A gateway arch looking rather desolate on the side of the road at Northbrook, Aughrim, County Galway. This was not its original location, since the arch came from an estate in neighbouring County Roscommon, possibly Mote Park. The house there, belonging to the Crofton family, was demolished in the 1960s, its contents sold two decades earlier. Little now remains except another entrance gate, a much more substantial Doric triumphal arch surmounted by a lion which dates from c.1800 and is sometimes attributed to James Gandon. If the gateway shown here did come from Mote, it presumably marked a secondary entrance into the demesne.
The entrance front to Dromore Castle, County Kerry. Located above the Kenmare river Dromore is what might be described as a ‘pocket castle’, a middle-sized country house dressed up with turrets and battlements to provide a phantom historicism; although there was an earlier house close by, the present building only dates from c.1831-38 when built to the designs of Sir Thomas Deane for the Rev. Denis Mahony. Dromore Castle remained with his descendants until 1994 when it was sold by Jane Waller.
She tells her story and the history of the house in Jane O’Hea O’Keefe’s recently-published Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry which chronicles a number of properties in these two counties, some of which survive (and still in the ownership of the original families) while others are lost. The book is based on recordings made by O’Keefe and her husband which were then transcribed and edited; thus these really are authentic voices of people who came from what in Ireland is traditionally known as the ‘Big House.’
Inevitably, given that so much has been lost, often needlessly, a certain poignancy hangs over the work, an impression of a world which has now gone. However, it is worth pointing out that not all the people featured are of English origin. Elizabeth, Lady O’Connell, for example, was born MacCarthy-O’Leary, her bloodline representing both these Irish families united around 1780 when Denis MacCarthy married Helen, only child of The O’Leary. It was the next generation who in 1805 built Coomlogane, County Cork on the site of the O’Leary ancestral home, but by the middle of the last century the house was in ruins and the property sold by Lady O’Connell’s aunt. Likewise Kilcoleman Abbey, County Kerry, built on land owned by the Godfrey family since the mid-17th century, eventually succumbed to dry rot: ‘I remember the stairs were falling down,’ recalls one relative who visited in the late 1950s, ‘but there was a gallery which was still fairly solid, running round in front of the bedrooms.’ Abandoned not long afterwards, Kilcoleman was eventually demolished by the local authority in the 1970s.
Below is an another image of Dromore Castle which happily still stands. Mark Bence-Jones damned the entrance front for possessing ‘a certain grimness’ but judged this, the garden front, as ‘more graceful and friendly.’
Voices from the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry is published by Mercier Press. The original oral histories from which the book derives can be found at http://www.irishlifeandlore.com
It was the intrepid Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who first proposed that ‘the world consists of men, women, and Herveys.’ So it has remained ever since, although the inspiration for Lady Mary’s remark was, of course, that most mercurial creature of early 18th century England and confidante of George II’s spouse Caroline, John, Lord Hervey. The queen found him ‘particularly agreeable, as he helped to enliven the uniformity of a Court with sprightly repartees and lively sallies of wit.’ Speaking of which, if Hervey’s memoirs (which were only first published over a century after his death) are not quite up to the mark of those by his French near-contemporary the Duc de Saint-Simon, nevertheless they offer an insight into the intrigues of political and social life at the time, and also explain why he inspired as much loathing as love.
Among those who felt the former emotion was Alexander Pope who in his satiric poem of 1735 The Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot mockingly called the sexually-ambiguous Hervey ‘Sporus’ (the name of the Emperor Nero’s catamite) and wrote of him, ‘His wit all see-saw between that and this/Now high, now low, now master, up now miss/And he himself one vile Antithesis/Amphibious thing! that acting either part/The trifling head, or the corrupted heart/Fop at the toilet, flatt’rer at the board/Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.’
Despite his innumerable affairs with women and men alike, and his general weak health (for which his father blamed ‘that detestable and poisonous plant, tea, which had once brought him to death’s door, and if persisted in would carry him through it’) Hervey and his loyal wife nevertheless managed to have eight children, among them Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol.
Frederick Augustus Hervey was born in August 1730 and as the third of Lord Hervey’s four sons was not expected to inherit either the family title or lands. He therefore needed to find an alternative career (two of his brothers joined the armed forces, one becoming an admiral, the other a general) and so became a Church of England clergyman. Thanks to the intervention of his eldest brother George who as second Earl of Bristol in 1766 was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (although he never visited the country), Frederick Augustus – already a royal chaplain – was appointed Bishop of Cloyne. A year later, aged only 38 he became Bishop of Derry and thus responsible for one of the richest Irish sees. Judicious management of diocesan funds allowed him not only to increase his wealth but also to ensure that some portion of the Bishop of Derry’s estates in would pass to his own heir.
