Part of the coved ceiling in the drawing room of Somerville, County Meath. The house dates from c.1730 when it was built for Sir James Somerville, Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1736 and also sometime M.P. for the city. Towards the end of the century, further work was carried out by Sir James’ grandson and it appears the neo-classical plasterwork was added at that time into a space then serving as entrance hall (the entire building was subsequently turned back to front, thereby making this the drawing room). The result is an extravagance of floral garlands and arabesques, ostrich plumes and decorative flourishes together with the family coat of arms, all set inside a sequence of panels. The exceptional quality of the workmanship has led to suggestions the ceiling may have been executed by Dublin stuccodore Michael Stapleton (1747-1801).
Irish landlords, that small band of men who once owned the greater part of the country, do not enjoy a good reputation here. Judged to have been rapacious and, still worse in the popular imagination, foreign, it cannot be denied that many of their number often put personal interest ahead of concern for the condition of tenants, with disastrous results following the onset of the potato blight in the mid-1840s. However, it would be wrong to tar all landlords with the same blackening brush, since there were a few of them who sought to improve circumstances on their property. Among this unusual group, none was more out of the ordinary than Joseph Henry Blake, third Lord Wallscourt, of Ardfry, County Galway.
The Blakes were one of the Tribes of Galway, fourteen merchant families who dominated life in the western city from the 13th century onwards. They liked to claim descent from Ap-Lake, one of the knight’s of King Arthur’s round table, but in fact they were originally called Caddell, the first of them coming to Ireland in the 12th century with Strongbow: in the early 14th century Richard Caddell, Sheriff of Connacht in 1303, was known as Niger or Black, from which the name Blake evolved.
Like others among the Galway Tribes, the Blakes soon began to acquire land in the surrounding area, a process that accelerated from the late 1500s onwards. Thus in May 1612 Robert Blake of Galway received a grant by letters patent from James I of Ballinacourt (later Wallscourt) and Ardfry, both in County Galway, as well as additional property in County Mayo. His eldest son Richard Blake, a lawyer by training, was knighted in 1624, served as Mayor of Galway 1627-28, and M.P. for the County of Galway in 1639 before becoming Speaker or Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Irish Confederation which sat at Kilkenny from 1647 to 1649. Although the Blakes subsequently lost their lands during the Cromwellian confiscations, they received them back after the Restoration and remained in possession thereafter, basing themselves at Ardfry which lies on the southern shores of Galway Bay.
Sir Richard Blake’s direct descendants died out in 1744 but a kinsman, Joseph Blake bought the estates from trustees and moved to Ardfry where around 1770 he built a house on the site of an old castle. The new property was long and low, at least nine bays wide and of two storeys over basement, with pyramidal pavilions at either end. Here in 1787 came the Hon Martha Herbert, wife of the rector of Cashel-on-Suir, County Tipperary, together with her daughter Dorothea (author of the celebrated Retrospections published a century after her death). On arrival they found ‘a large party of grandees’ whom Dorothea judged to be a ‘formidable set’ and were informed by their hostess that at Ardfry ‘they seldom or ever sat down to a meal with less than a hundred in family’, the latter term being used more loosely then than would now be the case.
Hitherto the Blakes had remained Roman Catholic but Joseph’s son, Joseph Henry Blake conformed to established church and was thus able to stand for election to the Irish parliament, to which he was elected in 1790. He retained his seat until the Act of Union a decade later and having voted in favour of this legislation was rewarded with a peerage, becoming Baron Wallscourt of Ardfry. However, his marriage to an heiress, Lady Louisa Bermingham, daughter of the first Earl of Louth, did not produce a son and so it was arranged that the title would devolve by special remainder to one of his nephews. Thus following his death in 1803 at the age of 37, Joseph Blake, son of the first Baron’s younger brother, became second Lord Wallscourt. The latter in turn dying in 1816 aged 19, his cousin Joseph Henry Blake (son of another of the first Baron’s brothers) became third Lord Wallscourt.
