Squandered Opportunities 


As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere. 

Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013):  its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.

Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass. 

24 comments on “Squandered Opportunities 

  1. Very sad and well said, Robert. I’m working fast .. but not fast enough.

  2. rebecca says:

    it’s a tragedy. just horrible.

  3. Robert Towers says:

    Well said. Malfeasance in public office?

    R

  4. Brian says:

    Really sad. As an American, I am turned off by the idea of Blarney Castle and all the other tripe on offer as tourist attractions. Ireland has such a wealth of 18th C. architecture which would attract even more tourism from the Americas. What a pity that those with the power to do something on the preservation side of things do not realize this. Hopefully the Irish authorities will realize before it’s too late that the US owes Ireland an architectural debt as City Hall in NYC(John McComb Jr) and the White House, Washington DC (James Hoban) were both designed by Irishmen. How nice it would be to see the antecedents of these two (of many) buildings.

  5. Gabriel McCarthy says:

    Once again, our County Councils , through inaction have allowed this to happen . Maybe they should reintroduce the Irish Press so that the inactivity can be better tabulated .

  6. Griffin Jenkins says:

    Heartbreaking.

  7. denis says:

    Ireland has always tried to sell itself as a ‘heritage’ tourist destination, but I think the uk does a far, far better job preserving heritage than we can ever hope to do. The usual suspects have been trotted out for decades…the kitsch Blarney stone-kissing and faux Medieval banquet…while other castles, great houses and monuments crumble.

  8. jtjphelan says:

    An Taisce is supposed to be The National Trust for Ireland, or at least it considers itself to be. I think Government seriously needs to refocus in relation to our built heritage and possibly bring together An Taisce, NIAH and any other departments involved and finally create a true Irish National Trust (with a realistic budget and the legal right to take ownership of any heritage property not maintained by its owners)

  9. theupsew says:

    we rented a gatehouse some years ago as the property was vacant and was beginning to get broken into….. it suited us all at the time, we needed somewhere v cheap while we saved to buy and were willing to forgo some luxuries (like proper heating!!!) and the owners knew it was minded. I dont know why this option isnt used more – even a school in Gort I used go to which is a modern building was vacant for about 10 years or so, is now full of broken windows, and graffiti…

  10. Michael Thomas says:

    I saw Vernon Mount years ago. Even then it was in a sorry state, but at least the Motorcycle Club used the building. Unfortunately the house is in what is now a very poor location, industrialisation and all that. As one of your Facebook correspondents says, the complete ignorance of those who should help, but they just say it’s to do with the English side of certain aspects of Ireland’s past. Pity they can’t get over it, but then that’s a certain type of politics.

  11. sammy Leslie says:

    Robert, what terrible news, who actually owned them…

  12. John Burns says:

    One wonders why An Taisce wastes time and resources on issues like biodiversity and climate change when built heritage should be its primary mission

  13. We need to develop a list of buildings that require ‘World Heritage Status’ in order to secure what is a dwindling list. ‘THIS NEEDS TO BE DONE NOW’, Blogs are all very well, but where are the authors when it comes to applying real pressure on the decision makers????. I think that preservation of our built heritage is not just a badge someone wears in order to massage their ego or feel part of some exclusive club (Lords & Ladles). I don’t see any real aggressive protest, which is whats needed. Blogs are easy, action is hard.

    • Thank you for getting in touch. Since you evidently care as passionately about Ireland’s built heritage as do some of the rest of us, I look forward to hearing what action and protest you will be undertaking to ensure it has a viable future, and to giving you due support in your endeavours.
      In the meantime, I can assure you writing this blog is not especially easy: it takes up a great deal of time, between taking photographs, then editing them, researching the relevant building and writing texts three times – if not more – every week. Again, if you wish to offer something better, then I very much look forward to following your work. All of us have our roles to play, and we would achieve the best outcome by working together in a complementary fashion and with mutual respect.

      • lawrieweed says:

        BRAVO – ROBERT

      • jtjphelanJ says:

        I was voicing an opinion, I hope I didn’t anger you too much. In regard to what I’m doing, I am trying to organise a protest at Whitfield Court in Waterford to remind people that what happened to Mount Vernon is what will happen to Whitfield if we do nothing. If that fails then I believe more militant action will be required. For now I’m hoping a respectful and law abiding protest will get some results. I am getting in touch with various local people and groups including the Waterford chapter of the IGS and will let you know when the protest will take place and any help you could extend would of course be gratefully accepted. I do love your blog by the way and I’m sorry if my comments offended you but I do think that people who are more known and respected in such matters should be more vocal ‘publicly’ rather than through blogs which are very useful of course, but do not engage the wider community. Robert you must understand that my anger sometimes clouds my judgement and I know I need to count to ten but that’s just the way I am, Mea Culpa!.

        Be mindful that my heart is in the same place as yours, while sometimes it may appear that the head is not.

      • Thank you for your further comments. I am most interested (that is to say, concerned) about Whitfield Court so please let me know how things proceed and I will be happy to help in any way that I can. Again, it is important to understand that different people can provide assistance in different, complementary ways. And if one is “more known and respected in such matters” it is only because of past efforts: you can be just as important, if not more so. It is just a matter of persistence…
        My best wishes to you and I look forward to hearing further about Whitfield.

    • BISH Editor says:

      Dear jtjphelan, do you know anything about the plans for Whitfield Court by its proposed new owner? It is ‘Sale Agreed’ with an asking price of €1.35m for 160 acres, with a further 70 acres available – http://www.sherryfitz.ie/residential/for-sale/32246http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/buildings-at-risk-whitfield-court-co-waterford-1.1785520

      • jtjphelan says:

        I am still trying to get more details but I believe a local property developer is involved. I have contacted this individual but have not received any reply confirming or denying his purchase but will post any information I receive. This of course is not the end of the matter, we must ensure that whoever bought the property will restore or develop it in a sensitive manner and I will be looking out for any planning permissions submitted to the local council.

  14. Mark Thomas (contributor to AbandonedIreland.com) says:

    Great post! It is very sad to read about Belcamp and Vernon Mount being reduced to shells by neglect and then fire. This kind of thing will continue until a properly-funded organisation is set up with effective powers and the motivation to stop this perfectly needless destruction of Irish architectural & artistic heritage. Acquiring these structures from neglectful or inactive owners and then imaginatively re-using them would solve this problem. A visitor to Ireland might reason that surely a nation which can spend so much on new motorways could also make rescuing some of these houses a priority. Instead, for instance no effective action has been taken by national or local government to secure the future of Westport House – despite a study showing that the house and demesne contribute some 50 million Euros a year through tourism to the co. Mayo economy. Some decision-makers don’t seem to have realised that these sites were usually created by Irish architects, craftsmen and artists. They are also (literally) irreplaceable and gradually vanishing.

  15. bosleydoyle says:

    Typical of Irish attitude to its historic buildings – ‘not my problem’ as it has no immediate use. A building is also vulnerable to the elements yet much older ruins are being let fall. Prime example is Norman tower slowly disintegrating on N30 outside of New Ross, County Wexford – Government should be protecting our history not local Government there just are not the resources there.

    • Thank you for this. I have not been past the tower outside New Ross for some time but remember that it was in very shabby condition the last time I was in the area. I hope to be there again in late’ish September (for the annual piano festival) so shall make a point of looking at it then…

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