Ballyragget Castle, County Kilkenny is a late 15th century tower house originally built by a branch of the Butler family one of whom, Richard Butler became first Viscount Mountgarret in 1550; his mother, the spirited Lady Margaret FitzGerald, Countess of Ormond is said to have lived here. Butlers continued to occupy the building until 1788 when they moved into a house close by. Surrounded by a bawn wall and climbing four or five storeys high with fine crenellations and handsome cut stone windows, the castle could easily be put to good use, not least as a tourist attraction. Instead it stands on the edge of a farmyard, all doors and other points of ingress sealed by concrete breeze blocks. An admirable example of how to treat the country’s built heritage…
Monthly Archives: February 2015
Part of the ceiling decoration of 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. As mentioned some weeks ago (see Highly Stylised, January 31st last), work on the house began in 1765, the architect responsible considered to be Robert West who also worked as a stuccadore. It therefore used to be thought that he was responsible for the plasterwork here, but diverse craftsmen are now deemed to have had a hand. Whoever created this convocation of swooping eagles certainly deserves recognition and praise since they are an example of virtuosic skill.
In November 1927 Aileen Sibell Mary Guinness married the Hon Brinsley Sheridan Bushe Plunket and as a wedding present was given by her father Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. Situated on the outskirts of the capital, the house stood in the centre of a much-admired park: Hermann, Prince von Pückler-Muskau visited Luttrellstown while in Ireland in 1828 and wrote, ‘The entrance to the demesne is indeed the most delightful of its kind that can be imagined. Scenery, by nature most beautiful, is improved by art to the highest degree of its capability, and, without destroying its free and wild character, a variety and richness of vegetation is produced which enchants the eye…’ By this date Luttrellstown had passed out of the hands of its original owners, the Luttrells the first of whom Sir Geoffrey de Luterel had been granted the estate by King John around 1210. The original castle was built here some two centuries later and descended from one generation to the next until the late 17th century when it passed out of the ownership of Simon Luttrell, a Roman Catholic supporter of James II who, having supported the King, then emigrated to France and was killed while commanding an Irish regiment at the Battle of Lindon in 1693. His younger brother Colonel Henry Luttrell appeared likewise to support the Jacobite cause but during the Siege of Limerick was discovered to be intriguing with the Williamite forces. The new regime permitted him to keep the family estates but his treachery was not forgotten and in 1717 he was shot dead in Dublin while being carried in his sedan chair from a coffee house: despite a reward of £1,000 being offered, his assassin was never discovered. (During the 1798 Rising, his grave was broken open and the skull smashed). Thereafter the Luttrells failed to enjoy public esteem, although Henry’s younger son Simon Luttrell eventually became first Earl of Carhampton. His son Henry, second earl, was a notorious rake who, as Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Ireland made so many enemies that a plot to assassinate him was discovered in 1797. In May 1811 the Dublin Post erroneously reported his death and Lord Carhampton demanded a retraction: this was published until the headline ‘Public Disappointment.’ By then, universally reviled, the Luttrells had left the country, selling the Luttrellstown estate in 1800.
Luttrellstown’s next owner was Luke White of whom Lady Hardwicke, wife of the Viceroy, wrote in 1803, ‘He was the servant of an auctioneer of books (some say he first cried newspapers about the streets). As he rose in his finances, he sold a few pamphlets on his own account…His talent for figures soon made him his master’s clerk, and he afterwards was taken into a lottery office, where his calculations soon procured him a partnership. Good luck attended him in every speculation, and he knew how to profit by it, but with the fairest fame. He continued his trade in books on the great scale, and was equally successful in all the train of money transactions…’ So successful indeed that he could afford to lend the government £1 million during the 1798 Rebellion and then two years later buy Luttrellstown, ‘to the great offence of all the aristocrats in Ireland,’ according to Lady Hardwicke. In an effort to dispel memories of the previous owners, White renamed the estate Woodlands but his great-grandson on inheriting the place in 1888 reverted to the original Luttrellstown. By this date the family had joined the ranks of the aristocracy, Luke White’s son having been created first Lord Annaly in 1863. Famously Queen Victoria twice visited Luttrellstown, passing through in 1849 while en route to the Duke of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare and then drinking tea by a waterfall in the grounds in 1900. In commemoration, the third Lord Annaly erected in the grounds an obelisk made from Wicklow granite. Following his death in 1922 the next generation decided to live in England and so the Luttrellstown estate was offered for sale.
