Kilbeggan, County Westmeath is barely five miles west of Tyrellspass, but the two places couldn’t be more different in character. Both have a crescent but that in Kilbeggan occupies one portion of a bleak traffic roundabout and has suffered badly from neglect and mistreatment. The building dates from c.1830 when constructed in the then-popular Tudor-Gothic style as an hotel, indicating the prosperity of the period and the amount of traffic then passing through the village. The gables on the left-hand portion have been removed, as have the cut-limestone hooded doorcases, replaced by a brutish cement-rendered opening that makes nonsense of the composition. Alas, elsewhere things don’t get much better, with many buildings standing empty and neglected. Typical in this respect is the former Bank of Ireland, dating from c.1890, which closed early in the present century and presents a forlorn face on Market Square.
In Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath the Crescent looks as though it could provide the setting for a novel by the likes of Mrs Gaskell. This part of the village was mostly laid out during the second decade of the 19th century, thanks to the endeavours of Jane, second Countess of Belvedere, whose elderly husband died in 1814, and to whom she erected a monument inside the church of St Sinian (although just a year later she married again). Around the open green are a number of domestic residences as well as a former single storey schoolhouse and a two-storey former courthouse. All are well maintained, although some of the fenestration shows evidence of the insidious uPVC virus (when will local authorities take steps to halt the spread of this blight across our architectural heritage?). On the outskirts of the village is a cluster of buildings constructed in the early 1840s as a girl’s orphanage thanks to a bequest left by the countess on her death the previous decade. In the Tudor-Gothic style, these were restored by the county council some years ago and now serve as housing scheme.
‘Garrets-town, in this barony, is the seat of Francis Kearny, esq. situated on a rising ground, commanding a prospect of the ocean, on both sides the isthmus of the Old head of Kinsale, and a good part of the neighbouring country, which is here diversified into agreeable hills, and pleasant vales, well cultivated. The house, with the contiguous offices, form a handsome area; the pediments, coignes, doors and window-frames are well built of rustic work, and hewn stone; a considerable part of the ground on which they stand was levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock. Towards the south is a good orchard, with kitchen and pleasure gardens; in which last is a handsome amphitheatre, the ground being naturally formed for that purpose. Under a high terrace walk, that, to the east, affords a good prospect, is a deep glen, the sides covered with wood, and along the bottom a rivulet falls in several pleasant cascades; beyond this are rising grounds, sheltering the plantation from S. and S.W. winds. On the W. is a large park, well walled, and the whole seat is environed with good plantations of timber trees; among which, the French elm and silver fir are observed to stand the severity of the nipping sea winds, better than any others. On the east, is a fine level tract, now converted into meadows and pasture grounds, which a few years ago, was a deep, red, shaking morass, much frequented, in winter, by wild fowl, but impassable for man or beast. On the west of the house, there were lately made a fine basin and decoy, wild duck being very numerous in this part of the country.’
From The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork by Charles Smith (1750)
Garrettstown has a rather complex history of ownership. According to Charles Smith, the place derives its name from the Core family who once lived in the area ‘many of whom were successively named Garret.’ Originally the land here was part of the territory owned by the de Courcys, Barons Kingsale, but was sold off towards the end of the 16th century and in 1618 some 979 acres here and a further 424 acres at nearby Kilmore were bought by one James Kearney, a merchant in Cork city. The Kearneys were originally from the Kilmallock area of County Limerick but had moved south following the devastation wrought on that part of the country by the two Desmond Rebellions of 1569–1573 and 1579–1583. James Kearney was the great-grandfather of the Francis Kearney mentioned by Smith as being the owner of Garrettstown. Hitherto the family had remained Roman Catholic (and remained in possession of their property), but Francis Kearney, although married to a Catholic heiress Mary Roche, conformed to the Established Church. He also seems to have been a Protestant Discoverer, that is someone who, under the Penal legislation of the time, could file a bill in the Court of Chancery against a Catholic with a legally deficient lease, and claim the lease for his own benefit. On the other hand, there were instances – and given Kearney’s many Catholic connections this may have been one of them – when the claim was in fact, a ‘collusive discovery’. Here a bogus bill of discovery would be obtained by the discoverer, the document seemingly granting the property in question to a Protestant but in fact leaving it with the original Catholic owner. Whatever was the case, through marriage and other acquisitions Francis Kearney managed to enlarge his estate from less than 2,000 to almost 8,200 acres. On his death in 1776, the now-substantial Garrettstown estate was inherited by James Kearney who served as a local M.P. but never married. As a result, when he in turn died in 1812, Garrettsown passed to a cousin, Thomas Rochfort who was Roman Catholic. He and his wife had married relatively late and as a result, once again, there was no direct heir, the estate in due course being left to Thomas Rochfort’s brother-in-law Thomas Cuthbert, on the condition that he took the additional surname of Kearney. Perhaps because Cuthbert was a member of the Church of Ireland, unlike his late brother-in-law, the will was disputed in court in 1832 but eventually he was able to come into his inheritance. There are more changes of ownership in the 19th century, again between family relations, after 1886 the estate being jointly owned by cousins, Abraham Thomas Forster (whose own family had previously lived at Ballymaloe, elsewhere in the county) and Matthew Franks. When Forster died five years later, he left his share to a brother, Colonel Francis Rowland Forster, Master of the Horse at Dublin Castle (and, incidentally, a constant companion of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria during her visits to Ireland in 1879/80). In 1903 Colonel Franks sold his share of the Garrettstown estate to Matthew Franks who in turn took advantage of the Wyndham Act to dispose of most of the land other than the demesne. The Franks family remained in possession of what remained until the middle of the last century; in 1952 the Land Commission acquired house and demesne, selling on the latter to the owners of a nearby hotel who subsequently unroofed the buildings. The property was sold again to the present owners who for many years have operated a caravan park on the premises.