It is difficult to discern the depth of Bishop Hervey’s personal religious beliefs, but there can be no doubt about his tolerance: he was a proponent of religious equality and dedicated himself to improving the lot of Roman Catholics and Presbyterians within his diocese, and further afield. He campaigned to place on the statute book an oath of allegiance which would permit loyal and well-disposed Irish Catholics to disavow the more extreme papal doctrines – such as the teaching that heads of government excommunicated by the Pope could be deposed or murdered by their subjects. In 1774 an oath along the lines he had been suggesting since 1767 was incorporated in an act of the Irish parliament (it was then spurned by the Papacy). But he was also somewhat eccentric – he was, after all, a Hervey – and on one occasion he organised a curates’ race along the sands of Downhill, the winners being awarded benefices then vacant in the Derry diocese.
Lord Charlemont declared of Bishop Hervey, ‘his genius is like a shallow stream, rapid, noisy, diverting, but useless. Such is his head, and I fear it is much superior to his heart. He is proud and to the last degree vindictive; vain to excess, inconsistant in his friendships… fond of intrigue in gallantry as well as politics, and sticking at nothing to gain his ends in either… A bad father, both from caprice and avarice; a worse husband to the best and most amiable of wives; a determined deist, though a bishop, and at times so indecently inpious in his conversations as to shock the most reprobate… His ambition and his lust can alone get the better of his avarice.’
Meanwhile Sir Jonah Barrington in his own highly entertaining memoirs described the bishop as ‘a man of elegant erudition, extensive learning, and an enlightened and classical, but eccentric mind:—bold, ardent, and versatile; he dazzled the vulgar by ostentatious state, and worked upon the gentry by ease and condescension:—he affected public candour and practised private cabal.’
One of the ways Hervey practised private cabal was by becoming over-involved with Irish politics. His sympathy for the plight of Catholics led him to take an interest in parliamentary reform and even, it has been suggested, in the notion of independence for Ireland as would be attempted before the end of the century. However, by that time, following the death of two brothers he had inherited the Earldom of Bristol and with it considerable estates in England that increased his already great wealth.
Even before becoming Earl of Bristol in 1779, the Bishop had been a great traveller on mainland Europe: it is often said the reason so many Hotels Bristol exist is that they were named after him. In particular he loved Italy, a country in which he spent more and more time as he grew older (he would die in Albano in July 1803). Here he collected the many artworks intended to fill great houses built for him in these islands. So all consuming was his passion for translating architectural ideas into reality that he became known as the ‘Edifying Bishop.’ He was responsible for two new residences in Ireland, the first and more conservative being Downhill, County Derry. It dates from the mid-1770s when work started under the supervision of a Cork-born stone-mason Michael Shanahan, perhaps to a design by James Wyatt. Located close to a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the house is long and narrow and of two storeys over basement, its granite ashlar exterior relieved by a series of bows and giant fluted Corinthian pilasters. Long wings on either side (originally concluding in domes) flank a central courtyard and this in turn leads to a further extensive range at the rear, allowing all services to be kept on the one site. Downhill is highly exposed to harsh winds whipping off the nearby seas and was always cold but at the time of its construction Hervey wrote enthusiastically to one of his daughters that the place ‘is becoming elegance itself, with 300,000 trees…and almost as many pictures and statues within doors.’ Indeed the interiors were said to be magnificent, the principal stone staircase having a balustrade of gilded ironwork beneath a frescoed dome while the main rooms were a library and double-height picture gallery, at one end of which were pairs of Corinthian columns supporting an entablature above which were the arms of the bishopric and earldom.
As can be seen from these photographs, little remains today of the Earl-Bishop’s splendid residence at Downhill. On his death he left the Irish estates to the Rev. Henry Hervey Bruce, brother of a deceased cousin – Mrs Frideswide Mussenden – to whose memory the Earl-Bishop had built an exquisite domed rotunda in the grounds of Downhill, known as the Mussenden Temple. The Rev. Bruce, who became a baronet soon after coming into his considerable inheritance, had looked after both his benefactor’s property and diocese during the Earl-Bishop’s long absences from Ireland. Generations of the Bruce family remained in possession of Downhill for the next 150 years but the house was seriously damaged by fire in 1851 when many of the most valuable contents, including its library and collection of statuary, were lost.
In the early 1870s a programme of restoration was carried out to the designs of John Lanyon, which involved a new entrance being created on the west side of the house and the installation of plate-glass windows as well as a new heating system since Downhill had hitherto been notoriously cold. But even these improvements could not save the house after a sequence of deaths led to heavy duties and sales. During the Second World War Downhill was used as a billet by the RAF and a few years into peacetime it was unroofed and permitted to fall into ruin. Now under the care of the National Trust, Downhill stands as a handsome if gaunt shell through which those harsh Atlantic winds continue to whistle.
