When Nobody Cried Stop

How curious that nobody in recent decades has thought to write a monograph on one of Ireland’s most prolific and talented architects: Francis Johnston. Born in Armagh in 1760, Johnston was effectively ‘discovered’ by the city’s primate Richard Robinson who sent him to Dublin to study with the Archbishop’s architect Thomas Cooley. Following the latter’s death in 1784 Johnston took over many of his commissions, not least Rokeby, County Louth which was Robinson’s country seat (see Building on a Prelate’s Ambition, February 4th 2013). Thereafter his career never faltered and demand for his services was unceasing. Among the most famous examples of his work are the General Post Office in Dublin and, on the other side of the city and in completely different mode, the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (of which more in due course). Success allowed him to be singularly generous: appointed second president of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1824 he designed and built the organisation’s premises on Abbey Street (it was one of the casualties of the 1916 Easter Rising, ironically headquartered in another of Johnston’s buildings, the GPO). After he died in 1829 his fabled collection of paintings, sculpture, books, objets d’art and curiosities was unfortunately dispersed. But throughout the country there survive examples of his work and these consistently demonstrate the refinement and assurance of Johnston’s taste. Until recently one of the best examples was Ballynegall, County Westmeath.

Ballynegall dates from 1808 when it was designed for James Gibbons whose family appears to have been involved in banking and other business in Dublin, from whence derived their fortune. Five years earlier he or his father (also called James Gibbons) had bought the estate on which it stands from William Reynell (his forebear Colonel Arthur Reynell had acquired the estate in 172). Seemingly some of the stone from an older property called Castle Reynell was used in the construction of Ballynegall. Evidence of the Gibbons’ affluence is evidenced by the fact the house was renowned for having cost £30,000 to build: an astonishingly substantial figure at the time. James Fraser’s Handbook for Travellers in Ireland (first published 1838) describes Ballynegall as a ‘handsome Grecian mansion’ which ‘accords with the rich and beautiful park around.’ James Gibbons senior died in Cheltenham in 1834, after which the property passed to his son, James junior. He died in 1846 while hunting and since he had no children Ballynegall next passed to a nephew of his wife James William Middleton Berry. On his own death in 1855 the estate was inherited by a cousin Thomas Smyth. Ballynegall remained in the possession of the Smyth family until 1963.

In 1993 Ballnegall was judged by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan to be ‘a most delightful villa by one of Ireland’s most refined designers – a man of European stature.’ Of six bays and two storeys, its west-facing facade was perfectly plain except for a four-column Greek Ionic portico which defined the entrance. The garden front had deep Wyatt windows flanking a broad central bow. A sunken service wing to the north was matched on the other end of the house by a large mid-19th century cast-iron conservatory attributed to Richard Turner (Casey and Rowan propose this replaced an earlier one designed by Johnston), its roof supported by pilaster shafts with lotus capitals. Internally the house was a model of neo-classical restraint, the groundfloor holding an entrance hall divided into two sections by a screen of Ionic columns. This in turn gave access to the drawing room (which benefitted from the east-facing bow), library, dining room and morning room. A staircase at right angles to the entrance hall and screened from it by a further pair of Ionic columns led via a bow-shaped return to the generous first floor bedroom corridor: the basement featured an equally fine, broad corridor running the length of the building. Throughout the house the plasterwork by George Stapleton was simple but exquisite, in particular the guilotte and palmette friezes running below dentil and foliage cornices. Much of the furniture appears to have been made for the house by Mack, Williams & Gibton (the library’s bookcases look to have been especially fine) but other captivating details included the 19th century wallpapers, that in the drawing room being pink and gilt, and stenciled to represent decorative panels and pilasters.

We are fortunate that Ballynegall and its beautiful interiors were recorded in a series of photographs taken in 1961 just a year before the contents were dispersed on the instructions of Captain Michael Smyth during the course of a three-day auction in July 1962. The sale catalogue lists many fine pieces, all scattered: where are they now, and do the present owners know their provenance? The following year the house and estate were likewise sold, after which Ballynegall went through a couple of owners. In 1981 the house itself was ruthlessly stripped of everything that could be taken out: doors, chimney pieces, columns, even the floorboards pulled up for the value of the timber, and then the building unroofed. The portico now adorns the front of the K Club, County Kildare and the Turner conservatory serves as a restaurant at Lyons Village in the same county. The fate of the rest of the fittings is unknown although some of the chimney pieces apparently ended up in England.
As the photographs taken earlier this year and shown here reveal, Ballynegall has been gradually drifting into oblivion ever since that despoliationh. Back in 1993 Casey and Rowan wrote that the fate of Ballynegall was ‘one of the most tragic consequences of the laissez-faire attitude of successive governments towards the architectural inheritance of the State…There can be little satisfaction in contemplating the lacerated fragment of a Fragonard and still less pleasure in a visit to Ballynegall as it is now.’ Visiting the place is indeed a melancholy experience, not just because the building is in such lamentable condition but also because that condition is a reflection of national indifference towards our own collective heritage. Within many people’s lifetime a fine house, a masterpiece of neo-classical refinement designed by one of Ireland’s greatest architects, has willfully and shamefully been permitted to fall into dereliction. It happened because nobody cried stop. It continues to happen for the same reason…


Towering Above

The round tower at Meelick, County Mayo. Once part of a religious foundation attributed to St Broccaidh, the tower is believed to date from the 10th century. It stands 21.5 metres high and has lost its conical cap but retains a doorway some 3.5 metres above the present ground level. Attached to the base is a likely contemporaneous tombstone with interlaced cross and border, and the inscription OR DO GRIENI (‘A prayer for Griene’).


