Set on top of a small rise, the elegant octagonal Belvedere at Dromoland, County Clare. This dates from the early 1740s and is believed to have been designed by self-trained architectural draughtsman John Aheron, a protégé of Dromoland’s then-owner Sir Edward O’Brien. Passionately interested in horses, Sir Edward apparently built the Belvedere so that he could watch racing across his land, and have views as far as Ennis, the county town. Entrance to the building is gained via a flight of steps to the door on the east side (there was another door on the south giving access to the half-sunk basement) and originally there would have been seven windows but now only three. The single room main floor was heated by a fireplace set in the north-west wall. One wonders whether the exterior clad in uncut stone would originally have been rendered, and indeed whether some of the openings were once as large as their brick arches suggest. Having fallen into disrepair, the Belvedere was repaired some years ago but now is both cut off from the rest of the estate, and unhappily marooned on a strip of land between a tributary road and a motorway.
A portrait of Thomas FitzGerald, 23rd Knight of Glin painted by Philip Hussey which hangs in the entrance hall of Glin Castle, County Limerick. Tomorrow evening, Wednesday 29th January, I shall be giving a talk on the life and achievements of Desmond FitzGerald, 29th and last Knight of Glin at the Irish Georgian Society headquarters in the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin. Further information can be found at http://www.igs.ie/events/detail/The-Last-Knight-Lecture-by-Robert-OByrne.
It seems only fitting that Lough Cutra, County Galway should be battlemented and turreted, and have the, admittedly deceptive, appearance of impregnability since for a long time it was associated with military families. But the spot on which it stands is deeply romantic: the castle is reached at the end of an exceptionally long drive through open parkland and eventually one arrives at a spot which, as the Knight of Glin and Edward Malins wrote in their 1976 book on Irish demesnes, is ‘picturesquely situated high above the banks of the lough, whose waters lash the terrace walls.’ Glin and Malins likewise admired the ‘extensive and deep planting of woods and plantations, and wooded islands with ruins of churches and mountains in the background.’
Based around the 1,000 acre lake several square miles in extent and from which the estate takes its name, Lough Cutra’s ruins indicate how long there has been human settlement here. The present owners explain succinctly the history of the estate, noting that ‘the local area is rich in remnants of churches, cells and monasteries due to the introduction of Christianity. A number of the islands on the lake contain the remnants of stone altars. It is quite likely that St. Patrick passed Lough Cutra on his travels and St. Colman MacDuagh was a relative of Gort’s King Guaire. A holy well with a cross with the date 1745 lies on the Eastern shore of Lough Cutra. The ruined church of Beagh on the North West shore was sacked by the Danes in 866 A.D. and war raged through the district for nearly 1000 years.’
From the 12th century onwards, this territory was controlled by the Ó Seachnasaigh (anglicised as O’Shaughnessy) family. The last to hold the land, Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy, supported James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and died seven days later in his castle at Gort. His son and heir William went into exile and eventually became a general in the French army. In 1697 the O’Shaughnessy lands were seized and presented to Sir Thomas Prendergast who likewise became a general. The two men, O’Shaughnessy and Prendergast, would fight on opposing sides at the Battle of Malplaquet in September 1709 during which the latter was killed (O’Shaughnessy lived another thirty-five years in exile).
Despite the best efforts of successive O’Shaughnessys they never regained their former estates which remained in the possession of the Prendergasts, a branch of a family which had likewise been in Ireland for many centuries, descendants of from Maurice de Prendergast, a Norman knight who came to the country in 1169. Following the death of Sir Thomas Prendergast at Malplaquet, the newly-acquired estates in County Galway passed to his seven-year old son, also called Thomas, who in adulthood managed to sit in both the Irish and British Houses of Commons. Since he had no children, on his death in 1760 the property passed to a nephew John Prendergast Smyth, youngest son of Sir Thomas’ sister Elizabeth. Having begun life in the army, he subsequently became a parliamentarian (although in 1793 he was appointed Colonel of the Limerick Volunteers) and joined the peerage first as Baron Kiltartan in 1810 and then six years later as Viscount Gort. He died in 1817, again without children and so once more the estate passed to a nephew, his sister’s son Colonel Charles Vereker. Of Dutch origin, the Verekers had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century and prospered despite supporting the two unfortunate Stuarts, Charles I and James II.
