Over the chimney piece in the dining room at Ballyfin, County Laois, an oil of Mary Anne, Lady Acton and her children painted in 1809 by the neo-classical artist Robert Fagan. Lady Acton’s husband, Sir John Acton, commander of the naval forces of Grand Duchy of Tuscany and prime minister of Naples in the late 18th century, was also her uncle: the couple had been permitted to marry by papal dispensation. The boy holding a bird to the right was their younger son, Charles Januarius Acton who, after being educated in England, returned to Italy where he became a priest. In 1837 Pope Gregory XVI made him Auditor to the Apostolic Chamber and two years later he became a cardinal. However, never very strong, he died in 1847 at the age of forty-four. Incidentally his nephew was the historian Lord Acton, best remembered for the observation, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’ This was certainly not true of Cardinal Acton.
One of a pair of highly distinctive lodges with polygonal towers that flank the gates to Bridestown, County Cork. According to Mark Bence-Jones, these and the range of forecourt buildings behind were built in the middle of the 18th century by a local merchant Jonathan Morgan, to please his French bride who he had met while on business in Bordeaux. As he notes, ‘The towers at Bridestown are certainly rather French in flavour; they have round-headed windows and niches below elliptical oeils-de-boeuf, now blocked up.’ Originally both had pyramidal roofs although one of these is now gone, and the original house which stood at the back of the courtyard was replaced by another in the 1820s.
County Clare folklore tells how a member of the O’Brien family living in a large house close to Killone Lake noticed supplies of wine in his cellar were being inexplicably depleted. Convinced there was a thief and determined to catch the culprit, one night he stayed up late and discovered the perpetrator was a mermaid who swam upstream to the house from the lake. Recovering from his surprise, he shot the creature and wounded her (in other versions a servant scalded her badly with a pot of boiling water). Bleeding profusely and screaming in pain, she fled back to her habitual abode, but not before delivering a curse: ‘As the mermaid goes on the sea/So shall the race of O’Briens pass away/Till they leave Killone in wild weeds.’ It was also said that every seven years the lake turned red, an evocation of the mermaid’s blood. This was among the legends collected and published over a century ago by Thomas Johnson Westropp who noted, ‘The lake, like the stream already noted at Caherminaun, turns red at times from iron scum and red clay after a dry summer. This is supposed to be caused by the local Undine’s blood, and to foretell a change of occupants in Newhall. Strange to say, I saw it happen last when the place was let by MacDonnells to the O’Briens. The cellar at Newhall has its outer section roofed with large slabs, and the inner consists of long, low, cross vaults. In the end of the innermost recess is a built-up square patch, which sound hollow, and is said to show the opening closed to keep out the thievish mermaid.’
Around 1190 Domnall Mór O’Brien, King of Thomond, founded an Augustinian nunnery dedicated to St John the Baptist by the banks of Killone Lake. The house thereafter seems to have been under the care of successive members of the same family: in 1260 it was written that ‘Slaney, O’Brien’s daughter, abbesse of Kill Eoni, chiefs in devotion, almes-deedes and hospitality of all women in Munster, died. The King of Heaven be prosperous to her soule.’ Slaney was sister to Donchad Cairbrech, King of Thomond, founder of Ennis Friary. There are relatively few other references to the nunnery thereafter until it was dissolved in the 16th century and passed into ownership of the crown. A story from this period tells how Honora O’Brien had become a member of the religious community at Killone but then ran away with Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy of Gort, and by him had a son and daughter before receiving a papal dispensation for their marriage. Although the last nuns had gone before the end of the century, the site’s link with its founding family remained because by 1617 Killone and the surrounding land were in the possession of Dermod O’Brien, fifth Baron Inchiquin.
