Charmingly Quirky


In The Beauties of Ireland (1826), James Norris Brewer explains the name of Busherstown, County Offaly as follows: ‘Busherstown, the seat of the Minchin family, was originally called Bouchardstown, and formerly belonged to the de Mariscos. Bouchard de Marisco, from whom the name of this place is derived, left a daughter and heir, who married O’Carroll, of Clonlisk and Couloge…’ The accuracy of this tale might be open to question, since it seems hard to find any de Marisco with the first name Bouchard. There certainly were members of the family prominent in this part of the country, not least Geoffrey de Marisco, an ally of King John who in the first half of the 13th century was Justiciar of Ireland on several occasions: through his wife, Eva de Bermingham, he came to hold large swathes of land in this part of the country. 





Whatever the origins of its name, Busherstown appears to have originated as a tower house perhaps in the 16th century when it was held by the O’Carrolls: the space now serving as a dining room in the centre of the western side of the building was probably the tower house. For their part in the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, the O’Carrolls forfeited the property and in 1669 it was granted by the English government to Charles Minchin, a soldier who had risen to the rank of Colonel in the Parliamentary army. Shortly before his death in 1681, Colonel Minchin bought a second property not far away, Ballinakill Castle, County Tipperary which had also begun as a tower house, this time built by the Butlers. The Minchins sold Ballinakill in 1760 and it is now a ruin, but they remained at Busherstown until 1973. 





As mentioned, Busherstown appears to have originated as a tower house and at some date in the 18th century, perhaps following a fire in 1764, a new residence was added to the south end of the older building. This plain, three-bay, two-storey extension is clearly visible, the centre breakfront presumably once serving as an entrance; the room behind is much smaller than those on either side, indicating it was a hallway giving access to reception rooms. In the early 19th century, when the property was owned by George Minchin, further alterations to the property were made, not least the addition of a castellated entrance front, which was now moved to the west side. This features a round tower with hood mouldings at one end, and a bow-ended square tower at the other, the latter containing a porch through which one enters the building. Internally, little effort was made to continue the facade’s pseudo-Gothic decoration. What had probably been a dining room in the 18th century house was turned into a large hall, with the room behind it (formerly the entrance hall) becoming an ante chamber for the drawing room beyond. Behind this space is a curious wedge, thinner at the west than the east end, into which was inserted a staircase leading to bedrooms upstairs; a further extension beyond to the west leads gives access to a splendid stableyard. The quirky, provincial character of Busherstown means the house possesses an exceptional charm, helped by the mature and well-planted parkland in which it sits. After being sold by Richard Minchin in 1973, the property was owned by the Rudd family until they in turn disposed of Busherstown in 2011 after which it sat empty for some years until being bought more recently by the present owner who is gradually, and sympathetically, restoring the house.

Worth Emulating


Eighteen years ago this week, the contents of Lissadell, County Sligo were sold at auction by Christie’s. The house was once family home to Constance Gore-Booth (otherwise known as Countess Markievicz), a key participants in the Easter Rising, the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament (although she declined to take her seat there), and subsequently the first woman in the world to hold a cabinet position, an intimate of W.B. Yeats and many other notable figures in Ireland’s cultural revolution at the start of the last century. Understandably, therefore, news that both the building and its contents were to be sold met with widespread dismay, and hopes were expressed that the state might intervene to save this part of the national heritage. However, as so often before and since, no such intervention occurred and the sale took place. Thankfully, the new owners of the Lissadell estate succeeded in buying back at least some of the items offered at auction, and they remain in the house, but much was lost, unlikely ever to return. 







