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.
In a book of his photographs published the year he died (2011) architectural historian Maurice Craig included the image above of Gaulstown, County Westmeath which he had taken in 1975. He recalled seeing the house then for the first time and commented, ‘It looked a bit neglected, but it seemed to be all there, especially the roof. I saw a new house only a few yards away (out of frame on the left) and drew the obvious conclusion: that my pet would soon be bundled away. I was wrong.’
In fact Maurice was wrong on two counts. Firstly there never was a new house only a few yards away, it is actually hundreds of yards away and completely invisible from Gaulstown. And of course its construction did not mean the loss of the old house which continues to stand almost four decades after it was noted by Maurice.
As is unfortunately all too often the case, we know little about the origins of Gaulstown. It bears similarities to a pair of similarly miniature Irish villas, Whitewood Lodge, County Meath (1735) and Ledwithstown, County Longford (1746) both of which are attributed to Richard Castle. Both are also larger and more refined in their details, and one has a sense that Gaulstown, the earliest of the trio (dating from c.1730) was something of a trial run for the other two. Casey and Rowan propose that it might have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce or perhaps his associate William Halfpenny. Maurice Craig was inclined to agree with this assessment but it seems too grand an attribution for such a modest dwelling. Might not Gaulstown instead have been the work of an amateur, perhaps even the original owner, a member of the Lill family generations of which lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries (although they would change their name to de Burgh for the sake of an inheritance)? Without wishing to disparage its considerable charms and its importance Gaulstown has the appearance of a building containing a variety of architectural motifs borrowed from books but, as the interior layout reveals, without these being necessarily completely understood or interpreted.
Casey and Rowan describe Gaulstown as being of only one storey over raised basement and with an attic, but this is not really the case since it possesses a trio of reasonably substantial floors. The roughcast rendered exterior is rigorously plain of three bays, that in the centre of the south-facing facade projecting forward. A long flight of steps leads to the substantial cut-limestone doorframe, which is an adapted Venetian window above which floats a small Diocletian window beneath the pediment: the only other openings on the front are windows on either side of the entrance, so that the building has an ascetic rigour that is most appealing.
Inside the main floor was originally divided (just like ancient Gaul) into three parts. The centre space formed one room running south to north for the full, albeit not terribly considerable, depth of the house. However at some date, probably for reasons of greater comfort and warmth, a partition wall was inserted dividing it into entrance hall with drawing room behind: the latter has a Venetian window mirroring that used for the entrance. To the east is a dining room, to the west the staircase and, behind it, a small boudoir or office. The stairs are lit by a large window on the return and they lead to a surprising number of bedrooms. Meanwhile the basement is also more generously spacious than would superficially appear to be the case.
‘This appealing structure,’ comments the author of Gaulstown’s assessment in http://www.buildingsofireland.ie ‘was designed with obvious architectural aspirations and is extremely well-proportioned, having instant visual appeal. It is strangely imposing for a structure built on such a small scale and this is down to the quality of the massing.’ This is an admirable summary of the house, which further benefits from its setting, being reached at the end of a long straight drive and surrounded by open countryside. To the immediate west are the remains of the old brick-walled garden, behind is a still-working farmyard. These elements enhance the impression that Gaulstown was always intended as the residence of a gentleman farmer even though Casey and Rowan rightly refer to it possessing ‘an aristocratic or cultivated rusticity.’
Gaulstown apparently changed hands on a number of occasions before being acquired by the current owner’s grandfather. Today it is a family home, the present generation of occupants keenly aware of the building’s need for some remedial work: damp is something of a problem on the gable walls and, as these pictures make clear, the fenestration could be improved. Yet these issues are not insuperable, and one of the pleasures of the house is that it looks to have retained so many of its original features such as the panelled doors and shutters with their chunky lugging, the plain but deep cornicing, the understated stair balustrades and so forth. It could, and ought to, be restored to better condition and the aspiration is that this will happen before too long. A little gem like Gaulstown deserves to be preserved, not least because today there are too few of its kind left in Ireland.
*Readers who studied Latin will no doubt recall the observation in Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars ‘Gallis est omnis divisa in partes tres’ (Gaul as a whole is divided into three parts).
