The chapel on Lambay Island, County Dublin was originally built on the site of an older ruin in 1833; at the time, the place was owned by the Talbots of Malahide Castle. At the start of the last century, the island was bought by Cecil Baring and his wife Maude, who commissioned Edwin Lutyens to renovate and extend all existing structures on Lambay, not least the late mediaeval castle. Lutyens also transformed the external appearance of the chapel into a small Doric temple (although it was, and still is, used for Christian worship, as the statue of the Virgin on the indicates. Inside the building, a stained glass window designed by Patrick Pollen in the form of a cross was later inserted.
The so-called Fleming’s Folly in County Cavan. Many fanciful stories have been spread about this little building, such as that it was constructed by local landowner Captain James Fleming so that he could see his son’s ship returning from America. More likely it is an early 19th century folly, of the kind then being constructed across the country: the building is shown on an Ordnance Survey map of 1836. Made from stone quarried locally, it is of two storeys and has the remains of a large chimney on the groundfloor; this suggests the folly served as a destination for walks by the Flemings and their guests. The building stands at the top of a hill above the village of Ballinagh and by climbing an intramural staircase it was possible in clear weather to see three of Ireland’s provinces: Ulster, Leinster and Connaught.
On a peninsula that extends like a finger dipping into the waters of Lough Conn, County Mayo stand the remains of Errew Priory. Like so many other Irish religious houses, this one is believed to have been founded by an early Christian saint. Tigernan, otherwise known as Tiernan was said to have been born in this part of the country but otherwise little appears to be known about him. He is the patron saint of nearby Crossmolina where the Roman Catholic church and secondary school are named after him.
Errew Priory was re-founded in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman Barrett family which had settled in the area; a number of them became Bishops of Elphin (a local diocese) and one, Thomas Barrett, was buried at Errew in 1404. Ten years later, the establishment was given by the Barretts into the care of the Augustinian Canons Regular who already had a house in Crossmolina. Dedicated to the Virgin, Errew Priory was dissolved in 1585 on the orders of Elizabeth I.
Although the eastern side of the cloister at Errew Priory is reasonably well-preserved, not a lot of the priory buildings otherwise survive, since most of them have lost all trace of roofs. The surviving cloister walk is darker than customarily the case, since light only enters through narrow ogee windows. The other principal structure is the main body of the church, with simple windows at eastern and western end. The outer walls have few openings, suggesting that like many other such establishments, this one was subject to assault during the inter-familial wars that were such a feature of life in 14th and 15th century Ireland. Discovered at the end of a track through fields, Errew Priory’s appears singularly austere, but the setting on the edge of the lough is marvelous, making it easy to appreciate why a religious order would have wanted to established a presence here.
After recent somewhat dispiriting posts, time for something more uplifting. Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny was discussed here almost five years ago (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/11/24/of-the-middle-size) but that page really needs to be revisited because, as a visit to the house not long ago revealed, the owners continue to be indefatigable in their improvements to the place. One of the latest additions is to the rear of the main building where a formal Italianate garden has been created. Just a handful of plants have been employed, including beech, box and Irish yew, but sophisticated design, and sound maintenance, means the eye never grows tired. Ballysallagh thankfully shows that growth, as much as decay, is possible in Ireland…
Further to Monday’s post on the Eyrecourt staircase, it is worth noting that the house in which this remarkable piece of Irish craftsmanship once stood is no more. The building was effectively abandoned in the 1920s, following the sale of its contents – including the staircase – and gradually fell into ruin. When Maurice Craig visited the site in 1957, at least part of the roof was still in place as was the front doorcase. Since then, however, total decay has followed and today only portions of Eyecourt’s outer walls stand, incorporated into a farm yard. A sad end.
