In 1970 the early 18th century Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary stood empty and unused, and plans were announced to demolish the building; the local authority intended to replace the house with an amenity centre comprising swimming pool, car park, playground and civic centre. North Tipperary County Council chairman Tom Shanahan justified this proposal with the argument that as long as the house stood, ‘it reminds the Irish people of their enslavement to British rule’ and dismissed objectors to the scheme as ‘a crowd of local cranks.’ The notion that Damer House represented the outstanding qualities of Georgian craftsmanship, or that it might be a major tourist attraction for the area clearly never occurred to Mr Shanahan.
Both these factors have since come to be understood, but four decades ago, the building’s inherent worth was grossly under-appreciated. Damer House dates from the 1720s and is believed to have been built for John Damer soon after he bought the town of Roscrea in 1722. Damer’s uncle, Joseph Damer, originally from Dorset, settled in Ireland in the aftermath of Charles II’s restoration in 1660 and prospered as a Dublin moneylender, to the extent that he was able to purchase estates in North Tipperary. Having no children of his own, he brought over his nephew John both to assist him in the business and to inherit his wealth.
Damer House is unusual in that it stands in the centre of a 13th century castle on which work commenced during the reign of King John although the present structure is of a slightly later date; it survives largely intact, not least the immense gate tower rising more than 90 feet with walls some eight feet thick. This castle was under the control of the Butler family, if only sometimes theoretically, until 1703 when the second Duke of Ormonde sold his Roscrea territory to the King’s Hospital in Kilmainham; less than twenty years later the place was sold again, this time to John Damer whose uncle had since died and left him extremely wealthy. Given that peace had only recently come to the country, one can understand why Roscrea’s latest owner might have thought it best to build his new residence within the protective walls of the castle, but he and his descendants do not seem to have spent much time there, since they also developed a large estate elsewhere in the county and, following John Damer’s own death without direct heirs, his nephew – another Joseph Damer – preferred to live in England where in 1792 he was created first Earl of Dorchester; in the following century Damer House passed into the hands of another branch of the family, the Dawson-Damers who were Earls of Portarlington and whose main seat was Emo Court, County Laois. Meanwhile the house in Roscrea became an army barracks, then at the start of the last century successively a school, a tuberculosis sanatorium and a local library.
Of three storeys over basement and with unusually tall narrow windows spread across nine bays, the pre-Palladian Damer House has a large annexe to one side, probably added during its time as a military barracks. Internally the finest extant feature is a carved pine staircase, in style not dissimilar to that of the slightly later Cashel Palace. Whatever other decorative features the Damers may have commissioned did not survive changes of use, but the building retains a purity of form that makes it of enormous importance in the history of Irish architecture.
Yet by the early 1970s Damer House was suffering from the consequences of long-term neglect, hence the local authority’s proposal to sweep it away rather than engage in a programme of restoration. Fortunately at this point the Irish Georgian Society then intervened and offered to take over the building on a lease and assume responsibility for its salvation. Work on this project began in August 1974 and was overseen by one of the IGS’s most industrious and committed members, Brian Molloy whose death four years later is still to be regretted. Much of the work was undertaken by volunteers who cleared away accumulated rubbish and debris, and removed unsightly additions to the house such as partition walls while professionals worked on repairing the roof and so forth. In 1976 the early 18th century carved pine staircase, which was coated in centuries of paint, was cleaned and restored to its original splendour and the following year the house was officially opened to the public.
With aid from a number of public bodies, the house’s annexe was next restored for use as a heritage centre; the first of its kind in Ireland, this opened to the public in 1983 and shortly afterwards won a special award from the adjudicators of European Museum of the Year. At the end of that year, control of Damer House was handed over to the Roscrea Heritage Society which later in turn leased the premises to the Irish State; by this means Damer House’s future has been secured. During the 1990s more work was completed not just on the house, but also on Roscrea Castle and its gardens. Today the entire complex has been refurbished and welcomes visitors.
Aside from its evident merits, Damer House is personally special because in 1983 my first job after university was to act as curator of the building, contentedly living in a first-floor flat on the premises (those two windows furthest right on the first floor were my bedroom) and gaining knowledge that has proven invaluable ever since; this month marks the thirtieth anniversary of my taking up that position.
Meanwhile this week marks the first anniversary of the advent of The Irish Aesthete. It has been a fascinating year in which I have likewise learnt an enormous amount (and become something of a proselytiser on behalf of social media). I should like to thank all those who have been following the site for the twelve months past and hope that you will continue to do so for the twelve ahead during which there will be abundant opportunities to explore further Ireland’s architectural heritage. Comments and enquiries are always welcome, as are suggestions of where else might be discussed; every writer needs readers and I am most appreciative of anyone who has taken the trouble to participate in and engage with The Irish Aesthete since September 2012.
It is also worth noting that The Irish Aesthete has been short-listed for the 2013 Ireland Blog Awards in two categories: Best Arts and Culture and Best Newcomer. Finalists will be announced next week.
In conclusion, today provides an opportunity to remember Brian Molloy the twenty-fifth anniversary of whose death fell recently and whose dedication to the causes many of us hold dear remains an inspiration.