A window shutter in the library of Mount Stewart, County Down. This is located in what is now the west wing, the section designed by English architect George Dance the younger c.1804. Dance had visited the house in 1795 when he came to Ireland with his supposed lover Lady Elizabeth Pratt, sister of the new Lord Lieutenant Lord Camden. She was also sister-in-law of Mount Stewart’s then-owner Robert Stewart, first Baron Londonderry (later first Marquess of Londonderry) who early in the new century decided to enlarge his property and called upon Dance’s services. However, we know the architect did not come to Ireland again until 1815, instead sending drawings from London which were executed by John Ferguson, the estate carpenter. Note how the shutter’s prosaic function is concealed by being lined with leather bindings in imitation of those books filling the surrounding library shelves, a deft touch on the part of either Dance or Ferguson.
A blue and white Wedgwood jasper ware disc inserted into a marble chimneypiece on the first floor rear drawing room of 45 Merrion Square, Dublin now the offices of the Irish Architectural Archive. This hard stoneware pottery developed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1775 was soon used not for making cups or vases but to produce such items as plaques and discs which could be used in the decoration of rooms. So it is in two rooms at 45 Merrion Square where the plain white of the chimneypiece is relieved by bursts of vivid colour.
In a diary entry dated 27th February 1853 Elizabeth Smith of Baltiboys, County Wicklow (known to her many posthumous admirers as the Highland Lady since she was of Scottish origin) wrote, ‘Mr Kavanagh has been burned to death, his fine old name and large fortune fall to that poor object, his brother, a poor cripple without either arms or legs only stumps. In this miserable condition he hunts! tied to his basket saddle, holding the reins between his mouth and shoulder, and he rides hard! He draws, writes, is really accomplished and intelligent. An old prophesy, it seems, foretold that the house of Borris would end with a cripple. Strange if true.’
An entire post could be written about Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh, and indeed he has been the subject of more than one book. As Mrs Smith notes he was born without full limbs, both his arms and legs stopping well short of the flexible joint. Yet neither he nor his family allowed this impediment to hinder him: in his teens he set off with his eldest brother – who suffered from tuberculosis – on a journey through Russia, Persia and India (where he got a job as a dispatch rider) and although the older sibling died, Arthur survived and indeed returned to Ireland when his middle brother was killed in a fire in 1853 and he thus unexpectedly became heir to the family estate of Borris, County Carlow.
Once there, he led a full life: he hunted, he fished, he shot, he sailed, he sat as an M.P. in Westminster for many years. He also did much to improve his lands and the condition of his tenants, not least by bringing a railway line to Borris at his own expense. An amusing story indicates how little attention he paid to his physical handicap. Having caught a train to Abbeyleix to visit Lady de Vesci, he commented to his hostess, ‘It is quite extraordinary. I have not been here for over ten years and yet the station-master still remembered me.’
The MacMurrough Kavanaghs are an extremely old Irish family: in 1814 its then-head commissioned an illustrated book called ‘The pedigree of the ancient illustrious noble and princely house of Kavanagh in ancient times monarchs of Ireland and at the period of the invasion of Ireland by Henry the second, Kings of Leinster.’ This volume, which cost the considerable sum of £615 and two shillings, and took four years to complete, traced the family’s origins back to 1670 BC.
It is notable that while the book’s title referenced the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, it did not mention the part played by an ancestor in bringing about this occurrence. In the mid-12th century Diarmait mac Murchadha was King of Leinster until dispossessed of his title by the High King of Ireland for having abducted Derbforgaill, wife of Tiernan O’Rourke, King of Breifne. In order to regain his kingdom, mac Murchadha pledged an oath of allegiance to Henry II and received the support of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, better known as Strongbow who married mac Murchadha’s daughter Aoife. Thus the MacMurrough Kavanaghs’ forebear was responsible for first encouraging the original Norman invasion of Ireland. Subsequent members of the family were not always so willing to bow to overseas authority: in the late 14th/early 15th century Art Mac Murchadha Caomhánach proved a formidable King of Leinster who regained full authority and control of territory. Yet in November 1550 Cahir mac Art Kavanagh appeared before the Lord Lieutenant Sir Anthony St Leger in Dublin where he ‘submitted himself, and publicly renounced the title and dignity of Mac Morough, as borne by his ancestors.’