I shall at some future date be writing about both the Mussenden Temple and the Earl-Bishop’s other Irish house, Ballyscullion.
Ten days ago the state’s Electricity Supply Board announced plans to pull down its existing premises on Dublin’s Lower Fitzwilliam Street and build anew on the site. Since then there has been much discussion about what the replacement should look like. In order to assist in that dialogue, here follows a synopsis of how the present office block came into being.
In 1952 the late Maurice Craig wrote with rapture of this street and those on either end, describing how down its length, ‘the light ripples in gay vertical streaks, varied within modest limits, and disappearing, as cheerful as ever, into the anonymous distance.’ So it might have remained to the present but for the ESB which in 1927 had arrived in the area to occupy just the drawing room of a single building (No. 28 Lr Fitzwilliam Street). However, as the company grew and its duties and staff swelled, additional buildings were acquired along the same block until almost its entirety had come into the organisation’s possession. It was in December 1961 that the ESB first announced the intention to demolish sixteen houses on the street, Nos.13-28, and to replace the terrace with a purpose-built office block designed by the winner of a proposed architectural competition. Although this would mean the destruction of Europe’s longest unbroken line of Georgian houses (the ‘Georgian Mile’ actually somewhat less but running unbroken from the northern end of Merrion Square to the top of Fitzwilliam Place) various arguments were presented as justification for the demolition. These ranged from declaring the buildings ‘structurally unsound’ to claims that dry rot had been discovered in their roof timbers. Yet, as the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin noted at the time, if structural problems did exist then ‘the ESB, having used these buildings for 20 years cannot entirely disclaim responsibility for this.’ More significantly, in an interview carried by the IGS’s Bulletin in 1962 the ESB’s chairman Thomas Murray admitted his organisation had in fact envisaged rebuilding the terrace more than twenty years earlier: ‘Rules for an architectural competition to provide a replacement were drawn up in 1938, but the competition was abandoned because of the war.’
The ESB’s plans attracted widespread opposition, both at home and abroad, with The Manchester Guardian‘s correspondent asking ‘Is there a public opinion in Ireland sufficiently concerned to put a stop to this vandalism; and if not, why not?’ In an editorial on the same subject The Irish Times invited readers to ‘stand outside Holles Street hospital and look towards the Dublin Mountains. What would Canaletto have made of the view?’ A public meeting called at Dublin’s Mansion House attracted some 900 people, with 300 more having to be turned away at the door and therefore being denied the opportunity to hear the ESB denounced by the likes of actor Mícheál MacLiammóir and artist Sean Keating, then President of the Royal Hibernian Academy who warned that if Fitzwilliam Street’s destruction went ahead, ‘the next move will be to feed the books in the Library of Trinity College to the boilers of the Pigeon House.’ (Similarly in a report written by Dublin City Architect Daithi Hanly the question was posed ‘How important is the Book of Kells? At what price and for what convenience would we divide it and allow 16 pages of it to be destroyed?’). The audience at the Mansion House meeting also heard read the contents of a telegram of objection to the ESB’s scheme sent by the ground landlord of Fitzwilliam Street, the Earl of Pembroke whose forbears were responsible for the original development of the area. In an attempt to preserve the Fitzwilliam Street buildings, he now offered the ESB an alternative site nearby on James Street East. This proposal was not only declined but a compulsory purchase order was served on the Fitzwilliam Street houses, for which Lord Pembroke was paid a derisory £1,000; he immediately donated half the sum to the Irish Georgian Society to help its campaign.
On the other hand there were voices heard in favour of the terrace’s destruction. For example, two groups of architectural students attended the Mansion House meeting to demonstrate their support of the ESB’s intentions and in February 1962 the council of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland declared itself ‘satisfied that a new building need not destroy the beauty of the existing environment’ – despite the fact that the design of the new building had yet to be seen. (One wonders if the RIAI would still stand over that declaration). It was only in November 1962 that the winner of the ESB’s architectural competition was announced: Stephenson Gibney and Associates in which Sam Stephenson – who would write to The Irish Times the following summer denouncing Georgian buildings’ general shoddiness of construction – was a partner. The distinguished architectural historian Sir John Summerson was now hired by the ESB to champion the company’s cause. Having already pronounced that the only reasonable course was ‘to build to an entirely new design,’ in an interview carried by the Irish Georgian Society’s spring 1962 Bulletin (which was entirely devoted to the subject of the Fitzwilliam Street houses) in his report for the ESB he went further, calling the existing houses ‘a sloppy, uneven series’ and declaring ‘It is nearly always wrong to preserve rubbish, and by Georgian standards these houses are rubbish.’ In doing so, of course, he was viewing the houses individually and not as part of a greater – and more architecturally important – whole. The IGS retaliated by inviting an expert of its own, another architectural knight, Sir Albert Richardson. His retort to Summerson’s dismissal of Fitzwilliam Street was to argue that ‘no eighteenth century houses were substantially built – does that lessen their merit?’