Like so many of those who owned Lough Cutra before and after, Charles Vereker was an army man: leading the Limerick Militia established by his uncle, in September 1798 he checked the advance of the French force led by General Humbert at Collooney, County Sligo and later took part in the Battle of Ballinamuck where he was wounded. For all that, again like his uncle he was vehemently opposed to the 1800 Act of Union, declaring ‘I have defended my country with my blood, and there is nothing in the gift of the Crown that would tempt me to betray her by my vote.’ After the Union he represented Limerick in the British House of Commons until becoming second Viscount Gort. Incidentally, he was also last to hold the ancient feudal post of Governor and Constable of the Castle of Limerick.
The second Lord Gort inherited some 12,000 acres from his uncle, and even before then he had received that part of the estate which included Lough Cutra (then often called Lough Cooter). Here he decided to build a new residence, his initial intention being to commission an Italianate villa at a spot called Situation Hill on the opposite side of the lake from where the house actually stands. However at some date he saw architect John Nash’s own property, East Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight. Supposedly accompanying the Prince Regent on a visit to East Cowes, he exclaimed ‘How I wish I could transport this Castle to the banks of Lough Cooter’ to which Nash replied, ‘Give me fifty thousand pounds and I will do it for you.’
In fact the eventual cost was closer to £80,000, probably because extensive work had to be carried out on creating the demesne envisaged by landscape designer John Sutherland: in 1855 J.B. Burke’s Visitation of Seats and Arms reported that the greater part of the area around the house and outbuildings ‘was blasted to a considerable depth out of the solid rock, and the gardens then filled with rich soil carried from distant spots, their walls being formed of limestone laboriously cut to the size of bricks…the undulating sward, which extends from the castle towards the lake is also to a great extent artificial.’ In addition, because of the site’s slope a terrace had to be built up in front of the lake before work on the house could begin.
Although Nash designed Lough Cutra, it is unclear what part, if any, he played in its actual construction. He does appear to have visited Ireland at least once: in 1821 he told the landscape artist and diarist Joseph Farington that he ‘had travelled in the three Kingdoms 11,000 miles in the year and in that time had expended £1,500 in chaise hire.’ The work at Lough Cutra was supervised by James Pain who had been apprenticed to Nash and was highly regarded by the latter. Pain came to Ireland in 1811, and remained here the rest of his life, being joined by his younger brother George Richard in 1815 after which the siblings ran a very successful practice for several decades.
Since James Pain arrived here in 1811 it is assumed that work started on Lough Cutra around that time. It was still going on in October 1817 since in that month the Limerick Gazette reported ‘with deepest regret’ that earlier in the month when Pain ‘was surveying some part of the beautiful building now going forward at Loughcooter Castle, County Galway, the intended mansion of Lord Viscount Gort, the scaffolding on which he stood gave way, and he was precipitated from an eminence of four stories high – his side first reached the ground, with the head inclining downwards – the collar bone has been broken, the brain has received a severe concussion, and several bruises on different parts of the body. – A report was current in the town on Sunday that he was dead, but we are happy to say, the arrival of Surgeon Franklin who (together with Surgeon Gibson of the City Regt. pofessionally [sic] attended) has not only contradicted that rumour, but has been given sanguine hopes of a speedy recovery.’ Indeed he did make a full recovery, living until 1877.
As originally built, Lough Cutra was more compact than later became the case, with sufficient variation in the disposition of towers and windows to give interest to the exterior. Inside, the main block of two storeys over sunken basement has a vaulted entrance hall behind which runs three reception rooms overlooking the lake. A round tower to one side contains the staircase leading to the first floor bedrooms opening off a top-lit central corridor.
It would appear that not only did Lord Gort spend much more on the property than had been intended but when he inherited his uncle’s estate it was discovered to carry debts of some £60,000. As a result he was rather impoverished and following his death in 1842 so too was his heir. The third Viscount did his best to provide assistance to his tenants during the years of the Great Famine by not collecting rents and providing work on the estate. The consequence was that he bankrupted himself and in 1851 Lough Cutra was offered for sale by order of the Encumbered Estates Court. Some sections of the estate were parcelled off and in 1852 the castle and immediate land was purchased by James Caulfield, in trust for a Mrs Ball, Superior of the Loreto Convent, Rathfarnham, County Dublin for £17,000. Lord Gort moved to England and ironically a few years later as a result of his second marriage came to own East Cowes Castle, the inspiration for his own former property. It was occupied by the family until requisitioned by the army during the Second World War during which the building suffered severe damage. East Cowes Castle was eventually demolished in 1960.