Borris has long been part of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs’ lands. It is believed that the core of the present house was built by Brian Kavanagh enclosing at least parts of a 15th century castle on the site. A date stone over the front entrance carries the inscription AD MDCCXXXI and thereby proposes that part of the building was completed by that year. It is likewise assumed that this house was classical in style, a reflection of what was happening elsewhere in the country as a result of changing architectural tastes and a more settled environment.
During this period the Kavanaghs made a series of advantageous marriages and by the end of the 18th century they owned some 30,000 acres spread over three counties: three successive generations married daughters of the well-connected and wealthy Butler family. In 1778 Thomas Kavanagh assumed responsibility at Borris for his sister-in-law Lady Eleanor Butler after she attempted to run away with Sarah Ponsonby. His efforts, however, proved futile and eventually the two women were allowed to move to Wales where as the Ladies of Llangollen they lived for over fifty years (for some more on this, see Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th).
During the uprising of 1798 Borris was subject to assault by the rebels and buildings were burnt but not, it would seem, the main house. Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh wrote to his brother-in-law that although a turf and coal house were set on fire and efforts made to bring ‘fire up to the front door under cover of a car on which were raised feather beds and mattresses’ yet these were unsuccessful.
It has sometimes been asserted that the reason why Borris was comprehensively remodelled in the second decade of the 19th century to the designs of those indefatigable architects the Morrisons père et fils, was because of damage inflicted in 1798 but an admirable new book* on the design and furnishing of the house pours doubt on this notion. Instead it would appear that Walter MacMurrough Kavanagh, who was also responsible for commissioning the illustrated volume tracing his pedigree, wished to give more tangible evidence of the family’s long history than did a classical house.
Superbly located on a raised site with views across to the Blackstairs Mountains Borris as we now see it displays signs of stylistic schizophrenia, not least in differences between the house’s exterior and interior. The former is cloaked in Tudoresque mannerisms with symmetrical battlements and finials, a central entrance portico with pointed arches and four corner turrets which until the middle of the last century were topped with octagonal lanterns. Each side of the window mouldings is finished with the head of a king or queen indicating the ancestry of the MacMurrough Kavanagh family. John Preston Neale included an engraving of the newly-completed Borris in his 1822 work Views of the seats of noblemen and gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland and then described the house as being ‘of the period of Henry the Eighth, of which period, though so many beautiful examples are extant in England, yet in this country, Borris may be considered as unique.’
When Samuel Lewis wrote of the house in 1837 he observed that Borris ‘exhibits the appearance of an English baronial residence of the 16th century, while every advantage of convenience and splendour is secured within.’ Those advantages apparently included the ornate classicism which reigns internally. This is especially so in the entrance hall which although a square was given a circular ceiling by the Morrisons who treated it as a rotunda with extremely ornate plasterwork incorporating garlands, masks, shells and wonderfully three-dimensional eagles, the whole coming to rest on a series of scagliola columns around the walls. Likewise one end of the dining room has a recess containing service doors this space created by another pair of Ionic scagliola columns. The treatment of the stairs and landing reverts somewhat to an earlier era, not least thanks to a large arched window, the upper portion of which is filled with stained glass featuring the family coat of arms.
Borris today is not as was designed by the Morrisons in the early 19th century. In the 1950s the service wing which connected the main building with the chapel was demolished, leaving the latter looking somewhat forlorn to one side. And the lanterns that topped the corner turrets were also removed. The greater part of the family land had gone, and with it much of the wealth. For a while the very future of the house looked perilous: for one of the very first Irish Georgian Society bulletins published in 1958 Lady Rosemary FitzGerald who had grown up in the place (her mother was a Kavanagh) wrote a piece called ‘A Valediction to Borris House’ in which she predicted ‘the house will soon be empty and roofless. The daws which possess the chimneys of every traditional Irish house will have the walls as well. This is inevitable. The house has been so rebuilt, altered, enlarged and generally muddled since the original keep was built in the ninth century that it is now impossible to maintain. It still needs the battalions of servants and unlimited cheap fuel that poured into the house until the First World War left so many big houses in reduced circumstances.’ Thankfully she was proven wrong and Borris still stands, a testimony to the staunchness of the MacMurrough Kavanaghs, the latest generation of which has this year assumed responsibility for the place. Borris may not be as big as was once the case, nor able to rely on the income of a large estate but there are now other ways of making a house pay for itself and all of these are being put to use.