Always known by his middle name, Arthur Ernest Guinness was the second son of Edward Guinness, created first Earl of Iveagh in 1919. While his elder and younger brothers Rupert and Walter entered politics, Ernest, who took a degree in engineering at Cambridge, trained as a brewer before becoming assistant managing director at the family business in 1902 and vice-chairman in 1913. Ten years earlier he had married Cloe (Marie Clothilde) Russell, only daughter of Sir Charles Russell; her mother was the granddaughter of the fourth Duke of Richmond, making Cloe a direct descendant of Charles II and his French mistress Louise de Kérouaille. The Guinnesses had three daughters, Aileen Sibell (b.1904), Maureen Constance (1907) and Oonagh (1910), in adulthood collectively known as the Golden Guinness Girls. Their Irish names reflect the fact that they spent the greater part of their time in Ireland, even though Ernest had a house in central London at 17 Grosvenor Place (today the Irish Embassy) as well as an estate house at Holmbury, Surrey. But the family’s main residence was Glenmaroon on the edge of Dublin’s Phoenix Park; from here Ernest would walk to his office at Guinness’ every day. Around the time of his death in 1949, Ernest’s granddaughter Neelia Plunket described Glenmaroon as ‘A fascinating but hideous house. Fascinating, because each time we go there, there is some new electrical device or mechanical gadget that makes an organ play, panels in the wall open or something unusual happens.’ Glenmaroon’s features including one of the fist indoor swimming pools in Ireland but also – a reflection of Ernest’s mechanical interests – a coal scuttle with a small button which, when pushed, caused an automatic pipe organ to rise up and begin playing Cherry Ripe, a popular song of the period. A competitive yachtsman, Ernest was among the first young men of his generation to acquire a motor car, and later one of the oldest to be issued a British pilot’s licence. He came to own four aeroplanes, and would often fly one of these to his estate at Ashford Castle, County Galway. Under these circumstances and after such an upbringing, it is easy to see why, when his eldest daughter married in 1927, he felt obliged to present her with Luttrellstown Castle.
Aileen Guinness was related to her husband: his grandmother Anne Guinness had been a sister of her grandfather, the first Earl of Iveagh. (Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, heir to the third Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who would marry the next Guinness sister Maureen in 1930 was thus not only related to his wife but also a cousin of his brother-in-law Brinsley Plunket since the latter’s mother had been a sister of the first Marquess). The groom was always known as Brinny and his older brother Terence Conyngham Plunket, sixth Lord Plunket, as Teddy. The latter was a talented artist – his portrait of Brinny can be seen above – who chronicled his social life through amusing cartoons. In 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of another Irish peer, the 7th Marquess of Londonderry; her mother had been American actress Fannie Ward who appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s racy 1915 silent film The Cheat. Dorothé first married Captain Jack Barnato (a nephew of the mining Randlord Barney Barnato) but he had died of pneumonia within months of the wedding. She and Teddy Plunket were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938. As a younger son, Brinny had no estate and little money but his wife’s father was able to provide both. Racehorses and cars were Brinny Plunket’s chief interests and as a result, during the early years of her first marriage Aileen came to own a number of thoroughbreds, including Millennium which she regularly led into the winner’s enclosure. One contemporary later recalled bumping into Brinny, who drove a Delage sports car painted in his racing colours of black and gold, and being persuaded to come to dinner at Luttrellstown that night. Once seated at table, ‘my neighbour turned to me, “I understand you are not interested in horses. Then what are you interested in?” – a difficult question to answer in a company whose sole interest was horses.’
