The coffered and vaulted ceiling of the entrance hall at Westport House, County Mayo. Designed around 1731 for John Browne, later first Earl of Altamont, it is a rare surviving example of an interior design by Richard Castle.
In the stable yard of Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath, a two-storey worker’s house at the west gable end of the south range. Built c.1775, it possesses an advanced pedimented breakfront with ashlar detailing and round-headed niche to the centre of the ground floor flanked to either side by a square-headed window openings with a single square-headed opening to the centre of first floor.
Although now a dormitory town, for centuries Carrigaline, County Cork was a small, single street village where the main employment came from local corn and flax mills. These were operated by successive generations of the Roberts family, of which the original member, the Rev. Thomas Roberts, moved from England to Ireland in the 1630s. Until 1927 his successors lived at Kilmony Abbey near Carrigaline but in 1784 William Roberts acquired a house called Mount Rivers which had been built some twenty years before by a wealthy Cork merchant James Morrison. The building is of unusual design since its facade originally had a recessed centre between two projections with curved corners. A scale model in the main bedroom shows what the building now looks like because in the 1830s the central space was filled in, a portico created and a third storey added to the house. However as a souveenir of its original and unique appearance the outer corners of Mount Rivers still retain their rounded windows and the ground floor porch is a convex-sided recess.
Mount Rivers never had much land attached and its owners were always businessmen, some more successful than others. Following the closure of the Carrigaline mills in 1928 the house’s then-owner Hodder Roberts converted some of his old industrial buildings into a pottery, having noted that bricks were already being produced not far away. He took a sample of Carrigaline clay to the English potteries at Stoke-on-Trent to see whether it would be possible to interest any of the established companies there in his project. Receiving no offers of support Roberts was about to leave when, through a local landlady, he met the young pottery designer Louis Keeling. The latter took the Irish clay and used it to make a teapot; today this item stands in the drawingroom at Mount Rivers. Initially employing just Louis Keeling and six workers, the Carrigaline Potteries proved to be an outstanding success and grew to have a 250-strong workforce. Demand for its wares meant that by the end of the 1930s it became necessary to import clay from the south of England, with boats travelling up the river Owenabue and docking at Carrigaline. While much of the output was strictly functional, it was also distinguished by the beautiful colour of the glazes, in particular a lustrous turquoise that remains highly distinctive.
Although the Carrigaline pottery business continued through various travails into the new millennium, after Hodder Roberts’ death in 1952 his family had little further involvement in the pottery. As for Mount Rivers, it passed to the present owner – the sixth generation of Roberts to live there – when his elder brother showed no interest in taking on the responsibility. By then the house had plenty of problems, since it had not been occupied by the family since the early 1950s but instead let to a succession of tenants: at one stage there were 15 of them were living on the groundfloor alone. When these all moved out in 1974 the local authority condemned Mount Rivers as being unfit for human habitation. Fortunately this did not deter the present owner, and nor did the amount of restoration work that lay ahead of him. One of the tenants, for example, drilled holes in the hall ceiling to release rainwater that had come into the house through gaps in the roof; as a result of the constant damp, the ceiling on the floor above had partially collapsed.
After taking on the role of Mount Rivers’ saviour, the present owner also started to salvage what he could of other buildings once belonging to members of his extended family. The weather slating on the exterior of Mount Rivers, for example, was rescued from a now-demolished house called Hoddersfield. Similarly the limestone step outside the backdoor came from the front door of another now-lost property, Britfieldstown which stood at a place directly associated with the family, Roberts Cove. Inside Mount Rivers spilling out of drawers and cabinets, and covering the top of every possible surface are innumerable items with some Roberts connection, the majority carefully tagged to advise on their origins. In truth, the present owner is an inveterate and assiduous collector, and objects linked to his family’s history provide only one of several outlets for his passion. A room on the top floor of Mount Rivers is filled with boxes containing tens of thousands of postmarks, mostly Irish. Then there is a collection of old signatures and anything to do with th Irish country house: letters, bookplates, sheets of note paper. Books fill every shelf and continue to be heaped on whatever surface might still have space; failing that, they are stacked on the stairs. Not everyone could live in this fashion but it clearly suits Mount Rivers’ current occupants. It also makes their house that rare and absorbing phenomenon: a living museum.
