A Fait Accompli

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Here is a scenario familiar to anyone engaged with or concerned for the welfare of our architectural heritage. At some date in the 18th/19th centuries a house is built on the outskirts of a town, often by a prosperous burgher keen to demonstrate his affluence. Over the intervening decades, the adjacent urban centre gradually expands so that a building once surrounded by open fields is increasingly encircled by housing estates. Eventually these press up against what remains of the former estate, which comes to acquire a besieged appearance. As a result, the owners – perhaps no longer so prosperous or perhaps knowing it is time to realise an asset – sell up. The place is then bought by someone more interested in the commercial value of the land on which the house sits than in the historic property. Accordingly, despite being listed for preservation the building is not maintained, begins to decay, is subject to vandalism, possibly even an arson attack, and falls into total dereliction. At which point the relevant authorities will relist the property as dangerous and require its demolition. The land will be cleared, a new housing estate built and the original property perhaps only recalled in the name this development is given: a fait accompli.

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Brandondale, County Kilkenny lies on a site above the river Barrow on the outskirts of Graiguenamanagh. The house dates from c.1800 when it was built by Peter Burtchaell whose family had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century. The Burchaells were involved in the linen industry which then thrived in this part of Ireland, and also seem to have acted as agents for the Agars, Lords Clifden, large landowners whose seat was Gowran Castle in the same county. Peter Burchaell married the heiress Catherine Rothe and her fortune duly passed into the family which would have provided the necessary money for building a house like Brandondale. In his Handbook for Ireland (1844) James Fraser wrote that the property, ‘occupying a fine site on the northern acclivities of Brandon hill, commands the town, the prolonged and lovely windings of the Barrow, the picturesque country on either side of its banks, and the whole of the Mount Leinster and Black Stairs range of mountains.’ The architecture of the house was that of a two-storey Regency villa, old photographs showing it distinguished by a covered veranda wrapping around the canted bow at the south-eastern end of the building which had views down to the river. Within this sightline must have been a little gothic tea house now roofless and submerged in woodland; built of limestone rubble, this square structure incorporates granite window and door openings that may be of mediaeval origin (perhaps recycled from the Duiske Abbey in the centre of Graiguenamanagh).

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The last of the Burtchaell line to live at Brandondale was Richard, who livd there until his death in 1903. He and his wife Sarah had no children and she remained on the property for the next twenty-nine years, struggling to make ends meet by taking in paying guests. After her death the house and remaining fifty acres were sold to the Belgian Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove who first lived there and then rented the place before he in turn sold it. In the 1980s Brandondale was bought by an Englishman Walter Dominy who moved in with his family and established a printing business. After this failed, in 1993 Mr Dominy left a suicide note in his car while travelling on the Rosslare to Fishguard ferry: fifteen years later an English tabloid newspaper found him living in France. But meanwhile Brandondale changed hands yet again and at some point was subject to a spectacularly poor refurbishment which saw the Regency veranda removed and all the old fenestration replaced with uPVC. In recent years it was taken into receivership and offered for sale on 25 acres for just €150,000, an indication of the building’s atrocious condition (and also of a Compulsory Purchase Order from the local council on part of the land). The place has apparently been sold once more but still sits empty and deteriorating: it can only be a matter of time before Brandondale’s condition is judged so bad that, despite being listed for preservation, demolition is ordered. After which, no doubt, an application will be lodged for houses to be built on the land. A fait accompli.
Below is a Burtchaell tomb in the graveyard surrounding an already-demolished Church of Ireland church in Graiguenamanagh: very likely soon to be the only recollection of Brandondale.

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Home of a Hero

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Buried deep in the undergrowth: the remains of Bellanagare Castle, County Roscommon. This was formerly the seat of the O’Conor family including the antiquarian, proponent of ancient Gaelic culture and ardent advocate of Roman Catholic rights Charles O’Conor (1710-1791) who served as the O’Conor Don (that is, a descendant of the ancient line that provided one hundred Kings of Connacht and eleven High Kings of Ireland). Here he lived until the marriage of his son in 1760 after which he moved to a small cottage nearby. What survives suggests this was a late 17th/early 18th century house, of five bays and with a pedimented façade. Given the importance of Charles O’Conor in Irish history, the building’s present state, on the verge of being entirely overwhelmed by undergrowth, is another sad indictment of how this country treats its heritage.

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Not so Dapper

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Looking distinctly down-at-heel, the once-dapper Naper Arms Hotel which occupies a prominent site on The Square in Oldcastle, County Meath. Built in the mid-19th century when the town enjoyed commercial prosperity, the building now offers vivid evidence of the way in which Ireland’s smaller urban centres are embarked on what seems to be irreversible decline. If national and local government are serious about attempting to halt the phenomenon – a new €60 million initiative called ‘Action Plan for Rural Ireland’ was announced on Monday – a good place to start would be obliging owners to give them purpose, on the premise of ‘use it or lose it.’ Otherwise one suspects little will change…

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Living History

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Since the majority of Ireland’s extant country houses date from after 1700, they are inclined to have a rational, linear character, with rooms arranged in sequence off straight corridors. The kind of organic, almost haphazard development found in equivalent properties elsewhere around Europe is largely absent here, even in older buildings where order was often subsequently imposed by their owners. Only occasionally does one come across a house which unashamedly revels in being an amalgam of several centuries and makes no attempt to conceal its heterogeneous heritage. Huntington Castle, County Carlow is one such place.