And Mrs Smith’s citing of an old prophesy ‘that the house of Borris would end with a cripple’ also proved incorrect because Arthur MacMurrough Kavanagh married and had seven children. Below is a portrait of the redoubtable character that still hangs in Borris, like the house itself a testimony to the triumph of will over circumstances.
*Borris House, County Carlow and Elite Regency Patronage by Edmund Joyce (Four Courts Press)
For more information on Borris, see http://www.borrishouse.com
One of a pair of 18th century rococo gilt pier glasses that hang in the first-floor back drawing room of 5 Clare Street, Dublin, now used for board meetings by the National Gallery of Ireland. The two have belonged to the NGI since the early 1900s after being included in the Milltown Gift, that is the bequest made to the institution by Geraldine, Countess of Milltown following the death of her husband the seventh Earl. Previously the pier glasses had been part of the decoration of the saloon at Russborough, County Wicklow for which it is believed they were commissioned some time around 1750. We do not know who was responsible for carving them, but the craftsmanship is certainly superb. When the Countess of Kildare visited in 1759, she reported to her husband that ‘the house is really fine and the furniture magnificent.’ Since much of that furniture was of similar calibre, her praise was more than justified.
The Irish Aesthete usually features houses that are somewhat larger than average but this week, by way of change, we turn our attention to a building of decidedly modest proportions. The townland of Ballilogue in County Kilkenny enjoys likewise humble status, located down a laneway with seemingly little to distinguish it from thousands of similar spots across the country. Also like so many other places, it was once more densely populated than is now the case. The 1901 national census records twenty-two houses in the townland, presumably all of them simple dwellings unremarkable except for the number of occupants. In one of these properties, for example, Cornelius Meaney, then aged 59 and one imagines a widower, lived alone. Not far away dwelt another member of the family John, together with his wife Bridget and their two sons, James and John aged two and one respectively. Ten years later, when the next census was taken, the household of Cornelius (now listed as being 70) had grown considerably: his 74-year old sister, another Bridget, lived with him, as did the younger Bridget by then the mother of seven children, the eldest (James) being twelve and Mary the youngest just three. Either her husband John had died in the meantime or had gone elsewhere in search of work to support his family. So the house where Cornelius lived alone in 1901 had eleven occupants in 1911, since the census also records the presence of a 29-year old servant called Michael Dunne, presumably a farmhand.
By the 1911 census the number of occupied dwellings in Ballilogue had halved to eleven, with sixty-eight people living in the townland. A number of them were further members of the extended Meaney family, including 54-year old Patrick, together with his wife Mary, their five children and Edward Flynn who, although aged just fourteen, was already listed as being a ‘servant.’ All eight lived in the house shown here, the origins of which are believed to date back to the 1700s although subject to many changes since. In her truly excellent 1993 book on Irish Country Furniture, Claudia Kinmonth notes ‘By the nineteenth century in Ireland, the term cottage was used disparagingly, mainly by visiting English. The term is not used in this text as it was considered derogatory by country people, who called their homes houses, regardless of size and status.’ Accordingly we shall here refer to the Meaney House, not least because so it remained until only ten years ago, inhabited by successive generations of the same family before being acquired by the present owners.
To quote from another splendid book, A Lost Tradition: The Nature of Architecture in Ireland written by Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin in 1989, typical Irish houses in the vernacular style ‘have a familiar character, cramped, linear spaces set out on a line of doors without beginning or end – in the manner of a Baroque palace with its rooms en enfilade.’ That link between Baroque palaces and humble Irish dwellings may seem fanciful, yet it is often the case that even the most unpretentious of houses derives inspiration from a grander type. McCullough and Mulvin continue by observing how these little buildings ‘have a natural classic balance in the arrangement of simple materials and structure, in the proportion of gables, the relationship between thick white walls and small square windows, in the heavy oversailing roofs and primitive trabeaten doorways.’ This perfectly describes the character of the Meaney House, which is typical of the dwellings occupied by the majority of this country’s population for hundreds of years, although compared to many of the others it can be considered relatively large and well-appointed.
