After Monday’s post about Quartertown House, County Cork and its links to a nearby mill, here is the decidedly quirky exterior of Millbrook, County Kildare. The house was built in the 1770s by John Greene and, as the name indicates, stood adjacent to a mill and millrace off the river Griese: the mill which stood in a yard immediately behind the building was, alas, demolished in the last century. The facade of Millbrook suggests the house is of two storeys-over-basement, but in fact there is a third, attic floor, only visible when one goes around to the south side as the building is taller at the back than at the front. Note how the millrace flows immediately past the house, a most unusual arrangement (is there any other example in Ireland?) but apparently successful since there is no problem with damp inside. Also, the front section of the house is taken up by a large, two-storey bow, but there is no equivalent at the opposite end which has a flat wall. And then, returning to the facade, the window arrangement is also peculiar, the four to the right being equally spaced apart, but that to the left disposed some distance from the others. All of which begs the question; might Millbrook originally have been a four-bay building, one room deep, much enlarged by John Greene when he took on the property in the 1770s?
Previous entries here over the years have looked at old mill complexes around the country. Ireland never experienced the same industrial revolution as occurred in our nearest neighbour, not least because we never enjoyed the same mineral wealth. However, from the mid-18th century onwards, large-scale mills began to be constructed right around the island, designed to take advantage of the power of our many waterways rather in the way that wind power is now being harnessed here to generate electricity. Many of these complexes were used for grain milling, especially in the south-east where large amounts of wheat and other such crops were grown, but mills were also used for textile spinning, and it was not uncommon for the buildings to serve both purposes, albeit at different periods during their working life. For the vast majority of them, that life has long since come to an end, and they stand empty, often roofless and falling into ruin. Such is the case with the former mill at Quartertown, County Cork.
Dating from c.1810 (the golden age for mills, during the Napoleonic Wars when Ireland’s crops were especially sought), Quartertown Mill may have had its origins back in the 13th century. The present complex is thought to have been built by Major Henry Croker, a younger son of the family whose main seat was Ballynagarde, County Limerick: possession of the land at Quartertown came through his wife Harriet Dillon. Operated by a millstream flowing from a tributary of the river Blackwater, the flour mill and attendant property passed through a couple of hands before coming into the possession of siblings John and Robert Webb in 1853. The industrial buildings suffered a major fire in 1864 but were reconstructed by Robert Webb and resumed activity, employing up to 120 people and remaining in use until the mill finally closed in 1957. But in the previous century, it had obviously been extremely successful, since in 1870 Robert Webb was able to enlarge and improve his nearby home, Quartertown House.
Now just a shell, Quartertown House was originally built in the last quarter of the 18th century, presumably by the Crokers. As mentioned, in 1870 Robert Webb embarked on a major overhaul of the building, choosing as his architect a fellow Corkman, Richard Rolt Brash whose long list of projects – whether a block of villas in Cork City’s Sunday’s Well, a town hall in Bandon, a Roman Catholic church in Buttevant or a flax spinning mill in Douglas – demonstrates a preparedness to provide whatever the client wanted. In Webb’s case, an Italianate villa was required, and duly delivered. The old house, which can be seen below (being to the left) was altogether more modest and smaller, of just five bays and stands behind what can now be seen. Of two storeys over basement, Quartertown House has a rendered, east-facing facade of seven bays with channelled rustication on the ground floor where the round-headed windows are set within square-headed recesses while those on the floor above are square-headed, the whole beneath a heavy modillion cornice. The entrance at the centre (there is a pedimented doorcase buried within the rampant foliage) is marked by an Ionic portico, with a tripartite window above; the south elevation has a canted bay on the basement and ground floor. At some date in the last century, the house was acquired by a Catholic religious order which remained in occupation until the 1970s. However, it then seems to have been abandoned and left to fall into the present sad condition, the roof caved in, the interiors destroyed. Just a hollow shell, there is little to show of the Webb wealth that once paid for the building’s creation.
