All Washed Up

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Irish landlords, that small band of men who once owned the greater part of the country, do not enjoy a good reputation here. Judged to have been rapacious and, still worse in the popular imagination, foreign, it cannot be denied that many of their number often put personal interest ahead of concern for the condition of tenants, with disastrous results following the onset of the potato blight in the mid-1840s. However, it would be wrong to tar all landlords with the same blackening brush, since there were a few of them who sought to improve circumstances on their property. Among this unusual group, none was more out of the ordinary than Joseph Henry Blake, third Lord Wallscourt, of Ardfry, County Galway.
The Blakes were one of the Tribes of Galway, fourteen merchant families who dominated life in the western city from the 13th century onwards. They liked to claim descent from Ap-Lake, one of the knight’s of King Arthur’s round table, but in fact they were originally called Caddell, the first of them coming to Ireland in the 12th century with Strongbow: in the early 14th century Richard Caddell, Sheriff of Connacht in 1303, was known as Niger or Black, from which the name Blake evolved.
Like others among the Galway Tribes, the Blakes soon began to acquire land in the surrounding area, a process that accelerated from the late 1500s onwards. Thus in May 1612 Robert Blake of Galway received a grant by letters patent from James I of Ballinacourt (later Wallscourt) and Ardfry, both in County Galway, as well as additional property in County Mayo. His eldest son Richard Blake, a lawyer by training, was knighted in 1624, served as Mayor of Galway 1627-28, and M.P. for the County of Galway in 1639 before becoming Speaker or Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Irish Confederation which sat at Kilkenny from 1647 to 1649. Although the Blakes subsequently lost their lands during the Cromwellian confiscations, they received them back after the Restoration and remained in possession thereafter, basing themselves at Ardfry which lies on the southern shores of Galway Bay.

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Sir Richard Blake’s direct descendants died out in 1744 but a kinsman, Joseph Blake bought the estates from trustees and moved to Ardfry where around 1770 he built a house on the site of an old castle. The new property was long and low, at least nine bays wide and of two storeys over basement, with pyramidal pavilions at either end. Here in 1787 came the Hon Martha Herbert, wife of the rector of Cashel-on-Suir, County Tipperary, together with her daughter Dorothea (author of the celebrated Retrospections published a century after her death). On arrival they found ‘a large party of grandees’ whom Dorothea judged to be a ‘formidable set’ and were informed by their hostess that at Ardfry ‘they seldom or ever sat down to a meal with less than a hundred in family’, the latter term being used more loosely then than would now be the case.
Hitherto the Blakes had remained Roman Catholic but Joseph’s son, Joseph Henry Blake conformed to established church and was thus able to stand for election to the Irish parliament, to which he was elected in 1790. He retained his seat until the Act of Union a decade later and having voted in favour of this legislation was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Baron Wallscourt of Ardfry. However, his marriage to an heiress, Lady Louisa Bermingham, daughter of the first Earl of Louth, did not produce a son and so it was arranged that the title would devolve by special remainder to one of his nephews. Thus following his death in 1803 at the age of 37, Joseph Blake, son of the first Baron’s younger brother, became second Lord Wallscourt. The latter in turn dying in 1816 aged 19, his cousin Joseph Henry Blake (son of another of the first Baron’s brothers) became third Lord Wallscourt.

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Although he had grown up at Ardfry where his father served as land agent, the new Lord Wallscourt had not expected to inherit the estate. At the time of his cousin’s death he was just eighteen and serving as a lieutenant in the army which he had joined after leaving Eton three years earlier. It is often stated that on coming into the title he immediately indulged in reckless spending but one must wonder how much there was to squander: Dorothea Herbert’s observations indicate that the late 18th century Blakes were already living beyond their means, and around 1795 more than 1,500 acres of the original estate (including the townland of Wallscourt) was offered for sale, while another parcel of land was also put on the market. What remained was some 2,834 statute acres (the greater part of it at Ardfry) yielding a notional annual rental of £3,200, although this always depended on the ability and preparedness of tenants to pay what was expected. Lord Wallscourt had financial obligations to meet regardless of actual revenue: various family members and retainers were entitled to an income for the duration of their respective lifetimes to an annual total of £800, and there was a further £7,000 owing, mostly to relatives. Thus the young peer would have found he had little enough to fritter away, especially after 1820 when creditors had the estate placed in trust so as to maximise income and pay off all debts. Under the new arrangement Lord Wallscourt was permitted a yearly allowance of £500.
Thankfully a couple of years later he married a 17-year old English heiress, Elizabeth Lock who was beautiful as well as rich and who would be painted by a family friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1825: this portrait hung in Ardfry until the last century. That same year she and her husband, who had now regained control of his estate, came to look at Ardfry which had been sadly neglected and required extensive renovation. ‘The woods and the walks are certainly very pretty,’ Lady Wallscourt wrote to her mother, ‘and some of the trees very old and remind me of those poor dear old woods at Norbury, but the house is even in a worse state than I had expected, and you know I was not prepared to find grand chose. The building at a distance looks very well and is very handsome, but it seems to me impossible anything can be done to it. There is so much to do, repairing and building, to make it all inhabitable, that I am sure Wallscourt will not attempt it.’ Contrary to expectations, her husband did undertake the necessary work and by the end of the following year, after the building had been given some of the gothic flourishes it retains to this day, the couple moved in with their young children, the occasion marked by a ball given for the servants and tenants. At this event, after some initial hesitancy on the part of the guests, ‘the great decorum and silence gave place to the most violent noise and rioting as they grew merrier, and they danced incessantly to a piper till five. They had enormous suppers of a whole sheep and two or three rounds of beef, and all went home mad drunk with drinking Henry’s health in “the cratur”, as they call whisky.’ Lady Wallscourt soon retired upstairs and allowed the nurse in charge of the children to join the throng where she became ‘quite the life of the party…springing and capering about in a most ludicrous way.’

