Bridging Cultures


The ‘Hindu Gate’ at Dromana, County Waterford. This originated as a papiér maché and canvas-covered timber structure erected in 1826 by the tenants of Villierstown to welcome home their newly-wed landlord Henry Villiers-Stuart, later Lord Stuart de Decies, and his Austrian bride Theresia Pauline Ott. Drawings for the present structure dated 1849 were made by Wexford-born architect Martin Day, who carried out other work on the estate. Located on one side of a bridge spanning the river Finnisk, the gate is a entrance lodge, its central arch flanked by chambers. While some elements of the design, such as the decorative glazing bars complimented by quatrefoil-detailed filigree above are a reflection of Georgian gothick, other features – not least the minarets and copper-clad onion dome – appear to owe their inspiration to John Nash’s Royal Pavilion, Brighton built some thirty years earlier. After being restored by the Irish Georgian Society in the late 1960s, the gate was subject to vandalism and had to be repaired again by the local county council in 1990.

Next Wednesday, October 1st I shall be speaking on ‘The Fate of the Irish Country House: A Comparative Study’ at a symposium being held in King’s College, London to mark the fortieth anniversary of the influential 1974 V&A exhibition, The Destruction of the Country House. For more information, see:

Exactly as Intended


From a letter written to Sir John Keane on July 30th 1913 comes this design for a new pedimented porch leading off the drawing room at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. The architect responsible, Page L Dickinson, came up with several proposals for this project which was intended to replace a 19th century wooden structure the style of which was unsympathetic to the main building. As he explains to his client, ‘The introduction of two columns inside the central piers reduces this opening to the same size as the others, & also makes more of a feature of the centre.’ Indeed it does, and so the design was accepted and executed just before the outbreak of the first World War, and the burning of Cappoquin ten years later. Thankfully the house was subsequently restored, and Dickinson’s addition remains intact.


A Burst of Exuberance


The ceiling of the south hall, now used as a drawing room, at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. Built in 1779 and believed to have been designed by local architect John Roberts, the house was gutted by fire in February 1923, one of many such buildings lost to arson during the Civil War. Unlike so many others, however, Cappoquin rose from the ruins after its owner Sir John Keane embarked on a programme of restoration that took almost six years to complete. The decoration for the main reception rooms came from the London firm of G Jackson & Sons which billed Sir John £284 for the elaborate plasterwork seen here including the screen of columns and pilasters.
(For more information on the rebuilding of Cappoquin House, see my earlier piece Risen from the Ashes, March 4h 2013).

Miss Austen Requests the Pleasure…


2013 being the bicentenary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, inevitably particular attention is being paid to the novel’s author. Earlier this year, for example, a Jane Austen Society of Ireland was formed; one hopes its members will grant at least some notice to the writer’s Irish near-contemporary Maria Edgeworth who was much the better-known author during their respective lifetimes and whose books ought to be more widely appreciated in this country. A cheer too for Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan whose 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl is a remarkable piece of work.
Be that as it may, various events have been taking place in Ireland in recent months to celebrate Jane Austen and her links here, not least through the three daughters of her brother Edward whose lives are recalled in Sophia Hillan’s 2011 book May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland. On Sunday October 6th Dr Hillan will be speaking about the three sisters at Salterbridge, County Waterford (seen above). Sitting high above the Blackwater, this is a most interesting house, originally built c.1750 but enlarged by the addition of a new front almost a century later.
Salterbridge is the location for a day of Jane-ite festivities, since after Dr Hillan’s talk there is to be a splendid Regency lunch (guests are promised jelly shapes galore) followed by an afternoon performance by Vanessa Hyde of Empire Line Productions of ‘Ladies of Jane: Scenes and Musings from the Pen of Jane Austen.’ Those attending are encouraged to wear appropriate costume and rather charmingly, as in Miss Austen’s day, changing rooms will be available for those who wish to complete their toilette on arrival. All proceeds from the occasion go to a restoration fund for Lismore Hall not far away.
Anyone interested in attending the day should telephone +353-058-54952/087-2030763 or email

Roman Evenings


A princely villa in the former Papal States? No, this is a view taken below the terrace of Ballynatray, County Waterford. Situated on the banks of the Blackwater river, the house dates from the closing years of the 18th century but was subsequently refaced in stucco, hence its radiant exterior thanks to a wash of colour responding to evening sunlight.
*In case you have not already done so, today is the last chance to nominate me for an Irish Blog Award (see Number One, July 25th).

