A limestone chimney piece and plaster overmantel located in the basement of Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. As now constituted, the house is mostly the work of Richard Castle in the 18th century and John Lynn in the 19th. We do know however, that an earlier building existed on the site, dating from the late 1700s. The survival of this chimneypiece, and indeed entire room, at the bottom of the present main block suggest that it was originally one of the main reception rooms. Thus when Strokestown was initially aggrandised, probably in the 1730s, additional storeys were added and what had been the ground floor became a basement.
A mural above the drawing room chimney piece of Mount Ievers Court, County Clare showing the house and its surrounding parkland. Mount Ievers was built between 1733 and 1737 for Henry Ievers to the design of John Rothery who seems to have been a local architect and who died before the building’s completion. Depicting the north facade of the house, the mural is usually considered to have been painted not long after work finished and to be an accurate record of Mount Ievers. Yet a quick look at images of the building then and now shows one crucial difference. In the picture, the entrance is shown as accessed via a horseshoe staircase, whereas today, as can be seen below, a double-flight of stone steps runs directly up to the door. So did the painting show what was intended but not executed, or what was constructed but subsequently altered?
(For more on Mount Ievers, see A Place of Magic, December 16th 2013).
It was the misfortune of Edward Martyn that his appearance and character so frequently encouraged ridicule. A large, lumbering man with a passion for beauty in all its manifestations, he devoted the greater part of his life and income attempting to convert others in Ireland to his aesthetic beliefs, with only limited success. In his former friend George Moore’s entertaining, irreverent but not always credible memoir Hail and Farewell, Martyn is described as being ‘not very sure-footed on new ground, and being a heavy man, his stumblings are loud. Moreover, he is obsessed by a certain part of his person which he speaks of as his soul; it demands Mass in the morning, Vespers in the afternoon, and compels him to believe in the efficacy of Sacraments and the Pope’s indulgences…’ W.B. Yeats, another friend-turned-opponent with whom Martyn and Lady Gregory had helped to found Ireland’s National Theatre, was still less charitable, not least on the subject of his old comrade’s religiosity which the poet thought ill-became a member of the ruling gentry. Yeats proposed, ‘The whole system of Irish Catholicism pulls down the able and well-born if it pulls up the peasant, as I think it does.’ From this, he wrote snobbishly of Martyn, ‘I used to think that the two traditions met and destroyed each other in his blood, creating the sterility of the mule…His father’s family was old and honoured; his mother but one generation from the peasant.’ On another occasion Yeats called Martyn, ‘An unhappy, childless, unfinished man, typical of an Ireland that is passing away’. Both Moore and Yeats were baffled by the seeming contradictions in Martyn’s persona, not least his revelling in discomfort. Moore has left an account of Martyn’s accommodation in Dublin, a modest flat above a tobacconist shop on Leinster Street: ‘Two short flights of stairs, and we are in his room. It never changes – the same litter, from day to day, from year to year, the same old and broken mahogany furniture, the same musty wall-paper, dusty manuscripts lying about in heaps, and many dusty books … old prints that he tacks on the wall … a torn, dusty, ragged screen … between the folds of the screen … a small harmonium of about three octaves, and on it a score of Palestrina … on the table is a candlestick made out of white tin, designed probably by Edward himself, for it holds four candles…Is there another man in this world whose income is two thousand a year, and who sleeps in a bare bedroom, without dressing room, or bathroom, or servant in the house to brush his clothes and who has to go to the baker’s for his breakfast?’ Yet Martyn was wont to abandon himself to the same self-imposed hardship even when staying in his country house, Tulira Castle, County Galway.