Lissadell is a large and somewhat austere building, designed by the architect Francis Goodwin in 1831 for Sir Robert Gore-Booth, whose family had lived in the area since the early 17th century. There had been an earlier residence closer to the Atlantic shoreline, but this was demolished when the new house was built. Lissadell’s pared-back Greek-Revival style reflects not just its owner’s taste, but also his budget: he may well have preferred something more opulent but lacked the necessary funds. When Goodwin published Domestic Architecture (1833-4) he featured Lissadell and noted that the house ‘has been erected for less than the estimate, by a considerable sum.’ In a footnote to the text, he observed how, ‘in altering the original designs, with a view of reducing the expense to a comparatively moderate sum, considering the extent and accommodation of the building, the author has been much indebted to the judicious hints of Sir R. G. Booth himself.’ In other words, the client told his architect to cut back on costs. Of two storeys over basement, Lissadell’s exterior is constructed in crisp Ballysadare limestone, with each side of the house different, although both those facing east and west have projecting bays at either end. What might be described as the garden front has a three-bay full-height bow, topped with a parapet that rises above those on either side, while the entrance front is notable for a towering three bay projection that serves as a porte-cochère. The interior of the building is decorated in what might be described as an early example of minimalism, beginning with the double-height entrance hall with Doric columns on the ground floor and Ionic columns above, accessed via an Imperial staircase in Kilkenny marble. A similarly substantial, apse-ended and top-lit gallery likewise exudes a sense of severe grandiosity,  with Doric pilasters on one side and Ionic columns on the other. Sir Robert’s desire to save money where possible led him to introduce what was then something of a technological innovation: gas lighting. A local report from the 1830s recorded that this saved the house’s owner £60 or £70 annually. Seven of these lacquered brass gasoliers made for Lissadell were almost lost when the 2003 sale took place, but thanks to legal action taken by An Taisce (which argued the items were furniture and fittings integral to the building) they remain in situ, together with the gallery’s George III chamber organ which was also originally due to be auctioned. 







One of the key losses from Lissadell at the time of the November 2003 sale was the collection of furniture specifically commissioned by Sir Robert for his new residence. Dating from the 1830s, these pieces were representative of taste in Ireland at the time and were believed to have been made by the successful Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton. Until the auction, Lissadell was the only house in Ireland to retain its original furniture by this company, so their dispersal was much to be regretted. Their importance can be gauged by the fact that most of the lots exceeded their estimates: a rosewood writing table, for example, which was expected to make €8,000-€10,000, fetched €19,000. In the dining room, a set of 17 mahogany chairs (€12,000-€18,000) fetched €22,000 and the dining table itself (€30,000-€50,000) went for €65,000. Bidding against other potential purchasers, Lissadell’s new owners managed to buy some pieces, such as a pair of handsome mahogany Grecian-style bookcases clearly inspired by the work of Thomas Hope and, again in the dining room, a sturdy mahogany sideboard. But many of the contents, first installed some 170 years earlier, now left for good and not just the Williams & Gibton furniture. There were, for example, a number of fine 17th century Italian baroque paintings, many in spectacular gilt frames, which had been acquired for the rooms by Sir Robert Gore-Booth. And then there were all the miscellaneous objects that build up in any house over generations, from sets of copper jelly moulds to discarded furnishings such as old curtains. These, as much as the more valuable pieces, are what tell the history of a building, and when they are gone, part of that history disappears forever. Thankfully, since acquiring Lissadell, the present owners have undertaken a huge amount of work, not only to restore the house but also to reinstate its distinctive character. They have done so using their own financial resources, and despite setbacks that might have deterred anyone else. In 2008, for example, Sligo County Council embarked on a court case over public rights of way across the estate, a case which the local authority ultimately lost but only after spending millions of euro from the public purse. There is, of course, more to be done but Lissadell today is a model of private enterprise in the field of Ireland’s cultural heritage, one that one must hope some of the country’s more wealthy citizens might care to emulate. 

Generational Changes



In the late 19th century, and following the flotation of their brewing business on the London Stock Exchange, the Guinness family became enormously wealthy, allowing them to build, or enlarge, private residences for themselves around the outskirts of Dublin. One of these was Farmleigh, acquired by Edward Guinness (later first Earl of Iveagh) which incorporates an earlier building but was given much of its present appearance in the early 1880s by the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller (although the ballroom and conservatory were both added later and designed by other architects). Farmleigh very much reflects the neo-Georgian luxe taste of the period and contrasts sharply with another house formerly owned by the family, Glenmaroon. This was bought at the start of the last century by one of Lord Iveagh’s sons, Ernest Guinness, who, although there was already a large building on the site, effectively doubled this in size by commissioning another, the two linked by a bridge across the public road that divided them. Glenmaroon, very much in the Home Counties arts and crafts manner (supposedly to please Ernest Guinness’s English-born wife), contrasts strikingly with the former parental home not far away and reflects changes in decorative taste between one generation and the next.
I shall be discussing both of these properties, and several others, in an online talk given for the Royal Oak Foundation next Tuesday, November 9th. Entitled A Stylish Brew: Great Irish Houses of the Guinness Family, more information about this event can be found at Fall 2021 Online Lectures & Tours – Great Irish Houses of the Guinness Family – The Royal Oak Foundation (royal-oak.org)