It is a year almost to the day since the unexpected death of Rolf Loeber. Dutch-born, he was a specialist in child psychology, with a particular interest in juvenile delinquency and for more than three decades had been based at the University of Pittsburgh: at the time of his death, he was that institution’s Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Epidemiology. But while still a student in Holland in the 1960s, he read Maurice Craig’s Dublin, 1660-1840 (first published in 1952) and become fascinated by Ireland’s architectural history. As a result, despite a busy academic career, he somehow found time to produce a series of invaluable articles and books on the subject, beginning with a Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 which appeared in1981. He was a pioneer in his meticulous scrutiny of archives and his ability to draw together material from a remarkable range of sources, as can be seen in his last book, which is being issued posthumously this week. Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 is typical in being both scholarly and readable, immensely engaging thanks to the author’s enthusiasm and full of insights into the ways in which diverse buildings across the country correspond to each other. One of the chapters contains several pages devoted to Eyrecourt Castle, County Galway and the remarkable staircase once found inside that house. The last conversation I had with Rolf Loeber concerned this staircase and the possibility that, having left Ireland almost a century ago, it might now return here.
As is so often the case in Ireland, despite its name there was nothing remotely castellated about Eyrecourt Castle. The house was built in the 1670s by Colonel John Eyre, an English soldier who had come to this country twenty years earlier and through diverse methods acquired a considerable amount of land in east County Galway (incidentally, Galway’s Eyre Square indicates how involved the Eyre family became in the affairs of the city during this period). On his estate, he began laying out a new town with broad streets, the principal thoroughfare concluding at the gates leading to his house. Given the unsettled nature of the times, it might have been expected the colonel would make sure this new residence was well fortified. Remarkably, however, Eyrecourt Castle was completely unprotected. As can be seen in the top photograph, it was a two-storey manor with dormered attic, the seven-bay façade having a pedimented three-bay breakfront and the wood entrance doorcase featuring Corinthian pilasters flanking a wide entablature centred on an elliptical window surrounded by carved foliage. Were it still standing, Eyrecourt Castle would be the architectural wonder of the West. Alas! The colonel overstretched his resources in the house’s construction (as early as 1677 a trust had been established in which a portion of the estate was set aside for 61 years to cover arrears) and the family finances appear never to have recovered thereafter. Circumstances were not helped by ubsequent generations of Eyres becoming typical members of the Irish gentry, hard-living and hard-drinking squireens.
It is worth quoting in full the description of John Eyre, created first – and last – Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt in 1768, given by dramatist Richard Cumberland (whose father was then Bishop of nearby Clonfert). According to Cumberland, Lord Eyre was ‘Proprietor of a vast extent of soil, not very productive, and inhabiting a spacious mansion, not in the best repair, he lived according to the style of the country, with more hospitality than elegance, and whilst his table groaned with abundance, the order and good taste of its arrangements were little thought of. The slaughtered ox was hung up whole, and the hungry servitor supplied himself with his dole of flesh sliced from off the carcase. His lordship’s day was so apportioned as to give the afternoon by much the largest share of it, during which, from the early dinner to the hour of rest, he never left the chair, nor did the claret ever quit the table. This did not produce inebriety, for it was sipping rather than drinking, that filled up the time, and this mechanical process of gradually moistening the human clay was carried on with very little aid from conversation, for his lordship’s companions were not very communicative, and fortunately he was not very curious. He lived in an enviable independence as to reading, and of course he had no books. Not one of the windows of his castle was made to open, but luckily he had no liking for fresh air, and the consequence may be better conceived than described.’ As this passage indicates, Cumberland’s memoirs are as entertaining and as informative of life in provincial Georgian Ireland, as those of the slightly later Sir Jonah Barrington.
When Lord Eyre died in 1781 the estate was already heavily encumbered, and the next couple of generations of the family ran up further debts, not least owing to their preoccupation with hunting, for which the Eyres kept a stable of 30-40 horses and their own pack of 80 hounds. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, a considerable part of the estate had to be sold but this did nothing to curb the family’s extravagance, leading to further sales in the 1880s; by the time William Henry Gregory Eyre died in 1925, what had once been a holding of more than 30,000 acres had dropped to a little more than 600. The following year, the remainder of the estate was auctioned, together with the contents of the house. Eyrecourt Castle was then abandoned, but not before its staircase had been carefully removed and taken out of the country.
