Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata*

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It was Mariga Guinness who first told me many years ago of a wondrous Palladian house in the north-west of Ireland, directly behind which had been built an immense factory. The tale sounded quite improbable – and Mariga was on occasion inclined to exaggeration for effect – but indeed such was, and remains, the case: step outside Hazelwood, County Sligo and you are confronted by the sprawling spectacle of a now-abandoned industrial complex.
Situated on a peninsula barely two miles beyond Sligo town, Hazelwood occupies, or at least ought to occupy, an enchanting location. The entrance front looks north across a long plain of pasture towards the mass of that geological curiosity Ben Bulben, while to the rear the ground descended through a series of terraces and thereafter an opening in the ancient woodland to close on the shores of Lough Gill. It is easy to see why the Williamite soldier Lieutenant-General Owen Wynne, whose family’s Welsh origins are indicated by his first name, should have chosen this spot on which to build a new residence following the purchase of some 14,500 acres in the area in 1722. Nine years later he employed the architect Richard Castle, then much in demand, to design the house which, despite dreadful mistreatment, has somehow survived to this day.

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Even in its present degraded condition, the house has a magisterial authority. Hazelwood is typical of the Palladian style fashionable in Ireland at the time of its construction. The ashlar-fronted central block, of three storeys over basement, is joined by arcaded quadrants to two storey wings. Above the north front’s pedimented entrance (inset with a carving of the family’s coat of arms) there is a splendid glazed aedicule with Ionic columns and pilasters and flanked by round-headed niches, while the south front boldly proposes a Venetian door below a Venetian window. The building’s sense of significance is increased by both entrances being accessed by sweeping flights of steps.
The interiors must have been similarly superlative, since even after many years of neglect enough of their decoration remains to indicate the original appearance. The main entrance hall has recessed arches on its walls above which hang plasterwork swags, and a deep dentilled cornice. A central doorway leads into the south-facing library which contains similar ornamentation and from here one passes into a succession of other reception rooms. Upstairs is equally splendid: a massive staircase hall leads, via a deep coved archway, into the first floor landing the ceiling of which is open to the galleried second storey, the whole series of spaces once lit by a glazed octagon. Most of the rooms have lost their original chimneypieces, replaced by others of a later fashion since the Wynnes were not averse to making alterations, some less happy than others; a two-storey, three-bay bedroom extension on the south-west corner of the building dating from c.1870 for example fundamentally disrupts Castle’s meticulously planned symmetry. Still, whatever about the Wynne family’s modifications to their property, they were nothing to what would follow once Hazelwood passed into the hands of later owners.

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His son having predeceased him, in 1737 Lt Gen. Wynne left Hazelwood to a nephew also called Owen; indeed with one exception successive heads of the family bore the same first name. Owning not just the surrounding farmland but also much of Sligo town, the Wynnes were a dominant presence in the region. Still, if they were sometimes motivated by self-interest, successive generations were wise enough to know that keeping town and countryside economically vibrant would be to their advantage. In his 1802 statistical survey of Sligo, Dr James McParlan wrote of Hazelwood, ‘the more the soil of this demesne is unfriendly to agriculture and ungrateful, the more it reflects honour on the masterly exertions of Mr Wynne, who as a farmer stands unrivalled in this and perhaps in most counties of Ireland.’ The Wynnes were never absentee landlords, nor did they seek titles or honours and during the Great Famine in the 1840s they lowered their tenants’ rents. The last male Wynne to live at Hazelwood, Owen VI, died in 1910 leaving four daughters, the eldest of which had married a Perceval of nearby Temple House. She and her husband lived in Hazelwood until 1923 when they left the house, thus ending a family link going back two centuries.
Having stood empty for seven years, Hazelwood was acquired by a retired tea planter who carried out essential repairs before selling house and estate to two government bodies, the Forestry Department and the Land Commission. For those unfamiliar with its work, the latter organisation was charged with responsibility for breaking up estates throughout the country and dividing land into small (and as it subsequently proved economically unviable) plots for farmers. The Irish people have in the past shown themselves to be at best indifferent to and at worst disdainful of the country’s architectural heritage. But this is as nothing to how it was treated by the Land Commission which displayed an almost visceral hatred of fine buildings. So it was with Hazelwood. In 1946, after serving for some time as a military barracks, the house and immediate surrounds were offered for sale by the commission with the specific condition that the buyer must demolish the buildings, remove all materials and level the site. Somehow, days before the auction was due to be held, this stipulation was withdrawn and Hazelwood sold for use as a psychiatric hospital; it was shortly afterwards that the original staircase was taken out of the house.

