Deerpark Castle, County Galway might be considered the Weight Watchers of Irish tower houses: has all the vertical substance of a regular one, but only half the width. Erected on a natural outcrop of rock, the building is believed to date from the 16th century when this part of the country would have been under the control of the de Burgos, or Burkes a branch of which later became Earls (and eventually Marquesses) of Clanricarde. There are protruding stones on one side of the structure, suggesting an intention – probably not realised – to enlarge it, which may explain the tower’s unusual slimness. Its present name presumably derives from a later date, perhaps the 17th or 18th century, when the surrounding land was enclosed to serve as a deer park for the Burkes; its conversion into use as a dovecote most likely also occurred at this time.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.
The preface to the first volume of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records of Eighteenth-Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration in Dublin (published 1909) opens as follows: ‘It requires no intimate knowledge of Dublin to perceive that it is not a provincial town, but a fading capital. The great public buildings of the eighteenth century which are its glory make that fact evident.’ The text goes on to note how ‘The gradual disuse of the older residential quarters, as the city gradually shifted and expanded during the last hundred years, has converted most of the fine mansions, once occupied by a wealthy aristocracy, into warehouses and public institutions; while in other cases, whole streets have fallen into decay, and houses set up with decorated walls and ceilings, fine mantelpieces, mahogany doors and carved wood-work, are now occupied as tenement houses by the poor. It followed, naturally enough, that all ornaments which could be utilised elsewhere, notably the old mantelpieces, were removed and sold, and now adorn rich houses far away.’ It was precisely an awareness of these melancholy facts that led to the society’s establishment, and to the production of a series of volumes over five years. The first four of these were exclusively devoted to Dublin (the fifth looked at a number of important Irish country houses), each accompanied by relevant texts that looked not just at the architecture and decoration of the buildings, but also at subjects such as ‘Society in Georgian Dublin’ (Vol.II) and ‘The Furnishing of Georgian Houses in Dublin’ (Vol.IV). As a field of study, art history was then barely in its infancy, so one cannot expect too much academic insight. On the other hand, the compilers of these volumes were much closer to the period under consideration that we are today: some of them would have known people who were actually alive when Georgian Dublin was still in its heyday: the society’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, was born in 1839. But more important that the texts are the abundant photographs and drawings with which each volume is filled. So often, they show buildings since lost and therefore represent an invaluable record, in many instances the only visual source existing today. For that, we owe the original Irish Georgian Society an enormous debt of gratitude.
On Saturday, February 22nd 1908, page 7 of the Irish Times carried a variety of international and local news. Readers were informed, for example, that ‘Thirty-five terrorists were arrested yesterday in various parts of St. Petersburg, many in the open streets; some showed fight, firing revolvers and wounding their captors. A few carried bombs.’ Meanwhile, in Vienna, it was announced that festivities planned that spring to mark the diamond jubilee of the Emperor Franz-Joseph had been cancelled, ‘owing to the state of his Majesty’s health.’ In France, the trial was underway of a Sub-Lieutenant Charles B Ullmo for selling naval secrets to Germany (despite his defence counsel’s pleas for clemency on the grounds that the young man ‘was a victim of the opium habit, and that he had fallen under the influence of an unscrupulous woman, for whom he had squandered his fortune and ruined his life’, Ullmo would be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), in San Francisco a private bank collapsed and a Japanese steamer was wrecked off the coast of Alaska. One column, however, was dedicated to reporting on the inaugural meeting held the previous evening on the premises of the Royal Irish Academy of a new organisation. This would come to be called the Irish Georgian Society.
30 Jervis Street, Dublin (since demolished)
The Irish Georgian Society’s inaugural meeting was chaired by the new organisation’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, who then held the chair in Ancient History at Trinity College Dublin, becoming the institution’s Provost in 1914. According to the Irish Times, the ever-busy Countess of Aberdeen, wife of Ireland’s then-Lord Lieutenant, although on her way to another meeting, ‘showed her interest in the proceedings by paying a short visit, remaining while the Chairman was explaining the objects for which the society was to be formed.’ These were, in brief, to preserve as far as possible by means of photographs or drawings, a record of the decorative work inside houses built during what Mahaffy described as Dublin’s golden epoch. Warming to his theme, the chairman imagined a stranger visiting the city and quickly recognising its exceptional character, being that of a former capital. The stranger would note that although houses around Dublin were designed by different architects, built by different men, in different but on the whole harmonious styles, and carried out mainly or almost altogether by Irish genius and Irish workmen. If the same stranger then ventured inside these houses, ‘he would find a beauty of decoration and dignity of style which would strike him as one of the most remarkable things in the Europe of that day.’
