How It All Came Crashing Down

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‘It is extraordinary how women’s figures change according to the fashion of the times. Then, hers seemed to be absolutely perfect. She had that wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that, like Mary Queen of Scots, when she swallowed, you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat. I have never seen such a skin or such flesh…Her face was lovely, with soft brown eyes, a delicately formed, slightly retroussé nose, and brilliant, pouting lips. It was before the days of make-up and her wonderful colour was her own. Alas! That colour told its own tragic story. It was the beauty of the consumptive.’
Thus Hermione, fifth Duchess of Leinster as described by her friend Daisy Fingall (whose memoirs, Seventy Years Young cannot be sufficiently recommended to anyone who has yet to discover them). Judged one of the great beauties of the late Victorian era, at the age of 19 she had married Gerald FitzGerald, then Marquess of Kildare. Although the couple had two sons, Maurice and Desmond – Hermione can be seen with them both above – the marriage was not happy: while living in Kilkea Castle, County Kildare she once wrote the couplet, ‘Kilkea Castle and Lord Kildare/Are more than any woman can bear.’
She then embarked on an affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) the brother of another friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, and with him had a third son Edward. It was the misfortune of the FitzGeralds that following the early deaths of both the fifth Duke and Duchess of Leinster their eldest child should have suffered psychiatric problems and been institutionalised before he too died young, while the second son was killed in the First World War.
The next heir was Hermione’s third child, Lord Edward FitzGerald, a notorious spendthrift and wastrel who was barely 21 before being declared bankrupt for the first of several occasions. As is well-known, in 1917 he sold his birthright for £67,000 worth of debts and an annuity of £1,000: five years later he became the seventh Duke of Leinster. The outcome was, and has been ever since, catastrophic for the FitzGeralds and for their old estate at Carton, County Kildare. A photograph of how the saloon looked in the 1890s before any of this misfortune occurred can be seen below. The story is now told in Terence Dooley’s new book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1872-1948 (Four Courts Press) which makes for a grim but gripping read. In recent months there has been extensive media coverage of several once-wealthy Irish plutocrats brought crashing down: Terence Dooley’s book demonstrates this is no new phenomenon.

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A Grand Soft Day

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Recently photographed on a typical Irish summer morning (that is to say in sleeting rain: the Irish Aesthete is nothing if not intrepid) the walled garden at Glenarm Castle, County Antrim. Dating from the 18th century, it originally provided the main house with fruit and vegetables but in recent years has been converted into a series of pleasure grounds open to the public, the upper sections designed by Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin. Above is an obelisk of oak created by local craftsman Corin Giles: what distinguishes this piece is the use of wood for a rusticated base. Meanwhile below a pair of rills flanked by beech hedges run down to a cascade before concluding in a pool; far below can be seen an opening cut into the yew circle dating from the 1820s. How simple devices can achieve powerful effects…

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Waiting to be Woken

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Anyone who has read Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes will remember the author’s evocation of Les Sablonnières, ancient home of the de Galais family which has seen better days. It is here that the novel’s eponymous hero, having disappeared from school, comes across a magical costume party and falls in love as much with the place as with the girl he meets on that occasion. Thereafter both he and the narrator are driven by a desire to recapture a lost moment and as a result are repeatedly driven to return to Les Sablonnières.
Milltown Park, County Offaly is like an Irish version of Alain-Fournier’s fictional house. Hidden from sight on all nearby roads, unknown even by many of the local residents and only discovered at the end of a long, verdant drive, it seems to seep memories and to be haunted by the past. Replete with echoes and reverberations, it is a sleeping beauty of a building, deep in dreams of what once took place within its walls and waiting for someone to come along and stir it into life again.

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In a blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720 but the accompanying initials W.S. suggest this was added long after the house was finished, since at the time of its original construction the estate was owned by the Spunner family: they only became White-Spunners in the 19th century after the son of Benjamin White and Elizabeth Spunner changed his name from Thomas Spunner White to Thomas Spunner White-Spunner on inheriting Milltown. Behind and to the north of the house is a large model farm courtyard built in 1840 so perhaps the initials and date on the front of the property were added at the same time.
In fact, Milltown is only slightly later in origin. The lands on which it stands appear to have been in the ownership of the Spunners since the 1500s and the ruins of an earlier residence remain. By the 18th century, with circumstances in the country more settled than had previously been the case and the economy accordingly more buoyant, the Spunners must have decided to embark on erecting a more fashionable home for themselves.

