Fit for a King

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Boyle, County Roscommon is a provincial market town, seemingly indistinguishable from many others throughout the country. Once of importance as a centre of trade for the locality, it now appears to have slipped into irreversible decline. Somewhere, in other words, to by-pass except that rising in the middle of the town and towering over all other buildings is an immense early 18th century townhouse.
Known as King House, the name taken from the family responsible for its construction, this marvellous edifice is reminiscent of the seigneurial chateaux one finds in regional French urban centres, evidence of a powerful dynasty determined to wield and enforce authority. The family association with Boyle was due to John King (d.1637), an English adventurer who had come to Ireland with Sir Richard Bingham, the royal-appointed Governor of Connacht. In 1603 the Boyle estate running to over 4,000 acres and originally developed by the Cistercian monks whose abbey had since been dissolved, was leased to King and another soldier but in 1617 the former was granted the entire property as a reward for ‘reducing the Irish to obedience.’ One of his children Edward King, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge drowned while on a boat sailing to Ireland in August 1637 and was soon eulogised by his friend John Milton in the poem Lycidas. However, Sir John had six sons and thereafter successive generations of the family increased its holdings until the Kings became the area’s most prominent land owner.

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Of three storeys over basement, King House was built for Sir Henry King, dates from 1720-30 and is believed to occupy the site of an earlier structure. As ever, we do not know the architect responsible. Both Pearce and Castle have been mentioned, but so too has William Halfpenny (d.1755), an Englishman who worked in Ireland during the 1730s in Dublin, Hillsborough, County Down and Waterford City. There is also some speculation that the building as seen today is incomplete; the pedimented north front is strikingly plain, so it has been posited that the two-bay projecting wings were meant to be joined by another block so as to form an enclosed courtyard. If this was the intention, then it helps to explain the want of external decoration. The rear of the house, which looks south to the river Boyle and would once have had a pleasure garden running down to water’s edge, is more satisfactory if rather too rigorously symmetrical. In fact the best views are those of the two sides, where a pair of Venetian windows sits one above the other. Roughcast render suggests a variety of material was used for the building, although all the window and door surrounds are of fine cut limestone.
Not a lot of the original interior remains, but there is an explanation why this should be the case. The Kings used their house for little more than half a century before it was damaged by fire in 1788. By this date tastes had changed and it was considered more desirable to reside in the countryside, so the family moved to the nearby estate of Rockingham (of which more in the months ahead). King House was first leased and then in 1795 sold for £3,000 to the government. Subsequently it was converted into an army barracks and during the 19th century was occupied by the Connaught Rangers; presumably during this period was added the large extension to the south-west of the main block. As evidence of its size the house was able to accommodate 12 officers and 260 non-commissioned officers and private foot soldiers, as well as a 30-bed hospital and stabling for horses. Following Independence, the building continued to serve the same purpose for members of the Free State Army until the 1960s when King House passed into private hands and was used as a store and fuel depot. Its condition quickly deteriorated and by the 1970s tenders were invited for the building’s demolition to make way for a car park. I remember first seeing the place at that time, when the chances of its survival looked slim. Thankfully in 1987 King House was acquired by Roscommon County Council with a full programme of restoration work beginning two years later.

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Today King House is a public amenity, a museum and a facility used for various purposes, from wedding receptions to library services. Given its chequered history, the building’s want of interior ornamentation does not come as a surprise. The 1788 fire, followed by conversion for use as a barracks helps to explain the lack of an elaborate staircase, for example, and also the absence of much plasterwork embellishment. The most striking extant feature is the gallery found running the length of the house on each floor and lit at either end by the aforementioned Venetian windows. That on the groundfloor retains a splendid stone flagging and two immense baroque chimneypieces of Kilkenny marble. The vaulted ceilings of red brick are unusual since this is customarily only found in basements. Seemingly the notion was that vaulting would prevent the spread of fire, a theory soundly disproved by the conflagration of 1788. Elsewhere some rooms have decorative cornicing but overall the impression is of refined purity.
Or at least that would be the case if those responsible for King House would allow the building to speak for itself. Loath as one is to speak ill of any organisation prepared to ensure a future for the country’s architectural heritage, what a shame that in this case the relevant authorities have shown scant confidence in the house’s inherent qualities. The restoration work has been exemplary but rather than allow the interior’s handsome proportions to make an impression, everywhere is filled with furniture, display units, information panels, mannequins and assorted bric-a-brac relating to a disparate variety of topics. The place is so busy one is constantly denied an opportunity to assess architectural merit (or, incidentally, to take a decent picture). A dissapointment as the building is of such rare merit it deserves to be cherished as and for itself, and not treated as the setting in which much less interesting material is shown. The current style of presentation is unquestionably to the building’s detriment. King House dominates not just Boyle but much of the surrounding region since nothing else can begin to approach its resplendence. Accordingly nothing else ought to be required. Here is an instance where less would achieve more.

