The Black Castle in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow. The first fortification here was constructed in 1181 on the orders of Anglo-Norman knight Hugh de Lacy to defend a crucial crossing point on the river Barrow (the first bridge followed in the early 14th century). When the Carmelite order came to Ireland in the 1270s, a friary was established adjacent to the castle and it survived until the suppression of all such religious houses in 1540s when the property passed into the hands of Sir Edward Bellingham, Lord Deputy of Ireland. It appears he was responsible for building what stands today, a 16th century three-storey tower house. Badly damaged during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s/50s, the Black Castle thereafter fell into ruin, the south-west corner tumbling down in the late 19th century.
Tucked down a minor rural road, the Stroan Fountain, County Kilkenny was for a long time thought to date from the third quarter of the 18th century: a damaged inscription carries the numerals 66, leading to speculation that these were preceded by 17. However, the rest of the legible text notes that the fountain had been ‘erected by subscription by permission of the Landlord Gervase Bushe. Designed and arranged by Thomas Seigne.’ Bushe was resident at the nearby Kilfane estate, where Seigne acted as land agent from c.1830 to c.1870. The structure comprises a limestone basin covered with a dome on top of which sits an obelisk; by means of a buried pipe, the fountain is fed from a cistern approximately 40 metres to the north-west. The cistern is in turn fed by a natural spring. Three stone steps provide access to the fountain and its two outlets, one for filling barrels placed on a donkey and cart and the other for buckets placed on a pair of stones. By the start of the present century, the fountain and its surroundings had fallen into disrepair but thanks to a number of organisations including a local heritage society, the county council and the Follies Trust, it was underwent restoration in 2010.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of a book that might be said to have initiated modern interest in the Irish country house. Of course, there had been other publications on the subject before, not least the fifth volume of the original Georgian Societies records of 1913, and Sadleir and Dickinson’s Georgian Mansions in Ireland, produced two years later (see Glimpses into a Vanished World « The Irish Aesthete and Enriched with Treasures « The Irish Aesthete). And in the interim, other writers like Mark Girouard and the Knight of Glin had visited various houses around the country, the results of these explorations duly appearing in publications such as Country Life. But Irish Houses & Castles was different because it attempted to give an overview of the country’s historic domestic properties, and in doing so allowed the reader to draw conclusions about what made Ireland’s country houses different from those found elsewhere. The book was jointly authored by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan, the former bringing to the work all the experience and knowledge – and indeed social connections – he had gathered since establishing the Irish Georgian Society with his first wife Mariga 13 years earlier. Indeed, one of the purposes of Irish Houses & Castles was to raise funds for the society, which would receive all royalties from sales. Indicative of the appetite for such publications is the fact that the first American edition of 2,000 copies sold out within a month: over the next decade a further 75,000 more copies were published. The funds raised proved invaluable, since at the time the IGS was in the throes of rescuing Castletown, County Kildare. ‘If ever a book saved a house,’ Desmond later remarked, ‘ours saved Castletown, where weekly wages somehow had to be paid, and restoration work continue.’
Irish Houses & Castles featured 39 of the most important remaining historic homes in the country, at least a dozen of which have since either been destroyed or else changed hands with the loss of the original contents. In this way, the book is now an historic record but at the time of publication, it provided valuable information on what was a largely unknown subject, not least thanks to the two authors’ introduction which, after discussing the architectural evolution of Irish houses, moved on to examine the paintings and furniture that had been made for them, and even the gardens, gatehouses and follies that ornamented their surrounding estates. As with the books published earlier in the century, an important although often overlooked feature of Irish Houses & Castles is that it offers an insight into how such properties were decorated at the time, frequently in a style quite unlike that today. For example, there is a photograph of the entrance hall at Abbey Leix, County Laois. Today this has been restored to ensure that the eye is immediately caught by its architectural qualities, but 50 years ago the hall still looked much as it probably did in the late Victorian/Edwardian era: acting as an informal meeting space/sitting room it contained chintz-covered sofas on either side of the chimneypiece, an abundance of side tables and bibelots, and a tall folding screen in front of the front door in order to minimise draughts. The writer is old enough to remember many such house entrance halls decorated in the same fashion, but today they have cleared of clutter and tend to be much more sparsely furnished. And of course, many of the original contents of Abbey Leix, accumulated by successive generations, were dispersed when the house was sold in the mid-1990s; again, one remembers that occasion, typical of the time with the marquee outside the house, the surrounding fields filled with cars and the excitement of eventual prices far exceeding estimates (£700 paid for a selection of old copper pans and jelly moulds expected to go for no more than £120). Now the photographs featured in Irish Houses & Castles have become an invaluable source of information about how the place used to look.