When writing here last month about Fota, County Cork (see Saved for the Nation « The Irish Aesthete), mention was made of the Barrys, Earls of Barrymore. For many centuries, their main residence lay much further north, in Castlelyons. Although subject to dispute, this village’s name (Caisleán Ó Liatháin) is said to derive from having been an important centre in the ancient kingdom of Uí Liatháin. However, in the last quarter of the 12th century, the land in this part of the country came into the hands of the Anglo-Norman knight Philip de Barry; his son William’s ownership of this property was confirmed by King John in 1207. Some time thereafter, the family constructed a castle on a limestone outcrop at Castlelyons and this became one of their most important bases. A settlement grew up around the base of the castle, with a Carmelite priory established to the immediate north in the early 14th century.
David de Barry is thought to have become first Lord Barry in 1261, beginning the family’s ascent through the ranks of the peerage and indicating its increasing importance. In 1541 his descendant John fitz John Barry was created first Viscount Buttevant, and then in 1628 David Barry became the first Earl of Barrymore. He was indirectly responsible for the construction of what can now be seen of the former castle at Castlelyons. The earl had been born in 1605, some months after the death of his father, so that he was raised by his grandfather, the fifth viscount who died in 1617. Young David then became a ward of the powerful Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. Seeing an opportunity to ally himself with a long-established dynasty in the region, the latter duly arranged a marriage in 1621 between his young charge and his eldest daughter Alice: the bride was aged 14, the groom 16. In the mid-1630s Boyle also decided to rebuild his son-in-law’s residence at Castlelyons, since the Barrys were already heavily in debt (the canny Great Earl had earlier taken on the Barry wardship in exchange for the redemption of substantial mortgages left by the fifth Viscount). A vast new house was erected on the site of the old one, but the Earl of Barrymore had little opportunity to enjoy it, since he died in September 1642, probably as a result of wounds received at the Battle of Liscarroll a couple of weeks’ earlier. His heir, once again a minor, became the second earl. Successive generations then followed, but increasingly the family spent their time in England and it appears that by the mid-18th century the great castle at Castlelyons was falling into disrepair. This probably explains why, in 1771, repair work was undertaken on the building’s roof. Unfortunately, careless workmen left a soldering iron against wooden beams and the place caught fire. The sixth earl – who would die two years later – was as debt-ridden as his forebears and so made no effort to repair the damage. Instead, the castle was abandoned, along with its surrounding gardens, and left to fall into the state of ruin that can be seen today.
Understanding the original layout of Castlelyons Castle can be challenging today, since what would have been the building’s central courtyard has long since been quarried away. In addition (and perhaps as a result of the quarrying), both the west and east ranges have disappeared, leaving just exposed sections of those to the south and north. What still stands on the south-west corner is considered to be the oldest part of the property, perhaps part of the original 13th century construction, with walls in some places 3.4 metres thick. Across what is today a deep ravine rises the north range, dating from the 17th century and dominated by three rectangular chimney stacks that rise above the three-storey block (with a basement at the east end). Beyond the exposed rubble walls, nothing survives of the interior and one must imagine what the house looked like when first built as it then included a great gallery, some 90 feet long and two storeys high, although it appears this may never have been finished (presumably due to the death of the first Earl of Barrymore and the chaos of the Confederate War). The castle was once surrounded by equally splendid grounds, with a large terrace to the immediate north and a series of enclosed gardens to the west and south, of which scant traces remain, serving as witness to the decline and fall of the once-might Barry family.
After Monday’s post about Castlemartyr, readers might be interested in seeing some old photographs of the house’s interior when it was still owned and occupied by the Boyles, Earls of Shannon. The pictures date from the late 19th/early 20th century, and were taken by Nellie Thompson, wife of the sixth earl. The two above show the saloon as it was then decorated, filled with a vast quantity of furniture including a grand piano and a billiard table. The two below reflect the family’s travels overseas and what they had collected: prior to inheriting his title and estate in 1890, for example, the sixth earl had been living in Canada where he served as a Mountie. What most immediately strikes any viewer of these images is how dark and cluttered were the rooms, how filled with furnishings and fabrics, all competing and contrasting with each other. An insight into a different aesthetic sensibility from that of our own age.
The Earls of Shannon are a branch of the Boyle family, descendants of Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. The title dates back to 1756 when Lord Cork’s great-grandson Henry Boyle, after a remarkably successful political career which saw him sit on the Irish privy council, serve as chancellor of the exchequer and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons for almost 23 years, was created the first Earl of Shannon. During that period and in the years prior to his death in 1764, he also found time to carry out many other duties, not least looking after the Irish estates of his cousin Richard Boyle, the architect Earl of Burlington, as well as his own property in Castlemartyr, County Cork.
