High Victoriana

Based in County Sligo, the O’Haras are an ancient Irish family, their surname an anglicisation of the original Ó hEaghra, descendants of Eaghra Poprigh mac Saorghus who died in 926. The family’s ancestry is attested by the Book of O’Hara (Leabhar Í Eadhra), a volume of bardic poetry written on vellum for Cormac O’Hara in 1597 and acquired by the National Library of Ireland almost 20 years ago. It might therefore have been expected that during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, when so many other similar Gaelic families lost everything, the O’Haras would suffer the same fate. However, in this instance, by adapting themselves to changing circumstances, they survived and continue to live in the same area as did their forebears hundreds of years earlier. When Cormac’s son Tadgh O’Hara died in 1616, he left two infant boys, the elder another Tadgh, the younger Kean, who were raised as members of the Established Church by the Court of Wards. In consequence, despite some confiscations, they managed to hold onto more of their ancestral lands than was customarily the case, and although never rich (and frequently in debt) they survived. Their circumstances were helped, as often occurred, through judicious marriages which brought into the family property in northern England and also in Dublin: included in the latter was a site on Essex Street where the original Custom House once stood and another on Wellington Quay today occupied by the Clarence Hotel. 

Tadgh O’Hara the younger died unmarried in 1634 and so the estates passed to his brother Kean whose two elder sons also dying without direct heirs in turn the O’Hara lands passed to another Kean. Of the next generation, the elder son Charles sat for some time in the Irish House of Commons but is best remembered now as the close correspondent and almost father-figure to Edmund Burke. Meanwhile his younger brother Kane O’Hara became well-known as a playwright and composer who in 1757 co-founded the Musical Academy in Dublin with the Earl of Mornington (again a talented composer and father of the future first Duke of Wellington). Five years later, he scored a success on stage with Midas, the first-known burletta (a kind of parody of opera seria) to be performed in English. After being performed in Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre, it reached Covent Garden in London in 1764 and was succeeded by a number of other burlesques written by O’Hara. In 1774 he opened Mr. Punch’s Patagonian Theatre on Dublin’s Abbey Street. This was a theatre which staged puppet versions of operas and burlesques and later also transferred to London. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who would later sing in operas by Mozart, Gluck and Paisiello, performed in O’Hara’s premises while a young man. Meanwhile his nephew, another Charles O’Hara, duly inherited the family estate in Sligo and, like his father before him, sat in the House of Commons, although described in 1782 as ‘a very dull, tedious speaker.’ He opposed the Act of Union, but then sat in the Westminster parliament representing Sligo until his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Charles King O’Hara who did not stand for election but remained in Ireland where he was prominent in relief efforts during the Great Famine. Dying childless, his estate went to a nephew, Charles William Cooper, with the condition that the latter changed his surname to O’Hara. It is his descendants who have continued to live on the site to the present day. 

The O’Haras were never particularly wealthy, were often heavily indebted and their estates remortgaged: it didn’t help that on several occasions there were legal disputes among them over inheritances (a common phenomenon in late 17th/early 18th century Ireland). In the 1790s, financial circumstances had become so bad that they were facing bankruptcy, and large portions of their property had to be sold to pay some outstanding debts. The family’s base was always close to the town of Collooney, which they sought to improve, not least by establishing a bleach mill there. Likewise they tried to modernise and better the land they owned a few miles to the south-west of Collooney. The house there is now called Annaghmore but for a long time named Nymphfield (or Nymphsfield). A succession of buildings seems to have occupied the site, the first one, which may have been a tower house or fortified manor, thought to have been demolished in the 1680s. Its replacement, on which much money was lavished in 1718, lasted until the start of the 19th century, perhaps around 1822 when Charles King O’Hara inherited the estate. Surviving images of this building show it to have been of two storeys with single storey wings on either side, very typical of the Regency villa. In the early 1860s Charles William O’Hara, having inherited the estate and changed his surname according to the terms of his uncle’s will, embarked on a substantial enlargement of the house, by now called Annaghmore, its design attributed to the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. It is this house, a full expression of high-Victorian taste, which can be seen today, all fronted in crisp limestone ashlar. The facade was graced with an Ionic portico, a second storey added to the wings and the building extended to the rear, although part of this was demolished in the last century. Largely unaltered over the past 150 years, the interiors are wonderfully florid, reflecting the bold confidence of this period, post-Famine and pre-Land Wars, when estate owners embarked on a flurry of building work. Long may it remain as a celebration of that era. 

11 comments on “High Victoriana

  1. Dennis says:

    Beautiful photos to illustrate this history.

  2. Bob F says:

    Thank you Robert, as always an informative and enjoyable piece. Fuller wrote that his first big contract after he set up his own practice was a remodelling and extension at Annaghmore House, Co Sligo, closely followed by the design for Mount Falcon, the latter now a hotel.
    I’d place Fuller’s Annaghmore work in the very late1860’s or early 1870’s. His role with the Commissioners lasted until 1869, when the Church of Ireland was disestablished. However, he was still living in Cavan until winter 1870 (his fourth and last child, Adela Bessie was born there in October 1870). Using his lump sum pay-off from the Church and a £500 overdraft from a friendly bank manager (Omniana, page 207), he bought 5, Sydenham Road, Dundrum and established his own practice in Great Brunswick (now Pearse) Street, Dublin.
    The friendly bank manager was Frank Power, manager of the National Bank. His son, also Frank, was a noted Times (London) war correspondent with General Gordon in Khartoum. Gordon decided to send three steamers down the Nile to meet expected reinforcements and hurry them on. Frank Jnr. was in command of one; it ran aground, the crew were captured by a local sheikh and he, along with almost all the others were killed and their bodies thrown into the Nile.

  3. Michee says:

    Really wonderful history thank you Robert. I always admire your detective work!

  4. Irene Wynne says:

    That was a very enjoyable and educational post – thank you !

  5. jbc625@msn.com says:

    Great piece!

  6. Deborah T. Sena says:

    Love the interior pics! What a ‘classic’ genteel country house- complete with dogs (almost missed the 2nd in the last pic). Just curious, I am more familiar with stained glass that is leaded in scenes or small geometrics, does anyone know the source/model etc., for the simpler mostly borders in brilliant colors? I’ve seen it in several homes and even some newer ‘historic style’ homes.

    • Tim Guilbride says:

      You tend to find brightly-coloured glass borders on earlier, classical houses, whereas the all-over stained glass tends to be either in neo-gothic and neo-Elizabethan houses, influenced by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, and the all-over geometric stuff is later still, in houses built in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The earlier coloured borders are now quite rare, as they are a very fragile due to the lack of metalwork involved in their structure. I think their inspiration was early colour-theory, much of it originating on the continent, promoting specific colour combinations as ‘correct’; its possible that the clashing colour palette of Regency and Roman/Greek revival design also influenced their installation, since these windows almost always feature in houses of that look.

  7. claudius1889 says:

    Excellent article, as usual. I must compliment you on the beauty and quality of the photographs.

    I like very much the elegant layout of your blog. Could you tell me what WordPress template/theme are you using?


  8. […] to O’Hara in order to inherit Annaghmore, another estate elsewhere in the same county (see High Victoriana « The Irish Aesthete). For the past half century or so, the O’Haras have been offering accommodation at Coopershill to […]

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