For a short period of time Lough Cutra Castle became a convent school. However in 1854 it reverted to private ownership after being bought by Field Marshall Hugh Gough, first Viscount Gough. Like the Verekers, the Goughs were another family long settled in this part of Ireland, being descended from three brothers, all Anglican clergymen, who had come here in the early 17th century. Likewise they subsequently became stalwarts of the British army, Hugh Gough’s father serving with Charles Vereker in the Limerick Militia during the 1798 Rebellion. Hugh Gough entered the forces when still in his teens (he was already promoted to the rank of Lieutenant a month before his fifteenth birthday) and fought with the future Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula War. After being responsible for the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander in Chief of the army in India and was responsible for the defeat of the Sikhs in two wars. It was following his retirement and advancement to the peerage that he decided to buy Lough Cutra, also purchasing back much of the original estate.
Following his acquisition, the castle was considerably extended to the designs of an unknown architect. In April 1855 the Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal advised readers, ‘Loughcooter Castle…the property of General Lord Viscount Gough, is now undergoing vast alterations and improvements There is a new tower at present in a state of progression; there have been large numbers of artizans and labourers employed during the last four months, and from the extensive works about to be executed are likely to be constantly employed for the next two years.’ In the late 1890s the third Viscount Gort commissioned a further extension, known as the Library Wing, from architect George Ashlin to house his grandfather’s war spoils: this was demolished in the 1950s and the cut stone used in the restoration of Bunratty Castle, County Clare. Changes were made to the interior also, some of which have survived. In the drawing room, for example, the walls are papered with the Gough coat of arms created by Coles, and the elaborately painted ceiling is believed to be by John Gregory Crace.
Commentators have often been rather sniffy about the Goughs’ interventions at Lough Cutra, one author opining ‘The additions were heavy and ill-proportioned and turned a neat and successful composition into an unwieldy and rambling one.’ But photographs of the building from the late 19th/early 20th centuries show that some of the changes were not unattractive. Full-length projecting window bays on either side of the main entrance, for example, probably increased the amount of light in the hall immediately behind, while the drawing room certainly benefitted from a similar window overlooking the lake: all of these have long since gone.
In the 20th century the Gough family, no longer as affluent as had been the case and with the greater part of their estate taken by the Land Commission, could no longer afford to maintain the castle and in the 1928 the family converted part of the stable yard into a residence. Thereafter Lough Cutra stood empty except during the years of the Emergency (1939-45) when it was occupied by members of the Irish army; as with East Cowes Castle at the same time, the outcome was not beneficial for the house. In 1952 the estate was placed on the market and eventually bought by the seventh Viscount Gort, great-grandson of the man who had sold it a century earlier. Lord Gort is today remembered for having bought and restored Bunratty Castle in the 1950s (when stone from parts of the Gough extensions to Lough Cutra were used to make repairs). He gave Lough Cutra to his great-niece the Hon Elizabeth Sidney who in 1966 married Sir Humphrey Wakefield. Together the Wakefields embarked on a restoration of Lough Cutra which by this date was in a near-derelict condition, with much of the interior decoration including the staircase pulled out. Had they not done this work, almost certainly the castle would no longer stand.
However in 1971 the Wakefields divorced and once more the estate was put onto the market. As is well-known Sir Humphrey, who worked in the furniture department of Christie’s before becoming a director of Mallet, went on to buy and restore Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. Here he has one significant souvenir of Lough Cutra: an equestrian statue of the first Viscount Gough. The work has had a troubled history: it was designed by John Henry Foley who died before its completion and there was then difficulty finding a site. Eventually the statue was placed in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where on Christmas Eve 1944 the figure of Lord Gough was beheaded and his sword removed. In November 1956 the right hind leg of his horse was blown off and the following July the entire statue was hurled from its base by a huge explosion. It then languished for almost thirty years in storage before being bought by Robert Guinness, a friend of Wakefield, who afterwards brought the statue to Chillingham where it can now be seen.
As for Lough Cutra, in the aftermath of the Wakefields’ departure the estate was bought by the present owner’s family. Since then the programme of refurbishment has been ongoing, with a new roof on the main body of the castle completed in 2003 and other remedial work done on the tower roofs, plus attention given to buildings such as lodges and yards, as well as the woods and what survives of the once-extensive gardens. As is so often the case, this is a project without visible end but thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of the owner it is also an enterprise that exudes success. Nash’s East Cowes Castle today can be recalled only through old photographs but what might be described as its progeny Lough Cutra Castle looks set to enjoy a long and happy life yet.
