The Palm House at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin. Sixty-five feet high, 80 feet wide and 100 feet long, and originally costing £800, the building dates from 1884 when prefabricated from wood and wrought-iron in Paisley, Scotland by the firm of James Boyd & Son. Shipped to Ireland in pieces, the palm house was then assembled on site to replace an earlier structure which had been almost universally condemned for its ugliness. The new version met with a more positive response from the public and lasted until the mid-1990s when a high wind blew in large sections of glass: it was then discovered that much of the building was in a dangerous condition. Following extensive restoration, the Palm House reopened to the public in 2004.
Eighteen years ago this week, the contents of Lissadell, County Sligo were sold at auction by Christie’s. The house was once family home to Constance Gore-Booth (otherwise known as Countess Markievicz), a key participants in the Easter Rising, the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament (although she declined to take her seat there), and subsequently the first woman in the world to hold a cabinet position, an intimate of W.B. Yeats and many other notable figures in Ireland’s cultural revolution at the start of the last century. Understandably, therefore, news that both the building and its contents were to be sold met with widespread dismay, and hopes were expressed that the state might intervene to save this part of the national heritage. However, as so often before and since, no such intervention occurred and the sale took place. Thankfully, the new owners of the Lissadell estate succeeded in buying back at least some of the items offered at auction, and they remain in the house, but much was lost, unlikely ever to return.
Lissadell is a large and somewhat austere building, designed by the architect Francis Goodwin in 1831 for Sir Robert Gore-Booth, whose family had lived in the area since the early 17th century. There had been an earlier residence closer to the Atlantic shoreline, but this was demolished when the new house was built. Lissadell’s pared-back Greek-Revival style reflects not just its owner’s taste, but also his budget: he may well have preferred something more opulent but lacked the necessary funds. When Goodwin published Domestic Architecture (1833-4) he featured Lissadell and noted that the house ‘has been erected for less than the estimate, by a considerable sum.’ In a footnote to the text, he observed how, ‘in altering the original designs, with a view of reducing the expense to a comparatively moderate sum, considering the extent and accommodation of the building, the author has been much indebted to the judicious hints of Sir R. G. Booth himself.’ In other words, the client told his architect to cut back on costs. Of two storeys over basement, Lissadell’s exterior is constructed in crisp Ballysadare limestone, with each side of the house different, although both those facing east and west have projecting bays at either end. What might be described as the garden front has a three-bay full-height bow, topped with a parapet that rises above those on either side, while the entrance front is notable for a towering three bay projection that serves as a porte-cochère. The interior of the building is decorated in what might be described as an early example of minimalism, beginning with the double-height entrance hall with Doric columns on the ground floor and Ionic columns above, accessed via an Imperial staircase in Kilkenny marble. A similarly substantial, apse-ended and top-lit gallery likewise exudes a sense of severe grandiosity, with Doric pilasters on one side and Ionic columns on the other. Sir Robert’s desire to save money where possible led him to introduce what was then something of a technological innovation: gas lighting. A local report from the 1830s recorded that this saved the house’s owner £60 or £70 annually. Seven of these lacquered brass gasoliers made for Lissadell were almost lost when the 2003 sale took place, but thanks to legal action taken by An Taisce (which argued the items were furniture and fittings integral to the building) they remain in situ, together with the gallery’s George III chamber organ which was also originally due to be auctioned.
One of the key losses from Lissadell at the time of the November 2003 sale was the collection of furniture specifically commissioned by Sir Robert for his new residence. Dating from the 1830s, these pieces were representative of taste in Ireland at the time and were believed to have been made by the successful Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton. Until the auction, Lissadell was the only house in Ireland to retain its original furniture by this company, so their dispersal was much to be regretted. Their importance can be gauged by the fact that most of the lots exceeded their estimates: a rosewood writing table, for example, which was expected to make €8,000-€10,000, fetched €19,000. In the dining room, a set of 17 mahogany chairs (€12,000-€18,000) fetched €22,000 and the dining table itself (€30,000-€50,000) went for €65,000. Bidding against other potential purchasers, Lissadell’s new owners managed to buy some pieces, such as a pair of handsome mahogany Grecian-style bookcases clearly inspired by the work of Thomas Hope and, again in the dining room, a sturdy mahogany sideboard. But many of the contents, first installed some 170 years earlier, now left for good and not just the Williams & Gibton furniture. There were, for example, a number of fine 17th century Italian baroque paintings, many in spectacular gilt frames, which had been acquired for the rooms by Sir Robert Gore-Booth. And then there were all the miscellaneous objects that build up in any house over generations, from sets of copper jelly moulds to discarded furnishings such as old curtains. These, as much as the more valuable pieces, are what tell the history of a building, and when they are gone, part of that history disappears forever. Thankfully, since acquiring Lissadell, the present owners have undertaken a huge amount of work, not only to restore the house but also to reinstate its distinctive character. They have done so using their own financial resources, and despite setbacks that might have deterred anyone else. In 2008, for example, Sligo County Council embarked on a court case over public rights of way across the estate, a case which the local authority ultimately lost but only after spending millions of euro from the public purse. There is, of course, more to be done but Lissadell today is a model of private enterprise in the field of Ireland’s cultural heritage, one that one must hope some of the country’s more wealthy citizens might care to emulate.