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Worse was to come. In 1969 an Italian company called Snia which produced nylon yarn bought Hazelwood and built a factory for 500 employees. It would have been perfectly feasible for the business to have erected these premises on a site out of view of the old house and screened by trees, thus preserving the Arcadian parkland created by the Wynnes. Indeed one might have thought the relevant planning authorities in Sligo County Council would have insisted this be the case. But instead the factory, surrounded by an expanse of tarmac, went up just a couple of hundred yards to the rear of Hazelwood, thereby destroying the gardens and blocking the view of Lough Gill. In 1983 the business closed down and four years later the factory was sold to a South Korean company which produced video tapes; not surprisingly, given changes in digital technology, in 2005 it too went out of business.
The following year Hazelwood was sold to Foresthaze Developments, a consortium of predominantly local businessmen. In 2007 they applied for permission to build, amongst other structures, 158 detached houses and 54 apartments in four blocks (in their defence, they also intended to sweep away the factory). This application was refused by the local authority, belatedly waking up to an awareness of its responsibilities with regard to Sligo’s heritage. On the other hand the County Council, while since insisting the owners act to ensure Hazelwood’s roof be kept watertight, has not come up with any feasible proposal or practical help for the building’s future. In the meantime the members of Foresthaze Developments have become mired in litigation with each other; funds which might be spent on restoring the house are going instead on legal fees. A local group of hard-working enthusiasts (http://hazelwoodheritagesociety.ie) continues to campaign for the building’s preservation.
This really is a shabby tale in which state hostility and local authority apathy have conspired to ensure the worst possible outcome. Hazelwood is one of Ireland’s most important early 18th century houses and occupies an important place in the nation’s architectural pantheon. Given what has been allowed to happen over the past half-century, it is truly astonishing the main structure still stands. As a report in the Buildings of Ireland survey for Sligo observes, ‘In spite of abject neglect and inappropriate alteration, it is testimony to the quality of the building that it has survived relatively intact.’ But we should not take that survival for granted. Hazelwood’s condition has steadily deteriorated over recent harsh winters and unless serious remedial work takes place soon it will be lost forever, a further blot on Ireland’s already shameful record in this area.

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*For non-opera aficionados, the opening words of the eponymous heroine’s last act aria in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

23 comments on “Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata*

  1. A depressing story but very interesting read – thanks for highlighting it. Interior shots seem to indicate there is still lots to save.

    Regarding Castle himself, I guess this was one of his earlier Irish projects? To my (very uninformed) eye, the front looks a little stark, with just one window either side on the upper floors. Later work, for example Russborough, doesn’t look as high, but it has five bays and seems softer somehow.

    Thanks for this post and others, really enjoy your website.
    M

    • Michael,
      Thank you as always for your support, which is much appreciated.
      Yes, for the present the house’s interiors are – relatively – intact, altho’ the main stairs were pulled out in the ’50s. But one cannot take any part of the building’s survival for granted.
      And yes, stylistically it is more solid and ‘masculine’ than other Castle designs, but actually when you are there the scale is human and in no way overwhelming.
      I return the compliment about your own work for Enniskerry,
      R

  2. columnist says:

    I wrote a comment on this post previously, but somehow the marriage between Blogger and WordPress is not always a happy one. I did enjoy reading of this once rather fine Palladian building. Unfortunately, like so many in UK that have completely disintegrated, would it not be better for the “authorities” to concentrate on a few? Please excuse my ignorance in these matters. Perhaps that is what happens in Ireland, and it’s all well managed by some authority like the National Trust or English Heritage. But, judging by your postings, that is perhaps being a bit fanciful. Unfortunately money is tight for the “luxury” of history.