The Lough Cutra estate hosts a wide variety of events. For more information, see: http://www.loughcutra.com/
*Virtue Overcomes All Things: the motto of the Gough family.
The earliest recorded iron bridge in Ireland and originally known as the Wellington Bridge in honour of the Irish-born victor of Waterloo, Dublin’s pedestrian Ha’penny Bridge opened a year after that battle, in 1816: its popular name comes from the toll originally charged to users traversing the Liffey. The structure was ordered from the foundry at Coalbrookdale, Shropshire and it is believed one of the company’s foremen John Windsor was responsible for its elegant, and much-photographed, design. One of the details which is often missed is the line of miniature urns atop the balustrade. Of late the structure has suffered from the global fashion for smothering it with ‘love’ padlocks, those engaged in the activity so blinded by ardour, one assumes, that they fail to appreciate the corrosive damage being done to the metal (not to mention the disfigurement of the bridge).
A crowning with laurel occurs in the central section of a painted ceiling in one of the first-floor rooms at Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin. Measuring just eighteen by sixteen feet and formerly known as the breakfast or small dining room, this space has on stylistic grounds been attributed to James ‘Athenian’ Stuart; the proposal is supported by a comment made by Lady Shelburne in 1769 that some of the castle’s interiors were then being decorated ‘after Designs of Mr Stuart’s.’ For a long time it was also believed that the ceiling itself had been painted by Angelica Kauffmann who certainly came to Rathfarnham during her visit to Ireland during the winter of 1771-72, and while in the country painted a portrait of the building’s then-residents, the Earl and Countess of Ely, together with the latter’s two nieces (now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland). However, as Grainne Madden has observed, while quite delightful, the quality of workmanship here ‘is not as highly finished as one would expect from comparisons with authenticated works’ by Kauffman.
Given the notoriety of its late 18th century resident, the fate of Mount Shannon, County Limerick seems inevitable. One of the country’s more striking ruins, the house formerly stood at the centre of a 900-acre demesne famous for its trees and gardens: in his 1822 Encyclopedia of Gardening the Scottish botanist and landscape designer John Claudius Loudon specifically cited Mount Shannon as an example of improvements in Ireland, and proposed these had been carried out under the direction of the first Earl of Clare, of whom more anon. Five years later Fitzgerald and McGregor in their study of the history and topography of Limerick city and county likewise refer to Mount Shannon: ‘the plantations are laid out with fine taste, and the gardens are extensive and well arranged.’ Aside from a handful of surviving specimen trees, no evidence of the demesne’s former glories now remains, and much of the land is given over to suburban housing, making it difficult to discern what the grounds must have looked like even a century ago. On the other hand it is still possible to gain a sense of the main house’s former appearance. In 1827 Fitzgerald and McGregor described it as being ‘one of the most superb mansions in the South of Ireland’ and although a hollow shell for over ninety years it clings onto a residue of grandeur.
The original Mount Shannon was built c.1750 by the euphoniously-named Silver Oliver whose family’s main estate was elsewhere in the county at Clonodfoy, later Castle Oliver. Oliver appears to have sold the property to a member of the White family but around 1765 it came into the possession of John Fitzgibbon, supposedly a descendant of the mediaeval White Knights, who had been raised a Roman Catholic but converted to Anglicanism so that he could become a lawyer (Penal Laws then barring this profession to everyone not a member of the established church). Highly successful, he amassed a considerable fortune
which when he died in 1780 was passed on to his son, also called John and later first Earl of Clare.
It would appear from various references that Lord Clare did much to improve and aggrandise Mount Shannon, not just its demesne but also the house. However the latter’s most striking feature was added by his eldest son the second earl in 1813. The immense Ionic portico with Doric pilasters behind was designed by Lewis Wyatt (a member of the prolific English family of architects and a nephew of James Wyatt), and occupies the three centre bays of the seven-bay north entrance front. Behind three round-headed doors gave access to the hall with the drawing room and other main reception rooms behind. The interiors, as a handful of 19th century photographs show, were chillingly neo-classical with scarcely any ornament. The same was true of the exterior which, as can be seen is constructed of brick with cut limestone dressings. The severity of the south, garden facade was relieved by a very large curved conservatory. To the immediate east of the two-storey over sunken basement house is a long, lower extension which would have been used for services and was originally concealed by a curved screen wall that joined the still-extant wall of the old walled garden.