In the early years of their marriage, Aileen and Brinny Plunket hosted many house parties at Luttrellstown, occasions meticulously chronicled in her photograph albums. Sundry entertainments were laid on for them: a report in the Daily Express in December 1932 noted ‘The Luttrellstown party should be particularly gay. One of the features will be a servants’ ball, to which more than 250 butlers, cooks and housemaids have been bidden.’ Teddy and Dorothé were regulars, as was Aileen’s cousin Arthur Guinness, Viscount Elveden (heir to the second Earl of Iveagh), universally known as ‘Lump’: he would be killed in action in 1945 at the age of thirty-two. His sister Honor, who in 1933 would marry Henry ‘Chips’ Channon visited, as did another of Brinny’s brothers Kiwa. Among non-family members who came to stay was the Hon Hamish St Clair-Erskine (briefly Nancy Mitford’s fiance), racing driver Sir Tim Birkin and Major Edward Metcalfe, always called ‘Fruity’, Equerry to the Duke of Windsor (and best man at his wedding to Wallis Simpson in 1937.) One of Aileen’s closest friens was the former lingerie model and chorus girl Sylvia Hawkes, then married to her first husband Anthony Ashley-Cooper, heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury. However, during the early 1930s she began an affair with Douglas Fairbanks Sr, who came to stay at Luttrellstown in November 1933: a report in the Dublin Evening Mail of the actor’s visit to a performance at the Abbey Theatre commented that although widely recognised, ‘there was no attempt to even approach the actor, and he smilingly moved through the crowd to his car, accompanied by his host and hostess…’ The following year he was cited as co-respondent in the Ashley-Coopers’ divorce. (Fairbanks went on to marry Sylvia. Following his death, she married in succession Lord Stanley of Alderley, Clark Gable and the Georgian Prince Dimitri Jorjadze). The Plunkets’ own marriage subsequently began to unravel. After having had three daughters, Neelia (which is Aileen spelt backwards), Doon and Marcia (who died at the age of three) Aileen began to seek alternative amusement to that provided by her husband. Her lovers in the pre-war years included impoverished Austrian playboy Baron Hubert von Pantz, who also had an affair with Coco Chanel (he would later marry Terry McConnell, a rich widow whose former father-in-law had founded Avon cosmetics, and create the ski resort Club Mittersill in New Hampshire). The couple finally divorced in 1940 and Brinny who had joined the RAF was killed in aerial combat over Sudan in November 1941. By this date Aileen had long settled in the United States where she remained until after the Second World War ended. Then she returned to Luttrellstown which in the early 1950s was extensively redecorated by Felix Harbord. But that story must wait for another occasion.
A Swift Connection
A crimson morocco case holding five George II steel forks due to be sold next Wednesday 25th February by Fonsie Mealy in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny. The forks have stained ivory handles, each bearing the same initials and crest as those of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745. Might these therefore have belonged to him, and was it perhaps during his lifetime that the prongs of the left-most fork were first filed down, presumably because one of them broke or was bent? Before passing to the vendor’s family the set belonged to the 19th century archaeologist and antiquarian John Ribton Garstin, one-time President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. It is expected to make €2,000- €3,000.
Remember Man That Thou Art Dust
Scattered on the floor of the rear hall at Bloomsbury, County Meath are the remnants of plasterwork fallen from the ceiling. Originally dating from the 17th century and named Mount Tisdall after its then-owners, the front section of the house was extensively refurbished in the 1740s. Then in the late 1850s the property more than doubled thanks to Richard Barnewell. In the present century a programme of work was begun on the building and then abandoned, and in recent years Bloomsbury has ignominiously slithered into decay. Given that in the Christian calendar today is Ash Wednesday, it seems an apposite image.
More on this house in the weeks to come.
