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