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.