Dun and Dusted

dunsandle alive

While they claimed direct kinship with Dalaigh, tenth in descent from the 4th century Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, the actual origins of the Dalys of Dunsandle, County Galway are unclear. However they were certainly descended from Dermot Ó Daly (d.1614), described by one recent historian as ‘a chancer whose rapid advancement was due to the success of the Presidency of Connaught and his ability to turn opportunity to advantage…he was an ardent crown supporter and the supposed stability which would accrue as a repercussion of adopting English customs and laws.’ His great-grandson Denis Daly proved equally opportunistic, building up large land-holdings through money made with a thriving legal practice during the turmoils of the late 17th century. In the reign of James II he was made a Judge and Privy Councillor and although a Roman Catholic he managed to hold onto his estates in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars. In fact, both he and his brother Charles continued to acquire more land, supposedly spending some £30,000 so doing: in 1708 Denis Daly paid £9,450 for Dunsandle which had hitherto belonged to the Burkes, Earls of Clanricarde.

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As is far too often the case, we do not know a great deal about who was responsible for designing or building the great house at Dunsandle. And great it certainly was until just over half a century ago. Of finely cut limestone, the centre block rose three storeys over basement, of five bays, both the entrance and garden fronts having a three-bay pedimented breakfront. On either side of the main house ran a single-storey screen wall with pedimented doorways and niches which in turn were linked to substantial two-storey courtyard wings. In 1967 the Knight of Glin tentatively attributed the house to the Italian-born architect and engineer Davis Ducart (Daviso De Arcort) and to-date nobody has come up with a satisfactory alternative.
A handful of late 19th/early 20th century photographs give us the only clear idea of what the interior looked like. The saloon had elaborate and very pretty rococo plasterwork not dissimilar to that seen at Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny (which was designed by Ducart) or that of 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin which dates from c.1765. The drawing room is said to have had an ‘Adamesque’ ceiling while the entrance hall contained later plasterwork almost certainly designed by James Wyatt (Denis Daly, of whom more later, in 1780 married the heiress of the first Lord Farnham who had likewise commissioned Wyatt to work on his house). Staircases with carved balusters rose on either side of the hall, leading to bedrooms and sitting rooms on the first floor.
In his 1978 guide to Irish Country Houses, Mark Bence-Jones rightly called Dunsandle ‘until recently the finest C18 house in Co Galway’ and one cannot argue with that, since it was long attested by other sources. As far back as 1786 William Wilson in The Post-Chaise Companion or Traveller’s Directory Through Ireland described Dunsandle as ‘the most magnificent and beautiful seat, with ample demesnes of the Rt. Hon, Denis Daly.’ This makes its loss all the greater.

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The Rt Hon Denis Daly (1748–1791) seems to have been a man of exceptional character. In his memoirs, Henry Grattan who was a close friend, describes Daly as ‘an individual singularly gifted. Born a man of family, of integrity, of courage and of talent, he possessed much knowledge and great good-nature, an excellent understanding and great foresight…In person Denis Daly was handsome, of a pleasing and agreeable address, and so excellent a manner that by it he conciliated everybody… He was a friend to the Catholics and he always supported them. There were men who possessed more diligence and information, but he surpassed them all in talent.’
A fine portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds testifies to Daly’s good looks. As has been mentioned in 1780 he married Lady Henrietta Maxwell, only daughter of the first Earl of Farnham, and thus increased his estates (in the early 19th century they ran to over 33,000 acres) as well as inheriting a house on Dublin’s Henrietta Street. Here he entertained with flair, but also displayed his intellectual interests: elsewhere Grattan wrote ‘at Mr Daly’s we dined among his books as well as at his table – they were on it – they were lying around it…’ Decades after his death Hely Dutton in A Statistical and Agricultural Survey of the County of Galway (1824) observed that Dunsandle’s late owner had ‘not only collected the best editions of the great authors of antiquity, but read books with the ardour of a real lover of literature. His library was uncommonly valuable.’ At least part of that library passed to his younger son Robert Daly who in 1843 became Bishop of Cashel and Waterford.