Situated to the immediate north-west of Dundalk, the Dún Dealgan Motte is associated with a number of myths, one of them being that this was the birthplace of the Irish legendary hero, Cúchulainn. Around 1180, the Normans were responsible for creating the present substantial earthwork which consists of a flat-topped mound some ten metres above the surrounding countryside, encircled by a deep fosse with a diameter of around 97 metres. It is likely that a wooden fortification was then erected on the top of the site, but this has long since vanished. Towards the end of the 18th century, a local merchant called Patrick Byrne (sometimes described as a ‘pirate’ since he may have been involved in smuggling) erected the castellated tower that can be seen today. Although damaged in the 1798 rebellion, it remained standing and around the mid-19th century was further enlarged and embellished by Colonel Thomas Vesey Dawson as a country retreat. However, the building subsequently fell into disrepair before being burnt out in the 1920s, leaving just a ruin of the tower, commonly known as Byrne’s Folly.
What remains of Sweetman’s Castle, standing on the western side of the river Nore in Thomastown, County Kilkenny. The building is often described as a tower house, but given that it is listed as dating from c.1350 this surely cannot be correct, as tower houses were only constructed from the early 1400s onwards. It clearly was some kind of fortified structure, with a name derived from the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country at the time. A number of ancillary agricultural structures were added to it around the middle of the 18th century and these also survive. Sadly, the castle is in poor condition and has been left to deteriorate even further in recent years: an regrettable, but not uncommon, phenomenon in Ireland. What makes the state of the building particularly unfortunate in this instance is that its location means shabby, run-down Sweetman’s Castle, adjacent to a bridge over the Nore, is highly visible to anyone entering or leaving the town.
Readers from outside Ireland may not be familiar with Patrick Pearse, one of the key figures in the Easter Rising of 1916, the aftermath of which led to the War of Independence. Born in Dublin in 1879, from an early age Pearse was an ardent advocate for Irish freedom, and arising from this he became what might be described as a cultural nationalist, believing that the Irish language, its preservation and promulgation, were an integral part of ensuring this country’s identity. Although he qualified as a barrister, he soon found a more natural outlet for his beliefs in education, recognising – as had the Jesuit order before him – that the best way to spread his ideas was in the classroom. He also thought the existing education system, imported from England, extremely damaging for the development of the young, calling it ‘the murder machine.’ So, in 1908 he bought an 18th century property called Cullenswood House for £370. Located in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, Pearse wrote of the property, ‘It is a pleasant thing to be houses in one of the noble old Georgian mansions of Dublin, with an old garden full of fruit-trees under out windows and a hedgerow of old elms, sycamores and beeches as the distant boundary of our playing field.’ Here he now opened a bi-lingual secondary school for boys, St Enda’s (Scoil Éanna) which, despite his lack of business and managerial acumen, flourished. So much so that after two years, he decided the time had come to move to larger premises and to this end in 1910 he bought another Georgian building further removed from the city and surrounded by more land. This was the Hermitage in Rathfarnham.