The battle went on for more than two years. Both the IGS and the Old Dublin Society organised meetings and petitions against the ESB’s plans but no matter how much support they mustered or how vocal their objections it made no difference, not least because the Government of the day had no objections to the buildings’ demolition but instead gave support to the proposal. In late September 1964 on the very day before a new Planning Act – which could have provided salvation for the old houses – came into effect, then-Minister for Local Government Neil Blaney signed an order granting full planning permission for the new office development on Lower Fitzwilliam Street. The timing was surely no accident, and sealed the buildings’ fate. The following summer the sixteen houses were knocked down and work began on their replacement which ever since has continued to disrupt the unity of the area’s layout.
Thus we come to the present situation where the block commissioned by the ESB half a century ago has now been deemed unfit for purpose and only good for demolition. There was no need for the ESB to remain in this location in the 1960s and there is no need for it to do so today. On the contrary this is an ideal opportunity for the company to move out, allowing proper redevelopment of the terrace as a series of residential units. Instead, it has continued to acquire property in the area and commissioned a replacement of the Lr Fitzwilliam Street block from Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike. In no circumstances can the current building be declared an object of beauty but nor is its proposed proposed successor. The design is, quite frankly, a piece of poor pastiche: it acknowledges the authority of the original streetscape but then insists on fiddling with details of the buildings in a facile manner by playing around with window and door heights. The result suggests the architects, while accepting the power of the past, are nevertheless desperate that their interpretation, no matter how weak, receive some notice.
At the time of the old buildings’ demolition, Build magazine predicted, ‘If the ESB’s victory fires the starting gun for a wholesale onslaught on the remaining splendours of the eighteenth century, then it will be a victory most Pyrrhic indeed for the city of Dublin.’ And so it came to pass: where the ESB led, dozens of other state and private organisations followed and terrible destruction was wrought across the capital. It is surely telling that today Dublin City Council wants the lost facades to be reinstated, a huge change in attitudes over the past half-century. But one thing remains the same: the inability of corporations and individuals in Ireland ever to admit a mistake has been made. The ESB wouldn’t accept it was wrong then, and it won’t accept it is wrong now. Instead the company has declared its hand and shown the course intended to take: no matter how fierce the opposition, be prepared for the ESB to resist any change to announced plans.
Today’s photographs show Lr Fitzwilliam Street as it was in the early 1960s and as it looks today. Immediately above is a picture of the proposed Grafton Architects and O’Mahony Pike replacement. A facebook page has been established to campaign for the restoration of the original streetscape, see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Restore-Fitzwilliam-Street-Dublins-Georgian-Mile/303073159831331
The entrance to the last remaining 18th century house on O’Connell Street, Dublin. Set in the red brick façade, No. 42′s limestone door case has a handsome carved tablet centred on a lion mask not unlike those one finds on Irish mahogany tables of the period; the lintel above has been damaged for as long as I can remember. On a site leased in 1752 to Robert Robinson, State Physician and Professor of Anatomy at Trinity College, the building appeared four years later on Roque’s map of the city. The first floor contains a fine room to the front with very pretty rococo decoration on its ceiling.
At the time of the house’s construction, O’Connell Street (then called Sackville Street) was the city’s finest residential thoroughfare and not the grubby strip of fast-food outlets and slot-machine arcades the local authority has of late encouraged it to become. Yet one wonders whether this building can survive when it has suffered such sore neglect for years. The site to the immediate north, for example, formerly occupied by the decidedly mediocre Royal Dublin Hotel is now an vacant plot with obvious consequences for this structure. Somehow it still stands but for how much longer…
A photograph of Dromore Castle, County Limerick built in the late 1860s for William Pery, third Earl of Limerick to the designs of Edward William Godwin (also responsible for James Whistler’s ‘aesthetic’ house on Tite Street, London). On a hill overlooking a lake and with views across the Shannon to County Clare, the castle looked ravishing but suffered from chronic damp (seemingly paint never stayed long on the walls) and was not occupied by the Perys for more than a few decades. The family sold Dromore in 1939 and since the middle of the last century it has grown steadily more ruinous: the roof was removed in the 1950s in order to avoid paying tax on the building. Today it can still be seen, a striking sight some twelve miles west of Limerick city.
