The much-repaired castle in Dungarvan, County Waterford. Situated at the mouth of the river Colligan, the castle, prior to the construction of the town’s quays, stood on the water’s edge. It is supposed to have been built by Prince (later King) John during his first visit to this country in 1185. The castle has a polygonal shell keep with a series of corner towers and in the 19th century was used as a barracks for members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Some months after they had left the premises, it was burnt out by anti-Treaty forces. Subsequently restored, it was used by the local police until 1987 but now contains a visitors’ centre.
The shell of Summerhill, County Mayo, a house that retained its roof within living memory. Summerhill is believed to have been built in the 1770s for the Palmer family its five-bay façade centred on a pedimented breakfront with first-floor Venetian window. The site on raised ground was chosen to provide a view down towards the Palmerstown river beside which stand the ruins of the Dominican Rathfran Friary. Today the two complexes rival each other in decay.
‘When Hubert and I were children and after we grew up, we lived at Temple Alice. Temple Alice had been built by Mummie’s ancestor, before he inherited his title and estates. He built the house for his bride, and he gave it her name. Now, the title extinct and the estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house, came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property. Mummie loved gardening. On fine days she would work in the woodland garden, taking the gardener away from his proper duties among the vegetables. On wet days, she spent hours of time in the endless, heatless, tumbling-down greenhouses, which had once sheltered peaches and nectarines and stephanotis. One vine survived – she knew how to prune it and thin its grapes, muscatels. Papa loved them.’
From Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (1981)
When Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour was adapted for television in 1983, Coolmore, County Cork – shown in today’s photographs – served as the fictional Temple Alice. A castle was first built here in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman de Cogans after they had settled in this part of the country. In the 1650s the land on which the castle stood passed into the ownership of William Hodder who lived in the building. Subsequently it came into the possession of John Newenham, who may have bought the estate or inherited it as his wife Jane was a member of the Hodder family. The Newenhams are also of Norman origin: an ancestor John Newenham de Newenham, was one of the commissioners who carried out the Domesday survey for William the Conqueror in the 1080s. John Newenham settled in Cork in the 17th century, serving as Sheriff of Cork in 1665 and Mayor of the city six years later. After acquiring Coolmore, he seems to have demolished the old castle and replaced it with a more comfortable house. An extant estate map dated 1760 shows this to have been of five bays and two storeys over dormered attic. On either side, long service blocks ran forward to create a substantial forecourt. The next couple of generations prospered after making judicious family connections. John and Jane Newenham’s son Thomas married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Blackhall, one-time Lord Mayor of Dublin, after whom Blackhall Place in the capital is named. In turn their son William married Dorothea, daughter and heiress of Edward Worth, a physician, politician and bibliophile: in 1733 his library was bequeathed to Dr Steevens’ Hospital, where it remains to the present day. The next generation also married well (and twice) which meant that there were ample funds in the 1780s for the old building at Coolmore to be demolished and replaced by the present, larger house of six bays with a two-bay breakfront, and of three storeys over raised basement, the whole centred on a pedimented doorcase flanked by Doric columns and with the family arms carved into the tympanum.
One of William and Dorothea Newenham’s younger children was the 18th century politician Sir Edward Newenham, remembered today for his ardent support of the American colonists. As a result of the latter he came into contact and had extensive correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de la Fayette and Washington. The last of these Newenham especially admired, calling him ‘the Greatest ornament of this century.’ Likewise Washington wrote ‘To stand well in the estimation of good men, & honest patriots, whether of this or that clime, or of this or that political way of thinking, has ever been a favorite wish of mine; & to have obtained, by such pursuits as duty to my Country; & the rights of mankind rendered indispensably necessary, the plaudit of Sir Edwd Newenham, will not be among my smallest felicities.’ Despite aspirations to do so, the two men never met (although one of Newenham’s sons-in-law did stay with Washington at his country estate, Mount Vernon, Virginia in 1786) but the Irishman commemorated the American at his own residence, Belcamp on the outskirts of Dublin. Here he not only had a room containing busts of, among others, Washington and la Fayette but in the grounds of the house he raised a monument to Washington. Dating from 1778 and believed to be the earliest such tribute to the general (and the only one erected in his lifetime), it is a two-storey square tower with crenellations bearing the following, now-lost inscription: ‘Oh, ill-fated Britain! The folly of Lexington and Concord will rend asunder and forever disjoin America from thy empire.’ Belcamp and its Washington monument are themselves today in as perilous condition as was the link between America and Britain: the house and grounds have been extensively vandalized in recent years, thereby imperiling this critical association between the respective campaigns for independent government on either side of the Atlantic. As for Coolmore, County Cork – the estate where Sir Edward was raised – ironically the year after Good Behaviour was filmed there, the Newenhams, unable to manage the building any longer, sold its contents and moved into a smaller property elsewhere on their land. It has sat empty for the past thirty years and today an old television series offers the best opportunity to appreciate how the house once looked.
