Complying with Strict Conditions of Conservation?

In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.

As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.

Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?

8 comments on “Complying with Strict Conditions of Conservation?

  1. Gareth McMahon says:

    God destroyed,better off knocked down.

  2. David says:

    Interesting article – such is the way of so many historic Irish houses now , the authorities seem to have no teeth ( or don’t use them) !

    My great grandfather was the last of the Synges to live at Syngefield ( Sir Francis Millington Synge 6th Bart ) following an army career mainly in the Far East . Around 1912 my Grandmother (Frances Millicent Synge ,his eldest child) had her wedding reception there ( I have one or two pics of the family on the steps for the occasion) and indeed the north east wing is not there . Some also say there was a fire in 1892 which destroyed the wing . Sir Francis died in England in the early 20’s . My grandmother is buried near Belfast and my father , her only child , is buried (2007) in Clonoghill Cemetery , Birr. His name Robert Christie. Syngefield was originally built in 1730

    David Christie , Wiltshire

    • Thank you for getting in touch: what you have to say is most interesting. I should love to see photographs of the house if that were possible…

      • David says:

        Happy to send you a pic of a photo I have of Syngefield which is in my drawing room here. My mother ( who lives in Ireland ) has two wedding pics with Syngefield house in the background . It was my grandfather ,Archie Christie ,who married into the Synge family ,(marrying Frances,) & he was a solicitor in Birr . He died in his early 50’s in the early 1920’s in Birr. My Great grandfather Francis Synge (6th Bart) who outlived Archie Christie , made a bad will for his children and left my grand uncle (7th Baronet) bereft , he died virtually penny less in a flat overlooking the sea in North Devon .This was the 1940’s & he is buried in Berrynarbor graveyard .

        So, all in all a sad end all round to the Synge family’s long existence in Birr and the diocese of Tuam. The other branch of the Synge family (to which John Millington is attached ) continue to live in Co.Wicklow , formerly at Glanmore Castle .

        If you would like to send me an e.mail address to which I can send a photograph , then I will be able to send you what I have .

        Best. , David Christie .

  3. Alex says:

    My family, the Fayles (formerly of Fayle Hardware in Birr) lived there in the 1800s. They owned other property and rented Syngefield. I was there with my father in 2006 when the renovations were going on. Too bad they came to an end without finishing it.

    If I remember the family stories correctly, the fire happened while my family lived there.

    And I think I have a photo somewhere of the family outside of Syngefield. I will try to find it.

  4. David Christie says:

    Alex , interesting as I remember my father talking about the Fayles . My great grandfather did indeed rent out Syngefield during the 1800s as he was serving abroad with the Kings Liverpool Regt in the Far East . When he retired from the army the Fayles were still in Syngefield so he and his wife took a house for a while near Ramelton in Co. Donegal .

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