Sense and Insensibility

Almost big enough to serve as a punchbowl, this exquisitely simple piece of Irish silver dates from 1778 and was made in Dublin by Matthew West, a member of the family which continued operating as the country’s oldest jewellers until its Grafton Street premises closed two years ago. Due to be auctioned by Adam’s on Tuesday, the bowl is one of a number of lots coming from Carrigglas Manor, County Longford.
Like a great many Irish houses, the Carrigglas estate has had what can best be described as a chequered history. Originally part of the estates of the Bishop of Ardagh, the lands were acquired by Trinity College, Dublin before passing into the hands of the Newcomen family who operated one of 18th century Ireland’s most successful banks; designed in 1781 by Thomas Ivory, its former premises still stands on Lord Edward Street, Dublin, albeit enlarged in size. Clearly the Newcomens appreciated fine architecture since they commissioned a range of new buildings on their Carrigglas estate from the greatest architect of the period, James Gandon, responsible for both the Custom House and the Four Courts in Dublin. Unfortunately, of Gandon’s designs only the main entrance gates and the double stable yard were completed before the Newcomen Bank went into decline; on its ignominious collapse in 1825, the institution’s head, Sir Thomas Gleadowe-Newcomen, 2nd Viscount Newcomen, shot himself in his office.

Following this catastrophe, Carrigglas was acquired by a successful Irish barrister called Thomas Lefroy. Today Lefroy is best remembered as the possible object of Jane Austen’s amorous attentions and, arising from this, as inspiration for the character of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; in the rather fanciful 2007 film Becoming Jane, Lefroy was played by James McAvoy. He certainly knew and saw a great deal of Austen in 1796, being mentioned several times in her letters and on one occasion was described by her as ‘a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man’ with whom she admitted to having flirted. However, the following year he became engaged to Mary Paul, sister of a college friend, marrying her on completion of his legal studies in 1799. Ultimately becoming Lord Chief Justice of Ireland in 1852, some fifteen years earlier Lefroy had requested architect Daniel Robertson to design a new house for him at Carrigglas in the Tudoresque idiom. This remained in the hands of successive generations of the family, finally being inherited in the mid-1970s by Jeffry and Tessa Lefroy. Like many other people in their position, they struggled with managing the place and trying to make it generate sufficient income. To this end, they opened the house to day visitors and paying guests. But by the start of the present millennium it was clear the battle for survival was never going to be won and in 2005 the Lefroys sold Carrigglas to a property company which trumpeted its intentions to preserve the estate. Writing in The Times in March that year, Tessa noted that many old Irish houses had been lost over the previous decades but ‘thankfully, Carrigglas’ future is secure: it is going to be turned into a country house hotel development with new homes in the grounds. The planning laws are now so strict that the house and yards must be restored to their former glory.’
Would that this had been the case. Far from taking care of the main house, stable yards and so forth, the only thing Carrigglas’ new owners, Thomas Kearns Developments, did was to strip large stretches of the parkland of trees and start throwing up rows of houses notable for their lack of sympathy with the surroundings. And before this work could be completed, the company ran into financial trouble; by autumn 2007 sub-contractors on the site had withdrawn their labour. The following spring the Bank of Ireland, which had advanced €35 million, called in accountants to assess the project’s viability. It was glaringly obvious this scheme had no future, especially after Thomas Kearns Developments went into liquidation and Carrigglas went into a limbo from which it may never emerge. Over the intervening four years, as these photographs make plain, the place has been allowed to suffer neglect, almost the only attention it receives coming from vandals.

The National Inventory of Architectural Heritage classifies the complex of inter-related structures at Carrigglas as representing ‘one of the most important demesnes in north Leinster.’ This designation did not stop the authorities of Longford County Council from granting permission for the estate’s irrevocable despoilment with that addition of over 300 residential units, a hotel, spa and inevitable golf course. Nor, it would appear, have the same authorities shown much concern for the preservation of what remains, not least the important group of Gandon buildings which are without peer anywhere else in the country. The silver bowl being auctioned on Tuesday will no doubt find a new owner and be much cherished. Regrettably the same good fortune cannot be hoped for Carrigglas. To paraphrase Jane Austen, It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an estate in the possession of a receiver, must be in want of a saviour.

With thanks to Brendan Harte and Mary Morrissey for their photographs.

*Insufficiently dispirited by what you have read and seen here? Watch John O’Neill’s short film showing the present wretched condition of Carrigglas:

Addendum: the bowl sold for €4,200.00 at Tuesday’s sale. What price Carrigglas?

10 comments on “Sense and Insensibility

  1. Ecpakenham says:

    Robert, how right you are – we too took some pictures in the summer and were most shocked..But you should put this in THE TIMES!

  2. John O'Neill says:

    Great piece of writing and thanks for including a link to my Youtube video. I agree with the above chap and get The Times on board

  3. Excellent piece Robert, albeit seeing the ugly modern houses on such a lovely estate is deeply depressing. Even if they were finished and cared for, I don’t think I’d care much for them, but the current situation is obviously deplorable. Don’t wish to pour further misery on an already dismal situation but I suspect the only remedy is their future demolition. But with funds as they are now we should not hold our breath. Is the old, main house at least structurally secure, roof etc?

    • Dear Arran,
      I’m afraid the poor old house is almost beyond salvation (altho’ of course no house is ever irredeemably lost until demolished). Have a look at the youtube video I mention and that gives you an idea of its condition. And yes, certainly the only solution to that dreadful sub-standard and now heavily vandalised housing estate is to clear it away entirely. The other worry is the Gandon stable block which remains so far intact – but for how much longer?

  4. Anne Wilmot says:

    Having only recently discovered through family research that Carriglas was owned by my great, great, great uncle (Thomas)I find it so sad that I will never be able to see it as it was. His brother Benjamin Langlois was my great, great, great grandfather.

    • Thank you for your comment. It is too sad what has befallen the place but alas also all too famiar in our country which so frequently fails to recognise the worth (as opposed to the monetary value) of our architectural heritage. Please spread the word and that way Carriglas has the best chance of surviving and delighting future generations. And thank you for your interest.

  5. Martin Peyton says:

    An honest no nonsense piece of writing. I agree wholeheartedly with all sentiments expressed.

  6. Emma Williams says:

    A great article and film on the decline of a fine old house. What are the new owners doing? I presume they are waiting for it to get to a stage whereby it is condemned and they can demolish it, although I don’t know how this could be allowed to happen with a listed structure. No-one seems to be taking responsibility for it. Such a shame.

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