A Reminder

On Monday, the Irish Times carried a report noting that Ireland’s Health Service Executive owns hundreds of unused buildings across the state, some of which have been left vacant for decades (see: HSE owns hundreds of unused buildings, figures show (irishtimes.com)). This will not come as news to anyone who is concerned for the welfare of the country’s architectural heritage: the HSE is responsible for many historic sites, and a large number of them have been left not just vacant, but badly neglected, such as the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway (above). A vast range of buildings designed by William Murray and opened in 1833, it closed 180 years later and has stood abandoned ever since. The HSE is by no means the only offender in this respect. Columb (originally Wellington) Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath provided accommodation for troops from 1819 until 2011, when it closed down: owned by the Department of Defence, the site has since been left largely empty, a prey to vandalism and creeping decay. Last winter – a full decade after the last troops left – the Land Development Agency produced a report on the site, with the promise that further information would follow in due course. No doubt something will eventually happen here, but after 11 years nobody can be accused of rushing into hasty decision-making.
A few points need to be made about both these and many other such premises, the first of which is that they are owned by the people of Ireland: the relevant state bodies in whose care they remain, are supposed to be their custodians. These are national assets, and the abysmal failure to take due care of them is at a cost to everyone else: the more they fall into decay, the less they are worth, to the detriment of all of us. In addition, the two examples shown here, and many more besides, are often close to urban centres and therefore ideally suited to provide ample accommodation for those who unfortunately don’t have it at present. In recent days, for example, it has been reported that a tent village is being prepared for Romanian refugees in Gormanstown, County Meath. This is an extraordinary state of affairs: why should anyone have to sleep in a tent when the HSE, and other agencies, own so many vacant buildings. Furthermore, if the state is supposed to lead by example, what sort of example is set by the likes of the HSE and the Department of Defence? Why should private owners worry about neglecting their property, when state authorities do so on a much larger scale? A reminder: this is a shameful – and shameless – squandering of our assets, and we are the losers as a result.

Dereliction is Vandalism

Since last year, two Cork-based sustainable designers, Jude Sherry and Frank O’Connor have been driving a campaign – primarily via Twitter (look for #derelictireland) but also through other channels – to tackle the shameful and ongoing problem of dereliction in Ireland. This is a long-standing issue which has been allowed to fester for far too long. Last October,
research by UK price comparison website money.co.uk reported that 9.1 % of the State’s housing stock, equating to more than 183,000 units, were classified as vacant – with 4,000 of these being owned by local authorities. Furthermore, the following month it was revealed that during 2020 the same local authorities had collected €378,000 through the Derelict Sites Levy, a small fraction of the almost €12.5 million in cumulative unpaid charges which could have been claimed. A large number of vacant properties can be classified as derelict, which is hardly surprising when owners see so little effort is made to ensure they maintain buildings in their possession. As anyone who has travelled around Ireland can testify, everywhere, in urban and rural settings alike, there are houses falling gradually, and seemingly irrevocably, into decay. These are a blight on a nation and ought to be a matter of shame, but instead too often the only response is indifference. Hence the importance of Sherry and O’Connor’s work. 

Close to the shores of Lough Corrib, Oughterard, County Galway lies on the main route to Connemara: almost all traffic heading west passes through the town. Before doing so, all traffic must also pass the shabby remains of the former Connemara Gateway Hotel. This former 62-bedroom property on around six acres closed its doors some years ago, and is currently for sale for €2.4 million. In September 2019, some refurbishment was undertaken as the owner sought to have it leased by the state as a Direct Provision Centre. There had been no consultation with the local population which, when this notion became public, rallied to oppose the scheme; it was duly abandoned. So, the building now sits empty and falling ever further into decay, serving as a welcome when visitors arrive in the west of Ireland. Then, as they leave Oughterard, those visitors have an opportunity to inspect a further example of the national penchant for dereliction: the former Sweeney’s Oughterard House Hotel. The front of this building dates from the early 18th century when it was constructed as a private residence: it was subsequently, and clumsily, extended to the rear. Like the Connemara Gateway Hotel, the property has stood empty for some years and is in an increasingly poor state of repair.

One small Irish town, two large properties capable of providing accommodation to upwards of 100 people left to stand empty and neglected. In Ireland, property ownership is sacrosanct. Owners believe they are entitled to do what they like with the buildings in their possession, and that includes doing nothing. Hence the increasing number of buildings lying vacant and decaying. In February, Irish Times columnist David McWilliams wrote – not for the first time – that dereliction is vandalism and must be stopped (see https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-dereliction-is-vandalism-and-must-be-stopped-1.4798979). What’s more, the state allows this vandalism to persist. Legislation exists providing both national and local governments with the necessary powers to intervene and halt dereliction, but both persistently fail to exercise them. Until they do so, the likes of these two Oughterard buildings will continue to be found right around the country. 

Of the Highest Standard

Townley Hall, County Louth is an Irish country house which has featured here more than once before (see Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté* « The Irish Aesthete). Without doubt, one of the most perfectly designed buildings in Ireland, it was the result of a happy collaboration between architect Francis Johnston and his client Blayney Townley Balfour – and also, crucially, the latter’s sister Anna Maria Townley Balfour whose involvement in the project has until recently been insufficiently understood and appreciated. The result was a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, a work of impeccable refinement and flawless taste, with the staircase hall at the centre of the house being one of the masterpieces of late 18th century European architecture. Like all such properties in Ireland, Townley Hall has faced challenges, its future at times uncertain, but the present custodians of the building – the School of Philosophy and Economic Science – have carried out much work on site to ensure the survival of this most-important building in our national heritage. And it has now produced a sumptuous book celebrating the glories of the house and its place in the architectural pantheon, to which the Irish Aesthete has contributed several chapters. The standards of the publication are every bit as high as those of Townley Hall, making this a book of interest to anyone possessed of an aesthetic sensibility.

You can also watch me discuss Townley Hall in a short film made for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art last summer, which is available to view at Townley Hall, Ireland | ICAA Travel Revisited – YouTube