Once home to the D’Arcy family and likely dating from the very start of the 18th century and distinguished by exceptionally tall chimney stacks, Kiltullagh, County Galway is now a hollow ruin, its walls propped up by a grid of internal scaffolding. One of the approaches to the house is accessed via these gateposts which are probably passed daily by many travellers without a second glance. But closer inspection reveals that the topmost stone of each features a winged cherubic head in mid-relief with largely indecipherable letters to either side. The style suggests these carvings might be contemporaneous with the house, and gives an indication of what has been lost with its destruction.
The history of Dromore Castle, County Limerick and the work of its architect Edward William Godwin were discussed here some weeks ago (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013). Today the focus is on what remains of the building’s remarkable interiors since every aspect of their original decoration – furniture, wall paintings, chimney pieces, stained glass, tiles, brass- and ironwork – was likewise overseen by Godwin.
It was in the mid-1860s that William Pery, third Earl of Limerick decided to rectify his lack of a country seat in Ireland where the family had long owned thousands of acres of land in Counties Limerick and Cork. Hitherto when not in England he and his forebears had occupied an 18th century house in Limerick city but this was no longer deemed satisfactory. His decision to create a new rural residence coincided with Lord Limerick’s friendship with Godwin, the two men then respectively serving as President and Vice-President of the Architectural Society in England.
An article on Dromore Castle written by Marian Locke and published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Old Limerick Journal states that Godwin thoroughly explored his prospective client’s estates in search of a site without finding anywhere he deemed suitable before coming across a small shooting lodge owned by the Earl on a piece of land of some forty acres overlooking Dromore Lake. This the architect decided was the perfect spot, ‘a dream-like situation on the edge of a wood…overlooking the water, which would reflect the castle one hundred feet below.’ As indeed it still does, Lord Limerick buying up a further 200 acres, seventy of which were covered by aforementioned water.
So the rocky outcrop on which Dromore stands, and the views offered from this position, made certain other decisions inevitable, not least that the greater part of the accommodation would face north, hardly the best way to ensure the building’s interior would retain heat, or receive much sunlight.
Access to Dromore Castle is through a gateway on the western side and immediately to the south, only accessible by first stepping outside, was the large double-height banqueting hall seen here. This still has its hooded stone chimneypiece, but the minstrels’ gallery has gone along with the pitched timber roof. A door at the far end of the hall gave access to a slender three-storey Chaplain’s Tower which on the first floor in turn opened onto south-facing battlements, concluding in the easterly corner with a small block that originally served as a bakery.
The main portion of the castle runs west to east, with a chapel located on the first floor over the main gateway; above this looms the round tower that is one of Dromore’s more unusual features. Most of the northwest corner is taken up by a stone staircase leading to the first floor where it terminates in an arched gothic window. The shape of this window is echoed by stepped barrow vaulting above the steps, one of Godwin’s most striking effects to survive.
On reaching the top of the main staircase, one turned west along a corridor off which opened a succession of reception rooms inside what, from the exterior, looks like an enormous fortified keep. Thus the entire ground floor was given over to servants’ quarters, with a typically massive kitchen occupying the central portion. A consequence of this arrangement is that the central courtyard was primarily a service area, although a door leading from the southern end of the drawing room opened onto another run of battlements, this time looking eastwards down to the lake (or west into the courtyard). Still, it must have been a drawback that the castle’s owners could not directly enter the surrounding gardens. Perhaps they might not have wished to do so, given the splendour of their surroundings. The drawing room, for example, featured an elaborately carved pink marble chimney piece (which survives, suspended in space), and arched recesses with marble columns (some of which remain in situ) beneath more carved capitals.
Meanwhile up another flight of stairs one reached a further north-facing corridor, its windows set inside deep arched recesses, off which ran the main bedrooms. At the very end of the passage, the north-east corner was given over to the countess’s bedroom which had a stone balcony providing views of the lake far below but this was an advantage enjoyed by nobody else. The third floor was given over to servants’ bedrooms and then, once more in the north-east corner one ascended to the fourth floor billiard room, something of a break with the spirit of medievalism pervading elsewhere.
Although the exterior walls of Dromore Castle are up to six feet thick, from the start it suffered from problems of damp. In an attempt to overcome this problem, Godwin designed a brick lining with a cavity of about two inches from the stonework, but to no avail. In an article on the building carried by Country Life in November 1964, Mark Bence-Jones quotes from a lecture the architect gave in 1878, that is less than a decade after completing his commission, in which he commented ‘Whenever it was going to rain…the walls showed it like a weather glass.’ Thus the elaborate murals he designed for the main rooms never had a chance of survival. At least some of these were executed by Academician Henry Stacy Marks, an artist who specialised in painting birds. At Dromore, however, the plan was for him to cover the walls of the first-floor corridor were to depict the four seasons, twelve months and day and night (complemented by stained glass windows showing the six days of earth’s creation). The dining room murals featured the eight virtues, those of the drawing room the four winds and the four elements. Alas, none could withstand the harsh Irish elements and before long all had perished. Nevertheless, according to Bence-Jones Lord Limerick was ‘extremely delighted’ with his new property, even if this delight did not encourage him to spend much time at Dromore.