    • Alas, if only we had such organisations as the National Trust or English Heritage. In Ireland we have only a few, very stretched campaigning groups like the Irish Georgian Society with which I am involved. We do our best but it is not easy without any official support…

      • Mary Heffernan says:

        Dear Robert
        I am a fan of your website since I came across your very thoughtful tribute to Kevin a few weeks ago. Your love of our architectural inhertiance is palpable from every photo taken and words written. Doneraile Court is seeing much better days at the moment with the beautiful topiary gardens now open to visitors, the tearooms open and work going on at the House by OPW.
        The local Doneraile group working together with OPW to create a vibrant demesne is bearing fruit.
        Would be wonderful if such a model could be adopted for Hazelwood. Mary H

      • Dear Mary,
        Many thanks for your comments, which are high praise indeed.
        Of course I am so pleased that Doneraile Court is now receiving attention, although I cannot but note that the OPW’s engagement does seem to have arisen as a result of local campaigning and that the organisation did little to look after the building for many years after it had been handed over by the Irish Georgian Society (which had lavished a lot of time and money on the property). However, the main thing is that, yes, at last the prospect for Doneraile is looking better and I hope to visit it in the not-too-distant future (the last time I was there, more than a decade ago, was to investigate the life of that once-popular but now forgotten author Canon Sheehan who was the local parish priest).
        And perhaps something similar to Doneraile might occur not just at Hazelwood but also Kenmare House, County Kerry which has also been languishing of late?
        Thanks again for your interest and look forward to further discussion on imaginative uses in the future for our inheritance from the past…

      • Charles Marsteller says:

        Perhaps a suitable tax for preservation can be deployed, ie.a hotel tax which is what we have in San Francisco (at 16%) for the first 28 days of residency. This deployed for Ireland could raise a considerable amount.

      • Thank you for your comment and for making contact. I’m not quite sure what you mean by this? It is certainly true that a tax could raise funds, but I doubt they would be deployed in the cause of architectural heritage which receives far less official support in Ireland than it does in other countries (for example, in the UK the National Lottery regularly gives substantial grants to historic buildings for restoration. Regrettably that does not happen here). We have some way yet to go…

  3. Michelle Walker Kelly says:

    As a only recent ‘like’ on your facebook page, i have read your site with interest and dismay, on some occasions, with the total lack of foresight and disregard to our heritage for future generations of local councils.

    I have always felt it is their responsibility to look forward not backward in making planning decisions and looking after old buildings, graveyards and street layout, for our children’s children.
    I also think that every council should have a 30 year plan, which they cannot deiviate from, (transfer funding etc) in the upkeep, maintenance and future recognition of threatened buildings.

    Their decisions to allow the building of multiudes of hourse and apartments on old sites and knocking down the old house which that site belonged to, beggers belief…our legacy will be of glass fronted, boring blocks of brick and glass., no flair, no imgination, no taste…

    We were left with a fantastic array of buildings, georgian facades, beautifully laid out squares and rows of the most fantastic looking premises imaginable.
    Thank god their are people around who still maintain and actively engage in looking after, recognised and unrecognised buildings. They absolutley deserve the hightest praise

    Keep up the good work in high lighting these buildings.
    Regards
    Michelle W. Kelly

    • Thanks for your kind comments. It is always terrific to find other people who are equally engaged by our architectural heritage and the importance of its preservation. Do continue to be supportive: are you a member of the Irish Georgian Society, as we are always looking for supporters to help with our many endeavours. In any case, thank you again and best wishes.

  4. Rosa Maria Rios-Rey says:

    It is a shame that the lack of vision and respect for history and art destroy the heritage of the peoples. When are humans going to accept that money and profit are not the motor of life.

