A Glimpse of the Past

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Around 1610 Sir John Hume, a younger son of a Scottish border landowner, came to Ireland and settled in County Fermanagh where both he and his brother Alexander were granted plots of land. Alexander Hume subsequently sold his share to Sir John who added further acreage to have become the largest holder of land in this part of the country by the time of his death in 1639. Before that date he built ‘a fair strong castle’ at Tully on the edge of Lower Lough Erne: it was attacked and burnt by the Maguires in Christmas 1641 and thereafter has remained a ruin. Nevertheless the Humes held onto their property, which passed to Sir John’s son George, created a baronet in 1671. He in turn was succeeded by his son, another Sir John Hume who further added to the size of his estate by marrying Sidney, daughter and co-heiress of James Hamilton, of Manorhamilton, County Leitrim. Thus their only son, Sir Gustavus Hume was an exceedingly wealthy man when around 1728 he decided to embark on building a new residence for himself in County Fermanagh.

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The architect Sir Gustavus Hume chose to design his new house is today known as Richard Castle, although thanks to research by Loreto Calderón and Konrad Dechant published in 2010 we now know his real name was David Richardo. Raised in Dresden where his father worked for the Elector of Saxony, he had moved first to England before coming to this country where one of his earliest jobs was working on engineering projects, notably the building of the Newry Canal: overseen by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce this was the first inland navigation on these islands. It must be presumed that Hume, who was associated with the Newry Canal project, had met Castle in England and invited him to Ireland. Whatever the exact details, Castle Hume – as the new house was named – is deemed to have been Castle’s first architectural project here. Unfortunately we do not know what the main building looked like since it has long since disappeared. When Sir Gustavus Hume died in 1731, his estates were divided between two daughters, one of whom Mary married Nicholas Loftus, future first Earl of Ely, whose family already owned property elsewhere. As a result, Castle Hume seems to have been little used. An estate map of 1768 shows a relatively small classical structure of three storeys with a pedimented centre and sculptures along the roof balustrade. When the Rev Richard Twiss visited the region in 1775, it was still the most ‘conspicuous’ seat adorning Lough Erne and the following year Arthur Young exclaimed, ‘What a spot to build on and form a retreat from the business and anxiety of the world.’ The building is sometimes reported to have been a ruin by 1793, but this seems unlikely as it was let from c.1791 to 1797 to Hugh Montgomery of Derrygonnelly, and early in the following century the landscape architect John Sutherland, a follower of ‘Capability’ Brown, worked on the grounds. It is believed that in the 1830s when the second Marquess of Ely decided to build a residence on a lakeside promontory a couple of miles away, he used the cut-stone from Castle Hume for this purpose, leading to the obliteration of Castle’s domestic work.

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The main block of Castle Hume may be gone but parts of the stable yard, seen here (photographed on a very wet evening) still remain to provide tantalising hints of what has been lost. Two blocks face each other across a wide courtyard, one of them L-shaped and containing the stables with elliptical vaulted ceilings supported by an arcade of granite Tuscan columns resting on round drums. Of two storeys, the exterior of both buildings is of harled brick with cut limestone employed for the massive window- and doorcases, as well as in the first-floor oculi. The blocks are linked by a single-storey range in cut-stone which appears to be of later date. So too most likely is the only other structure of the original Castle Hume estate: an octagonal dovecote located on rising ground nearby. Topped by a lantern with openings through which birds could enter, the dovecote’s brick interior features hundreds of small square nesting spaces. This building has recently been restored by the present owners of Castle Hume and now looks much as it would have done when first constructed more than 250 years ago. Together with the stables, it provides a glimpse into the past, a suggestion of the lakeside property that once so enchanted both Twiss and Young.

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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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The Ferocious O’Flahertys

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The O’Flaherty family are descended from one Flaithbheartach mac Eimhin who lived in the 10th century. Although originally settled on the eastern side of what is now County Galway, they were later driven further west and came to control much of Connemara. But like many other such tribes, they were almost constantly striving to expand the area under their authority and it is said the mediaeval walls of Galway city carried the inscription ‘From the ferocious O’Flahertys O Lord Deliver Us.’ By this time, one of their strongholds was Bunowen Castle, County Galway strategically located by the Hill of Doon and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

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In the sixteenth century, Bunowen and its surrounding lands were controlled by Dónal ‘an Chogaidh’ Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battle) who in 1546 married Gráinne daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, chief of the Ó Máille clan in neighbouring County Mayo: she is also known as Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. The couple had three children before Dónal was killed in battle in 1560: a few years later Gráinne left Bunowen and settled instead on Clare Island in her own county. But the castle remained in the family’s ownership until the 1650s when it was captured by the Cromwellian army and the O’Flahertys dispossessed. Bunowen was then given to Arthur Geoghegan whose own lands in County Westmeath had been taken from him before he was transplanted to the west of Ireland. The Geoghegans subsequently married into a local family, the Blakes who were one of the Tribes of Galway, and so became integrated into the region.