Two sections of the marquetry floors in the saloon at Ballyfin, County Laois. Dating from the 1820s and designed by the Morrisons père et fils, the house was built for Sir Charles Coote, premier baronet of Ireland. As such it was intended to reflect his status and was decorated with unusual lavishness and with inspiration from diverse sources: the floor here seemingly derives from Southern Spain’s Moorish architecture and is the most exotic in the country.
Much more on Ballyfin in the coming weeks.
The ceiling of the former dining room at Townley Hall, County Louth, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture designed by Francis Johnston c.1794 for his well-informed patron Blayney Townley Balfour. Very spare, very pure, this is design at its most ascetic and at the same time most refined. (For more information on Townley Hall, and especially its matchless staircase, see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté*, June 10th 2013)
One of the two niches on either side of a door in the oval saloon at Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. Designed 1789-96 by James Wyatt for the first Earl of Belmore the building’s heating system has been discussed here before (see It’s All in the Detail, August 10th 2013). This is one of a pair of cast-iron stoves topped with urns made to a design by Wyatt in order to provide warmth for the room which, owing to its shape and the disposition of doors and windows, does not have a fireplace. It is flanked by two of the dozen scagliola pilasters by the Italian craftsman Domenico Bartoli with plaster decoration inside the upper section of the recess being made by on-site by workmen sent over from England.
It seems only fitting that Lough Cutra, County Galway should be battlemented and turreted, and have the, admittedly deceptive, appearance of impregnability since for a long time it was associated with military families. But the spot on which it stands is deeply romantic: the castle is reached at the end of an exceptionally long drive through open parkland and eventually one arrives at a spot which, as the Knight of Glin and Edward Malins wrote in their 1976 book on Irish demesnes, is ‘picturesquely situated high above the banks of the lough, whose waters lash the terrace walls.’ Glin and Malins likewise admired the ‘extensive and deep planting of woods and plantations, and wooded islands with ruins of churches and mountains in the background.’
Based around the 1,000 acre lake several square miles in extent and from which the estate takes its name, Lough Cutra’s ruins indicate how long there has been human settlement here. The present owners explain succinctly the history of the estate, noting that ‘the local area is rich in remnants of churches, cells and monasteries due to the introduction of Christianity. A number of the islands on the lake contain the remnants of stone altars. It is quite likely that St. Patrick passed Lough Cutra on his travels and St. Colman MacDuagh was a relative of Gort’s King Guaire. A holy well with a cross with the date 1745 lies on the Eastern shore of Lough Cutra. The ruined church of Beagh on the North West shore was sacked by the Danes in 866 A.D. and war raged through the district for nearly 1000 years.’
From the 12th century onwards, this territory was controlled by the Ó Seachnasaigh (anglicised as O’Shaughnessy) family. The last to hold the land, Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy, supported James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and died seven days later in his castle at Gort. His son and heir William went into exile and eventually became a general in the French army. In 1697 the O’Shaughnessy lands were seized and presented to Sir Thomas Prendergast who likewise became a general. The two men, O’Shaughnessy and Prendergast, would fight on opposing sides at the Battle of Malplaquet in September 1709 during which the latter was killed (O’Shaughnessy lived another thirty-five years in exile).
Despite the best efforts of successive O’Shaughnessys they never regained their former estates which remained in the possession of the Prendergasts, a branch of a family which had likewise been in Ireland for many centuries, descendants of from Maurice de Prendergast, a Norman knight who came to the country in 1169. Following the death of Sir Thomas Prendergast at Malplaquet, the newly-acquired estates in County Galway passed to his seven-year old son, also called Thomas, who in adulthood managed to sit in both the Irish and British Houses of Commons. Since he had no children, on his death in 1760 the property passed to a nephew John Prendergast Smyth, youngest son of Sir Thomas’ sister Elizabeth. Having begun life in the army, he subsequently became a parliamentarian (although in 1793 he was appointed Colonel of the Limerick Volunteers) and joined the peerage first as Baron Kiltartan in 1810 and then six years later as Viscount Gort. He died in 1817, again without children and so once more the estate passed to a nephew, his sister’s son Colonel Charles Vereker. Of Dutch origin, the Verekers had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century and prospered despite supporting the two unfortunate Stuarts, Charles I and James II.