Traditional house types differed somewhat across Ireland, not least according to whatever materials were available for their construction, and how prosperous was the region. With regard to this part of the country, the Meaney House displays some familiar features of the Irish domestic dwelling, beginning with an entrance placed at the centre of the front and given a small porch in order to shield the interior from the worst effects of our weather. One then steps straight into the main space which, as was almost always the case, is dominated by a large hearth. This was used for cooking purposes (note the crane which allowed kettles and pots to be swung over the fire) but also provided a focal point for sociability: residents and visitors alike gathered here and the large recess beneath a hooded canopy supported by a massive beam running the width of the house allowed everyone to enjoy additional warmth. Immediately behind this is the house’s best room, the equivalent of a parlour, often kept for use only on special occasions and in the Meaney House distinguished by having a cast iron chimneypiece. On the other side of the central room are two bedrooms, with a ladder staircase in one providing access to another sleeping chamber immediately beneath the roof.
Another common feature of these houses was the versatility of their furnishings. Because space was at a premium and occupancy levels high, very often items served several purposes. The most obvious example of this is the settle bed, which acts as a bench during the day but then at night the seat can be opened, the bedlinen stored inside spread out and a place for sleep thereby created. Dressers, on which china, kitchen and dining utensils would be kept, might have a lower section open except for a series of bars: chickens would be kept here at night to keep them save from predators. A side effect of this was that hens, benefitting from the warm environment, continued to lay eggs all winter.
Inside the Meaney House, as these pictures show, recesses in the walls were also used for storage, the doors’ interiors lined with pieces of patterned paper: those close to the hearth would often hold food that needed to be kept dry, such as tea, sugar and salt. The utilisation of every available space emphasised utility and frugality, but also a desire to maximise comfort in our relatively harsh climate.
Today the Meaney House is part of a larger agglomeration of buildings restored and developed by the present owners as a retreat where guests may come to stay. When they acquired the house, it still held the greater part of the former owners’ possessions and a decision was taken to retain them in situ and to preserve the interior as an example of how most of our forebears lived until relatively recently. As little as possible was done to disrupt the building’s character or to alter its accumulated patina. For example the corrugated roof, certainly a 20th century intervention under which the older thatch still survives, was not changed. Similarly inside the house the concrete floor – again probably laid at the start of the last century as it would previously have been just compacted earth – has not been touched. The old pieces of furniture remain in place, as do most of the household goods and so forth. Some pieces previously kept out of sight are now on show: plates and platters have been arranged on one of the bedroom walls while pieces of broken china discovered in the immediate vicinity are arranged in a circle and framed. Likewise an assortment of abandoned footwear found outside has been placed on the shelves of an old pine hanging cupboard. These pieces, literal objets trouvés, further enhance the experience of visiting this little house and improve our understanding of its former residents. The Meaney House demonstrates that despite their poverty our ancestors could build with superior taste and a better understanding of the Irish environment than is usually the case today.
For more information about the Meaney House and the many other marvellous facilities at Ballilogue, see: http://www.ballilogueclochan.com
In his 1997 book Grace’s Card, the late Charles Chenevix Trench debunked the notion that after the passage of Penal Laws at the start of the 18th century all Irish landowners who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic faith were deprived of their property. Certainly a great many members of the old order were dispossessed of their land, and often left the country as a result. But this was by no means always the case; in fact, as Trench demonstrates, some families were able to hold onto their ancient estates and even improve their circumstances through advantageous marriage, even though they were not permitted to hold public office or sit in the Irish Houses of Parliament. Having a single heir was certainly helpful: where there were several male children born into the same family, it was possible one of them would join the Established Church and then make claim to the estate. This happened, for example, with the O’Conors of Balanagare: in 1777 the then-O’Conor Don, Charles – a notable antiquarian – found himself fighting for retention of the family property after his younger brother Hugh became an Anglican (in the end Charles won, and Hugh returned to Catholicism). But there are many other instances of families remaining firmly in possession of their land, such being the case in Meath with the Prestons (as Gormanston Ireland’s premier Viscountcy) and Plunkett (as Fingall Ireland’s premier Earldom). Both these old estates are now broken up but in a neighbouring county another family continues to practise the faith of its forebears and to hold onto some of its ancestral lands.
Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath has been rightly described as offering ‘all that anyone might hope for in an Irish country house. A wooded lakeside setting, a charming and eccentric house of several building periods and a family history of distinction.’ To begin with the family, originally their surname was O’Reilly and they have lived in this spot since the Middle Ages. In 1795 Hugh O’Reilly, despite being a Roman Catholic, was created a baronet but then in 1812 he changed his name to Nugent in order to receive an inheritance from his maternal uncle. It would seem not everyone approved of this switch of nomenclature, since the phrase went around, ‘Better an Old Reilly than a New Gent.’ Nevertheless ever since the family has been called Nugent.