To understand Tulira and how it now looks, one needs to know something of the history of the Martyn family. Supposedly descended from a Norman supporter of Richard de Clare, otherwise known as Strongbow, they liked to claim one of their number, Oliver Martyn, had accompanied Richard I on the Third Crusade. In return for this support, the king presented him with armorial bearings. More significantly, the Martyns settled in Galway and became one of the city’s mercantile ‘tribes.’ Like so many of the others of their ilk, during the upheavals of the 16th century they moved into the countryside and acquired large amounts of land, not least that around an old de Burgo castle which was in their possession by 1598. Somehow they survived the turbulence of the following century and were confirmed in the possession of their estates in 1710 when they were specifically exempted by Queen Anne in an Act of Parliament passed ‘to prevent the growth of Popery.’ This was thanks to another Oliver Martyn who, it was noted, during the recent Williamite wars, ‘behaved himself with great moderation, and was remarkably kind to Protestants in distress, many of whom he supported in his family and by his charity and goodness, saved their lives.’ As a result the Martyns of Tulira were confirmed in ‘their very extensive estates and in all their rights as citizens, proprietors, and Catholics.’ At some time in the 18th century, another generation of Martyns built a new house beside the old de Burgo tower. Nothing of this Georgian structure, seemingly three-storeys over basement, has survived, although the stable yard immediately behind the castle dates from that period. In the 1870s when Edward Martyn was still a minor the old house was demolished and replaced with a new residence. The impetus for this transformation seems to have come from his formidable mother. Mrs Martyn was born Annie Josephine Smyth of Masonbrook, County Galway. When she married John Martyn in 1857, her self-made father presented his son-in-law with Annie Josephine’s weight in gold: the sum was supposed to amount to £20,000. After only three years of marriage, John Martyn died, leaving his heir Edward aged just 14 months to be raised by the widowed Annie. The following decade, she embarked on Tulira’s transformation, the eventual cost of which is said to have been £20,000, the same amount as was handed over by her father at the time of her marriage.
Given that Edward Martyn was only in his teens when Tulira was rebuilt, it seems likely his mother was responsible for choosing the architect. Since she was an ardent Roman Catholic, it is not altogether surprising the commission should have gone to George Ashlin, who otherwise worked primarily for clerical clients. Ashlin was born in County Cork in 1837 and in his late teens was articled in England to E W Pugin, son of Augustus Welby Pugin (whose daughter Ashlin married in 1860). When, in 1859, the younger Pugin received the commission for the church of SS Peter and Paul, Cork, he made Ashlin a partner with responsibility for their Irish work, which included St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh. Ashlin remained in partnership with Pugin until about 1870 after which he set up his own highly successful practice. Tulira was his only major secular commission and regrettably no documents relating to the castle’s design or construction have survived.
In any case, for Mrs Martyn and her son, Ashlin designed a densely-castellated two-storey house directly linked to the old castle. In the centre of the asymmetric facade is a projecting three storey tower containing an arched Gothic door case and an oriel window immediately above; on the corbels of the latter are carved Edward Martyn’s initials and the date 1882 indicating this was when work concluded. On either side of the tower are polygonal corner turrets which once more are raised slightly higher than the roof parapet. The garden front shows a similar differentiation in surface rhythm thanks to the presence of further projecting towers. The house has always inspired mixed feelings. Moore, in his usual imaginative way, claimed he attempted to dissuade Martyn from undertaking the project: ‘walking on the lawn, I remember trying to persuade him that the eighteenth-century house which one of his ancestors had built alongside of the old castle, on the decline of brigandage, would be sufficient for his want.’ However, since Mrs Martyn was the driving force behind the enterprise, this recollection seems defective. However in 1896 Yeats and the English critic Arthur Symons stayed in Tulira after which Symons wrote in The Savoy that here he discovered ‘a castle of dreams’, where ‘in the morning, I climb the winding staircase in the tower, creep through the secret passage, and find myself in a vast deserted room above the chapel which is my retiring room for meditation; or following the winding staircase, come out of the battlements, where I can look widely across Galway, to the hills.’ Yeats was also enchanted, although his preference was for ‘the many rookeries, the square old tower, and the great yard where medieval soldiers had exercised.’ Much later, his verdict was more harsh, dismissing Ashlin’s design as being nothing better than ‘a pretentious modern Gothic once dear to Irish Catholic families.’
It is generally accepted that Mrs Martyn’s reason for rebuilding Tulira was to provide a comfortable home for future generations of the ancient family into which she had married. George Moore, most likely apochryally, claimed Annie Martyn had proclaimed, ‘Edward must build a large and substantial house of family importance, and when this house was finished he could not do otherwise than marry.’ Unfortunately she had not reckoned on her son’s lifelong dedication to celibacy and reluctance to linger in the company of women. When he endowed the foundation of the Palestrina Choir in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin in 1904, for example, he stipulated ‘the said choir shall consist of men and boys only’ and that ‘on no occasion shall females be employed.’
