Next Wednesday, July 23rd, a sale takes place in Cong, County Mayo of items from Ashford Castle. Most of the lots appear to be surplus to the requirements of the place’s new owners but a few are survivors of the period when Ashford was owned by the Guinness family. Originally a 13th century de Burgo castle, in the 1670s Ashford passed into the ownership of the Browne family, remaining such until sold through the Encumbered Estates Court to Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness in 1852. He then left it to his eldest son Arthur Edward Guinness, created Lord Ardilaun in 1880. Between them père et fils greatly enlarged and improved both the old house and surrounding estate. It was never a full-time residence but primarily used during the shooting season: in January 1905 the Prince of Wales (later George V) spent a week there. Lord Ardilaun having no children, on his death in 1915 the estate reverted to the family trust which passed it on to the Hon. Ernest Guinness. He frequently joked that far too many people were employed at Ashford, ‘Every one of whom might fall over if you removed his (sweeping) brush.’ However, relations with staff gradually deteriorated to the point that the summer of 1938 they went on strike, looking for a wage increase of two shillings a week. Ernest Guinness was so exasperated by their behaviour that he left Ashford in his private plane and never returned. The following autumn the trust placed Ashford on the market and in spring 1939, shortly before the estate went to public auction, 22,000 acres were bought by the Irish State for £20,000. The castle and immediate 170 acres were leased by hotelier Noel Huggard; ever since Ashford Castle has operated as an hotel under a succession of managements, the latest taking over last year. Above is a page taken from a Guinness family photograph album showing a shoot on the estate eighty years ago.
Extracted from a letter written by George Henry Moore of Moore Hall, County Mayo to his mother Louisa (née Browne) on 6th May 1846:
‘My dearest Mother,
Corunna won the Chester Cup this day. We win the whole £17,000. This is in fact a little fortune. It will give me the means of being very useful to the poor this season. No tenant of mine shall want for plenty of everything this year, and though I shall expect work in return for hire, I shall take care that whatever work is done shall be for the exclusive benefit of the people themselves. I also wish to give a couple of hundred in mere charity to the poorest people about me or being on my estate, so as to make them more comfortable than they are; for instance, a cow to those who want one most, or something else to those who may have a cow, but want some other article of necessary comfort; indeed I will give £500 in this way. I am sure it will be well expended, and the horses will gallop all the faster with the blessing of the poor…’
Moore Hall dates from 1792 and is believed to have been designed by the Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a gaunt ruin. The Moores were an English settler family originally members of the established church who converted to Roman Catholicism following the marriage of John Moore to Mary Lynch Athy of Galway. Their son George Moore, who likewise married an Irish Catholic, moved to Spain where through his mother’s connections with various Wild Geese families, he became successful and rich in the wine export business. In addition he manufactured iodine, a valuable commodity at the time, and shipped seaweed from Galway for its production, owning a fleet of vessels for this purpose.
Having made his fortune, George Moore then returned to Ireland and bought land to create an estate of some 12,500 acres. He commissioned a residence to be built on Muckloon Hill with wonderful views across Lough Carra below and the prospect of Ballinrobe’s spires in the far distance. Fronted in cut limestone, Moore Hall stands three storeys over sunken basement, the facade centred on a single-bay breakfront with tetrastyle Doric portico below the first floor Venetian window. A date stone indicates it was completed in 1795, three years before Ireland erupted in rebellion. Among those who took part was George Moore’s eldest son John who after being schooled at Douai had studied law in Paris and London had returned to Ireland where he joined the uprising. On August 31st 1798 the French general Jean Joseph Humbert issued a decree proclaiming John Moore President of the Government of the Province of Connacht. However within weeks the British authorities had crushed the rebellion and captured Moore who died the following year while en route to the east coast where he was due to be deported. George Moore, who had spent some £2,500 attempting to secure his heir’s release, had died just a month earlier.