Perhaps it took some time for the mermaid’s curse to be realised but finally in 1764 Charles MacDonnell bought the lands on which the ruins of Killone stood. Descended from the MacDonnells of Dunluce, County Antrim, one of his forebears had been deprived of land even before Sir Randal MacDonnell, head of this branch of the family, was attainted in 1691 for supporting James II. His brother Daniel MacDonnell, whose mother had been Mary O’Brien, a daughter of Sir Donough O’Brien, left Antrim and settled instead in Kilkee, County Clare where he was able to acquire property from a kinsman Connor O’Brien, second Viscount Clare. There he married another member of the O’Brien clan (the two families were to intermarry over the next several generations), this being Penelope daughter of Teige O’Brien of Dough. In the closing decades of the 17th century their son Captain James MacDonnell first supported the Jacobite side and then switched allegiance, and as a result of this change of loyalty held on to his estates. The forfeited properties of his cousin the third Viscount Clare were granted to the Dutch Williamite General Arnold Joost van Keppel, first Earl of Albemarle. Since he was not interested in County Clare, in 1698 Albemarle sold over 30,000 acres to a syndicate of local men including James MacDonnell who went on to buy additional land in the area. On his death in 1714 he was succeeded by his son Charles James who fourteen years later married Elizabeth, daughter of Christopher O’Brien of Ennistymon. Likewise in 1760 their only son Charles married Catherine O’Brien, third daughter of Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland. The MacDonnell house in Kilkee was destroyed by fire in 1762 and so two years later Charles MacDonnell, who would become a Member of Parliament first for Clare (1765) and then for the Borough of Ennis (1768), bought the Killone estate land from another cousin, Edward O’Brien of Ennistymon. This property included an existing long house known as New Hall.
It appears that soon after acquiring New Hall, Charles MacDonnell enlarged the existing house by the addition of a block built at right angles to and extending further on either side of the old, so creating a T-shape. In the April-September 1967 Irish Georgian Society Bulletin, the Knight of Glin attributed the design of this extension to County Clare gentleman painter and architect Francis Bindon. ‘The facade,’ he wrote, ‘which fronts an older house, is built of beautiful pink brick like Carnelly [another Clare house believed to have been designed by Bindon], but it is composed with a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating a pedimented front door. On each side are two windows to a floor with single keystones, though the windows on the ground floor have been enlarged at a later date. Surmounting the second floor windows are labelled panels in brick. At either end of the house are bow windows and the whole house with its massive cornice and roof makes a highly effective and well conceived arrangement.
The front door leads into an elongated octagonal hall with a heavy Doric frieze, the metopes composed of delicious grinning masks, bukrania and the MacDonnell crest. The climax, and main feature of this hall, is a magnificent concave sided organ case that takes up the end of the room. It is actually only a cupboard. To the left and right of the hall lie the dining-room and drawing-room, the latter having elaborate plasterwork, festoons and frames probably executed by the same craftsman as the drawing-room at Carnelly…’
For almost fifty years the Knight of Glin’s crediting Bindon with the design of New Hall’s front section has been accepted. Should this continue to be the case? In the absence of documents all attributions to Bindon must be speculative. However, New Hall lacks those external features judged most typically Bindon-esque and found in other buildings deemed to be from his hand such as Woodstock (see Of Wonderous Beauty did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013), Bessborough (see In the Borough of Bess and Back to Bessborough, November 25th and December 2nd 2013) and John’s Square, Limerick (see When New Becomes Old, March 24th last). What might almost be considered the architect’s tics, not least the facade having a central curved niche on the first floor and a blind oculus on the second, are not found at New Hall. Instead the house presents such striking elements as raised brick panels, like arched eyebrows, above the first floor windows, and full-length bows at either end of the structure.
There is much about the entire building which remains a tantalising mystery. The original house (behind the brick extension) can be seen above in a photograph taken from the far side of the stable yard. Built of rubble and then rendered (before being given a pink wash to blend better with the addition’s brick), one suspects it was a typical 17th century long house that terminated at the cut-stone quoins; the attic dormer windows must be a relatively recent intervention since they do not appear in old photographs. Taking advantage of the view down to Killone Lake, the front part of the house was duly added by the first MacDonnells to live here in the mid-1760s. Then at a later date a further addition was made to the rear of the building, its fenestration markedly different from that of the other back section. Perhaps it was at this time also that the windows on the ground floor of the facade were lowered to increase light into the main rooms. And surely the stone balustrade and urns that top the central canted bow were incorporated at a later date?
New Hall’s interior similarly throws up many unresolved questions, the most obvious being when and why a large ‘organ’ was constructed between the two doors at the far end of the octagonal entrance hall. Its design bears similarities to the instrument designed by Lord Gerald FitzGerald in 1857 and installed in the former dining room at Carton, County Kildare. However, unlike that intervention the New Hall organ is simply a storage cupboard, one that overwhelms the space and detracts attention from the fine cornice plasterwork. For the present, and unless fresh information turns up this house’s architectural history must remain the subject of speculation.