According to Marian Locke, Dromore cost in the region of £80,00-£100,000 to build, and yet it was only intermittently occupied by the Limericks for fifty years. After the First World War the family effectively abandoned the property and finally in 1939 the castle and many of its contents along with the surrounding land were sold, reputedly for just £8,000, to a local timber merchant Morgan McMahon. Although he bought the estate primarily for the value of its woodland, Dromore’s new owner was so engaged by the place that he and his family carried out necessary repairs and moved in. They remained in residence until the mid-1950s when it was again sold, but this time there was no reprieve. Faced with costly maintenance and rates, the new owners removed the roof and stripped out the interior. Since then the castle has stood empty, the dividing floors long gone so that now there is no difference between those areas once occupied by master and by servant: today all are equally open to sun and rain, and all share the same patina of neglect. Yet somehow enough of Godwin’s decorative scheme lingers on. It offers a tantalising sense of what Dromore must have looked like during its all too brief, but wondrous, heyday.
A stone spiral staircase leading from first-floor reception rooms to the bedchambers above in Dromore Castle, County Limerick. The exterior of this building, designed by Edward Godwin in the late 1860s, has featured here before (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013). Next Monday’s page will be devoted to exploring what remains of Dromore’s quite extraordinary interiors.
A splendid example of Irish 18th century craftsmanship, this George III chimney piece of white marble, Spanish brocatello and scagliola features a frieze inlaid with foliage, rosettes and husk swags centred on a similarly-framed rectangular tablet while carved trophies on either side sit above jambs with tapering panels each inlaid with a nightingale atop a pole wrapped with flowering rose stems. It is believed to have come from 4 Parnell Square, Dublin, a house built in 1754 by Henry Darley, one of a family of stone cutters and developers who was responsible for several other properties in this part of the city. A year later he sold it to Ralph Howard, later first Viscount Wicklow who was presumably responsible for much of the interior decoration including rococo plasterwork attributed to Robert West. No. 4 subsequently passed into the hands of the County Clare Vandeleur family before becoming a residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishops of Dublin. Since 2000 the building has been occupied by a primary school, Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire.
Evidently at some date in the last century the chimneypiece which stands just a few inches shy of five feet, was removed from the premises since after being purchased from a Dublin dealer it entered a London collection in the late 1960s. Later this week it comes up for auction in Dorchester where the expected price is £20-40,000. The likelihood of the piece returning to its original location seems remote, but one never knows…
After yesterday’s post on the present appalling condition of O’Connell Street (On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd) here is a photograph of the upper west side of the thoroughfare taken in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising. Despite all that had taken place during that period, the majority of houses – including No.42 which can seen at the centre of the image – had survived. Yet in the past few decades, thanks to the local authority’s failure to protect Dublin’s heritage, all but one (No.42) have been lost.
One of an album of photographs published after the Rising, you can see the complete collection on Turtle Bunbury’s always-admirable Wistorical site: https://www.facebook.com/Wistorical
A couple of weeks ago, the Irish Times‘ Patrick Freyne wrote a piece describing twenty-four hours on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Freyne was primarily concerned with reporting the people he encountered over this period and the activities, not least widespread drug dealing, that he witnessed on what is regularly touted as the Irish capital’s principal thoroughfare. He did not discuss the street’s present appearance nor the possibility that this might have consequences for the way in which it is treated (and often mistreated). So herewith a brief history of O’Connell Street and some thoughts on the way it has been allowed to slide into the sorry state seen in the accompanying photographs, all taken within the past fortnight.
The earliest section of O’Connell Street was laid out in the late 17th century by the land’s then-owner Henry Moore, third Earl of Drogheda who, the vainglorious creature, gave his name to different sections of the development: hence Earl, Henry and Moore Streets (there was once even an Of Lane). Drogheda Street, which ran south from what is now Parnell Street to the junction with Abbey Street, was much narrower than its successor on which work began c.1749 thanks to the vision of that key figure in the development of 18th century Dublin, Luke Gardiner. He was responsible for creating an elongated residential boulevard or mall some fifty feet wide and 1,050 feet long, the centre being a tree-lined public space with granite walls and obelisks topped with oil-fuelled lamp globes.