A Mere Shell

Above is a photograph taken some time ago of Cloverhill, County Cavan. The original house was built by a branch of the Saunderson family in 1758 but then extended from 1799 onwards to a design by Francis Johnston. It is his work which can be seen here: a two-storey, three bay house with east-facing breakfront entrance bay focussed on a pedimented Ionic portico: on the south side was a bow with Wyatt windows. In 1958 the property was sold by a descendant of the original owners and has since been allowed to fall into ruin. As can be seen below, it is now a roofless shell, the portico seemingly removed more than two decades ago and moved to a house in County Wexford.


The Age of Austerity

The Irish countryside: so littered with the remnants of once-fine houses. Now their walls, if these still stand, are smothered in ivy, their interiors providing a shelter for species of trees and shrubs formerly permitted only in the garden, and a habitat for wildlife which would never have been allowed indoors. Here runs a tumbling line of estate wall, there the suggestion of a former gate lodge, across the fields can be seen the remains of a stableyard, closer to hand lifestock grazes in what was clearly once a landscaped demesne. Until recently, and aided by fictional accounts such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, a widespread belief persisted that the majority of these properties were burnt during the upheavals of the 1920s. We now know this was not the case, that while a number of significant country houses were destroyed in the course of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War, many more survived. Their ruin came later, when the Land Commission had taken away the surrounding acreage necessary to sustain their upkeep, when rates grew too high, and the cost of employing sufficient workers too great. Unable to afford maintenance, owners departed their houses, sold up the contents, watched a new owner to remove chimneypieces and other fittings, saw the roof taken off and accepted the inevitable: yet another ruin to add to Ireland’s already substantial number. Such was the fate of Dromdihy, County Cork.

Dromdihy, sometimes called Dromdiah, stands on raised ground with superlative views for many miles north-eastwards as far as the Irish Sea close to Youghal. The original owner was one Roger Green Davis who acted as land agent for Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke, an absentee landlord. Despite his surname, de Capell-Brooke’s family was actually of Irish origin. The first of their number had probably come to the country with the Normans when they were called de la Chappelle, Des Chapelles or De Capella. This was later hibernicised to Sheapallh and then converted in English to Supple. There were many Supples in East Cork but the majority of them lost their lands during the 17th century. One branch however, through familial association with the Boyles, Earls of Cork and by converting to the Anglican church, retained an estate based around the town of Killeagh. In the mid-18th century Richard Supple married Mary Brooke,of daughter of Arthur Brooke, of Great Oakley, Northamptonshire. In 1797 their son, Richard Brooke Supple inherited the English estate from his great-uncle Wheeler Brooke in obedience to whose wishes he assumed the surname Brooke, at the same time adding the orignal surname of his own family: six years later he was created a baronet. His heir Sir Arthur de Capell-Brooke was an explorer who travelled through Scandinavia and published several books about what he had seen. When not engaged in these activities, he lived in Northamptonshire, hence the need for an agent to look after his Irish estate.

One wonders how much attention Sir Arthur paid to his property in Ireland since Roger Green Davis, who had inherited the position of agent from his own father William, was able to build up a landholding of more than 2,250 acres in County Cork, albeit some of it rented from the de Capell-Brooke estate. Thus the need to build a residence befitting his status, which Dromdihy was intended to proclaim. Completed in 1833 according to Samuel Lewis, the architect responsible for the house’s design is unknown: in some accounts it is attributed to Roger Green Davis. If so, he must have been a man of austere taste since Dromdihy demonstrates a predilection for the most distilled form of neo-classicism. The central block, of five bays and two storeys over basement, is rendered with cut limestone employed for parapets and cornices, quoins and window surrounds, varying treatment of the window’s architraves relieving what might otherwise be a monotonous facade. On either side of this are single-storey wings, that to the left (now entirely submerged in overgrowth) having Doric columns flanking a window and concluding in a bow. At the other end of the building, the wing served as entrance to the house, approached via a flight of steps and accessed through a pedimented portico with four fluted Doric columns, all in crisp limestone. The design is so pared back, so devoid of extraneous ornament, so uncompromisingly faithful to the ideology of Greek Revivalism it might have come from the hand of a Schinkel or von Klenze.