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This last is an old photograph of King House when still a military barracks (and, by the looks of it, already in poor shape).

A (Ros)common Problem

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Like the majority of Irish towns, Roscommon is a bit of a mess, the historic core displaying a lack of coherent civic vision for either its maintenance or improvement. And there seems little will to change the situation. The tourist office, for example, closes during the key lunch period: wasn’t that kind of wilful indifference to visitors’ needs supposed to have disappeared around the same time as the manually operated telephone exchange?
Clearly it wasn’t always thus. Signs of Roscommon’s currently-indiscernible vibrancy can be found in the free-standing limestone structure closing the vista of Main Street and dominating the Square – which, but of course, is actually oval-shaped. This is the town’s former court and market house, built in the early 1760s to replace an previous structure which had collapsed more than forty years before ‘killing and wounding at least 200 persons.’

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It took a while for the local populace to regain confidence after that traumatic event. Then they acted with gusto, commissioning a splendid new structure from fraternal architects John and George Ensor. These brothers both enjoyed successful careers, although George was twice dismissed from government posts for taking bribes; there is some kind of perverse comfort to be derived from knowing the offence has such a long, and dishonourable, history in Ireland. John Ensor, the older and apparently more law-abiding of the pair, was responsible for a number of private houses in the capital including sections of what is now Parnell Square, also Hume Street, Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green. In other words, the citizens of Roscommon displayed foresight and taste alike when they invited the Ensors to design their town’s most prominent public edifice.
What they got was a splendid, two-storey rectangular building, the core of which survives although it has been subject to subsequent alteration. By the third decade of the 19th century the court/market house had already begun to show signs of neglect and following the repeal of the Penal Acts in 1829 the local Roman Catholic priest took over the premises and converted them into a church, with additions built front and rear. So it remained until 1903 when a new Catholic place of worship in full Triumphalist Gothic opened to serve the needs of the Roscommon congregation.
The older structure then underwent another transformation into Harrison Hall, a meeting place used for dances and social gatherings, as well as acting as a cinema and theatre. Forty years ago it was sold to the Bank of Ireland and continues to operate as a local branch. Having changed functions so often, the interior retains little of interest, although the main banking hall occupies an airy, double-height space with gallery running along one side.
The exterior is more distinguished, the 19th century additions – including an octagonal cupola over the main entrance – fully in sympathy with the central block erected almost 100 years before. Overall it looks well-maintained, although one worries about plant life flourishing directly above the pedimented facade (someone needs to pay more attention to the gutters).

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At the moment it’s hard to appreciate the architectural merits of Roscommon’s finest historic monument. The surrounding square is a shambles of parking spaces and street signage, meaning an unimpeded view can never be found. See how much more handsome it looks in the old photograph above, without a press of vehicles on every side. Clear away the clutter and let the building breathe. It could then come into its own, Roscommon would acquire a fine public space and the local population might rediscover the appeal of their town centre: an example to other towns suffering from the same problems.
Another important old property close by suffers similar disadvantages. This is the former town gaol, dating from c.1740 and locally attributed to German-born architect Richard Cassels (usually anglicised to Castle); he was responsible for a number of houses in the region, including Strokestown (extant) and French Park (unroofed 1953, subsequently demolished). Like the neighbouring court/market house, Roscommon’s old gaol has had what, in most accounts of the building, is called a chequered career; the same description could probably have been applied to its earliest inmates. After housing miscreants for a century – and being famous for employing the country’s only hang-woman (seemingly she took the job to save herself from the noose) – it became a lunatic asylum, then a ‘refuge for smallpox sufferers’, a market house and a private house. Only the facade with advanced end bays and unusual mid-18th century castellation now remains: since 1999 the building has been a drab shopping centre. From one grimly utilitarian function to another…