Mrs Martyn also under-estimated her son’s partiality for asceticism: although Tulira was splendidly finished, Martyn preferred to live in the old tower. Here a stone staircase ascending the full height of the building leads to the first floor which served as his private library and still retains its oak floor and oak-panelled walls, as well as stained glass windows designed by Edward Frampton in 1882 and featuring literary figures such as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dante. A door at the far end of the library provides access to a simple room where Martyn slept, according to Moore ‘with the bed as narrow as a monk’s and the walls whitewashed like a cell and nothing upon them but a crucifix.’ Above this is his private chapel, its fittings, including the benches and altar, apparently designed by Irish architect William A Scott, although the chimneypiece has the dates 1613 and 1681 carved into the limestone. An even more impressive chimneypiece is found on the third floor where the ceiling rises to the roof, allowing for the inclusion of a small minstrels’ gallery at one gable end.
Meanwhile inside the Ashlin-designed house, after passing through a modest entrance one reaches the great hall measuring some 31 by 32 feet and rising 42 feet, the full height of Ashlin’s castle. Here Edward Martyn would play the polyphonic music of Palestrina and Vittoria on a long-since lost organ. On a richly-tiled floor repeatedly decorated with the Martyn motto of Sic hur Ad Astra (‘Thus One Climbs to the Stars’) rest the bases of black marble columns, their capitals elaborately carved with figures. From here a massive staircase with quatrefoil balustrading leads to the galleried first floor where a sequence of arches is supported by further marble columns. Much of this room’s decoration is attributed to John Dibblee Crace, the English designer and decorator whose father had worked with Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in London. Crace produced designs for the hall’s main window but these were never executed, as it seems Martyn lost interest in completing the scheme for the castle’s interior decoration. However, on the ground floor a series of reception rooms, intended to impress those prospective brides who were never invited, have compartmented timber ceilings with the recessed panels painted in a delicate design, also by Crace. The drawing and dining rooms retain their polychromatic marble chimneypieces as well as stained glass bearing the crests of Galway’s tribes. The embossed red and bronze wallpaper in the dining room was hung when the castle was first built, with certain sections restored more recently by David Skinner who also made paper for a number of other rooms in the house.
Despite all that he had done, and all that he had tried to do in the fields of art, music and literature, Edward Martyn’s final years were grim, not least due to creeping ill-health. In her journal for September 1921, Lady Gregory his neighbour and former collaborator, noted, ‘He is anxious about money, has fears of his investment in the English railways, and is very crippled by rheumatism.’ Two years later she visited him at Tulira for the last time and afterwards wrote, ‘In the bow window of the library I saw Edward sitting. I thought he would turn and look round at the noise, but he stayed quite quite immovable, like a stuffed figure, it was quite uncanny…I went in, but he did not turn his head, gazed before him. I touched his hands (one could not shake them, all crippled, Dolan [the butler] says he has to be fed) and spoke to him. He slowly turned his eyes but without recognition. I went on talking without response till I asked him if he had any pain and he whispered: “No, thank God”. I didn’t know if he knew me, but talked a little, and presently, he whispered: “How is Robert?” I said: “He is well, as all are in God’s hands, he has gone before me and before you.” Then I said: “My little grandson, Richard, is well”, and he said with difficulty and in a whisper: “I am very glad of that.” Then I came away, there was no use staying…’
Three months later Edward Martyn was dead at the age of sixty-four, leaving instructions that his body be donated to medical science and the remains afterwards buried in a pauper’s grave. Along with his papers, he left the contents of his personal library to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street, Dublin and they are there still. His collection of paintings, mostly by Irish artists but including a Monet landscape and two works by Degas bought while holidaying in Paris with George Moore in April 1885, Martyn bequeathed to the National Gallery of Ireland. The rest of the castle’s contents, it can be conjectured, were still in Tulira after it was left to a cousin Mary, Lady Hemphill. In 1982 the fifth Lord Hemphill sold Tulira and its surrounding land, and at that time Sotheby’s conducted a house contents auction on the premises when many of the 430 lots once owned by Martyn were dispersed. Between 1982 and 1996, Tulira changed hands no less than five times, on one occasion being exchanged for a yacht, before being sold to its present owners. Since taking possession of Tulira, they have tried to acquire any items of furniture that formerly belonged to the house and have come onto the market, such as a Victorian oak centre table (from a house sale in Oxfordshire) and a set of four oak Gothic chairs of the same period all of which have been returned to the castle’s library. Under their guardianship one feels the spirit of Edward Martyn has returned to Tulira.
