An entrance into the former demesne of Affane, County Waterford. The core of the house here dated from the 17th century but had a new front added in the first half of the 19th century with canted bows on either side of the entrance. These ashlar gateposts with screen walls on either side and arched pedestrian openings on either side were probably erected around the same time. Once leading towards the main building, now they go nowhere but provide a reminder of what used to be here: the house itself is a ruined shell.
A County Wexford property formerly known as Grange, but now called Bannow House is thought to date from the mid-1830s when built for Thomas Boyce, although it work may have been initiated a couple of decades earlier by his father Samuel: the Boyce family had settled in the area in the 17th century. Of two storeys, the south-facing facade is of eight bays, the two centre ones breaking forward, with the entrance marked by a fine portico approached by four granite steps and featuring four Ionic columns. Curiously, the rear of the house is lopsided: while the west side runs back six bays, that to the east is more shallow, and partially hidden behind a high screen wall, suggesting a section of the building here was at some date demolished. In any case, an opening in that wall leads to a large and handsome yard constructed, like so many buildings in this part of the country, of local granite.
One suspects that few people today are aware of, let alone have read, the works of Constantia Maxwell who in the middle of the last century was probably the best-known woman writing on Irish history. This is a pity, because she was a first-rate stylist and her books impart a great deal of information in an agreeable fashion, which is often not the case today. Furthermore, she is worthy of study in her own right, being something of an academic pioneer. The daughter of an ophthalmic surgeon, she was born in Dublin in 1886 and was among the first women to be admitted to Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate (the college had been exclusively male until 1904). In 1909, she became the first woman to join the institution’s academic staff when appointed a lecturer in modern history. Thirty years later, she was the first woman to be made a professor at TCD, when given a chair in economic history and then, when appointed to the Lecky Professorship of History, was again the first woman to hold this chair. Without question, she was an impressive trailblazer, and not just thanks to her ascent of the academic hierarchy. In some respects, not least owing to her interest in Ireland during the 18th century, Maxwell might be considered the successor to Froude and Lecky, but she is less polemical than either of them, less determined to represent a particular point of view, more desirous to engage and hold the reader’s attention. Her knowledge was prodigious – the bibliography for Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges (of which more below) runs to some 22 pages – but it was lightly worn. There are no stodgy passages in her books, they race along from one anecdote to the next, so that knowledge is shared with the lightest of touches. Her work has sometimes been criticised for concentrating on the ruling elite of the Georgian period, but at the time this was the case with almost anyone writing about the period: history was still perceived as belonging to the victors. Furthermore, as will be seen, she was keenly aware of and sympathetic towards the dreadful misfortunes experienced by the poor during the period under consideration, so censure levelled at her is not altogether fair. The college where she taught for so long offers a scholarship in her name, but surely the time has come for a revival of interest in Constantia Maxwell, and the republication of her books.
Constantia Maxwell enjoyed popular success in 1936 with the publication of Dublin under the Georges, which explored all aspects of the city’s development from 1714 to 1830. In the space of some 300 pages, she celebrated Dublin’s golden age while not overlooking the misery that could be found beneath its glittering surface: an entire chapter is devoted to ‘Life of the Poor’ in which she cites many contemporary visitors to the city. When the English MP John Curwen came in 1818 while he declared ‘the style and beauty of Dublin have greatly surpassed my expectations,’ at the same time he could not but note ‘poverty, disease, and wretchedness exist in every great town, but in Dublin the misery is indescribable.’ Maxwell also quotes from the likes of the Rev James Whitelaw who recounted only too vividly the filth and squalor in which many of the city’s occupants lived. We are inclined to imagine tenements as being the product of the late 19th/early 20th centuries but almost 100 years earlier Whitelaw could write of frequently finding ‘from ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room not 15 feet square, stretched on a wad of filthy straw swarming with vermin, and without any covering, save the wretched rags that constituted their wearing apparel.’ But of course Maxwell also devoted much attention to the glories of the era, reporting on the lives of the wealthy and the splendid residences they constructed for themselves. Furthermore she took time to look at how those residences were furnished and decorated, thanks to the many specialist craftsmen who flourished owing to the patronage of the domestic market. Everything from wool and linen production to glass and cabinet making was explored in her text, and again the breadth of the author’s reading is impressive; there seem to be no available sources she had not examined. It’s worth remembering that when Maxwell wrote her book, far less relevant material had been placed in the public domain, and far less research into it undertaken. As in so much else, she was a pioneer and almost everyone else who followed, from Maurice Craig onwards, was indebted to her.