On the Town II
The fortunes of Youghal, County Cork seem always to have been mixed. Writing of the town in 1748, the London bookseller and theatre manager William Rufus Chetwood commented, ‘Youghall, we are told, was formerly a place of good Trade; but I own, by the countenance it at present carries, it seems to be long in mourning for want of it. While our dinner was preparing, we took a walk through its long, wide, empty street without meeting ten people, even on the Quay itself…In short, my Lord, it seems a heartless, dejected place.’ On the other hand, by 1784 the Annals of Youghal could report that ‘In the summer months great numbers resort to Youghall, for the benefit of the salt-water…With respect to amusements, the town is not without its share. Such as wish to dip in the news and politicks, can at all times be furnished with the public papers, by resorting to the Mall House, while billards and bagammon afford ample entertainment to others…drums and assemblies are regularly held two or three times a week.’ When Henry David Inglis undertook his Journey Throughout Ireland in 1834 he found that in Youghal there were houses ‘seen in a ruined state, betokening, I fear, not antiquity only but decay,’ noting also the town’s ‘very considerable want of employment, and a large quantum of destitution.’ Yet just three years later, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland observed ‘Most of the houses in the principal streets are either new or have been modernised; many of the ancient houses have been newly fronted, but may still be distinguished by their gable ends fronting the street, and their pointed doorways of stone. The town is much frequented during the summer for sea-bathing, for which it is well adapted…’
And so it goes on, sometimes the reports are encouraging, on other occasions the implication is given that Youghal is in terminal decline. But attributes on which all commentators agree are the town’s ancient history and its outstanding collection of historic monuments.
Wonderfully situated at the mouth of the river Blackwater, Youghal derives its name from the Irish Eochaill meaning ‘yew wood’ since these trees were once plentiful in the region. With the land rising steeply behind, the spot proved perfect for a Viking settlement in the middle of the ninth century but the town did not really grow until the arrival of the Normans some three hundred years later, after which it became an important port. Youghal received its charter of incorporation from King John in 1209, and immigrants from Bristol on the other side of the Irish Sea encouraged trade between the two countries. While some kind of defences existed already, it was in the thirteenth century that the town’s stone walls were built, of which large sections still remain. As an indication of its importance in the Middle Ages, when in 1301 Edward I required two boats from all English and Irish ports to support his fight against the Scots, he ordered that Youghal supply three vessels. Half a century later, the Freemen of Youghal were granted freedom to trade in different staples such as wool and leather throughout England and Wales. In 1462 it was created one of Ireland’s ‘cinque ports’ which ensured further trading privileges. In 1600 Youghal was elevated to the rank of ‘staple town’, receiving exclusive rights to carry on the wool trade with Bristol, Liverpool, Chester and Milford. By this time it had become one of Ireland’s greatest ports, more important than Cork Harbour which was described as ‘a port near Youghal.’
By then also, control of the area in which the town is located had changed several times, passing between the FitzGerald Earls of Desmond and the Butler Earls of Ormond. It was sacked by the fifteenth Earl of Desmond in 1579 and following the suppression of his rebellion, a grant of some 40,000 acres including the towns of Lismore and Youghal was made to the English buccaneer Sir Walter Raleigh; his own residence Myrtle Grove remains in the town. However in 1602 he sold his Irish estate to another Elizabethan adventurer, Richard Boyle, future first Earl of Cork whose descendants retained ownership of their property for much longer. Youghal suffered badly during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, being under siege at one period and serving as Oliver Cromwell’s winter base at the end of the decade. However the town recovered in the 18th century, its trade expanding and population more than doubling. Although business in the port declined in the 19th century, Youghal’s fortunes improved with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s after which it became a major holiday resort.