Good Golly Miss Molly


‘For the last fifty years of my life I have lived in a cottage – a cottage hanging above Ardmore bay, above the village and the Catholic church, its east window lighted over the sea on winter evenings. Beyond my cottage one of the finest round towers in Ireland reaches up to the sky above the ruined and beautiful church and monastery at its foot.’ Part of novelist Molly Keane’s charm is her ability to exaggerate to just the right extent. In this instance, the length of time she lived at Dysart in Ardmore, County Waterford has been amplified to half a century. In fact, she remained in the house for forty-four years, from 1952 until her death at the age of 91 in 1996, and as a result Dysart is replete with memories of its former chatelaine.



Anyone interested in Ireland’s historic houses and their near-universal decay during the course of the last century will be familiar with the work of Molly Keane. In the words of my clever friend Polly Devlin, she ‘observed and preserved…the sounding of the tocsins and the minutiae of the last days of the Irish Raj,’ a surveillance which had begun back in 1800 with the publication of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Molly Keane was successor to Edgeworth, just as she was to Somerville and Ross, and like these earlier writers she combined keen scrutiny with black humour, fully aware she was chronicling the decline and fall of her own people but refusing to be cast down by the prospect. As her older daughter Sally has commented, ‘Her long life almost spanned the century. She has to be the last of the Anglo-Irish writers, because she bore witness to the dying away of her world.’



I never had the good fortune to meet Molly Keane but know well both Sally and her younger sister Virginia who now has charge of their mother’s house in Ardmore. This is a charming coastal town which has been a favourite holiday resort in the area since the 19th century. As already mentioned, it became the last stop in the peregrinations of Molly Keane, born Mary Nesta Skrine in County Kildare in 1904. When she was aged six her family moved to Ballyrankin House, County Wexford; in July 1921 the building and its contents were burnt out by members of the IRA and its owners forced to walk to the nearest town in their nightwear. Despite this Molly’s father Walter declared, ‘I would rather be shot in Ireland than exiled to England’ and remained in the country until his death nine years later. By that time, his daughter was well established as a writer.



Molly’s first novel, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, came out in 1926; she was later rather disparaging about it but I find the book admirable and already full of the themes that recur in her later work, not least love of the Irish countryside and of hunting. It was because of her involvement with the latter that she published the majority of her books under the pseudonym of M.J. Farrell, the name borrowed from a pub she regularly passed on her horse. ‘For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm,’ she later explained. As for her own books, ‘no-one connected them with me. I didn’t want to be recognised as a writer. I only wanted to be good in the hunting field and to be popular at hunt balls. I was so starved of fun when I was young, and I loved fun so much.’ Her books – and the plays she wrote with John Perry – provided her with that fun, and with much-needed income both before her marriage and during her long widowhood. In 1938 she married Bobby Keane but he died only eight years later after what was supposed to be a routine operation in London.



During her marriage and for the first years of widowhood, Molly Keane lived at Belleville outside Cappoquin, a house dating from around 1830. The drawing room, Sally remembers, ‘had a 1930s flavour. It was sort of glamorous, with plumped cushions and a cocktail shaker in the corner. It was decorated in peaceful shades of pale grey, dark blue and rust colours. It had tall windows, crossed with thin glazing bars, facing to the south.’ Above are a couple of photographs from that period, the first showing her working in the garden with Belleville behind, the second of Molly with her daughters Sally and Virginia as small children. However for various reasons, not least monetary, by 1952 she was obliged to move and hence settled into a much smaller property at Ardmore. This was the same year Treasure Hunt her last novel under the name M.J. Farrell appeared; it would be almost three decades before a new book written by her was published. In 1961 Dazzling Prospect, her final play co-authored with John Perry, received such poor reviews from London critics that she gave up writing altogether.
Instead she concentrated on her children, and on her house in Ardmore. Sally has written that gardening grounded her mother, ‘It was very important to her. She loved plants and digging. It assuaged the depressive moods of her artist’s temperament. Its imagery pervades her work and is part of a wider, intense response to the natural world of the Irish landscape…’ The garden Molly Keane created at Ardmore is still there, now tended by Virginia, and so too is the kitchen where, Sally believes, she spent some of her happiest times. ‘She delighted in domesticity and was brilliant at it. For a long period, she stopped writing, and I think she replaced it by cooking. She cooked with the precision and care she spent on words, balancing sweet and sour, and creating subtle unique flavours.’



