The house at Durrow Abbey, County Offaly has a long and frequently unhappy history. As its name implies, this was originally a religious settlement (for more on which, see On the Plain of Oaks, February 2nd 2015). However in the 16th century and following the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands on which it stood were leased to Nicholas Herbert at a rent of £10 per annum payable to the Crown and military service when required. Herbert was granted a second lease in 1574 on condition that he built two stone fortresses on the site within four years. The Herberts remained in residence here until the death without male heirs of Sir George Herbert, third baronet, in 1712. The estate was then inherited by Sir George’s sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox: it was Mrs Fox who rebuilt the old adjacent church that remains today. The Foxes having no direct heirs, Durrow was then inherited by Philip Rawson Stepney and eventually by Herbert Rawson Stepney who, three years before his death in 1818 sold the estate to John Toler, first Lord Norbury. It would appear that during the time of the Stepneys that a new residence was built at Durrow: a surviving drawing made by architect William Murray in September 1829 shows the building – then called Durrow Park – to have been a plain classical structure of three storeys and seven bays, centred on a groundfloor doorcase with portico. Already at that date plans were being made for something more distinctive to be constructed on the site, but ultimately it was Norbury’s son who embarked on this enterprise.
Politician and lawyer, John Toler enjoyed a highly successful career at the bar despite being almost universally reviled for his ability to combine corruption with incompetence. He served as Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas for twenty-seven years (1800-1827) during which time he became known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ such was his propensity to prescribe the death sentence and only resigned at the age of 82 when offered an earldom and an annual pension of more than £3,000. Dying in 1831 he was succeeded by his son Hector John Graham-Toler, second Earl of Norbury who some years later decided to embark of a comprehensive redevelopment of the house: Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) mentions that ‘his lordship is erecting a spacious mansion in the ancient style.’ Two years later, in January 1839, Lord Norbury was shot dead by an unknown assailant while out riding: no one was ever brought to court (despite a reward being offered of £5,000 and 100 acres) but it seems likely the person responsible was a tenant recently evicted from a holding on the estate.
The widowed Lady Norbury pressed on with her late husband’s plans to rebuild Durrow and work continued there until 1843 when a fire broke out. A contemporary account in The Nation recorded that ‘The new building which was not completed, joined the old one, which it was intended to adopt as a wing by facing it with stone; in this portion all the valuable furniture was stored and this part of the extensive building is totally destroyed.’ At some later date the new building was completed, and thereafter owned by successive generations of the Graham-Toler family until the 1940s.
Completed around 1860, Durrow Abbey House’s architect is unknown. Designed in the popular Jacobean Revival style, the building was originally of three storeys over a sunken basement with high gable-end windows, raised chimney stacks and corner turrets, the whole in cut limestone. Behind the main block runs a long service wing opening onto a sunken courtyard. At one stage, a large porte-cochere stood in front of the main entrance. This survived until April 1923 when the house was burnt during the Civil War. It was subsequently rebuilt three years later with the top storey and porte-cochere removed, and with simplified Arts and Crafts interiors designed by Dublin architect Ralph Henry Byrne. Following the sale of the property by the Graham-Tolers, Durrow was owned first by the Slazenger family (who later became owners of Powerscourt, County Wicklow) and then the Williams family (who owned the local whiskey distillery). Subsequent owners proposed to change use of the property from private residence to hotel and golf resort as part of a €170 million scheme that would also have included several hundred houses and apartments. This plan was comprehensively rejected by the planning authorities, not least because of the importance of the immediately adjacent medieval site. Durrow languished in uncertainty until 2003 when the Irish State paid in the region of €3.5 million to acquire the place and surrounding 80-odd acres.
In May 2007 a 99-year lease on the main house was agreed by Dick Roche, then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and a charitable organisation called Arts for Peace Foundation. Incorporated in August 2004, Arts for Peace ‘provides therapeutic peace education programmes for children affected by conflict.’ Paying an annual peppercorn rent of €10, the organisation used the house as a respite centre for groups of young people from diverse places around the world. Meanwhile the Office of Public Works carried out necessary work on the old church and moved a mid-ninth century High Cross moved indoors. All seemed well for the future of the entire site until five years ago when Arts for Peace stopped using the main house for its projects. In December 2016 The Times reported that a month before the charity and its founder Elizabeth Garrahy had filed a High Court action against the Office of Public Works and the Irish State seeking damages for alleged breach of contract. The charity alleged the OPW had committed to providing €500,000 and then €250,000 for repair work, but then failed to provide the funding. The OPW in turn accused the charity of failing to carry out necessary repairs and maintenance of the property according to the terms of its lease. It transpires this is why the building has not been occupied or used since 2013: for the past five years the OPQ and Arts for Peace have been at war. Although this matter ought to be of widespread interest (not least because of the potential financial implications for the Irish taxpayer), it seems the only public representative to express concern has been Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness. He has regularly raised the question of Durrow Abbey in Dáil Éireann, and elsewhere. The last time Deputy McGuinness did so was two months ago on February 15th at a meeting of the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform (of which Mr McGuinness is chair) attended by Kevin Moran, current Minister of State for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief. In the course of a discussion on the unresolved problems at Durrow Abbey, Mr McGuinness stated, ‘I firmly believe that with an effort, with both sides sitting down without being tied by legal process and without prejudice, they could reach a resolution, rather than spend unnecessary funds and scarce resources on a case when in my opinion the Arts for Peace Foundation has a good case. Going to court is a step beyond common sense in my opinion in this instance.’
The state, which is to say the Irish citizenry, has spent a considerable amount of money acquiring and restoring portions of the historic Durrow Abbey site and, as was announced at the end of last year, the state intends to spend more in the near future making the property more accessible to visitors. However at the same time a substantial group of buildings sits empty and neglected: tellingly, in May/June 2016, despite the ongoing dispute, the OPW undertook emergency remedial works to prevent water ingress to the house). This argument is surely capable of resolution, but the longer it takes to find agreement, the greater the cost. A speedy settlement is obviously advantageous. Until this happens the house at the centre of the estate and of the legal wrangle remains in a state of limbo. This is a situation that benefits no one.