As an area of both study and preservation, the relative neglect of ancillary buildings on Irish country estates has been mentioned here before. While the main house may be – scrutinised, the surrounding structures which did so much to sustain it – is often overlooked. Take the substantial range of buildings shown here today, which lie adjacent to Coolure, County Westmeath. Despite their scale and evident quality of finish, they pass unremarked in Casey and Rowan’s 1993 volume on the Buildings of North Leinster. This is not an unusual circumstance but one that deserves rectification: at the moment if we often know too little about who was responsible for designing and constructing many Irish country houses, we know even less about the origins of their outbuildings.
At least some of those at Coolure must date from the same period as when work began on the house proper c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. It was extended in the 1820s, probably to accommodate their substantial family, and the yards may have been proportionately increased in size then also. Finally a number of buildings, not least a vast and now roofless two-storey barn, were erected in the 1850s, thereby completing the ensemble.
Changing circumstances along with improved technology, the break-up of large estates, better methods of agriculture, alternative means of transport: all have played their part in making country house outbuildings mostly redundant. Who now needs lines of stables (one set occupied by horses required for riding and carriages, one for animals used about the farm) and coach houses, or piggeries and dovecotes? But the buildings once deemed essential for these purposes, and many others beside, still stand, testament to how rural Ireland operated for centuries. The ranges at Coolure are especially fine, and a credit to the family responsible for their erection. Some have been converted to residential use, and some adapted as storage space or to provide temporary shelter for livestock. But what – to pick a single example from many – can now be done with a hen house, its interior specifically designed to contain rows of niches in which eggs could be laid (and from which they were then conveniently collected)? Buildings such as these demonstrate how an estate with sufficient resources would become an almost self-contained world, producing the foodstuffs required by those living there. Surviving account books from the 18th and 19th centuries reveal just how little needed to be bought, other than wine and spirits (beer could be brewed on site), tobacco and a handful of other luxuries. The fields yielded up their harvest to be stored in barns, livestock provided meat, ponds held fish, walled gardens and orchards were filled with fruit and vegetables. No wonder the outbuildings at Coolure are so substantial: they played a critical role in ensuring the estate functioned smoothly.
Deprived of their purpose, buildings such as those at Coolure can slip into decline, although they are perforce so sturdy that frequently they survive longer than the house they were intended to support. Built of rubble and cut limestone, and with slate roofs, these ranges are carefully planned to perform their task with maximum efficiency. Now that job is no longer required, the question needs to be asked: can a fresh purpose be found for them? In recent years an annual series of grants to encourage the preservation of traditional farm buildings has been provided by the Department of Agriculture through GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme) and administered by the Heritage Council. This is intended ‘to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Although admirable, the scheme suffers from two drawbacks when it comes to outbuildings such as those at Coolure. Firstly the grants offered, while obviously much appreciated, are not enormous: between €4,000 and €25,000. Secondly, according to the Heritage Council, ‘the key conservation principle of minimum intervention should apply, that is, carrying out a repair to fix what is wrong but not setting out to do too much work. Works which are, in the opinion of the Heritage Council, restoration works, are very unlikely to be supported with grant aid.’ So outbuildings that need to be restored in order that they can find a new function would seem not to qualify. Perhaps another scheme might be established for this purpose? Fine, well-designed and solidly constructed buildings like those at Coolure merit help in finding a new lease of life.