Like so many of those who owned Lough Cutra before and after, Charles Vereker was an army man: leading the Limerick Militia established by his uncle, in September 1798 he checked the advance of the French force led by General Humbert at Collooney, County Sligo and later took part in the Battle of Ballinamuck where he was wounded. For all that, again like his uncle he was vehemently opposed to the 1800 Act of Union, declaring ‘I have defended my country with my blood, and there is nothing in the gift of the Crown that would tempt me to betray her by my vote.’ After the Union he represented Limerick in the British House of Commons until becoming second Viscount Gort. Incidentally, he was also last to hold the ancient feudal post of Governor and Constable of the Castle of Limerick.
The second Lord Gort inherited some 12,000 acres from his uncle, and even before then he had received that part of the estate which included Lough Cutra (then often called Lough Cooter). Here he decided to build a new residence, his initial intention being to commission an Italianate villa at a spot called Situation Hill on the opposite side of the lake from where the house actually stands. However at some date he saw architect John Nash’s own property, East Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight. Supposedly accompanying the Prince Regent on a visit to East Cowes, he exclaimed ‘How I wish I could transport this Castle to the banks of Lough Cooter’ to which Nash replied, ‘Give me fifty thousand pounds and I will do it for you.’
In fact the eventual cost was closer to £80,000, probably because extensive work had to be carried out on creating the demesne envisaged by landscape designer John Sutherland: in 1855 J.B. Burke’s Visitation of Seats and Arms reported that the greater part of the area around the house and outbuildings ‘was blasted to a considerable depth out of the solid rock, and the gardens then filled with rich soil carried from distant spots, their walls being formed of limestone laboriously cut to the size of bricks…the undulating sward, which extends from the castle towards the lake is also to a great extent artificial.’ In addition, because of the site’s slope a terrace had to be built up in front of the lake before work on the house could begin.
Although Nash designed Lough Cutra, it is unclear what part, if any, he played in its actual construction. He does appear to have visited Ireland at least once: in 1821 he told the landscape artist and diarist Joseph Farington that he ‘had travelled in the three Kingdoms 11,000 miles in the year and in that time had expended £1,500 in chaise hire.’ The work at Lough Cutra was supervised by James Pain who had been apprenticed to Nash and was highly regarded by the latter. Pain came to Ireland in 1811, and remained here the rest of his life, being joined by his younger brother George Richard in 1815 after which the siblings ran a very successful practice for several decades.
Since James Pain arrived here in 1811 it is assumed that work started on Lough Cutra around that time. It was still going on in October 1817 since in that month the Limerick Gazette reported ‘with deepest regret’ that earlier in the month when Pain ‘was surveying some part of the beautiful building now going forward at Loughcooter Castle, County Galway, the intended mansion of Lord Viscount Gort, the scaffolding on which he stood gave way, and he was precipitated from an eminence of four stories high – his side first reached the ground, with the head inclining downwards – the collar bone has been broken, the brain has received a severe concussion, and several bruises on different parts of the body. – A report was current in the town on Sunday that he was dead, but we are happy to say, the arrival of Surgeon Franklin who (together with Surgeon Gibson of the City Regt. pofessionally [sic] attended) has not only contradicted that rumour, but has been given sanguine hopes of a speedy recovery.’ Indeed he did make a full recovery, living until 1877.
As originally built, Lough Cutra was more compact than later became the case, with sufficient variation in the disposition of towers and windows to give interest to the exterior. Inside, the main block of two storeys over sunken basement has a vaulted entrance hall behind which runs three reception rooms overlooking the lake. A round tower to one side contains the staircase leading to the first floor bedrooms opening off a top-lit central corridor.
It would appear that not only did Lord Gort spend much more on the property than had been intended but when he inherited his uncle’s estate it was discovered to carry debts of some £60,000. As a result he was rather impoverished and following his death in 1842 so too was his heir. The third Viscount did his best to provide assistance to his tenants during the years of the Great Famine by not collecting rents and providing work on the estate. The consequence was that he bankrupted himself and in 1851 Lough Cutra was offered for sale by order of the Encumbered Estates Court. Some sections of the estate were parcelled off and in 1852 the castle and immediate land was purchased by James Caulfield, in trust for a Mrs Ball, Superior of the Loreto Convent, Rathfarnham, County Dublin for £17,000. Lord Gort moved to England and ironically a few years later as a result of his second marriage came to own East Cowes Castle, the inspiration for his own former property. It was occupied by the family until requisitioned by the army during the Second World War during which the building suffered severe damage. East Cowes Castle was eventually demolished in 1960.