A Landlord’s Legacy



The striking remains of Bellegrove, County Laois, which has remained a ruin ever since being accidentally gutted by fire in 1887. The core of the house dates from the early 19th century: in 1814, when owned by Thomas Trench, Dean of Kildare, it was described as ‘newly built in a superior style.’ However, the Italianate villa seen today was created much later, in the early 1870s, its architect thought to be William Caldbeck, although other names (among them James Franklin Fuller and Sir Thomas Newenham Deane) have also bee suggested. By this time Bellegrove was occupied by John George Adair, his mother having been one of the dean’s daughters. Much given to buying up estates and then either raising the rents or ejecting the tenants, Adair was one of the most reviled landlords of the period; when collecting rents in Laois, he had to be given a police escort. Eleswhere in the country, in County Donegal he acquired 28,000 acres and there in the late 1860s built the Scottish Baronial-style Glenveagh Castle on land that had been cleared. By this time, Adair had married a rich American widow, Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie, and together they profitably invested in a large Texan ranch (the JA Ranch, its initial’s being those of Adair) which grew to over 700,000 acres, thereby further increasing his wealth. Two years after his (unlamented) death in 1885 Bellegrove was, as mentioned, destroyed by fire but not restored by his widow. What remains today is only part of a formerly larger building, since a substantial winter garden (to the right of the house in the photograph below) designed by Sir Thomas Deane & Son in 1865 has since been taken down; some of the columns in its grand arcade – inspired by the cloister of San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome – were rescued and can be seen elsewhere in the county.


Deceptive



Recently offered for sale, this is Newcastle, County Westmeath, an early 19th century gentleman’s residence that, from the front looks like a relatively modest house, essentially just a couple of rooms on the ground floor and basement. Step around to the rear of the building, however, and one realises how deceptive this initial impression can be. In fact, Newcastle is a lot more substantial than first seemed to be the case, with the projecting staircase bow an especially charming feature.


Barefoot but Battling


Eighteen years ago, Lissan, County Tyrone featured in a BBC television series called Restoration, in which historic properties were pitted against each other, with one of them receiving a large grant towards ensuring its survival: think of it as a kind of genteel gladiatorial fight. Alas, Lissan was not the winner, but the publicity generated by the house’s appearance helped bring the building – and its somewhat perilous condition – to attention. Until the death of its last occupant, Hazel Radclyffe Dolling, in 2006, the property had been owned by the same family for almost 400 years. Her forebear, Thomas Staples, had moved from outside Bristol to this country in the early part of the 17th century and in 1622 married an heiress called Charity Jones, and six years later he was created a baronet, this hereditary title being inherited by successive generations until the death of the 17th baronet in 2013 when it became extinct. Along the way, there were some eccentric holders, the best-known being Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples who in the late 19th and early 20th century gained a reputation as a fine painter, first exhibiting in the Royal Academy in 1875. As a young man, he was part of the Marlborough House set that gathered around the future Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, but was also associated with London’s influential Grosvenor Gallery, established by a cousin, Sir Coutts Lindsay. Among Sir Robert’s more idiosyncratic traits was his disinclination to wear shoes, believing that these blocked out natural electricity from the earth that was essential for good health. As a result, he became known as the barefoot baronet.