Following on from the success of Dublin under the Georges, in 1940 Constantia Maxwell published Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges. This follows much the same format as its predecessor and demonstrates the same depth of knowledge presented in an equally engaging format. Maxwell understood the advantages of the well-told anecdote, whether writing of the foibles of the gentry or the misfortunes of the peasantry. With regard to the latter, she also demonstrated her inherent empathy, observing that her readers ‘need scarcely be reminded that the Irish peasant in the eighteenth century had none of the advantages of the small-holder in England. He had no permanent interest in the soil, because he had no security of tenure. He had no capital to spend upon improvements, and very little knowledge of agriculture. He was the product of an evil land system established by conquest, under which the landlord, who could never feel absolutely secure in the midst of an alien population, looked mainly for immediate profits.’ The consequences of this system were then thoroughly examined over the course of the pages that followed. One chapter of particular interest is devoted to a study of Ireland’s provincial towns during the 18th century. So much attention is paid to Dublin’s growth at the time, it is easy to forget that many other urban centres underwent expansion and improvement from the early 1700s onwards. Many of these became centres of industry and trade, such as Clonmel, County Tipperary, described by John Wesley in 1756 as ‘the pleasantest town beyond all comparison which I have yet seen in Ireland.’ and Cork city which Arthur Young thought displayed ‘by much the most animated scene of shipping in all Ireland.’ Incidentally, with regard to this specific subject, David Dickson – who has already written so eloquently on the developments of both Dublin and Cork – is due to publish his next work The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation in May (Yale University Press). In the meantime, for those who have yet to engage with Constantia Maxwell, an investigation of her work is encouraged. Despite the passage of many decades since the books’ first appearance, they continue to engage and inform.
Notable for having been largely designed early in the last century by architect Clough Williams-Ellis, the village of Cushendun, County Antrim has featured here before (see Cornwall in Ulster « The Irish Aesthete). Since the mid-1950s, much of the place has been in National Trust’s ownership, including the Glenmona, former home of Ronald John McNeill, Baron Cushendun who commissioned the house from Williams-Ellis after its predecessor was burnt down by the IRA in 1922. For some time the building was leased to the Health and Social Care Board, and used as a nursing home with the inevitable adjustments made to its interior. That arrangement ended and it appears a new purpose has yet to be found for Glenmona. While the National Trust has undertaken much good work on other properties for which it is responsible, such does not appear to be the case here. However, last year an independent body in the social housing sector, Supporting Communities announced that it had been approached by the National Trust ‘to help them re-engage positively with local stakeholders and the community in general’ and to develop the house ‘into a thriving hub for community activity.’ Let’s hope the eventual outcome is that the trust re-engages with this important part of the region’s architectural heritage and that it receives better care than has been the case of late.
A pre-Christian monument, the Doonfeeny Standing Stone is, at 14 and a half feet, the second tallest of its kind in Ireland (the standing stone in Punchestown, County Kildare is some 22 feet tall). The precise purpose of this and similar structures is unclear but the belief is that they were associated with pagan rituals, perhaps marking places of death and burial. It is notable that a church was subsequently built close to the the example at Doonfeeny, and a graveyard developed around it, all suggesting a continuation of older practices into the Christian era: two crosses were carved into this particular stone, as though to claim it for the new faith. For rather obvious reasons, standing stones were also long associated with fertility, women who wished to become pregnant being encouraged to visit them.
The origins of the Aylmer family in Ireland are unclear, but they were certainly here before the end of the 14th century and by the mid-1400s were living at Lyons, County Kildare (the estate was sold by the hopelessly-indebted Michael Aylmer in 1796 to Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry). In 1559 Gerald Aylmer, then aged 11, inherited an estate elsewhere in the county, at Donadea, which had been bought by his father the previous year and where there may well have been some kind of castle, possibly erected by the de Berminghams who had previously held the property. It is thought that in due course Gerald Aylmer constructed a new tower house for himself. This work may have been undertaken around 1587 when he married Mary Travers, widow of the attainted third Viscount Baltinglass. The tower is now the oldest part of the present Doneadea Castle. A lawyer by profession, Gerald Aylmer initially spent much time at the English court but adherence to the Roman Catholic faith might have hindered his chances of preferment. Nevertheless, he was knighted in 1598 and then created a baronet in 1622. Two years later, he and his (second) wife were responsible for building a three-storey block adjacent to the tower. The Donadea estate was duly inherited by the couple’s only son, Sir Andrew Aylmer who, although not a participant in the Confederate Wars from 1641 onwards, was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Meanwhile, the house his father built was burnt and the lands confiscated; they were returned to the family in 1662. Another assault and fire struck the property during the Williamite Wars. Still staunchly Catholic, a succession of Aylmers then all died young, often leaving infant heirs until the time of the sixth baronet Sir FitzGerald Aylmer, who although barely a few months old when he inherited the estate in 1737, managed to live for another 57 years. Raised in England as a member of the Established Church, it was Sir FitzGerald who undertook an extensive reconstruction of the old family house, an old plaque explaining that this work had begun in 1773.
