Do the Wright Thing

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The 18th century polymath Thomas Wright (1711-1786) is usually described as being an astronomer, mathematician, instrument maker, archaeologist, historian, pedagogue, architect and garden designer. He was also evidently a man of great charm since he never wanted for friends or patrons and despite modest origins moved with ease, and always assured of welcome, from one country house to the next. In many respects, he can be considered the successor of William Kent who likewise rose from humble beginnings to enjoy a stellar career across a diverse range of disciplines. But whereas Kent never came to Ireland Wright did so, spending a year in this country in 1746-47. During this period he undertook the necessary research and made drawings for a book published in London in 1748, Louthiana. As its name indicates, the subject was County Louth and the work is the first example of such a survey of archaeological remains in Britain or Ireland. It features seventy-four copperplate sketches and line-drawings of ancient field monuments, most of them being the earliest accurate drawings of these places. Despite the book’s significance, Lord Orrery wrote soon after it appeared, ‘A thin quarto named Louthiana, is most delicately printed and the cuts admirably engraved, and yet we think the County of Louth the most devoid of antiquities of any County in Ireland…These kind of books are owing to an historical society founded in Dublin, and of great use to this kingdom, which is improving in all arts and sciences very fast: tho’ I own to you, the cheapness of the French claret is not likely to add much at present to the increase of literature.’

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Thomas Wright came to Ireland at the invitation of his friend James Hamilton, first Viscount Limerick (and later first Earl of Clanbrassill) who, because his titles were in the Irish peerage, sat as at M.P. in the English House of Commons and thus maintained a house close to London (at Brook Green, Hammersmith) where Wright often stayed. Lord Limerick had benefitted from an extensive Grand Tour (the enlightening diaries he kept during this period were edited and published in 2005 by his descendant the present Earl of Roden) and brought a well-informed sensibility to his Irish estates based in Counties Down and Louth: he owned the greater part of Dundalk which had been purchased by his parents and where his main residence was located (the Manor House, demolished 1909).
It was here that Wright established his base while a guest of Lord Limerick and the latter’s wife, Lady Harriet Bentinck who was related to many of the other families supportive of his endeavours. Among these was Viscountess Midleton whose husband Alan – he had large estates in County Cork – was responsible, with the second Duke of Richmond (father of Ladies Emily and Louisa Lennox who respectively married the first Duke of Leinster and Thomas Conolly of Castletown) for drawing up the first written rules for cricket. Lady Midleton was Lady Limerick’s step-niece while her step-sister the Countess of Essex was also married to a man owning extensive property in Ireland. All of them numbered among Wright’s friends and supporters, and help to explain his connexions with this country.

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As mentioned, Lord Limerick’s principal residence was in Dundalk and it is believed that the improvements he made in the grounds of this house were designed or inspired by Wright. In late June 1952 during his tour through Ireland the future Bishop of Ossory (and later Meath) Richard Pococke noted of Dundalk, ‘Lord Limerick lives here, and has made some fine plantations and walks behind a very bad house which is in the street of the town: as walks with Elm hedges on each side, an artificial serpentine river, a Chinese bridge, a thatch’d open house supported by the bodies of firtrees, etc. and a fine kitchen garden with closets for fruit.’ At least some of those interventions indicate the influence of Wright.
Lord Limerick also owned land further north at Tollymore, County Down and in September 1746 he and Wright travelled there for a stay of eight days. There was an old house on the property but in 1740 a ‘New Deer Park’ had been created on an adjacent site with a small hunting lodge or summer house being built there. Its situation was exceptionally romantic, with the land dropping down to the Shimna river before rising up to the Mourne Mountains. One imagines it was this vista which stimulated both Wright and his patron and led to the erection of a series of other structures in the park.

