As some readers may be aware, last week the latest recipient of the Historic Houses of Ireland – O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize was announced. The prize is an initiative first devised by the Irish Aesthete in 2020 to acknowledge the importance of our privately-owned heritage properties and to recognise the invaluable work by their owners. For this reason, the prize is hosted by Historic Houses of Ireland, a charity established in 2008 to promote the immediate and long-term future of the country’s privately owned historic properties. All HHI members are owners of such buildings and they understand better than anyone the sector’s particular problems, especially over recent years. Worth €5,000 and adjudicated by a small group of assessors, the prize is generously sponsored by the O’Flynn Group, which has shown itself keenly aware of the importance of providing a viable future for historic buildings, as can be seen in the company’s own redevelopment of the early 19th century former barracks site in Ballincollig, County Cork. The third recipient of the prize is Castlecor, County Longford.
At first glance, Castlecor appears to be a typical small Georgian residence, its otherwise plain three-bay, two storey facade relieved by a central pedimented tripartite doorcase. But venture to either side, or even inside the building, and its design proves to be much more complicated. So too does its history, not least because nobody can be sure when work first began on the site. In the 18th century, the land on which Castlecor stands belonged to the Harman (later King Harman) family, the first of whom was Nicholas Harman who settled in County Carlow in the first quarter of the 17th century. His great-grandson, Wentworth Harman married as his second wife Frances Sheppard, heiress to a large estate in County Longford, with their main residence at Newcastle, just a few miles to the east of Castlecor. This explains how the Harmans came to be based in the Midlands, but does not help to settle on a date when Castlecor was built. The oldest part of the building is often thought to have been commissioned by one of Wentworth and Frances Sheppard’s sons, the Rev. Cutts Harman, a Church of Ireland clergyman who in 1759 was appointed Dean of Waterford and six years later inherited the main Newcastle estate following his childless brother’s death. As we shall see, it is open to question whether the Rev Harman was responsible for the work here, but in any case, following his own death with a direct heir, the Longford property passed to a nephew, Laurence Harman, later Lord Oxmantown and eventually first Earl of Rosse. Around 1820 the second Earl of Rosse sold Castlecor to one Captain Thomas Hussey who is believed to have added an extension to one side of the existing property so as to provide more rooms. However, in 1855 the house and 268 acres of land were offered for sale by the Encumbered Estates Court, and after being briefly owned by David Dunlop Urquhart of Fair Hill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the property was acquired by Thomas Bond, member of another Longford family. In 1913 his granddaughter Emily Bond and her husband Captain Charles James Clerk employed Dublin architect Adam Millar to enlarge the building further, and it was he who designed the present facade. During the War of Independence, the Clerks moved to England and sold first the contents and then Castlecor itself, the house being bought by a local family. In the mid-1940s they in turn sold it on to an American women’s religious order who used it as a Rosary Convent for Novitiates. Sold again in 1973, Castlecor stood empty for four years until it became a nursing home, serving this function some 30 years before being left vacant again. Finally, in 2009 the present owners bought the place and, as funds become available, have gradually been restoring Castlecor.
While the 19th and 20th century additions to Castlecor are of a high standard – not least Millar’s first-floor octagonal gallery that provides the entrance hall with ample light – they rather pall by comparison the building in its original form. Rightly described by Casey and Rowan in 1993 as ‘perhaps the most unusual building of the C18 anywhere in Ireland,’, the property was not intended to be a permanent residence but instead a hunting lodge, of two storeys with the lower floor containing kitchens and service rooms for the single Great Room above. And what a great room it proves to be: a vast octagonal space, 42 feet across with round-headed windows on every second side and single rooms (measuring 20 by 14 feet) opening off the other four. To heat such a substantial area, the centre of the room is taken up by a four-sided fireplace, each of them directly facing one of the windows, the light from which is reflected in mirrors set above the chimneypieces. The structure is framed in each corner by a towering Corinthian column, these supporting a richly ornamented entablature, each having at its centre a mask of Apollo. A single octagonal column then climbs to the coved ceiling. The rest of the walls are covered in 19th century neo-Egyptian stencil work, thought to have been inspired by illustrations in Owen Jones’s Decoration, published in 1856. As mentioned, quite when this extraordinary building was constructed – and by whom – remains open to conjecture, as does its source of inspiration since it is quite unlike anything else in the country. Albeit on a much smaller scale, the building shares some characteristics with Stupinigi, the hunting palace outside Turin designed by Juvarra in the 1720s for the Duke of Savoy, and Maurice Craig also noted similarities with the hunting lodge at Clemenswerth in Lower Saxony, designed a decade later by Johann Conrad Schlaun for Prince Clemens August, Elector-Archbishop of Cologne. Closer to home, as Casey and Rowan note, in 1739 the English architect and pattern-book publisher William Halfpenny, then resident in Ireland, was commissioned to produce designs for a new Bishop’s Palace and Cathedral in Waterford: although none of these was used, some of the plans for the latter building are not unlike what can be seen at Castlecor. Perhaps it was Halfpenny who came up with the idea of the house’s unusual form, but if so it was constructed much earlier than 1765 when the Rev. Cutts Harman inherited the Newcastle estate. We may never know, but at least we can be confident that thanks to the enterprise of Castlecor’s present owners, the future of this wonderful building is secure, making them deserved recipients of the Historic Houses of Ireland – O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize.
Text here…Historic Houses of Ireland – O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize.