Acquired Antiquity

Writing of the fashion for Gothic and Tudor-Revival architecture among early 19th century Irish landowners, in 1982 Maurice Craig quoted Victorian political theorist and historian William Lecky who declared that the power and property of Ireland had been conferred by successive British monarchs ‘upon an English colony, composed of three sets of English adventurers who poured into this country at the termination of three successive rebellions.’ While considering Lecky’s remarks ‘a gross overstatement’ nevertheless, Craig believed that in the aftermath of the 1800 Union ‘the landed class were haunted by these words and did not want to believe them. By castellating their houses, or adding castellated wings to them, or in extremes replacing them by sham castles, they sought – at the sub-conscious level no doubt – to convince themselves and others that they had been there a long time and that their houses, like so many in England, reflected the vicissitudes of centuries. As it happens, the romantic fashion for irregularity was just now hitting European architecture (having affected gardening a couple of generations earlier, so that, once again, if only for a moment, Ireland was bang up to date.’ Such was the case with Narrow Water Castle, County Down designed in the early 1830s by Newry architect Thomas J Duff for local landowner Roger Hall.



Myles Campbell’s 2014 doctoral thesis Building British Identity: British Architects and the Tudor-Revival Country House in Ulster, 1825-50 does not discuss Narrow Water Castle, since the house’s architect was Irish. Nevertheless, many of the points he makes are relevant to Narrow Water in particular his consideration of the reasons why the Tudor-Revival style, incorporating elements of earlier Gothic, should have proved so popular in this country. Dr Campbell has discovered that at least 127 country houses in the same style were built in Ireland in the 19th century, the vast majority of them prior to 1845 and the onset of the Great Famine (which understandably put an end to almost all country house construction). Fifty, or 39 per cent of the houses either built or remodeled in the Tudor-Revival style were in Ulster (the lowest number, just ten, were in Connacht, but this generally had fewer country houses and they were more widely dispersed about the province). Campbell proposes that ‘The group of Ulster patrons concerned were characterized by a common loyalty to the Union between Ireland and Britain, a deep commitment to their Anglican faith and an unstinting preference for British goods and services.’ Combine the desire to demonstrate loyalty to Britain with the need to emphasise (cf. Craig) longevity of residence, and one understands why Tudor-Revival became so popular. After all, there were no original Tudor buildings in this style extant in Ireland, and so versions of it had to be imported. And they were very much versions, or interpretations: in Ballantyne and Law’s Tudoresque: In Pursuit of the Ideal Home (2011) the authors note that Tudor-Revival architecture was not very specific in its detailing and could be ‘vague about the distinction between the Middle Ages and the Tudor era.’ Furthermore, as Campbell comments, given the hybrid character of the original, ‘it is unsurprising that Tudor-Revival architecture possessed a similarly imprecise stylistic pedigree and reflected the influence of both modest and grand examples. Many features of early Tudor houses such as emphatically horizontal elevations, small casement windows, crenellated parapets and Perpendicular tracery, were revisited. Their great mullioned glass windows, projecting bays and rather chaste ashlar walls served as a source of inspiration for the architects of the Tudor Revival. These architects were not reluctant to add gables, Tudor arches, turrets and label mouldings to these basic elements in the pursuit of authenticity.’





Narrow Water Castle was built to replace an earlier residence called Mount Hall which dated from the early 18th century and, judging from a surviving stableblock, was classical in manner. Like many other landed families, the Halls were of settler stock, the first member arriving in Ireland in 1603. Roger Hall’s precise reasons for commissioning a new house in the Tudor-Revival manner are unknown; by the time work began, he was in his forties and had been married for twenty years. The explanation is likely to be that given above, a desire to emphasise the family’s antiquity (through such details as incorporating heraldic crests into the main staircase window). There was also another factor at play in choosing this style over others, and that was comfort. 18th century houses, while grand, could be cold and austere with little consideration given to the occupants’ well-being. Improved building techniques and better insulation were available by the onset of the 19th century. A purist approach to Gothic, as would develop later thanks to the influence of architects like Pugin, could also lead to somewhat austere interiors. The Tudor style, on the other hand, not only implied antiquity but also offered the opportunity for domesticity: rooms could be cosy. Ballantyne and Law observe that Tudor-Revival country houses were ‘comfortable, and could be composed freely, so as to allow the convenient arrangement of rooms.’ The more formal aspects of the classical house were dispensed with in preference for a relaxed approach to layout, although the enfilade of public rooms remained. Campbell explains, ‘This suite usually contained a minimum of three formal rooms; drawing room, dining room, library or saloon, and represented the primary focus of formal social activity in the house. It was customary for the entrance front to face east and this front was almost invariably asymmetrical. There were usually service quarters to the north and, in many cases, a private family wing to the west…The emphasis here was on comfort rather than ostentation. This convenient plan, in addition to a recognizably indigenous stylistic vocabulary, transformed the country house into “a temple not of taste but of the domestic virtues.’ And because Tudor-Revival was not bound by strict rules, other stylistic features could be incorporated: hence in Narrow Water Castle, the walls of one room are covered with Chinese paper.


2 comments on “Acquired Antiquity

  1. Patrick Pilkington says:

    Ormond Castle, Co. Tippererary, though not a stand alone Elizabethan country house as it was built on to the existing medieval castle, is still a survival from the 16th. Century. With its large mullioned windows, it is every inch a Tudor building. The long gallery even sports elaborate plaster overmantel decoration with a profile bust of Elizabeth I.

    • Yes, I’m aware of the Ormond Castle in Carrick-on-Suir, and indeed visited the place the day it reopened to the public last year. Nevertheless, despite the survival of plasterwork inside it is essentially a fortified house, like Donegal Castle and others…

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