The Fair Place

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The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.

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In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’

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Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’

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Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’

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It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’

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Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.

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For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com

Paper Thin

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A section of the dining room wall at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. Although the main part of the house dates from c.1730 when designed by Richard Castle, it underwent alterations and redecoration in the first decades of the following century, which is when the rose-pink damask paper was hung in this room, its patinated surface indicating the movement of pictures over the past 200 years (and the sale of some of them during the later part of this period).
The interiors of Strokestown feature in a new book Wallpaper in Ireland 1700-1900 written by David Skinner, the doyen on the subject and this country’s most skilled producer and restorer of papers. The book, itself an object of beauty, is published by the Churchill House Press with all proceeds from its sale going to the Irish Georgian Society. It also contains images of Strokestown’s library paper, some of which can be seen below. Again some two centuries old, this has a wide flock border above the dado rail which has suffered somewhat from pieces of furniture rubbing against the surface, but surely that only adds to its appeal?

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You can read an article written by me and discussing David Skinner’s book in today’s Irish Times magazine. : http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/on-a-roll-wallpaper-from-great-irish-houses-1.1854262

M’Lady’s Chamber

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A proposal for the decoration of the Duchess of Leinster’s dressing room on the first floor garden front of Leinster House in Dublin. The building was designed in 1745 by Richard Castle, but this plan is believed to date from the end of the following decade and to have been made by the English architect Isaac Ware. His connection to the FitzGerald family was most likely through Henry Fox, brother-in-law of the first Duke of Leinster but Ware had other Irish links too. Supposedly as an eight-year old London chimneysweep, he was discovered by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington (and fourth Earl of Cork) sketching the elevation of Inigo Jone’s Whitehall Banqueting Hall. According to this story, Lord Burlington was so impressed by the child’s natural talent that he gave him a formal education and then sent him to Italy to study architecture. And one of Ware’s most celebrated buildings was Chesterfield House in London designed for Philip Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield who served as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland around the time work began on Leinster House: although unexecuted, the dressing room’s French rococo style bears similarities to the music room in Chesterfield House (sadly demolished in 1937).
This drawing is one of a large number once kept at the Leinsters’ country house, Carton, County Kildare and then later moved to the Leinster Estate Office at 13 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin. When that building was demolished in 1958 the drawings were saved by Desmond and Mariga Guinness who thereafter built up a large holding of historical architectural designs; this was acquired in its entirety by the Irish Architectural Archive in 1996. A selection of items from the Guinness Collection, including this drawing, is on display at the archive until August 22nd. For further information, see: http://www.iarc.ie/exhibitions

A Stellar Design

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A section of the spectacular ceiling in the Gold Drawing Room at Ballyfin, County Laois. Its decoration, designed by the Morrisons and executed by Irish craftsmen in the 1820s, derives inspiration from the work of French First Empire architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. Their sumptuous style would have become familiar to William Vitruvius Morrison on his travels in mainland Europe before he returned to this country to join his father’s practice: at least some of the motifs seen here are taken from the vaulted ceiling of the Gabinete de Platino in the Aranjuez Palace outside Madrid, designed by Percier and Fontaine for Joseph Bonaparte while the latter was King of Spain. The gilding was added when the room was redecorated in 1848 by Gillow’s of London.

A Burst of Exuberance

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The ceiling of the south hall, now used as a drawing room, at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. Built in 1779 and believed to have been designed by local architect John Roberts, the house was gutted by fire in February 1923, one of many such buildings lost to arson during the Civil War. Unlike so many others, however, Cappoquin rose from the ruins after its owner Sir John Keane embarked on a programme of restoration that took almost six years to complete. The decoration for the main reception rooms came from the London firm of G Jackson & Sons which billed Sir John £284 for the elaborate plasterwork seen here including the screen of columns and pilasters.
(For more information on the rebuilding of Cappoquin House, see my earlier piece Risen from the Ashes, March 4h 2013).

