Due to be officially launched tomorrow, Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is a collection of images of Irish buildings taken over half a century ago. For several years in the 1960s, Paddy journeyed around the country, often in the company of Mariga Guinness and the Knight of Glin, exploring our architectural heritage and recording buildings which, sadly too often, have subsequently been lost. Although not a professional photographer, he had an intuitive eye (and excellent travelling companions) and soon discovered a natural talent for composition. Only a handful of his pictures have ever been published (some in Country Life) and I am very happy to have collaborated with Paddy in producing a representative collection of the work. While the majority of the houses included still stand, and a few have even been restored, others – as mentioned – are no more. Below is a representative example of the latter category, Kenure Park, County Dublin which other than its monumental portico was demolished in 1978.
It is now ten years since the book seen above was first published, and its success among readers helped to inspire the creation of this site. The appetite for information about Ireland’s historic properties, especially among overseas readers and visitors, continues to be astounding, especially when one considers how little is often done to ensure their survival here.
Romantic Irish Homes featured a wide variety of buildings, from relatively modest farmhouses to grand country houses (such as Stradbally Hall, County Laois, the drawing room of which appeared on the book’s cover). Regardless of scale, what they shared was a certain aesthetic: a disregard for passing design trends, an appreciation of the well-used object, a respect for patina. And an abundance of colour: there’s no monochrome interior found between these pages.
Since the book appeared, the Irish Aesthete has discovered many more properties around Ireland which share the same spirit as those featured in Romantic Irish Homes. I will be discussing some of these on Wednesday, November 6th in a talk organized by the Royal Oak Foundation at the Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden Museum in New Orleans, a city imbued with the same romantic spirit.
A stone doorcase on what is now a side elevation of Tyrella, County Down but was once the main front. Of five bays and two storeys, this section of the house is believed to date from c.1730, not long after the land on which it stands was acquired by George Hamilton. At the end of the 18th/start of the 19th century, this grandson the Rev. George Hamilton added an extension to one end of the building with Wyatt windows and a fine Tuscan portico, and thereafter this has served as Tyrella’s entrance.
Born in Dublin in 1798, Richard Turner inherited the family ironworks which he developed to manufacture the glasshouses for which he became renowned: among the best-known examples of his work are the Palm Houses in Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens, and the Curvilinear Range at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. His earliest commission in this area was for a conservatory at Colebrooke, County Fermanagh, believed to date from 1833. Like a giant skeleton the frame still survives but unfortunately almost all the glass has been lost, and while the present owners of the estate would much like to undertake a restoration, the cost of doing so is too prohibitive.
Although the weather was somewhat cool for that time of year, on the afternoon of Saturday May 15th 1921 John and Anna Bagot invited a number of friends to visit them at Ballyturin, County Galway and play tennis outside the house. Following the game and tea, the guests dispersed around 8.30pm, a party of five being driven by Royal Irish Constabulary District Inspector Cecil Blake in his own car. A couple of minutes later Mr Bagot heard a bang, and after initially thinking one of the vehicle’s tyres had blown he realized it was the sound of gunshot. He and his wife and daughter Molly ran down the drive towards the gate lodge, but were stopped by an armed man who handed them a note reading ‘Volunteer HQ. Sir, if there is any reprisals after this ambush, your house will be set on fire as a return. By Order IRA.’ Only one of the party of five, Margaret Gregory, survived the ambush.
Dating from the first half of the 19th century and of two storeys over basement and three bays, Ballyturin stands on the site of a mediaeval castle that originally belonged to a branch of the Burke family before passing into the possession of the Kirwans, one of the Tribes of Galway. In the second half of the 18th century, Ballyturin was owned by Richard Kirwan, a geologist and chemist who served for many years as President of the Royal Irish Academy. Kirwan was famous for his eccentricities: living on a diet almost exclusively of ham and milk, he travelled everywhere with six Irish wolfhounds and a golden eagle, and while he loved these animals he had a detestation of flies, rewarding his man-servant for every corpse produced. Following his death in 1812 the estate passed to a cousin, Edward Henry Kirwan and then to the latter’s son, also called Edward Henry; it was probably around this time at the present house was built. When the younger Edward Henry Kirwan died aged 25 and unmarried in 1845 Ballyturin was inherited by his sister Anne who two years beforehand had married John Lloyd Neville Bagot. Their son was living at Ballyturin with his wife and daughters in May 1921.