Although he had grown up at Ardfry where his father served as land agent, the new Lord Wallscourt had not expected to inherit the estate. At the time of his cousin’s death he was just eighteen and serving as a lieutenant in the army which he had joined after leaving Eton three years earlier. It is often stated that on coming into the title he immediately indulged in reckless spending but one must wonder how much there was to squander: Dorothea Herbert’s observations indicate that the late 18th century Blakes were already living beyond their means, and around 1795 more than 1,500 acres of the original estate (including the townland of Wallscourt) was offered for sale, while another parcel of land was also put on the market. What remained was some 2,834 statute acres (the greater part of it at Ardfry) yielding a notional annual rental of £3,200, although this always depended on the ability and preparedness of tenants to pay what was expected. Lord Wallscourt had financial obligations to meet regardless of actual revenue: various family members and retainers were entitled to an income for the duration of their respective lifetimes to an annual total of £800, and there was a further £7,000 owing, mostly to relatives. Thus the young peer would have found he had little enough to fritter away, especially after 1820 when creditors had the estate placed in trust so as to maximise income and pay off all debts. Under the new arrangement Lord Wallscourt was permitted a yearly allowance of £500.
Thankfully a couple of years later he married a 17-year old English heiress, Elizabeth Lock who was beautiful as well as rich and who would be painted by a family friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1825: this portrait hung in Ardfry until the last century. That same year she and her husband, who had now regained control of his estate, came to look at Ardfry which had been sadly neglected and required extensive renovation. ‘The woods and the walks are certainly very pretty,’ Lady Wallscourt wrote to her mother, ‘and some of the trees very old and remind me of those poor dear old woods at Norbury, but the house is even in a worse state than I had expected, and you know I was not prepared to find grand chose. The building at a distance looks very well and is very handsome, but it seems to me impossible anything can be done to it. There is so much to do, repairing and building, to make it all inhabitable, that I am sure Wallscourt will not attempt it.’ Contrary to expectations, her husband did undertake the necessary work and by the end of the following year, after the building had been given some of the gothic flourishes it retains to this day, the couple moved in with their young children, the occasion marked by a ball given for the servants and tenants. At this event, after some initial hesitancy on the part of the guests, ‘the great decorum and silence gave place to the most violent noise and rioting as they grew merrier, and they danced incessantly to a piper till five. They had enormous suppers of a whole sheep and two or three rounds of beef, and all went home mad drunk with drinking Henry’s health in “the cratur”, as they call whisky.’ Lady Wallscourt soon retired upstairs and allowed the nurse in charge of the children to join the throng where she became ‘quite the life of the party…springing and capering about in a most ludicrous way.’
And now let us touch briefly on efforts by Lord Wallscourt to improve the circumstances of his tenants. When travelling about Europe as a young man and through meeting sundry liberal thinkers of the period, he had become impressed by ‘some of the theories, then much debated, for lifting the labourer into the position of a partner with the capitalist.’ Following his return to Ireland, in 1831 he was interested to hear how the County Clare landlord and founder of the Hibernian Philanthropic Society John Scott Vandeleur had invited Manchester-born journalist and proto-socialist Edward Thomas Craig to establish a co-operative community on his own estate at Ralahine. This was duly visited by Lord Wallscourt who found much to engage him and having sent his overseer to study the system in more detail he set aside 100 acres at Ardfry for his own socialist experiment. Even if begun on a smaller scale, the scheme fared better and lasted longer than that at Ralahine (which Vandeleur, who was addicted to gambling, managed to lose in a bet in 1833, after which he fled to America leaving his poor former tenants to fend for themselves against unmerciless creditors).
Lord Wallscourt also embarked on other philanthropic enterprises seeking to establish both a national school and an agricultural school as well as sponsoring the education of a number of boys in England and even as far away as Switzerland. He sought to improve the living conditions of tenants, building a two-storey slate-roofed house built as a model to replace the existing thatched cabins of the area. However it proved impossible to find anyone prepared to move into the new property, tenants apparently explaining ‘it would be mighty cold, and my Lord would be expecting me to keep it too clean.’ Eventually after standing empty for five years, a newly-wed couple took the place, on the grounds that it was ‘better than nothing at all.’