Speaking at the same meeting, the National Gallery of Ireland’s Registrar, Walter Strickland made many of the same points, noting how many historic buildings in the centre of Dublin were already being destroyed, but not before the contents of their interiors had been stripped out. Chimneypieces, he commented, ‘were sold to grace the drawingrooms of London’, stucco was hacked away, iron- and wood-work replaced or allowed to fall into decay. If the members of the society could not prevent this wanton destruction, he argued, ‘they could at least record and preserve pictorially the beauties of their old houses’, and this would be the organisation’s purpose: to provide testimony for the future of ‘the ceilings, the carved woodwork, the staircase, the beautiful doorways and lamp standards, and in doing this they would record work not only beautiful, but work executed by Dublin craftsmen.’
Professor Mahaffy advised those attending the meeting that the Irish Georgian Society intended to exist only for a short period, three or perhaps five years (in the event, it was the latter). However, at the end of that time the organisation planned to leave a lasting legacy which would ‘restore to the architects and craftsmen of Dublin their true credit,’ which had hitherto been obscured by the widespread belief that this work had been undertaken by foreigners ‘whilst our people were looking on helplessly.’ He recalled a recent visit to his house of a young cabinetmaker who admired a piece of furniture in one of the rooms with tears in his eyes. When asked what was the matter, the man replied, ‘I am thinking of the poor fellow that made this. He was a great workman. He is dead and gone now; his name is forgotten, and none of us will ever know who he was.’ Professor Mahaffy hoped that the newly-formed Irish Georgian Society would prevent the work of the 18th century being forgotten, ‘and would preserve a worthy record of it for succeeding generations.’
Gable-fronted houses in Sweeny’s Lane, Dublin (since demolished)
Since travel restrictions are once more in place, and look likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, over the coming weeks this site will intermittently look at endeavours which since the early 20th century have sought to curb widespread desire in Ireland to obliterate evidence of the country’s exceptional architectural heritage.
All photographs taken from Volume 1 of the Irish Georgian Society Records (published 1909)
On a rise to the north-west of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath can be seen one of the former estate’s most distinctive features: a mid-18th century dovecote: like other buildings on the site, its design has traditionally been attributed to Richard Castle and, once again, the building features a decidedly eccentric use of classical motifs. On top of a square base rises an octagonal tower, each with a blind window. The tower is in turn topped by a spire concluding in a delicate weather vane. Near the summit of the spire are a series of square openings with landing ledges: the only overt evidence of the dovecote’s function.
Holding a great vaulted chamber, the square base was originally open to the elements: about two-thirds up each side a key-stoned arch sprung from the projecting string-course. However, at some later date, most of the openings were filled with rubble stone, and smaller windows inserted on three sides: a large fireplace was created on the fourth. Presumably the intention was to convert the space into a summer or tea house. Alas, like everything else at Waterstown, the building’s present condition is perilous.
To the north-east of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath stand the remains of what was once a very substantial walled garden, running to at least four acres. Certainly one of the largest extant examples of this horticultural form dating from the mid-18th century – although now in a very poor condition – the garden consists of a series of four ascending terraces, the outer walls constructed of rubble limestone lined internally of brick, the latter material also used for the terrace walls. Some of these have curved, or corrugated, sections (thereby offering additional shelter to tender plants) while others have infilled arches. That same device also features in the main entrance to the site, which takes the form of a brick-faced triumphal arch (with Diocletian window inserted into the pediment) flanked by single-storey pavilions. If Waterstown was designed, as is generally the consensus, by Richard Castle then this walled garden must be attributed to him also; the entrance certainly displays just the right amount of eccentrically-used architectural motifs. Today the site is partially used as a farmyard but otherwise stands empty.