Throughout the town centre it is hard to miss evidence of Youghal’s venerable past. Among the most significant monuments to its history is the Collegiate Church of St Mary, which claims to be the oldest site of unbroken Christian worship in Ireland. The church’s origins may go back to St Declan in the fifth century but roof timbers of the nave have been carbon-dated to around 1170. A rebuilding programme was undertaken in the early part of the following century, and then in 1464 under the auspices of the seventh Earl of Desmond it became a collegiate church, with the establishment of a neighbouring college accomommodating a warden overseeing clergy and singing clerks: since the Reformation, the church has been used for Anglican services while at the start of the 17th century the college became a private residence for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. His immense tomb, featuring not just the earl but his wives and children, dominates the south transept and is one of the most splendid 17th century funerary monuments in the country. Many more can be found in the surrounding graveyard which is bordered by sections of the old town walls and overlooks the grounds of both the college and Myrtle Grove, once residence to Sir Walter Raleigh. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told that a household servant once threw water over him believing Raleigh to have caught fire: in fact, he was smoking tobacco which he is credited with introducing to these islands (as it was long thought he likewise did the potato). The abiding presence of Boyle can also be seen in a cluster of six almshouses he founded in 1601 on the corner of North Main and Church Streets. Nearby rises Tynte’s Castle, a 15th century tower house built by the Walsh family but subsequently owned by Sir Robert Tynte, an ally of the Earl of Cork and after 1612 married to his cousin Elizabeth (widow of the poet Edmund Spenser). Further south on Main Street one reaches the Red House, an early 18th century two-storey over basement seven-bay residence with pedimented three-bay breakfront, its design attributed to a Dutch architect named Claud Leuvethen. Built for the Uniackes, a local merchant family, the house’s name derives from the brick facade now covered by paint. Some distance down from this are remains of a mid-14th century Benedictine priory now incorporated into a house, and thence one reaches Youghal’s landmark Clock Gate, designed by local architect William Meade and completed in 1777.
For any visitor the delights of Youghal include not just the town’s architectural history but also the visible efforts made to preserve and present this to best advantage. Landmark buildings are well sign-posted and marked with informative plaques. Litter is kept down, and planting kept up. In many respects Youghal can serve as a role model for other heritage towns in Ireland.
Nevertheless, the place has problems, some of its own making, others outside its control. In 1834 Henry David Inglis wrote, ‘The suburbs of Youghal are large and bad: they extend in every direction up the hill, behind the old town wall, and contain many very miserable cabins.’ That description remains true today, albeit that the cabins have been replaced by poor quality housing. The approaches to Youghal and general development beyond the old town boundaries are equally incoherent, displaying this country’s customary lack of planning and foresight; the result is that anyone arriving on the outskirts would feel little incentive to venture into the town centre where so much deserves to be seen. Meanwhile, within that centre although significant monuments have been cherished the more general stock of building has just as often not; quite a lot of it today is in poor condition and/or suffering from cack-handed intervention, like the widespread replacement of old timber windows with uPVC frames. Buildings erected on vacant sites in recent decades are shockingly mediocre, and too much space is given up to tarmac, not enough to grass and trees.
All of these issues can, should and probably will be addressed by interested townspeople. But they face other challenges less easily overcome. Youghal is the victim of changing economic and social circumstances. It is no longer a port of any significance, its local industries have all gone, its role as a seaside resort of little import since the advent of cheap air travel, even its position as a market town undermined by the ability of consumers to travel to larger urban centres: hence too many premises in the centre now stand empty. Today Youghal’s greatest asset looks to be its history and how terrific so many citizens recognise this and are engaging in diverse ways to ensure it has a future as glorious as its past.
A white marble statue of Amorino commissioned in Rome from Antonio Canova in 1789 by John La Touche. Scion of Ireland’s wealthiest banking family, La Touche was then on a year-long Grand Tour through Italy, during which he was taken to Canova’s studio by the Irish painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton. There he saw two versions of the same figure, one of which is now in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire. Not long before leaving Rome and returning home, La Touche requested his own copy which was duly delivered to Dublin in the summer of 1792. It remained in the family’s possession until the last century but both artist and provenance were forgotten until the statue was rediscovered in the back garden of an English house in 1996. It was then bought by the Bank of Ireland, appropriately since John La Touche’s father David had been that institution’s first governor, and presented to the National Gallery of Ireland.
The Irish Aesthete wishes a happy Valentine’s Day to all readers.
