‘A lot done, more to do’ was the slogan used by an Irish political party in a general election fifteen years ago. It might also apply to the study of this country’s architectural history about which the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. There are certain areas in which a considerable amount of research has been undertaken, but many others where next to nothing has yet been done. With regard to the latter, investigation into the design and character of ancillary buildings on country estates is a subject that has hitherto not been explored in any depth. Yet these structures – the stable- and farmyards and so forth – were as important to the successful management of an estate as was the large house at its centre. Today there is much interest in what took place beyond the green baize door inside a country house, so that the lives of domestic servants and the quarters they occupied are given increasing notice. However, their outdoor equivalents – those who lived and worked in ancillary buildings – do not seem to attract much attention. Nor do the buildings themselves, even though they were often as well designed, constructed and finished as the big house they were there to sustain. Indeed they are often so sturdy that in instances where the country house has either fallen or been pulled down, the outbuildings remain. Such is the case at Donore, County Westmeath.
For hundreds of years Donore was occupied by a branch of the Nugent family the first of whom, Hugh de Nugent, came to Ireland in the 12th century and received lands in Westmeath. In the fifteenth century one of his descendants, James Nugent, married the heiress Elizabeth Holywood and it appears that through her inheritance the lands of Donore passed to the couple’s heirs. In the 17th century, the Nugents of Donore fought with their Irish compatriots in the Confederate Wars and were duly indicted, yet somehow despite consistently remaining Roman Catholic they managed to retain their property. In fact, by judicious marriages they improved their circumstances. In the 18th century, for example, James Nugent, first baronet, married Catherine King, elder daughter and co-heiress of Robert King of Drewstown, County Meath: that house was discussed here last week. And so it continued into the middle of the last century when, shortly before her death in November 1957 the widowed Aileen, Lady Nugent sold the estate to the Franciscan order which had re-settled nearby on land gifted to the friars by the Nugents. According to the present head of the family, the price paid for this transaction was £20,000. Apparently Lady Nugent had insisted as a condition of the sale that the house would be preserved. However this was not to be. The Franciscans subsequently sold on the greater part of the estate to the Land Commission, Donore was duly condemned, and pulled down. Today a bungalow occupies the site.
There seem to be no photographic records of Donore other than an aerial image of the site, located on rising ground to the south of Lough Derravaragh. However, according to the family it bore striking similarities in design to Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. Now called St Raphael’s and owned by the St John of God religious order, Oakley Park dates from 1724 and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Burgh. Of three storeys over basement, it has a seven-bay façade with a three-bay breakfront centred on the groundfloor doorcase incorporating a segmental pediment. The similarities between this property and Donore are interesting, because the latter is generally considered to have been built at the end of the 18th century, and to have been of little consequence. In his guide to Irish country houses, Mark Bence-Jones summarily dismissed Donore as ‘A plain 3 storey Georgian block,’ and the place does not merit even a mention in Casey and Rowan’s guide to the buildings of North Leinster.
Yet if it dated from the 1720s and shared stylistic traits with Oakley Park, then this would explain the appearance of a once-grand yard still standing to the east. Although now in pitiful condition, it is still possible to see how magnificent this complex must once have been. Employing crisply defined limestone, the southern entrance takes the form of a simplified but rugged triumphal arch, which is then topped by an hexagonal tower at least twice the height of the arch. Inside the yard, the northern side is focused on an equally immense three-bay pedimented breakfront coachhouse, while to the west is another arched entrance, the upper portion of which is occupied by a dovecote. Throughout the complex, the sophistication of both design and execution is remarkable. Bold and confident, its appearance suggests the now-lost house must have possessed the same traits and that, contrary to received wisdom, Donore was built at least half a century earlier than the date of 1790, which is usually given for its construction. If this is the case then its loss, and the lack of a decent photographic record, are all the more tragic. We are nowhere near fully understanding Ireland’s architectural history. A lot done, more to do.