Taking advantage in a respite of hostilities between Britain and France thanks to the Peace of Amiens, in September 1802 a Cork Quaker merchant called Cooper Penrose travelled to Paris where he sat for Jacques-Louis David. The artist had written beforehand, ‘Mr Penrose can have complete trust in me, I will paint his portrait for him for two hundred gold louis. I will represent him in a manner worthy of both of us. This picture will be a monument that will testify to Ireland the virtues of a good father and the talents of the painter who will have rendered them…’ Penrose subsequently brought the picture back to his native city where until around 1947 it hung in the family house, Woodhill (since demolished). Turning up with Wildenstein & Co. in New York in 1953, it was acquired by the Putnam Foundation and is now one of the glories of the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, California. Another emigrant destined never to return to these shores…
Creacon, County Wexford, an exceptionally tall and broad strong farmer’s house dating from the mid-18th century. Of three storeys over raised basement, Creacon has five bays with the rendered facade centred on a simple Gibbsian limestone door approached by a flight of steps. A pleasure to find a house of this calibre still in use and well-maintained.
In June 1732 the indefatigable Mary Delany (then still Mrs Pendarves following the death eight years earlier of her first husband) was staying in Killala, County Mayo with her friends Robert and Katherine Clayton: at the time he was Bishop of Killala. Writing to her sister Mrs Granville, she remarked, ‘About half-a-mile from hence there is a very pretty green hill, one side of it covered with nut wood; on the summit of the hill is a natural grotto, with seats in it that will hold four people. We go every morning at seven o’clock to that place to adorn it with shells – the Bishop has a large collection of very fine ones; Phill [Mrs Clayton’s sister Anne Donnellan] and I are the engineers, the men fetch and carry for us what we want, and think themselves highly honoured.’ It was the onset of a lifelong interest in shellwork that continued after she married Dr Delany in 1743 and moved to Delville on the outskirts of Dublin. Here Mrs Delany decorated various items, including urns and chandeliers, with shells and then in 1750 she turned her attention to the chapel attached to her husband’s house, eventually covering its ceiling with shell ornamentation. In December 1750 she wrote that during the evening, while another great friend Letitia Bushe read aloud, ‘I go on making shell flowers for the ceiling of the chapel. I have made 86 large flowers and about 30 small ones.’ The following month, ‘I am going on making shell flowers, six of the festoons are finished and fastened on; I have ten more to do, and a wreath to go around the window over the communion table.’ Later that summer a little grotto in the garden of Delville received the same treatment. In this activity, Mrs Delany was reflecting the fashion of her age.
Inspired by examples from ancient Greece and Rome, the origin of the modern era Shell House can be found in the grottoes that were a feature of 16th century Mannerist gardens in Italy. The Buontalenti Grotto in Florence’s Boboli Gardens for example which dates from 1583-93 has walls covered with stalactites and stalagmites, sponges, stones, and shells; in fact these are not real but were carved by the sculptor Pietro Mati. The fashion for such follies soon spread and in 1624 James I had a ‘shell grotto’ created in the undercroft of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. It has long since disappeared and today the oldest extant shell grotto in England is at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire which dates from the late 1620s onwards. By the start of the 18th century, the Shell House obsession was widespread and unlike the artifice of the Boboli Gardens, these used real shells. In 1725 poet Alexander Pope built a grotto in the tunnel linking his house and garden at Twickenham. Decorated with shells, glass and mirror shards when completed the grotto was so lovely that the poet sighed, ‘Were it to have nymphs as well it would be complete in everything.’ No wonder therefore that around this time the creation of Shell Houses also began to be popular in Ireland.
One of the few extant 18th century Shell Houses in Ireland can be found in the grounds of Curraghmore, County Waterford. As was so often the case, the exterior of the building gives little indication of the richness found within. It has, as noted by James Howley (The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland, 1993) the cruciform plan of a miniature baroque church, with walls built of uncut but slightly rounded stones and a stone-flagged roof. As Howley goes on to explain, the interior ‘contains an Aladdin’s cave of rich, shell-encrusted detail on a series of interlocking domed spaces. These are arranged axially around the largest central space, with three circular apses, each containing a window and a small rectangular entrance lobby. Niches are placed between the entrances to the apses and the entire plan is knitted together by an elaborate floor pattern of great intricacy worked in pebbles.’ In the centre of the shell house stands a life-size white marble statue by John van Nost representing the woman responsible for its creation: Catherine, Countess of Tyrone. Most helpfully, a scroll carried in her right hand (her left appropriately holds a conch shell) informs readers ‘In two hundred & sixty one days these shells were put up by the proper hands of the Rt. Hon. Cathne Countess of Tyrone 1754.’ Finding the shells was a time-consuming, and potentially expensive, business, and involved liaising with sea captains and ship owners whose vessels would have returned from overseas voyages. Many of those used at Curraghmore are believed to have been acquired in the port of nearby Waterford city. And planning the design so that it formed a coherent whole would also have been an arduous process: only when sufficient materials had been gathered could the work of putting them into place commence. Seemingly the glue used for fixing the shells into place was a mixture of ox blood and hooves (presumably boiled down). It served the purpose well since most of them remain in place, thereby allowing us to appreciate this rare surviving example of a Irish Georgian shell house.
A hipster St Patrick, as portrayed to one side of the east door at the Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle. The carving throughout this building was undertaken in the opening years of the 19th century by sculptor Edward Smyth working in conjunction with his son John (who took over all the work following Edward’s death in 1812). Note how the back of St Patrick’s mitre neatly elides into the arch behind him. Engaged in a face-off on the other side of the door – and likewise looking as though on a break from his real job as a barista – is Brian Boru, High King of Ireland before his death at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.