An Irish Childhood

book 3

‘A four-year-old child sits on her father’s knee, in the pony-trap, holding the reins. She is conscious of the touch of his hand guiding her own, the rough texture of the sleeve of his jacket, the pony’s silvery white haunches moving to the rythym of a steady trot, its alert pricked ears, the polished harness, the rings, buckles and mounts. Presently at a curve of the avenue Mount John comes into view: solid, cream-coloured house, its low-pitched blue lead roof just visible above the parapet. From this angle it is partly hidden by trees – among them a copper beech, a tall bluish green Wellingtonia tapering to a point, a monkey puzzle and a walnut tree. Only when the trap has passed between the white gate-posts on the half-circle of gravel, to the left the pleasure ground, to the right a weeping ash, can one see to advantage the sash windows – two either side the hall-door, matched by similar pairs above and an additional window over the fanlight; the slim Ionic pillars; the oak door and the shining brass knocker that on closer inspection reveals itself as a Greek urn narrowing to the base where the hand takes hold.’

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‘Mount John was built in the early seventeen hundreds. Like many other Irish houses belonging to the same period – when the settlers began to embellish the country that hitherto they had ravaged, building themselves homes of distinction – it combines solidity with a spacious elegance. The walls are thick – in places several feet in width. I remember a great bulge by the landing window; another in the bathroom wall in which, if I am to believe an old cottager – he worked for my father and still lives on the Wicklow road – part of the Russian crown jewels are concealed.
In common with other houses designed not in isolation, but in a manner that has regard for the landscape – house and landscape making a single picture – it is seen at its best from a distance. There is a pleasing view from the road, through a gap between beeches and limes – the house standing above a sweep of lawn, set about by trees and shrubs, and, beyond it, a glimpse of mountains. Even so it looks smaller than it is – an illusion created by a facade broken by the relatively few flat windows. Inside, one is taken unawares by the spaciousness, whether it be the airy hall, the curving staircase, or the rooms with their high ceilings, pleasant proportions and the light coming in the tall windows. It seems to hold within itself something of the largeness and the quiet of the countryside.’

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‘The drawing-room was a golden room. The curtains were old-gold with a flutter of white muslin, rhe carpet a similar, deeper shade. The sun poured in the tall windows of which two faced east, the third south on to the pleasure ground – picking out the gilded oval frames enclosing portraits of my Hamilton grandparents and over the mantelshelf a gilt-edged mirror. There was a sofa upholstered in a rich gilded brocade; two yellow wooden chairs with painted on the back of each a bouquet of flowers tied with a ribbon – the tiny blossoms picked out in red and blue and violet; and in front of the piano a stool with ends similarly decorated. My mother’s Sheraton writing desk stood in one corner, and in the window as you came into the room there was a Sheraton table massed in spring with daffodils in a crystal bowl, in summer with golden-pink Gloire de Dijon roses, in autumn with chrysanthemums. I remember on the same table a tortoise-shell paper knife, a busby chain, regimental badges, a pair of spurs and a number of small silver objects that included a windmill, a filigree round table with chairs to match, a poodle dog with a leg missing. The white Adam’s mantelshelf was decorated with a carving of two gryphons staring at each other and on the side panels acanthus flowers rising on twirling stems from a Greek urn.’

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‘It is an evening in spring. The hall-door is open – as it often was, so that the house used to be permeated with the scents and freshness of the garden. The light is a pale silver, as after rain. A breeze sirs one of the West African fetish masks (relics of my father’s soldiering days) making it sway and scrape against the red-washed wall above an oak table on which there is a black-and-gold lacquer tray for visiting cards and, behind this, a pair of elephant’s tusks crossing each other. My mother comes in from the garden with violets in her hand. She holds them out to me to smell, then lays them on the table and sighing (not plaintively, but as if in satisfaction at a task well done) slips her slender, ringed hands out of a pair of crumpled gardening gloves. Spring in childhood has become crystallised in this memory of the open door, the silvery light, the scraping of the fetish mask against the wall, my mother holding out the violets.’