  5. Hi Robert, You and your readers may be interested to know that Foresthaze, the consortium behind plans to develop Hazelwood, is now in receivership and the future of the house is, as a result, still uncertain. Hazelwood Heritage Society is actively lobbying for the ‘gifting’ of both house and grounds to a community trust so that it may be conserved and in time developed as a cultural, tourism and educational amenity for the region. Please see our Facebook campaign page: http://www.facebook.com/HazelwoodHeritageSociety.
    Compliments on your site.
    Best regards,
    Michael Kirby
    HHS

    • Thank you for yours. Yes, I am aware of your organisation and of the present state of play with Hazelwood and its ongoing precarious condition. I hope to be in your part of the world in the new year and if so would try to see the house again. In the meantime, I would encourage everyone to take an interest in the preservation of this important building in Sligo.

      • Michael Kirby says:

        Robert,
        Should you find you way here to Sligo, please give the Society a shout and we will happily meet with you at Hazelwood to tell you about our campaign. You can reach me at 0879973558/michael@meehantully.com

  6. Ann Hudson says:

    I am a descendant of the Wynnes of Hazelwood and also as a graduate in the history of art and architecture. I was delighted to visit the house in September as part of the Wynne ‘Gathering’ weekend arranged by the Hazelwood Heritage Society, the Sligo-based group who are working so hard to save the house. I had only seen the outside before, and was very impressed by the high quality of the interior decoration, particularly the wood carving, and the amount that survives in spite of the serious damage caused by neglect, weather and alterations by recent owners. We enjoyed a sit-down lunch in one of the main downstairs rooms of the house, which although grand has a pleasant domestic feel. Properly restored, it could be a great tourist attraction for the Sligo area, and also a focus for local people.

    • Thank you for getting in touch. I am delighted you were so impressed with Hazelwood’s merits, but unfortunately as you may know the previous owners have had severe financial troubles and the house is once more vulnerable: the Hazelwood Heritage Society is campaigning to see what can be done and is in need of support. I hope to be in that part of the world in the coming months and will report back with an update when I have done so.

  7. Heckety says:

    Just came across your blog and of course have to begin with anything about Sligo…I think the lack of foresight regarding preservation of historical buildings was pretty universal in ’70s Ireland. And yes, even at the time they were building Snia many people mourned the proximity of the factory to the house as well as the destruction of gardens (some walled, I think) which could have been saved. One thing which Snia did as regards the House was to spend rather a fortune on sympathetic restoration and repairs, in some ways they are to be thanked for the fact that it is in as good repair as it is, esp. the plasterwork. They used it as conference and offices and it was very much admired by all visitors (as it jolly well ought to be!). When I was a teenager we lived in one wing for a while with the whole estate to roam, but at that stage the House was mostly standing empty.

    • Thanks for your comment and that most interesting information. The real damage to the house’s interior (removal of main staircase and so forth) took place I believe while it was being used as a hospital. The factory owners maintained the property pretty well, not least because as you note they used it for office space. In recent years the whole site has stood empty so house, factory and everything else has suffered accordingly, with the damp causing havoc. Oh dear, if only the local authority had been more pro-active about the whole matter…

  8. BISH Editor says:

    Hazelwood House has now been sold, asking €0.7m with 81-acres, possibly to become a brewery – http://www.sligotoday.ie/details.php?id=34081

  9. melcoo says:

    As the previous commenter stated, it was sold in early 2015 to a company called Lough Gill company, which plan on opening a distillery and visitor centre and restoring the house. Another house connected to the Wynnes estate, Ardaghowen house (formally known as Ellenville) located on the outskirts of Sligo town, it was a Dowager house built in the 1890’s for one of the Wynne’s, it has been derelict for a number of years, I believe it has sold in the last few months, so hopefully it can be restored.

  10. Joanna K F Spencer says:

    I also am a distant relative of the Wynne family – Hannah Wynne was a 4th great grandmother. So sad to see these beautiful houses fall into ruin.I hope that the new owners have done something to preserve a part of Ireland’s heritage.

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