Many stories are told of John ‘Black Jack’ Fitzgibbon, first Earl of Clare, some of them apocryphal, few of them kind. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin and Christchurch, Oxford he became a lawyer like his father before him. He was first elected to the Irish House of Commons in 1778 and five years later was appointed Attorney General. Appointed Lord Chancellor for Ireland in 1789, he was also received his first peerage, as Baron FitzGibbon, of Lower Connello; he was subsequently advanced to a Viscountcy in 1793 and finally received his earldom in 1795. Four years later he was granted an English peerage (entitling him to a seat in the House of Lords at Westminster), becoming Baron FitzGibbon, of Sidbury in the County of Devon.
Unquestionably brilliant, Fitzgibbon was also without doubt bigoted. It has often been noted that he was a hardline Protestant and a member of the Protestant Ascendancy who avidly promoted whatever measures he believed would best preserve that group’s political domination in Ireland. He supported harsh measures against members of the 1798 Rebellion and was openly hostile to Roman Catholicism despite or perhaps because of his father had originally been a member of this faith. When it came to the Act of Union in 1800, of which he was firmly in favour, there was widespread understanding that this would be accompanied by concessions made to Roman Catholics with the Penal Laws being ameliorated. FitzGibbon persuaded George III that any such liberalisation of the status quo would be a violation of the king’s Coronation Oath and thus ensured pro-Emancipation measures were not included in the Union legislation. In so doing he delayed Catholic Emancipation by three decades and encouraged the spread of sectarianism.
It is said that FitzGibbon once declared he would make the Irish as ‘tame as a dead cat.’ As a result, there are stories of dead cats being thrown into his coach, and of more of the same being flung into his grave when he died in January 1802 following a fall from his horse at Mount Shannon the previous month.
At the time of the Act of Union, Lord Clare arranged for a handsome pension by way of compensation for the loss of his office as Lord Chancellor which was then abolished; this was to be paid both to him and his immediate heir. Thus the second earl, who died in 1851, enjoyed a handsome income not just from his estates which ran to more than 13,000 acres in Counties Limerick and Tipperary but from the munificence of the British Treasury. A close friend of Lord Byron, with whom he was at school, the second earl later became Governor first of Bombay and later of Bengal; he enhanced Mount Shannon by both the addition of the portico and other improvements, but by adding treasures from India and paintings acquired on his travels around Europe.
Since he had no children, his property passed to a younger brother, who duly became third earl. He was to suffer a number of disadvantages, among them the absence of the pension enjoyed by his predecessors, a much depleted income in the aftermath of the Great Famine, and the death of his only son during the Charge of the Light Brigage at the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854: Limerick’s Wellesley Bridge used to feature a handsome statue to the youthful Viscount FitzGibbon until it was blown up by the IRA in 1930.
On the death of the third earl in 1864 the title became extinct. His estate was left to the two younger of his three daughters (the eldest, who had caused a scandal by abandoning her own spouse and children to run off with the elderly husband of a half-sister, appears to have been disinherited). While the middle sister took possession of the FitzGibbon silver and, it seems, the greater part of the liquidity attached to the estate, the youngest Lady Louisa FitzGibbon assumed responsibility for Mount Shannon.
Lady Louisa was as dogged by bad luck as her father. Her eldest son died at the age of twenty, followed by her first husband and then the Italian Marchese she married in expectation of his money turned out to be as penniless as herself. With the advent of the Land Wars rents ceased to be paid, portions of the estate had to be sold, what remained was mortgaged, and money borrowed at high interest rates. All to no avail: Lady Louisa’s creditors demanded satisfaction, following litigation a receiver was appointed, and in the course of a sale lasting several days during June 1888 Mount Shannon was stripped of its contents including a very valuable library. Here is a small quote from the fascinating catalogue compiled by Limerick auctioneer John Bernal: ‘The Family Paintings are Chef Douvres [sic], by the first artist of the period, when they were taken, some of the Paintings, see page 42, were placed in the house about 1790, and will afford the connoisseur and speculator a good chance of getting a valuable Old Master on good terms. There are also some replicas from the Dresden gallery.’ The first such melancholy event of its kind in Ireland, a prelude to many more to follow over the coming decades, the Mount Shannon excited huge interest, with special trains and catering arrangements being laid on. Lady Louisa FitzGibbon spent the remainder of her days in a Dominican convent on the Isle of Wight, an establishment founded by the Roman Catholic convert wife of her uncle, the second Lord Clare; this was something of an irony given the first earl’s virulent hatred of all Catholics.