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In 1808 John David Geoghegan of Bunowen petitioned the British crown for permission to change his surname. The family had long believed itself descended from the prehistoric Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages and therefore wished to take the name of his descendants. Accordingly they were granted the right to call themselves O’Neill. It is perhaps for this reason that, having assumed control of the Bunowen estate following his father’s death in 1830, John David’s son Augustus John O’Neill embarked on an ambitious building programme to enlarge the house. During the previous four years he had served as an Member of Parliament for the English constituency of Kingston-upon-Hull but had not stood for re-election. There were rumours that one reason for his unwillingness to face the electorate a second time was due to a gambling scandal or unpaid bills, but these allegations were not substantiated. In any case, he did overstretch his resources on Bunowen and, like so many others, in the aftermath of the Great Famine he was obliged to sell his property. In 1853 it passed into the hands of Valentine O’Connor Blake of Towerhill, County Mayo who used Bunowen as a summer residence. The castle was intact a century ago but at some date thereafter abandoned. It now stands a gaunt ruin, still gazing out to the Atlantic as it did when occupied by the ferocious O’Flahertys.

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Pagan and Christian

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Hidden inside an otherwise mediocre building in the County Louth can be found this remarkable neo-classical ceiling. It is the surviving element of the Oriel Temple, an elaborate pavilion erected in the late 1770s by John Foster, last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons whose main residence was in nearby Collon. Within the space of a shallow eliptical vault is an extravaganza of ribbon garlands, urns, lutes and shells, all contained within a tightly disciplined arrangement. Tradition assigns the design of the building to James Wyatt and the stuccowork to Charles Thorp. Originally the walls of this chamber were decorated with a series of grisaille paintings on pagan subjects by Peter de Gree (these were later removed to Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. The Fosters subsequently expanded the Oriel Temple so that it became one room of a larger residence. Since 1938 the site has been occupied by Cistercian monks, this space serving as the sanctuary of their church.

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The Speaker and His Wife

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In August 1736 the Dublin Gazette reported, ‘On Friday last two curious fine monuments, lately finished by Mr Carter near Hyde Park Corner, were put on board a ship in the river in order to be carried to Ireland, to be erected in the church of Castletown near Dublin, to the memory of the Rt. Hon. William Conolly Esq., Late Speaker to the House of Commons, and his lady.’ The two life-sized figures of William and Katherine Conolly were commissioned by the latter after her husband’s death in 1729 from London-sculptor Thomas Carter (although it has been proposed that Mrs Conolly’s likeness may be from the hand of his son, Thomas Carter Junior). Originally they formed part of a larger monument in a mausoleum attached to the church in nearby Celbridge but in recent decades this fell into disrepair and in 1993 the figures were removed to Castletown where they can be found facing each other in a ground floor passage behind the main staircase.

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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. 

Too Large for Modern Rural Life

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During the reign of James I the splendidly named Sir Faithful Fortescue whose family originated in Devon came to this country where prior to his death in 1666 he bought an estate in County Louth. From him descended several branches of the Fortescues, one of which eventually acquired the titles of Viscount and Earl of Clermont. Meanwhile the parcel of land first acquired by Sir Faithful was further supplemented by various successors and came to include an estate called Stephenstown close to the village of Knockbridge. Here sometime around 1785-90, Matthew Fortescue built a new house to mark his marriage to Mary-Anne McClintock whose own Louth-based family had, through her mother (a Foster), already inter-married with the Fortescues.

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Stephenstown is a large, square house of two storeys over raised basement and with five bays to each side. Around 1820, the next generation of Fortescues added single-storey over basement wings to either side but that to the south was subsequently demolished. At some other date seemingly the building’s windows were given Tudor-revival hood mouldings, probably not unlike the make-over given during the same period to nearby Glyde Court (see The Scattering, April 20th 2015). However later again these openings reverted to a classical model, with classical pediments on the ground floor and entablatures on the first, the whole covered in cement render. A single storey porch on the entrance front was the only other alteration. From what remains, it would appear the interior had delicate neo-classical plasterwork, perhaps on the ceilings (none of which survive) and certainly on friezes below the cornice in diverse rooms.

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It is not easy to piece together the history of Stephenstown in the last century. The last direct descendant of the original builder was another Matthew Fortescue who in 1894 married a cousin, Edith Fairlie-Cuninghame. He died twenty years later without a direct heir, after which his widow married an Australian clergyman, the Rev. Henry Pyke who took on the Fortescue surname to become Pyke-Fortescue. Curiously the couple are listed as dying on the same day, 24th September 1936, upon which Stephenstown seemingly passed to another relative, Digby Hamilton. He sold up in the 1970s after which the house stood empty (and the trees in the surrounding parkland were all cut down). When Alistair Rowan and Christine Casey published their volume on the buildings of North Leinster in 1993, they noted that Stephenstown was ‘an elegant house, too large for modern rural life, empty in 1985, and likely to become derelict.’ That likelihood has since become a reality.

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