A section of the cut-sandstone entrance centrepiece at Kilshannig, County Cork. Set against a facade of red brick, this comprises Doric pilasters with moulded capitals and plinths, these supporting an entablature with alternating bucrania and fruit and flowers metopes set between triglyphs. Kilshannig was built c.1765 for Abraham Devonsher, a local banker and Member of Parliament to the design of Davis Duckart. Its interior features some of the Lafranchini brothers’ finest stuccowork.
More on Kilshannig in the coming weeks.
An Appalling Vista
For hundreds of years the Prestons were one of the most significant land-owning families in County Meath, their name deriving from the town of Preston in Lancashire whence they moved to Ireland in the early 14th century. Originally merchants, one of their number, Roger de Preston studied law, was appointed Justice in the Court of Common Pleas in 1327 and four years later became a Justice of the Court of King’s Bench. His son Robert likewise was a successful lawyer, becoming Irish King’s Serjeant around 1348 and Attorney General for Ireland in 1355. A few years afterwards rebellion against the crown erupted in Leinster, led by the Irish Aesthete’s more bellicose O’Byrne forebears in alliance with the MacMurrough-Kavanaghs: in the ensuing war Robert de Preston served as lieutenant to Edward III’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence and was duly knighted for his efforts. Subsequently created Baron Gormanston, the title taken from lands he bought in Meath, he ended his career as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer. His great-grandson Sir Robert Preston further improved the family’s circumstances, being appointed Deputy both to Sir John Dynham, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland and to the Lord Lieutenant Richard, Duke of York, son of Edward IV. In 1478 he was created Viscount Gormanston: his descendant the 17th Viscount is bearer of the oldest vicomital title in Ireland and Britain. Inevitably the Gormanstons were involved in the political and religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. Remaining true to their Roman Catholic faith and to Kings Charles I and James II (the seventh Viscount fought on the latter’s side at the Battle of the Boyne and then defended Limerick), they saw their lands forfeited by both the Commonwealth government and that of William III. Yet the ninth Viscount managed to regain possession of the majority of the Gormanston estate under the terms of the 1691 Treaty of Limerick, even if his right to a title was not recognised (that feat was only achieved by the twelth Viscount in 1800). As a result, the family returned to live in Meath where the main residence was Gormanston Castle. By the second quarter of the 18th century their position was sufficiently secure and their income sufficiently great for the tenth Lord Gormanston to build himself a hunting lodge in another part of the county at Whitewood.
Among the collection of Gormanston papers now in the possession of the National Library of Ireland is a folio of architectural drawings including one showing plans for Whitewood in c.1735. This features not just the house and ancillary structures but also elements of the surrounding landscape as either intended or executed. The drawing is signed ‘By J. Sheridan’ but the identity of this person remains unknown. He may simply have been a draughtsman since the design of Whitewood has for long been attributed to Richard Castle, based on similarities with other houses from his practice, and to certain stylistic traits it shares with the likes of Gormanston Castle and Hazelwood, County Sligo. Whitewood, of course, is much smaller than either of these properties, as would befit its status as a secondary residence.
Constructed from cut limestone, the building has an east-facing three-bay facade of two storeys over raised basement. A shallow parapet partially conceals the hipped roof and two central chimneys. The north and south fronts are likewise of three bays while that to the west, which has a superlative view down to Whitewood Lake, is of five bays. The dominant feature of the exterior is a stone staircase which extends far out to the front, initial flights to north and south meeting to create what is almost like a viewing platform before they ascend over an arch and thereby reach the relatively modest door with plain fanlight. Inside the decoration is likewise devoid of superfluities. The main floor layout is symmetrical, with rooms to left and right of the narrow entrance passage, the stair hall behind likewise having spaces on either side. There are simple cornices, Kilkenny marble chimney pieces, fielded panels to the woodwork, flagged floors and well-worn limestone steps leading up and down. There is no pretension to grandeur here; this is a functional building.
