Majestic Though in Ruin



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.

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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.


September 2013


September 1913
William Butler Yeats

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the ha’pence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save?,
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You’d cry ‘Some woman’s yellow hair
Has maddened every mother’s son’:
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they’re dead and gone,
They’re with O’Leary in the grave.

Inspired by Dublin Corporation’s refusal to provide financial assistance to Sir Hugh Lane for the building of a modern art gallery in the city, Yeats’ poem was published in The Irish Times 100 years ago today. The picture above shows one of the designs prepared by Edwin Lutyens for the projected gallery, not that of a bridge spanning the river Liffey but more conventionally sitting within the western railings of St Stephen’s Green.
You can discover more about the events behind the writing of September 1913 by watching:

The Irish Aesthete Recommends IV

Melo L-C

Anyone who has read Rose Macaulay’s wonderful 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond will be familiar with its opening lines: ‘”Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. The camel, a white Arabian Dhalur (single hump) from the famous herd of the Ruola tribe, had been a parting present, its saddle-bags stuffed with low-carat gold and flashy orient gems, from a rich desert tycoon who owned a Levantine hotel near Palmyra.’
Those words always remind me of Melosina Lenox-Conyngham who, like the narrator’s aunt Dot was an inveterate and fearless traveller until her death almost two years ago. Melo, seen above wheeling her bicycle through the gates of Lavistown Cottage, County Kilkenny where she lived, wrote and broadcast many articles about her journeys, her low voice (Melo might have been short for Melodious) recounting all sorts of adventures with terrific gusto and humour. In one of these pieces, she described riding on a camel to Timbuktu, the silence of the desert reigning absolute until ‘it was broken by a familiar jingle, and Mahomet extracted from his long blue robes a mobile telephone that he poked into the folds of his turban.’
Back in Ireland, Melo entertained frequently – I remember an abundance of cobwebs but also very good home-made biscuits each topped with a blanched almond – and told still more tales of where she had been and what she had done. Between trips she served as indefatigable secretary of the Butler Society and did much to encourage interest in the history of this part of Ireland and its architectural heritage.
One greatly misses Melo but now a terrific selection of her writings A Life in Postcards has been published by the Lilliput Press ( The book perfectly captures the author’s wry tone and is definitely to be recommended if you would like to know more about this very special woman and her distinctive outlook on life.

Read All About It


In the library at Russborough, County Wicklow an open page of James Malton’s A Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin displayed in a Series of the most Interesting Scenes taken in the Year 1791. In 1799 Malton, an architectural draughtsman by training, published in a single volume his series of twenty-five engravings showing key buildings in the Irish capital, noting ‘The entire of the views were taken in 1791 by the author, who, being experienced in the drawing of architecture and perspective, has delineated every object with the utmost accuracy; the dimensions, too, of the structures described were taken by him from the originals, and may be depended upon for their correctness.’ Malton’s images remain one of our most important sources of information about the appearance of Dublin at the end of the 18th century.
For more about Russborough, see my article on the house in the September issue of American Elle Decor:

Vanity of Vanities; All is Vanity


Some buildings make better ruins than do others. But few look as splendid as Duckett’s Grove in County Carlow. Fantastically towered and turreted and castellated, the remains of this large house rise about the surrounding flat agricultural land, like some 19th century interpretation of a castle in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. Originally at the centre of a 12,000 acre estate the core of the structure is older, probably dating from the early 1700s and taking the form of a regular three-storey over basement, five-bay residence. Precise information about this building does not exist, but one may assume it was built for one of the first Ducketts to settle in this part of the world, perhaps Thomas Duckett who came from Grayrigg in Westmoreland and bought land here in 1695. He had the sense to marry an heiress, as did several of his successors with the result that the family grew ever-more prosperous, with an average annual income of £10,000. This wealth allowed John Dawson Duckett to embark on a transformation of the old house from 1818 onwards.




For his architect, Duckett picked someone little known outside the immediate area, perhaps because he received so many commissions in County Carlow and its environs that he had no time to take on work further afield. This was Thomas Alfred Cobden, believed to have been born in Chichester in 1794. It is unknown how this young man came to be in Ireland, or how he came to be so much in demand in the Carlow/Wexford area where he designed churches (and even a cathedral) and public buildings as well as private houses, all in a variety of styles. But nothing else quite matches his work at Duckett’s Grove where, presumably at the request of the client, he let rip with almost every decorative motif available. The old house was smothered in a superfluity of turrets, crenellations, arches and niches, oriel windows and quatrefoil decoration before being further embellished with busts and urns and statuary, some of it attached to the building, some free-standing in the immediate grounds. Furthermore the structure was given what has been described as ‘wilful asymmetry’ through the addition of sundry towers, none of which correspond to the others in either shape or height. Further work was undertaken in the 1840s by another relatively obscure architect John Macduff Derick who designed the immense granite entrance gates to the estate as almost a castle in their own right. Given the style of this work, one wonders whether he was also responsible for the more rugged elements of Duckett’s Grove, those parts of the building (likewise in granite) which are Norman rather than High Gothic in inspiration?




The history of Duckett’s Grove in the 20th century was not a happy one. John Dawson Duckett’s son William inherited the estate on his father’s death and although twice married he had no children. When he in turn died in 1908 he left everything to his second wife, Marie who had a daughter from her own first marriage but likewise no other offspring. By 1916 Marie Duckett had moved out of the house and moved to Dublin where her late husband had bought her a place, and thereafter Duckett’s Grove was looked after by an agent. Because the family had been good landlords, always permitting access to the gardens (until 1902 when they felt their hospitality was being exploited by visitors) and looking after their workforce, Duckett’s Grove suffered no damage during the War of Independence. But already a lot of the estate had been parcelled off for sale to former tenants, and in 1923 Marie Duckett disposed of the contents of Duckett’s Grove in a three-day auction. Even before then she had sold the house and remaining 1,300 acres to a group of local farmers who together took out a £32,000 loan. However, they quarrelled over its division and failed to repay the bank, so eventually the Land Commission assumed responsibility and divided up the land between another 48 small holders. Duckett’s Grove and its immediate 11 acres were acquired by a Carlow businessman in 1931 for £320. He demolished some of the outbuildings (stone from these was used to construct a new Christian Brothers school in Carlow town) but had not yet decided what to do with the house when it was mysteriously gutted by fire in April 1933.




Marie Duckett does not appear to have been in any way troubled about the destruction of her late husband’s family home, perhaps because by this date she was already enmeshed in the delusions and squabbles that overwhelmed her last years (the story of her will, in which she effectively dispossessed her daughter, and of the court case after her death can easily be found elsewhere). For over seventy years Duckett’s Grove stood open to the elements and largely unprotected. Finally in 2005 Carlow County Council acquired the property and has since restored the old walled gardens, and installed various facilities in part of the old stables.
The main house remains a shell and frankly one wonders if in this instance that is not the best fate for the place. Duckett’s Grove, as overhauled in the 19th century, can never have been an object of much beauty. All that over-ornamentation, all those statues and busts and other decorative flourishes must have been somewhat excessive, redolent of the era’s likewise immoderately decorated interiors with their potted palms and red plush sofas and antimacassars. Stripped of the accretions Duckett’s Grove today possesses a grandeur that probably eluded it when still roofed and occupied. The line of towers on the skyline now has a greater dignity than was ever formerly the case. Duckett’s Grove was made to be a ruin, and as such it is rather splendid.