For a short period of time Lough Cutra Castle became a convent school. However in 1854 it reverted to private ownership after being bought by Field Marshall Hugh Gough, first Viscount Gough. Like the Verekers, the Goughs were another family long settled in this part of Ireland, being descended from three brothers, all Anglican clergymen, who had come here in the early 17th century. Likewise they subsequently became stalwarts of the British army, Hugh Gough’s father serving with Charles Vereker in the Limerick Militia during the 1798 Rebellion. Hugh Gough entered the forces when still in his teens (he was already promoted to the rank of Lieutenant a month before his fifteenth birthday) and fought with the future Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula War. After being responsible for the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander in Chief of the army in India and was responsible for the defeat of the Sikhs in two wars. It was following his retirement and advancement to the peerage that he decided to buy Lough Cutra, also purchasing back much of the original estate.
Following his acquisition, the castle was considerably extended to the designs of an unknown architect. In April 1855 the Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal advised readers, ‘Loughcooter Castle…the property of General Lord Viscount Gough, is now undergoing vast alterations and improvements There is a new tower at present in a state of progression; there have been large numbers of artizans and labourers employed during the last four months, and from the extensive works about to be executed are likely to be constantly employed for the next two years.’ In the late 1890s the third Viscount Gort commissioned a further extension, known as the Library Wing, from architect George Ashlin to house his grandfather’s war spoils: this was demolished in the 1950s and the cut stone used in the restoration of Bunratty Castle, County Clare. Changes were made to the interior also, some of which have survived. In the drawing room, for example, the walls are papered with the Gough coat of arms created by Coles, and the elaborately painted ceiling is believed to be by John Gregory Crace.
Commentators have often been rather sniffy about the Goughs’ interventions at Lough Cutra, one author opining ‘The additions were heavy and ill-proportioned and turned a neat and successful composition into an unwieldy and rambling one.’ But photographs of the building from the late 19th/early 20th centuries show that some of the changes were not unattractive. Full-length projecting window bays on either side of the main entrance, for example, probably increased the amount of light in the hall immediately behind, while the drawing room certainly benefitted from a similar window overlooking the lake: all of these have long since gone.
In the 20th century the Gough family, no longer as affluent as had been the case and with the greater part of their estate taken by the Land Commission, could no longer afford to maintain the castle and in the 1928 the family converted part of the stable yard into a residence. Thereafter Lough Cutra stood empty except during the years of the Emergency (1939-45) when it was occupied by members of the Irish army; as with East Cowes Castle at the same time, the outcome was not beneficial for the house. In 1952 the estate was placed on the market and eventually bought by the seventh Viscount Gort, great-grandson of the man who had sold it a century earlier. Lord Gort is today remembered for having bought and restored Bunratty Castle in the 1950s (when stone from parts of the Gough extensions to Lough Cutra were used to make repairs). He gave Lough Cutra to his great-niece the Hon Elizabeth Sidney who in 1966 married Sir Humphrey Wakefield. Together the Wakefields embarked on a restoration of Lough Cutra which by this date was in a near-derelict condition, with much of the interior decoration including the staircase pulled out. Had they not done this work, almost certainly the castle would no longer stand.
However in 1971 the Wakefields divorced and once more the estate was put onto the market. As is well-known Sir Humphrey, who worked in the furniture department of Christie’s before becoming a director of Mallet, went on to buy and restore Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. Here he has one significant souvenir of Lough Cutra: an equestrian statue of the first Viscount Gough. The work has had a troubled history: it was designed by John Henry Foley who died before its completion and there was then difficulty finding a site. Eventually the statue was placed in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where on Christmas Eve 1944 the figure of Lord Gough was beheaded and his sword removed. In November 1956 the right hind leg of his horse was blown off and the following July the entire statue was hurled from its base by a huge explosion. It then languished for almost thirty years in storage before being bought by Robert Guinness, a friend of Wakefield, who afterwards brought the statue to Chillingham where it can now be seen.
As for Lough Cutra, in the aftermath of the Wakefields’ departure the estate was bought by the present owner’s family. Since then the programme of refurbishment has been ongoing, with a new roof on the main body of the castle completed in 2003 and other remedial work done on the tower roofs, plus attention given to buildings such as lodges and yards, as well as the woods and what survives of the once-extensive gardens. As is so often the case, this is a project without visible end but thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of the owner it is also an enterprise that exudes success. Nash’s East Cowes Castle today can be recalled only through old photographs but what might be described as its progeny Lough Cutra Castle looks set to enjoy a long and happy life yet.