Gardiner named his development Sackville Street, after the Lord Lieutenant of the time, Lionel Sackville, first Duke of Dorset. It quickly became a fashionable district in which to live. As Maura Shaffrey commented in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1988-89, ‘No expense was spared by the wealthy residents of Sackville Street, many of whom were Members of Parliament; they commissioned the best known architects and designers of the day to build, decorate, and fit out their homes in the most elegant styles. The architecture of the east side, built largely for prominent men, was superior to that of the west side which was developed mostly by speculative builder/architects.’ The largest residence of all, Drogheda House, had a sixty-feet frontage on the north corner of what is today Cathedral Street.
Below are two pictures of Sackville Street in its heyday, the first dating from 1843, the second a postcard presumed to be from the late 19th/early 20th century.
At the time of its original development, O’Connell Street only continued as far as the junction with Henry Street, although it was always Gardiner’s intention to extend the thoroughfare as far as the river Liffey. This gradually occurred from the late 1770s onwards, aided by the involvement of Dublin’s Wide Streets Commissioners and by the opening of Carlisle Bridge in 1795: designed by James Gandon, this directly linked the street with the south side of the city. Two significant additions in the first decades of the 19th century were the erection in 1808 of a 121 foot tall granite Doric Column at the junction of the upper and lower sections and topped by a statue of Horatio Nelson, and a decade later the opening of the adjacent General Post Office designed by Francis Johnston.
The arrival of the bridge and the GPO inevitably affected the hitherto-residential character of the street and gradually commercial concerns were established there with the advent of hotels, banks and so forth. Nevertheless, O’Connell Street’s original dignified appearance remained as did many of the 18th century buildings..
With its centre of operations inside the GPO the Easter Rising in 1916 devastated the whole area, much of which was laid waste. However, reconstruction afterwards was rapid; in her book on Dublin Christine Casey notes the rebuilding programme was ‘diverse in expression, united only by restrictions on height, a prescribed cornice level and a predominantly classical vocabulary.’ In fact, this was ample to give the street coherence, as was the widespread use of cut granite for the facades. Some of these have survived, as can be seen below. Unfortunately too many are spoiled by the uncurbed use of signage inappropriate in both size and character.
Over the past ninety years the east side of O’Connell Street has fared better than its western counterpart. Despite some ill-considered shop-frontages, the majority of the former’s buildings remain much as they were redeveloped in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. Among the more significant is Clery’s Department store dating from 1918-22. Its design is indebted to that of Selfridges in London, and it has a splendid Portland Stone facade which, aside from a certain amount of tinkering with some of the details, has largely survived, as have the majority of interior features like the marble staircase.
Further up the same side of the street one finds first the Savoy Cinema and then the Gresham Hotel, both of which again are fronted in Portland stone and assumed their present appearance in the late 1920s. Christine Casey is right to point out that neither display much imagination in their design, and unquestionably the Savoy’s ground floor would benefit from re-ordering, but as she also remarks, ‘the sameness of these 1920s facades is preferable to the more recent dross on the N side of Cathal Brugha Street.’
After almost two centuries, the GPO remains the finest piece of architecture on O’Connell Street, with nothing built since approaching its standards (in itself is a damning indictment of our own era). Of the original building, only Johnston’s facade survives, the structure having been reduced to a shell at the end of the Easter Rising. But what a splendid facade it has, 220 feet long and of fifteen bays, five on each side being granite with rusticated ground floor below two further storeys. The austerity of these two sections contrasts with the centre five bays which feature a full height Portland stone portico with six fluted Ionic columns each 54 inches in diameter. These support a heavily carved entablature and pediment above which are three statues representing Mercury, Fidelity and, in central position, Hibernia. The success of the exterior is due precisely to this combination of austerity and ornamentation, the contrast between the plain side walls with undressed window recesses and the decoration of the portico
When first opened the arches behind the portico were unglazed and formed an arcade secured at close of business by iron gates. However, the building was subject to many alterations during the 19th century, so many indeed that by 1888 removal of internal support walls threatened the entire structure’s collapse. The main hall, memorably described by Christine Casey as being ‘like the lobby of a great Art Deco hotel’ dates from the second half of the 1920s. An Post has recently announced proposals to fill in the courtyard behind in order to create a 1916 museum. As yet no designs have been produced to show what form this might take.
Many of O’Connell Street’s present problems have their origins in the 1970s, although the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar by members of the IRA in March 1966 did not help: the thoroughfare’s appearance suffered from the absence of a monument which matched its grandiose scale. However, within a decade it was the demolition of older buildings and their inferior replacements – such as that now housing a branch of Penneys on the corner of Prince’s Street beside the GPO (built 1976-78) – which most clearly demonstrated the want of interest by relevant authorities in following the example of their forebears and maintaining decent standards of design. In addition, around the same period the first branches of now-ubiquitous fast food outlets arrived on the street, and again no effort was made to restrain their branding so that it was sympathetic to the surrounding environment.