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‘From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first is it like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have...This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness...’
From Le Grand Meaulnes

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In Maurice Craig’s wonderful (and wonderfully named) 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, although Milltown Park does not feature many of its architectural elements are discussed. So, for example, when considering the elevation of these buildings, he writes of the widespread use of a tripartite opening, commenting ‘I prefer this term rather than “Venetian window” because it covers a number of pseudo-Palladian features which, though inter-related, can be distinguished from one another. It should be borne in mind that a round-headed door flanked by side-lights [as found at Milltown Park] is first cousin to a “Venetian” window. Such a door occurs in Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, where the sidelights are separated from the door by piers of walling...’
From grand Seaton Delaval in Northumberland to modest Milltown Park in Offaly in twenty-odd years is quite a journey, but the latter house shows how taste could travel and fashions be adopted by other architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (whose father, after all, was a first cousin of Vanbrugh). Note how the same tripartite design is used on both the ground floor (for the smart Gibbsian doorway) and that above but slightly bungled because, as indicated by the photograph below of the landing, the ceiling was too low to accommodate the full height of the central window. Thus its upper section is blind. Another indication of Milltown Park’s ‘country cousin’ status are the blunt gable-ends with oversized chimney stacks. The house shares characteristics with two others in neighbouring County Laois, Summergrove and Roundwood: all have five-bay limestone facades with a central breakfront featuring tripartite windows on the ground and first floor and a pediment above. They represent, as Maurice Craig notes, ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm.’

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The interior of Milltown Park displays the same mixture of sophistication and naïveté, a broad awareness of current trends without a full understanding of how best to implement them. The design of some rooms clearly received more attention than did others. The entrance hall with its lovely flagged floor concludes in a screen that might have been inspired by Brunelleschi. And the front section has a ceiling decorated with pretty rococo plasterwork, generic in style but no less charming for that.
This is the only room with such ornamentation, although the drawing room has a good marble chimney piece and the morning room a fine neo-classical cornice frieze. But it is the handsome sturdiness of Milltown Park that most appeals, embodied by the broad first floor landing with its wide oak boards and views over the surrounding parkland. This was never an especially grand house, inspired more by aspiration than pretension, and embellished only as and when funds permitted. Hence its endurance for almost three centuries. Now, for the first time since being constructed, it is to be sold: a potentially hazardous moment in its history. Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires - and deserves - special care. Wanted: one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories and happy to permit the ghosts of its past wander free.

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Paper Thin

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A section of the dining room wall at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Although the main part of the house dates from c.1730 when designed by Richard Castle, it underwent alterations and redecoration in the first decades of the following century, which is when the rose-pink damask paper was hung in this room, its patinated surface indicating the movement of pictures over the past 200 years (and the sale of some of them during the later part of this period).
The interiors of Strokestown feature in a new book Wallpaper in Ireland 1700-1900 written by David Skinner, the doyen on the subject and this country’s most skilled producer and restorer of papers. The book, itself an object of beauty, is published by the Churchill House Press with all proceeds from its sale going to the Irish Georgian Society. It also contains images of Strokestown’s library paper, some of which can be seen below. Again some two centuries old, this has a wide flock border above the dado rail which has suffered somewhat from pieces of furniture rubbing against the surface, but surely that only adds to its appeal?

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You can read an article written by me and discussing David Skinner’s book in today’s Irish Times magazine. : http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/on-a-roll-wallpaper-from-great-irish-houses-1.1854262

Weighing Up Your Visitors

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A page from the 1897/98 visitors’ book of Dunsandle, County Galway, one of a number of such items being sold today by auctioneer Oliver Usher in Kells, County Meath. Dunsandle itself is now a roofless ruin, although traces of its exquisite interior plasterwork somehow still remain (see Dun and Dusted, December 9th 2013). Therefore surviving remnants of life in the establishment, such as this book, are precious. Curiously visitors to the house had their weight and height taken on arrival: was this common procedure one wonders?

A Towering Presence

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An example of early 19th century modernisation: the entrance front of Ballymore Castle, County Galway. The original castle, a fortified tower house, dates from around 1585 when it was built by the Elizabethan adventurer John Lawrence on land acquired through his marriage to the daughter of O’Madden, Lord of Longford: it was damaged in subsequent wars and repaired by his son Walter in 1620. The next generation of Lawrences were dispossessed by Cromwell for having espoused the royalist cause and the castle with surrounding land given to Sir Thomas Newcomen, who then leased the property back to the Lawrences. On Newcomen’s death Ballymore passed to his stepson Nicholas Cusack of Cushinstown, County Meath, who around 1720 sold it to John Eyre of Eyrecourt. By this date another family, the Seymours were already leasing the estate and they finally purchased it from Giles Eyre in the mid-1820s. Almost a decade earlier, a two-storey house was added onto the castle, as can be seen here. Its most notable feature is the central bow with its curved fanlighted doorway.

When Moore is Less

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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…’

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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.

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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.

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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:
‘George Moore
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.’

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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.

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