After Monday’s post about the Damer House, here is the medieval castle inside the walls of which that building stands. Roscrea Castle, County Tipperary originally dates from 1213 when King John ordered that a defensive structure be erected here as part of the Norman conquest of the Irish midlands. Work did not begin on the site for a few more decades, until the reign of Henry III, perhaps because the land had been owned by the Bishop of Killaloe who threatened to excommunicate those responsible for the castle (the bishop was duly pacified with the offer of other land). While first made of wood, the stone castle, with motte and bailey, was of stone. In 1315 the building was granted to the powerful Butler family who held it until the early 18th century when the property was sold by the Duke of Ormonde to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham; that institution in turn sold it on to John Damer, responsible for commissioning the house that still stands in the middle of the grounds. As for the castle itself, once moated with the river Bunnow running along one side, it comprises a 40-metre wide courtyard with three-quarter round towers on the south-east and south-west sides and, to the north, the main building, a gatehouse 27 metres high which was built by the Butlers in the 15th century. When the Irish Aesthete lived here 40 years ago, the property, although a dominant presence in the town, was largely in ruins and certainly not accessible without risk to life and limb: it has since been extensively restored and is now open to visitors who can marvel at the groin vaulted ceiling of the former great hall.
This month marks two anniversaries, one of which is that the Irish Aesthete now turns eleven, having made his first appearance on the internet in September 2012. But the month also commemorates an older anniversary: the fortieth anniversary of the Irish Aesthete’s first job, as resident curator of the Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary.* The house has a complex history, made more so by the fact that it was constructed within the walls of a 13th century castle around which grew the town of Roscrea. As its name indicates, the building was commissioned by a member of the Damer family, the first of whom Joseph Damer, moved from Dorset to Ireland and here grew wealthy as a banker and moneylender. Having no heirs, he left his money to a nephew, John Damer, who in 1722 bought Roscrea from the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (that institution had, in turn, bought the town from the Butler family in 1703).
There may have been an older residence on or near the site of the present Damer House which, despite often being called ‘Queen Anne’ in style, likely dates from the 1730s (in other words, during the reign of George II). Of three storeys over basement and with unusually tall narrow windows spread across nine bays, the pre-Palladian house’s finest internal feature is a carved pine staircase, in style not dissimilar to that of the slightly later Cashel Palace. Of course, provincial architecture was often out of step with the latest fashion, which would help to explain the building’s somewhat outdated style. In addition, by the time it was built, wealthy families had largely given up living in regional towns, preferring to reside on their country estates. That would appear to have been the case with the Damers who around the same time as the Damer House was being built, also embarked on the construction of another residence, Damer Court, which stood on land they owned to the west of Tipperary town; although nothing remains of this building – by the mid-19th century it was described as ‘a shell of a building’ – but a townland in the area is called Damerville. As for the Damer House, it does not appear to have served as a residence for the family but was rented out to a succession of tenants for much of the 18th century. In 1798 the house was leased as a barracks and then the whole site sold to the British military in 1858. At the start of the last century the Damer House became ‘Mr. French’s Academy’, a school for boys, reverting to a barracks for the National Army during the Civil War, then being used as a sanatorium, before once again in 1932 serving as a school until 1956, then a library. By 1970 it was empty and unused, and the local authority, Tipperary County Council, announced plans to demolish the house and replace it with an amenity centre comprising a swimming pool, car park, playground and civic centre (it had been nurturing this scheme since as far back as 1957). The council’s chairman wanted the demolition to go ahead, declaring that ‘as long as it stands it reminds the Irish people of their enslavement to British rule,’ and dismissing objectors to the scheme as ‘a crowd of local cranks.’ In fact, most of the so-called ‘crowd’ were members of the Old Roscrea Society and in December 1970 this organisation was offered help by the Irish Georgian Society in the campaign to save the Damer House.