The Hermitage dates from the last quarter of the 18th century when it was built as a country retreat by Dublin dentist Edward Hudson. Dr Hudson has featured here before, since he was also responsible for developing the core of what is now Glenville Park, County Cork (see A Life’s Work in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Evidently, although his profession was then in its infancy, dentistry paid well because this particular practitioner had a house in the centre of Dublin as well. In April 1786 he bought from Thomas Conolly of Castletown, County Kildare a piece of land in Rathfarnham hitherto known as the Fields of Odin. Dr Hudson’s romantically-tinged antiquarian interests, fashionable at the time, are reflected in a number of follies he erected in the landscaped grounds of the house, including a rusticated Druid’s Cave and a Gothic watchtower. There is, however, nothing romantic about the house itself, which was designed – by an unknown architect – in the severest neo-classical style and all encased in crisp granite. Of three storeys over basement, the facade is dominated by four giant tetrastyle Doric columns supporting a portico, and approached by a flight of steps. There is absolutely no extraneous detailing permitted, everything is kept to a minimum. Inside the house, none of the main block’s reception rooms is especially large, and once again the decoration is austere with little surface ornament anywhere other than a pair of plaster pilasters topped by urns in what was formerly the study. The varying style of chimneypieces throughout the house reflect the fact that it changed hands on a number of occasions in the 19th century. There are larger spaces to the rear of the building, including a dormitory which appears to have been added soon after the Hermitage was acquired by Pearse and may have been designed by part-time architect Joseph Holloway. A corridor to one side of this room, via a flight of steps, to the biggest space in the house, used while it was a school as a study hall. When this was constructed is unclear: a single-storey extension to one side of the house, it looks as though originally serving as a ballroom, but surprisingly – given the significance of the property in Irish history – information on the architectural evolution of the Hermitage appears relatively scant.
As previously mentioned, in 1910 Pearse moved to the Hermitage, now renamed, like its predecessor, St Enda’s. Here he lived with members of his family, not least his younger brother William, a rather under-appreciated sculptor. Unfortunately, the new St Enda’s did not emulate the success of the earlier school, being too far from the city centre for many day pupils, while not enough boys were registered as boarders. In addition, Pearse decided to turn Cullenswood House, his previous premises, into an equivalent girls’ school, called St Ita’s; this only lasted a couple of years before closing in 1912. As a result of its founder’s idealism outstripping his practical skills, St Enda’s thereafter constantly teetered on the brink of financial disaster. It did not help that during this period, Pearse became increasingly involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, leaving him less time with managing the school. Somehow, it continued until the Easter Rising – in which a large number of former pupils participated – after which, and following the execution of both Patrick and William Pearse, St Enda’s closed. However, later that year it reopened back in Cullenswood House and then, thanks to financial support particularly from the United States, returned to Rathfarnham in 1919, with the building subsequently bought on behalf of the Pearse brothers’ mother, Margaret. After her death in 1932, the school continued to operate for another three years but then closed for good, although Mrs Pearse’s daughter, also called Margaret, remained living on the site until her death in 1968 when the building and grounds were bequeathed to the state. Open to the public, today St Enda’s is a shrine to the memory of Patrick Pearse.
As regular readers of this site will know, the Irish Aesthete has of late become much preoccupied with Irish country house gardens and their evolution across four centuries. At the moment, much of the investigation into this subject is being undertaken under the auspices of the Irish Georgian Society, part of a year-long project of which some elements (a recent two-part television documentary on some of the gardens, an exhibition of paintings of country house walled gardens) have already taken place, but others are yet to happen. One of the latter is a day-long conference scheduled to be held next week on Wednesday 17th November, The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1950: Digging New Ground. Organised in conjunction the Office of Public Works and taking place in Dublin Castle, the conference will feature a wide variety of speakers investigating different aspects of Irish country house gardens, from the history of walled kitchen gardens to the development of arboretums. The event is open to the public, but places must be booked in advance: it promises to be a most stimulating occasion, and will in turn lead to a new book on the subject to be published next year.
For more information on next week’s conference, please see: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1950: Digging New Ground | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)
Following last Wednesday’s post on Bellegrove, County Laois (A Landlord’s Legacy), this nearby church in Rathdaire was commissioned after John George Adair’s death in 1885 by his American widow Cornelia. Her rapacious late husband had not been a popular man; every time his grave was dug, dead cats and dogs were flung into it by the deceased’s former tenants as evidence of their hatred. Yet Mrs Adair persisted with creating this memorial to him, designed by James Franklin Fuller in an approximation of the Hiberno-Romanesque style, the Portland stone portal inspired in part by the remains of St Cronan’s church in Roscrea, County Tipperary. There’s an unquestionable incongruity between the peacefulness of this site, and the memory of the man who inspired its construction.