Cupids play at the top of a blind niche in the rotunda of Townley Hall, County Louth, one of the loveliest houses in Ireland which has been discussed here on several occasions in the past (mostly notably Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* on June 10th last year). Today marks the second anniversary of The Irish Aesthete, the first post being made on September 24th 2012. Two years later the site remains busy with at least three postings each week and, I am happy to report, an ever-increasing audience. In 2012 The Irish Aesthete received an average 23 views per day: the site now generates more than 610 views daily. Interest comes from across the world, the majority of visitors understandably resident in English-speaking countries but during the last quarter there have been substantial numbers from Brazil, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Vietnam, among many others.
Whoever you are and wherever you live, thank you to all my readers for engaging with this site and for encouraging me to continue writing about Ireland’s architectural heritage, a subject dear to my heart and evidently to yours also. Your comments are always appreciated, although some of those written in more intemperate language may not be published (this site appreciates good manners). Please keep sending me your thoughts and responses, and in addition if you have suggestions for future subjects, I should be delighted to know of these: like all authors, I relish feedback.
Thank you once again, and I look forward to retaining your interest over the next twelve months.
During the immense upheavals that occurred here over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, much of the country’s land changed hands on several occasions. In some instances, this was because those who had come into possession of it, by whatever means, sought to make a quick return on the value of their property, and thus soon sold it on. Others, however, especially if they were English-born younger sons with few prospects of becoming a landowner back home, preferred to remain in Ireland and could enhance their own acreage by acquiring that being disposed of by departing soldiery.
Such seems to have been the case with Francis Jackson, described in the 1875 edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland as descended from a branch ‘of the ancient Devonshire family of JACKSON, of Combhay’ who being a younger son had come to this country ‘as captain of dragoons in Cromwell’s army, and purchasing extensive landed property in the Barony of Tyrrawley and county of Mayo, had it shortly after the Restoration, confirmed to him and his heirs by patent of Charles II. He built a large fortified house at Enniscoe, on the banks of Lough Conn.’ Having established himself here, Francis Jackson remained in County Mayo until his death in 1678 when he left a son, Oliver, to inherit the property.
Oliver Jackson died soon after the conclusion of the Williamite Wars in 1691, just as some peace descended on the country. However, one of his two sons John Jackson died as a result of engaging in a duel in 1704 and so the estate went to his brother Oliver Jackson who married a Catherine Owens of County Louth with whom he had three sons, the younger two conveniently dying bachelors and having no offspring. Born in 1717 the eldest child George Jackson married Jane Cuffe whose father James was an MP for Mayo and whose uncle was Arthur Gore, first Earl of Arran: in 1797 her brother James Cuffe would become first (and last) Baron Tyrawley.
It may be because of these connections or because George and Jane Jackson had seven children that they decided to build a new residence at Enniscoe. Hitherto the family had lived in the fortified house erected by Francis Jackson on the shores of Lough Conn, its precise whereabouts now unknown. At some date around 1740-50, this was replaced by another building further from the lake but with views down to the water. This was a tall, single-gabled house of five bays and three storeys over basement.
The eldest of George and Jane Jackson’s progeny, likewise christened George, in 1783 married Maria Rutledge, only child and heir of William Rutledge of nearby Foxford; the couple would have thirteen children. Most likely their large family explains why Enniscoe was enlarged soon after the death the older George Jackson in 1789; work was completed by 1798 when it suffered some damage during the rebellion and failed French invasion of that year (after which William Rutledge lodged a claim for compensation to the government for just over £780 owing to ‘loss of cattle, wine, furniture, provisions and fire arms’). Interestingly the house’s new section was placed directly in front of the old, which still remains intact as the back part of the building today. Changes in taste mean this part of the property has more generously proportioned rooms than those to the rear. It has no basement and is of only two storeys rather than three. The main features are two large reception rooms on either side of the entrance hall with Adam-esque cornice friezes, white marble chimney pieces and an elegantly sinuous top-lit staircase undulating up to the first floor bedrooms.
