Until recently, Doneraile Court, County Cork had an unhappy recent past and what threatened to be an equally unhappy future. One of the earliest non-fortified houses in Ireland, the core of the present building was constructed in the 1720s to the design of Isaac Rothery for Arthur St Leger, first Viscount Doneraile. His great-grandfather Sir Anthony St Leger, who came from Kent, had been sent to Ireland in 1537 by Henry VIII and in 1540 was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. The family gradually acquired land in this country, and in 1636 Sir William St. L:eger, Knight, Lord President of Munster bought what is now Doneraile from its previous owners the Synans for ‘the sum of Three hundred pounds sterling current money of and in England in hand payed to us.’ Until Doneraile Court was built, they lived in an old castle on the opposite side of the river Awbeg. The house has a seven-bay, three-storey facade of cut stone with curved end bows added at a later date in the 18th century. Further additions were made in the following century, including a three-bay porch to the front and a vast dining room of 1869 (demolished during restoration work just over a century later). The interior contains an early 18th century panelled room and an oval late-18th century staircase hall with Adamesque plasterwork on its ceiling.
The last Lord Doneraile to live in the house was the seventh Viscount who had been born and lived in New Zealand before inheriting the title and estate in 1941. He and his wife had no children and following his death in 1957 she remained alone in Doneraile Court. Then in 1968 a 47-year old Californian truck driver called Richard St John St Leger arrived in Ireland with his family and claimed to be the Doneraile heir. An application was lodged with the British House of Lords for his claim to be recognised. While this process was underway and despite objections from the estate’s Trustees, the family moved into the house, initially living with the widowed Lady Doneraile although she later settled in a cottage on the estate. Around the same time the Trustees had reached agreement with the Land Commission for the purchase of Doneraile Court and its lands for £56,800. Richard St Leger meanwhile began refurbishment work on the house with the intention of opening it to the public. The Irish Georgian Society offered support and sent a large number of volunteers to help prior to an opening ceremony planned for July 1969 when the American Ambassador to Ireland would officially open the house. However, just a matter of days beforehand, the Trustees gained an injunction in the High Court against the public opening of Doneraile Court on the grounds that the house’s floors were unsafe. They then proceeded to sell its entire contents to a consortium of antique dealers. Soon afterwards the Land Commission completed the purchase of the estate. His claim to the title never proven, Richard St Leger moved out of the house and later returned to the United States.
The Doneraile estate now passed into State ownership as part of the Office of Public Works’ Department of Forestry and Fisheries. But while care was lavished on the parkland in preparation of being opened to the public, the same was not true for the house which rapidly started to show evidence of neglect and deterioration. Windows were broken by vandals, plasterwork in the hall began to fall off the walls and the 19th century conservatory collapsed. In May 1976 it was announced that Doneraile Court was to be leased to the Irish Georgian Society rent-free on condition that the organisation undertook to restore the building. Gradually the house’s dereliction was brought under control. By the end of 1978 the Irish Georgian Society had spent £25,000 on structural repairs and that figure would climb steadily higher; in 1983 the organization estimated it had spent some £40,000 on the house. The amount would have been much higher but for the fact that much of the work had been undertaken by volunteers. In June 1984 the park at Doneraile was opened to the public but a lot more still needed to be accomplished before the house could follow the demesne’s lead and admit visitors. In 1990 a tearoom began operating in the house’s old kitchen, and in April 1992 the ground floor of Doneraile Court opened with a variety of exhibitions on show, including photographs of restoration work from the very start. Two years later, with the greater part of the restoration work completed at a cost of £500,000, the Irish Georgian Society was at last able to hand the house back to the Office of Public Works. For the next 25 years, the building remained closed and shuttered. Finally, last month it re-opened to the public and for once the wait has been worthwhile. As today’s pictures show, Doneraile Court now looks better than it has for more than half a century, the ground floor rooms impeccably refurbished and decorated. Here is a triumphant demonstration that an historic building, no matter how long neglected, can be brought back to peak condition. What has occurred here can, with sufficient ambition and imagination, also happen elsewhere. Congratulations are merited to all involved in this enterprise, which is ongoing as there are plans to open the first floor in due course. Doneraile Court’s unhappy past has been expunged, and the house can now look forward to an optimistic future.
Next Sunday at 3pm I shall be giving a talk at Doneraile Court on a number of houses elsewhere in County Cork which have not enjoyed its good fortune. For further information, please see: http://doneraileestate.ie/event/robert-obyrne-the-irish-aesthete-in-county-cork/