With Becoming Reticence

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Some buildings announce their sense of worth on first sight, while others are more self-effacing and require discovery. Kilpeacon, County Limerick belongs to the second category, initially making little impression on the visitor who will only note a modestly-proportioned, wide-eaved villa and assume there is nothing more to find here.
Certainly the house’s exterior gives little indication of the riches within. Kilpeacon presents itself as a two-storey, three-bay property, the main walls faced in roughly dressed limestone, with the two ground floor Wyatt windows given red brick surrounds: this would originally have been concealed by rendering. Cut limestone is used sparingly except for the facade’s most notable feature, a single storey breakfronted and balustraded bow porch with carved Ionic columns, and for the surrounds of the aforementioned pair of Wyatt windows which have acanthus brackets and a patera decoration within their arches. Nevertheless, these elements are unlikely to alter the notion that this is a house of only passing architectural interest.

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Kilpeacon dates from c.1810-20 and was built for a local land owner Edward Cripps Villiers. It appears that in the mid-17th century the estate had come into the possession of Sir William King, a Cromwellian soldier who in 1665 served as Mayor of Limerick (and in 1690 was Governor of the city, during which time he was held captive by the supporters of King James). Having been granted lands to the extent of 21,600 acres in the county, he settled at Kilpeacon on which stood a castle previously belonging to the royalist Sir David Bourke: in 1653 the latter, then aged 64, and his family were dispossessed of all their property. Although married to Barbara Boyle, daughter of the Bishop of Cork, Sir William King had no direct heirs. Therefore on his death in 1706 Kilpeacon passed to a pair of grand nephews, Richard and Edward Villiers: a marble monument to their great-uncle was duly erected in the local church and remains there to the present. The Villiers brothers also died childless and so the estate was in turn inherited by one of their nephews Joseph Cripps of Edwardstown, who added the Villiers name to his own. Edward Villiers who was responsible for building the present house appears to have been his grandson.

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In Limerick: Its History and Antiquities (published 1866) Maurice Lenihan writes that ‘Kilpeacon Court’, which he describes as ‘exceedingly tasteful and beautiful’ was built by Edward Cripps Villiers at a cost of £12,000. Its design is customarily ascribed to Sir Richard Morrison, not least on the basis of strong similarities with several other houses for which he was responsible, in particular Bearforest, County Cork (1807-8) which likewise had a bowed entrance porch flanked by Wyatt windows, and Hyde Park, County Wexford (1807), although the latter instead has a tetrastyle Doric porch. Nevertheless, the links are strong enough to make the attribution to Morrison hard to refute.
The three houses have certain characteristics in common, especially a top-lit staircase hall from which radiate the main reception rooms. Kilpeacon is larger than one might suppose, since in addition to the staircase hall the ground floor holds an oval entrance hall, library, morning room, dining and drawing rooms, all of substantial proportions, while the first floor contained six bedrooms. This may look like a humble villa but it is actually a very decent-sized country house.

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The surprise and delight of Kilpeacon lies in its decoration, far more elaborate than would be expected given its exterior reserve. This begins in the oval entrance hall where the heavily ornamented entablature breaks forward on both sides and is supported by three columns with composite capitals. The doors here, as elsewhere, are panelled and inlaid with the style varying from one room to the next. The stair hall rises to a glass dome and has a gallery running around three sides, barrel-vaulted corridors providing access to the bedrooms. As for the reception rooms, they also benefit from sumptuous decoration both in the plasterwork and the white marble chimneypieces which feature a variety of classical gods and goddesses. The drawing room ceiling, for example, is decorated with oval wreaths of flowers and foliage, the outermost entwined with shamrock.

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The expense of building Kilpeacon must have been more than the estate could sustain, because by 1850 the place was being offered for sale. Lenihan reports that Major George O’Halloran Gavin, ‘late of the 16th Lancers, in which he served with distinction in India’ first bought the house and demesne of 429 acres that year and then in the following acquired an additional 250 adjoining acres, all from the Encumbered Estates Court. He paid £12,000, the same price as the house had cost barely a generation earlier.
Following his retirement from the army Major Gavin served as an M.P. for Limerick City. He died in 1880 and the estate passed to his son Montiford Westropp Gavin who played cricket for Ireland in 1890. In the 1911 census he is recorded as resident in the house with his wife, four daughters and four servants: he died in 1922 and five years later Kilpeacon was sold. It has since passed through a number of hands and of late has been offered for sale again. One must hope it finds a sympathetic new owner, ideally somebody who appreciates the house’s exceptional qualities cleverly concealed behind a plain exterior.

