In April 1801 Sir Henry Browne Hayes, a widower approaching fifty, was brought to trial in Cork for abducting a Quaker heiress Mary Pike four years earlier and forcing her to participate in a spurious marriage. Given that the facts of the case were common knowledge and that Hayes had voluntarily surrendered to the authorities, it did not take long for a guilty verdict to be reached and for the felon to be sentenced to death. On the recommendation of Ireland’s then-Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Hardwicke, this was commuted to transportation for life to Botany Bay. Hayes’ passage was less grim than that of the average Irish convict, since he was provided with his own cabin and allowed to bring a manservant. A year after arriving in Australia, he purchased a property immediately north-east of Sydney and there built himself a house called Vaucluse which still stands and is today managed by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
After sundry adventures (he seems to have been incapable of leading a quiet life), including founding Australia’s first Freemason lodge and being sent to work in a coal mine for backing Governor William Bligh during a period of dispute in the colony, Hayes eventually secured a pardon and was allowed to return to Ireland. Even this journey was fraught, since the vessel on which he travelled, the Isabella, was shipwrecked off the Falkland Islands. Among the other passengers on board was Joseph Holt, a County Wicklow man who had been one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion and who, like Sir Henry, had been given transportation, and subsequent pardon, rather than the customary execution. On their arrival in Ireland it was ironically noted the crimes of both men involved pikes: Hayes had abducted one and Holt had distributed many.
Back in Cork, Sir Henry settled into his family residence where he died at the age of 70 twenty years later in 1832.* That house, Vernon Mount, featured last week in the Irish Times where it was reported that the relevant local authority, Cork County Council, had taken steps to secure the building’s future. There are few houses in the region more deserving of preservation, and yet, despite repeated calls for intervention, Vernon Mount has suffered shameful neglect in recent decades.
Located to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley, Vernon Mount is highly unusual in design, a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side. For a long time it was thought the house dated from c.1784 and had been built by Hayes’ father, Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. However, an advertisement in the Cork Courier of December 10th, 1794 announced ‘a new house Vernon Mount to be let, with from 160 acres of meadows, lawns, shruberries etc’ with the house described as being ’finished in a superb style, with painted ceilings, elegant chimney pieces, grates.’
If the place was only then deemed new, the supposition is that it had been designed by Abraham Hargrave (1755-1808), a locally-based architect who worked during this period on a number of projects in Cork City and County. Evidently the house was not let by Hayes, since he brought Mary Pike there after her abduction. Incidentally, Vernon Mount’s name is a salute to George Washington and his own residence Mount Vernon in Virginia; a number of Irish house owners paid similar tributes to the American War of Independence as a means of showing their political sympathies.
There is a further connection between Vernon Mount and the United States: the artist responsible for the house’s remarkable painted interiors, Nathaniel Grogan the elder (1740-1807) spent a number of years on the other side of the Atlantic before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicts Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work are a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs.
Additional examples of Grogan’s handiwork exist on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the whole lit by a large arched window. On the oval upper landing are eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors painted with tromp l’oeil niches ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors lead to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.
It should be evident from this description that Vernon Mount is a house of enormous architectural importance, to be treasured and protected. But, as already mentioned, of late this has not been the case. Occupied as a family residence until the middle of the last century Vernon Mount and its surrounding parkland were bought in the 1950s by the Cork and Munster Motorcycle Club, which developed a motor race track around the house. However, the latter was well-maintained until the whole place was acquired in the 1990s by a consortium of developers led by San Diego-based IT entrepreneur Jonathon Moss and his colleague in Cork Olaf Maxwell. This consortium applied to redevelop the house and surrounding grounds as an hotel, but when the proposal was refused by Cork County Council (which described the proposal as ‘a gross over development of the site’ that would ‘be seriously detrimental to the setting, scale and character of a listed building’), the owners settled down to do precisely nothing.
Shamefully Cork County Council chose to mimic this inactivity and as a result Vernon Mount’s condition was permitted to deteriorate. The Irish Georgian Society repeatedly called for intervention but to no avail, and in 2008 the organisation arranged for the building to be placed on the World Monuments Fund List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Still the local authority failed to act, even though two years earlier at a council meeting it had been agreed that if something were not done soon the building would be lost forever.
It appears that local residents groups, keen to have the entire area designated a public park and amenity, have taken to lobbying the county council; finally last month it used powers available under the country’s existing planning acts to carry out essential repairs to the roof of Vernon Mount. Of course this is excellent news, but the fact remains that the local authority could have availed of the same powers to take action sooner; that it failed to do so is a disgrace. One of the unanswered questions remains the condition of the interior with its unique Grogan paintings; for a long time it has long been impossible to persuade the owners to allow regular access. Australia cherishes Vaucluse and the United States Mount Vernon. In Ireland, on the other hand, there will be more scenarios like that at Vernon Mount unless and until the statutory bodies charged with responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the state’s architectural heritage actually do their job. This is a shabby tale, from which neither the consortium nor the county council emerges with credit.
*Poor Miss Pike, carried off in the night by Hayes, never recovered from her ordeal and around the same time as her abductor died, so did she – in a lunatic asylum.