The Lough Cutra estate hosts a wide variety of events. For more information, see: http://www.loughcutra.com/
*Virtue Overcomes All Things: the motto of the Gough family.
A crowning with laurel occurs in the central section of a painted ceiling in one of the first-floor rooms at Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin. Measuring just eighteen by sixteen feet and formerly known as the breakfast or small dining room, this space has on stylistic grounds been attributed to James ‘Athenian’ Stuart; the proposal is supported by a comment made by Lady Shelburne in 1769 that some of the castle’s interiors were then being decorated ‘after Designs of Mr Stuart’s.’ For a long time it was also believed that the ceiling itself had been painted by Angelica Kauffmann who certainly came to Rathfarnham during her visit to Ireland during the winter of 1771-72, and while in the country painted a portrait of the building’s then-residents, the Earl and Countess of Ely, together with the latter’s two nieces (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland). However, as Grainne Madden has observed, while quite delightful, the quality of workmanship here ‘is not as highly finished as one would expect from comparisons with authenticated works’ by Kauffman.
Given the notoriety of its late 18th century resident, the fate of Mount Shannon, County Limerick seems inevitable. One of the country’s more striking ruins, the house formerly stood at the centre of a 900-acre demesne famous for its trees and gardens: in his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening the Scottish botanist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon specifically cited Mount Shannon as an example of improvements in Ireland, and proposed these had been carried out under the direction of the first Earl of Clare, of whom more anon. Five years later Fitzgerald and McGregor in their study of the history and topography of Limerick city and county likewise refer to Mount Shannon: ‘the plantations are laid out with fine taste, and the gardens are extensive and well arranged.’ Aside from a handful of surviving specimen trees, no evidence of the demesne’s former glories now remains, and much of the land is given over to suburban housing, making it difficult to discern what the grounds must have looked like even a century ago. On the other hand it is still possible to gain a sense of the main house’s former appearance. In 1827 Fitzgerald and McGregor described it as being ‘one of the most superb mansions in the South of Ireland’ and although a hollow shell for over ninety years it clings onto a residue of grandeur.
The original Mount Shannon was built c.1750 by the euphoniously-named Silver Oliver whose family’s main estate was elsewhere in the county at Clonodfoy, later Castle Oliver. Oliver appears to have sold the property to a member of the White family but around 1765 it came into the possession of John Fitzgibbon, supposedly a descendant of the mediaeval White Knights, who had been raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Anglicanism so that he could become a lawyer (Penal Laws then barring this profession to everyone not a member of the established church). Highly successful, he amassed a considerable fortune
which when he died in 1780 was passed on to his son, also called John and later first Earl of Clare.
It would appear from various references that Lord Clare did much to improve and aggrandise Mount Shannon, not just its demesne but also the house. However the latter’s most striking feature was added by his eldest son the second earl in 1813. The immense Ionic portico with Doric pilasters behind was designed by Lewis Wyatt (a member of the prolific English family of architects and a nephew of James Wyatt), and occupies the three centre bays of the seven-bay north entrance front. Behind three round-headed doors gave access to the hall with the drawing room and other main reception rooms behind. The interiors, as a handful of 19th century photographs show, were chillingly neo-classical with scarcely any ornament. The same was true of the exterior which, as can be seen is constructed of brick with cut limestone dressings. The severity of the south, garden facade was relieved by a very large curved conservatory. To the immediate east of the two-storey over sunken basement house is a long, lower extension which would have been used for services and was originally concealed by a curved screen wall that joined the still-extant wall of the old walled garden.
Many stories are told of John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, first Earl of Clare, some of them apocryphal, few of them kind. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin and Christchurch, Oxford he became a lawyer like his father before him. He was first elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1778 and five years later was appointed Attorney General. Appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland in 1789, he was also received his first peerage, as Baron FitzGibbon, of Lower Connello; he was subsequently advanced to a Viscountcy in 1793 and finally received his earldom in 1795. Four years later he was granted an English peerage (entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster), becoming Baron FitzGibbon, of Sidbury in the County of Devon.