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Here is Richard Pococke continuing his perambulations around Ireland: ‘I came over the hills to Briansford [now Bryansford], on the side of Tullamore park, which belongs to Lord Limerick; this park is a very fine situation, being divided into two parts by a rivlet which runs in a deep rocky bed covered with trees, and affords a most Romantic prospect, to this rivlet there is a gentle descent; on the other side the Park takes in for a mile the foot of the high mountains of Moran and particularly of the highest call’d Slieve Donard which is 1060 yards high from the surface of the sea to which it extends: the park is all fine wooden and cut into Vistas up the side of the steep hill; there is a handsome bridge over the rivlet, where the rocky cliffs on each side may be twenty feet deep, and so cover’d with trees that you can hardly see the water at the bottom in some places. Here just over the rivlet Lord Limerick has built a thatch’d open place to dine in, which is very Romantick, with a stove near to prepare the Entertainment: above on the North side of this He has begun to build a pretty lodge, two rooms of which are finished, designing to spend the Summer months here…’
The ‘thatch’d open place’ which Pococke deemed to be ‘very Romantick’ is no more (it was likely gone before the end of the 18th century), but many of the interventions made by Lord Limerick, and by his son the second Earl of Clanbrassill, remain at Tollymore. All show the abiding influence of Wright and although no material survives specifically linking him with any of them, their design (and their similarities to other such work in England which can be traced to him) allows one to assume such a connection. It is interesting that even structures in the parkland of a later date are in the same style as those put up in the period following the September 1746 visit to Tollymore; for example the Barbican Gate which is post-1777 (see top photograph). By this time the second Earl had come into his inheritance but as a young man he had benefitted from Wright’s teaching and thereby imbibed the latter’s ideas on garden design.

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The original lodge at Tollymore consisted of a two-storey, five bay house, the centre of which featured a three-sided bow. Single storey wings were added on either side and this is the building that appears in a 1787 engraving by Thomas Milton after John James Barralet. Following his father’s death in 1758 the second Earl of Clanbrassill enlarged the the house adding three single-storey extensions, each forty feet long, to create an internal courtyard. He also put up further edifices around the demesne, not least Clanbrassill Bridge dated 1780, which has two turrets with pinnacles and niches at each end, and the high-arched Foley’s Bridge of 1787. When he died in 1798 his estates passed to his sister Anne Hamilton, widow of the first Earl of Roden; she like her brother had been tutored when young by Wright and therefore brought the same understanding to Tollymore. In turn on her death in 1802 it all passed to her eldest son Robert Jocelyn, second Earl of Roden. The Rodens’ main residence had hitherto been Brockley Park, County Laois, a house designed in 1768 by the Sardinian architect Davis Ducart (and sadly demolished in 1944). However, the family preferred Tollymore and so the house here was greatly enlarged in the 1830s, although it remained possible to discern the original lodge (see photograph below).
The Rodens continued in ownership of Tollymore until the last century when the eighth Earl gradually disposed of the land, park and house, the buyer being the Northern Ireland Ministry of Agriculture. In the mid-1950s Tollymore was opened as the province’s first public forest park but by this date the house, having stood empty for some time, was demolished: today a car park occupies its site. The rest of the demesne has been maintained and certainly deserves to be visited in order to gain an insight into 18th century romantic sensibility.

Tollymore House

Tollymore has been the subject of a number of excellent studies as follows:
Tollymore: the Story of an Irish Demesne by the Earl of Roden (Ulster Architectural Heritage Series, 2005)
Tollymore Park: The Gothick Revival of Thomas Wright & Lord Limerick by Peter Rankin (The Follies Trust, 2010)
Thomas Wright and Viscount Limerick at Tollymore Park, County Down by Eileen Harris (in The Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, Volume XVI, 2014).

Embrace Simplicity

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One of the quadrants linking the main block to its pavilions at Strokestown Park, County Roscommon. This part of the building dates from the 1730s when Thomas Mahon commissioned architect Richard Castle to enlarge and modify an earlier house on the site. Castle undertook the project with exceptional skill by deploying a handful of familiar motifs, in this instance a pedimented doorframe below a recessed niche, both flanked by regular windows and oculi on their respective floors. The crispness of the cut limestone contrasting with the rendered surface of the walls enhances the overall impression of refined simplicity.