In 1971 the local council agreed not to demolish the Damer House. On the other hand, it did nothing to preserve the building and in November 1973, on learning that restoration would cost in the region of £40,000, the authority decided to go ahead with demolition after all. The Irish Georgian Society once more intervened, this time proposing it take on a lease for the building and assume responsibility for its restoration, now budgeted at £80,000 over five years. In February 1974 the council agreed to this arrangement and the Society took on the house for a period of 99 years at an annual rent of one shilling. The restoration of the Damer House was to be its contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year 1975. Work on the project began in mid-August 1974 and was overseen by the late Brian Molloy. The place was in terrible condition, debris and rubbish throughout, the basement full of water, every window broken, the staircase shrouded and boxed in. While professionals worked on repairing the roof, the workforce included a dozen architectural students from Dublin and members of the Old Roscrea Society. Volunteers were advised to turn up at the site ‘in old clothes, bringing brushes, buckets and handy tools.’ Work proceeded slowly and was dependent on enough funds being raised for the purpose, some £5,400 being spent on repairs in 1974 and at least the same again the following year. In 1976 £8,000 was required to repair the staircase, including the replacement of missing balustrades and the removal of sixteen pounds in weight of paint from the carved frieze. By June 1977 £22,000 had been spent on the Damer House which was now deemed ready to admit visitors and host exhibitions. Thereafter, while refurbishment continued on both the Damer House and its slightly later annexe, the venue was regularly used for events such as touring exhibitions organised by the Arts Council. In 1980 some of the most influential members of the Old Roscrea Society, notably local teacher George Cunningham, decided to form a new organisation, the Roscrea Heritage Society which later that year organised a large show in the Damer House. Exhibits relevant to the town’s history were lent by both the National Museum and the National Gallery. With aid from a number of public bodies, the house’s annexe was next restored for use as a heritage centre; the first of its kind in Ireland, this opened to the public in 1983 and shortly afterwards won a special award from the adjudicators of European Museum of the Year. In the autumn of 1983, control of the Damer House was handed over to the Roscrea Heritage Society (and that was when the Irish Aesthete arrived to take up residence in the place). Now under the authority of the Office of Public Works, the Damer House – which was recently subject to further restoration of the exterior stonework and windows – is open to the public, along with the surrounding castle and adjacent gardens. Once scheduled for demolition, the Damer House is today regarded as a major architectural and tourist asset for the midlands region of Ireland.
It is likely that most visitors to the Francis Bacon Studio in Dublin’s Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery are so busy looking at what can be seen on the walls and behind glass screens that they rarely, if ever, glance upwards. Yet in one of the spaces there survives a rococo ceiling installed when this was part of the Earl of Charlemont’s library wing in his townhouse, designed by William Chambers and constructed in the 1760s. The greater part of that section of the original building was lost in 1931-33 when then-City Architect Horace O’Rourke converted the house into an art gallery but somehow this one ceiling, featuring interwoven garlands of leaves tied with trailing ribbon and a testament to the skill of an unknown stuccodore, has survived.
In a graveyard high above Swinford, County Mayo is this mausoleum where members of the Brabazon family were formerly interred. The Brabazons had come to the area in the first half of the 17th century and were later responsible for developing the town, close to which they built a fine house, Brabazon House, which survived until 1980 when pulled down by the local Health Board. Also gone is St Mary’s, the Church of Ireland where they once worshipped, so this mausoleum, seemingly ‘repaired’ in 1828 by Sir William Brabazon, who was then MP for the area (and who died 12 years later after choking on a chicken bone), is the last remaining evidence of the family’s presence in the area. However, the Brabazons do not have the place to themselves: on top of the mausoleum is a large marble column topped with a cross, which commemorates one Patrick Corley who died in 1875 at the age of 60, while on another side of the mausoleum is a plaque dedicated to successive generations of the O’Donnel family who lived some five miles south at Fahyness (now Faheens).
After last week’s tale of improvements at Brandondale, County Kilkenny (see A Good News Story « The Irish Aesthete), here is another cheering story of a young couple taking on a historic country property. As seen here, Edmondstown, County Roscommon is a large Victorian house dating from the 1860s. It was built to replace an earlier residence of the same name which lay a short distance away to the north-east. What the earlier Edmondstown looked like is unknown: William Wilson’s The Post-Chaise Companion or Travellers Directory through Ireland, published in 1786, simply refers to it as ‘the fine seat of Mr. Costello’. The earliest Ordnance Survey Map, produced just over half a century later, shows the house, range of outbuildings and adjacent walled garden: some ruinous sections of these still remain. Of Cambro-Norman origin and originally called de Angulo or Nangle, the Costello family had been living in this part of the country since at least the 16th century, but their main residence was at Castlemore, some five miles south-west of Edmondstown. However, by the late 18th century they had moved to the latter property and in the mid-19th century it was occupied by Thomas Strickland, agent to Viscount Dillon of Loughglynn (see Bleak House « The Irish Aesthete). After passing through successive hands, Castlemore was demolished in the 1960s and only some of the farm buildings still remain.