As for their house, high above the main entrance can be seen a carving of the O’Reilly coat of arms carrying the date 1614 but this is considered not to be accurate. It may be that the original southernmost section of the castle is older, perhaps a late-Mediaevel fortified tower although subsequent changes make it hard to assign precise dates to this part of the building. In any case, the block looks to have been modernised in the first half of the 18th century when it was transformed into a two-storey, seven bay house with breakfront centre. At the same time long narrow windows were inserted and larger rooms created inside.
Around 1790 the previously mentioned Hugh O’Reilly chose to enlarge the house by adding a central attic with castellations to the old block and then a range immediately to the north featuring slender corner towers. As is ever the case in Ireland, we cannot be certain who was responsible for the design: a chimney piece in the drawing room is identical to one in Curraghmore, County Waterford known to have been the work of James Wyatt, so his name is sometimes proposed as architect. More frequently however the extension at Ballinlough is attributed to an amateur enthusiast called Thomas Wogan Browne who lived at Castle Browne, County Kildare, which from 1788 he had elaborately reconstructed in the gothic style. Two years after his death in 1812, Castle Browne was sold by Wogan Browne’s brother (a Roman Catholic and general in the army of the King of Saxony) to the Jesuit Order which opened there a boarding school for boys known ever since as Clongowes Wood College.
The extension at Ballinlough bears similarities with similar work carried out around the same time at Malahide Castle, County Dublin; the latter property was then occupied by Hugh O’Reilly’s sister Margaret who would later be created Baroness Talbot of Malahide. Hogan Browne is believed to have been the designer of this, and therefore Ballinlough’s extension is likewise attributed to him.
While the rooms in the newer section of Ballinlough are certainly very fine (and will be given consideration here on another occasion) all today’s photographs are of one particular area of the house: its glorious double-height entrance hall with stairs climbing to an unusual bridge gallery. Presumably dating from around the time the building received its first refurbishment, the decoration is exuberant if on occasion somewhat unsophisticated, as though whoever was in charge had discovered a manual on current taste in design and applied its contents liberally throughout. This is part of the hall’s charm: its sheer gusto. The oak panelling is relatively restrained – note the exceptionaly tall and slender lugged door and window frames – but a freer hand has been employed for the carving on the stairs with their fluted balusters and foliate scrolls on both sides of the gallery base. This work is supplemented on the upper sections of the walls, the plasterwork embellished by swags and drapes of foliage and flowers and diverse musical instruments. In this instance, Casey and Rowan in their Buildings of Ireland guide to North Leinster reference similarities to nearby Drewstown, County Meath which is attributed to Francis Bindon but perhaps Ballinlough’s entrance hall was merely influenced by what had been done in the former house rather than designed by the same person.
As all these images indicate, Ballinlough Castle survives in wonderful condition but the house was almost lost in the last century. When Sir Hugh Nugent inherited the estate in 1927 he found it in poor condition and much reduced in size by the Land Commission which proposed to demolish the family home. Fortunately this did not come to pass and today Ballinlough is occupied by the eighth baronet, Nick along with his wife Alice and their children. They host a variety of events on the estate during the year, not least the highly successful Body & Soul Festival each summer.
To conclude with one more picture, the portrait reflected in a mirror below hangs on the stairs at Ballinlough and represents George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham who in the 1780s served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and while in this country established by Royal Warrant the Order of St Patrick. His wife was Lady Mary Nugent, who as her name indicates was related to the family at Ballinlough. A Roman Catholic, in 1798 Lady Mary invited the Reverend Charles O’Conor to become her chaplain and librarian at Stowe, her husband’s seat in Buckinghamshire. Fr Charles was the grandson of the Charles O’Conor already mentioned. He was also brother of another O’Conor Don, Matthew another notable historian and, like the Nugents of Ballinlough, a loyal adherent to the faith of his fathers.
