On August 29th last, the Irish Times reported that the portico of a small 18th century lodge in County Kilkenny had collapsed. Not, one might reasonably think, a matter of great import, certainly not as momentous as the disintegration of other buildings reported by the Irish Aesthete over the past year. But this is to ignore the architectural significance of the structure in question, and what its neglect over the past decade says about our failure to care for the built heritage.
The temple or columnar lodge stands within the grounds of Belline, an estate not far from Piltown. In the second half of the 18th century Belline was occupied by Peter Walsh (d. 1819), whose family appear to have been agents for the Ponsonbys, Earls of Bessborough whose Irish seat Bessborough House was in the same part of the country. Walsh may well have been a tenant of the Ponsonbys; it is known that Lady Caroline Lamb, daughter of the third Lord Bessborough, stayed at Belline with her husband William (the future Lord Melbourne and future Prime Minister at the time of Queen Victoria’s accession) in September 1812 in the aftermath of her highly-publicised affair with Lord Byron.
Whatever Peter Walsh’s precise status, he was regarded in Ireland as an improving landholder, much given to agricultural improvements and to bettering the circumstances of less-fortunate residents in the region. Of particular relevance to the subject under consideration here is the fact that he was also an ardent antiquarian, commissioning and collecting architectural drawings of Ireland’s ancient monuments, and keen to preserve the relics of our history, some of which have since passed into national collections. Both during his lifetime and after his death Walsh was held in high regard; James Norris Brewer in his Beauties of Ireland (1825) declared ‘we are well convinced that every reader, to whom he was known, will join in the warmth of our admiration and the sincerity of our regret; so general was the esteem created by his unassuming virtues!’
Dating from around 1770, Belline House was built by Peter Walsh who then went on to construct a number of other splendid edifices in the surrounding grounds, the majority of which survive to the present day. These included a detached gallery, known as the ‘Drawing School’ since according to Brewer, it ‘was constituted as a sort of academy for students by the active liberality of the late Mr Walsh…several children of the peasantry in this neighbourhood have lately evinced a considerable degree of genius for drawing. Such as were of greatest promise, Mr. Walsh took under his immediate protection, and supported in the pursuit of the art to which they aspired.’ Then there was ‘a most admirable pattern for a farm house; it is an octagon of two stories, inclosing a yard in the centre; below is a dairy, a residence for the dairy-man, cow-house, stable, and other offices, above is a loft for corn, extended over the whole building.’ And in addition there is a pair of circular pavilions behind Belline House, each three storeys high, the top floors serving as pigeon houses, and a pair of octagonal stone gate lodges (one still standing) at the southern entrance to the demesne.
Finally we come to the smallest but perhaps most remarkable of Peter Walsh’s buildings: the temple lodge. Comprising portico, front room and two rear chambers, its precise date of construction and purpose are unclear; standing in the midst of the estate and not beside an entrance it was unlikely to have been a gate lodge but might have been intended as a summer pavilion or model dairy. But what is most important is that Belline’s temple lodge has been judged the earliest known example in Britain and Ireland of the 18th century ‘rustic hut’ inspired by theories on the origins of man-made structures expounded first in 1753 by the French Jesuit and philosopher Marc-Antoine Laugier in his Essai sur l’architecture (translated into English in 1755) and then by Sir William Chambers in A Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture (1759). In fact it has sometimes been proposed that the Belline lodge was designed by Chambers since it shares similarities with a drawing he made in 1759 for just such a building. The identity of the architect responsible may never be known but we can be confident that the Belline lodge is an important expression of the 18th century’s interest in exploring the past, and that its composition reflects the ideas proposed by Laugier and Chambers. Hence the building is intentionally ‘primitive’ incorporating tree trunks bound with ropework on every side and a pedimented portico to the front below the gabled roof that extends beyond the walls to end in stone blocks.
By the mid-19th century Belline had reverted to the Bessboroughs and remained in their ownership until 1934 after which the estate changed hands a number of times until being bought ten years ago for €3 million by businessman James Coleman. Managing director of a company called Suirway Forklifts based in Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary Mr Coleman has in the past declared himself a passionate enthusiast of motor rallying and indeed his business has sponsored a number of events for this sport. On the other hand, he seems less keen to support and sustain the national heritage, since over the past decade Belline’s temple lodge has fallen into such dilapidation that, as was reported by the Irish Times less than a fortnight ago, the building’s portico has now collapsed.
It is inconceivable that the lodge’s deteriorating condition was unknown to its owner: there have been two reports on the building and its importance, one compiled by architect John Redmill in 2005, the other by chartered surveyor Frank Keohane earlier this year. Furthermore the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage designated the lodge as being of architectural interest under the Categories of Special Interest. On the other hand as Frank Keohane noted in his report, to which I am much indebted, until now the lodge has not been designated a protected structure in its own right but rather ‘deemed to be protected owing to its being located within the cartilage of Belline House which is a protected structure.’ Clearly this has proven inadequate.
Keohane wisely makes the point that the lodge at Belline must be regarded as of international importance both in its own right and as part of a planned 18th century demesne in which diverse complementary elements contributed to the resultant whole. As he writes, ‘The temple lodge is not an artefact to be appreciated in isolation. It is in fact an important element in a group of related structures within the demesne.’ Destroy one of those related structures and you disrupt the entire picture: it is not unlike cutting a section out of a painting.
According to the Irish Times, John McCormack who is a Director of Services at Kilkenny County Council with responsibility for heritage said the authority had served a planning enforcement notice on Mr Coleman in May 2012 ‘for failing to undertake works to prevent this protected structure from becoming or continuing to be endangered.’ Legal proceedings commenced the following October and since then ‘there have been four separate court appearances in relation to this prosecution while the council sought to negotiate with the owner. A full hearing of the case is listed for October 7th next at Carrick-on-Suir District Court.’
One waits to see what will happen in four weeks’ time since not only is the survival of Belline’s temple lodge at stake but the forthcoming hearing represents something of a test case. If owners of protected structures can ignore their responsibilities with impunity, then still worse misfortunes lie ahead for our architectural heritage. The national patrimony is at risk in a way that would, one imagines, have appalled Peter Walsh.
The first two photographs show Belline’s temple lodge as it looked in the 19th century, note how at one time the building was thatched. The next three show the lodge in 2005, already with its slates removed from the roof, followed by another three photographs taken earlier this year. Finally below is a picture of the lodge as shown in the Irish Times with its portico in ruins.