Five years after the sale, Thomas Nevins, who had been born in Mayo but made a fortune in the United States as a tram and railway contractor, bought Mount Shannon where he died in 1902, just like the first earl following a bad fall from a horse. His widow only survived until 1907 after which the place passed through various hands before what remained of the estate was bought in 1915 by David O’Hannigan of County Cork for £1,000. He did not have long to enjoy Mount Shannon since it was burned down in June 1920 during the War of Independence, the light of the flames apparently seen in Limerick city.
The house remains a shell. To walk through it today is to have a sense what it must have been like visiting a site such as the Baths of Caracalla in the aftermath of Imperial Rome’s collapse, especially as this immense structure is now surrounded by others domestic buildings of infinitely smaller dimensions and aspirations. Even in its present broken-down state Mount Shannon continues dominate the area and to exude an air of greater distinction than any of its neighbours.
An stone urn sitting atop a double plinth closes a flight of terraces at Knockdrin, County Westmeath. In the early 19th century, the heavily-castellated Knockdrin replaced an earlier Georgian house known as High Park, and perhaps this piece of garden ornamentation is a survivor of the earlier property? Romantically entwined with ivy, it looks as though painted by Rex Whistler. (For more information about Knockdrin see Knock Knock, August 5th 2013).
After Monday’s rather dispiriting report on the plight of Dublin’s last Georgian private residence Aldborough House (which generated the greatest traffic yet on this site: thank you to everyone who helped spread the word, if only officialdom would display as much concern), a property which has been taken into state care, with obvious benefits. At Castletown, County Kildare two views of the quadrant leading to the stable wing. Helped by the play of light on warm, ochre-hued render the building looks particularly Italianate here with the influence of Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei, who is deemed responsible for producing the house’s original design in the early 1720s, most apparent.
Many visitors arriving at Dublin airport are likely to take a route into the city centre that leads them along Amiens Street. This takes its name from Viscount Amiens, an honorary title of the Earls of Aldborough, the second of whom, Edward Augustus Stratford, built the last great free-standing town house of the 18th century around the corner on Portland Row. Travelling along this route visitors will notice the present dreadful condition of that building.
The earl’s long-lost country seat Belan, County Kildare has already been discussed here (Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013) and now it looks as though Aldborough House could likewise be consigned to oblivion as a result of ongoing failure by state and civic authorities to intervene in its preservation.
Today marooned amidst neglect and decay (the organisation Irish Business against Litter last week declared this part of Dublin the dirtiest urban area in the State) Aldborough House is an extraordinary building, after Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to one man’s regrettably misplaced ambition. The earl, who already had a perfectly fine property next to Belvedere House on Great Denmark Street, was determined to construct a new one that would serve as testament to his wealth and social position, and also serve as centre-piece to a westerly extension of the city beyond that already achieved by the Gardiners. Portland Row is a continuation of the North Circular Road, running from the Phoenix Park to the docks, and it made sense to plan for development in this part of Dublin. Unfortunately Lord Aldborough failed to take into account the consequences of the 1800 Act of Union (for which he voted) which led to a precipitate decline in the city’s fortunes and left his great town house stranded.
We know a great deal about the construction of Aldborough House, thanks to research on the subject conducted by Aidan O’Boyle and carried in Volume IV of the Irish Georgian Society’s annual journal Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies. This text, like all others on the subject, is indebted to O’Boyle’s admirable work. It is clear from his analysis of extant material that the building of Aldborough House was fraught from the beginning, not least because the earl’s aspirations were greater than his budget. Although pailings were erected and foundations dug around the start of July 1793, there were many stops and starts as unpaid workmen left the site and replacements had to be found. O’Boyle quotes several piteous letters from various architects, plasterers, painters and other skilled craftsmen who became enmeshed in the project and then found they had to plead for monies owed. It did not help that Lord Aldborough during this period was in the throes of sundry legal battles, one of which led to his temporary imprisonment.