The story of Molly Keane’s rediscovery is well-known. In 1981 at the age of 77 and under her own name she published Good Behaviour which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and led to all her earlier books being reprinted and their author receiving the credit she was due. Molly Keane went on to write two further, equally acclaimed novels, Time after Time and Loving and Giving. She always liked to write in her own bed, seen above; the lower of the two photographs (a film still courtesy of RoseAnn and Catherine Foley) shows her working away in self-same bed with her dog Hero (she called him ‘My Hero) tucked under an arm.
The special charm of Dysart is that it remains imbued with Molly Keane’s spirit; aside from her novels nowhere else will you be better able to experience the character of this clever, witty, plucky woman. Virginia is very much her mother’s daughter and forever finding ways to encourage greater use of the house, as a writers’ retreat, a centre for creative writing and a venue for one-off events, such as those presented by her own husband, film historian Kevin Brownlow. You can find out more about all these occasions on I will close with some lines written by the Cappoquin-born poet Thomas McCarthy who knew Molly Keane well and is a terrific supporter of Virginia’s endeavours: ‘When you lift the gate and walk down the steps into Molly Keane’s house in Ardmore you know you are coming down into a creative lair, into an eagle’s nest, into a writer’s heaven. I descend into a pillow of voices, an atmosphere that is thick with the scent of white roses, with the memories of some of the loveliest days of my youth. There is old Brigadier FitzGerald before me, happy to have another lost novel of Molly’s in his hand, impatient for Molly’s signature, impatient to get down to a right good gossip about the residents of the Blackwater valley; there is Hurd Hatfield, always hovering, ready to be charming or morose (depending upon whether a visitor remembers who he is), there is Hero, yapping, sniffling in Molly’s arms. But when you enter this house it is not just the place of personal memory: it is the house as a writer’s working space, the house as workshop where the work gets done. Here is a place to come to in County Waterford if you want to attend to the writer’s task.’


Holding the Fort


Next week, on Tuesday 23rd April the contents of Fort William, County Waterford are due to be auctioned (see for more information). The sale will close a memorable period in many people’s lives; there have been few Irish houses in recent years more welcoming, more filled with joie de vivre than this.
Located a couple of miles west of Lismore and on a superb site above the Blackwater river, Fort William dates from the 1830s when it was erected to the designs of those prolific brothers James and George William Pain, both of whom worked as apprentice architects for John Nash in London before moving to Ireland. The Pains produced houses in whatever style was requested by their clients and at Fort William they came up with a benign form of Tudor Revival. Faced in local sandstone which has a wonderfully mottled appearance, the exterior is ornamented with an abundance of gables and pinnacles and angled chimneys but these are decorative flourishes on what is essentially a classical building, as can be seen by the regular sash windows.
Fort William was built for John Bowen Gumbleton whose family, originally from Kent, had settled in the area by the early 18th century. Their main residence – once called Castlerichard but later renamed Glencairn – lies a little further upriver. The property on that site was substantially transformed around 1814 by John Gumbleton’s father into fashionable High Gothic (complete with faux cloister) and this may be the explanation for Fort William’s appearance: in every sense a chronological continuation of the parent house.



