Look to the Stars

Internationally acclaimed for his work, the astronomer William Edward Wilson was born in 1851 in Belfast, where his grandfather, also called William, had made a fortune in the shipping business. As a result, William senior bought each of his four sons an estate, that given to William junior’s father, John Wilson, being Daramona, County Westmeath. The younger William, not enjoying good health as a child, was educated at home but when he was 19 the opportunity arose to join an expedition travelling to Algeria to witness a total solar eclipse. This inspired his interest in astronomy and in due course he acquired his first telescope. When aged thirty, he constructed his own observatory at Daramona, on a site immediately adjacent to the house. Here he worked for the rest of his life, until his early death in 1908. Among the scientific breakthroughs with which he is credited are the production of the first photo-electric measurements of the brightness of stars and the first accurate determination of the temperature of the solar photosphere. He was also responsible for making a series of outstanding celestial photographs. As a result of his work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896 and awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Trinity College Dublin in 1901.

Daramona is a mid-19th century, three-bay, two-storey Italianate villa probably built by John Wilson soon after the birth of his son, the future astronomer. There was an older house immediately behind the present one, but it has long since been demolished; it is suggested that the somewhat over-scaled limestone Doric entrance porch was recycled from the previous building. The doorcase behind has a particularly wide fanlight and sidelights. The interior is typical of the period, the most interesting space being the very substantial library, the largest room on the ground floor, which has timber panelled walls and, above the chimneypiece, a panel bearing the family coat of arms. Immediately behind the house, on the site of the earlier house, are two long service wings. Wilson’s two-storey observatory, completed around 1892 and originally domed, stands left of the rear of the house. Beyond it is a curtain wall topped with a balustrade and incorporating a pedimented doorcase leading providing access to the rear avenue.

Not long after Edward Wilson’s death in 1908, his widow and children moved first to County Cavan and then, following the outbreak of troubles in the 1920s, to England. His telescope was offered to the University of London where it remained until 1974; it is now in Liverpool’s Merseyside County Museum. Much of his original instrumentation when to Trinity College Dublin. Meanwhile, Daramona was sold to another family who lived in and maintained the property until it was put on the market in 2000. House and land were then bought by a local building firm which applied to construct 38 houses on the site. Thanks to a campaign by scientists in Ireland and around the world, this application was refused by the county council which in due course conferred protected structure status on the main building, ancillary outhouses, demesne wall and gates. Since then it would appear nothing has been done, so that today Daramona is fast falling into decay and – once more – taking with it part of the national history. Looking for a solution to this problem? One might as well follow William Wilson’s example, and look to the stars.

13 comments on “Look to the Stars

  1. carylbeach says:

    Poignant images of these once grand buildings. I especially love the rear view with the demolished section of walls. They conjure up an insight into the lifetime of these families. They also make me think of the Artist Hughie O’Donoghue and his painting Memory of the House, Bangor Erris . Here is the link:https://images.app.goo.gl/9mGgkmGH4qCT4GXK8.
    Enjoyed your article.Thank you.

  2. Paul Rea says:

    Thank you for an excellent article once again- Very interesting and always a shame to see a house such as this in limbo. Out of curiosity – was part of the house demolished at some point? The last photo shows a house four bays deep yet the house as it stands currently is only two bays deep.

  3. Gareth McMahon says:

    A reasonable sized property , with the rooms shown looking in good condition considering, a pity a party would not take it on as a family home. Surprised panelling and fireplaces are still in place.

  4. Patrick o reilly says:

    Most large country houses were supported by substantial land holdings which were their life giving oxygen .
    As the land was sold off so also was this vital oxygen supply and a preservation order became the traditional final kiss of death .
    We have lost countless important buildings in this way and this pattern is set to continue as most people are understandably fearful of getting involved with organisations such as An Taisce .
    In other places where important buildings are maintained the planners engage with the owners to reach a compromise to make the buildings more suited to modern living.
    Places like Venice would most likely now be crumbling ruins if our Irish system of planning was in place .
    So a compromise giving a preservation order on the house and allowing a number of oxygen giving houses could have been at least considered. The management company of the estate could be responsible for the maintenance of the big house .
    But the next stage is coming , when a window is broken , soon after 5 windows , then 20 windows and finally a fire .
    How often must we learn this lesson .
    But no, the sight of other modern buildings on the land would ruin the beautiful aesthetic . Allowing the house to be modernised or divided up is not acceptable.
    While such attitudes remain the Irish Aesthete needs to continue its good work for many generations to come .

    • Paul Rea says:

      I’m afraid I have to disagree with some of this – absolutely in SOME cases building houses surrounding a protected structure is a good idea but in places like this – rural Westmeath and Longford – the idea of building modern houses around a protected structure is completely ridiculous. The original planning application in the case of this house was around 2002 – at the height of the time when putting modern houses around a protected structure was considered a good idea. Look at where that got us ….. lots of ghost estates around the midlands with no one to fill the houses and the house that was worst affected was usually the protected structure as everything fell apart. The market for modern houses around this house does not exist. In this case I suspect that the saving grace for this house was that the 38 houses were not built.

  5. If only I did the Lotto! As in all such situations one would wish the government had a department with a unit specialising in finding new uses for such properties, thus justifying their restoration?

  6. Deborah Sena says:

    Was wondering if the back view shows ” The new telescope was mounted in a two-storey tower attached to the house with an attached physical laboratory, darkroom and machine shop.[8]” from Wikipedia article. Considering the telescope seems to have ‘ended up’ where it is, how about a campaign to bring it home? That could inspire reviving the house. Needs a sustainable solution. But the Midlands does not need another house museum it could also tap into the rise in home schooling with perhaps seminars and education summer STEM program for home schooled students? A campaign could be, ‘Genius starts at home’. More in line with son’s intention for the telescope. A celebrity sponsor/spokesperson known for ‘nerd’ roles such as Eddie Redmayne? Its an inspirational story that needs broader exposure.

  7. Julian Humphreys says:

    As the house is owned by a thwarted development company it is almost inevitable that its ‘protected’ status will stand for nothing and the owners obligation to protect the structure will be ignored. The standard chain of events will proceed in the following few years; a break in, theft of chimneypiece or two, broken doors leaving easy entry for local teenagers…. illegal rave…graffiti… a fire that gets out of hand etc etc and no one held accountable. We have seen this happen so often.

  8. Jerry Barnes says:

    Love your posts but more often than not they reduce me to tears.

  9. Michael Scott says:

    Robert – Michael McCaffery and I lived there – in Daramona – Michael McCaffery for over 10 years – he more than any living person knows more about the house – it had 36 rooms and the back of the house was taken down in the 1960 to save money on tax – the ceilings inside are “Adam” copies – Michael put considerable money into maintaining the house when he lived there – you should ask him about it.

  10. Finola says:

    What a depressingly familiar story.

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