Moore Hall now passed into the hands of its builder’s second son, also called George Moore. A more studious character than his brother, he is known as an historian who wrote accounts of the English Revolution of 1688 (published in 1817) and, on his death, left behind the manuscript of the history of the French Revolution. He married Louisa Browne, a niece of the first Marquess of Sligo, and the couple had three sons, one of whom died at the age of 17 after a fall from his horse. The same fate would befall the youngest child, Augustus Moore when at 28 he was taking part in a race at Liverpool. He and the eldest son, another George, had set up a racing stable at Moore Hall and become notorious for their fearless recklessness. But this George Moore had an intelligent and sensitive character – while still a teenager he was publishing poetry – and following the death of his brother and the advent of famine in Ireland in the mid-1840s he turned his attention to Moore Hall and the welfare of its tenants. The letter quoted above shows that after his horse Corunna won the Chester Cup in May 1846 he used the proceeds to make sure no one on his land suffered hardship or deprivation. In 1847, having already participated in calling for an all-party convention to work for the betterment of Ireland, he was first elected to Parliament where he proved to be a deft orator (his background as a youthful poet came in handy) and an ardent advocate of the country’s rights: he spoke in favour of the Fenians and was an early supporter of the Tenant League, established to secure fair rents and fixity of tenure in the aftermath of the famine. But his philanthropy was George Moore’s undoing. In the spring of 1870 his Ballintubber tenants withheld their rents, judging he would not dare retaliate. Since Parliament was sitting at the time, he returned from London to settle the matter and four days later died as a result of a stroke.
And so Moore Hall passed to the next, and final, generation, being inherited by another George Moore, one of the greatest prose stylists Ireland has produced, a decisive influence on James Joyce and many another Irish author since. Today his contribution to this country, as well as that of his forebears, is insufficiently appreciated, but during his long lifetime George Moore was recognised as a great writer, as well as a serial controversialist. If he is no longer as celebrated as was once the case, then Moore must accept at least some responsibility for this state of affairs since he was given to creating and maintaining feuds with those who by rights should have been his allies. In his wildly entertaining, if not always credible, three-volume memoir Hail and Farewell he explained, ‘It is difficult for me to believe any good of myself. Within the oftentimes bombastic and truculent appearance that I present to the world, trembles a heart shy as a wren in the hedgerow or a mouse along the wainscotting.’ If no match for his father as a horseman, he inherited the latter’s bravado and audaciousness, and as a result created far too many enemies all of whom relished an opportunity to denigrate him. W.B. Yeats called Moore ‘a man carved out of a turnip’, while Yeats’ father considered Moore ‘an elderly blackguard.’ Middleton Murry described him as ‘a yelping terrier’ and Susan Mitchell ‘an ugly old soul.’ Yet they all had to acknowledge his genius. ‘When it comes to writing,’ declared Ford Madox Ford, yet another opponent, ‘George Moore was a wolf – lean, silent, infinitely sweet and solitary.’ The monument erected to him on Castle Island on Lough Carra rightly proclaims:
Born Moore Hall 1852 died 1933 London
He deserted his family and friends
For his Art
But because he was faithful to his Art
His family and Friends
Reclaimed his ashes for Ireland.’
In keeping with his character, George Moore always had an ambivalent relationship with Moore Hall. He wrote about it often, both in fiction and fact, but spent relatively little of his adult life in the place. For much of the time the estate was run by his younger brother Maurice with whom, like everyone else, he inevitably quarrelled. Unlike most Irish landowners of the era, however, he understood their time was drawing to a close, that the age of the big house was coming to an close and that the class into which he had been born would soon be no more. As he wrote to his brother in 1909, ‘The property won’t last out even my lifetime, that is to say if I live a long while and there will be nothing I’m afraid for your children…You always put on the philosophic air when I speak of the probable future and say “the future is hidden from us.” But the future of landlords isn’t in the least hidden from us.’