The Fair Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashford as It Was

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Next Wednesday, July 23rd, a sale takes place in Cong, County Mayo of items from Ashford Castle. Most of the lots appear to be surplus to the requirements of the place’s new owners but a few are survivors of the period when Ashford was owned by the Guinness family. Originally a 13th century de Burgo castle, in the 1670s Ashford passed into the ownership of the Browne family, remaining such until sold through the Encumbered Estates Court to Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness in 1852. He then left it to his eldest son Arthur Edward Guinness, created Lord Ardilaun in 1880. Between them père et fils greatly enlarged and improved both the old house and surrounding estate. It was never a full-time residence but primarily used during the shooting season: in January 1905 the Prince of Wales (later George V) spent a week there. Lord Ardilaun having no children, on his death in 1915 the estate reverted to the family trust which passed it on to the Hon. Ernest Guinness. He frequently joked that far too many people were employed at Ashford, ‘Every one of whom might fall over if you removed his (sweeping) brush.’ However, relations with staff gradually deteriorated to the point that the summer of 1938 they went on strike, looking for a wage increase of two shillings a week. Ernest Guinness was so exasperated by their behaviour that he left Ashford in his private plane and never returned. The following autumn the trust placed Ashford on the market and in spring 1939, shortly before the estate went to public auction, 22,000 acres were bought by the Irish State for £20,000. The castle and immediate 170 acres were leased by hotelier Noel Huggard; ever since Ashford Castle has operated as an hotel under a succession of managements, the latest taking over last year. Above is a page taken from a Guinness family photograph album showing a shoot on the estate eighty years ago.

Exactly as Intended

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From a letter written to Sir John Keane on July 30th 1913 comes this design for a new pedimented porch leading off the drawing room at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. The architect responsible, Page L Dickinson, came up with several proposals for this project which was intended to replace a 19th century wooden structure the style of which was unsympathetic to the main building. As he explains to his client, ‘The introduction of two columns inside the central piers reduces this opening to the same size as the others, & also makes more of a feature of the centre.’ Indeed it does, and so the design was accepted and executed just before the outbreak of the first World War, and the burning of Cappoquin ten years later. Thankfully the house was subsequently restored, and Dickinson’s addition remains intact.

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How It All Came Crashing Down

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‘It is extraordinary how women’s figures change according to the fashion of the times. Then, hers seemed to be absolutely perfect. She had that wonderful long neck, and a skin so delicate and transparent that, like Mary Queen of Scots, when she swallowed, you could almost see the passage of the wine through her throat. I have never seen such a skin or such flesh…Her face was lovely, with soft brown eyes, a delicately formed, slightly retroussé nose, and brilliant, pouting lips. It was before the days of make-up and her wonderful colour was her own. Alas! That colour told its own tragic story. It was the beauty of the consumptive.’
Thus Hermione, fifth Duchess of Leinster as described by her friend Daisy Fingall (whose memoirs, Seventy Years Young cannot be sufficiently recommended to anyone who has yet to discover them). Judged one of the great beauties of the late Victorian era, at the age of 19 she had married Gerald FitzGerald, then Marquess of Kildare. Although the couple had two sons, Maurice and Desmond – Hermione can be seen with them both above – the marriage was not happy: while living in Kilkea Castle, County Kildare she once wrote the couplet, ‘Kilkea Castle and Lord Kildare/Are more than any woman can bear.’
She then embarked on an affair with Hugo Charteris, Lord Elcho (later 11th Earl of Wemyss) the brother of another friend Evelyn, Viscountess de Vesci, and with him had a third son Edward. It was the misfortune of the FitzGeralds that following the early deaths of both the fifth Duke and Duchess of Leinster their eldest child should have suffered psychiatric problems and been institutionalised before he too died young, while the second son was killed in the First World War.
The next heir was Hermione’s third child, Lord Edward FitzGerald, a notorious spendthrift and wastrel who was barely 21 before being declared bankrupt for the first of several occasions. As is well-known, in 1917 he sold his birthright for £67,000 worth of debts and an annuity of £1,000: five years later he became the seventh Duke of Leinster. The outcome was, and has been ever since, catastrophic for the FitzGeralds and for their old estate at Carton, County Kildare. A photograph of how the saloon looked in the 1890s before any of this misfortune occurred can be seen below. The story is now told in Terence Dooley’s new book, The Decline and Fall of the Dukes of Leinster, 1872-1948 (Four Courts Press) which makes for a grim but gripping read. In recent months there has been extensive media coverage of several once-wealthy Irish plutocrats brought crashing down: Terence Dooley’s book demonstrates this is no new phenomenon.

