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architecture was often out of step with the latest fashion, which would help to explain the building’s somewhat outdated style.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.
*For those interested, the Irish Aesthete lived in rooms on the right-hand side of the building’s first-floor (and yes, they were very cold).