It is the west side of O’Connell Street north from the junction with Henry Street, which has suffered most in the past forty years from poor planning and lack of engagement by Dublin City Council. Astonishingly this section of the street largely survived the effects of the 1916 Rising, but what wasn’t destroyed then has been grossly violated in recent decades. For example, the sandstone facade of the former Standard Life Assurance Company building which dates from 1861 and can be seen in the early postcard of the street a little beyond the GPO still stands, but with its ground floor butchered in the 1970s. Like so many other buildings along here, it is now boarded up and empty and the consequences of neglect are increasingly visible. The same is also true several doors further north where the former Colonial Assurance Company building, constructed 1863 in Ruskinian gothic with tiers of round-headed arches, is likewise unused. Immediately beside this is probably the first post-Independence intervention in the street, a predominantly glass-fronted office block developed in 1959 for Córas Iompair Éireann and now used by Dublin Bus. Of its kind it is by no means unsuccessful but, as frequently tends to be the case here, the building makes no attempt to empathise with its context: on the contrary, it flagrantly ignores the architecture of neighbours.
Further north along the west side of O’Connell Street an already tawdry state of affairs grows rapidly worse, not least thanks to two large vacant sites and to the empty buildings found on either side of them. During the boom years property company Chartered Land spent six years and an estimated €180 million acquiring some 5.5-acres of land here: the intention was to engage in comprehensive redevelopment including 700,000 square feet of retail outlets as well as leisure and residential elements, the whole budgeted at €1.25 billion. In the event, the economic downturn put paid to those notions, which is probably just as well since the scheme proposed was grotesquely over-proportioned and, yet again, completely ignored its surroundings. One especially ludicrous feature was the inclusion of what was trumpeted as a ‘park in the sky’, in other words a public roof garden thirteen storeys above ground: fortunately this part of the project was scrapped before An Bord Pleanála granted permission in March 2010 with building heights limited to around six storeys.
That was almost four years ago and since then nothing has happened, other than the fabric of extant buildings in the ownership of Chartered Land has continued to deteriorate and the character of this part of O’Connell Street has continued to decline. And, as is ever the case, Dublin City Council has continued to do nothing to resolve the situation, allowing this part of O’Connell Street to grow every more shabby.
Below is No. 42 O’Connell Street, the last surviving 18th century house on the thoroughfare. In 1752 the plot on which it stands was leased to Dr Robert Robinson, state physician and Professor of Anatomy at Trinity College, Dublin: four years later the house appeared on Roque’s map of the city. With a red brick facade, of three bays and four storeys over basement, the house’s exterior is most notable for its fine Doric tripartite limestone doorway, the lintel carved with a lion’s head and festoons. Inside there is (or perhaps was, the building has been closed up for some years), a splendid carved wooden staircase and on the first floor front room with beautiful rococo plasterwork. In the 1880s the house became the Catholic Commercial Club, a century later demolition was proposed but somehow it survived, becoming an extension of the atrociously designed and ludicrously named Royal Dublin Hotel, built in the late 1960s and within four decades (rightly) torn down: where it stood is now a large hole in the ground and a wide gap in the street. Meanwhile No. 42 to the immediate south – another part of the Chartered Land site – is left to moulder: a fitting symbol for how much we in Ireland value the buildings left in our care for the benefit of future generations.
After decades of allowing, indeed encouraging, the decline of the capital’s main thoroughfare, in 1998 Dublin City Council announced an O’Connell Street Integrated Area Plan (IAP). However, never known for rushing into action, the authority then lingered another four years before actually engaging in work on the street. Some of what it deemed the more significant features of this project included widening footpaths and the central pedestrian section, the installation of new street furniture and free-standing retail units (although the latter pretty soon disappeared again), the restoration of existing sculptures and on the site of Nelson’s Pillar the installation of a 398-feet high stainless steel pin that was somehow supposed to become a symbol of Dublin in the same way as does the Eiffel Tower for Paris or the Statue of Liberty for New York. Quite how something that resembles an enlarged knitting needle was to accomplish this feat was never satisfactorily explained.
As part of the same regeneration programme, Dublin City Council also cut down all the existing trees on O’Connell Street, some of which had been there for 100 years, and replaced them with other trees. The entire exercise, which took four years to complete, cost no less than €40 million of public money. In addition O’Connell Street has been designated both an Architectural Conservation Area and an Area of Special Planning Control (apparently these safeguards ‘strictly govern all aspects of planning and development on the street’). Furthermore, the majority of the street’s buildings are now classified as Protected Structures. It is exceedingly difficult to understand quite what such designations and classifications have done either to safeguard existing structures or to improve the overall character and appearance of O’Connell Street.