The Charles MacDonnell responsible for buying the New Hall, formerly Killone, estate died in 1773 and was succeeded by his son, likewise called Charles and an MP, both in the Irish Parliament and, after the Act of Union, briefly sitting in that at Westminster. He was also a soldier who fought with Lord Rawdon during the American Revolutionary War. He had two sons, neither of whom appear to have produced heirs and thus following the death of John MacDonnell in 1850, the estate passed to the latter’s nephew, William Edward Armstrong, whose father William Henry Armstrong, who lived at Mount Heaton, King’s County (now Offaly), had married Bridget MacDonnell. William Edward assumed by Royal Licence the surname and arms of MacDonnell and was, in turn, succeeded by his son, Charles Randal MacDonnell. At this date, the estate amounted to some 6,670 acres in County Clare but in 1912 3,485 acres of tenanted and 256 acres of untenanted land was sold to the Congested Districts’ Board in October 1912 for more than £26,000. Within a decade the family had gone altogether and New Hall passed into the ownership of the Joyce family, originally from neighbouring County Galway. Following the death of Patrick Francis Joyce three years ago, the house has been offered for sale and seeks a fresh owner. This is without question a fascinating building, full of mystery about its origins and evolution and meriting the utmost care as a rare example of 18th century regional architecture in the west of Ireland. New blood for New Hall: whence will it come?
Above is a photograph of the library at Bantry House, County Cork taken in the early 1970s for Irish Houses and Castles by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan. With its marble columns and pilasters topped by gilded Corinthian capitals below a compartmented ceiling, the room is part of the enlargement of the building undertaken by the second Earl of Bantry in the 1840s. Below is a photograph taken from much the same point and showing the room today: as is widely known, many of its remaining contents, along with those elsewhere in the house, are due to be sold this autumn.
I shall be speaking of Bantry House next Tuesday, August 26th when, as part of Heritage Week, I am giving a talk on Some Irish Houses and Demesnes at the Market House, Monaghan at 8pm, admission is free. For more information, see: http://www.heritageweek.ie/whats-on/event-details?EventID=296
Plasterwork decoration in a recessed niche in the dining room of Bracklyn, County Westmeath. The house was built c.1790 by a branch of the Fetherston-Haugh family on land acquired from the Pakenhams in the same county. It occupies the site of a 15th century castle, some of which may have been incorporated into Bracklyn, which in keeping with the taste of the period has chaste neo-classical interiors throughout, as can also be seen below in this detail of an archway in the staircase hall.
Leaving the Empty Room
The door had a double lock,
and the joke was on me.
You might call it protection
against self, this joke,
and it wasn’t very funny:
I kept the door locked
in order to think twice.
The room itself: knickknacks,
chairs, and a couch,
the normal accoutrements.
And yet it was an empty room,
if you know what I mean.
I had a ticket in my head:
Anytime, it said, another joke.
How I wished I had a deadline
to leave the empty room,
or that the corridor outside
would show itself
to be a secret tunnel, perhaps
a winding path. Maybe I needed
a certain romance of departure
to kick in, as if I were waiting
for magic instead of courage,
or something else
I didn’t have. No doubt
you’re wondering if other people
inhabited the empty room.
Of course. What’s true emptiness
without other people?
I thought twice many times.
But when I left, I can’t say
I made a decision. I just followed
my body out the door,
one quick step after another,
even as the room started to fill
with what I’d been sure wasn’t there.
All photographs of New Hall, County Clare about which more next week.
Detail of a chimneypiece in the first floor drawing room of the former Bishop’s Palace in Waterford city. This building was designed c.1741 by Richard Castle and constructed on the site of a mediaeval Episcopal residence: it continued to serve this purpose until the last century and underwent various changes of use until restored in recent years and opened as a museum. Since the original chimneypieces were lost at some date, care has been taken to find appropriate replacements. This example, of Carrara white and Siena marble, came from the workshop of the Darley family in Dublin; its centre tablet feauring dolphin-handled ewers is similar to a design published by Sir William Chambers who, of course, was the architect responsible for Charlemont House and the Casino at Marino outside Dublin. Waterford Bishop’s Palace is currently hosting an exhibition on the local Roberts family, several members of which were notable artists and architects in the 18th century.