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Waiting to be Woken

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Anyone who has read Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes will remember the author’s evocation of Les Sablonnières, ancient home of the de Galais family which has seen better days. It is here that the novel’s eponymous hero, having disappeared from school, comes across a magical costume party and falls in love as much with the place as with the girl he meets on that occasion. Thereafter both he and the narrator are driven by a desire to recapture a lost moment and as a result are repeatedly driven to return to Les Sablonnières.
Milltown Park, County Offaly is like an Irish version of Alain-Fournier’s fictional house. Hidden from sight on all nearby roads, unknown even by many of the local residents and only discovered at the end of a long, verdant drive, it seems to seep memories and to be haunted by the past. Replete with echoes and reverberations, it is a sleeping beauty of a building, deep in dreams of what once took place within its walls and waiting for someone to come along and stir it into life again.

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In a blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720 but the accompanying initials W.S. suggest this was added long after the house was finished, since at the time of its original construction the estate was owned by the Spunner family: they only became White-Spunners in the 19th century after the son of Benjamin White and Elizabeth Spunner changed his name from Thomas Spunner White to Thomas Spunner White-Spunner on inheriting Milltown. Behind and to the north of the house is a large model farm courtyard built in 1840 so perhaps the initials and date on the front of the property were added at the same time.
In fact, Milltown is only slightly later in origin. The lands on which it stands appear to have been in the ownership of the Spunners since the 1500s and the ruins of an earlier residence remain. By the 18th century, with circumstances in the country more settled than had previously been the case and the economy accordingly more buoyant, the Spunners must have decided to embark on erecting a more fashionable home for themselves.

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‘From time to time, the wind, laden with a mist that is almost rain, dampens our faces and brings us the faint sound of a piano which someone is playing in the closed house. At first is it like a trembling voice, far, far away, scarcely daring to express its happiness. It’s like the laughter of a little girl in her room who has gone to fetch all her toys and is displaying them to a friend. I am reminded, too, of the still timorous joy of a woman who has left to put on a lovely dress and returns to show it off without being sure of the effect it will have...This unknown tune is also a prayer, an entreaty to happiness not to be too cruel, like a greeting and a genuflection to happiness...’
From Le Grand Meaulnes

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In Maurice Craig’s wonderful (and wonderfully named) 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, although Milltown Park does not feature many of its architectural elements are discussed. So, for example, when considering the elevation of these buildings, he writes of the widespread use of a tripartite opening, commenting ‘I prefer this term rather than “Venetian window” because it covers a number of pseudo-Palladian features which, though inter-related, can be distinguished from one another. It should be borne in mind that a round-headed door flanked by side-lights [as found at Milltown Park] is first cousin to a “Venetian” window. Such a door occurs in Vanbrugh’s Seaton Delaval, where the sidelights are separated from the door by piers of walling...’
From grand Seaton Delaval in Northumberland to modest Milltown Park in Offaly in twenty-odd years is quite a journey, but the latter house shows how taste could travel and fashions be adopted by other architects such as Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (whose father, after all, was a first cousin of Vanbrugh). Note how the same tripartite design is used on both the ground floor (for the smart Gibbsian doorway) and that above but slightly bungled because, as indicated by the photograph below of the landing, the ceiling was too low to accommodate the full height of the central window. Thus its upper section is blind. Another indication of Milltown Park’s ‘country cousin’ status are the blunt gable-ends with oversized chimney stacks. The house shares characteristics with two others in neighbouring County Laois, Summergrove and Roundwood: all have five-bay limestone facades with a central breakfront featuring tripartite windows on the ground and first floor and a pediment above. They represent, as Maurice Craig notes, ‘the middle ground between farmhouse and mansion: a shade unsophisticated but with great charm.’