George and Maria Jackson’s eldest son William, a colonel in the North Mayo Militia, did not match his parents’ fecundity, having only one child with his wife Jane Louise Blair, a daughter named Madeline Eglantine Jackson. On her father’s death she thus became an heiress and in 1834 married another large landowner, from the other side of the country, Mervyn Pratt of Cabra Castle, County Cavan. The Pratts, like the Jacksons, established themselves in Ireland in the first half of the 17th century, Joseph Pratt of Leicestershire having settled here in 1641. The marriage of these two families meant that in 1876 Mervyn Pratt was listed as owning 17,955 acres in County Mayo, 8,095 acres in County Cavan and 1,014 acres in County Meath. This was inherited by Mervyn and Madeline Pratt’s only son Joseph who in turn passed the properties on to his elder son, another Mervyn: the younger boy, Lieutenant Colonel Audley Pratt was killed during the First World War. Born in 1873, Mervyn Pratt was badly wounded during the Boer War and retired from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps with the rank of Captin in 1910; he was subsequently promoted to Major. On his father’s death, he moved to Enniscoe and remained there unmarried until his own death in 1950. At that date the County Mayo property was inherited by a cousin, Professor Jack Nicholson, head of the Veterinary College of Ireland and his wife Patita, whose father had been one of the Bourkes of Heathfield House, County Mayo (a family of which Ireland’s first woman President, Mary Robinson was also a member). Enniscoe in turn passed to their daughter Susan Kellett who now lives there with her son, DJ Kellett.
The particular pleasure of Enniscoe lies in its discretion: there is nothing braggartly about the house which sits at ease within the surrounding landscape. Patita Nicholson, a talented artist too little known, painted many scenes featuring the property (such as that at the top of this page). All of them show Enniscoe’s roughcast walls washed a gentle pink, this colour contrasting with the intense green of the immediate meadows and woodlands. Aside from a tripartite entrance doorframe, the exterior of the building is plain and the interiors likewise devoid of superfluous decoration except for occasional flourishes such as the plasterwork frieze running around the base of the staircase lantern. The sensible caution of earlier generations towards spending money unnecessarily means Enniscoe has remained relatively unchanged over the past two centuries. In the drawing room, for example, the wall paper probably dates from the 1830s when Madeline Jackson married Mervyn Pratt and the couple undertook some redecoration, although after almost two hundred years the original pale blue has faded to a dusty rose. And for nearly double that amount of time the house has never been sold but instead passed on from one branch of the same family to the next. The character this unbroken continuity gives to a house cannot be artificially replicated, but can – and in other houses has been – forever lost. There are few remaining examples in Ireland of somewhere grown quite so comfortable in its own skin, long may Enniscoe continue to do so.
Enniscoe and its owners today welcome guests. For more information, please see http://www.enniscoe.com
‘The interior of the house is quite a curiosity. The walls, staircase, and bedrooms, are all covered with tapestry – even the ceilings of the staircases and passages. Some of it is very good, especially that in the drawing room, which once adorned the palace of the Tuileries.
The rooms abound with objects of virtù, and the ceilings of some are covered with paintings which formed the plafond of a palace at Venice. Most of the doors are covered with that stamped and gilded leather which was formerly so extensively used to decorate the palaces of Spain. The dining room has a very rich buffet, which reaches nearly to the ceiling. Some of the ornaments are in brass, and belonged to a Spanish convent. They consist of five or six large dishes, with embossed figures very finely executed. A curious old bust of Saint Patrick is in the centre.
Some beautiful stained glass, also from a Spanish convent, is placed in the windows of this room, the walls of which are covered in pictures instead of tapestry. Some of these pictures are very good, and have frames of richly carved oak. I remarked a curious vase, which is covered with coins of Henry III. They were found in Lord Berehaven’s grounds, and placed, I believe, by himself in this very fanciful and very ornamental manner. In the drawing-room, amongst many other beautiful and interesting objects, there is a curious old book-stand, of an octagon shape, forming a table at the top, which is embellished with old miniatures set into the carving.