Dating from around 1920 this photograph was taken by Franz S. Haselbeck, the son of German emigrants who had settled in Limerick in the early 1900s. Haselbeck was a professional photographer who lived and worked in the area until his death in 1973 and now a book of his images has been published by The Collins Press. With an introduction by his granddaughter who has been responsible for preserving the material, Franz S. Haselbeck’s Ireland includes pictures spanning the entire course of his long career, and shows scenes of a world which has since disappeared, many of them taken in the years before Independence. What makes the work especially fascinating are the photographs of buildings which subsequently fell into serious disrepair, not just Dromore but also Mountshannon House in Castleconnell, immediately east of Limerick city. Acquired and greatly enlarged in the late 18th century by John FitzGibbon, first Earl of Clare (notoriously one of the most hated men of his generation), the house and its contents were sold by the family in the 1880s when they had run through all their money. After changing hands on a couple of occasions, it was burnt out in 1921 during the Troubles, so the picture below, which shows the rear of the building with its fine conservatory intact, must have been taken before that date. There are many other such photographs in the book, not all of them featuring country houses but all meriting close study.
Driving along a minor road in south County Kildare, one’s eye is caught by the sight of ruins rising high above a field of maize. These roofless blocks were once the stables attached to and now all that remain of Belan, seat of the Stratford family, Earls of Aldborough. That Belan was once rather splendid cannot be doubted: in 1786 George Powell who was related to the family through marriage, wrote ‘The Mansion House of Belan is most Magnificent as is also the Demesne thereto, containing 12 porters Lodges Erected by the present Earl at the six Approaches, who hath also added thereto a Fruitery, Green, Hot and Tea Houses, a Square of Offices, a Chappel & a Theatre & Expended near £8000 on the Estate…’
Almost all of this is now gone, and the only evidence of Belan’s former resplendence are the aforementioned stables, the shell of an octagonal tea house, a few obelisks and a small domed temple. For once, however, decline and fall occurred not during the last century but earlier and while members of the Stratford family were still, if only nominally, great landowners.
Originally from Warwickshire, the Stratfords seem to have settled in Ireland about the time of Charles II’s restoration in 1660. Within a few years Robert Stratford had acquired land around Baltinglass, County Wicklow and thereafter their rise was assured, not least through the ability to return two members to the Irish House of Commons. By 1690 they already owned property at Belan, since in July of that year Edward Stratford found himself successively entertaining the two rival Kings James and William, his personal sympathies lying with the latter. As William ultimately proved the victor, the Stratfords’ political and financial status was further strengthened. Edward Stratford’s third son John (who was made first Earl of Aldborough shortly before he died in 1777) inherited Belan around 1740 and soon afterwards commenced either to build anew or to enlarge his residence there. The architects for this property are held to have been Richard Castle and Francis Bindon.
We cannot say for certain what the house looked like since paintings in which it features by William Ashford (from which the engraving at the top of this piece is taken) and Francis Wheatley (see the very last picture, showing the second Earl reviewing the Aldborough Volunteers at Belan) display differences that suggest to some extent they reflected the owner’s aspirations for the building rather than its actual appearance. Nevertheless we do know the main block, large and plain, was 120 feet long and 44 feet deep, of three storeys with a gabled attic and projecting end bays. To its right were the pair of parallel stable blocks that still survive (albeit in ruinous state), the first of them linked to the house by a curved portico.
Here are some extracts from the delightful reminiscences of Georgina Sartoris (née Lyster) published in the Journal of the Kildare Archaeological Society in January 1908 during which she recalls visiting Belan as a little girl in the 1830s:…’a fine stone mansion, a magnificent flight of granite steps, with two stone vases at the top, led to the entrance door. Though uninhabited for fully ten years, the house was in perfect repair, no trace of damp or decay and to all appearance, might have been lived in a week before. I have not a distinct recollection of all the rooms; but the dining room is fresh in my memory, also the saloon, and his late lordship’s bedroom. The dining room, not very large was panelled, family portraits being set in the panelling. I was too young to care much about them, but feel sure they were all of men. Had there been lovely ladies or pretty children amongst them, I should have remembered them. The saloon was lovely, with a polished floor of narrow oak boards…. on one occasion (why I know not) my sister and myself occupied his late lordship’s bedroom, very comfortable it was of moderate size, the fireplace like those of the other bedrooms surrounded with the prettiest tiles I have ever seen, the ground white with pink and blue landscapes, figures and flowers on it; a fine four post mahogany bedstead, Indian chintz curtains, some Chippendale chairs, and a wardrobe are all I remember of its furniture…The grounds of Belan were very beautiful, and of considerable extent. On one side though not seen from the house, were the celebrated fish ponds (not that in my time there was a fish in them), large and deep, the trees around them giving them a secluded and fascinating look. Here, on hot summers’ evenings, we used to sit and watch the dragon flies. I had never seen dragonflies before, and could not associate them with flies – I could only think of them as tiny winged spirits, whispering messages from afar to the reeds and irises which grew at the water’s edge. The gardens were at some distance from the house, and were large and walled in. I do not think I was often in them. What struck me most was the enormous quantity of lily of the valley. I have never seen anything like it elsewhere and its scent lingers with me still…’
The fall of the house of Stratford was as spectacular as its rise. The second Earl, a man of great energy, not only greatly improved the house and demesne at Belan but was also responsible for developing Stratford Place in London and for building the immense (and now sadly dilapidated) Aldborough House in Dublin in the years preceding his death in 1801. Although twice married, he had no children and so a younger brother inherited. The last member of the family to live at Belan, he was likewise childless meaning everything passed to another brother, the fourth Earl who preferred to occupy a house elsewhere on the estate, Stratford Lodge (subsequently destroyed by fire) and who abandoned Belan to an agent more interested in helping himself than in looking after his employer’s property. The next heir, Mason Gerard Stratford, fifth Earl was a hopeless spendthrift who, when short of funds, would visit London money lenders with a gun and threaten to shoot himself if they did not give him cash. He was also a bigamist, possibly even a trigamist, and on his death the eldest son from one of these marriages had trouble claiming a right to the title and what remained of the family property. Sixth and final Earl of Aldborough, he died without heirs in 1875.