O’Connell Street today is dominated by a sequence of fast-food outlets and gaming arcades, all of which will have applied for, and received permission from the local authority to operate the premises. The elegant thoroughfare created by Luke Gardiner, brought to completion by the Wide Street Commissioners and then carefully recreated in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising by our predecessors has in just a few decades been recklessly and wilfully destroyed. Responsibility for this shoddy state of affairs lies overwhelmingly with Dublin City Council, a body which appears entirely devoid of vision when it comes to urban planning and our built heritage. Pulling up and replanting trees, and extending footpaths while the buildings on either side fall into dereliction smacks of deck chairs and the Titanic. If an Integrated Area Plan is to measure up to its name, every aspect of the street must be included, most especially the appearance and maintenance of structures along its full length. One wonders whether anyone from DCC, either its elected representatives or officials, ever looks at the condition of O’Connell Street, and if so do they feel a hot blush of shame over the condition of the capital’s principal thoroughfare, a condition which they are in the position to improve if only they could bestir themselves. Things have come to a shabby state when even the police station on O’Connell Street has been shut and the space immediately outside on the (expensively widened) pedestrian footpath is treated as an impromptu carpark…
Set on top of a small rise, the elegant octagonal Belvedere at Dromoland, County Clare. This dates from the early 1740s and is believed to have been designed by self-trained architectural draughtsman John Aheron, a protégé of Dromoland’s then-owner Sir Edward O’Brien. Passionately interested in horses, Sir Edward apparently built the Belvedere so that he could watch racing across his land, and have views as far as Ennis, the county town. Entrance to the building is gained via a flight of steps to the door on the east side (there was another door on the south giving access to the half-sunk basement) and originally there would have been seven windows but now only three. The single room main floor was heated by a fireplace set in the north-west wall. One wonders whether the exterior clad in uncut stone would originally have been rendered, and indeed whether some of the openings were once as large as their brick arches suggest. Having fallen into disrepair, the Belvedere was repaired some years ago but now is both cut off from the rest of the estate, and unhappily marooned on a strip of land between a tributary road and a motorway.
The earliest recorded iron bridge in Ireland and originally known as the Wellington Bridge in honour of the Irish-born victor of Waterloo, Dublin’s pedestrian Ha’penny Bridge opened a year after that battle, in 1816: its popular name comes from the toll originally charged to users traversing the Liffey. The structure was ordered from the foundry at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire and it is believed one of the company’s foremen John Windsor was responsible for its elegant, and much-photographed, design. One of the details which is often missed is the line of miniature urns atop the balustrade. Of late the structure has suffered from the global fashion for smothering it with ‘love’ padlocks, those engaged in the activity so blinded by ardour, one assumes, that they fail to appreciate the corrosive damage being done to the metal (not to mention the disfigurement of the bridge).
Given the notoriety of its late 18th century resident, the fate of Mount Shannon, County Limerick seems inevitable. One of the country’s more striking ruins, the house formerly stood at the centre of a 900-acre demesne famous for its trees and gardens: in his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening the Scottish botanist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon specifically cited Mount Shannon as an example of improvements in Ireland, and proposed these had been carried out under the direction of the first Earl of Clare, of whom more anon. Five years later Fitzgerald and McGregor in their study of the history and topography of Limerick city and county likewise refer to Mount Shannon: ‘the plantations are laid out with fine taste, and the gardens are extensive and well arranged.’ Aside from a handful of surviving specimen trees, no evidence of the demesne’s former glories now remains, and much of the land is given over to suburban housing, making it difficult to discern what the grounds must have looked like even a century ago. On the other hand it is still possible to gain a sense of the main house’s former appearance. In 1827 Fitzgerald and McGregor described it as being ‘one of the most superb mansions in the South of Ireland’ and although a hollow shell for over ninety years it clings onto a residue of grandeur.
The original Mount Shannon was built c.1750 by the euphoniously-named Silver Oliver whose family’s main estate was elsewhere in the county at Clonodfoy, later Castle Oliver. Oliver appears to have sold the property to a member of the White family but around 1765 it came into the possession of John Fitzgibbon, supposedly a descendant of the mediaeval White Knights, who had been raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Anglicanism so that he could become a lawyer (Penal Laws then barring this profession to everyone not a member of the established church). Highly successful, he amassed a considerable fortune
which when he died in 1780 was passed on to his son, also called John and later first Earl of Clare.