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Intelligent Recycling

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As a rule, old farm buildings in Ireland are allowed to slide into neglect and decay: it is rare to find an owner with the vision to see the possibility of alternative use. But as these photographs from County Cork show, it is possible to give a simple former barn new purpose and convert the building into an extremely attractive residence. If only there were more instances of such intelligent recycling to be found…

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Strait is the Gate, and Narrow is the Way

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This church at Coolcarrigan, County Kildare has rightly been described by art historian Nicola Gordon Bowe as ‘a tiny gem of the Hiberno-Romanesque Celtic Revival.’ The building is not large and was built primarily – although not exclusively – for members of the family on whose land it stands. Seemingly prior to the church’s construction the first-floor room of a thatched house in the nearby farmyard was used for religious services, so one understands why in the early 1880s Robert Mackay Wilson decided to build something more suitable: the completed church was consecrated in 1885 by William Plunket, fourth Baron Plunket and, since the previous year Archbishop of Dublin (his statue can be seen on Kildare Place in central Dublin). Located in an opening of woodland, it has been in continuous use ever since, and services are held there on two Sundays each month.

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Coolcarrigan church’s design derives from that of the 12th century Temple Finghin and McCarthy’s Tower at Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, believed to be the earliest instance of these two structures combined together (as opposed to being placed adjacent to each other). In the latter instance, they are part of a larger architectural ensemble, whereas here they stand alone. Furthermore, an unusual feature of the County Kildare site is that it is surrounded by a circular dry moat, access to the building only being gained by passing through a lych gate with its red-tiled roof: this is an architectural element more commonly found in the eastern counties of England than in Ireland. However, thereafter the Celtic spirit reigns throughout in this sturdy little granite building.

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There has been some discussion about who might have been responsible for the church’s design, with the names of both James Franklin Fuller and Sir Thomas Drew advanced as the possible architect. No papers concerning the commission are known to survive, and a reference to the building in the Irish Ecclesiastical Gazette of January 5th 1884, while noting the construction of the building ‘following the example of some ancient Irish churches,’ does not credit anyone with the work. In favour of Fuller is the fact that he was Diocesan Architect at this date, worked in the Hiberno-Romanesque style and built a number of other private churches. On the other hand, Drew’s 1910 obituary apparently mentions additions to Coolcarrigan and, like the estate’s owners, he was an Ulsterman. Unless new evidence comes to light, like so many other matters associated with religion, the architect’s name must remain a mystery.

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We know a great deal more about the parties responsible for the church’s interior decoration. One of those who literally had a hand in the work was Douglas Hyde, himself the son of a Church of Ireland rector (indeed his grandfather and great-grandfather had likewise been Anglican clergymen). The future first President of Ireland and leading figure in the Gaelic Revival movement was an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin at the same time as the Wilson’s elder son Robert and so came to know the family. Sadly, as one of the church’s windows explains, Robert Wilson died in 1887, three years after his younger brother; two of the Wilson’s daughters likewise predeceased their parents. All the siblings are commemorated here in stained glass.
Since he graduated from university in 1884, it must have been around that time that Douglas Hyde came up with the scheme for the texts which are painted onto the walls using a distinctive Irish alphabet. Given his background, Hyde would have been well-placed to choose apposite scriptural quotations. It is worth noting that the various items of church furniture such as table, lectern, reading desk, chairs and so forth are likewise carved in traditional Celtic patterns.