For much of the Middle Ages, Castlemartyr was under the authority of the powerful FitzGerald family, who in 1420 were made governors, or seneschals, of Imokilly (a historic barony that covers a substantial area including Youghal, Cloyne and Midleton). Some twenty years later, Maurice FitzGerald chose to settle in Castlemartyr and erected a substantial tower here. Inevitably, such a prominent building was attacked on more than one occasion, being captured by Sir Henry Sidney in 1569 and again in 1581 by the 10th Earl of Ormond who is said to have hanged the mother of the castle’s owner,John FitzEdmund FitzGerald, from its walls. Although the building was restored and considered extended in the 17th century, further assaults occurred: it was burnt by Lord Inchiquin in 1645, plundered in 1688 and then stormed and burnt by Williamite forces two years later. Not surprisingly, the castle, or what remained of it, was thereafter abandoned and left to fall into a picturesque ruin. At some point in the early 18th century, the future first earl – whose family had been given the property in 1665 – embarked on construction of a new house to the immediate west of the old one, but little information exists about when this work started and what form it took. Further additions and alterations followed over the next two centuries, so that today Castlemartyr is long and low, the centre of the facade marked by a two-storey pedimented limestone portico with Tuscan columns, much the most satisfactory feature of the building. The entrance front likewise shows evidence of regular modifications being made, with a four-bay centre block, a nine-bay wing to the east centred on a bow, and a recessed four-bay block to the west; the loggia here replaced a conservatory in the early 1900s. The demesne was also extensively developed by the first earl and then his heir, the latter described by Arthur Young in 1776 as ‘one of the most distinguished improvers in Ireland.’ The grounds had been extensively planted with trees, some of which survive still, as does the ‘river’ which was created by diverting the Womanagh river to run through a channel cut west of its natural bed.
In 1907 Castlemartyr was sold to the Arnott family, but was then acquired by another owner just a decade later, and in 1929 was bought by members of a Roman Catholic religious order, which used the house as a boarding school. This closed in 2004 and since then, further substantial additions have been made to the site which now operates as an hotel. Taken during the last decades of the 19th century, today’s photographs show the property as it looked when still owned by the Boyles. In the first group, the conservatory still occupies a site on the east side of the garden front, since it was only replaced by a balustraded loggia during the Arnotts’ short tenure. The pictures therefore provide an insight into the house’s appearance and character prior to the place changing hands and purpose several times over the past 115 years.
Sixty-five years ago, in July 1957, the Irish Times announced that the gardens of Mount Congreve, County Waterford ‘are to be open to the public for the first time’ on three afternoons each week over the following two months. The unnamed writer declared that few finer gardens of their kind were to be found on either side of the Irish Sea, those at Mount Congreve including a large 18th century conservatory and a walled garden where the quarter-mile of herbaceous borders held some 15,000 plants in hundreds of varieties ‘timed to flower in the coming weeks.’ In addition, there were rare trees and shrubs, and lawns offering attractive views of the adjacent river Suir. The owner of this property, the Irish Times correspondent explained, was Ambrose Congreve, then-Chairman of Humphreys & Glasgow Limited, the London fuel and chemical engineers ‘who are marketing small nuclear power plants.’
Originally from Staffordshire (and collaterally related to the Restoration playwright William Congreve), members of the Congreve family first came to Ireland in the 17th century, one of them, the Rev. John Congreve, settling in County Waterford. His grandson, another John, was responsible for building Mount Congreve c.1760, its design sometimes attributed to local architect John Roberts but this is conjectural. As built, the house was of three storeys and seven bays, with slightly projecting two-storey wings on either side beyond which lay the service yards. Successive generations of the family lived there, alternating the first names John and Ambrose until the last of these, Ambrose Christian Congreve who died in 2011 at the age of 104 leaving no heir. Thanks to his considerable wealth, he was responsible for transforming both the house and surrounding gardens. The former he enlarged in the 1960s, not least by the addition of a substantial bow at the centre of the entrance front, centred on a rather modest Baroque limestone doorcase. Additions were also made to the wings and yards which were given cupolas and more limestone doorcases. Mr Congreve had a plutocrat’s taste: he liked everything large and abundant and almost to the end of his life he was making changes to the building and its contents, both of which might be described as plush. Outdoors, as a young man he was inspired by what he saw Lionel de Rothschild had created in his own garden at Exbury in Hampshire. From the early 1930s onwards Mr Congreve set about emulating this example, not least by planting the same species in large groups. ‘When one plants anything,’ he declared, ‘whether it involves five or fifty plants, they should be planted together and not dotted here and there’: as a result, at Mount Congreve, enormous numbers of one variety of magnolia or azalea can be found in the same location to spectacular effect. Thanks to its size – it runs to some 70 acres – Mount Congreve’s garden holds over 3,000 different trees and shrubs, more than 2,000 Rhododendrons, 600 Camellias, 300 Acer cultivars, 600 conifers, 250 climbers and 1,500 herbaceous plants.