A description of Dromdihy in the 1860s noted that it ‘consists of a centre and two wings, ornamented with Doric columns and with a portico at the eastern end, by the hall is entered, and off which are hot, cold, vapour and shower baths. The first floor comprises five sitting-rooms; on the second floor are four best bedrooms, with dressing-rooms and water-closet…’ Evidently Green Davis spared no expense on the property: it is said that the stone was cut by craftsmen brought from Italy for the purpose. But if the design was admirable, its execution left something to be desired since seemingly from the start Dromdihy suffered from damp, the roof leaking and the interior manifesting both dry and wet rot. Roger Green Davis’ son John, a barrister, sold the place to William Stopford Hunt, an Assistant Land Commissioner and well-known cricketer. At the start of the last century, he had let the place to Lieutenant-General Sir Lawrence Parsons (a cousin of the Earls of Rosse) whose daughter Nora Robertson would later write the memoir Crowned Harp. However Stopford Hunt retained ownership of the estate until he sold up in 1923 at which time the house and surrounding ninety acres were purchased by the O’Mahony family. They ran a manufacturing and timber business on the estate but by 1944 the house was deemed uninhabitable and its roof removed. Dromdihy has been in steady decline ever since, an empty shell high on the rise visible to anyone travelling south from Youghal.


Eccentric Even in Death


Driving along a road between Delvin and Mullingar, County Westmeath, one sees a spire rising above a clump of trees in the middle of a field. This is part of the now-disused Church of St John the Baptist built in 1798 with the aid of a loan from the Board of First Fruits. The surrounding graveyard has, like the church at its centre, mostly fallen into dereliction which is regrettable given that one tomb is associated with the famous eccentric Adolphus Cooke, who once tried a red setter for wandering from his estate, and treated a turkey-cock with particular favour as he believed it contained the soul of a forebear. A follower of the theory of reincarnation, Cooke had a large marble vault built and furnished to hold his remains, with instructions that a fire in the chamber be kept permanently lit. However on his death in 1876 the local rector refused to bury him in the vault and instead he was interred in a mausoleum constructed four decades earlier in the grounds of St John the Baptist. Also containing the remains of his father, this monument is unusual in being shaped like a beehive, with a low moat running around it. The Cooke mausoleum could do with a little reincarnation right now, as otherwise it risks succumbing to perpetual ruin.



Without Permission

Demonstrating that a laissez-faire attitude towards building without first securing the relevant permission is no recent phenomenon in Ireland: Burrishoole Priory, County Mayo. This Dominican house was established in 1469 by Richard de Burgo, who then resigned his secular position as Lord of Turlough and entered the priory where he remained until his death four years later. Unfortunately neither he nor the friars had thought to seek Papal approval before settling at Burrishoole, an omission that could have resulted in excommunication. However in 1486 Innocent VII instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to pardon their presumption and the occupants were allowed to remain in situ. They continued to do so even after the Reformation , a certain number of Dominicans recorded as remaining at Burrishoole into the 18th century on the site. It was only in 1793 that the church roof collapsed, thereby ensuring it became the ruin seen today.


A Note on New Ruins

‘New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold high revel in the precincts of old ruins (such revelling, though noted with pleasure, is seldom described in detail; possibly the jackal waltzes with the toad, the lizard with the fox, while the screech owl supplies the music and they all glory and drink deep among the tumbled capitals)…’

‘But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rose-bay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. Even ruins in city streets will, if they are let alone, come, soon or late, to the same fate. Month by month it grows harder to trace the streets around them; here, we see, is the lane of tangled briars that was a street of warehouses; there, in those jungled caverns, stood the large tailor’s shop; where those grassy paths cross, a board swings, bearing the name of a tavern…’

‘We stumble among stone foundations and fragments of cellar walls, among the ghosts of the exiled merchants and publicans who there carried on their gainful trades. Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern. All this will presently be; but at first there is only the ruin; a mass of torn, charred prayer books strew the stone floor; the statues, tumbled from their niches, have broken in pieces; rafters and rubble pile knee-deep…’

‘But often the ruin has put on, in its catastrophic tipsy chaos, a bizarre new charm. What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a stage set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky. The house has put on melodrama; people stop to stare; here is a domestic scene wide open for all to enjoy. To-morrow or to-night, the gazers feel, their own dwelling may be even as this. Last night the house was scenic; flames leaping to the sky; to-day it is squalid and morne, but out of its dereliction it flaunts the flags of what is left…’

‘”Ruinenlust” has come full circle: we have had our fill. Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, by Piranesi, Salvator Rosa, Poussin, Ckude, Monsti Desiderio, Pannini, Guardi, Robert, James Pryde, John Piper, the ruin-poets, or centuries of time. Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings: in the objects that we see before us, we get to agree with St Thomas Aquinas, that quae enim diminuta sunt, hoc ipso turpia sunt and to feel that, in beauty, wholeness is all.’

The above texts come from the concluding chapter (‘A Note on New Ruins’) of Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1953 book Pleasure of Ruins. The photographs above show the interiors of a set of now-abandoned farmyard buildings in County Westmeath.