The collection was made by Lord Berehaven during his travels. For fourteen years he usually made an annual tour abroad, having the decoration of his house constantly in view. How delightful it would be for Ireland if many more of its young Peers followed Lord Berehaven’s example, and brought back with them from the foreign lands which they visited choice works of art and taste to enrich their own!’
From Rambles In The South Of Ireland During The Year 1838 by Lady Chatterton.
In the late 17th century Captain Richard White, member of a Limerick mercantile and mayoral family, settled on Whiddy, the largest island in Bantry Bay, County Cork. He and his descendants seem to have prospered, it is believed through their involvement in a variety of activities including pilchard fishing, iron smelting and, most probably, smuggling. The National Library of Ireland archives contain an article of transfer of lands dated 1717 showing that even at this date the Whites were acquiring property on the mainland at Bantry. Here 1720 a house called Blackrock was built by the Hutchinson family which for some time had been leasing the property from the Earls of Anglesey. This building, of five bays and three storeys, forms the core of what is now known as Bantry House: in the early 1760s it passed into the ownership of the second Richard White, born on Whiddy in 1701, and thus the family moved from their island residence, White noting in his account book, ‘…this farm would set for upwards of £56, but I think no lease ought to be made thereof least any of my family should live at Blackrock, in which Case that farm would be a most convenient Domean.’
In 1734 the second Richard, who was called to the Irish Bar where he made a considerable fortune, had married Martha Davis. Her father, the Very Rev Rowland Davis was Dean of Cork and Ross. Their son, Simon White, born in 1739, likewise studied law, was called to the English Bar but did not practice. Instead he, like his own heir, seems to have concentrated on increasing the size of its estate so that before the end of the century the Whites were the greatest landowners in this part of the country. In 1766 Simon White married Frances Jane Hedges Eyre of Macroom Castle, and the following year their first son – another Richard – was born.
The third Richard White would today most likely only be remembered for having taken part in a schoolboy rebellion against the headmaster while at Harrow, had he not unexpectedly become involved in an important incident in Irish history. On achieving his majority, he settled at Bantry and seems to have concentrated on consolidating and improving his inheritance.
However in December 1796 a fleet of 43 ships carrying in the region of 16,000 French soldiers under the command of General Hoche and accompanied by the United Irishman Wolfe Tone set sail from Brest with the intention of invading this country. The fleet encountered terrible weather en route, was split up, and on Christmas Eve just sixteen vessels and 6,000 men reached Bere Island in Bantry Bay. Hearing of their arrival, Richard White sent out a small boat with ten men on board to ascertain the intentions of these unexpected visitors: they were not seen again. As a result, White sent word of the threatened invasion to British army headquarters in Cork city, organised the local Bantry Cavalry (the standard of which still hangs in Bantry House’s entrance hall) and placed his home at the disposal of the military. General Dalrymple duly arrived from Cork and everyone prepared for a tremendous fight. It never happened because the French vessels, ill-prepared for Irish winter weather, were driven out of the bay by another storm on December 28th. ‘We were,’ wrote a crushed Wolfe Tone in his journal, ‘close enough to toss a biscuit ashore.’
But all was not yet over. On New Year’s Eve another group of French ships, also part of the scattered armada, arrived in Bantry Bay and attacked two merchant vessels, one American, the other English. But they did little else and on January 4th when a local trader boldly went out to sell the sailors some produce, he advised there were some 20,000 members of the military on shore (in fact, there were only 400). He also warned that Lord Bridport, commander of the Channel Fleet, was close at hand, whereas news of the threatened invasion had only reached London on December 31st. The French, separated from their commander and suffering from acute sea sickness, lost whatever remained of their urge to invade Ireland and ignominiously headed back to their own country. In March 1797, ‘in consideration of the zeal and loyalty he displayed…during a period of great trouble,’ Richard White was raised to the peerage as Baron Bantry. In 1800 he was made a Viscount, and in 1816 Earl of Bantry.
In 1799 Lord Bantry married Lady Margaret Hare, daughter of the first Earl of Listowel and with a fortune of £30,000. Their first child, a son christened Richard, was born in 1800 and, after his father became an earl, was known by the courtesy title Viscount Berehaven. In character he was very different from his parent, a man happy to live on his own estate in a remote part of Ireland. Indeed, long before his death in 1851 Lord Bantry had handed over responsibility for Bantry House to his heir and retired to a rustic lodge he had built at Glengarriff some eight miles away.