‘In the year 1791, George Hartpole, of Shrewl Castle, Queen’s County, Ireland, had just come of age. He was the last surviving male of that name, which belonged to a popular family, highly respectable, and long established in the county. Few private gentlemen commenced life with better promise, and none better merited esteem and happiness. He was my relative by blood; and though considerably younger, the most intimate and dearest friend I had.
His father, Robert, had married a sister of the late and present Earls of Aldborough. She was the mother of George; and through this connexion originated my intercourse with that eccentric nobleman and his family.
A singular fatality had attended the Hartpole family from time immemorial. The fathers seldom survived the attainment of the age of 23 years by their elder sons, which circumstance gave rise to numerous traditionary tales of sprites and warnings.
Robert, as usual with the gentlemen of his day, was the dupe of agents, and the victim of indolence and hospitality. He had deposited his consort in the tomb of her fathers, and had continued merrily enjoying the convivialities of the world (principally in the night-time) till his son George had passed his 22nd year, and then punctually made way for the succession, leaving George inheritor of a large territory, a moderate income, a tattered mansion, an embarrassed rent-roll, and a profound ignorance (without the consciousness of it) of business in all departments.
George, though not at all handsome, had completely the mien and manners of a gentleman. His features accorded well with his address, bespeaking the cordiality of a friend and the ardour of an Irishman. His disposition was mild—his nature brave, generous, and sincere: on some occasions he was obstinate and peevish; on others, somewhat sullen and suspicious; but in his friendships, George Hartpole was immutable.
His stature was of the middle height, and his figure exhibited no appearance either of personal strength or constitutional vigour: his slender form and the languid fire of his eye indicated excitation without energy; yet his spirits were moderately good, and the most careless observer might feel convinced that he had sprung from no ordinary parentage—a circumstance which then had due influence in Ireland, where agents, artisans, and attorneys had not as yet supplanted the ancient nobility and gentry of the country.’
‘Shrewl Castle, the hereditary residence of the Hartpoles, was in no way distinguishable from the numerous other castellated edifices now in a state of dilapidation throughout the whole island—ruins which invariably excite a retrospect of happier times, when the resident landlord, reverenced and beloved, and the cheerful tenant, fostered and protected, felt the natural advantages of their reciprocal attachment; a reflection which leads us to a sad comparison with modern usages, when the absent lord and the mercenary agent have no consideration but the rents, no solicitude but for their collection; when the deserted tenantry keep pace in decline with the deserted mansion; when the ragged cottager has no master to employ, no guardian to protect him!—pining, and sunk in the lowest state of want and wretchedness,—sans work, sans food, sans covering, sans everything,—he rushes forlorn and desperate into the arms of destruction, which in all its various shapes stands ready to receive him. The reflection is miserable, but true:—such is Ireland since the year 1800.
Hartpole’s family residence, picturesquely seated on a verdant bank of the smooth and beautiful Barrow, had, during the revolutions of time, entirely lost the character of a fortress: patched and pieced after all the numberless orders of village architecture, it had long resigned the dignity of a castle without acquiring the comforts of a mansion: yet its gradual descent, from the stronghold of powerful chieftains to the rude dwelling of an embarrassed gentleman, could be traced even by a superficial observer. Its half-levelled battlements, its solitary and decrepit tower, and its rough, dingy walls, (giving it the appearance of a sort of habitable buttress,) combined to portray the downfall of an ancient family.’
‘George had received but a moderate education, far inadequate to his rank and expectations; and the country life of his careless father had afforded him too few conveniences for cultivating his capacity. His near alliance, however, and intercourse with the Aldborough family, gave him considerable opportunities to counteract, in a better class of society, that tendency to rustic dissipation to which his situation had exposed him, and which, at first seductive, soon becomes habitual, and ruinous in every way to youthful morals…Hartpole’s fortune on the death of his father was not large; but its increase would be great and certain, and this rendered his adoption of any money-making profession or employment unnecessary. He accordingly purchased a commission in the army, and commenced his entré into a military life and general society with all the advantages of birth, property, manners, and character.
A cursory observation of the world must convince us of one painful and inexplicable truth;—that there are some men (and frequently the best) who, even from their earliest youth, appear born to be the victims of undeviating misfortune; whom Providence seems to have gifted with free-agency only to lead them to unhappiness and ruin. Ever disappointed in his most ardent hopes—frustrated in his dearest objects—his best intentions overthrown—his purest motives calumniated and abused,—no rank or station suffices to shelter such an unfortunate:—ennui creeps upon his hopeless mind, communicates a listless languor to a sinking constitution, and at length he almost joyfully surrenders an existence which he finds too burdensome to be supported.