Ever since being built, Fort William has regularly changed hands. On John Bowen Gumbleton’s death in 1858, the estate was inherited by his son 17-year old John Henry but he died at sea eight years later. Ownership of Fort William then passed to his two sisters but they lived elsewhere and so the house was rented to tenants. In 1910 the place was taken by Lt-Col. Richard Keane, whose older brother Sir John Keane of nearby Cappoquin I discussed a few weeks ago (Risen from the Ashes, 4th March). A note in the forthcoming auction catalogue notes that Richard Keane and his wife Alice ‘had two cars, one of which – replete with a cocktail cabinet – was commandeered by the IRA during the War of Independence and never returned.’ Furthermore during the subsequent Civil War the servants’ wing at Fort William was occupied by Free State troops; this may help to explain why Sir John Keane’s house was burnt out in 1923 by the opposition.
Richard Keane died in 1925 following the accidental discharge of his shotgun and seven years later the estate was sold to a local man who continued the established pattern of renting the house; among the tenants at this time was Adele Astaire, sister of Fred, who in 1932 had married Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire; for centuries the Devonshires have owned the neighbouring estate of Lismore Castle.



The ducal connections continue because after a brief Gumbleton interlude in 1946 Fort William was bought for £10,000 by the second Duke of Westminster. This was the famed Bend’Or, one-time lover of Chanel (among many others) who following the failure of his third marriage had fallen in love with Nancy Sullivan, daughter of Brigadier-General Edward Sullivan. An outstanding horsewoman she had grown up in Glanmire on the outskirts of Cork city. This may explain why the Duke acquired Fort William, although it is worth remembering that a daughter from his first marriage, Lady Ursula Grosvenor, together with her second husband Major Stephen Vernon lived at Fairyfield outside Kinsale, County Cork. Whatever the explanation, the Duke certainly spent some time in the house: the dining room panelling is said to have come from the interior of one of his yachts and he is also believed responsible for installing the French painted and gilded boiseries in the drawing room. Following his death in 1953 his widow (who only died in 2003) retained Fort William but spent the greater part of her time at Eaton Lodge, Cheshire where her stables held many fine racehorses, not least Arkle who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in succession.
Fort William was sold again in 1969 to an American couple, Murray and Phyllis Mitchell. Following her death, it was bought by Ian Agnew, one-time Deputy Chairman of Lloyd’s. Ian acquired the place on a whim but he had strong Irish connections through his mother, Ruth Moore who had grown up at Mooresfort, County Tipperary. The Moores were an old Roman Catholic family. Ian’s great-grandfather, Arthur Moore was created a Papal Count in 1879; the previous year he had provided most of the funds necessary to establish the Cistercian monastery of Mount St Joseph outside Roscrea, County Tipperary. Curiously Glencairn, the estate immediately adjacent to Fort William is today occupied by Cistercian nuns.
Ian and I never spoke much of his forebears but among the most remarkable was his maternal grandmother, Lady Dorothie Feilding. A much decorated volunteer nurse and ambulance driver during the First World War, in September 1916 she became the first woman to be awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. After she died in 1935 her husband Captain Charles Moore moved to England to become manager of the Royal Stud. Continuing those links, Ian’s father Sir Godfrey Agnew was for 21 years Clerk of the Privy Council.



A wonderful man with seemingly boundless gusto, Ian Agnew went to enormous trouble to restore and modernise Fort William while ensuring none of the patina it had accumulated was lost. (He also put in some time trying to teach me the finer nuances of fly fishing on the Blackwater, with less successful results.) The outcome was a house of tremendous comfort and warmth, very much a reflection of his personality and that of his beloved wife Sara. Sadly Ian died four years ago and since then Sara has been literally holding the fort, and continuing the tradition of abundant hospitality already established while her husband was alive. I could not begin to enumerate the charmed days I have spent at Fort William, but I have also managed to work there with equal delight: more than one piece for this blog has been written while sitting at the George III secretaire which can be seen in a corner of the morning room above.
I cherish all those memories because the time has now come for Sara regretfully to pass on the baton, hence next week’s sale. Without question she is going to be enormously missed by everyone in the area but one wishes the new owners as much delight in Fort William as was enjoyed by Ian and Sara – and their lucky houseguests. Below is a final image summing up Fort William in recent years: a passage leading to the ever-welcoming kitchen bathed in sunshine (something the house’s spirit has seemed to radiate even on days of rain). And there on the rug is Alfie who despite his recumbent pose for the camera has been ever a faithful and tireless companion on Fort William walks no matter how far the distance or how bad the weather.


All photographs by James Fennell (