What remains of Garrettstown is rather tantalising. The site, which sits high above the sea was, as Smith wrote ‘levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock’ in order, it is commonly believed, to construct there a fine Palladian house. Both the wings were constructed but then funds ran out and as a result the central block was never built. Instead, one of the wings served as stables (which was probably always the intention) while the other was steadily enlarged to the rear in order to form a decent residence. This notion certainly makes sense, since the two wings have identical facades facing each other across an open space between them and, at least on one side, the suggestion of what might once have been a colonnade linking it with the unbuilt main house. The date often provided for this development is some time during the first two decades of the 18th century, but it hardly makes sense that a family owning relatively little land would embark on such an ambitious project. More likely it was Francis Kearney, following his marriage to a Roche heiress and his acquisition of many thousands more acres, who in the late 1730s/early 1740s began to build a fine new house for himself – before recognising that its realisation was beyond his means. We know little of what the place looked like even when semi-finished. Samuel Lewis describes Garrettstown in 1837 as being ‘a handsome house in beautiful grounds, laid out in terraces, gardens and shrubberies, with extensive plantations.’ As mentioned, the two wings share the same façade design, of two storeys and five bays, the centre three bays breaking forward and pedimented; tooled limestone is used for the quoins, window surrounds and fine Gibbsian doorcases, hinting at how ambitious Mr Kearney’s house would have been, had his plans come to fruition. The residential wing was perhaps no more than one room deep, but additions to the rear mean its side elevation now runs to seven bays; an adjacent courtyard held further accommodation for staff and other services, meaning the establishment would have been decently substantial. As can be seen almost nothing other than exposed walls remains of the interior. The stable block has been restored and re-roofed, and is now used as office space. There were plans to undertake similar work on the other wing, but these have for the moment put on hold. One must hope they come to pass in due course.
The Lanesborough Arms Hotel opened in Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh 200 years ago, in 1820 and is testament to the prosperity of the area at the time. No longer, however. Of five bays and three storeys with a free-standing Tuscan porch, it closed for business some time ago: a fire believed to have been started deliberately caused major damage in 2016. Today the building is in poor shape, and reflects the decline seen in many small towns across the island of Ireland even before the start of the present pandemic.
Lovely even in the rain: the facade of Castlegar, County Galway. This elegant villa was designed in the early 1800s by Richard Morrison for Ross Mahon, later created first baronet. The south front with its two-storey bow was originally conceived as entrance to the building, but this was later moved to the north side. Originally the tripartite windows on either side of the bow were set within segmental arches, as was the two-bay breakfront of the east side. However, at the end of the 19th century, alterations and additions were made to the house (not least a large extension to the west) and the whole given cement render.