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Huntington is built on the site of a 13th century Franciscan priory. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s the land passed into the hands of Laurence Esmonde, whose family had long been settled in this part of the country. Esmonde was a convert to Anglicanism and served in the armies of first Elizabeth I and then James I, for which services he was raised to the peerage in 1622 as Lord Esmonde. It appears that a few years after receiving this honour he built the core of the present house, now buried within subsequent accretions but still discernible as a three-storey fortified dwelling. The first alterations and additions to that core were made c.1680 by his grandson, Sir Laurence Esmonde and a wing was constructed by the latter’s own grandson (another Sir Laurence) around forty years later. In the 19th century, Huntington passed through marriage to the Durdins (now, again through marriage, the Durdin-Robertsons) and around 1860 a further extension to the rear once more increased the castle’s size.

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The interior of Huntington makes no attempt to conceal its centuries-long evolution. The drawing room, for example, has 18th century classical plaster panelled walls beneath a 19th century Perpendicular-Gothic ceiling. Some passages on the ground floor retain their original oak panelling, a number of bedrooms above being panelled in painted pine. The dining room has an immense granite chimneypiece bearing the date 1625, while those in other rooms are clearly from a century later. In keeping with this satisfying chronological mishmash, the interior is replete with short flights of stairs and narrow corridors, each leading to another part of the castle. The passage of centuries has left everything a little off beam, a touch unaligned. There is no overall plan, no impression that anyone ever tried to impose coherence on the building. Instead it was allowed to grow as circumstances dictated and, no doubt, as funds permitted. Huntington has never passed out of the hands of the first Laurence Esmonde’s descendants and one suspects continuity of ownership played a part in ensuring it avoided undergoing radical make-over: a new owner would no doubt have wanted to put his or her stamp on the place. Huntington exults in its idiosyncratic character and by so doing offers a fuller sense of evolving history than would a more rationally designed house. If only there were more like it.

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The Deserted Village

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‘…No more thy glassy brook reflects the day,
But, choaked with sedges, works its weedy way;
Along thy glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding bittern guards its nest;
Amidst thy desert walks the lapwing flies,
And tires their echoes with unvaried cries.
Sunk are thy bowers, in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall…’

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Lines from Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’ and photographs of an abandoned village on Achill Island, County Mayo.

Welcome Inn

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Castlecomer, County Kilkenny owes its development to coal mining which began in the mid-17th century under the auspices of the Wandesforde family, which had then settled in the area. The town itself was laid out by the Wandesfordes and on the main street included this building, dating from c.1800 with a curious façade on which the fenestration is resolutely unaligned. Originally serving as an office premises for the business, it later became a hostelry known as the Avalon Inn by which name it is known today. The property appears to have stood empty for some time but there are now plans to refurbish it for use once again as an hotel.

Former Greatness

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Like almost every urban settlement in Ireland, the origins of Trim, County Meath seem to depend on an early saint, in this case Lommán (or Loman) who is believed to have been involved with a monastery here in the late 5th/early 6th century. But the town really owes its importance to the Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy, granted the Lordship of Meath by Henry II in 1172. De Lacy was responsible for initiating construction of the immense castle that still dominates the skyline in this part of the country, but not far away are other striking ruins that receive far less attention. These are the remains of Newtown Trim, established in 1206 by Simon de Rochfort who fourteen years earlier had become Bishop of Meath. Until then the diocesan seat had been in Clonard but after the abbey thehre was attacked and destroyed by the Irish in 1200 de Rochfort took advantage of the situation to have the see transferred to Trim.

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Located about half a mile from Trim and on the other side of the river Boyne, Newtown centred on a priory of Canons Regular, its church dedicated to SS Peter and Paul effectively acting as a cathedral. Little enough of this remains, but sufficient to indicate its immensity: this was one of the largest such buildings in mediaeval Ireland, and vaulted in stone which was not always the case. The greater part of the remaining area is the chancel leading towards a now-lost east window: some on either side do survive. At the western end of the choir section lay the nave but this has also disappeared. Of the ancillary buildings, only small portions of the chapter house and refectory (the latter immediately above the river bank) still stand but the distances between these ruins provide an excellent sense of how important was this religious house. The scale of the site is made all the more apparent by the remains of a parish church to the immediate east, its walls dwarfed by those of the adjacent priory. Inside the little church is a well-preserved limestone altar tomb of 1586 commemorating Sir Lucas Dillon and his wife Jane Bathe who lie on the top while around the sides are family coats of arms and a scene showing a family group, presumably the Dillons.

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A little to the south-east lie a second set of ruins, those of the former Hospital Priory of St John the Baptist which, like the Augustinian priory, was founded by Simon de Rochfort. Some of the surviving walls, not least those to the west, have a defensive character, suggesting the need for protection from attack, a not-unusual occurrence in Ireland during the upheavals of the later Middle Ages. The long church, without aisles, concludes at the east end in three lancet windows but there is little other extant decoration. The living quarters here are in somewhat better condition than in the other religious house, as in the post-Reformation era St John’s was granted to Robert Dillon, an attorney general to the crown and then passed to the Ashe family who made some alterations for domestic use. In other words, like Bective Abbey a few miles away, it was converted for secular purposes. Whereas visitors tend to be drawn to Trim Castle and its attendant attractions, Newtown Trim is comparatively little known. As a result, it retains the kind of romantic appeal that many other ruins have lost. This is especially apparent on a winter afternoon when the sun sinks behind these remains, but not before bathing the stone in a roseate glow.

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