Such nearly was the lot of the last of the Hartpoles. He had scarcely commenced a flattering entrance into public life, when one false and fatal step, to which he was led first by a dreadful accident, and subsequently by his own benevolent disposition, worked on by the chicanery of others, laid the foundation of all his future miseries.
While quartered with his regiment at Galway, in Ireland, his gun, on a shooting party, burst in his hand, which was so shattered, that it was long before his surgeon could decide that amputation might be dispensed with.’
Today’s text is taken from Personal Sketches of His Own Times by Sir Jonah Barrington (1830), and the pictures show Shrule Castle, County Laois, ancestral home of Sir Jonah’s friend George Hartpole. Alas, following his shooting accident in Galway, Hartpole’s circumstances deteriorated rapidly; he managed to contract two marriages, the first with the daughter of a local innkeeper and then with the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, both of which soon ended unhappily, as did his own life since after just a few years, his health declined and he died, still a young man. Shrule Castle subsequently passed to the Lecky family and either they, or Hartpole added a large house to one side of the old castle. This, however, was badly damaged by fire in 1940 and its remains then demolished. Some years ago, the current owners embarked on an ambitious restoration of the old building but following an intervention by the local authority the work came to a halt, leaving the castle as it can be seen today.
In the late 19th century, and following the flotation of their brewing business on the London Stock Exchange, the Guinness family became enormously wealthy, allowing them to build, or enlarge, private residences for themselves around the outskirts of Dublin. One of these was Farmleigh, acquired by Edward Guinness (later first Earl of Iveagh) which incorporates an earlier building but was given much of its present appearance in the early 1880s by the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller (although the ballroom and conservatory were both added later and designed by other architects). Farmleigh very much reflects the neo-Georgian luxe taste of the period and contrasts sharply with another house formerly owned by the family, Glenmaroon. This was bought at the start of the last century by one of Lord Iveagh’s sons, Ernest Guinness, who, although there was already a large building on the site, effectively doubled this in size by commissioning another, the two linked by a bridge across the public road that divided them. Glenmaroon, very much in the Home Counties arts and crafts manner (supposedly to please Ernest Guinness’s English-born wife), contrasts strikingly with the former parental home not far away and reflects changes in decorative taste between one generation and the next.
I shall be discussing both of these properties, and several others, in an online talk given for the Royal Oak Foundation next Tuesday, November 9th. Entitled A Stylish Brew: Great Irish Houses of the Guinness Family, more information about this event can be found at Fall 2021 Online Lectures & Tours – Great Irish Houses of the Guinness Family – The Royal Oak Foundation (royal-oak.org)
The striking remains of Bellegrove, County Laois, which has remained a ruin ever since being accidentally gutted by fire in 1887. The core of the house dates from the early 19th century: in 1814, when owned by Thomas Trench, Dean of Kildare, it was described as ‘newly built in a superior style.’ However, the Italianate villa seen today was created much later, in the early 1870s, its architect thought to be William Caldbeck, although other names (among them James Franklin Fuller and Sir Thomas Newenham Deane) have also bee suggested. By this time Bellegrove was occupied by John George Adair, his mother having been one of the dean’s daughters. Much given to buying up estates and then either raising the rents or ejecting the tenants, Adair was one of the most reviled landlords of the period; when collecting rents in Laois, he had to be given a police escort. Eleswhere in the country, in County Donegal he acquired 28,000 acres and there in the late 1860s built the Scottish Baronial-style Glenveagh Castle on land that had been cleared. By this time, Adair had married a rich American widow, Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie, and together they profitably invested in a large Texan ranch (the JA Ranch, its initial’s being those of Adair) which grew to over 700,000 acres, thereby further increasing his wealth. Two years after his (unlamented) death in 1885 Bellegrove was, as mentioned, destroyed by fire but not restored by his widow. What remains today is only part of a formerly larger building, since a substantial winter garden (to the right of the house in the photograph below) designed by Sir Thomas Deane & Son in 1865 has since been taken down; some of the columns in its grand arcade – inspired by the cloister of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome – were rescued and can be seen elsewhere in the county.