The pictures shown here today, all taken from Irish Houses & Castles, demonstrate how vulnerable these properties remain, and how little protection they still have. The dispersal of Abbey Leix’s original contents in the mid-1990s has already been mentioned. To go through the others, one begins with Belvedere, County Westmeath. Today the house is in the care of the local authority which does an admirable job in maintaining the place. But the contents, which included many items originally from Charleville Castle, County Offaly, were all sold in September 1980. Since it appeared in Irish Houses & Castles, Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny has changed hands on a number of occasions, and the same is also true of Bellamont Forest, County Cavan: in both instances the present owners are American. Meanwhile Malahide Castle: two years after Irish Houses & Castles appeared the 7th Lord Talbot de Malahide died suddenly and the property was inherited by his sister Rose, who offered the castle and its contents to the Irish state in lieu of death duties. The offer was declined and as a result, in 1976 a public auction was held with many important items leaving the country. Ironically, the state – which had bought the castle and surrounding 268 acres – found itself bidding against international dealers and collectors in order to buy some pieces so the building would not be entirely denuded. An expensive and unnecessary act of national folly. Meanwhile elsewhere in County Dublin Rathbeale, which had been restored and furnished by Julian and Carola Peck was subsequently sold, the couple moving to County Derry where they restored another important 18th century house, Prehen; alas, since the deaths of the couple and their surviving son, that house and its contents are likewise at risk (see Hanging On « The Irish Aesthete). Luttrellstown Castle, which had been given by Ernest Guinness to his daughter Aileen on the occasion of her first marriage in 1927 (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). She had extensively refurbished the house in the 1950s, the work overseen by decorator Felix Habord. Once more, it was sold in 1983 and the fabulous contents again dispersed thanks to an auction lasting several days. Finally, and most tragically, one turns to Powerscourt, County Wicklow which, having been acquired from the Wingfields by the Slazenger family was thoroughly restored and then, just as this work was completed, the building was gutted by fire in November 1974, an irreparable loss to the country’s architectural heritage. If for the photographs and account of Powerscourt alone, this is what makes Irish Houses & Castles such an important document.
Tucked away down a grassy boreen stands the now-abandoned church of St Helen, Moviddy, County Cork (closed for services 1961, unroofed 1968). The surrounding graveyard contains this early 18th century mausoleum (also now without a roof) constructed by the Bailey family who were then living close by in Castlemore Castle. Inside the little building, the south wall is dominated by a large memorial carrying the following inscription: ‘This monument erected at the cost of Mrs Anne Bayly widow of John Bayly of Castlemore Esquire to preserve his memory, who died the 15th of June Anno Christi, 1719. He was a gent who had the true interest of his country at heart. At the revolution he served in person in the wars of Ireland, till the kingdom was reduced to peace and quietness. Quitting the war he returned to his wife and children and shewed himself as good a husband as indulgent a father as he was a true subject being honored with a commission of the peace. He always administered justice so uprightly that he never blemished his commission and dyed lamented by all good men who did know him.’
Until the start of the 18th century, the village of Castlebellingham, County Louth was known as Gernonstown, named after the Gernon (otherwise Garland) family, the first of whom, the Anglo-Norman knight Roger de Gernon is thought to have arrived here in the 12th century with Strongbow. As evidence of their presence in this part of the country, there is also a Gernonstown to the northwest of Slane, County Meath. However, in Louth the Gernons were ousted by later arrivals, the Bellinghams. The first of that family to come to Ireland was Henry Bellingham who appeared here in the mid-17th century and in the great reallocation of Irish land which then took place, he was received or bought some of it based around Gernonstown; his possession of what would be the future Castlebellingham estate was confirmed by Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. When Henry Bellingham died in 1676, the estate was duly inherited by his son Thomas who in 1690 took the side of William III, becoming a colonel in his army and serving as a guide on the march south from Dundalk. In retaliation, the forces of James II burnt the colonel’s residence, probably an old Gernon tower house. A new house for the family was built around 1710 and it is about this time that the surrounding village acquired the new name of Castlebellingham. Today an hotel, the house was extensively remodelled and enlarged at the end of the 18th century and then given a fashionable Gothic makeover in the 1830s.