In 1825 Eyre Evans Crowe, a young Irish writer now largely forgotten, published his second novel, To-day in Ireland in which he described a country house given the fictional name of Plunketstown. The building is occupied by one Captain Plunket, whose father, the reader is informed, ‘like many of the grandsires, but few of the sires of the present generation, had been a man of taste and travel. The present mansion was of his building, and almost every tree on the estate was of his planting…Plunketstown Hill, which rose behind the mansion and screened it commodiously from a vast extent of bog which stretched for miles behind, was covered with one of those groves of many colours which in autumn wore the appearance of a hill-harlequin tricked out for Carnival. At its foot stood the mansion, at some distance from the lake, of which nevertheless it commanded a view, and to the brink of which its ample lawn extended. It was a solid square building of dark granite, richly ornamented, of almost perpendicular roof, and chimneys of enormous size. It exactly resembled one of the extreme wings, or pavillons, as they are called, of the Tuileries, the height of roof and chimney not perhaps so exaggerated; and had Plunketstown been ornamented with the jalousies of the Pavillon de Flore, the garret windows peeping out of the slates, the filthy funnel holes, and the conductors, the model had been complete. A huge flight of steps, descending like a waterfall, from a central point in the front towards the lawn, was an indispensable appendix; whilst a deep fosse, running quite around the house, attempted to attain the security of the ancient castle, without infringing upon the commodiousness of the modern mansion.’ The inspiration for Plunketstown, certainly for its location if not quite for its appearance, is said to have been Waterstown, County Westmeath.
Waterstown was built for the Handcock family, who had settled in Ireland in the first half of the 17th century and were granted large areas of land in Westmeath. In due course the main branch of the Handcocks became Barons Castlemaine, who lived at Moydrum Castle elsewhere in the county (see An Unforgettable Fire « The Irish Aesthete). But this particular line of the family came to own an estate on which stood a late 15th century castle built by the Dillons. This building most likely occupied the site of Waterstown since, as did the fictional Plunketstown, it offered superlative views across many miles of the surrounding countryside. Commissioned by Gustavus Handcock, the present house – or what remains of it – is believed to have been built in the 1740s and designed by Richard Castle. It was a very substantial property, of seven bays and three stories over basement, around which ran (again as at Plunketstown) a deep moat. Brick-built, Waterstown was faced, not with granite but limestone, and featured a hipped roof with two tall chimneystacks. On the south-facing garden front, it can be seen that the windows had rusticated surrounds, while a now-lost flight of steps led to a central Gibbsian doorcase. The house was originally two rooms deep, but the main front has long since disappeared, making the building unnaturally tall and thin, and exposing the remains of lugged plaster panelling and corner chimneys on the interior walls. Sections of a former kitchen yard survive on the east side (the main stable yard is located a short distance west of the house).
In 1725 Gustavus Handcock, later responsible for building Waterstown, married Elizabeth Temple, only child and heiress of the Reverend Robert Temple of nearby Mount Temple, also in County Westmeath. In accordance with her father’s will, the family duly assumed the additional surname of Temple, the couple’s grandson who inherited the estate in 1758 being known as Gustavus Robert Handcock Temple, thereby remembering both grandfathers. The next generation, Robert Handcock Temple, had only one child, a daughter called Isabella. In 1824 she married as his second wife the Hon William George Harris, who five years later would succeed his father as second Baron Harris of Seringapatam and Mysore, in the East Indies, and of Belmont, co. Kent (the first Lord Harris was a soldier who achieved particular success in India where he was involved in the defeat of Tipu Sultan following the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799). The eldest of their children, the Hon Reginal Harris, duly inherited the Waterstown estate, once more taking the additional surname of Temple. Dying unmarried in 1900, he in turn left the estate to his brother Arthur; following the latter’s death six years later, the property passed to his son, Arthur Reginald Harris-Temple, who would be the last of the family to live there. By this date, like many other Irish estates, the future of Waterstown had already begun to look uncertain, not least because expenditure exceeded income. In the early years of the 1920s the Harris-Temples did not have to fear hostility in the area (unlike their cousins at Moydrum Castle, which was destroyed by the IRA in 1921) but it seems likely that an insecure future inspired the decision in 1923 to sell Waterstown, both house and remaining lands, to Ireland’s Land Commission. Five years later the local county council considered buying the building for use as a sanatorium, but these plans never came to fruition and in late 1928 Waterstown was sold and soon after stripped of all fittings, the lead and slates removed from the roof and just a shell left. Since then, it has gradually fallen into the present state of ruin.
Even before the year draws to a welcome close, all language used to describe 2020 has become hopelessly cliched, so let us merely say that its passing will not be much mourned. A lot of what has appeared on this site over the past twelve months has also not been especially cheering, since so much of Ireland’s architectural heritage remains imperilled, vulnerable to the twin risks of neglect and abuse. However, there have been a few happy stories to tell, so today here are some of them again, as a reminder that the past year has not been entirely a period of darkness and gloom: occasional shafts of sunlight were to be seen. Fingers crossed, and glasses raised later this week, that there will be many more such shafts during 2021.
The Irish Aesthete will be taking a break for the rest of the week, returning here refreshed and ready for 2021 next Monday, January 4th. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all friends and followers. Stay safe, stay well.