printed the catalogue for the furniture auction – before a consortium headed by the Prince of Wales stepped in and saved everything for the nation.
Ireland sorely lacks an equivalent high-profile champion of our country’s cultural heritage. Such a person is certainly not to be found in government. In recent years relevant ministers and their departmental officials have been apprised of Russborough’s predicament. No offer of help has been forthcoming from that quarter, despite the outstanding generosity of the Beits to the Irish state. The trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation have therefore been obliged to consider other options in order to secure necessary funds. One is to continue with sales such as those held in 2006 and 2013. These occasions generate enough money to keep the house open for another couple of years but not enough to create an adequate, long-term endowment. A fund-raising campaign? To realise donations running to many millions of euro, such a scheme would be costly to establish, slow to gain momentum and offer no guarantee of success. Meanwhile the house would still require money for its upkeep or else begin to slide into deterioration. Another possible recourse is to close down operations and in effect moth-ball the property. But ongoing expenses such as maintenance and repairs, heating, security, insurance and so forth will need to be met even without the benefit of paying visitors.
Eventually and after thorough consideration of options, the Alfred Beit Foundation, of which I am a former trustee, unwillingly came to the conclusion that if a permanent endowment fund was to be created, it would be necessary to dispose of certain assets. The likelihood of such a sale was clearly anticipated by the Beits: the Memorandum and Articles of Association establishing their Foundation state that it may ‘sell, lease or otherwise deal with or dispose of the whole or part of the property or assets of the Foundation.’ Sir Alfred himself, at the time of the Foundation’s establishment, sold not only a large part of the Russborough land but also a Reynolds portrait that had hitherto hung in the staircase hall.
Even so, the trustees reached their decision neither hastily nor easily, not least because they were aware of the burdensome hand of history. Sales of this kind have been too frequent occurrences in Ireland, as was demonstrated by a not dissimilar announcement of their intent just last autumn by the owners of Bantry House, County Cork. Indeed every autumn various house owners from around the country sell some of their possessions at an auction held in Slane Castle, County Meath. Furthermore other sales take place outside the auction room and with no publicity, and the Irish public never knows that another piece of our history has gone. Bit by bit the nation’s cultural patrimony is being lost and always for the same reasons: because current owners find themselves faced with no other choice, and because the Irish state has shown no interest in its preservation. (Incidentally, tomorrow – Tuesday, May 12th  – Adam’s will dispose of what has been described as the finest private collection of printed material relating to early modern Ireland: no one seems yet to have objected to this auction going ahead, despite the break-up of the collection and its potential loss to the nation).
It is right and proper that the recent announcement from the Alfred Beit Foundation should have caused dismay and indignation. The pity is that there have not been more protesting voices, coming from as broad a cross-section of the citizenry as possible. But protest here has to be directed towards the right target. Amid those voices expressing concern over the intended sale one has been notably silent: that of the minister with direct responsibility for heritage. Given her brief, surely Minister Humphreys might have made some comment about the Alfred Beit Foundation’s decision? Her department could have insisted on export licences being withheld. It could have proposed initiating talks with interested parties in an effort to finding an alternative solution to the problem. She could have declared her intention to seek funding from the Department of Finance so that the pictures might stay in Ireland.  There has been no word from the Minister or her office.
Some thirty years ago the late Knight of Glin, in the aftermath of another country house sale, deplored the fact that in Ireland there were no votes in heritage and therefore politicians paid it at best lip service. This remains the case today. It will continue to be so unless and until those of us who desperately want to preserve the country’s cultural heritage come together and unite in sustained public discourse. We need to broaden our constituency and rally more people to the cause in which we so passionately believe. At the moment we are few in number and we cannot afford to dissipate our insufficient strength in recrimination and conflict. The circumstances which have led to the intended disposal of old masters from Russborough are no different from those which have led – and will lead – to similar occurrences in many other properties across the country. These circumstances must be better understood and explained. We must all do our utmost to persuade as many people as possible that such sales diminish everyone and impoverish the entire nation. Only when we have achieved that goal will there be votes in heritage. Only then will government be obliged to assume the responsibilities it has for so long shirked.