The point in rococo decoration where representation blurs into abstraction: a detail of the staircase decoration at 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. The house was begun in 1765 for Richard Chapel Whaley possibly to designs by Robert West, best known today as a stuccadore although he was also a master builder and merchant. The plasterwork in No.56 was formerly attributed to West but is now believed to have been executed by diverse unidentified craftsmen.
Since last Monday’s post about Carstown, County Louth excited some interest (see: A Lamentable Waste, January 26th), readers might like to know that ownership of this house and its history have been better chronicled over the past few centuries than is the case for many other such places. Above is a map drawn up in December 1774 by cartographer Charles Frizell Jr. who performed a similar service for estates across Ireland. At that time Carstown was owned by Edward Smith-Stanley, future Earl of Derby (and originator of the annual race at Epsom Downs that bears his name) whose mother, the heiress Lucy Smith, had inherited the property. Her forebear was Erasmus Smith who in the previous century had endowed a number of schools including that in Drogheda so shamefully demolished in 1989 (see: On the Town I, January 12th last). Ten years after Lord Stanley sold the estate to Miles Chester, for whose descendant Miss Henrietta Chester another map was published in 1856 (see below) at which date it was part of an estate running to 1,962 acres inherited from her father who had died the same year. Henrietta Chester lived until 1913 after which Carstown was inherited by her great-nephew, Edward Ryan whose family lived at Inch, County Tipperary: eight years after he died in 1939 his widow Rita sold the house and contents; the first photograph in Monday’s post was taken not long before that occurrence.
For a variety of reasons, some of which have been discussed here before, Ireland possesses a disproportionately small number of domestic dwellings from the 16th and 17th centuries. One might expect therefore that any remaining examples of architecture of this period would be especially cherished. The case of Carstown Manor, County Louth demonstrates the fallacy of such a supposition. As will be shown below, much about Carstown’s origins are, as so often, unclear. However, two pieces of on-site evidence help to date the building even if not exactly in the form it has today. These are a pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door. Although differing in shape, they carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. These stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, who came from Galtrim, County Meath. Both families were long settled in this part of the country, Oliver being the grandson of another Oliver Plunkett, first Baron Louth and also related to the slightly later Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh who was executed in 1681 and canonised in 1975. The alliance between the Plunketts and the Husseys was thus one linking two important dynasties of the Pale. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind at Carstown.
Carstown is a south-facing five-bay single-storey house over raised basement, the attic lit by gabled dormer windows believed to have been inserted at some date later than the main building’s construction. The façade is notable for a number of oddities, among them the substantial protruding chimneystack on the west gable: that on the east is incorporated into the house. The raised doorway, reached by a flight of stone steps projecting some twenty-four feet out from the house, is off-centre, closer to the east than the west. Add the intermittent use of brick and the fact that some of the dormers are taller than others and it is easy to see why all these anomalies have encouraged speculation into the origins of Carstown, the lands of which appears to have been in Plunkett ownership long before 1612. The most common explanation for the building’s unusual appearance is that it began as a late 15th/early 16th century tower house which stood on the site of the two eastern bays. This theory is strengthened by the existence of a cut-stone arch surviving in the north-west corner of this part of the basement, suggesting it was the tower house’s entrance; a curve in the wall immediately to the north would also propose this was where the spiral staircase began. Throughout the country there are examples of similar buildings being modernised by incorporation into later structures, the whole often then rendered so as to conceal where the old work ended and the new began. Clearly at Carstown the latter started fairly early because the internal plaque of 1612 serves as keystone of a chimneypiece measuring almost nine feet wide and five feet high; this would have heated a space serving as the house’s great hall. Additional work carried out in either the late 18th century or early decades of the 19th century – when it seems most of the fine yard buildings were erected – have further muddled matters, not least because at that time a three-bay, three-storey extension was added behind the main block, thereby giving Carstown a T-shaped plan.
In 2011 Michael Corcoran published a paper proposing an alternative narrative for Carstown. Based on evidence from other contemporaneous buildings in Ireland and England, he suggests the core of the structure could be a late-mediaeval house dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. It would have been a relatively modest gabled rectangular domestic residence but not so greatly different from what can be seen today. The main floor would already have been over a raised basement with attic space above, accessed as now through a door approximately two-thirds along the front towards the eastern end. ‘It is uncertain whether the original entrance would have been elevated, accessed by a staircase for which the current one is a replacement. It is quite possible that the original entrance was at ground-level, possibly through the opening beneath the current stairs. The building would have been heated by at least three ﬁreplaces, one at each gable end and another – the largest – along the back wall of the house, possibly serving a great hall.’ Thus, Corcoran submits, Carstown most likely underwent a remodelling around 1612, with the two stones carrying this date being inserted to mark that occasion, as well perhaps as the marriage of Oliver Plunkett and Katherine Hussey. Jacobean taste would have led to the insertion of larger windows and perhaps the gabled dormers were added at the same time, both to increase light and to provide additional living space. ‘It is at this point, also, that we see probably the earliest appearance of brick at the site, which was used in carefully selected places such as at the tops of the chimneys and in a thin course beneath the eaves of the roof. It is likely that the building remained in this form up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which there were successive periods of remodelling and extending.’
