Lost History

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All across Ireland there are buildings about which little is now known, their histories somehow mislaid between the date they ceased to serve their purpose and the present. Sometimes snippets of a story evolves into a legend which, like a version of Chinese Whispers, bears little relation to the original truth. But on other occasions, the history disappears altogether, as though presaging the fate of the building itself. Kilcrea, County Cork has been mentioned here before, both in relation to the former Franciscan friary (Lo Arthur Leary, November 2nd 2015) and the nearby former McCarthy tower house (With Panoramic Views, June 11th 2016), both of which date from the 1460s and have reasonably well-chronicled histories. However there is a third building in the same area about which little appears to be known, even though it is of more recent construction. This is Kilcrea House, a view of which is shown above (the tower house can be seen in the background on the extreme right of the photograph).

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A little information about Kildrea House can be gleaned from that always helpful website http://www.landedestates.ie. In 1750 Charles Smith’s The ancient and present state of the county and city of Cork reported that Kilcrea, formerly the seat of the Earls of Clancarty, had been purchased by Captain Hedges from the Trustees of the Hollow Blade Company. In 1786 William Wilson’s The Post-Chaise Companion noted the ruins of the friary and castle, near to which was a house called Snugborough, the residence of a Mr. Keeffe. By the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the 1850s Robert Gibbons was given as the occupier of Kilcrea House. He held the building (valued at £20) as part of a parcel of land leased by John Hawkes. Yet strangely in March 1851, and again in July 1853, the estate of William Edward Ellis at Kilcrea, including the house and 422 acres, was advertised for sale. It would seem the Hawkes family acquired this, and further land, since by the 1870s the estate of John Devonsher Hawkes of Kilcrea is given as amounting to 2,029 acres.

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Of course this information, while helpful, tells us nothing about Kilcrea House itself, when it was built and by whom. The place is now a shell, but this decline would appear to have occurred only relatively recently. While the floors have given way and most plaster come off walls, there are still traces of the wooden window frames and joists. Of two storeys over basement, the house looks north towards the tower house and the breakfront on this side has tumbled down. Constructed of rubble and brick, it has arched ground floor windows of cut limestone, also seen in the single-storey bows on the east and west sides of the building: it would appear these bows were added at a later date. The east side has a short flight of stone steps which gave access to the house while the south and west fronts retain traces of the slates with which they were once covered. Stylistically the house would seem to date from the late 18th century (with subsequent additions) but it is now so far deteriorated that conjecture must be to the fore. It seems strange that despite its size and prominent location there appears to be little knowledge of Kilcrea. Another example of lost history. Below is a view of the house from the nearby tower house.

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The Auld Alliance

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In January 1846 Sir George Colthurst of Ardrum, County Cork married the heiress Louisa Jane Jefferyes whose family had lived at Blarney since the beginning of the previous century. They had built a gothick extension onto the old MacCarthy castle on the site, but this residence was largely destroyed by fire in 1820 (although sections, such as the large central bow can still be seen). Over half a century later Lady Colthurst requested a new house be built on the estate, and a design for this was commissioned from the Belfast-born architect John Lanyon. The result, an extravagance of pinnacles, crow-stepped gables and conical-roofed turrets, merrily mixes Scottish baronial with fifteenth century French influences as if to reflect the Auld Alliance in which Ireland played no part.

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Squandered Opportunities 


As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere. 

Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013):  its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.

Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass. 

Waiting in the Wings

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When it comes to country houses, architectural historians and conservationists often, and understandably, focus their attention on the main property. But it is usually only one part of a larger conglomerate of buildings, all of which interact with each other and are also worthy of study – and preservation. Here are the two stable blocks at Bantry House, County Cork, added to the estate by Richard White, Viscount Berehaven (later second Earl of Bantry) around 1845 and very much intended to be seen as part of the site’s architectural ensemble. Distinguished by their copper-domed cupolas, from sufficient distance the pair appear to serve as free-standing wings to the house between them. While one has found alternative use in recent years, the other sadly awaits attention (and thus for the present is best seen from the aforementioned distance).

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End of the Road

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A fine five-bay townhouse on the Doneraile Road in Castletownroche, County Cork. Of two storeys over basement, this is the end of a terrace of such buildings on the street dating from c.1810 and distinguished by their handsome doorcases and wide roof eaves. Unfortunately in this instance the property’s condition suggests it may also soon be the end of the line here.

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With Panoramic Views

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The former Franciscan friary at Kilcrea, County Cork has been discussed here before (see Lo Arthur Leary, November 2nd 2015). Not far away is a five storey tower house completed around 1465 by Cormac Láidir Mór, Lord of Muskerry then-head of the McCarthy clan. As Coyne and Wills wrote in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1841), ‘The ruins evince it to have been a place of considerable extent and rude magnificence.’ It was also intentionally built within sight of the friary which Cormac Láidir Mór had established around the same time: As the photograph below shows, a perfect view of one from the other can be seen through a window on the uppermost level of the old castle, reached via a stone spiral staircase.

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Take a Bow

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While much excitement – and publicity – was generated by a house contents sale conducted by Mealy’s Auctioneers at Lotabeg, Cork for some of us the building proved as interesting as what it held. Dating from c.1800 Lotabeg is a relatively late work by Abraham Hargrave, an English-born architect who appears to have come to Ireland in 1791 to supervise the construction of St Patrick’s Bridge over the river Lee in Cork. He then stayed on and was responsible for work on a number of other country houses in the vicinity, including Fota and Castle Hyde, in both cases making alterations/additions to the original structure. Lotabeg on the other hand is entirely by Hargrave, its most notable feature being the large bow on the north-facing seven-bay entrance front. Behind this lies the house’s finest internal space: an immense circular domed entrance hall, around the walls of which snakes a cantilevered timber staircase up to the first floor gallery with access to a series of bedrooms.

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