Yet somehow the work went on and the house rose ever higher. In style, Aldborough House was something of an anachronism, a last gasp of Palladianism with its tall central block flanked by quadrants that led to pavilions, one containing a chapel the other a private theatre, thereby satisfying the earl’s spiritual and cultural needs. At least in its early stages the architect responsible appears to have been Richard Johnston, older brother of the better-known (and better) Francis Johnson. After his departure several other hands were involved but most likely it was Lord Aldborough himself who had the greatest input into the plans: a extant drawing from his hand of the theatre wing confirms just how decisive was his influence on the project.
Facing north, the main block of Aldborough House is tall and narrow, three storeys over sunken basement and seven bays wide with the three centre bays advanced and pedimented, the whole clad in granite. The pediment contains an elaborately carved Stratford coat of arms in coade stone while the rusticated ground floor features a Doric portico bearing the motto Otium cum Dignitate (Leisure with Dignity). The most striking feature is the line of exaggeratedly elongated windows on the piano nobile; these emphasise the building’s height and thereby distort is overall proportions. An eaves parapet, since removed, was surmounted by alternating eagles and urns on all four sides. A plinth in the centre of the forecourt carried a copy of the Apollo Belvedere.
The side and rear elevations are all faced in a now-mellowed brick, originally rendered to resemble ashlar and with large central bows on the east and south sides. At some point the chapel wing to the west was demolished but that originally containing the easterly theatre survives, terminating in a bow facing the street; its interior is gone. The exterior of the two wings both had blind round-headed arches with sunken panels below and lion and sphinx figures along the parapets.
The interior of the main house begins with an entrance hall which in turn leads to an immense top-lit stair hall, with wrought-iron balusters set into the cantilevered Portland stone steps, the effect likened by the late Maurice Craig to that of ‘a well-shaft, mine or one of Mr Howard’s penitentiaries.’ On the ground floor a sequence of rooms lead off on all sides, library, dining room, small dining room and so forth, with a circular music room to the rear from which a double-perron staircase led to the garden. Some, but not much of these rooms’ decoration survived until recently such as friezes above the Adamesque doorways; after the horrendous neglect of recent years does any of this still remain? It is believed that Pietro Bossi, who tendered for the stuccowork in the house, provided the main chimneypieces but these were removed at the end of the 19th century. The first floor featured another sequence of rooms still loftier than those below and primarily intended for entertaining as they included a ballroom above the library on the east side of the building. A much quoted description by the newly-arrived vicereine Lady Hardwicke in 1801 gives an account of the staircase’s astonishing sequence of paintings which mostly seem to have been given over to apotheosising the earl and his wife. Again, these have all long vanished.
Costing over £40,000 Aldborough House was largely completed by 1798 but its owner did not enjoy the comfort of his new residence for long since he died in January 1801. Without a direct heir and in dispute with his brothers, he left the property to his widow who subsequently remarried but was likewise dead eighteen months after her first husband. There followed more than a decade of litigation before Lord Aldborough’s nephew Colonel John Wingfield was confirmed in possession of the house; he promptly sold its entire contents. The building was then let to the splendidly named Professor Gregor von Feinaigle, a former Cistercian monk and mnemonist, who opened a school there. Six years later von Feinaigle died and by 1843 the house had become an army barracks. In 1850 the garden statuary was all sold and in the 1940s the garden itself was lost, used by Dublin Corporation for social housing so that today Aldborough House has effectively no grounds.
As for the house itself, coming into public ownership it served as a depot for the Department of Posts and Telegraphs during the last century. During this time and especially in later decades the property was compromised by various ill-considered alterations such as the vertical divisions of rooms to create office space and the effective gutting of the former theatre. Nevertheless, the house remained in use and in reasonable condition. In 1999 the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised as Eircom and that organisation offered Aldborough House for sale. The Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) considered it for a new headquarters but then opted not to go ahead with the scheme and in 2005 the building was sold for €4.5 million to a company called Aldborough Developments, part of a network of businesses connected with would-be tycoon Philip Marley whose Ely Property Group has been much in the news of late, none of it for particularly positive reasons. Thereafter matters of ownership grow increasingly complex with only one irrefutable fact: for the past nine years this important part of the national built heritage has been allowed to fall ever further into a decline which, as the photographs above (taken in 2010) and below (taken last week) demonstrate, now risks becoming irreversible.