By that date Belan was already in poor condition and some thirty years later Mrs Sartoris, who remembered the house intact, could write that ‘Beautiful Belan lies in ruins, the wind blowing where it listheth, sighs over the desolate grounds and gardens once so beautiful, a herd lives in the yard, sole occupant of that once lovely demesne.’ As late as the 1940s the main walls of the house still stood, but this shell was subsequently swept away. Today only the remnants of the stables survive to remind us of what once stood on this site and to serve as a warning that nothing is eternal.
On August 29th last, the Irish Times reported that the portico of a small 18th century lodge in County Kilkenny had collapsed. Not, one might reasonably think, a matter of great import, certainly not as momentous as the disintegration of other buildings reported by the Irish Aesthete over the past year. But this is to ignore the architectural significance of the structure in question, and what its neglect over the past decade says about our failure to care for the built heritage.
The temple or columnar lodge stands within the grounds of Belline, an estate not far from Piltown. In the second half of the 18th century Belline was occupied by Peter Walsh (d. 1819), whose family appear to have been agents for the Ponsonbys, Earls of Bessborough whose Irish seat Bessborough House was in the same part of the country. Walsh may well have been a tenant of the Ponsonbys; it is known that Lady Caroline Lamb, daughter of the third Lord Bessborough, stayed at Belline with her husband William (the future Lord Melbourne and future Prime Minister at the time of Queen Victoria’s accession) in September 1812 in the aftermath of her highly-publicised affair with Lord Byron.
Whatever Peter Walsh’s precise status, he was regarded in Ireland as an improving landholder, much given to agricultural improvements and to bettering the circumstances of less-fortunate residents in the region. Of particular relevance to the subject under consideration here is the fact that he was also an ardent antiquarian, commissioning and collecting architectural drawings of Ireland’s ancient monuments, and keen to preserve the relics of our history, some of which have since passed into national collections. Both during his lifetime and after his death Walsh was held in high regard; James Norris Brewer in his Beauties of Ireland (1825) declared ‘we are well convinced that every reader, to whom he was known, will join in the warmth of our admiration and the sincerity of our regret; so general was the esteem created by his unassuming virtues!’
Dating from around 1770, Belline House was built by Peter Walsh who then went on to construct a number of other splendid edifices in the surrounding grounds, the majority of which survive to the present day. These included a detached gallery, known as the ‘Drawing School’ since according to Brewer, it ‘was constituted as a sort of academy for students by the active liberality of the late Mr Walsh…several children of the peasantry in this neighbourhood have lately evinced a considerable degree of genius for drawing. Such as were of greatest promise, Mr. Walsh took under his immediate protection, and supported in the pursuit of the art to which they aspired.’ Then there was ‘a most admirable pattern for a farm house; it is an octagon of two stories, inclosing a yard in the centre; below is a dairy, a residence for the dairy-man, cow-house, stable, and other offices, above is a loft for corn, extended over the whole building.’ And in addition there is a pair of circular pavilions behind Belline House, each three storeys high, the top floors serving as pigeon houses, and a pair of octagonal stone gate lodges (one still standing) at the southern entrance to the demesne.
