Recording the Past


In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’  Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.




As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades.
  While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.




Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.



While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.

Save Cork City


Two years ago, Dublin City Council decided to construct a new flood defence wall along the coast of Clontarf to the immediate north of the city. When local residents objected to the proposal – and decried the use of disfiguring poured concrete – initially the council responded that
‘it cannot change the height of the wall, which will be one metre tall over footpath level at its highest point, because of the conditions set down by the Office of Public Works to prevent flooding.’ Having first yielded ground on the materials being used, more recently the council has agreed to lower a long stretch of the wall so that views of Dublin Bay are no longer obscured. Officialdom in Ireland is always reluctant to alter its plans and tends to come up with all sorts of reasons why a plan cannot be changed. However, the Clontarf sea wall saga, and other similar incidents in the past , show that if opposition is sufficiently vocal then nothing is ever set in stone – or indeed in concrete.



At the moment, a scheme to prevent flooding in Cork city is being advocated by the Office of Public Works that would fundamentally alter the appearance of the historic quays and destroy much of heritage found therein. The ‘Lower Lee Cork City Flood Relief Scheme’ seeks to find a solution to what in some respects is an irresolvable problem: the habitual flooding of Cork, the centre of which is an island subject to the ebb and flow of tides. As in Venice, nature will take precedence over man-made interventions, no matter how well-intentioned these may be. The present proposal for Cork would not sort out the problem of the Lee’s rise and fall (only a tidal barrier could do that) and furthermore will permanently mutilate the 200-year old limestone quays: as at Clontarf, erecting high banks of concrete appears to be judged the only possible approach. Rightly concerned at the projected destruction to their environment local residents have objected to the scheme and through a voluntary organisation called Save Cork City they are campaigning for a more considered and sensitive approach to be taken to the question of how best to deal with the issue of floods in the city. They deserve support. Officialdom can be persuaded to change what in this instance looks to be a cack-handed strategy, but only if it faces sufficient and sustained opposition.

For more information on the Save Cork City campaign, see: http://savecorkcity.org/
The Irish Georgian Society has submitted an intelligent and articulate response to the proposed Lower Lee Cork City Flood Relief Scheme which can be found at: http://www.igs.ie/updates

A Tale of Two Towers


Lining the northern banks of the river Suir in County Tipperary are a series of tower houses built in the 15th and 16th centuries. That above is Dove Hill (or Duff Hill), originally built on land under the control of the O’Mores. In 1542 it was garrisoned by Sir Thomas Butler of Cahir, but a century later was noted in the Civil Survey as being ‘a small castle wanting repaire’. The description remains apposite. A few miles to the west stands Poulakerry, another building once associated with the Butlers. Unlike Dove Hill, it has been restored and is now occupied.

Oh! Solitary Fort that Standest Yonder

‘Oh! solitary fort, that standest yonder,
What desolation dost thou not reveal!
How tarnished is the beauty of thine aspect,
Thou mansion of the chaste and gentle melodies!

Demolished lie thy towering battlements –
The dark loam of the earth has risen up
Over the whiteness of thy polished stones;
And solitude and ruin gird thee round.

Thy end is come, fair fortress, thou art fallen –
Thy magical prestige has been stripped off –
Thy well-shaped corner-stones have been displaced
And cast forth to the outside of thy ramparts.’





‘Thy doorways are, alas! filled up,
Thou fortress of the once bright doors!
The limestones of thy top lie at thy base,
On all the sides of thy fair walls.

Over the mouldings of thy shattered windows,
The music that to-day breaks forth
Is the wild music of the birds and winds,
The voices of the stormy elements!

O, many-gated Court of Donegal,
What spell of slumber overcame thee,
Thou mansion of the board of flowing goblets,
To make thee undergo this rueful change?’




‘The reason that he left thee as thou art
Was lest the black ferocious strangers
Should dare to dwell within thy walls,
Thou fair-proportioned, speckled mansion!

Lest we should ever call thee theirs,
Should call thee in good earnest Dun-na-gall,
This was the reason, Fortress of the Gaels,
That thy fair turrets were o’erthrown.

Now that our kings have all been exiled hence
To dwell among the reptiles of strange lands,
It is a woe for us to see thy towers,
O, bright fort of the glossy walls!’

Extracts from  George Petrie’s 1840 translation of an Irish-language poem Address to the Ruins of Donegal Castle written in 1601 after the building’s intentional mutilation (to prevent it falling into English hands) by then-owner Red Hugh O’Donnell.

The Promise of Summer


The gardens of Lismore Castle, County Waterford photographed last summer during the annual opera festival held here. The upper section of the walled grounds, the oldest continually cultivated garden in Ireland, was originally laid out in the early decades of the 17th century for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In recent years it has been revitalised by head gardener Darren Topps and his team.