It would appear from various references that Lord Clare did much to improve and aggrandise Mount Shannon, not just its demesne but also the house. However the latter’s most striking feature was added by his eldest son the second earl in 1813. The immense Ionic portico with Doric pilasters behind was designed by Lewis Wyatt (a member of the prolific English family of architects and a nephew of James Wyatt), and occupies the three centre bays of the seven-bay north entrance front. Behind three round-headed doors gave access to the hall with the drawing room and other main reception rooms behind. The interiors, as a handful of 19th century photographs show, were chillingly neo-classical with scarcely any ornament. The same was true of the exterior which, as can be seen is constructed of brick with cut limestone dressings. The severity of the south, garden facade was relieved by a very large curved conservatory. To the immediate east of the two-storey over sunken basement house is a long, lower extension which would have been used for services and was originally concealed by a curved screen wall that joined the still-extant wall of the old walled garden.
Many stories are told of John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, first Earl of Clare, some of them apocryphal, few of them kind. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin and Christchurch, Oxford he became a lawyer like his father before him. He was first elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1778 and five years later was appointed Attorney General. Appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland in 1789, he was also received his first peerage, as Baron FitzGibbon, of Lower Connello; he was subsequently advanced to a Viscountcy in 1793 and finally received his earldom in 1795. Four years later he was granted an English peerage (entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster), becoming Baron FitzGibbon, of Sidbury in the County of Devon.
Unquestionably brilliant, Fitzgibbon was also without doubt bigoted. It has often been noted that he was a hardline Protestant and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who avidly promoted whatever measures he believed would best preserve that group’s political domination in Ireland. He supported harsh measures against members of the 1798 Rebellion and was openly hostile to Roman Catholicism despite or perhaps because of his father had originally been a member of this faith. When it came to the Act of Union in 1800, of which he was firmly in favour, there was widespread understanding that this would be accompanied by concessions made to Roman Catholics with the Penal Laws being ameliorated. FitzGibbon persuaded George III that any such liberalisation of the status quo would be a violation of the king’s Coronation Oath and thus ensured pro-Emancipation measures were not included in the Union legislation. In so doing he delayed Catholic Emancipation by three decades and encouraged the spread of sectarianism.
It is said that FitzGibbon once declared he would make the Irish as ‘tame as a dead cat.’ As a result, there are stories of dead cats being thrown into his coach, and of more of the same being flung into his grave when he died in January 1802 following a fall from his horse at Mount Shannon the previous month.
At the time of the Act of Union, Lord Clare arranged for a handsome pension by way of compensation for the loss of his office as Lord Chancellor which was then abolished; this was to be paid both to him and his immediate heir. Thus the second earl, who died in 1851, enjoyed a handsome income not just from his estates which ran to more than 13,000 acres in Counties Limerick and Tipperary but from the munificence of the British Treasury. A close friend of Lord Byron, with whom he was at school, the second earl later became Governor first of Bombay and later of Bengal; he enhanced Mount Shannon by both the addition of the portico and other improvements, but by adding treasures from India and paintings acquired on his travels around Europe.
Since he had no children, his property passed to a younger brother, who duly became third earl. He was to suffer a number of disadvantages, among them the absence of the pension enjoyed by his predecessors, a much depleted income in the aftermath of the Great Famine, and the death of his only son during the Charge of the Light Brigage at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854: Limerick’s Wellesley Bridge used to feature a handsome statue to the youthful Viscount FitzGibbon until it was blown up by the IRA in 1930.
On the death of the third earl in 1864 the title became extinct. His estate was left to the two younger of his three daughters (the eldest, who had caused a scandal by abandoning her own spouse and children to run off with the elderly husband of a half-sister, appears to have been disinherited). While the middle sister took possession of the FitzGibbon silver and, it seems, the greater part of the liquidity attached to the estate, the youngest Lady Louisa FitzGibbon assumed responsibility for Mount Shannon.
Lady Louisa was as dogged by bad luck as her father. Her eldest son died at the age of twenty, followed by her first husband and then the Italian Marchese she married in expectation of his money turned out to be as penniless as herself. With the advent of the Land Wars rents ceased to be paid, portions of the estate had to be sold, what remained was mortgaged, and money borrowed at high interest rates. All to no avail: Lady Louisa’s creditors demanded satisfaction, following litigation a receiver was appointed, and in the course of a sale lasting several days during June 1888 Mount Shannon was stripped of its contents including a very valuable library. Here is a small quote from the fascinating catalogue compiled by Limerick auctioneer John Bernal: ‘The Family Paintings are Chef Douvres [sic], by the first artist of the period, when they were taken, some of the Paintings, see page 42, were placed in the house about 1790, and will afford the connoisseur and speculator a good chance of getting a valuable Old Master on good terms. There are also some replicas from the Dresden gallery.’ The first such melancholy event of its kind in Ireland, a prelude to many more to follow over the coming decades, the Mount Shannon excited huge interest, with special trains and catering arrangements being laid on. Lady Louisa FitzGibbon spent the remainder of her days in a Dominican convent on the Isle of Wight, an establishment founded by the Roman Catholic convert wife of her uncle, the second Lord Clare; this was something of an irony given the first earl’s virulent hatred of all Catholics.