Finally we come to the smallest but perhaps most remarkable of Peter Walsh’s buildings: the temple lodge. Comprising portico, front room and two rear chambers, its precise date of construction and purpose are unclear; standing in the midst of the estate and not beside an entrance it was unlikely to have been a gate lodge but might have been intended as a summer pavilion or model dairy. But what is most important is that Belline’s temple lodge has been judged the earliest known example in Britain and Ireland of the 18th century ‘rustic hut’ inspired by theories on the origins of man-made structures expounded first in 1753 by the French Jesuit and philosopher Marc-Antoine Laugier in his Essai sur l’architecture (translated into English in 1755) and then by Sir William Chambers in A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759). In fact it has sometimes been proposed that the Belline lodge was designed by Chambers since it shares similarities with a drawing he made in 1759 for just such a building. The identity of the architect responsible may never be known but we can be confident that the Belline lodge is an important expression of the 18th century’s interest in exploring the past, and that its composition reflects the ideas proposed by Laugier and Chambers. Hence the building is intentionally ‘primitive’ incorporating tree trunks bound with ropework on every side and a pedimented portico to the front below the gabled roof that extends beyond the walls to end in stone blocks.
By the mid-19th century Belline had reverted to the Bessboroughs and remained in their ownership until 1934 after which the estate changed hands a number of times until being bought ten years ago for €3 million by businessman James Coleman. Managing director of a company called Suirway Forklifts based in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary Mr Coleman has in the past declared himself a passionate enthusiast of motor rallying and indeed his business has sponsored a number of events for this sport. On the other hand, he seems less keen to support and sustain the national heritage, since over the past decade Belline’s temple lodge has fallen into such dilapidation that, as was reported by the Irish Times less than a fortnight ago, the building’s portico has now collapsed.
It is inconceivable that the lodge’s deteriorating condition was unknown to its owner: there have been two reports on the building and its importance, one compiled by architect John Redmill in 2005, the other by chartered surveyor Frank Keohane earlier this year. Furthermore the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage designated the lodge as being of architectural interest under the Categories of Special Interest. On the other hand as Frank Keohane noted in his report, to which I am much indebted, until now the lodge has not been designated a protected structure in its own right but rather ‘deemed to be protected owing to its being located within the cartilage of Belline House which is a protected structure.’ Clearly this has proven inadequate.
Keohane wisely makes the point that the lodge at Belline must be regarded as of international importance both in its own right and as part of a planned 18th century demesne in which diverse complementary elements contributed to the resultant whole. As he writes, ‘The temple lodge is not an artefact to be appreciated in isolation. It is in fact an important element in a group of related structures within the demesne.’ Destroy one of those related structures and you disrupt the entire picture: it is not unlike cutting a section out of a painting.
According to the Irish Times, John McCormack who is a Director of Services at Kilkenny County Council with responsibility for heritage said the authority had served a planning enforcement notice on Mr Coleman in May 2012 ‘for failing to undertake works to prevent this protected structure from becoming or continuing to be endangered.’ Legal proceedings commenced the following October and since then ‘there have been four separate court appearances in relation to this prosecution while the council sought to negotiate with the owner. A full hearing of the case is listed for October 7th next at Carrick-on-Suir District Court.’
One waits to see what will happen in four weeks’ time since not only is the survival of Belline’s temple lodge at stake but the forthcoming hearing represents something of a test case. If owners of protected structures can ignore their responsibilities with impunity, then still worse misfortunes lie ahead for our architectural heritage. The national patrimony is at risk in a way that would, one imagines, have appalled Peter Walsh.
The first two photographs show Belline’s temple lodge as it looked in the 19th century, note how at one time the building was thatched. The next three show the lodge in 2005, already with its slates removed from the roof, followed by another three photographs taken earlier this year. Finally below is a picture of the lodge as shown in the Irish Times with its portico in ruins.
Some buildings make better ruins than do others. But few look as splendid as Duckett’s Grove in County Carlow. Fantastically towered and turreted and castellated, the remains of this large house rise about the surrounding flat agricultural land, like some 19th century interpretation of a castle in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Originally at the centre of a 12,000 acre estate the core of the structure is older, probably dating from the early 1700s and taking the form of a regular three-storey over basement, five-bay residence. Precise information about this building does not exist, but one may assume it was built for one of the first Ducketts to settle in this part of the world, perhaps Thomas Duckett who came from Grayrigg in Westmoreland and bought land here in 1695. He had the sense to marry an heiress, as did several of his successors with the result that the family grew ever-more prosperous, with an average annual income of £10,000. This wealth allowed John Dawson Duckett to embark on a transformation of the old house from 1818 onwards.
For his architect, Duckett picked someone little known outside the immediate area, perhaps because he received so many commissions in County Carlow and its environs that he had no time to take on work further afield. This was Thomas Alfred Cobden, believed to have been born in Chichester in 1794. It is unknown how this young man came to be in Ireland, or how he came to be so much in demand in the Carlow/Wexford area where he designed churches (and even a cathedral) and public buildings as well as private houses, all in a variety of styles. But nothing else quite matches his work at Duckett’s Grove where, presumably at the request of the client, he let rip with almost every decorative motif available. The old house was smothered in a superfluity of turrets, crenellations, arches and niches, oriel windows and quatrefoil decoration before being further embellished with busts and urns and statuary, some of it attached to the building, some free-standing in the immediate grounds. Furthermore the structure was given what has been described as ‘wilful asymmetry’ through the addition of sundry towers, none of which correspond to the others in either shape or height. Further work was undertaken in the 1840s by another relatively obscure architect John Macduff Derick who designed the immense granite entrance gates to the estate as almost a castle in their own right. Given the style of this work, one wonders whether he was also responsible for the more rugged elements of Duckett’s Grove, those parts of the building (likewise in granite) which are Norman rather than High Gothic in inspiration?