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The two earliest of Coolcarrigan church’s splendid stained glass windows, memorials to the Wilsons’ deceased sons, were, according to Paul Larmour, not of Irish manufacture: ‘I would guess they are by Heaton Butler & Bayne the English firm. They did the stained glass in Clane and also in St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (where J.F. Fuller was in charge, restoring the east end in the 1880s or 90s).’ However, the other three windows on the south and north walls, installed in 1911, 1912 and 1927 respectively, were all made by Clare-born Catherine O’Brien who for almost forty years from 1906 worked at An Túr Gloine (The Tower of Glass) the co-operative studio established in Dublin in 1903 by artist Sarah Purser at the instigation of Edward Martyn (a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre). An Túr Gloine’s output did much to encourage interest in the emergence of a national style in this medium, since for much of the 19th century new churches had imported insipid and generic stained glass from Germany and other countries. Hence the abundant use of Celtic designs in the Coolcarrigan windows, as also in the large pair in the west wall (dating from 1916), likewise designed by Catherine O’Brien and commemorating Robert Mackay Wilson and his wife Elizabeth. That above the altar on the east wall is the most recent window, installed in 1980 and designed by Patrick Pollen who almost three decades before had moved to Ireland in order to study at An Túr Gloine, and who only died four years ago.
As has been mentioned, Coolcarrigan church continues to serve the function for which it was originally intended, and continues to be scrupulously maintained by the present generation of the family who commissioned the building 130 years ago. So many churches, especially those formerly in the care of the Church of Ireland, have closed over recent years it is a rare pleasure to find one, particularly as here embodying the ideals of the Celtic Revival, still loved and in active use. Long may this remain the case.

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The church is located inside the grounds of Coolcarrigan, the lovely gardens of which are open to the public at certain times of the year. For more information, see: http://www.coolcarrigan.ie

A Gentle Evolution

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The settled nature of County Kildare, the fertile quality of its land and proximity to Dublin, all have long combined to give this part of the country a peacefulness and prosperity not always found elsewhere in Ireland. These qualities are evident at Furness, a property which, unusually, has changed ownership on only a handful of occasions over the past eight hundred years.
On a hill behind the present house stands a longstone rath, an earth ring some 200 feet in diameter with a fourteen foot granite standing stone in the centre: created around 4,000 years ago, it testifies to how long there has been human settlement here. Of more recent vintage are the nearby remains of an old church (a nave and a chancel separated by an arch) built on the site of an earlier religious establishment. In 1210 this church was granted with tithes to the Regular Canons of St Augustine based in the Abbey of St Thomas, Dublin who were considerable landowners in the neighbourhood. They remained in occupation for over three centuries until the advent of the Reformation in the 1530s saw the acquisition of such properties by lay owners. In this instance, the Augustinians were replaced by the Ashes, a mercantile family from nearby Naas who were kinsmen and friends of the powerful Eustace clan. Then, most likely in the 1670s, Furness passed into the hands of the Nevilles (sometimes spelled without the ‘e’).

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The Nevilles are believed to be an Anglo-Norman family settled in County Wexford. The first of their number known to be resident at Furness was Richard Neville, listed as Sheriff of County Kildare in 1678. More than twenty years before, he had married Margaret, daughter of Sir William Ussher (the man responsible for the publication of the first New Testament translated into Irish): curiously this family, which is remembered by the Usher’s Quay and Usher’s Island in Dublin, is supposed originally to have been called Neville but their forebear on coming to Ireland in 1185 as usher to King John changed his name to that of his office.
In any case, the next generation, also called Richard Neville was Sheriff of Kildare in 1692, and Sovereign of Naas (that is to say, the town’s mayor) in the same year. He subsequently became Recorder of Naas and its Member of Parliament in 1695, and again in 1708. On his death in 1720, the estate passed to a third Richard Neville, a captain in the army who never married and probably therefore had the wherewithal to embark on the building of a new residence, the three-bay block at the centre of the present house. On his death, Furness passed to a nephew, Arthur Jones whose mother Mary had married Richard Edward Jones, colonel of the regiment in which his brother-in-law served. Even before coming into his inheritance, young Arthur had the good sense to change his surname to Neville.