Presumably with the help of his heiress wife’s money, Thomas Staples was able to build the core of what is today’s house at Lissan, although there was already an even older building on the site and much of what we see now dates from later in the century, thanks to the fourth baronet. During the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, Lisan was taken by the O’Quinns, with Lady Staples and her children being held captive first at Moneymore Castle and then at Castlecaulfield where they were kept for two years before being released. The second and third baronets died without children, so eventually it was Sir Thomas’s youngest son Robert who inherited Lissan and became fourth baronet: as though to make up for his elder siblings’ lack of offspring, he and his wife, Mary Vesey, another heiress, had ten children. As mentioned, he was responsible for further embellishing the property so that in 1703 Thomas Ashe could describe it as an ‘extraordinary good stone house; the rooms are very noble, lofty and large.’ At some point in the 18th century the architect Davis Ducart may have been involved in reworking the building (a bridge in the grounds is attributed to him) but subsequent generations of the family left a more decisive mark on the place, not least Sir Nathaniel Staples, tenth baronet who in the 1880s added a rather distended porte-cochère to the entrance front (its outermost section contained a small waiting room for coachmen) and also the bulbous clock tower onto the western side of the house. Seemingly the clock, dating from 1820 and previously gracing the market house in Magherafelt, had been destined for a church until it was instead bought by Sir Nathaniel and installed at Lissan. In 1865 Sir Nathaniel had inherited the house and land from his uncle the ninth baronet, but not the rest of the family property (including the largest house in Dublin’s Merrion Square, now home to the Irish Architectural Archive), thereby leaving the family in somewhat straitened circumstances. Problems grew worse following the tenth baronet’s death in 1899, his heir, Sir John Staples being pronounced insane and spending his life in a number of asylums. Responsibility for the estate passed to the second son, James Head Staples who, to make ends meet, took in boarders while his wife taught cookery and lace-making to women in the area. Responsibility in turn passed to the next brother, the aforementioned barefoot baronet who likewise struggled to keep the place going. 





The entrance hall in Lissan, County Tyrone is dominated by a vast oak staircase ascending the full height of the building. Dating from the 1880s, this is one of the alterations made to the house by Sir Nathaniel Staples, who, having ejected his wife, was living there with a mistress, Mary Potter, daughter of his land agent. Forced to act after rooms directly above the original entrance hall had collapsed, Sir Nathaniel recycled some of the previous staircase’s timber, notably for the balustrades, wood for the rest coming from the estate’s grounds. Once described as having the character ‘of a vast adventure playground’, the result is distinctly odd. Presumably designed by Sir Nathaniel (would any architect wish to claim credit for it?) the staircase takes no account of the space in which it sits, cutting across windows, jutting out in a variety of directions, and sometimes leading to dead ends. It certainly leaves an indelible impression on visitors. 





At some date after 1820 Sir Thomas Staples, ninth baronet, added a single storey ballroom to the east side of Lissan, County Tyrone, its full-length windows offering views to the gardens below; a conservatory, since gone, was erected to the immediate front of the room. A successful lawyer married to an heiress, Sir Thomas could afford to spend money on this extension, which was provided with a sprung floor and an early form of central heating. The walls were covered with Chinese paper which may originally have been purchased for Kilkenny Castle by Sir Thomas’s sister Grace who was married to the Marquess of Ormonde. Only portions of the paper survive, and as can be seen, these have been ‘improved’ with additions by later owners. Having fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair, the house was rescued by a charitable organisation, the Friends of Lissan House Trust, which has already undertaken trojan work ensuring the restoration and survival of this important property. Although much remains to be done, since 2012 the house has been open to the public and acts as a venue for a wide variety of events. 

First Impressions



Kinnitty Castle, County Offaly was originally known as Castle Bernard, its name reflecting that of the man responsible for commissioning much of what is seen today, Thomas Bernard, although an earlier house is incorporated to the rear of the building. All cased in crisp limestone, it was designed in the early 1830s by architect siblings James and George Pain, and reflects the period’s fondness for the Tudor-Revival style, although an octagonal tower on the south-west corner harks back to an earlier era. Kinnitty Castle was burnt out in 1922 and subsequently rebuilt, before becoming an agricultural college in the 1950s. A quarter of a century ago it was converted into an hotel, and remains so to the present. Inside the main gates is a pretty Tudoresque lodge (with the most charming ogee-headed doorcase) which is thought to be older than the main house, perhaps dating to the opening years of the 19th century and designed by Samuel Beazley. Alas, despite providing a first impression for guests to the hotel, it stands empty and has been allowed to fall into the present sad condition.