Located to the east immediately outside the gates of Bellingham Castle, as seen today the core of the village dates from the 19th century when it was carefully laid out in picturesque style by the Bellingham family. Among the most delightful features is a group of former almshouses built immediately adjacent to the Church of Ireland church to accommodate the widows of estate workers. A plaque above the main entrance to this building declares that it was endowed by Sir William Bellingham. Created a baronet in 1796, Sir William died thirty years later in 1826, and the almshouses, endowed with £64 per annum, were erected as a result of a legacy in his will. Sir William had no sons of his own, so the estate and baronetcy were inherited by a nephew, Alan Bellingham, but he died exactly ten months after his uncle, therefore it was Sir Alan’s son, the third baronet (another Alan) who undertook to honour Sir William’s intentions. The design of the building is often attributed to architect William Vitruvius Morrison, not least because it bears similarities to a couple of other ornamental cottages for which he was responsible: Carpenham, County Down and Lough Bray, County Wicklow. Here, as with both of the others, the building has steeply-gabled roofs and an amplitude of detail, such as the decorative bargeboards, ornamental finials, diamond-patterned pointed windows and tall brick chimneys. A further three detached two-storey cottages were subsequently built on the other side of the lane.
The Widows’ Almshouses were modest enough residences, with a single room on the ground floor and another two above. The interiors were altered since first built, but the essential structure remains unaltered, with just a tiny yard to the rear of each before meeting the church grounds. Five years ago, in April 2016, the entire block was offered for sale for the modest sum of €100,000, but with the proviso that the almshouses were in need of refurbishment. The property was duly sold and in September 2018 an application was made to, and granted by, the local authority for the four units to be upgraded and converted into two dwelling houses. Nothing appears to have happened since then and unfortunately the almshouses are in poor condition. One must hope that sooner rather than later something will be done to bring this important part of the area’s architectural heritage back to decent condition.
The remains of an RIC Barracks at Islandeady, County Mayo. The building dates from the first half of the 19th century when constructed on a plot provided for the purpose by local landlord Sir William Palmer who lived at Castle Lacken, today also a ruin. Of two storeys and three bays, the barracks is a handsome structure, with the focus on its cut-limestone doorcase. There is a small yard to the rear with holding cell. It remained in operation until early 1920 when, like many other remote buildings held by the force, it was abandoned owing to the War of Independence. In June of that year, the barracks was gutted by fire, again a common circumstance, and has remained a ruin ever since.
Stripped not just of contents but also all character, this is what remains of the former Presbyterian church in Creggs, County Galway. Outside Ulster, there were always relatively few Presbyterians outside faith, and this is a rare example of such a building in Connaught. It opened for services in 1863 but clearly never attracted much of a congregation as the church was closed just over sixty years later in 1925. The west front displays a playful engagement with form, the Gothic arched doorcase below a trefoil window, and then on the tower above, and slightly recessed, a circular opening below rounded arch. The roofless walls now stand, forlorn and purposeless, in a puddle of gravel.
The Presbyterian church at Glasleck, County Cavan which, as a cut-stone plaque set into the wall advises, was built in 1836. Its first minister was the Reverend Randal McCollum who remained in this office until his death in 1874. Aside from attending to his flock, he also maintained a farm and wrote a number of works, not least Sketches of the Highlands of Cavan and of Shirley Castle, in Farney, Taken during the Irish Famine, which was published in 1856. A diary he kept for ten years, 1861-71 is now in the collection of Cavan County Council. Evidently there was once a thriving Presbyterian community in this part of the country, thereby justifying the building’s construction, but it gradually declined in the second half of the last century and closed in 1998, when the congregation was amalgamated with that of First Bailieborough.
A little classical gem: a lodge at the entrance to St Patrick’s College, Carlow. The English-born architect Thomas Alfred Cobden, who designed the main buildings on the site (and who for a couple of decades received an astonishing number of commissions in this part of the country), is thought to have been also responsible for the lodge which dates from around 1820. It has a beautifully austere facade, the pedimented portico supported by a pair of Doric columns, these features made of the local granite. The interior has an entrance hall and two rooms, but alas at the moment is empty and – inevitably – falling into neglect: surely some use can be found for the place?
An entrance into the former demesne of Affane, County Waterford. The core of the house here dated from the 17th century but had a new front added in the first half of the 19th century with canted bows on either side of the entrance. These ashlar gateposts with screen walls on either side and arched pedestrian openings on either side were probably erected around the same time. Once leading towards the main building, now they go nowhere but provide a reminder of what used to be here: the house itself is a ruined shell.