In the early 19th century, Edmondstown belonged to one Charles Edmund Costello who married as his second wife Dorcas Maria Daniell. Six months before Charles Costello’s death in June 1832, the couple had a son, Arthur Robert Gorges Costello, who would become a captain in the 7th Dragoon Guards and serve as a Justice of the Peace. In 1862 he offered for sale through the Landed Estates’ Court about 1,100 acres in the baronies of Gallen and Costello, County Mayo as well as some 1,050 acres in the parish of St Johns, Barony of Athlone, County Roscommon. It is worth pointing out that even after these sales he still owned 7,513 acres in County Mayo and 1,038 acres in County Roscommon. It may be that the sales of some of his estate provided the funds for Captain Costello to embark on building the new Edmondstown in 1864. Local legend has it that he undertook this project to impress his wife (or prospective wife) but she failed to be charmed and left him. A charming story, but in fact he never married and died in January 1891 at the age of 59. He was buried in the grounds of the former Dominican Priory of Urlaur, founded by his forbears in the 15th century, where the tombstone was inscribed ‘Arthur Robert Gorges Costello, last Dynast and Baron De Angulo.’ It appears that in the years prior to his death, Captain Costello had sold much of the estate to his tenants, the house, having been expected to cost £4,000-£5,000, having eventually required more than twice that sum to finish. And the year after he died, the building with surrounding demesne was bought by the Roman Catholic diocese of Achonry in 1892 for use as a diocesan college. However, a few years later, that institution moved into the nearby town of Ballaghaderreen and for a period Edmondstown sat empty. Then in 1911 the then-Bishop of Achonry Patrick Morrisroe occupied the building, as did his successors for the next century. In 2011 Edmondstown and surrounding 29 acres were offered for sale, the explanation being that the place ‘does not meet contemporary day-to-day living needs, does not provide suitable office space for the administration of the diocese and is isolated.’ Six years later it found new owners, a young couple who with their children live there now.
Edmondstown was designed by Dublin architect John McCurdy who had a distinguished career, one of his earliest works being the plan and internal arrangements of the Museum building at Trinity College Dublin (where he was official architect for some thirty years until his death in 1855), although he tends to be best-remembered for designing the Shelbourne Hotel on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. Constructed just a couple of years after Edmondstown, that building is altogether more restrained than Captain Costello’s new residence, a High Victorian interpretation of 15th century Italian Gothic. Of four bays and three storeys, despite appearances to the contrary, Edmondstown conforms to the standard country house model, this fact disguised by the multiplicity of towers and turrets, pinnacles and finials that adorn an exterior of snecked rubble limestone banded with red brick. Inset on the facade are a series of stone plaques, one of them above the entrance porch, attesting to the pedigree of the Costellos. Inside, the conformity is more apparent in the arrangement of reception rooms to left and right of the hall, which is separated from the staircase by a pine and glass screen, this inserted after the building had come into the hands of the Catholic church. According to the late Jeremy Williams, this intervention was the work of church decorator Joshua Clarke (father of the more famous stained glass designer Harry Clarke), who was presumably also responsible not just for the screen with its art nouveau glass, but also for the wall and ceiling decoration of the entrance hall and the more elaborate scheme of the coved ceiling above the staircase which features frescoes of the four evangelists. All this might have been lost, as was the case with so many other such properties, were it not for the energy and enthusiasm of the present owners who relish the opportunity to live at Edmondstown and share the place with visitors. We are all the beneficiaries of their commitment to the house. Would that there were still more of their kind throughout the country today.
Last July, the government published an All-Island Rail Review proposing a transformation of the current train system through electrification, faster speeds, improved frequency, and new routes for people and freight. It might also have included the preservation and restoration of many old buildings associated with that mode of travel, such as this one, the Mountrath and Castletown railway station in County Laois. It was designed by Sancton Wood, an English-born architect who in 1845 was responsible for Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Station in Dublin, built for the Great Southern & Western Railway Co., which then commissioned him to design smaller stations along the company’s route to Limerick Junction. Most of these buildings were in the Gothic style seen here and some are still in use but not this one which closed in 1976 and has since fallen into its present state of dereliction.
Back in January 2017, the Irish Aesthete wrote about an abandoned property called Brandondale in County Kilkenny as follows: ‘The house dates from c.1800 when it was built by Peter Burtchaell whose family had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century. The Burchaells were involved in the linen industry which then thrived in this part of Ireland, and also seem to have acted as agents for the Agars, Lords Clifden, large landowners whose seat was Gowran Castle in the same county. Peter Burchaell married the heiress Catherine Rothe and her fortune duly passed into the family which would have provided the necessary money for building a house like Brandondale. In his Handbook for Ireland (1844) James Fraser wrote that the property, ‘occupying a fine site on the northern acclivities of Brandon hill, commands the town, the prolonged and lovely windings of the Barrow, the picturesque country on either side of its banks, and the whole of the Mount Leinster and Black Stairs range of mountains.’ The architecture of the house was that of a two-storey Regency villa, old photographs showing it distinguished by a covered veranda wrapping around the canted bow at the south-eastern end of the building which had views down to the river.’