On top of a mahogany cabinet in the staircase hall at Killadoon, County Kildare stand these pieces of 18th century furniture. Perfect in execution, they are indistinguishable from other items of the same period except in size, being on a scale fit only for a doll’s house. Is that why they were made, or had they been produced by a furniture manufacturer to provide clients with an idea of what he could produce? No one seems sure although the drawing room at Killadoon contains a pair of sofas not dissimilar in design to that seen above.
More on Killadoon shortly.
Perched on a promontory high above the Blackwater river Dromana, County Waterford has been home to successive generations of the same family for the past 800 years. Originally built for the FitzGerald family, the property frequently passed through the female line without ever changing hands. From the late 1700s until demolition in the 1960s a large house abutted that seen above which in its present form dates from the first decades of the 18th century and features a cut-limestone Gibbsian doorway. The history of Dromana, its owners and their shifting fortunes will be explored on site from tomorrow until Sunday during which the Irish Aesthete will be among the speakers; for more information, see http://www.dromana800.com.
Below is a coat of arms of the Villiers family which has long been associated with the place. The motto Fidei Coticula Crux translates as The Cross is the Touchstone of Faith.
In his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837 Samuel Lewis observes that Downpatrick, County Down ‘is built upon a group of little hills, on the south shore of the western branch of…Strangford Lough, and consists of four principal streets rising with a steep ascent from the market place in the centre, and intersected by several smaller streets or lanes: on the eastern side the hills rise abruptly behind it, commanding views of a fertile and well-cultivated tract abounding with richly diversified and picturesque scenery. It is divided according to ancient usage into three districts called respectively the English, Irish and Scottish quarters, and contains about 900 houses, most of which are well built: the streets are well paved, and were first lighted with oil in 1830; and the inhabitants are amply supplied with water.’ Lewis then proceeds to give a very full account of Downpatrick’s history, deservedly since this is one of the most ancient urban settlements in Ireland, mentioned by Ptolemy in the second century as Dunum. Originally it was called Rath Celtair, after the mythological warrior Celtchar who was said to have lived there and who appears in many old texts, not least The Táin. Later the town served as the chief royal site and religious centre of Ulster’s dominant dynasty, the Dál Fiatach. By the 13th century it had been given the name of Downpatrick after the country’s patron saint, Patrick who was said to have been buried on Cathedral Hill in the year 461; later he was joined there by Saints Bridget and Columkille, ensuring the town became the base for several religious settlements and a place of pilgrimage. Towards the end of the 12th century the Anglo-Norman John de Courcy took possession of the place and established the Benedictine order on the site reputed to hold the remains of the saintly triumvirate, where a cathedral was then built. Like the rest of the country, Downpatrick was attacked, changed hands, suffered spoliation during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries but somehow survived to enjoy prosperity from the late 1600s onwards.
When Richard Pococke made his extensive tour of Ireland in 1752 he described Downpatrick as being a spot ‘where the hills form a beautiful Amphitheatre; on two of these hills the town is built, and the third side is covered with the wood and gardens that are about a house…and on the western hill are the walls of the ancient Cathedral, called the Abby, which is not large but has a very venerable aspect; near it are the remains of a round tower. [for more on the travails of Down Cathedral, see Down Patrick’s Way, December 23rd 2013]…Below the Abbey is a very handsom brick building, in the middle part an apartment for six men, and six women, and at each end a School for ten girls, at the other for as many boys, who are to be fed and lodged as well as cloth’d and taught. All the foundation of Mr. Southwell of Kings Weston. At the lower end of the town is the Townhouse, and above it a handsom portico of twenty-four Arches for the linnen Market, which is very considerable at this place, and adjoyning to that is a School, to teach the poor children of the town, who are not in the other Schools. Near this is a good new-built Church, and beyond that a free School house for teaching Latin, which seemed to be in a ruinous way. The chief support of this place is a market and Fairs for linnen. This is the proper place of Residence for the Bishop and Dean of Down, but neither of them have houses here. I had almost forgot to mention four Apartments for Clergymen’s widows, which are maintained as well as I could be informed by subscription…Near Down Patrick is a famous horse course for races; here two or three plates are run for, which are given by the Corporation of Horse Breeders in the County of Down, erected by King James II under a charter into a Corporation, with liberty to purchase £200 a-year in lands, and a power to have a treasurer, register and other officers, and that a fair should be held for six days at the time of the races, Customs to be paid belonging to the Corporation, during which fairs, they have power to hold a Court for certain purposes.’