The history of Duckett’s Grove in the 20th century was not a happy one. John Dawson Duckett’s son William inherited the estate on his father’s death and although twice married he had no children. When he in turn died in 1908 he left everything to his second wife, Marie who had a daughter from her own first marriage but likewise no other offspring. By 1916 Marie Duckett had moved out of the house and moved to Dublin where her late husband had bought her a place, and thereafter Duckett’s Grove was looked after by an agent. Because the family had been good landlords, always permitting access to the gardens (until 1902 when they felt their hospitality was being exploited by visitors) and looking after their workforce, Duckett’s Grove suffered no damage during the War of Independence. But already a lot of the estate had been parcelled off for sale to former tenants, and in 1923 Marie Duckett disposed of the contents of Duckett’s Grove in a three-day auction. Even before then she had sold the house and remaining 1,300 acres to a group of local farmers who together took out a £32,000 loan. However, they quarrelled over its division and failed to repay the bank, so eventually the Land Commission assumed responsibility and divided up the land between another 48 small holders. Duckett’s Grove and its immediate 11 acres were acquired by a Carlow businessman in 1931 for £320. He demolished some of the outbuildings (stone from these was used to construct a new Christian Brothers school in Carlow town) but had not yet decided what to do with the house when it was mysteriously gutted by fire in April 1933.
Marie Duckett does not appear to have been in any way troubled about the destruction of her late husband’s family home, perhaps because by this date she was already enmeshed in the delusions and squabbles that overwhelmed her last years (the story of her will, in which she effectively dispossessed her daughter, and of the court case after her death can easily be found elsewhere). For over seventy years Duckett’s Grove stood open to the elements and largely unprotected. Finally in 2005 Carlow County Council acquired the property and has since restored the old walled gardens, and installed various facilities in part of the old stables.
The main house remains a shell and frankly one wonders if in this instance that is not the best fate for the place. Duckett’s Grove, as overhauled in the 19th century, can never have been an object of much beauty. All that over-ornamentation, all those statues and busts and other decorative flourishes must have been somewhat excessive, redolent of the era’s likewise immoderately decorated interiors with their potted palms and red plush sofas and antimacassars. Stripped of the accretions Duckett’s Grove today possesses a grandeur that probably eluded it when still roofed and occupied. The line of towers on the skyline now has a greater dignity than was ever formerly the case. Duckett’s Grove was made to be a ruin, and as such it is rather splendid.
Earlier this week photographer James Fennell took a number of extraordinary pictures showing an old house at the entrance to the 18th century planned Quaker village of Ballitore, County Kildare being enveloped within a new structure; once the latter is complete, the old house will be demolished. The company responsible for this undertaking is Glanbia plc which grandiloquently describes itself as ‘a global nutritional solutions and cheese group’ and which on Wednesday announced a 13 per cent rise in revenue to €1.68 billion in the first half of 2013. Glanbia already has a plant in Ballitore and last year applied for planning permission to extend the premises, which involved the demolition of the house, referred to in the application as a ‘two storey office building’ thereby conveniently ignoring its history as part of a long-standing residential settlement.
Permission for this work to proceed was duly granted by Kildare County Council, after its conservation advisors advised that the structure had been so altered and refurbished that it ‘no longer retains any features of special significance’ and could accordingly ‘be deemed to be of little significance within the architectural heritage of Kildare.’ Leaving aside the fact that the local authority permitted those alterations and refurbishments to take place, the approval also ignored the house’s importance within the overall framework of the village of Ballitore, a unique collection of houses that are each part of a greater whole; damage one element and you damage the entire site and thereby irreparably alter its distinctive character. Glanbia is not some foreign entity (its origins lie in the Irish co-operative movement and it ought therefore to have a sense of community) so neither this organisation nor Kildare County Council can claim ignorance of the history of Ballitore. No doubt the inevitable economic arguments will be trotted out in justification for this act of cultural vandalism. Tourism is also an enormously important money-generating industry in Ireland: this is not Soviet Russia and tourists do not come here to look at factories. By assisting in the demolition of a fine old house and its replacement with a characterless monolith, the two bodies responsible will have inflicted damage on both the appearance of Ballitore and on the local economy.