The significance of Whitewood lies not just in its being a rare survival of an Irish 18th century hunting lodge, but even more in its unique setting. The house lies at the centre of a meticulously selected and improved landscape not found anywhere else. Whitewood is set on top of a rise with spectacular views particularly to east and west: as has already been mentioned, the latter offers a prospect down to the lake. The view to the east is of equal consequence, dominated by a long, straight avenue leading to the entrance gates, beyond which the ground once more gently rises to woodland closing the horizon. On an axis with the house, the avenue appears on early maps of the area, suggesting it was most likely part of the original design of the property. This would be in keeping with taste of the time, such long straight approaches being in fashion for parkland design from the second half of the 17th century onwards. Usually of course they led to a substantial palace whereas the house at Whitewood is of modest proportions. Nevertheless a lot of effort was expended on its avenue which is a man-made construction, a raised earthwork some sixty-two feet wide with ditches supported by low stone walls on either side. One wonders if perhaps it was a relief work undertaken to give local employment during the great freeze and famine of 1740-41: this would explain why such a very substantial project was undertaken at Whitewood. A section of grass flanking the central drive is in turn closed by matching lines of Beech and other trees. Visitors arriving at the gates are thus introduced to an Arcadian park uninterrupted until it terminates in the remote distance with the house on raised ground. The impression is given at the gates that the avenue continues directly to the front door. In fact, while continuing much of the way, it then swings to the north, so that an open lawn protected by ha-ha immediately in front of the building offers its occupants an unspoilt outlook. Meanwhile the diverted route passes by a lodge and sundry buildings which would have been used in the management of this pocket estate.
Whitewood remained part of the Gormanston estate until the last century, many of its residents being employees. Such was the case with the present owner’s family: his forebears were already living in the house when the Land Commission offered it for sale: with customary crassness, the same state organisation also proposed demolishing the historic building and replacing it with a bungalow. Thankfully the family which had, and continues to have, a deep attachment to the house, turned down this proposal. Thereafter they maintained Whitewood at the centre of what today continues to be a working farm. In a report on the property compiled in 2010, garden consultant Finola Reid observed that Whitewood is a rare surviving example of a small country house framed within its original demesne: ‘The creation of its designed landscape enabled the house to be experienced within an appropriate context and setting. The exceptional quality of taste and execution in the various built structures associated with the house, complemented by the carefully considered arrangement of tree plantings, plantations, and the long straight avenue directly connects the designed and natural landscape with the Palladian house at the core. There are few other surviving Irish 18th century landscapes contemporary with Whitewood and those that do survive are themselves highly significant and recognized as worthy of preservation.’
The present owner is well aware of his responsibilities as the present generation’s custodian of this significant part of Ireland’s architectural and landscape heritage. As well as undertaking a programme of conservation work on the main building, he has engaged in replanting the historic woodland and at present is restoring the original lodge. And yet the integrity of Whitewood and its setting is now threatened by a proposal to erect a series of wind turbines in the immediate vicinity. The scheme, submitted by a private company called Cregg Wind Farm Ltd, would see the installation of half a dozen such structures each up to 150 metres high. These would be located on land beyond, but directly in front of, Whitewood, towering over the entire region and thereby destroying a prospect unspoiled for centuries. Standing on the steps of the building, one would no longer see an idyllic natural landscape but six vast edifices.
Thankfully this grotesque proposal was refused by the Meath County Council last December. However the company has now appealed to the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, and submissions in relation to the appeal will be accepted until later this week. Finola Reid rightly described Whitewood as ‘a rare survivor and worthy of the highest level of protection.’ That protection must extend to the wider environment in which the house is located. The context in which the house and other elements exist needs to be fully understood and cherished. This site was not chosen at random: it was singled out and developed because of the outstanding character of the broader landscape in the area. Should that landscape be violated as Cregg Wind Farm Ltd proposes, then the fundamental character of Whitewood would be forever destroyed. And that would be an appalling vista.
Line drawing by Liam Mulligan and watercolour by Jeremy Williams.