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And now let us touch briefly on efforts by Lord Wallscourt to improve the circumstances of his tenants. When travelling about Europe as a young man and through meeting sundry liberal thinkers of the period, he had become impressed by ‘some of the theories, then much debated, for lifting the labourer into the position of a partner with the capitalist.’ Following his return to Ireland, in 1831 he was interested to hear how the County Clare landlord and founder of the Hibernian Philanthropic Society John Scott Vandeleur had invited Manchester-born journalist and proto-socialist Edward Thomas Craig to establish a co-operative community on his own estate at Ralahine. This was duly visited by Lord Wallscourt who found much to engage him and having sent his overseer to study the system in more detail he set aside 100 acres at Ardfry for his own socialist experiment. Even if begun on a smaller scale, the scheme fared better and lasted longer than that at Ralahine (which Vandeleur, who was addicted to gambling, managed to lose in a bet in 1833, after which he fled to America leaving his poor former tenants to fend for themselves against unmerciless creditors).
Lord Wallscourt also embarked on other philanthropic enterprises seeking to establish both a national school and an agricultural school as well as sponsoring the education of a number of boys in England and even as far away as Switzerland. He sought to improve the living conditions of tenants, building a two-storey slate-roofed house built as a model to replace the existing thatched cabins of the area. However it proved impossible to find anyone prepared to move into the new property, tenants apparently explaining ‘it would be mighty cold, and my Lord would be expecting me to keep it too clean.’ Eventually after standing empty for five years, a newly-wed couple took the place, on the grounds that it was ‘better than nothing at all.’
During the terrible years of the famine, Lord Wallscourt worked to ensure the well-being of his own tenants, and those on other estates in the area. He sat on a number of relief committees and on the Galway Board of Guardians, where he was critical of the operation of the poor law system and of his fellow guardians, who, he said, seemed ‘little disposed to transact the business for the discharge of which they were elected’. In 1847 he actively associated himself for the first time with the campaign for tenant rights and employed the distinguished agriculturalist Thomas Skilling (later first Professor of Agriculture at Queen’s University, Galway) to create a new tillage project employing labourers and tenants at Ardfry. He even started to establish an agricultural college on the estate.

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One suspects that Lord Wallscourt, however well-intentioned, did not tolerate opposition from his tenants or indeed from anyone else. Evidence for this was provided by his wife when she sought a divorce in 1846 ‘by reason of his cruelty and adultery,’ citing several instances when her husband had assaulted her. He was known to be a man of considerable strength and when young had been a keen boxer (more peculiarly he liked to walk about his house wearing no clothes: eventually Lady Wallscourt persuaded him carry a cowbell in his hand when nude so maidservants had notice of his imminent arrival). The couple suffered the loss of their two elder sons, and it was only during a brief rapprochement in late 1840 that an eventual heir was conceived. It may be that Lady Wallscourt did not care for her husband’s humanitarian enterprises. What, one wonders, must she have made for the welcome he gave to the 1848 Paris insurrection that led to the final overthrow of the French monarchy: he even presided at a celebratory public rally in Dublin. The following year he visited Paris with his young son and while there died after contracting cholera.
His estranged wife now regained control, since the boy Erroll Augustus Blake was then aged only seven. The co-operative projects at Ardfry were abandoned and more familiar methods of estate management re-instated. On the other hand, upon reaching maturity the fourth Lord Wallscourt followed the parental example and undertook diverse improvements, most notably the establishment of an oyster fishery in Galway Bay which provided local employment. In other respects however, he could not be compared with his father, being so small in stature that he was known in the vicinity as ‘the lordeen’: Nationalist politician T.P. O’Connor later remembered meeting ‘a tiny little man, sad, deprecatory, almost timid in manner.’ This may have been because he was oppressed by money worries, especially after his second marriage. His new wife turned out to be a hopeless gambler: in the early years of the last century the lead was stripped from Ardfry’s roof to pay her debts and the contents – including that lovely portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence – sold. Nor did the Wallscourt peerage survive much longer: the fourth lord was succeeded in 1918 by his only son who died without children just two years later.
And so we see Ardfry as it stands today, a shell of a monument to an abandoned social and agricultural experiment. Who knows what might yet have happened here had the third Lord Wallscourt not died in Paris in 1849, and what example it might have given to other landlords in Ireland. The shame is that his efforts to improve the lives of the country’s tenants are today so little known, and the estate on which he carried out his endeavours has been allowed to fall into such disrepair, the trees and hedges cut down, the walls tumbled, the outbuildings and estate cottages gone or, the the main house, little more than four walls. Dorothea Herbert called Ardfry ‘a beautiful place’ and Griffith’s Valuation of 1857 refers to a ‘beautiful and picturesque demesne, well planted with forest and ornamental timber.’ There’s little enough beauty here now.

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For more information on the third Lord Wallscourt, I recommend John Cunningham’s truly excellent essay (to which I am much indebted) ‘Lord Wallscourt of Ardfry (1797-1849)’ in Vol. LVII (2005) of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.

An Angel at my Gate

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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.

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More and More Dromore

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spiralling into Oblivion

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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.

Going Up the Chimney

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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…
See: http://www.the-saleroom.com/en-gb/auction-catalogues/dukes/catalogue-id-2896743/lot-20953363?searchitem=true

Still Standing

42 O'Connell Street

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

On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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With Panoramic Views

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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.

It’s in the Details

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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).

A Spectacular Fall from Grace

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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