An Optimistic Future

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:

18 comments on “An Optimistic Future

  1. Dr. Robert Terrance Mullane says:

    My Homeland is County Cork. I reblogged a story of historical import. Thanks Again,
    Dr. Mullane

  2. Andrew McCarthy says:

    Glad to hear such a lovely house has been restored. A shame so many others have not shared its good fortune.

    What an intriguing oeil-de-boeuf window below that staircase!

  3. Happy to see this story with a happy ending. Here in Galway Rahoon House 1780s, a minor building in stature but with many fine plasterwork cofferred ceilngs and a similar hockey stick staircase to Donerailes, all ruined from years of neglect and vandalism is now to be converted to accommodate 4 apartments. Its downfall was precipitated when a developer bought it and the land around it for urban housing. Then permission was given to build a block of apartments up against the gable end and behind the house taking away its garden. Despite objections from An Taisce, Cairde na Gaillimh and the Galway Archaeological & Historical Society the builder was given benefit of an appeal to An Botd Pleanala (the Council had refused permission). He then went bust and the past twenty years with missing slates and vandals breaking in has left a stain against the local authority for not enforcing conservation regulations. It was bought last year for 120k and work is starting on development of the apartments. But it will have lost all of its attractiveness becoming private rented accommodation with no historic value. It was once part of the Bodkin estate, one of the Tribes of Galway.

  4. Carole says:

    Thank you for your beautiful photographs and the great story of the resurrection of Doneraile Park. When you are in North Cork you may like to see how Charleville Park has fared (not well). And the ghosts of Belfort and Bowenscourt linger of course. Kilcolman nearby is also sadly neglected. Spenser would have known/visited the older Doneraile house/casrle. Finally, back in Charleville there are no remains of what was apparently the finest house in Europe in the 1660s, Roger Boyle’s residence.

  5. Emma Richey says:

    Well done IGS and its volunteers for bringing this house back to life. Sad that the St Leger Trustees had absolutely no interest in the house’s future especially when there was a ‘descendant’ prepared to take it on. I look forward to visiting it one day.

  6. Simon Loftus says:

    Pity some of the pictures are not hanging straight!

    Do you know who painted this portrait, and whom it is of? It looks to me like the work of Garret Morphy.

    Simon Loftus

    • In fairness, I visited the house while it was still being prepared for opening to the public (which explains why some of the pictures aren’t straight…)
      To which portrait are you referring please?

  7. claudius1889 says:

    Against the backdrop of so many beautiful houses neglected and ruined, this story with a happy ending is most welcomed. What I do not understand is the obnoxious attitude of the Trustees. The bastards had their eyes on the money. Anyway, congratulations to the IGS for a wonderful job.

  8. Philip Marshall says:

    Is it known if any of the portraiture is of the family or otherwise original to the house? My understanding is that numerous St Leger family portraits were included in the sale and disappeared into private hands. If any of these could be located they would be of great interest to genealogists.

  9. James Canning says:

    Yes, congratulations all around!

  10. Dougal Paver says:

    Interesting to read that the first floor still needs some work. When I was a volunteer at Doneraile in the summer of ’86 I was billeted in one of the partially refurbished bedrooms in the second bay, facing south east.

    It was a delightful space in which to wake – which I did early each morning on account of the absence of curtains. There were deer and rabbits a-plenty grazing on the lawn below and for a city kid like me, not long off the boat from Liverpool, it was a sort of pastoral fantasy world. Loved it – and the great company of Arthur Montgomery, too. Whatever became of him, I wonder?

    • Thank you for sharing those memories: you will find more if you ever have a chance to read my history of the Irish Georgian Society (published for the organisation’s 50th anniversary in 2008). Meanwhile, you will be happy to know that Arthur is alive and well: I saw him a couple of weeks ago…

      • Dougal Paver says:

        That’s great to hear, Robert – thank you. He won’t remember me (heaven knows how many volunteers were in his care) but he made an impression on me as a wide-eyed seventeen year-old and I remember my summer in Doneraile with great affection.

  11. Thank you for the recent YouTube ‘visits’ to Doneraile. I was there in 2016 when staying nearby at the Irish Landmark Trust property at Anne’s Grove. There’s a lovely walk around the estate with views of the house and deer park. I ended up in the house where one room was in use as a cafe. I was delighted to discover that author Honor Tracy also had connections with the area. There was an interesting album of photographs which one could browse through. I rather like this quote about Miss Tracy reprinted in Wikipedia “Harold Watts stated that “her novels are designed to be read with a glass of sherry in the hand, preferably in the company of persons as basically sensible as the ideal reader of Miss Tracy’s work.”

Leave a Reply to Dougal PaverCancel reply