During the terrible years of the famine, Lord Wallscourt worked to ensure the well-being of his own tenants, and those on other estates in the area. He sat on a number of relief committees and on the Galway Board of Guardians, where he was critical of the operation of the poor law system and of his fellow guardians, who, he said, seemed ‘little disposed to transact the business for the discharge of which they were elected’. In 1847 he actively associated himself for the first time with the campaign for tenant rights and employed the distinguished agriculturalist Thomas Skilling (later first Professor of Agriculture at Queen’s University, Galway) to create a new tillage project employing labourers and tenants at Ardfry. He even started to establish an agricultural college on the estate.
One suspects that Lord Wallscourt, however well-intentioned, did not tolerate opposition from his tenants or indeed from anyone else. Evidence for this was provided by his wife when she sought a divorce in 1846 ‘by reason of his cruelty and adultery,’ citing several instances when her husband had assaulted her. He was known to be a man of considerable strength and when young had been a keen boxer (more peculiarly he liked to walk about his house wearing no clothes: eventually Lady Wallscourt persuaded him carry a cowbell in his hand when nude so maidservants had notice of his imminent arrival). The couple suffered the loss of their two elder sons, and it was only during a brief rapprochement in late 1840 that an eventual heir was conceived. It may be that Lady Wallscourt did not care for her husband’s humanitarian enterprises. What, one wonders, must she have made for the welcome he gave to the 1848 Paris insurrection that led to the final overthrow of the French monarchy: he even presided at a celebratory public rally in Dublin. The following year he visited Paris with his young son and while there died after contracting cholera.
His estranged wife now regained control, since the boy Erroll Augustus Blake was then aged only seven. The co-operative projects at Ardfry were abandoned and more familiar methods of estate management re-instated. On the other hand, upon reaching maturity the fourth Lord Wallscourt followed the parental example and undertook diverse improvements, most notably the establishment of an oyster fishery in Galway Bay which provided local employment. In other respects however, he could not be compared with his father, being so small in stature that he was known in the vicinity as ‘the lordeen’: Nationalist politician T.P. O’Connor later remembered meeting ‘a tiny little man, sad, deprecatory, almost timid in manner.’ This may have been because he was oppressed by money worries, especially after his second marriage. His new wife turned out to be a hopeless gambler: in the early years of the last century the lead was stripped from Ardfry’s roof to pay her debts and the contents – including that lovely portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence – sold. Nor did the Wallscourt peerage survive much longer: the fourth lord was succeeded in 1918 by his only son who died without children just two years later.
And so we see Ardfry as it stands today, a shell of a monument to an abandoned social and agricultural experiment. Who knows what might yet have happened here had the third Lord Wallscourt not died in Paris in 1849, and what example it might have given to other landlords in Ireland. The shame is that his efforts to improve the lives of the country’s tenants are today so little known, and the estate on which he carried out his endeavours has been allowed to fall into such disrepair, the trees and hedges cut down, the walls tumbled, the outbuildings and estate cottages gone or, the the main house, little more than four walls. Dorothea Herbert called Ardfry ‘a beautiful place’ and Griffith’s Valuation of 1857 refers to a ‘beautiful and picturesque demesne, well planted with forest and ornamental timber.’ There’s little enough beauty here now.
For more information on the third Lord Wallscourt, I recommend John Cunningham’s truly excellent essay (to which I am much indebted) ‘Lord Wallscourt of Ardfry (1797-1849)’ in Vol. LVII (2005) of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society.
A chimneypiece in the entrance hall of Furness, County Kildare. The name of 18th century amateur architect Francis Bindon has occurred here several times before (most recently When New Becomes Old, March 24th), and this is another house attributed to him. The core of the building is believed to date from c.1730, and some of the decoration from that period survives, not least this chimneypiece which is carved from pearwood, a material often used for wind instruments and of dark hue: in this instance, it has been painted to imitate stone.
More on Furness to follow in the coming weeks.
Two years ago the Irish public voted Sir Frederic William Burton’s 1864 watercolour The Meeting on the Turret Stairs the nation’s favourite painting. Burton, who eventually became director of the National Gallery in London, was born in this house, Clifden, County Clare in 1816. The Burtons were landowners in this part of the country: Sir Frederic’s grandfather was High Sheriff of Clare in 1780. The family seem originally to have lived in a house called Riverstown which Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) reported as being ‘now converted into a chief constabulary police station.’ It was presumably succeeded by Clifden, believed to date from c.1800 and a house of seven bays and two storeys over basement. The rendered façade is distinguished by the charming blind niche directly over the main entrance with its handsome cut limestone doorcase. The property has been recently and very sensitively restored.