As mentioned, Donadea Castle assumed much of its present form in the last quarter of the 18th century, thanks to Sir FitzGerald Aylmer who inserted large window openings with granite sills into the old building, as well as the canted first-floor Venetian window on the south side of the building. Donadea Castle is U-shaped, a recessed central section flanked by two three-storey towers, one of which was the original residence built by the first baronet. Between the towers is a single-storey bowed entrance screen, probably early 19th century and tentatively attributed (by Andrew Tierney) to Sir Richard Morrison. It may be the latter was also responsible for the rest of the Tudor-style decorations on the building, such as the lines of battlements along the roofs and mouldings above the windows. All of this would have been commissioned by the seventh baronet, Sir Fenton Aylmer, founder of the Kildare Hunt. Morrison could also have been the architect of a free-standing crenellated tower to the west of the building; above a staircase window is a datestone of 1837 with the motto Non Dormit qui Custodit (He who guards does not sleep) proposing that the tower was used as a muniments store. This tower was commissioned by the eighth baronet, Sir Gerald Aylmer, who was also responsible for many other improvements on the estate, not least the creation of an eight-acre enclosed garden immediately behind the castle, as well as the demesne wall, gate lodges and the planting of a fine lime avenue.
The ninth Aylmer baronet, Sir Gerald, inherited the Donadea estate in 1878, but died five years later, followed in 1885 by his heir, Sir Justin Aylmer: aged just 21 and an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was killed in a cycling accident. While the baronetcy then went sideways (to a younger son of the seventh baronet and then, just two months later, to his grandson), Donadea was inherited by Sir Justin’s only surviving sister, Caroline Aylmer, who lived there unmarried for the next half-century. On her own death in 1935, she left the property to the Church of Ireland, which quickly sold on the estate to the Land Commission. In due course, the castle was unroofed and the surrounding lands handed over to Coillte, the state-owned forestry body. Alas, while Coillte may be first-rate at looking after trees, its record in taking care of any buildings is pretty dismal, as can be seen by visitors to Donadea who over successive years have seen the castle and its surroundings allowed to fall further and further into dereliction, to the point that now cracks are appearing in walls and collapse is a real possibility. Given the property’s history, its convenient location and popularity as a site, this neglect seems especially reprehensible. Indifference can be the only explanation for Coillte’s failure to ensure Donadea Castle remains in decent repair; why, for example, have surviving features such as the charming Gothic-style wooden frames in many windows, not been removed and preserved? Why is it that a rare example of 17th century bay window with stone mullions should now be crudely filled with cement blocks (while the stonework above is left to become dangerously loose)? Unless serious intervention occurs soon, little of consequence will be left here. Another blot on our record of caring for the country’s architectural heritage.
Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary dates from c.1745 but the house was extensively remodelled in the second half of the 1860s and it was at that time that the first-floor landing was given its present appearance. Exceptionally wide, the space is generously lit by a circular glazed dome resting on a sequence of shallow arches. These are supported by what appear to be marble columns. In fact, the latter are only painted and one quirky detail is that the surface pattern of each column features a number of human profiles, said to represent members of the Trench family who were then owners of the property.
Located on high ground some distance from the main house at Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary: the remains of what appears to be an 18th century folly, perhaps once serving as a tea house. Constructed from uncut stone, the partially-restored building is circular with arched openings of three sides and a domed roof. What remains of a wall on the upper section suggests this might once have served as a viewing platform, offering visitors the opportunity to admire the surrounding countryside. Francis Bindon has long been credited as architect for Sopwell Hall, so might he have been responsible for the design of this structure also?