Nor was it, although the end was gratuitously harsh. On February 1st 1923 a local regiment of IRA men arrived at Moore Hall in the middle of the night, ordered the steward to hand over keys, moved bales of straw into the house, poured fuel over these and then set the place alight. It was a callous and philistine act which ignored the patriotic history of the Moores and lost the west of Ireland one of its finest Georgian residences. Many years later Benedict Kiely wrote in the Irish Times that he knew someone who had been present when Moore Hall was burnt and who could list various houses in the area containing looted furniture and other items. Envy and spite seem to have been the arsonists’ primary, if not sole, motivation.
Ever since the building has stood empty, the surrounding land today owned by Coillte, a state-sponsored forestry company. With all the sensitivity one might expect from such an organisation, it has planted trees all around the house so that the view down to Lough Carra – the reason Moore Hall was built on this spot – cannot even be glimpsed. There was much talk some few years ago of restoring the building but no more and the final traces of its interior decoration, not least the delicate neo-classical plasterwork, are about to be lost. So this is how Ireland honours her own: more in the breach than in the observance.
This weekend the grounds of Westport House, County Mayo play host to a music festival. Revellers of sensitive disposition are advised not to venture into the adjacent town as the neglect of its historic core can only lead to feelings of disgust. In the closing decades of the 18th century, the centre of Westport town was laid out by John Browne, third Earl of Altamont (and later first Marquess of Sligo); its design is often attributed to James Wyatt – who was certainly responsible for some of the house’s interiors – but there is no direct evidence to support this.
In any case what cannot be questioned is that Westport has the potential to be one of the most attractive towns in Ireland, a potential which at present is being squandered as the photograph above shows. This is a former coaching inn standing on the North Mall and overlooking the canalised Carrowbeg river. In 1835 John Barrow described it as being a hostelry ‘where the most fastidious could scarcely fail to be pleased’ and seven years later Thackeray called ‘one of the prettiest, comfortablest inns in Ireland.’ The hotel continued in business for over two centuries until 2006 when plans were announced for its refurbishment: since then this crucial site has remained shut, despite Westport being heavily dependant on tourism.
If only this were an isolated case, but worse can be found towards the eastern end of the North Mall where the hotel’s equivalent can be seen below. Of similar date, five bays and two storeys, and originally created as a private residence the building served for many years as a bank until that closed in 2007 since when it has likewise been permitted to fall into the present state of decay. Furthermore the same is true of several other properties along the mall, their roofs sagging, their window frames decaying, the whole spectacle a sad testament to on-going neglect.
Almost 180 years ago John Barrow regarded the North Mall as ‘bearing a close resemblance to a street in a Dutch town’ although it is unlikely any local authority in Holland would allow such dereliction to occur. Mayo County Council’s current development plan for Westport states ‘It is the policy of the Council to maintain, conserve and protect the architectural quality, character and scale of the town.’ Looking at these pictures, it is hard to find evidence of the policy being put into practice. Westport even has a town architect who as recently as last November could be found lecturing the burghers of Fermoy, County Cork on how to improve their historic centre. He would do better to stay at home and ensure the place where he is employed, officially designated a Heritage Town of Ireland, holds onto its heritage before this is lost forever.
Lying two miles south of the town of Claremorris, County Mayo, Castle MacGarret was associated with the Browne family for more than 350 years. The present house has a complicated history. The original castle stood closer to the river Robe but was found to be unsafe and abandoned towards the end of the 17th century; its ruins, smothered in ivy, can still be seen. Meanwhile, a new residence was built further from the water and served successive generations until largely destroyed by fire in 1811. A contemporary report in The Gentleman’s Magazine noted the blaze had originated in the kitchen ‘and the Cook perished.’
Following this disaster, the house’s stables were converted for use as a house. The architect Sir Richard Morrison drew up various plans for a new, elaborately gothic building but none of these was executed, presumably because Castle MacGarret’s then-owner Dominick Browne was too busy realising his political ambitions. Between 1814 and 1836 he managed to represent County Mayo for the Whig interest in seven Parliaments. This enterprise was his undoing since he was obliged to spend a fortune on each election to ensure success; one of them is said to have cost him £40,000 of which £600 alone went on lemons for whiskey punch.