A Hollow Drum


When writing about Ireland’s ruined country houses, the reason given for their destruction can sometimes be official indifference but rarely official action. However, the fate of Drum Manor, County Tyrone demonstrates that sometimes the latter happens. The origins of the property lie with Alexander Richardson, member of a family of Edinburgh burgesses who in 1617 bought the land on which it stands and constructed a house called Manor Richardson. His descendants remained there for the next two centuries and then in 1829 Drum Manor underwent a complete transformation. 





In 1829 Major William Stewart Richardson-Brady remodelled Drum Manor to the designs of an unknown architect, and given the new name of Oaklands. The house became a two-storey, three-bay villa dressed up with Tudor-Revival dressings, such as crenellations along the roofline, along with buttresses on the facade, a gabled single-storey entrance porch flanked by projecting bays with mullioned windows. The major’s only child, Augusta Le Vicomte, first married another Major, Hugh Massy, but following his death less than two years later, she married Henry James Stuart-Richardson, future fifth Earl Castle Stewart of Stuart Castle, elsewhere in County Tyrone (also since lost).




In 1869 Augusta and Henry James Stuart-Richardson aggrandised Oaklands, which now became Drum Manor, at the cost of some £10,000. The architect in this instance was William Hastings of Belfast, most of whose commissions were in neighbouring County Antrim. He was responsible for giving the house its most dominant features, not least a four-storey square tower with castellated and machiolated parapet. Inside, the building’s principal reception rooms radiated off a double-height central hall with a gallery running around the first floor. Elaborate works were also undertaken in the surrounding demesne, much of which survives in better condition than the main building. This survived until 1964 when the estate was acquired by the Northern Ireland Forestry Service; just over a decade later, that organisation demolished much of Drum Manor, seemingly in order to avoid incurring further rates liability. Today, just the shell survives. 

A Legacy of Beauty

Lismore Castle, County Waterford 

Killruddery, County Wicklow

Ireland’s country house gardens are too often one of our lesser known, and insufficiently appreciated, assets. Developed from the 16th century onwards, they reflect the history and evolution of Ireland, changing and evolving as did the country and reflecting not just alterations in taste but also the developments in horticulture, and the introduction of new plant species. Country house gardens were often the places where early scientific research took place, as owners sought better understanding of the terrain, what might grow there, and to what use it could be put. But they were also places of beauty, where rare trees, shrubs and flowers were cultivated with the purpose of captivating the eye and soothing the mind. Whether it be the formality of the gardens at Killruddery, County Wicklow (the finest surviving example of this style in Ireland and Britain) or the classical landscape of Ballyfin, County Laois, the grandeur of Powerscourt, County Wicklow or the Robinsonian romance of Mount Usher, County Wicklow, Ireland has a wealth of spectacular historic gardens, all of which benefit from our rich soil and temperate climate, as well as ample rainfall.
A new two-part documentary, Ireland’s Historic Gardens, written and presented by the Irish Aesthete, begins on Irish television, RTÉ One, tomorrow evening (Sunday 26th September) and tells the story of these sites across the centuries, featuring interviews with many gardeners and garden historians who help to explain how extraordinarily blessed we are with the legacy bequeathed to us by our forebears. And even without any words, the filming of the gardens demonstrates their inherent magic. Do watch, and enjoy, if you can. The second part will be shown the following Sunday, October 3rd, and brings the story up to the present day.

Portumna, County Galway

Abbey Leix, County Laois 

Ireland’s Historic Gardens (Part One) can be seen on Sunday, September 26th on  RTÉ One, 6.30-7.30pm. Part Two will be screened the following Sunday, October 3rd at the same time. 

Barmeath


Home to the Bellew family for several, this is Barmeath Castle, County Louth. The core of the building is a late medieval tower house built by the Moores who previously owned the land on which it stands. A two-storey wing was added to this around 1700 and then towards the middle of the 18th century a large plain block constructed, of three storeys and seven bays. However, changing tastes meant that in the 1830s the first Lord Bellew commissioned Hertfordshire architect, Thomas Smith, to transform the building into a neo-Norman castle with ample crenellations and fat round corner turrets, as well as the addition of a great square tower at one end, this now becoming the main entrance. Despite this elaborate make-over, it is still possible to detect the more straightforward Georgian house on what then became the garden front.