For more information on Ballinlough, see: http://www.ballinloughcastle.ie
Ballinlough will be hosting the third Katie Nugent Duathlon on Sunday October 20th. To sign up or to find out more information about this event, see: http://precisiontiming.primo-solutions.co.uk/ps/event/KatieNugentDuathlon2013
A view of the contents of a cabinet in the dining room at Borris House, County Carlow. Diffused light through windows to the left disposes a radiance over an assortment of bowls, plates and vases displayed on the mahogany shelves. More on Borris in a few weeks’ hence.
And in other news, The Irish Aesthete has been included amongst the finalists for Ireland’s 2013 Blog Awards in two categories: Best Arts & Culture, and Best Newcomer. The winners will be announced on October 12th next.
In recent weeks a succession of events in Dublin have commemorated the centenary of the Lock-Out, an occasion when many of the city’s larger employers, determined their workforce should not become trade-unionised, denied access to factories, yards and docks to anyone suspected of involvement in the movement for labourers’ rights. One of the consequences of this remembrance has been to recall how many Dubliners of the period lived in extreme poverty, occupying houses which had been built for the wealthiest members of 18th century Irish society but were subsequently divided into tenement dwellings in which entire families would rent a single room. It is worth pointing out, incidentally, that the owners of these properties were not absentee landlords but, as is made plain in James Plunkett’s 1969 novel Strumpet City (which deals with the 1913 Lock-Out), members of the indigenous Catholic haute bourgeoisie.
The area north of the river Liffey was especially given over to tenement housing, a far cry from the circumstances in which these buildings had first been erected. Such was the case, for example, on Henrietta Street, originally laid out in 1729-30 by the period’s most visionary developer, Luke Gardiner whose descendants would subsequently become Earls of Blessington. Gardiner’s ambitions are reflected in the size of the Henrietta Street houses, some of which are four- or five-bay wide, making them considerably larger than other terraced properties of the time. As befitted such splendid residences initially Henrietta Street was occupied by some of the wealthiest aristocratic families in the country; early occupants included the Earl of Bessborough, Viscount Mountjoy and Lord Farnham; a 1792 city directory lists one Archbishop, two Bishops, four peers and four MPs as living there.
Together with its immediate neighbour to the north, No. 12 Henrietta Stree is among the earliest extant terraced houses in Dublin and dates from 1730-1733 when both were erected by Luke Gardiner with the intention of being either rented or sold. A surviving drawing for a stone-cut doorway by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce suggests that this pre-eminent architect had a hand in the design of the houses, although both have been so much altered since their original construction that only fragmentary evidence survives of their appearance when newly-built. In the case of No. 12, some of the greatest structural modifications occurred from 1780 onwards when Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon, decided to join the pair of buildings in order to create one vast town residence for himself.
A descendant of the original Richard Boyle, the early 17th century Great Earl of Cork, Lord Shannon inherited considerable wealth and political influence from his father Henry Boyle who for a long time served as both Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Seemingly described by Sir Robert Walpole as ‘king of the Irish House of Commons’ he eventually relinquished his seat there in 1756 when he accepted a peerage and became Earl of Shannon. Although his son never played as significant a role in the affairs of the country, even so he became known as ‘the Colossus of Castlemartyr’ (the name of his country seat in County Cork) due to the power he wielded by controlling so many electoral boroughs. If only for this reason, he needed to have a residence close to the centre of power in Dublin and thus settled on linking the two houses on Henrietta Street.
Among the most significant changes made to No. 12 Henrietta Street after its acquisition by Lord Shannon was the removal of its main staircase and, on the first floor, the instatement of windows very much longer than their predecessors which, as was the fashion earlier in the century, had only dropped to dado level. Some of the wooden window and door frames appear to have been recycyled on the floor above, where they remain to this day. The piano nobile rooms were also re-decorated during this time with simple neo-classical plasterwork cornices designed by Dublin stuccodore Charles Thorp. What most impresses a visitor today are the height and volume of these spaces, and the purity of light with which they are suffused.
The Earl of Shannon remained in residence until his death in 1807 after which the two buildings were once more divided. From 1821 No.12 was occupied by Captain George Bryan of Jenkinstown Park, County Kilkenny, known as the richest commoner in Ireland – although he suffered a dent in his wealth through the long and ultimately unsuccessful legal claim he made to a dormant Irish peerage. Presumably it was during his time that the present staircase was installed in the rear hall; its antecedent had been located immediately inside the front door as remains the case next door. Until the close of the 20th century, Captain Bryan was the house’s last owner-occupier since it next became offices for a solicitor and a Proctor before passing into the possession of the British War Office which from 1861 onwards used the premises as headquarters of the City of Dublin Artillery Militia. After which it went into precipitous decline and sunk into an open-door tenement building, remaining such until rescued in 1985.