Both before and after his marriage in 1836 to Lady Mary O’Brien, a daughter of the second Marquis of Thomond, Lord Berehaven embarked on extensive travels throughout Europe and even as far as Russia. In the course of these journeys he acquired countless items of furniture, paintings, tapestries and objets d’art with which to embellish Bantry House. The building had been extended by his father with the addition of a two-storey, six bay front overlooking Bantry Bay; this contains a pair of bow-ended drawing rooms with bedrooms above. In the mid-1840s the house was further enlarged by Lord Berehaven who added a fourteen-bay block to the rear, comprising a six-bay centre of two storeys over basement flanked by four-storey bow-ended wings. The exterior was given coherence by a sequence of giant red-brick pilasters with Coade-stone Corinthian capitals, the intervening spaces filled by grey stucco and the whole topped by a parapet with stone balustrade. In addition, no doubt inspired by their travels, during the 1850s Lord and Lady Berehaven laid out the elaborate Italianate gardens, including the terraces focussed on the stone Hundred Steps set amidst azaleas and rhododendron behind the house and, at its base, a south-facing parterre surrounding a wisteria circle centred on a fountain. An immense winter garden (now gone) accessed via the library was also added.
The description provided by Lady Chatterton above gives an idea of how Bantry House looked even before it was enlarged by Lord Berehaven, who finally became second Earl of Bantry on his father’s death, aged 84, in 1851. The rooms were crammed with outstanding examples of Spanish leather and brasswork, French tapestries, Italian paintings and much more besides. The second earl seems to have been an obsessive collector and an eccentric decorator, working on the more-is-more principle and inclined to heap one item on top of another so that the eventual effect must have been overwhelming, not least because of ceilings covered in either tapestries or canvases. The black and white photographs, probably dating from around a century ago or so, offer us a sense of the interiors as he had left them.
We have other, more recent, accounts of the house. For example, Geoffrey Shelswell-White (father of the late Egerton Shelswell-White) wrote in 1951 of Italy being ‘represented by stained glass, ceiling paintings from a Venetian Palace, and plaster-work executed by Italian craftsmen said to have been brought to Bantry expressly for the purpose. A Russian household shrine contains 15th and 16th Century icons. There is stained and painted glass from Switzerland and France, Germany and Flanders, and specimens of Cork, Waterford and ruby-coloured Bohemian glass. Among the French pieces, which are the most numerous, those having special interest are a pair of bookcases and a work table reputed to have been the property of Marie-Antoinette, and fireplaces which are thought to have come from the Petit Trianon at Versailles.
Lord Bantry’s outstanding contribution, however, was unquestionably the collection of tapestries that adorn the walls of several of the rooms. With the exception of a set, 17th Century Dutch in origin, the panels are French having come from the workshops of Gobelins, Beauvais and Aubusson in the late 18th Century. One Gobelins panel is said to have hung in the Palace of Versailles and there is a particularly beautiful rose-coloured set of Aubusson which is said to have been made by order of Louis XV for Marie Antoinette on her marriage to the Dauphin of France. Two other panels formed part of the Royal Garde Meuble of the Tuileries.’
The second Earl of Bantry had no children – in a sense the house was his offspring – and so when he died in 1868 the title and property passed to his brother William. The third earl had five daughters and one son, William Henry Hare Hedges-White who in 1884 became fourth Earl of Bantry. However he only survived until 1891 and, although married, had no children so that on his death the title became extinct. Bantry was inherited by Edward Egerton Leigh, son of the fourth earl’s eldest sister Elizabeth. He duly changed his surname to Leigh-White and when he died in 1920 Bantry passed to his elder daughter Clodagh whose husband Geoffrey Shelswell likewise took the White name to become Shelswell-White. The latter worked for the British Colonial Service but following the outbreak of the Second World War his wife and children moved into Bantry where the house was used by the Irish Army until the return of peace in 1945. A year later Clodagh Bantry House opened to the public, the first historic property in the Republic to take this step. In her book The Big House in Ireland, Valerie Pakenham remembers being taken around Bantry in the 1960s by Clodagh Shelswell-White ‘swathed splendidly in two fur coats, and observing with fascination a large Nescafe tin filled with pot-pourri among the family silver.’ On her death in 1978 responsibility for the house passed to Egerton Shelswell-White who in turn died in December 2012.