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Arthur Jones Neville had a colourful career. Born c.1712, by 1742 he was a member of the Dublin Society and the following year he was appointed Surveyor General, having purchased the office for £3,300 from its previous holder Arthur Dobbs; during his time in the position he was responsible, amongst other work, for drawing up the plans for barracks at Charles Fort in County Cork and for developing the Bedford Tower range at Dublin Castle. In 1748 he succeeded in having his salary increased and three years later entered the Irish House of Commons as MP for County Wexford. However, his troubles then began and in August 1752 he was dismissed as Surveyor General on the grounds of maladministration in relation to barrack building (he was, however, permitted to sell it on to the next holder). Then in 1753 during what is believed to have been a politically-motivated campaign of vilification he was expelled from the House of Commons. While this setback caused a stir at the time it does not seem to have done him permanent damage, since he returned to represent the same constituency in 1761 (and continued to do so until his death a decade later), and became Sheriff of County Kildare in 1762.
From our perspective, and much more importantly, Arthur Jones Neville seems to have been a man of exceptional taste and discernment, even during a period when – unlike our own era – such characters were found in abundance in Ireland. For a house he built at 40 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin in 1746, he commissioned the elaborate Apollo ceiling (by an unknown stuccadore): at the time of the building’s demolition, this was rescued and is now, appropriately enough, in the State Apartments of Dublin Castle. Similarly the following decade when he embarked on another building project at 14 Rutland (now Parnell) Square, he commissioned painted lunettes after Pietro da Cortona’s decorations in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence from Jacob Ennis who he had sent to Italy. A subscriber to several volumes on architecture and surveying, during his second period in parliament, he introduced a number of excellent bills, including proposals ‘For the further encouragement of planting timber trees’ (1765) and ‘For the better regulating of buildings in the city of Dublin, the liberties and suburbs thereof’ (1769).

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On his death, Arthur Jones Neville was succeeded by his eldest son, once more named Richard Neville. He too became a Member of Parliament for Wexford, holding this position with intervals even after the Act of Union until 1819. He was also Teller of the Exchequer under the Irish Parliament, described as ‘a remarkably pleasant office to hold’ not least because it came with an annual salary of £2,835’ of which £835 went to a deputy who did all the work, leaving the balance to the office holder: he appears to have retained this sinecure until his death in 1822. He is judged to have been an improving landowner, based on an account of Furness given in Arthur Young’s A Tour in Ireland. Young visited the estate in 1777 and afterwards described his host as being ‘a landlord remarkably attentive to the encouragement of his tenantry,’ paying half the cost of houses built on his land, and providing premiums to encourage planting.
Richard Neville left two daughters, Henrietta and Marianne dividing his property equally between the two although ‘Furnace, house, offices, garden, front lawn, and back lawn to the river, cottage, and thirty acres’ were bequeathed to Marianne, with an option to take over the demesne at a valuation. Soon the place was sold to another family, the Beaumans who remained there until they in 1895 when they in turn sold Furness to Nicholas Synnott whose wife Barbara was a granddaughter of the seventh Viscount Netterville of Dowth Hall, County Meath(for more on this house, see Netterville! Netterville! Where Have You Been?, December 24th 2012). The Synotts continued to live at Furness until the late 1980s.

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As the photographs above show, Furness has undergone gentle evolution since the original house was built, probably in the early 1730s. The Knight of Glin attributed the building to Francis Bindon, a name that has occurred here on many previous occasions, not least because it is difficult to say with certainty what was and was not from his hand. The ashlar-faced central block is actually quite small, and one wonders whether it was intended to be larger. Of three bays and three storeys, it has a lunette window above a pedimented first-floor window flanked by Ionic columns, beneath which is the entrance with coupled Doric columns with a Doric entablature. Behind this originally were the entrance hall, still with its handsome staircase of Spanish chestnut, and a study, with a number of reception rooms beyond. Were the wings of the same date or added later? In the 1780s the Nevilles certainly enlarged the house and soon after added a dining room with a large bow. It must have been during this period of expansion that the drawing room ceiling received its neo-classical plasterwork, attributed to Michael Stapleton, the central panel depicting a goddess showing the Greeks how to cultivate olive trees (which would harmonise with Richard Neville’s reputation as an improving landlord), as well as the fine white and Siena marble chimney piece. Presumably limited funds meant further such decoration was not possible elsewhere in the house. The next major change came after the estate was acquired by the Synotts when the entrance hall was enlarged by breaking a large arch through into the former study.
Furness has been owned by the same family for more than twenty years but now they have decided to put the house on the market, for only the third time in 280 years. It is a moment of change but, given the peacefulness and prosperity of County Kildare, one trusts Furness will continue to benefit from the same sympathy and love it has hotherto received throughout its history.