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In 1845 Denis Daly’s elder son James was created first Baron Dunsandle and Clanconal. He does not appear to have inherited his father’s charm and was widely reported to be unpopular with his tenantry, many of whom supported the cause of the pro-Catholic Ribbonmen in the 1820s; it should be noted that his brother, Bishop Robert Daly was notoriously anti-Catholic. So too was the second Lord Dunsandle who in 1893 disinherited his elder son William when the latter married a Catholic. In any case, William Daly could not have succeeded to the title since he was illegitimate, his parents only marrying twelve years after his birth. It was William Daly’s son Colonel Denis Daly who in 1931 bought Russborough, County Wicklow and thereby ensured that house survived to the present day. Meanwhile William Daly’s brother – yet another Denis (and like his sibling born out of wedlock) – appears to have taken over Dunsandle after their father’s death in 1893. He in turn was succeeded by his son, Major Denis Bowes Daly who was the last of the family to live there.
It is not altogether clear why the Dalys finally sold up and left Dunsandle in 1954. Obviously there was pressure from the Land Commission which wished to acquire the estate so that it could be broken up and distributed among smallholders. But there were also most likely personal reasons too. In 1950 Major Bowes Daly had divorced his first wife to marry Melosine Hanbury (née Cary-Barnard) with whom he had been joint Master of the Galway Blazers for the previous few years. Mrs Hanbury had already had two husbands, her first Wing-Commander Marcus Trundle being in the news a decade ago when it was revealed that in the mid-1930s London police reported he was the secret lover of Wallis Simpson. Whatever the truth about that, it appears that the Major Bowes Daly’s divorce and re-marriage caused a stir in County Galway in the early 1950s with local Catholic clergy advising farmers to boycott the hunt. Eventually the Dalys moved for a few years to Africa, Dunsandle was sold and in 1958 the house unroofed.
As is so often the case, one could write a great deal more about Dunsandle and its owners, although not too much else about the house. Still, as indicated by these photographs taken only last month, it was clearly a building that ought to have been preserved, with only the vestiges of its former splendour remaining. The wings and linking passages are gone, all that remains is the main block and that looks likely to surrender to vegetation in the near future. Soon even the final traces of that elegant plasterwork will be gone and with them three centuries of Irish cultural history, yet another irreparable loss. Below is a photograph of the main façade of Dunsandle included in the 5th volume of the Irish Georgian Society Records published in 1913.

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20 comments on “Dun and Dusted

  1. Patrick says:

    Another excellent piece . No sure about the discription ” equally opportunistic ” for mr.Daly though . Will you be writing about the impact of the Lissadell decision on Irish estates or ” The big house” Best , P

  2. A really great piece – such a stark contrast between the old photos and the ruin now; very sad. Rev Robert Daly, later Bishop of Cashel was Rector of Powerscourt Parish, Wicklow. His memoirs includes the following amusing paragraph:

    [Robert’s] brother, on coming of age in 1803, visited Dunsandle, and was much amused but rather affronted at the tenantry, who had not seen him since he was quite a child, preparing jam to regale him with on his arrival.”

    The poor man…!

    Thanks as always for sharing. You’ve prompted some Enniskerry thoughts that I will follow up on.
    Michael

  3. Excellent article on the history of the Daly’s and Dunsandle. I really your articles keep up the good work!!

  4. Steve says:

    An excellent, well-researched, and very interesting article. One could write endlessly on the quality of the library which was wholly unique – the fact that so many sources exists praising same speaks volumes. You may be interested to know that tragically many of the books were lost in a shipwreck off the East Sussex coast in 1779 en route to Daly (in London at the time), with much of the remaining library sold at auction in 1792.

    Denis Daly was indeed a remarkable figure (see https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=586031228157499&set=p.586031228157499&type=1&theater) and the house itself had many remarkable visitors over the years. Again, as you state, one could go on at length but Benjamin Franklin (in 1771) is a personal favorite…

    • Thank you for getting in contact and for your comments. Yes, the Daly library was noted for its high quality. And yes too, one could always write much more, especially about Denis Daly, but limitations of time (and space) preclude that for the present.
      You may be interested in next Monday’s piece: another house in your part of the world.

    • Ben says:

      Ben Franklin visited Dunsandle in 1771. I would greatly like to know anything else you have of that visit. Thank you, Ben (my mother is a Dealy, descendant from Denis)

  5. Leith says:

    This article was marvellous to discover! For over a hundred years quite a number of descendants of “Daly of Raford” living in Australia have made a pilgrimage to see Dunsandle. In 2007 I stood outside the fence and wished I could see inside! Thank you for the photos and the history. Intrigued by Steve’s comments above. So sad about the decay of the building – but I do like the title – “Dun and Dusted!”

  6. Brian Nolan says:

    I wrote a piece that included a local reference to Dunsandle House a little while ago. You might enjoy it. Thanks for penning your piece which I thoroughly enjoyed. Regards Brian Nolan
    see http://paddyscrossbetimes.blogspot.ie/2013/01/by-rail-and-by-tram.html

    • Thank you for getting in touch, and for pointing me in the direction of your piece which I greatly enjoyed reading. How sad that our rural railway system, like so much else of our heritage, was pointlessly squandered; your photographs of the sad condition of the station in Loughrea are most poignant.

  7. Incredible site!!

    Why would the house be intentionally “unroofed” being that it was the 1950s? I tried looking this up but only found a law having to do with famine times which didn’t seem applicable. Thank you.

    • Thank you for getting in touch. Buildings with roofs were liable for rates: remove the roof, and rates no longer had to be paid. Hence a lot of old buildings from the ‘forties to the ‘sixties were left open to the elements with the inevitable decay following…

    • Ben Bolton says:

      I’ve heard this had to do with paying taxes and that the last Baron Dunsandle was running out of money. He wrote a letter to my great grandfather asking if he’s be interested in purchasing the Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of the 1st Baron for £9,000 in 1954, a tidy sum for a Corps of Engineers draftsman with a daughter and 5 boys.

      • Yes, the Dalys had pretty much run out of funds by then – but they had also run out of titles too (the last Lord Dunsandle died in 1911, by which time the estate had been inherited by an illegitimate son of the second baron): Major Denis Bowes Daly was the last member of the family to live in the house, so it may have been he who offered your great-grandfather the portrait?

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