Five years after the sale, Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor, bought Mount Shannon where he died in 1902, just like the first earl following a bad fall from a horse. His widow only survived until 1907 after which the place passed through various hands before what remained of the estate was bought in 1915 by David O’Hannigan of County Cork for £1,000. He did not have long to enjoy Mount Shannon since it was burned down in June 1920 during the War of Independence, the light of the flames apparently seen in Limerick city.
The house remains a shell. To walk through it today is to have a sense what it must have been like visiting a site such as the Baths of Caracalla in the aftermath of Imperial Rome’s collapse, especially as this immense structure is now surrounded by others domestic buildings of infinitely smaller dimensions and aspirations. Even in its present broken-down state Mount Shannon continues dominate the area and to exude an air of greater distinction than any of its neighbours.
Many visitors arriving at Dublin airport are likely to take a route into the city centre that leads them along Amiens Street. This takes its name from Viscount Amiens, an honorary title of the Earls of Aldborough, the second of whom, Edward Augustus Stratford, built the last great free-standing town house of the 18th century around the corner on Portland Row. Travelling along this route visitors will notice the present dreadful condition of that building.
The earl’s long-lost country seat Belan, County Kildare has already been discussed here (Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013) and now it looks as though Aldborough House could likewise be consigned to oblivion as a result of ongoing failure by state and civic authorities to intervene in its preservation.
Today marooned amidst neglect and decay (the organisation Irish Business against Litter last week declared this part of Dublin the dirtiest urban area in the State) Aldborough House is an extraordinary building, after Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to one man’s regrettably misplaced ambition. The earl, who already had a perfectly fine property next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, was determined to construct a new one that would serve as testament to his wealth and social position, and also serve as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to plan for development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a precipitate decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house stranded.
We know a great deal about the construction of Aldborough House, thanks to research on the subject conducted by Aidan O’Boyle and carried in Volume IV of the Irish Georgian Society’s annual journal Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies. This text, like all others on the subject, is indebted to O’Boyle’s admirable work. It is clear from his analysis of extant material that the building of Aldborough House was fraught from the beginning, not least because the earl’s aspirations were greater than his budget. Although pailings were erected and foundations dug around the start of July 1793, there were many stops and starts as unpaid workmen left the site and replacements had to be found. O’Boyle quotes several piteous letters from various architects, plasterers, painters and other skilled craftsmen who became enmeshed in the project and then found they had to plead for monies owed. It did not help that Lord Aldborough during this period was in the throes of sundry legal battles, one of which led to his temporary imprisonment.
Yet somehow the work went on and the house rose ever higher. In style, Aldborough House was something of an anachronism, a last gasp of Palladianism with its tall central block flanked by quadrants that led to pavilions, one containing a chapel the other a private theatre, thereby satisfying the earl’s spiritual and cultural needs. At least in its early stages the architect responsible appears to have been Richard Johnston, older brother of the better-known (and better) Francis Johnson. After his departure several other hands were involved but most likely it was Lord Aldborough himself who had the greatest input into the plans: a extant drawing from his hand of the theatre wing confirms just how decisive was his influence on the project.
Facing north, the main block of Aldborough House is tall and narrow, three storeys over sunken basement and seven bays wide with the three centre bays advanced and pedimented, the whole clad in granite. The pediment contains an elaborately carved Stratford coat of arms in coade stone while the rusticated ground floor features a Doric portico bearing the motto Otium cum Dignitate (Leisure with Dignity). The most striking feature is the line of exaggeratedly elongated windows on the piano nobile; these emphasise the building’s height and thereby distort is overall proportions. An eaves parapet, since removed, was surmounted by alternating eagles and urns on all four sides. A plinth in the centre of the forecourt carried a copy of the Apollo Belvedere.
The side and rear elevations are all faced in a now-mellowed brick, originally rendered to resemble ashlar and with large central bows on the east and south sides. At some point the chapel wing to the west was demolished but that originally containing the easterly theatre survives, terminating in a bow facing the street; its interior is gone. The exterior of the two wings both had blind round-headed arches with sunken panels below and lion and sphinx figures along the parapets.