When No. 12 Henrietta Street came into the hands of its latest owner – who has since invested it in a legal entity called The Irish Land Trust – he had to undertake an enormous amount of work to secure the house. At the time of his acquisition there was extensive dry rot, deteriorating timbers, roof valley decay and many other daunting structural problems. All of these have since been resolved and the property can now look forward to a secure future. Some internal decoration has also been undertaken, not least the removal of internal partitions which had been fitted in order to accommodate more tenants. The original chimneypieces had long since been taken out and sold, as had all intercommunicating doors but the latter have since been replaced. Fortunately, buried beneath successive layers of linoleum, the original wood floors had survived, as had the window shutters.
Despite its great size, the house does not hold very many rooms: just two on the ground floor and three on each of those above. Limited financial resources means the interior has been lightly decorated, and in some places, such as the smallest of the first-floor rooms, evidence of the house’s use as a tenement has been retained: look at the way successive layers of paint were applied to walls only as high as could be reached by the inhabitants. One advantage of this light touch is that the building’s remarkable architectural qualities can be appreciated without the distraction of furniture and pictures. In particular the main reception rooms come into their own when lit at night by candles alone. On such an occasion it is possible to imagine the house as it must have looked more than 200 years ago when the Lord Shannon was in residence and entertaining his political cronies.
During the forthcoming Open House Weekend (October 4th-6th) No. 12 Henrietta Street will be the location for an exhibition of contemporary artworks, which will launch a new venture called @TheDrawingRoom designed to develop public awareness of architecture, culture and heritage through a series of events in some of Dublin’s finest Georgian houses. For more information, see: http://www.thedrawingroom.info
In the library at Russborough, County Wicklow an open page of James Malton’s A Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin displayed in a Series of the most Interesting Scenes taken in the Year 1791. In 1799 Malton, an architectural draughtsman by training, published in a single volume his series of twenty-five engravings showing key buildings in the Irish capital, noting ‘The entire of the views were taken in 1791 by the author, who, being experienced in the drawing of architecture and perspective, has delineated every object with the utmost accuracy; the dimensions, too, of the structures described were taken by him from the originals, and may be depended upon for their correctness.’ Malton’s images remain one of our most important sources of information about the appearance of Dublin at the end of the 18th century.
For more about Russborough, see my article on the house in the September issue of American Elle Decor: http://www.elledecor.com/design-decorate/interiors/irish-heritage?click=main_sr#slide-1
It cannot be claimed that in the 17th and 18th centuries, Ireland’s senior Anglican clergy devoted themselves exclusively to matters religious. Indeed, they were often more preoccupied with politics and the acquisition of material goods than with spirituality, but in at least some instances we are today all the beneficiaries of their activities in these fields. The man who might be said to have set the tone for what followed in the Church of Ireland was Adam Loftus. Born in Yorkshire in 1533, apparently while still an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge he met and impressed Queen Elizabeth and thereafter enjoyed her patronage. Embracing Protestantism, he began to climb through the ranks of the Anglican Church but only really achieved power after serving as chaplain to Thomas Radclyffe, Earl of Sussex following the latter’s appointment as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in 1559. By 1561 Loftus was chaplain to the Bishop of Kildare and the same year was appointed to his first living. Thereafter his rise was rapid: in 1563 he was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh at the age of only 28, swapping this four years later for the Archbishopric of Dublin. In 1581 he was appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland and then strove to ensure that the country’s first university would be located on a site of his choosing: in 1593 he became the first Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, named after his old alma mater. Meanwhile in addition to building up his political as well as ecclesiastical authority, he was acquiring land so as to leave something for his heirs: he and his wife had twenty children, of whom eight died in infancy.