When Thomas Conolly married Lady Louisa Lennox in 1758, Castletown, County Kildare which had been built by his great-uncle William from c.1722 onwards still lacked a main staircase. The young couple undertook to address this want and within a year of their wedding seem to have employed the Swiss-born stuccadore Filippo Lafranchini to work on the plasterwork decoration. The result, as Joseph McDonnell has written, ‘evokes, like little else in the country, the spirit and grandeur of the grotesque decoration of Imperial Roman interiors…’ Yet in the midst of the grandeur one also finds domesticity, not least in the profile portraits inserted by Franchini into the stairhall walls and believed to represent members of the Conolly and Lennox families. This is especially true when one reaches the landing and encounters a pair of heads facing each other across a now-empty stucco frame. These are depictions of Tom and Louisa who together did so much to enhance the beauty of Castletown.
A plasterwork panel forming part of the stairwell decoration at Kilpeacon, County Limerick. The building’s external appearance makes it look like a modest-sized villa but this is an case of looks being deceptive since Kilpeacon proves a substantial country house. Dating from c.1810-20 its design is attributed to Sir Richard Morrison whose client would have been local land owner Edward Cripps; he assumed the additional surname of Villiers on inheriting property from an uncle who had died childless. This gentleman’s widow, Mrs Hannah Villiers, on her own death in 1821 left funds to build alms houses in Limerick city; designed by James Pain and still in use, these were originally intended ‘as an asylum for Protestant, or Presbyterian widows, who will each receive £24 per annum besides most comfortable accommodation.’
More about Kilpeacon in the coming weeks.
The entrance hall of Ballyfin, County Laois is paved with an elaborate marble floor the centre of which features a large antique Roman mosaic. Along with many other decorative elements, this was sent to Ireland from Italy in 1822 and incorporated into the Morrisons’ design for the house, a triumph of early 19th century neo-classicism.
Despite its name, there is nothing defensive about Bracklyn Castle, County Westmeath. On the contrary, the house dates from c.1790 and in style has been likened to the work of the young John Soane. Behind an entrance hall is the staircase, lit from above by an oval dome. A gallery with wrought-iron balusters occupies a substantial portion of the first-floor landing from which are accessed the main bedrooms.
The history of Dromore Castle, County Limerick and the work of its architect Edward William Godwin were discussed here some weeks ago (see Une Folie de Grandeur, 30th December 2013). Today the focus is on what remains of the building’s remarkable interiors since every aspect of their original decoration – furniture, wall paintings, chimney pieces, stained glass, tiles, brass- and ironwork – was likewise overseen by Godwin.
It was in the mid-1860s that William Pery, third Earl of Limerick decided to rectify his lack of a country seat in Ireland where the family had long owned thousands of acres of land in Counties Limerick and Cork. Hitherto when not in England he and his forebears had occupied an 18th century house in Limerick city but this was no longer deemed satisfactory. His decision to create a new rural residence coincided with Lord Limerick’s friendship with Godwin, the two men then respectively serving as President and Vice-President of the Architectural Society in England.
An article on Dromore Castle written by Marian Locke and published in the Winter 2011 issue of the Old Limerick Journal states that Godwin thoroughly explored his prospective client’s estates in search of a site without finding anywhere he deemed suitable before coming across a small shooting lodge owned by the Earl on a piece of land of some forty acres overlooking Dromore Lake. This the architect decided was the perfect spot, ‘a dream-like situation on the edge of a wood…overlooking the water, which would reflect the castle one hundred feet below.’ As indeed it still does, Lord Limerick buying up a further 200 acres, seventy of which were covered by aforementioned water.
So the rocky outcrop on which Dromore stands, and the views offered from this position, made certain other decisions inevitable, not least that the greater part of the accommodation would face north, hardly the best way to ensure the building’s interior would retain heat, or receive much sunlight.
Access to Dromore Castle is through a gateway on the western side and immediately to the south, only accessible by first stepping outside, was the large double-height banqueting hall seen here. This still has its hooded stone chimneypiece, but the minstrels’ gallery has gone along with the pitched timber roof. A door at the far end of the hall gave access to a slender three-storey Chaplain’s Tower which on the first floor in turn opened onto south-facing battlements, concluding in the easterly corner with a small block that originally served as a bakery.