Among the structures to which Pococke refers are the red brick Southwell School, named after its eponymous founder and dating from 1733 and, further down English Street, a terrace of four houses built during the same period for the widows of diocesan clergymen. As he also notes neither the Bishop nor Dean of Down then maintained permanent residences in the town, perhaps because its cathedral had fallen into such a ruinous state. At the time of his visit, the Dean was Patrick Delany, appointed to the position in 1744 not long after his marriage to Mary Pendarves (née Granville) today often better remembered than her husband. When he took up the post Dr Delany discovered his predecessor had only stayed in Down for two days over a six-year period. He and his wife on the other hand tried to spend their summers in the area (the rest of the year they lived at Delville outside Dublin) renting a now-ruinous house called Mount Panther just a few miles outside the town. Despite being only in attendance for a few months annually, the Dean was assiduous in his duties: ‘Never did any flock want more the presence and assistance of a shepherd than this Deanery where there has been a most shameful neglect,’ wrote his devoted wife. ‘I trust in God it will be a very happy thing for the poor people that D.D. is come among them.’ No doubt he had to compete with the clergy of other denominations for the attention of his flock: Downpatrick contains an especially handsome Presbyterian church built in 1711. It was a century of expansion for the town, a new gaol being erected, again on English Street: after the construction of a new gaol in the 1790s (now the County Museum) the former premises became, and continue to be, the meeting rooms of the Down Hunt. Elsewhere houses were built up and down Downpatrick’s hills as the excellent land in the surrounding area made this a prosperous market town, testified by the presence of Denvirs Hotel, first established in 1641 and still with the appearance of an old coaching inn.
Sadly Downpatrick today appears to enjoy little enough of its former prosperity. This is a town replete with opportunities, not least the association with St Patrick. Since 2001 a centre at the base of Cathedral Hill has been dedicated to celebrating the town’s link with Ireland’s patron saint but the building is unsympathetically brutalist and furthermore tucked to the rear of a shopping plaza. As a consequence it is easy to overlook, like so many of Downpatrick’s other charms. The most obvious damage done to the town has been the construction of new retail outlets outside the historic core. As elsewhere, the effect has been to draw footfall away from the older district and to encourage consumers to travel by car: typically a large Lidl outlet almost directly across the road from the St Patrick Centre is set far back from the original street frontage to allow for ample parking. Meanwhile former retail premises in the heart of the town are boarded up and falling into decay, often in key locations such as at the junction of Irish, English and Scotch Streets. It does not help that all traffic must go via this location, making the area hazardous and unfriendly for pedestrians: Downpatrick ought to have been by-passed many years ago. Instead the preferential treatment given to cars means visitors attempting to move around the town on foot must constantly be on their guard. However Downpatrick’s problems don’t just spring from a want of concern for pedestrians; more seriously there appears to be an indifference to safeguarding the town’s broader built heritage. While certain key buildings like the Cathedral are given due attention, many others – especially examples of 18th and 19th century domestic architecture – have been allowed to slide into decay. A house on Irish Street next to the police station, for example, is completely ruinous. Further out on Pound Lane, the old Downe Hospital, vacant since 2009, has fallen prey to vandals and, given its location, is now a prominent blight on the urban landscape. Furthermore, these buildings suggest official indifference, a want of interest in preserving evidence of Downpatrick’s history. Residents and visitors alike will draw their own conclusions. While the real thing slips into dilapidation, ersatz Georgian townhouses are being constructed on the outskirts of the town. Downpatrick’s past looks more distinguished than its future.
Reflected in a wall mirror, a portion of the rococo ceiling in the first floor garden front reception room at Mornington House, Merrion Street, Dublin. Built c.1765 and now part of the Merrion Hotel, the house was originally the town residence of the music-loving Garret Wesley, first Earl of Mornington and father of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington. Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, so it seems appropriate to show this room which Wellington would have known well and which today carries his name.
Meanwhile next Saturday, June 20th there is to be a midsummer gathering to celebrate the Waterloo bicentenary at Dangan, County Meath, site of Lord Mornington’s country estate and childhood home of Wellington. The occasion will feature readings and music, including some of Mornington’s own compositions, as well as a roasted pig and, no doubt, one or two toasts. For tickets and more information about this event, telephone +353-46-9431458.