Last May, RTE television carried a report warning that Aldborough House was now Dublin’s most endangered historic building; this information was provided by An Taisce which for several years has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure the property is saved. In 2006 Aldborough Developments secured approval from the city council for the conversion of the house into a forty-bedroom ‘Day Hospital Medical Care Facility.’ The scheme never went ahead, the property crash occurred and Aldborough House started slithering into decay. Some years ago the council served enforcement proceedings against the owners to carry out repairs to the roof; this did not take place and inevitably the lead was all stolen from the valleys and parapet gulleys leading to terrible water damage. In December 2011 the council, having received a grant from central government of €80,000 and provided an additional €20,000 carried out emergency repairs to the roof. According to the city architect’s office, this work went ‘some way towards weatherproofing this vulnerable building until such time as the building’s owners are in a position to implement further urgent and necessary repairs in line with their statutory obligations.’
Those obligations have yet to be met: last spring, following an arson attack that could have been fatal but was caught in time, further enforcement proceedings were served on the owners to have the house’s windows, doors and other openings secured to prevent access. The city council’s Planning and Development Department’s Executive Manager Jim Keoghan commented at the time, ‘We would be concerned that there would be long-time damage done to the property in question’ as though this was a future possibility rather than something which had already occurred.
The RTE report explained that 75% of Aldborough Developments is owned by a company which is in liquidation, and this in turn is wholly owned by another company that the Bank of Ireland has placed in receivership. Astonishingly, the house remains outside the receivership process, allowing both the receiver and the bank to disclaim all responsibility for its upkeep, even though the latter has a charge on Aldborough House. No doubt legally this is the case, but where is the Bank of Ireland’s sense of corporate responsibility? Where its concern for the welfare of this country? Where its engagement with the society in which it operates? Likewise why is it that Dublin City Council, which could issue a Compulsory Purchase Order, has failed to do so? And why is it that the state, which has a department devoted to heritage, has ignored the shameful deterioration of an important historic building? Are those responsible in all three bodies suffering from collective blindness that they do not see what is happening to a property under their watch, and for the fate of which they will be held culpable? Or are they simply indifferent to what is taking place?
Last September when a farmer lost his High Court challenge over the compulsory purchase of his land, the presiding judge Justice John Hedigan declared that ‘the national interest must outweigh the interests of the individual.’ It is in the national interest that Aldborough House be saved and that all those who can act should do so now. Dear visitors: welcome to Ireland where we talk a lot of guff about history and heritage but – as you cannot fail to observe on your drive into central Dublin – where we have no qualms about allowing the remains of our past fall into dereliction.
Aside from Aidan O’Boyle’s essay in Volume IV of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, you can see more images of Aldborough House, and its present sorry state, on the archiseek forum: http://www.archiseek.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=7878&sid=7637199907bad5a71623348e7c96d9a0&start=25
For the news report that appeared on RTE television in May 2013 see: http://www.rte.ie/news/player/2013/0509/3530477-dublin-georgian-house-is-capitals-most-endangered-historic-building/
A survey conducted in Northern Ireland in 2005 concluded that while there had been 40,000 thatched dwellings in the six counties half a century earlier, only 150 of these now remained. Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson, authors of Traditional Cottages of County Donegal, believe the situation is no better, and very possibly worse, in that county despite it being ‘home to one of the largest surviving concentrations of such vernacular cottages in Ireland.’ They also note that ‘One of the most enduring images of Ireland and Irishness is that of the traditional rural cottage.’ In 1935 the Swedish ethnologist Dr Åke Campbell who had arried out a survey of rural housing in this country, wrote ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’ One might add that being made of natural, local materials when these dwellings are forsaken, they dissolve back into the soil from whence they came. Would that the same could be said of the bungalow which is the most common form of housing type found in rural Ireland today.
One must avoid succumbing to excessive sentimentality: despite what we perceive as its inherent charm the traditional cottage tended to be small, dark, with poor insulation and extremely limited facilities. It is understandable that anyone inhabiting such a place would wish to replace it with a more comfortable residence. Still, it remains a matter of shame and disappointment that so little has been done to ensure the conservation of our historic dwellings since their loss means part of the nation’s collective history also disappears; tellingly many of the best examples featured by Gallagher and Stevenson have been preserved in open air museums and folk parks, or else converted into holiday homes. But very many more have fallen into dereliction and this book is as much a lament as a celebration of Donegal’s traditional cottages. The book is splendidly produced and illustrated, and with a text both informative and engaging. It also serves as an invaluable record of what still survives, but may not do so for much longer…
Traditional Cottages of County Donegal is published by Under the Thatch Ltd. For further information, see: http://www.underthethatch.co.uk/book