The main portion of the castle runs west to east, with a chapel located on the first floor over the main gateway; above this looms the round tower that is one of Dromore’s more unusual features. Most of the northwest corner is taken up by a stone staircase leading to the first floor where it terminates in an arched gothic window. The shape of this window is echoed by stepped barrow vaulting above the steps, one of Godwin’s most striking effects to survive.
On reaching the top of the main staircase, one turned west along a corridor off which opened a succession of reception rooms inside what, from the exterior, looks like an enormous fortified keep. Thus the entire ground floor was given over to servants’ quarters, with a typically massive kitchen occupying the central portion. A consequence of this arrangement is that the central courtyard was primarily a service area, although a door leading from the southern end of the drawing room opened onto another run of battlements, this time looking eastwards down to the lake (or west into the courtyard). Still, it must have been a drawback that the castle’s owners could not directly enter the surrounding gardens. Perhaps they might not have wished to do so, given the splendour of their surroundings. The drawing room, for example, featured an elaborately carved pink marble chimney piece (which survives, suspended in space), and arched recesses with marble columns (some of which remain in situ) beneath more carved capitals.
Meanwhile up another flight of stairs one reached a further north-facing corridor, its windows set inside deep arched recesses, off which ran the main bedrooms. At the very end of the passage, the north-east corner was given over to the countess’s bedroom which had a stone balcony providing views of the lake far below but this was an advantage enjoyed by nobody else. The third floor was given over to servants’ bedrooms and then, once more in the north-east corner one ascended to the fourth floor billiard room, something of a break with the spirit of medievalism pervading elsewhere.
Although the exterior walls of Dromore Castle are up to six feet thick, from the start it suffered from problems of damp. In an attempt to overcome this problem, Godwin designed a brick lining with a cavity of about two inches from the stonework, but to no avail. In an article on the building carried by Country Life in November 1964, Mark Bence-Jones quotes from a lecture the architect gave in 1878, that is less than a decade after completing his commission, in which he commented ‘Whenever it was going to rain…the walls showed it like a weather glass.’ Thus the elaborate murals he designed for the main rooms never had a chance of survival. At least some of these were executed by Academician Henry Stacy Marks, an artist who specialised in painting birds. At Dromore, however, the plan was for him to cover the walls of the first-floor corridor were to depict the four seasons, twelve months and day and night (complemented by stained glass windows showing the six days of earth’s creation). The dining room murals featured the eight virtues, those of the drawing room the four winds and the four elements. Alas, none could withstand the harsh Irish elements and before long all had perished. Nevertheless, according to Bence-Jones Lord Limerick was ‘extremely delighted’ with his new property, even if this delight did not encourage him to spend much time at Dromore.
According to Marian Locke, Dromore cost in the region of £80,00-£100,000 to build, and yet it was only intermittently occupied by the Limericks for fifty years. After the First World War the family effectively abandoned the property and finally in 1939 the castle and many of its contents along with the surrounding land were sold, reputedly for just £8,000, to a local timber merchant Morgan McMahon. Although he bought the estate primarily for the value of its woodland, Dromore’s new owner was so engaged by the place that he and his family carried out necessary repairs and moved in. They remained in residence until the mid-1950s when it was again sold, but this time there was no reprieve. Faced with costly maintenance and rates, the new owners removed the roof and stripped out the interior. Since then the castle has stood empty, the dividing floors long gone so that now there is no difference between those areas once occupied by master and by servant: today all are equally open to sun and rain, and all share the same patina of neglect. Yet somehow enough of Godwin’s decorative scheme lingers on. It offers a tantalising sense of what Dromore must have looked like during its all too brief, but wondrous, heyday.
The double doors leading from drawing to dining room at Ballinlough Castle, County Westmeath are recessed within a large arched bow. And there are further bows evident in the delicate plasterwork that runs around the alcove and features garlands of flowers and leaves caught up in ribbon. The style is essentially rococo in spirit even though the room and its decoration date from c.1790, one of those anachronisms that one encounters in Ireland where a fondness for certain forms could sometimes linger long after they had fallen out of fashion elsewhere.