The interior of the main house begins with an entrance hall which in turn leads to an immense top-lit stair hall, with wrought-iron balusters set into the cantilevered Portland stone steps, the effect likened by the late Maurice Craig to that of ‘a well-shaft, mine or one of Mr Howard’s penitentiaries.’ On the ground floor a sequence of rooms lead off on all sides, library, dining room, small dining room and so forth, with a circular music room to the rear from which a double-perron staircase led to the garden. Some, but not much of these rooms’ decoration survived until recently such as friezes above the Adamesque doorways; after the horrendous neglect of recent years does any of this still remain? It is believed that Pietro Bossi, who tendered for the stuccowork in the house, provided the main chimneypieces but these were removed at the end of the 19th century. The first floor featured another sequence of rooms still loftier than those below and primarily intended for entertaining as they included a ballroom above the library on the east side of the building. A much quoted description by the newly-arrived vicereine Lady Hardwicke in 1801 gives an account of the staircase’s astonishing sequence of paintings which mostly seem to have been given over to apotheosising the earl and his wife. Again, these have all long vanished.
Costing over £40,000 Aldborough House was largely completed by 1798 but its owner did not enjoy the comfort of his new residence for long since he died in January 1801. Without a direct heir and in dispute with his brothers, he left the property to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead eighteen months after her first husband. There followed more than a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to the splendidly named Professor Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds.
As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments, part of a network of businesses connected with would-be tycoon Philip Marley whose Ely Property Group has been much in the news of late, none of it for particularly positive reasons. Thereafter matters of ownership grow increasingly complex with only one irrefutable fact: for the past nine years this important part of the national built heritage has been allowed to fall ever further into a decline which, as the photographs above (taken in 2010) and below (taken last week) demonstrate, now risks becoming irreversible.
Last May, RTE television carried a report warning that Aldborough House was now Dublin’s most endangered historic building; this information was provided by An Taisce which for several years has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure the property is saved. In 2006 Aldborough Developments secured approval from the city council for the conversion of the house into a forty-bedroom ‘Day Hospital Medical Care Facility.’ The scheme never went ahead, the property crash occurred and Aldborough House started slithering into decay. Some years ago the council served enforcement proceedings against the owners to carry out repairs to the roof; this did not take place and inevitably the lead was all stolen from the valleys and parapet gulleys leading to terrible water damage. In December 2011 the council, having received a grant from central government of €80,000 and provided an additional €20,000 carried out emergency repairs to the roof. According to the city architect’s office, this work went ‘some way towards weatherproofing this vulnerable building until such time as the building’s owners are in a position to implement further urgent and necessary repairs in line with their statutory obligations.’
Those obligations have yet to be met: last spring, following an arson attack that could have been fatal but was caught in time, further enforcement proceedings were served on the owners to have the house’s windows, doors and other openings secured to prevent access. The city council’s Planning and Development Department’s Executive Manager Jim Keoghan commented at the time, ‘We would be concerned that there would be long-time damage done to the property in question’ as though this was a future possibility rather than something which had already occurred.
The RTE report explained that 75% of Aldborough Developments is owned by a company which is in liquidation, and this in turn is wholly owned by another company that the Bank of Ireland has placed in receivership. Astonishingly, the house remains outside the receivership process, allowing both the receiver and the bank to disclaim all responsibility for its upkeep, even though the latter has a charge on Aldborough House. No doubt legally this is the case, but where is the Bank of Ireland’s sense of corporate responsibility? Where its concern for the welfare of this country? Where its engagement with the society in which it operates? Likewise why is it that Dublin City Council, which could issue a Compulsory Purchase Order, has failed to do so? And why is it that the state, which has a department devoted to heritage, has ignored the shameful deterioration of an important historic building? Are those responsible in all three bodies suffering from collective blindness that they do not see what is happening to a property under their watch, and for the fate of which they will be held culpable? Or are they simply indifferent to what is taking place?
Last September when a farmer lost his High Court challenge over the compulsory purchase of his land, the presiding judge Justice John Hedigan declared that ‘the national interest must outweigh the interests of the individual.’ It is in the national interest that Aldborough House be saved and that all those who can act should do so now. Dear visitors: welcome to Ireland where we talk a lot of guff about history and heritage but – as you cannot fail to observe on your drive into central Dublin – where we have no qualms about allowing the remains of our past fall into dereliction.
Aside from Aidan O’Boyle’s essay in Volume IV of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, you can see more images of Aldborough House, and its present sorry state, on the archiseek forum: http://www.archiseek.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=7878&sid=7637199907bad5a71623348e7c96d9a0&start=25
For the news report that appeared on RTE television in May 2013 see: http://www.rte.ie/news/player/2013/0509/3530477-dublin-georgian-house-is-capitals-most-endangered-historic-building/