‘The last of the Burtchaell line to live at Brandondale was Richard, who occupied the place until his death in 1903. He and his wife Sarah had no children and she remained on the property for the next twenty-nine years, struggling to make ends meet by taking in paying guests. After her death the house and remaining fifty acres were sold to the Belgian Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove who first resided there and then rented out the place before he in turn sold it. In the 1980s Brandondale was bought by an Englishman Walter Dominy who moved in with his family and established a printing business. After this failed, in 1993 Mr Dominy left a suicide note in his car while travelling on the Rosslare to Fishguard ferry: fifteen years later an English tabloid newspaper found him living in France. But meanwhile Brandondale changed hands yet again and at some point was subject to a spectacularly poor refurbishment which saw the Regency veranda removed and all the old fenestration replaced with uPVC. In recent years it was taken into receivership and offered for sale on 25 acres for just €150,000, an indication of the building’s atrocious condition (and also of a Compulsory Purchase Order from the local council on part of the land). The place has apparently been sold once more but still sits empty and deteriorating: it can only be a matter of time before Brandondale’s condition is judged so bad that, despite being listed for preservation, demolition is ordered. After which, no doubt, an application will be lodged for houses to be built on the land. A fait accompli.’ (A Fait Accompli « The Irish Aesthete)
That was then, this is now. Happily, the Irish Aesthete’s gloomy predictions of what would happen to Brandondale have proven incorrect. In fact, far from being demolished, the house was subsequently bought by a young couple who are gradually restoring the place as their time and funds allow, and who intend to live in the building as soon as possible. The salvation of Brandondale, rather like that of Cangort Park, County Offaly (see A Work in Progress « The Irish Aesthete) indicates that none of our architectural heritage is beyond salvation and that there are citizens here willing to take on the challenge of bringing such properties back to life. A good news story and one that deserves applause and support.
Staying in Carlow town, across the river Barrow from what remains of the Norman castle is this curious building, likely little noticed on what is now a busy traffic junction. It was erected by one Rowan McCombe in 1867 by one Rowan McCombe, Superintendent of the Barrow Navigation Company, a town councillor and an amateur poet rather in the style of Scotland’s William McGonagall. Many websites also propose that McCombe was responsible for Carlow’s Celtic Cross memorial to the United Irishmen who were killed during an attack on Carlow in May 1798; however, since this was erected to mark the centenary of that event, and he had died in 1877, this seems unlikely. The building shown here was intended to house a printing office as well as provide a home for its owner, but later became an RIC barracks and is now divided into flats. A curious feature are the series of carved stone grotesque masks placed above the upper windows and down the three-storey tower. The latter also incorporates a substantial stone plaque which appears to represent Hercules wrestling with the Nemean Lion and which stylistically looks out of place with the rest of the building: perhaps it came from somewhere else?
‘This lofty and massive building, which rears its high head in solemn grandeur, and seems to look down with fostering protection and watchful guardianship on the town beneath it, was built by Hugh de Lacy, about the year 1140, in the reign of John. Though some difference of opinion exists on this point – some referring it as the work of Eva, daughter of Dermot McMurrough, and others attributing it to Isabel, daughter of Strongbow, and others, to King John, &; but concurrent, circumstantial and historical evidence, fix on de Lacy as the founder. The walls of the tower are of the amazing thickness of seven feet, two inches; the inner diameter of the same ten feet, and the exterior circumference is seventy seven feet. The whole building was amply provided with loop-holes, and with arched and mullioned windows, &, from which to pour, if necessary, on their assailants the sweeping shot of artillery and musketry, or the less destructive missile.’
From the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume III, July 26th 1834
‘The only ancient relic in Carlow is “the Castle.” It is situated on a gentle eminence, overlooking the river; and is said to have been erected by Hugh De Lacy, who was appointed lord-deputy of Ireland in the year 1179. It was built after the Anglo-Norman style of architecture; a square area, surrounded by thick walls, fortified and strengthened at each corner by a large round tower. Until the year 1814, it had bravely withstood the attacks of time and war; but its ruin was effected by the carelessness of a medical doctor, into whose hands it came, and who designed to put it “in order” for the “accommodation” of insane patients. In the progress of his work he applied gunpowder, with some unexplained object, to the foundations, and in a moment completed its destruction, leaving but two of its towers, and the wall between them. Their present height is sixty-five feet, and the length from one tower to the other is one hundred and five feet; as the ruin is but one side of a square, it affords a correct idea of the large space the castle formerly occupied.’
From Ireland: its scenery, character etc. by Mr and Mrs Hall, 1840.
Visited on a particularly wet day during this particularly wet summer, here is what remains of the little church at Kilbunny, County Waterford, named after St Munna and originally founded in the 8th century. The present building, with its restored Romanesque arch entrance and chevron moulding, is from the 11th century. Seemingly at one time some 230 monks lived here, but it is difficult to imagine such numbers today: certainly, only a handful of them would fit into the church which only measures about 8.5 metres in length and 5 metres in width. Outside, a faint trace of what was possibly representing a human head, can be discerned at the base of the arch on the right-hand side, while inserted into the wall on the left-hand is an animal head, perhaps that of a ram. On the ground to either side are bullaun stones, it is thought originally used as baptismal or water fonts.