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A Dash of Panache

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‘In an orderly country,’ chided the German travel writer and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl after a visit to Ireland in September 1842, ‘ruins should really not be tolerated. They should be demolished either in order that the material of which they consist can be availed of in constructing new and more useful buildings, or the site that they occupy can be put to different use, or because they threaten to collapse completely and endanger human activity, or because they present an unpleasant sight.’
Kohl believed that members of ‘an orderly, vigilant and progressive human community’ should eradicate all ruins, before he went to note that, ‘In Ireland, the opposite to all this has happened, as it is unique in all of Europe for its many ruins. One finds here a plethora of ruins from all periods of history, like in no other country.’ Furthermore, he remarked, this melancholy condition was not unique to ancient buildings since ‘down to our days every century – one could say every decade – has deposited its ruins on the land. For everywhere one sees a multitude of dilapidated houses that have only recently fallen into ruin but yet seem also to have been built only recently.’

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More than 170 years after Kohl made his observations, they remain pertinent: Ireland continues to be a country of ruins, many of them of recent vintage. Indeed in the last decade we have acquired a fresh crop, so to speak, of ruins thanks to the advent of ‘ghost estates’, those ill-planned, ill-sited and incomplete spatterings of houses begun during the badly-managed economic boom and then abandoned at the onset of the downturn. They join the throng of architectural decrepitude which has been so noted by visitors to Ireland over hundreds of years and yet seems to pass unnoticed by the indigenous population.
What is especially noticeable is the gratuitous abandonment of buildings for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Hence throughout the countryside one comes across a superabundance of farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness and panache could be given a fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate, which is to moulder into ruin.

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Such might well have been the fate of the house seen here today, had it not been discovered a decade ago by the present owner. Located in a remote part of County Cork and originally lying at the centre of a 100-acre holding, the building dates from the late 19th/early 20th century and is in a style that had remained almost unaltered over the previous hundred years. As the American historian Kerby Miller has noted, such houses which belonged to relatively affluent farmers, tended to be ‘well-built – perhaps two-storied, with stone walls and roofs which were slated rather than thatched – and well furnished.’
Whatever furniture it once contained had long since disappeared by the time the house was rescued and restored. Unoccupied for more than half a century since the death of a previous owner, its isolation seems to have discouraged anybody else from settling there. Today that remoteness gives the place romantic appeal, as do the surrounding vistas of rolling fields on three sides of the property, the fourth offering an uninterrupted view of the Irish Sea several hundred feet below: during the summer months, the owner has been known to descend to the shore for a swim.

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Aside from inaccessibility, another reason why the building would not have won widespread favour is its understated design: unlike smaller and more overtly endearing thatched cottages, the average Irish farm house was never known for superfluous embellishment. Indeed this particular example possesses an unpretentious simplicity typical of the genus. It rightly celebrates the virtues of clean, unfussy composition.
But before these could be celebrated an extensive programme of refurbishment was called for because at the time of purchase the building was close to collapse. The roof demanded immediate attention, as did walls, doors and windows. Internally the main feature to be salvaged was the old staircase although even here sections required repair and replacement. While this was going on, changes were made to the south, sea-facing front with the three existing windows lowered to create a trio of double doors opening onto a terrace flagged with limestone. More recently the terrace has been enclosed by a full-length conservatory that now serves as sitting room, dining room and, as we Irish like to say, whatever you’re having yourself. In addition the first floor plate-glass windows were changed to double sashes with glazing bars, a modification which immediately softened the house’s unadorned exterior. As was the custom with such properties, the walls are cement-rendered and then left without even a lime wash but weathered by time and exposure to the elements. Several out-buildings have also been restored, a vegetable garden created and a secure area for hens and geese devised. Otherwise the rest of the 20 acres acquired by the owner has been left in its familiar state of fields interspersed with copses of trees.

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The same low-key approach has been adopted inside the house. The kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. The diningroom opposite is equally understated, with clay plaster used to cover the walls, an old oven used as open fireplace and the furnishings of plain pine. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of the two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the pictures were acquired in the same way or were painted by friends.
The result offers a model of how to convert an old farmhouse into a comfortable, smart private residence. In every county throughout Ireland, there are many similar properties sliding into what looks like inexorable decay and thus adding to our already ample list of ruins. Were Johann Georg Kohl to visit our island today, he would find little had changed since the last time he was here – except in this little corner of the country. Here, for once, a house has been saved from ruin and its character improved rather than destroyed in the process.

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