As a reward for his political diligence, Dominick Browne was made a Privy Councillor of Ireland in 1834 and two years later created an Irish peer as Baron Oranmore of Carrabrowne Castle and Baron Browne of Castle Macgarret. But an Irish title did not automatically carry the right to sit in the House of Lords at Westminster and he therefore energetically lobbied for an English peerage. Three British Prime Ministers turned down his request, the reason being they had heard the newly-ennobled Lord Oranmore and Browne was on the verge of bankruptcy. This he denied, even though his debts amounted to an astonishing £199,320. The Irish Great Famine of 1845-8 completed his ruin and in a series of sales during the first half of the following decade, the majority of the Browne lands, including a large portion of Galway city, were sold through the Encumbered Estates Court.
Having lost most of their land, and therefore income, the Brownes were in no position to improve their accommodation. Finally in the early 1900s the third Lord Oranmore and Browne employed Richard Caulfield Orpen to remodel and extend the old stables. An older brother of the painter Sir William Orpen, this architect has the questionable honour of being credited with introducing the bungalow into Ireland.
Although claims have been made for the house as exemplifying Arts and Crafts principles Orpen’s revamped Castle MacGarret cannot be deemed particularly alluring, at least on the exterior. Its cement-rendered form lacks grace, the two irregular wings that jut out to create a forecourt each featuring a small crenellated tower as though to justify the building’s use of the title castle. The interior is more successful, beginning with the staircase hall that rises to a first floor gallery, the walls carrying plaster swags in which the Browne arms are quartered with those of heiresses the family had married. The well-proportioned drawing and dining rooms have elaborate neoclassical stucco ceilings copied from those designed by James Wyatt for Leinster House in Dublin. The drawing room contained a notable collection of Meissen porcelain, the hall a large number of miniatures by Anne Mee. The library, previously the billiard room, had a beamed ceiling and walls lined with mahogany bookcases. Hicks of Dublin made the chimneypieces while the panelling came from Crowthers of London. The cost of the refurbishment was £21,422.7s.6d.
In the early 1920s Castle MacGarret survived the War of Independence and the Civil War, although the house was raided by armed men one night in May 1922. The following year it was occupied by Free State troops who only left in June 1924. Despite being responsible for its rebuilding, understandably Lord Oranmore and Browne preferred to live in England, where he bought the Palladian Mereworth Castle in Kent. However, following his death in 1927, the next Lord Oranmore and Browne returned to Castle MacGarret, remaining there for more than thirty years.
While married to heiress Oonagh Guinness he had access to ample funds for the house’s upkeep, but after the couple divorced in 1950 it became a struggle to make the place economically viable. Eventually he had to abandon the struggle. In July 1960 the contents of Castle MacGarret, everything from a pair of old Waterford glass decanters to a Chippendale mahogany side table, were dispersed in a four-day auction held on the premises after which Lord Oranmore and Browne moved to London.
In 1964 Castle MacGarret, along with its surrounding 1,750 acres, was bought by the Irish Land Commission for £95,000. Having parcelled out most of the estate among local farmers, the organisation offered the house and surrounding 125 acres for sale. An order of nuns, the Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles, bought the place and tacked on an extension evidently inspired by the worst excesses of Soviet social housing. Castle MacGarret was run as a retirement home until 2005 when, at the height of Ireland’s economic boom, the canny nuns sold house and 120 acres for some €5 million to a business consortium. The latter’s members intended to convert the house into a hotel and spa. That plan never came to fruition and Castle Macgarret now sits empty, a prey to the damp that seeps through every missing slate. So another part of Ireland’s architectural and social heritage disappears forever into already-saturated ground.
Photographs by Cosmo Brockway