Around 11pm on June 4th 1974, John Hely-Hutchinson, 7th Earl of Donoughmore and his wife Dorothy returned to their home, Knocklofty, County Tipperary having been out to dinner. As the couple got out of the car, a number of men ran towards them waving guns. They seized the elderly pair and when Lord Donoughmore, then aged 71, resisted, he was struck on the head a number of times. He and his wife were then forced into a car and driven away their eyes covered so that they could not see where they were being taken. The kidnap made international headlines, not least because there appeared to be no motive for the crime. In fact, the Donoughmores had been picked almost at random, their captors being members of a maverick IRA unit who sought to influence official policy on an on-going hunger strike in British jails by five IRA prisoners, including the Price sisters. But at the time this was unknown and the family thought that perhaps ransom money was sought. Later the couple explained that once they reached their place of captivity, they had been well treated and well fed. Senior Stewart of the Irish Turf Club, Lord Donoughmore was always keen to hear the racing results, and was provided with newspaper sports pages, the details of which he was evidently happy to share with his captors. ‘We did not talk about politics with them,’ he said, ‘but they know a lot more about racing now.’ Meanwhile, nationwide efforts were underway to find the couple and protests held in the local town of Clonmel against the kidnapping. Those responsible now found themselves in bad odour with senior IRA figures because a ntionwide police and army search had caused considerable problems for the organisation. Then, happily ongoing mediation led to the hunger-strike being called off and after four days, the Donoughmores were driven to Dublin and in the early hours of the morning released in the middle of Phoenix Park.
The Hely-Hutchinsons can be traced back to the Ó hÉalaighthe or O’Healy clan in County Cork, based around Donoughmore which lies some 12 miles south-west of Mallow. Like so many other families, they lost much of their territory and power during the 17th century, However, by the early 18th century one Francis Hely, described in contemporary reports as a gentleman, was living in Gortroe, to the west of Mallow. In 1724 he and his wife Prudence had a son, John Hely, who after studying at Trinity College Dublin was called to the Bar and rose to become one of the most notable lawyers and politicians of the period, also serving as Provost of his Alma Mater for many years. In 1751 John Hely married Christiana Nickson of Wicklow, great-niece and heiress of one Richard Hutchinson whose own forebear had been granted by the English crown some 1,200 acres of land around Knocklofty in County Tipperary: the married couple duly changed their name to Hely-Hutchinson. Despite his brilliant career, John Hely-Hutchinson declined a peerage but instead his wife was created Baroness Donoughmore, a recollection of her husband’s family background. Their eldest son Richard duly inherited the title on his mother’s death, before in turn being created Viscount Donoughmore and then in 1800 Earl of Donoughmore. He commissioned the construction of the present house at Knocklofty, the entrance front of which had a central block of seven bays and three storeys flanked by gable-ended two-storey wings that come forward to create a forecourt. At some point, a third inner bay was added to these wings while in the early 19th century along the front of the house a single storey corridor was added, with a three-bay domed projection at its centre. Other extensions were made to the building later in the same century, resulting in a very substantial house, along with several adjacent service wings. Inside, curiously, the largest reception space is not the drawing room but, at the centre of the house overlooking the gardens, a double-height library, a wrought-iron gallery running around three sides. Some of this work was presumably undertaken by the second Earl who inherited title and estate from his unmarried elder brother; rising to the rank of General the former had enjoyed a distinguished military career, not least in Egypt during the French Wars, and as a result had been granted his own title as Baron Hutchinson of Alexandria and Knocklofty. But he too died unmarried and so title and estate passed to a nephew John Hely-Hutchinson, from whom subsequent generations were descended.
Seven years after being kidnapped, the seventh Lord Donoughmore died in 1981 and soon afterwards Knocklofty was placed on the market. In 1984 the house and 105 acres were bought by a couple for £750,000 and sections of it developed as apartments in a time-share scheme, then a new concept in Ireland, while the rest was turned into an hotel. A nine-hole golf course was installed in the grounds, a swimming pool in the building and other facilities like tennis and squash courts created. Initially the business seemed to go well but within a decade it had failed badly. Protracted court proceedings with creditors ensued and in October 1991 the property was placed on the market with an asking price of £1.5 million. Failing to secure a buyer, Knocklofty went into receivership and in 1993 was again advertised for sale, this time with an expected price of £500-600,000. The complexity of dealing with the established timeshare commitments made by the previous owners seems to have deterred many potential purchasers. In any case, again there were no takers, so at the end of the year the place was once more offered on the market, this time with a disclosed reserve of £360,000, less than half of what had been paid for it a decade earlier, and less than a quarter of the asking price in 1991. Finally it sold to a local businessman, Denis English, who had previously bought another historic house in the same area, Marlfield (currently on the market) which he divided into self-contained apartments.