Over the preceding century or more, Bantry’s resources had been steadily depleted. It is clear that the second earl’s lavish expenditure on the house was not without consequences: in November 1853, over 33,000 acres of the Bantry estate were offered for sale in the Encumbered Estates Court, and a separate sale disposed of Bere Island. The following year more than 6,000 further acres were sold, again through the Encumbered Estates Court. Nevertheless in the 1870s the third earl still owned 69,500 acres of land in County Cork. Within decades most of this had gone: by March 1916 Edward Egerton Leigh-White had accepted an offer from the Congested Districts’ Board had been accepted for 61,589 tenanted acres of the estate. What remained was thereafter sold until a mere hundred acres remained. Meanwhile the vast house continued to demand large sums to be spent on its maintenance, money that could only come from the gradual sale of its contents.
In the first half of the last century, the author Stephen Gwynn described the contents of Bantry House as being ‘the Wallace Collection of Ireland.’ It is, however, impossible to imagine the British government and people would have watched with disinterest while the Wallace Collection was piecemeal broken up and sold; there would have been state intervention and support to keep such a valuable resource within the country. Such is the difference between our two nations. Successive owners of Bantry House have been forced to dispose of their assets in order to keep a roof on the building they struggled to preserve. The greater part of a remarkable collection assembled by the second Earl of Bantry, which ought to have enhanced the Irish patrimony, has instead been allowed to be lost forever, most of it leaving the country. In the summer 2014 issue of the Irish Arts Review, for example, Peter Murray writes a scrupulous account of certain dealers’ scurrilous behaviour which resulted in a series of eight canvases painted in Venice by the Guardi brothers in the 18th century and installed on the ceiling of Bantry House’s dining room, being removed not just from the building but from the state, and sold for a fraction of their worth even at the time.
It may come as a surprise to readers to learn that there is legislation in place which requires licences to be sought for the export of art works from Ireland, this being the Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act dating as far back as 1945 and supplemented by the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997. In theory this legislation means the export of any item over a certain fairly low value has to be approved by government-appointed authorities; in practice one suspects – as in so many other areas of Irish life – the law is more honoured in the breach than the observance. The situation is not helped by lack of basic knowledge of what is and isn’t here. For example, any work that appears on the Register of Cultural Objects cannot leave the country without first being given a licence. In 2005 this register was extended to cover all cultural objects, but to-date the list continues to comprise items from certain state institutions like the National Gallery of Ireland. There is no inventory of cultural objects in this country. Thus we cannot be certain what remains here, what has been sold, what might go in the coming days or weeks or months. We don’t know what we have, which makes it impossible to know what we have to lose.
What we do know, on the other hand, is that on October 21st next the final portions of Ireland’s Wallace Collection – which can be seen in the pictures above – will be auctioned and most likely depart Ireland forever. So far the Irish state has shown itself unconcerned that this should be so, indifferent that another part of what ought to be our collective inheritance will disappear, untroubled that the region around Bantry – which is heavily dependent on tourism – will be deprived of a valuable attraction for visitors. In May 1976, the contents of Malahide Castle, Dublin were sold as a result of state stupidity; almost forty years and many more country house sales later, nothing seems to have changed. It is time to understand that our cultural heritage is not a renewable asset: when it’s gone, it’s gone.
Over the chimney piece in the dining room at Ballyfin, County Laois, an oil of Mary Anne, Lady Acton and her children painted in 1809 by the neo-classical artist Robert Fagan. Lady Acton’s husband, Sir John Acton, commander of the naval forces of Grand Duchy of Tuscany and prime minister of Naples in the late 18th century, was also her uncle: the couple had been permitted to marry by papal dispensation. The boy holding a bird to the right was their younger son, Charles Januarius Acton who, after being educated in England, returned to Italy where he became a priest. In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI made him Auditor to the Apostolic Chamber and two years later he became a cardinal. However, never very strong, he died in 1847 at the age of forty-four. Incidentally his nephew was the historian Lord Acton, best remembered for the observation, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’ This was certainly not true of Cardinal Acton.