Dating from the time of the house’s construction, Eyrecourt Castle’s staircase took up an extraordinary one-third of the total interior space, and is unlike anything else in Ireland. Made of elm, oak and pine, it comprises two flights of steps that gradually rise to the return where they unite to offer single access to the upper floor, the piano nobile holding the main reception rooms. Rolf Loeber described it as though still in situ: ‘As seen from the downstairs hall, the staircase is partly screened by the Eyre family’s coat of arms, flanked by two arches, ingeniously suspended from the ceiling. On the first steps, the balustrades and newel posts with their wealth of botanical detail become visible, including many carved vases with flowers. At the half-landing, the full extent of the staircase first becomes visible, showing contrasts between the straight lines of the massive bannisters and the rolling down of the carved acanthus leaves from the railings.
The gradual ascent continues to the first floor, where a wall of decorative panelling with superimposed pilasters on each side of the double doors announced the saloon. The high point of the staircase is its rich carving dedicated to nature. The newel posts alone carry thirty carved vases of flowers, mostly freestanding, while others adjoin the walls. Two carved heads of “green men” at the top of the staircase spout acanthus leaves from their mouth, with the leaves rolling down the foliated frieze below the massive bannisters. Other faces of “green men” feature up and down the staircase.’
In 1926 some of the interiors of Eyrecourt Castle, including its staircase, were purchased by the decorating firm of White, Allom & Co., removed from the house and taken to London. White, Allom was run by Sir Charles Allom who specialised in period interiors for American clients: his firm was responsible for laying out the rooms in what is now the Frick Collection in New York. From the mid-1920s Allom worked with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, then fitting out the vast castle he had built in San Simeon, California. Hearst bought the Eyrecourt staircase in 1927 and, taken apart and packed into a series of wooden crates, it was shipped to the United States.* There it sat in the crates until 1951 when Hearst died. His estate subsequently donated the staircase – and much other material besides – to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The crates remained in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, until they were finally opened a few years ago and the multiple pieces of carved wood unpacked.
Among architectural historians, the Eyrecourt staircase enjoys legendary status but it’s safe to say that only a handful of Irish people have ever seen it: two years ago, the Irish Aesthete went to Detroit specifically to do so, and was very kindly taken by one of the institute’s curators to the repository where the photographs shown today were taken. The experience was fascinating, since although dispersed around various sections of the space the structure’s various parts are all present. Numbered and ready for reassembly, the work first needs restorative attention, not least because at some date in the past the wood was stripped and this has had an adverse effect on its condition. But it is a marvel, a stupendous work of Irish craftsmanship and, as already mentioned, unlike anything else now in this country. At the time of his death, Rolf Loeber was investigating the possibility of repatriating the Eyrecourt staircase: this was the subject of our final conversation. Still stored in a suburban warehouse, the likelihood of the item ever being reassembled by its present custodian looks remote. The staircase is a national treasure and ought to be in Ireland. While the cost of doing so is considerable, overlooking this opportunity to bring a masterpiece home would be an unforgiveable oversight. The time has come to start a campaign, so that this exile can return to its native country.
*In 1928 White, Allom assembled the panelled former drawing room from Eyrecourt Castle at an antiques show held in Olympia, London, where it was photographed and described as a ‘Charles II Room.’ The panelling was subsequently acquired by Hearst and installed in two rooms in St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan.
Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 by Rolf Loeber is published by Four Courts Press, €55.
The innumerable visitors who now come to see Trinity College Dublin’s Old Library (and the Book of Kells held therein) now gain access to the first-floor Long Room via a staircase inserted into the building in 1967 and designed by Ahrends, Burton & Koralek. As a result, they do not have the pleasure of seeing the original staircase at the west end of the building. This is believed to date from c.1750, its design overseen by Richard Castle. The oak stairs ascend around three sides of the double-height space, the ceiling of which features rococo plasterwork by an unknown hand.