Unquestionably brilliant, Fitzgibbon was also without doubt bigoted. It has often been noted that he was a hardline Protestant and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who avidly promoted whatever measures he believed would best preserve that group’s political domination in Ireland. He supported harsh measures against members of the 1798 Rebellion and was openly hostile to Roman Catholicism despite or perhaps because of his father had originally been a member of this faith. When it came to the Act of Union in 1800, of which he was firmly in favour, there was widespread understanding that this would be accompanied by concessions made to Roman Catholics with the Penal Laws being ameliorated. FitzGibbon persuaded George III that any such liberalisation of the status quo would be a violation of the king’s Coronation Oath and thus ensured pro-Emancipation measures were not included in the Union legislation. In so doing he delayed Catholic Emancipation by three decades and encouraged the spread of sectarianism.
It is said that FitzGibbon once declared he would make the Irish as ‘tame as a dead cat.’ As a result, there are stories of dead cats being thrown into his coach, and of more of the same being flung into his grave when he died in January 1802 following a fall from his horse at Mount Shannon the previous month.
At the time of the Act of Union, Lord Clare arranged for a handsome pension by way of compensation for the loss of his office as Lord Chancellor which was then abolished; this was to be paid both to him and his immediate heir. Thus the second earl, who died in 1851, enjoyed a handsome income not just from his estates which ran to more than 13,000 acres in Counties Limerick and Tipperary but from the munificence of the British Treasury. A close friend of Lord Byron, with whom he was at school, the second earl later became Governor first of Bombay and later of Bengal; he enhanced Mount Shannon by both the addition of the portico and other improvements, but by adding treasures from India and paintings acquired on his travels around Europe.
Since he had no children, his property passed to a younger brother, who duly became third earl. He was to suffer a number of disadvantages, among them the absence of the pension enjoyed by his predecessors, a much depleted income in the aftermath of the Great Famine, and the death of his only son during the Charge of the Light Brigage at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854: Limerick’s Wellesley Bridge used to feature a handsome statue to the youthful Viscount FitzGibbon until it was blown up by the IRA in 1930.
On the death of the third earl in 1864 the title became extinct. His estate was left to the two younger of his three daughters (the eldest, who had caused a scandal by abandoning her own spouse and children to run off with the elderly husband of a half-sister, appears to have been disinherited). While the middle sister took possession of the FitzGibbon silver and, it seems, the greater part of the liquidity attached to the estate, the youngest Lady Louisa FitzGibbon assumed responsibility for Mount Shannon.
Lady Louisa was as dogged by bad luck as her father. Her eldest son died at the age of twenty, followed by her first husband and then the Italian Marchese she married in expectation of his money turned out to be as penniless as herself. With the advent of the Land Wars rents ceased to be paid, portions of the estate had to be sold, what remained was mortgaged, and money borrowed at high interest rates. All to no avail: Lady Louisa’s creditors demanded satisfaction, following litigation a receiver was appointed, and in the course of a sale lasting several days during June 1888 Mount Shannon was stripped of its contents including a very valuable library. Here is a small quote from the fascinating catalogue compiled by Limerick auctioneer John Bernal: ‘The Family Paintings are Chef Douvres [sic], by the first artist of the period, when they were taken, some of the Paintings, see page 42, were placed in the house about 1790, and will afford the connoisseur and speculator a good chance of getting a valuable Old Master on good terms. There are also some replicas from the Dresden gallery.’ The first such melancholy event of its kind in Ireland, a prelude to many more to follow over the coming decades, the Mount Shannon excited huge interest, with special trains and catering arrangements being laid on. Lady Louisa FitzGibbon spent the remainder of her days in a Dominican convent on the Isle of Wight, an establishment founded by the Roman Catholic convert wife of her uncle, the second Lord Clare; this was something of an irony given the first earl’s virulent hatred of all Catholics.
Five years after the sale, Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor, bought Mount Shannon where he died in 1902, just like the first earl following a bad fall from a horse. His widow only survived until 1907 after which the place passed through various hands before what remained of the estate was bought in 1915 by David O’Hannigan of County Cork for £1,000. He did not have long to enjoy Mount Shannon since it was burned down in June 1920 during the War of Independence, the light of the flames apparently seen in Limerick city.
The house remains a shell. To walk through it today is to have a sense what it must have been like visiting a site such as the Baths of Caracalla in the aftermath of Imperial Rome’s collapse, especially as this immense structure is now surrounded by others domestic buildings of infinitely smaller dimensions and aspirations. Even in its present broken-down state Mount Shannon continues dominate the area and to exude an air of greater distinction than any of its neighbours.