If Michael Corcoran’s hypothesis about Carstown’s origins holds up under further investigation, then as he writes, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’ The likelihood of that further investigation taking place grows slimmer by the day because Carstown is now in perilous condition. The house was occupied until relatively recently (the photograph top was taken in the 1940s) and it still has electricity; there is even a television aerial on the roof indicating occupancy in the not-too distant past. But as always in our damp climate, lack of constant residency rapidly takes its toll on a building, not least because it then becomes vulnerable to vandalism. This clearly happened at Carstown, so the present owners took the step of blocking up all openings with cement blocks, although limited access to the interior is still possible. Limited because it is no longer safe to venture above the basement and therefore impossible to know the condition of 18th century joinery and plasterwork still in place less than twenty years ago, not to mention the great chimneypiece with its keystone carrying the date 1612. At some point in the past six months lead was stripped from the roof, along with a set of gates beyond the yard, probably by metal thieves. This has exacerbated the house’s decline as large numbers of slates have come free, leaving the floors below exposed to the elements. Time is running out for Carstown, a house that in other jurisdictions would be cherished for its rarity. Unless intervention occurs within the coming year the building is likely to slip into irreversible decline. All those who could and should play a part to ensure its survival, not least the owners and the local authority, need to understand that by failing to act now they are not only diminishing the nation’s architectural heritage but depriving future generations of better understanding our complex history. Take a good look at that date stone: it could soon be replaced by another marking the demise of Carstown.
A portrait of Henry Boyle, third Earl of Shannon in his robes as a Knight of St Patrick. The picture is attributed to William Cuming (1769-1852) who served first as President of the Society of Artists in Dublin and then as President of the Royal Hibernian Academy. This is one of a group of Boyle family portraits temporarily returning to the Shannon’s former seat, Castlemartyr, County Cork, now an hotel: the pictures will hang in the house for the month of February. Next Friday, January 30th at 7pm I shall be in Castlemartyr holding a public conversation with the present Earl of Shannon, Harry Boyle about his family’s history. We will also be showing a collection of photographs of the house taken in the closing decades of the 19th century when Castlemartyr was still in Boyle ownership. For more information about this event, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Two pieces of statuary in the grounds of Ballyfin, County Laois. To the rear of the main block and flanked by obelisks, the figure of a river god reclines in a basin. The cascade behind him concludes in a Doric temple. Meanwhile in front of the house a pair of crouching sphinxes observe the arrival and departure of guests.
The debt which Ireland owes to members of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers, is insufficiently appreciated. Although always relatively small in number, members of their faith were often outstandingly industrious and possessed of exceptional foresight. One of the most notable among them was Anthony Sharp, born in Gloucestershire in 1643 before moving to this country in 1669 to escape religious persecution in England. He settled in Dublin where he became involved in the wool trade and quickly gained success: by 1680 he employed some 500 workers and eight years later the Weavers’ Guild elected him Master; he also became an Alderman of Dublin. As well as allowing him to acquire extensive property in the capital, Sharp’s business acumen provided him with the necessary funds to buy land elsewhere in Ireland, notably in what was then known as Queen’s County, now Laois. Around 1685 he purchased from Thomas Sharkey of Abbeyleix some 1,700 acres in Killinure based around a small dwelling house. Using the land to graze sheep and thus produce more wool, Sharp established a small community in Killinure which came to have the informal name Friends Town and it appears there were other buildings in the vicinity including mills. Even before buying the estate in Ireland Anthony Sharp had been one of the original shareholders in the purchase of West New Jersey in 1677 (in which William Penn, who had converted to Quakerism while in Ireland, was also involved). Likewise, when East New Jersey was bought by the Quakers in 1682 Sharp was an investor. While he remained in Ireland, in late 1700 his eldest son Isaac Sharp moved to America where he settled in Salem County, New Jersey, naming the district Blessington after the County Wicklow town (the area in New Jersey is now known as Sharpstown).
Anthony Sharp died in 1707 and was buried in Dublin. The bulk of his property was bequeathed to his son Isaac who at the time was still living in Salem County where he served as a judge and a colonel of the local militia; he would also be a member of the New Jersey General Assembly from 1709-21. In 1714 he married a local woman, Margaret Braithwaite, with whom he had six children. Thus although being the principal beneficiary of his father’s estate, he remained in America and only returned to Ireland around 1726, together with his eldest son Anthony. The latter thus inherited the Killinure property on his own father’s death in 1735 (he conveyed the East New Jersey lands to his younger brothers five years later). Anthony Sharp remained on the Killinure estate, now called Roundwood, until his death in 1781; he had two children, a boy and a girl but the former Isaac Sharp died while still a minor and the estate passed to the son of Anthony Sharp’s daughter Frances’ son, one Robert Anthony Flood who in accordance with the terms of his grandfather’s will assumed the surname Sharp. Soon after the family’s decline began, Robert Sharp taking out a mortgage in 1784, a year after his marriage to Mary Horan of Dublin, on all his properties in the capital. He died in 1803 leaving a one year-old heir William Flood Sharp under whom the deterioration of finances accelerated to such an extent that in 1835 the house and demesne of 1,680 acres were assigned to a Dublin attorney to cover the family’s debts. One of the witnesses to the deed of transfer was a first cousin once-removed William Hamilton of Peafield in the same county. Two years later Hamilton was shown to be in possession of Roundwood and his descendants remained there until 1968 when Major Maurice Chetwode Hamilton sold house and remaining 200 acres to the Land Commission.