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The interior of Milltown Park displays the same mixture of sophistication and naïveté, a broad awareness of current trends without a full understanding of how best to implement them. The design of some rooms clearly received more attention than did others. The entrance hall with its lovely flagged floor concludes in a screen that might have been inspired by Brunelleschi. And the front section has a ceiling decorated with pretty rococo plasterwork, generic in style but no less charming for that.
This is the only room with such ornamentation, although the drawing room has a good marble chimney piece and the morning room a fine neo-classical cornice frieze. But it is the handsome sturdiness of Milltown Park that most appeals, embodied by the broad first floor landing with its wide oak boards and views over the surrounding parkland. This was never an especially grand house, inspired more by aspiration than pretension, and embellished only as and when funds permitted. Hence its endurance for almost three centuries. Now, for the first time since being constructed, it is to be sold: a potentially hazardous moment in its history. Milltown waits to be awoken from its current slumber but whoever undertakes this task should have the sensitivity not to despoil the house’s special character. The place is vulnerable and requires - and deserves - special care. Wanted: one country gentleman prepared to share a property with a host of memories and happy to permit the ghosts of its past wander free.

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Paper Thin

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

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

Weighing Up Your Visitors

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A page from the 1897/98 visitors’ book of Dunsandle, County Galway, one of a number of such items being sold today by auctioneer Oliver Usher in Kells, County Meath. Dunsandle itself is now a roofless ruin, although traces of its exquisite interior plasterwork somehow still remain (see Dun and Dusted, December 9th 2013). Therefore surviving remnants of life in the establishment, such as this book, are precious. Curiously visitors to the house had their weight and height taken on arrival: was this common procedure one wonders?

When Moore is Less

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Extracted from a letter written by George Henry Moore of Moore Hall, County Mayo to his mother Louisa (née Browne) on 6th May 1846:
‘My dearest Mother,
Corunna won the Chester Cup this day. We win the whole £17,000. This is in fact a little fortune. It will give me the means of being very useful to the poor this season. No tenant of mine shall want for plenty of everything this year, and though I shall expect work in return for hire, I shall take care that whatever work is done shall be for the exclusive benefit of the people themselves. I also wish to give a couple of hundred in mere charity to the poorest people about me or being on my estate, so as to make them more comfortable than they are; for instance, a cow to those who want one most, or something else to those who may have a cow, but want some other article of necessary comfort; indeed I will give £500 in this way. I am sure it will be well expended, and the horses will gallop all the faster with the blessing of the poor…’

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Moore Hall dates from 1792 and is believed to have been designed by the Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a gaunt ruin. The Moores were an English settler family originally members of the established church who converted to Roman Catholicism following the marriage of John Moore to Mary Lynch Athy of Galway. Their son George Moore, who likewise married an Irish Catholic, moved to Spain where through his mother’s connections with various Wild Geese families, he became successful and rich in the wine export business. In addition he manufactured iodine, a valuable commodity at the time, and shipped seaweed from Galway for its production, owning a fleet of vessels for this purpose.
Having made his fortune, George Moore then returned to Ireland and bought land to create an estate of some 12,500 acres. He commissioned a residence to be built on Muckloon Hill with wonderful views across Lough Carra below and the prospect of Ballinrobe’s spires in the far distance. Fronted in cut limestone, Moore Hall stands three storeys over sunken basement, the facade centred on a single-bay breakfront with tetrastyle Doric portico below the first floor Venetian window. A date stone indicates it was completed in 1795, three years before Ireland erupted in rebellion. Among those who took part was George Moore’s eldest son John who after being schooled at Douai had studied law in Paris and London had returned to Ireland where he joined the uprising. On August 31st 1798 the French general Jean Joseph Humbert issued a decree proclaiming John Moore President of the Government of the Province of Connacht. However within weeks the British authorities had crushed the rebellion and captured Moore who died the following year while en route to the east coast where he was due to be deported. George Moore, who had spent some £2,500 attempting to secure his heir’s release, had died just a month earlier.