One of the parcels of land which came into Loftus’s possession was located at Rathfarnham at the foothills of the Dublin mountains, confiscated from James Eustace, 3rd Viscount Baltinglass after he had rebelled against the crown. A castle of some kind existed on the site but soon after Loftus was granted Rathfarnham in 1583 at a nominal rent of thirty shillings he began work on a new residence, which remains to the present day. Although the interiors were said to have been luxurious, the castle’s external appearance was very much defensive being rectangular in shape with four massive corner flanking towers to allow guards watch for any approach to the building. Four storeys high,its walls are on average some five feet thick and running east-west through the centre of the entire castle is another wall almost ten feet thick: this seems solid but it is now proposed that in fact the wall actually held a series of chambers or corridors from which access was gained to rooms on either side. Nevertheless, Loftus was right to construct such a solid building since its location left Rathfarnham vulnerable to attack from the Wicklow clans. Five years before his death in 1605 it withstood assault from this source, and did so again during the 1641 rebellion before passing back and forth between different sides in the Irish Confederate Wars. It was only towards the late 1650s that the Loftus family was able to regain control of the place.
In the early 18th century Rathfarnham passed to Philip Wharton, who at the age of 19 was created first (and last) Duke of Wharton by George I; Wharton’s mother had been Lucy Loftus, only child of Adam Loftus, Viscount Lisburne. Wharton seems to have been a hopelessly character. His father Thomas Wharton although notoriously dissipated was at least politically astute and one of the leaders of the opposition to James II. Philip Wharton on the other hand, despite having every advantage, set out on a course of ruination that saw him end his days a hopeless drunk in a Spanish monastery, dead at the age of 32. In 1723 indebtedness caused by over-investment in the South Sea Bubble obliged him to sell his Irish estates including Rathfarnham which was bought by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. He paid £62,000 for house and lands but never lived there, presumably because he had already begun work on his own house at Castletown, County Kildare (see Up Pompeii, June 17th). Instead the castle was let to various tenants who began to refurbish it before the whole place was sold in 1742 to another Anglican cleric, John Hoadly who had just been made Archbishop of Armagh. On his death Rathfarnham passed to Hoadly’s son-in-law Bellingham Boyle but like Philip Wharton he also suffered from chronic indebtedness and so in 1767 Rathfarnham was sold to Nicholas Hume-Loftus, second Earl of Ely, a descendant of the castle’s original builder. On his death without children it was inherited by his uncle Henry Loftus who also had no issue (compared to their forebear with his twenty offspring, these later Loftuses proved to be an unfecund set) and so Rathfarnham was inherited by a nephew Charles Tottenham who in 1800 would become first Marquess of Ely.
The Elys, who owned several estates, spent little time at Rathfarnham which at some date before 1852 was sold to Francis Blackburne, then Lord Chancellor of Ireland; he and his descendants lived there until 1913 when the place was bought by the Jesuit Order who used it as a seminary and added two long wings on the north- and south-east sides of the main building (they also seem to have taken out the main staircase which is a great shame). The Jesuits in turn put the place up for sale in the mid-1980s when it was bought by a firm of property developers. As the area by this date had become a suburb of Dublin and much of the immediately surrounding land was given over to housing estates, there were concerns that the castle itself would be left to fall into ruin or pulled down. In 1987 the Irish State acquired the building and immediate acreage and under the auspices of the Office of Public Works has been engaged in a process of restoration and refurbishment ever since (see http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/Dublin/RathfarnhamCastle).
There is a great deal more one could write about Rathfarnham Castle, and perhaps might on another occasion. For the present, the accompanying photographs will give an idea of a notable feature of the building which attracts relatively little notice: its fine plasterwork. Throughout the 18th century a succession of different owners and occupiers did much to improve and update the building, and its interiors reflect changes in taste over that period. Different rooms are decorated in different styles, so that the whole castle becomes a history of fashion in stuccowork, ranging from the lightest rococo to severe neo-classicism (both Sir William Chambers and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart had a hand in the design of some of the interiors). All of it is of high quality and serves as an example of the level of Irish craftsmanship – and the ability to adapt to an evolving clientele – throughout the period. It is a pity more is not made of this aspect of the building since Rathfarnham Castle’s diverse decoration gives it a unique character and deserves to be celebrated. Hence the decision to feature only details of the house’s plasterwork today.
Next Saturday morning, I shall be speaking about Adam Loftus, as well as many of his successors, in the course of a talk entitled ‘Building Bishops: Architectural Ambitions among 18th Century Irish Clergy’ at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre in Limavady, County Derry as part of a three-day conference devoted to Frederick Hervey, the great Earl-Bishop of Derry. For more information about this event, see: http://www.herveysummerschool.com/