There is no better time to enjoy the gardens of Lismore Castle than in early June, which is when the opera festival takes place and this season’s production – of Donizetti’s  enchanting L’Elisir d’Amore – will be perfectly in tune with the mood of these pictures, full of light and colour and sparkle. Very much recommended.


For further information on the Lismore Opera Festival, see: http://www.lismoreoperafestival.com

Former Glories


Handsome doorcases such as this testify to the prosperity of Clones, County Monaghan in the 18th century when it became a market town benefitting from the growth of the linen industry. A series of large properties were built around The Diamond, a triangular open area to the immediate south of the monastery said to have been founded here in the early sixth century by St Tigernach and while some have been refaced, and others demolished, enough survive to give an idea of how Clones might have looked prior to suffering the same, more recent decline as so many other regional urban centres in Ireland.

 

A Lot Done, More to Do


‘A lot done, more to do’ was the slogan used by an Irish political party in a general election fifteen years ago. It might also apply to the study of this country’s architectural history about which the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. There are certain areas in which a considerable amount of research has been undertaken, but many others where next to nothing has yet been done. With regard to the latter, investigation into the design and character of ancillary buildings on country estates is a subject that has hitherto not been explored in any depth. Yet these structures – the stable- and farmyards and so forth – were as important to the successful management of an estate as was the large house at its centre. Today there is much interest in what took place beyond the green baize door inside a country house, so that the lives of domestic servants and the quarters they occupied are given increasing notice. However, their outdoor equivalents – those who lived and worked in ancillary buildings – do not seem to attract much attention. Nor do the buildings themselves, even though they were often as well designed, constructed and finished as the big house they were there to sustain. Indeed they are often so sturdy that in instances where the country house has either fallen or been pulled down, the outbuildings remain. Such is the case at Donore, County Westmeath.





For hundreds of years Donore was occupied by a branch of the Nugent family the first of whom, Hugh de Nugent, came to Ireland in the 12th century and received lands in Westmeath. In the fifteenth century one of his descendants, James Nugent, married the heiress Elizabeth Holywood and it appears that through her inheritance the lands of Donore passed to the couple’s heirs. In the 17th century, the Nugents of Donore fought with their Irish compatriots in the Confederate Wars and were duly indicted, yet somehow despite consistently remaining Roman Catholic they managed to retain their property. In fact, by judicious marriages they improved their circumstances. In the 18th century, for example, James Nugent, first baronet, married Catherine King, elder daughter and co-heiress of Robert King of Drewstown, County Meath: that house was discussed here last week. And so it continued into the middle of the last century when, shortly before her death in November 1957 the widowed Aileen, Lady Nugent sold the estate to the Franciscan order which had re-settled nearby on land gifted to the friars by the Nugents. According to the present head of the family, the price paid for this transaction was £20,000. Apparently Lady Nugent had insisted as a condition of the sale that the house would be preserved. However this was not to be. The Franciscans subsequently sold on the greater part of the estate to the Land Commission, Donore was duly condemned, and pulled down. Today a bungalow occupies the site.





There seem to be no photographic records of Donore other than an aerial image of the site, located on rising ground to the south of Lough Derravaragh. However, according to the family it bore striking similarities in design to Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. Now called St Raphael’s and owned by the St John of God religious order, Oakley Park dates from 1724 and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Burgh. Of three storeys over basement, it has a seven-bay façade with a three-bay breakfront centred on the groundfloor doorcase incorporating a segmental pediment. The similarities between this property and Donore are interesting, because the latter is generally considered to have been built at the end of the 18
th century, and to have been of little consequence. In his guide to Irish country houses, Mark Bence-Jones summarily dismissed Donore as ‘A plain 3 storey Georgian block,’ and the place does not merit even a mention in Casey and Rowan’s guide to the buildings of North Leinster.
Yet if it dated from the 1720s and shared stylistic traits with Oakley Park, then this would explain the appearance of a once-grand yard still standing to the east. Although now in pitiful condition, it is still possible to see how magnificent this complex must once have been. Employing crisply defined limestone, the southern entrance takes the form of a simplified but rugged triumphal arch, which is then topped by an hexagonal tower at least twice the height of the arch. Inside the yard, the northern side is focused on an equally immense three-bay pedimented breakfront coachhouse, while to the west is another arched entrance, the upper portion of which is occupied by a dovecote. Throughout the complex, the sophistication of both design and execution is remarkable. Bold and confident, its appearance suggests the now-lost house must have possessed the same traits and that, contrary to received wisdom, Donore was built at least half a century earlier than the date of 1790, which is usually given for its construction. If this is the case then its loss, and the lack of a decent photographic record, are all the more tragic. We are nowhere near fully understanding Ireland’s architectural history. A lot done, more to do.