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Moore Hall now passed into the hands of its builder’s second son, also called George Moore. A more studious character than his brother, he is known as an historian who wrote accounts of the English Revolution of 1688 (published in 1817) and, on his death, left behind the manuscript of the history of the French Revolution. He married Louisa Browne, a niece of the first Marquess of Sligo, and the couple had three sons, one of whom died at the age of 17 after a fall from his horse. The same fate would befall the youngest child, Augustus Moore when at 28 he was taking part in a race at Liverpool. He and the eldest son, another George, had set up a racing stable at Moore Hall and become notorious for their fearless recklessness. But this George Moore had an intelligent and sensitive character – while still a teenager he was publishing poetry – and following the death of his brother and the advent of famine in Ireland in the mid-1840s he turned his attention to Moore Hall and the welfare of its tenants. The letter quoted above shows that after his horse Corunna won the Chester Cup in May 1846 he used the proceeds to make sure no one on his land suffered hardship or deprivation. In 1847, having already participated in calling for an all-party convention to work for the betterment of Ireland, he was first elected to Parliament where he proved to be a deft orator (his background as a youthful poet came in handy) and an ardent advocate of the country’s rights: he spoke in favour of the Fenians and was an early supporter of the Tenant League, established to secure fair rents and fixity of tenure in the aftermath of the famine. But his philanthropy was George Moore’s undoing. In the spring of 1870 his Ballintubber tenants withheld their rents, judging he would not dare retaliate. Since Parliament was sitting at the time, he returned from London to settle the matter and four days later died as a result of a stroke.

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And so Moore Hall passed to the next, and final, generation, being inherited by another George Moore, one of the greatest prose stylists Ireland has produced, a decisive influence on James Joyce and many another Irish author since. Today his contribution to this country, as well as that of his forebears, is insufficiently appreciated, but during his long lifetime George Moore was recognised as a great writer, as well as a serial controversialist. If he is no longer as celebrated as was once the case, then Moore must accept at least some responsibility for this state of affairs since he was given to creating and maintaining feuds with those who by rights should have been his allies. In his wildly entertaining, if not always credible, three-volume memoir Hail and Farewell he explained, ‘It is difficult for me to believe any good of myself. Within the oftentimes bombastic and truculent appearance that I present to the world, trembles a heart shy as a wren in the hedgerow or a mouse along the wainscotting.’ If no match for his father as a horseman, he inherited the latter’s bravado and audaciousness, and as a result created far too many enemies all of whom relished an opportunity to denigrate him. W.B. Yeats called Moore ‘a man carved out of a turnip’, while Yeats’ father considered Moore ‘an elderly blackguard.’ Middleton Murry described him as ‘a yelping terrier’ and Susan Mitchell ‘an ugly old soul.’ Yet they all had to acknowledge his genius. ‘When it comes to writing,’ declared Ford Madox Ford, yet another opponent, ‘George Moore was a wolf – lean, silent, infinitely sweet and solitary.’ The monument erected to him on Castle Island on Lough Carra rightly proclaims:
‘George Moore
Born Moore Hall 1852 died 1933 London
He deserted his family and friends
For his Art
But because he was faithful to his Art
His family and Friends
Reclaimed his ashes for Ireland.’

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In keeping with his character, George Moore always had an ambivalent relationship with Moore Hall. He wrote about it often, both in fiction and fact, but spent relatively little of his adult life in the place. For much of the time the estate was run by his younger brother Maurice with whom, like everyone else, he inevitably quarrelled. Unlike most Irish landowners of the era, however, he understood their time was drawing to a close, that the age of the big house was coming to an close and that the class into which he had been born would soon be no more. As he wrote to his brother in 1909, ‘The property won’t last out even my lifetime, that is to say if I live a long while and there will be nothing I’m afraid for your children…You always put on the philosophic air when I speak of the probable future and say “the future is hidden from us.” But the future of landlords isn’t in the least hidden from us.’
Nor was it, although the end was gratuitously harsh. On February 1st 1923 a local regiment of IRA men arrived at Moore Hall in the middle of the night, ordered the steward to hand over keys, moved bales of straw into the house, poured fuel over these and then set the place alight. It was a callous and philistine act which ignored the patriotic history of the Moores and lost the west of Ireland one of its finest Georgian residences. Many years later Benedict Kiely wrote in the Irish Times that he knew someone who had been present when Moore Hall was burnt and who could list various houses in the area containing looted furniture and other items. Envy and spite seem to have been the arsonists’ primary, if not sole, motivation.
Ever since the building has stood empty, the surrounding land today owned by Coillte, a state-sponsored forestry company. With all the sensitivity one might expect from such an organisation, it has planted trees all around the house so that the view down to Lough Carra – the reason Moore Hall was built on this spot – cannot even be glimpsed. There was much talk some few years ago of restoring the building but no more and the final traces of its interior decoration, not least the delicate neo-classical plasterwork, are about to be lost. So this is how Ireland honours her own: more in the breach than in the observance.

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