After buying the place, Denis English announced his intentions to convert Knocklofty into a series of apartments, as he had already done at Marlfield. However, the place continued to operate as before as an hotel until the advent of an economic recession at the end of the last decade. In 2013 the house was once more offered for sale, this time on 80 acres and for a price of €3 million. Two years later, that figure appears to have dropped to €1.9 million. Matters then grew more complicated when court proceedings were taken by US private equity group Cerberus Capital Management for possession of the property; it transpired that in 2014 the company had acquired a loan portfolio from Ulster Bank, which included a number of loans made to Knocklofty’s owner. He in turn disputed the matter and further legal arguments ensued until, in May 2017, it was announced that the High Court had granted Cerberus the right to take control of the property. All should have been resolved then but, alas, that does not look to have been the end of the matter. Although there has been no further reports on the matter, it looks as though dispute between relevant parties continues. Meantime, the looser in this, Knocklofty, has stood empty and falling into ever-greater disrepair. As these photographs demonstrate, unless circumstances are resolved soon, this has all the makings of a Jarndyce v Jarndyce scenario, with an equally unsatisfactory outcome.
An overlooked feature of Collon, County Louth: this limestone water fountain on the town’s main street. As the inscription says, it was a gift of the late Reverend Alexander Bradford. For many years he had served as curate of the parish, the income of which was enjoyed by the Rev Daniel Beaufort (see
https://theirishaesthete.com/2016/11/12/a-man-of-taste-and-literature/). Beaufort died in 1821 and Bradford was finally able to become Collon’s Rector. Alas, he wasn’t able to enjoy the position for long as he also died the following year, so this fountain was his most lasting legacy. Its late Gothic form reflects that of the adjacent church, designed by Beaufort in the style of King’s College, Cambridge. Presumably the water originally came out of the mouth of a brass lion, but as the street level changed, an alternative outlet was inserted, one made by the Kennedy Patent Water Valve Company (founded in 1863). Today the lion looks distinctly perturbed to find himself at risk of being swalloped up by tarmacadam.
Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.
The former Castle Strange in County Roscommon derived its name from a family who held this land in the late Middle Ages, called L’Estrange. There seems some confusion about whether they were of Norman origin, or whether this was an Anglicised version of an old Irish name. In Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) the author proposes that the L’Estranges in County Westmeath had originally been called Mac Conchoigcriche, meaning border hound. Was this also true of the family of the same name in Roscommon? In any case, by the second half of the 17th century the L’Estranges, like so many other old families, had been driven out of their territory, the land in this instance passing into the hands of one Thomas Mitchell, a Scottish soldier sent to Ireland by General Monck in 1659 and seven years appointed by then-Lord Lieutenant James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, to serve as Cornet to a troop of horse under the command of Captain Nicholas Mahon. Mitchell subsequently settled in this part of the country and married, producing a large family, generations of which would live at Castle Strange. In the 19th century, successive members served in the British army, John Wray Mitchell rising to the rank of Major-General, while his son Edward became a Colonel. But further information about them, and their home, is not easy to find.
The first two photographs shown here show what remains of Castle Strange today: little other than sections of the two gable ends with portions of their chimney stacks. Seemingly built in the 1830s (after the estate was inherited General Mitchell’s father, another Edward), there appears to be nothing on record about its appearance when still intact and occupied, nor how it came to be in its present state (should anyone have such material, do please share). Meanwhile, the nearby yard to the east is in much better condition, in that at least the outer walls and sections of the roof remain in place. This very large, U-shaped block is constructed of limestone ashlar and, older images indicate, features a carved coat of arms above the central carriage arch, now impossible to see due to the thickness of ivy covering the building. The scale of this development indicates the affluence of the Mitchell family at the time, as do further ranges of farm buildings to one side. The other building of architectural interest is the now-derelict east lodge, again thought to date from the early 1830s and an exercise in romantic Gothic, with arched windows on either side of a central two-bay canted projection with a door on one side. Like so much else on this site, information about the building is scarce, making it another instance where a place’s history has been almost entirely obliterated. All very strange.
The façade of Oak Park, County Carlow, designed by William Vitruvius Morrison in the early 1830s for Colonel Henry Bruen. The building incorporates an earlier house and was originally a grand villa, of two storeys and five bays, one on either side of the giant tetrastyle portico. The latter, featuring four Ionic columns with wreaths in the frieze above, is almost identical to that at Ballyfin, County Laois and can also be seen at Barons Court, County Tyrone and Mount Stewart, County Down, on all of which buildings the Morrisons, father and son, worked. Oak Park was greatly extended in the 1870s and also extensively restored after a fire in 1902, but some of the original interior decoration survives, notably in the entrance hall and the former library. The last of the Bruen family to live in the house died in 1954; some time earlier his wife had run away with an impoverished Montenegran prince, Milo Petrovic-Njegos. After various legal disputes and changes of ownership had occurred, Oak Park and several hundred acres was acquired by the Irish State; today it serves as the headquarters of Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority.