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