The group in Cecil Blake’s car consisted of himself, his female companion Eliza Williams (who, it seems, was pregnant), two army officers Captain Fiennes Cornwallis and Lieutenant Robert McCreery, and Margaret Gregory; the last of these the widow of Robert Gregory and daughter-in-law of Lady Gregory who lived not far away at Coole Park. As the car approached the end of the drive, it was noticed that one of the gates onto the road was closed, so Captain Cornwallis got out of the vehicle to open it. As he did so, a group of IRA men who had earlier taken control of the gate lodge and concealed themselves in the surrounding bushes opened fire, killing everyone except Margaret Gregory. Cecil Blake, although only in Ireland since the start of the year, had quickly acquired a reputation for violence in an area already reeling from aggressive assaults by the Black and Tans. He was clearly the target of the ambush, the other victims being what is often euphemistically called ‘collateral damage.’ Given what had happened on their property, and the fevered atmosphere of the period, the Bagots understandably left Ballyturin and appear never to have returned. The house has since fallen into its present ruined condition.
Another ruinous church, this time of more recent vintage: the former Church of Ireland premises in Drumlumman, County Cavan. A plaque over the small west door carries the inscription ‘ ‘This Church was Built Chiefly at the expence of William Gore of Woodford Esq in the year 1789.’ The gothic windows on the east and south sides are believed to be a later addition. The church continued to be used for services until the 1970s and has since fallen into its present sad state.
William Gore, at whose expense the church was principally built, inherited an estate at Woodford, County Leitrim, originally owned by the O’Rourkes, one of their castles being incorporated into the house. His son, also William, married a Shropshire heiress Mary Jane Ormsby in 1815 and changed his surname to Ormsby Gore: the couple’s eldest son John was created first Baron Harlech in 1876. Having briefly represented Leitrim in the House of Commons, William Ormsby Gore and his family lived primarily in England: by 1837 Samuel Lewis described Woodford as having formerly been ‘a place of great splendour.’ The house no longer stands and it now looks as though the church Mr Gore had helped to build is going the same way.
Difficult though it is to imagine today, the village of Lorrha, County Tipperary was once a major centre of religious activity. St Ruadhan is believed to have founded a monastery here in the sixth century and this flourished until the mid-ninth century when it was twice attacked by the Vikings. Following the arrival of the Normans some 300 years later, the old monastery was re-established, this time as a priory under the care of the Augustinian Canons.
The Augustinian Priory remained active until 1541 when dissolved on the orders of Henry VIII: eleven years later the buildings were granted on a twenty year lease to the last prior. The church is the most substantial surviving part of the establishment, and is notable for its carved doorway at the west end, at the top of which is a the head of a woman wearing an elaborate headdress. While it is claimed this represents a member of the de Burgh family responsible for establishing the priory in the 12th century both the doorway and the east window date from some three centuries later, so this seems unlikely
Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.
It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’
While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.
Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.
‘The house is one of the most extensive in the kingdom, the front exceeding upwards of two hundred feet and one of the most beautiful, being built of the quarries on this estate, and mostly hewn, which gives the whole a magnificent appearance’. So wrote William Wilson in 1803 of the recently built Capard, County Laois. This neo-classical house, situated on high ground with panoramic views across the surrounding countryside, has enjoyed mixed fortunes over the past two centuries with its future uncertain on more than one occasion. However since 2015 its current owners have undertaken a meticulous restoration of both building and demesne so that it is now without doubt one of Ireland’s finest country houses. This week saw the publication of a book chronicling Capard’s history, written by Ciarán Reilly and placing the estate within the context of time and place, allowing readers better to understand the evolution of the midlands region. As handsome as the place itself, Capard: An Irish Country House and Estate is a welcome addition to the field of Irish country house studies
‘There are probably more derelict buildings in Ireland than in any other country of Western Europe,’ opens a television report on the rescue of Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (see: https://www.rte.ie/archives/2017/1122/922043-damer-house-gets-new-life). That statement was made in 1977 and is probably just as applicable today, as can be seen by the condition of this house, in the townland or Irby on the outskirts of Roscrea.
The building looks to be early-to-mid 19th century and constructed as a residence for an affluent tenant farmer. It was designed like a miniature gentleman’s house, with a number of reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms upstairs, all inside sturdy walls. These still survive but the interior has been almost entirely lost and the roof is on the verge of going. Although capable of restoration and reuse, the place will likely only decline further: after all, Ireland has a reputation to maintain as the country with more derelict buildings than anywhere else in Europe…