Two weeks ago, the fifth and final volume of records published in 1913 by Ireland’s original Georgian Society was discussed here. That might have been the end of such documentation of this country’s 18th century architectural heritage in the years prior to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But in 1915 two men decided that more research into Irish country houses was required, and so produced a volume called Georgian Mansions in Ireland. The individuals involved, Page Lawrence Dickinson and Thomas Ulick Sadleir, are of some interest. Born in 1881 and 1882 respectively, both were sons of clergymen, Sadleir’s father being a chaplain to the army stationed at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Sadleir junior was called to the Irish bar in 1906 and practised on the Leinster circuit for the next ten years. But his real passion was genealogy and even while a student he was working on an unpaid basis in the Office of the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin Castle. In 1915, the year in which Georgian Mansions in Ireland appeared, he was appointed registrar of the Order of St. Patrick at the Office of Arms, becoming Deputy Ulster in 1921, although due to the extensive absences of his superior he was in effect in charge and remained so until 1943 when the Office of Arms was finally transferred to the control of the Irish State. He subsequently became librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, remaining there until his death in 1957. As for Dickinson, he was a son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. In his late teens, he was apprenticed to architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (a brother of the painter William Orpen) with whom he then went into partnership. But he seems to have been as much a writer as an architect, being a frequent contributor to the Irish Builder (of such pieces as ‘Working class homes. Is the present standard reasonable?’ in January 1923, and ‘Competitions. Should they be abolished?’ in November 1924). He was clearly out of sympathy with post-Independence Ireland and for many years lived in England, his nostalgia for the ancien régime apparent in a memoir published in 1929, The Dublin of Yesterday, which as can be imagined was not well received in this country. Nevertheless he did return here, dying at his daughter’s house in County Wicklow in 1958.
In their Preface to Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Sadleir and Dickinson rightly acknowledge the work undertaken by the earlier Georgian Society, but note that the fifth volume only examined a few 18th century houses found throughout the country, thereby necessitating their own enterprise. In addition, they observed that while many of Dublin’s great houses had fallen into disrepair, ‘the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rack-rent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
Interestingly, Sadleir and Dickinson remark that Irish country houses seldom held valuable china, but ‘good pictures, plate and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon.’ Waxing poetic, they then write, ‘How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni or that fashionable Irish artist, Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entrail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Desart Court, County Kilkenny: burnt down by the IRA, February 1923
The main body of text in Georgian Mansions in Ireland is devoted to study of 17 houses (some given more attention than others). Of these, 11 still stand, three remaining in the hands of the original owners’ descendants and another three in private hands, albeit not those of the original family. Two (in Northern Ireland) are National Trust properties, one is an hotel, one belongs to a public company and one has become part of a national institution. Of the losses, two – Bessborough and Desart Court, both in County Kilkenny – occurred just a few years after the book was published, victims of the campaign waged against such buildings and their owners during the troubles of the early 1920s, one – Heywood, County Laois – was lost owing to an accidental fire in 1950 and two – Platten Hall, County Meath and Turvey, County Dublin – were left to suffer years of neglect before being pulled down.
Despite their optimistic tone about the state of such houses, the authors of Georgian Mansions in Ireland seem to have had an instinctive awareness of impending threat to the buildings’ future, since they made a point of recording not just architectural but also decorative details, describing – and photographing – plasterwork and paintings, chimneypieces and contents of entire rooms, thereby leaving us a detailed record of how such places looked just over a century ago. Occasionally, as with Curraghmore, County Waterford, little has changed during the intervening period, but more often, even if the house still stands, its entire furnishings have been lost or else horribly culled. Again, we owe Sadleir and Dickinson a debt of gratitude for providing us with this invaluable legacy, an opportunity to examine how Irish country houses were once decorated and occupied.
A number of state-sponsored programmes exist to encourage the revival of the country’s smaller urban centres, such as the Town and Village Renewal Scheme (begun 2016) and the Historic Towns Initiative (begun 2018). And yet, wherever one goes around Ireland, the same scenario can still be found: perfectly decent houses being left to fall into ruin. The question needs to be asked: why? Especially during what is universally acknowledged to be a national shortage of decent housing, why should this be the case. Why, for example, do local authorities – which have the relevant powers available to them under the 2000 Planning Act, not intervene? Why do we all seem to take it for granted that our towns and villages should display ample evidence of abandoned and neglected properties? Here is an example of this unhappy state of affairs: a fine red-brick house on the outskirts of Ardee, County Louth. Behind the double canted bay facade, the building is L-shaped and incorporates a small yard, while to the rear and now incorporated into a range of (equally dilapidated) outbuildings, stands a 15th century tower house: all are in equally neglected state. The national Buildings of Ireland website (www.buildingsofireland.ie) proposes a date of c.1900 for its construction, but a pediment over the main entrance contains the initials LCC (presumably representing Louth County Council) and the date 1931: does this mean the building was constructed at that time, or simply taken over at that time by the local authority? But more importantly, why today is it being allowed to deteriorate?