The Land Commission, as was ever that body’s wont, displayed no interest in the house which was left boarded up, its condition soon deteriorating. It might have been lost altogether had the Irish Georgian Society not stepped in to buy house and surrounding fourteen acres for £6,250 in the summer of 1970. There was no water supply or electricity but thankfully the building had not been vandalised and its chimneypieces and other features were intact. Brian Molloy, one of the IGS’s most spirited members at the time moved into Roundwood and aided by a band of volunteers set about rescuing Roundwood. A diary he kept during those first months indicates just how dilapidated the house had become and how much had to be done. In an entry for July 15th 1970, he notes that a 19th century extension to the rear of the house ‘was consumed with dry rot, wet rot and decay’ (it was soon demolished) and three days later, ‘Mr Maloney the electrician is coming on Tuesday, thank God. He gave an estimate of £218, very reasonable as it includes 47 thirteen amp sockets.’ Gradually the house was refurbished and decorated at a cost of just £15,000: the drawingroom’s Victorian chimneypiece was replaced with a fine 18th century example from Bert House, County Kildare but otherwise little was added to the building. Similarly the overgrown grounds and stable yard were cleared and tidied. The house was officially opened on June 6th 1971 after which Brian Molloy lived there while overseeing the restoration of the Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (for more on that property, see Bon Anniversaire, September 23rd 2013). Two years later it was bought from the society for £35,000 by one of the organisation’s keenest American supporters, John L Tormey of Akron, Ohio. He was happy that Brian Molloy should continue to live there as he did until his untimely death in 1978, after which John Tormey generously donated Roundwood back to the Society. It was then occupied for a time by Brian Molloy’s friend, the artist’s muse Henrietta Moraes before being leased from the IGS in 1983 by Frank and Rosemarie Kennan. Five years later they bought Roundwood from the society and today their daughter and son-in-law Hannah and Paddy Flynn live there and, like her parents, run the house as a family guesthouse.
Roundwood has often and rightly been described as having the appearance and character of a doll’s house and is certainly one of the prettiest such properties remaining in Ireland. The building must date from before 1741 which is when the name Roundwood first appears in registered deeds instead of Killinure. One can therefore presume it was built by Anthony Sharp shortly after he came into his inheritance in 1735. The main elevation is of five bays and three storeys with a break front, the central projecting bay crowned with a pediment. There is only a part-basement and unusually the kitchen has always been on the ground floor behind the dining room. The entrance doorcase is Gibbsian, flanked on both sides by narrow windows and composed of limestone, unlike the rest of the facade which is of sandstone with side and back being rendered. The design of the house has been attributed to both Richard Castle and Francis Bindon but what might be described as the clumsiness of certain elements make this unlikely. It has been noted, for example, how the detailing of the first floor Venetian window lacks sophistication and its coursing differs from that of the quoins. As Maurice Craig wrote in 1976, ‘I prefer to believe it was just put together by somebody: master-builder or even owner.’ One suspects this was often the case in 18th century provincial Ireland.
The greater part of the interior remains unaltered, the rooms still with their carved timber architraves to window openings, lugged doorcases and panelled wainscotting, as well as some primitive rococo plasterwork in the former study. All the chimney pieces remain except, as already mentioned, that in the drawing room which came from Bert, County Kildare, a house of similar date. But the great delight of Roundwood is its double-height entrance hall with a bow-fronted first-floor gallery once described as swelling out like a pair of opera boxes, their balustrades made of distinctive Chinoiserie fretwork. No matter how many times one visits Roundwood, the sight of its entrance hall lifts the spirits up and beyond the ceiling’s stucco foliate centrepiece. Forty-five years ago the future of this house looked decidedly uncertain and many others of its ilk were lost then and in the intervening years. Thankfully in this instance salvation was at hand in the nick of time. Roundwood has survived and now serves as an wonderful example of how such properties can be both a family home and financially viable.
Elevation and sectional drawings by architect John O’Connell.
Roundwood welcomes guests. For more information, see: http://www.roundwoodhouse.com
Two views of the late 14th century cloisters at the former Franciscan friary in Askeaton, County Limerick. Founded by Gerald FitzGerald, third Earl of Desmond the friary is notable for the excellently preserved condition of this feature; each of its four still-vaulted sides features twelve pointed arches supported by cylindrical columns with moulded capitals.