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The Folks Who Live at Rush Hill

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The Irish term ‘strong farmer’ refers not to the title holder’s physical strength but to the size of his land holding. Until sequential legislation in the late 19th/early 20th centuries collectively known as the Land Acts, the greater part of this country lay in the possession of a relatively small number of wealthy families, their tenants obliged to survive on tiny holdings of just a couple of acres. Tenantry leasing larger, more economically viable plots of land came to be known as strong farmers and their fiscal strength allowed them to build bigger houses than the usual one- or two-roomed thatched cottage.
Rush Hill in County Roscommon is just such a house. This has never been a particularly fashionable, or indeed affluent, part of the country but it used to sustain many more such properties; of the four ‘gentlemen’s seats’ identified in the immediate parish by Samuel Lewis in his 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Rush Hill is the only one still standing. The core of the house dates from c.1700. By that date, and for the next 200-odd years, much of the region was owned by the King family, beneficiaries of extensive land acquisitions made in the first decades of the 17th century by an ancestor, Edward King, Anglican Bishop of Elphin.

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Rush Hill’s clerical connections are frequent. Within a century of Bishop King taking possession of the land on which the house stands, it was leased together with some 400 acres to a relation of his descendants, the Rev. George Blackburne who became rector of the local parish and built a new church at the end of what was effectively Rush Hill’s drive. Described by Lewis as ‘a neat, plain building with a small spire,’ this survived an ever-dwindling congregation until demolished in 1971. The graveyard survives.
Unmarried, Blackburne left control of the property to his nephew William Devenish; generations of the same family remained there as major tenant farmers and minor Protestant gentry for the next 150 years. In 1884 the last of the line to live at Rush Hill, Robert Devenish gave up the tenancy and two years later it was let to George Acheson whose heirs continued to live there until 1943, during which time they acquired the freehold of the house and 109 acres from the King estate. Next it passed into the hands of a local farmer but after fifty years the house was abandoned and began to slide into decay, a condition only partially arrested when a Dutch family bought the place in 1997. Ten years ago Rush Hill was acquired by its present owners who ever since have been engaged in diligently restoring house and grounds.

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By the time they assumed responsibility for the place, Rush Hill was in poor shape; it had not been rewired since the mid-1950s when electricity was first introduced to the premises, the only sink was in the kitchen, supplied with water via a rubber hose through a window, and the only lavatory was broken. Almost all the windows needed to be replaced, as did many floorboards and parts of the roof, while the majority of original fittings like chimney pieces had long since been sold or stolen. Likewise outdoors the gardens were overgrown and the yard buildings in a state of total dereliction.
Given the scale of work required, inevitably it has taken time to achieve the present results. Looking at Rush Hill today, it is hard to imagine the property’s shambolic state a mere ten years ago. While most of the finance for this enterprise has come from the owners’ own resources, they did receive assistance on a couple of occasions from the Heritage Council; one worries the organisation may not be able to provide such support for much longer, given the present government’s apparent determination to emasculate it.

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Rush Hill is precisely the kind of property that deserves help from state agencies, especially when relatively small sums can make a substantial difference. Too often, because the national mindset is fixed on the extremes of Big House and peasant cottage, the idea that our architectural heritage might include other kinds of domestic building tends to be overlooked. Not being one of the region’s more significant properties, Rush Hill could easily have slipped out of existence, like the other three ‘gentlemen’s seats’ in the parish, had it not been rescued just in time. The evolution of Rush Hill took place over three centuries; the core five-bay house probably began as just one-room deep and without the lop-sided extensions to either side of the central block or indeed the latter’s projecting groundfloor bows. Gradually the house grew to reflect successive owners’ affluence and aspirations until achieving its present form. In the process, it came to represent one lesser-known but still important strand of our nation’s history. Without Rush Hill’s patient preservation we should all be the poorer.

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