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‘A path ran north of the house through the shrubbery to the faded greenish blue garden door set in a wall and opening on to a box-edged path arched with ramblers. To the right was a deep border brilliant with flowers: maroon and lemon and sapphire columbines – these backed by a hedge of beech on the further side of which was a paddock where my mother kept her poultry. There were more flowers to the left of the path: deep blue cornflowers, love-in-a-mist, sweet Williams, bachelors’ buttons, flame-bright montbretia and a double row of sweet-peas. And, beyond these, raspberries and currants and strawberry beds. There was an apple tree with a twisted trunk and crumpled lichen-coated branches. Overnight – so it used to seem to us – it became in the spring a could of blossom soon to drift away upon the wind.’

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The above extracts are taken from Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir An Irish Childhood, telling the story of a period before the First World War when she and her family lived at Mount John, County Wicklow. The author’s parents had both grown up in County Meath but her father, as a younger son, did not inherit property there and so bought another small estate. For many years owned by generations of Archers, Mount John appears to have been built over several phases, the rear portion probably being the earlier part to which the east-facing front with its large reception rooms was added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. On either side of this section of the building are bows, that to the north two-storeys high, that to the south (off the drawing room) single-storey.
Financial circumstances forced Elizabeth Hamilton’s parents to leave Mount John in early 1914 and her book is an evocation of a lost Arcadia, a magical world she recalled for the rest of her life. An Irish Childhood, with its charming line drawings by Norah McGuinness, is too little known; the work provides readers with an insight into life in Ireland across all sections of society just before the onset of the upheavals that so changed this country. Many years later the author returned to Mount John and, having walked once more around the place where she had been born and spent her earliest years, she wrote ‘As I went through the white gate into the dusk it was as though there had been a transference of time. A moment belonging to a past beyond the reach of my memory, yet familiar from hearsay, had stepped forward into the present…’

Book

Mount John, County Wicklow is now for sale, and waiting to be brought back to the condition so redolently described by Elizabeth Hamilton. For more information, see: http://www.sherryfitz.ie/resi/buy/7-bed-Farms-and-Estates-For-Sale-by-Private-Treaty-Newcastle-Mount-John-House-Newcastle-Co.-Wicklow-propertydetail.aspx?id=328894&ST=1&pc=1

Welcome to My World

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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.

Their Faithful Representative

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In the late 18th century, Thomas Dawson, Viscount Cremorne, passed responsibility for his Irish estate Dawson’s Grove, County Monaghan to his heir and nephew, Richard Dawson. To the dismay of his uncle, Richard – who served as a local MP in the Irish parliament – proved to be something of a radical and in 1799 consistently voted against the Act of Union. In the event, he died eight years later (predeceasing Lord Cremorne) after which he was remembered as being ‘the most active in promoting improvements, the most useful and the most popular man this country ever knew.’
As evidence, in the aftermath of his death, a fifty-eight foot high limestone Doric column surmounted by a funerary urn was erected on the edge of the Dawson’s Grove demesne. The arms of the Dawson family appear on two sides of the monument’s square base plinth and the following inscription on the other two sides: ‘This column was erected by the free and independent electors of the county of Monaghan to perpetuate the memory of Richard Dawson Esq., who was unanimously returned by them to five successive parliaments. He died their faithful representative on 3 September 1807, aged 44 years.’ The column, its design attributed to James Wyatt, has been restored in recent years. Dawson’s Grove was eventually inherited by Richard Dawson’s son, another Richard, who in 1813 became Baron Cremorne.

Comfortable in its Own Skin

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Enniscoe and its owners today welcome guests. For more information, please see http://www.enniscoe.com

Refined Rusticity

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The idiosyncratic entrance to Bracklyn, County Westmeath, described by Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey as a ‘fantastic neo-mannerist composition of rocks and arches.’ It might also be judged an essay in rustic Palladianism since the building, executed in unhewn limestone, is centred on an archway with pyramidal bellcote above. This is then extended by matching chambers to either side – each topped by a pair of obelisks – before concluding in two smaller pinnacled structures. A shield above the bellcote arch bears the date 1821. With two rooms presumably serving as a lodge it looks more like a grotto than the entrance to a grand country house.

When it’s Gone, It’s Gone

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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Starting at the Bottom

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The base of a window and its curtain in the Gothic Saloon at Birr Castle, County Offaly. Lit by three arches offering views down to the river Camcor and a vaulted ceiling supported by slender shafts, this wonderful room dates from the early 19th century when it was created by the second Earl of Rosse assisted by an otherwise almost unknown architect called John Johnston who, according to Mark Girouard (writing in Country Life, March 1965) did ‘little more than make working drawings based on the sketches of his employer.’