In 1979, recognising that he had no direct heir, Ambrose Congreve transferred ownership of his family house and some 71 surrounding acres to a charitable organisation, the Mount Congreve Trust with the understanding that all of this property would eventually pass to the Irish state. However, part of the arrangement was that 66 acres of gardens would only become national property 21 years after his death, and the house and immediate five acres only in 2059. Thus, when he died in 2011, it appeared that the greater part of the gardens would not be taken under state care until 2032 – and the house and balance of land still not for a further 27 years. Inevitably, dispute followed, with unfortunate consequences, not least that the contents of the house – including a library dating back to the 18th century – were dispersed in a number of auctions, leaving the place empty. Meanwhile, the gardens on which he had lavished so much care and expense also deteriorated – today a very large 18th century greenhouse is in very poor condition – as discussions took place over who should be responsible for their upkeep. Only in 2019 was agreement reached whereby the trust transferred both the house and gardens to the local authority, which subsequently received a grant of €3.7 million from a Department for Rural and Community Development programme targeting regional development to restore and improve Mount Congreve. At the moment, the entire site is closed to the public (the house itself swathed in scaffolding, hence no pictures of it today), while necessary work takes place. It appears a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the main building will be accessible when the project is completed, along with one of the adjacent yards used to welcome visitors. But what will become of the rest of what is a very substantial house, which for more than a decade has sat vacant and shuttered? It remains to be seen if some new purpose is proposed for the place.
In January 1799 Isaac Corry was appointed Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer, and five months later, in order to raise money for Britain’s war against France, he introduced a property tax, based on the number of windows in any building, which for obvious reasons made him deeply unpopular throughout the country. Born in Newry in 1753, Corry was the descendant of a Scotsman who had settled in Ireland in the first quarter of the previous century. The family flourished (Rockcorry, County Monaghan derives its name from one of them), not least thanks to their involvement in trade: Isaac Corry’s father was both a merchant and an MP for Newry, his son succeeding him in the latter position. Although called to the bar, Corry does not seem to have practised much as a lawyer, preferring political life although he had limited private means during a period when election campaigns could be expensive affairs and candidates therefore needed to be wealthy. In 1788 he became Clerk of the Irish Ordnance, and the following year a Commissioner of the Revenue before being made a Privy Counsellor in 1795. As the 18th century came to a close, Corry became an ardent supporter of the union with Britain, bringing him into conflict with Henry Grattan who, on one occasion, described him in the House of Commons as ‘a half-bred lawyer, a half-bred statesman, a mock patriot, a swaggering bully and finished coxcomb, a coward, a liar and a rascal.’ The two men subsequently fought a duel, one of a number in which Corry participated during his lifetime and on this occasion he was wounded. It has been claimed that the actual Act of Union was drafted in the drawing room of Corry’s country house, Derrymore, County Armagh.
A substantial thatched cottage orné, Derrymore dates from c.1777. The architect is unknown, although it has been proposed that the landscape designer John Sutherland was responsible, since Sir Charles Coote wrote in 1804 that Sutherland had been responsible for laying out the surrounding demesne; Coote also described the house as ‘the most elegant summer lodge I have ever seen.’ Although of one storey over basement, Derrymore is more substantial than might initially appear to be the case, since it consists of an elongated U, two substantial wings projecting back from the central block, creating a slim courtyard between them. The main entrance is at the top of the courtyard, a fanlit doorcase leading to a hallway on either side of which are domed and curved vestibules that give access to the wings. Directly in front is the drawing room, a plain space notable for its exceptionally large bay window that runs almost the full height of the building flanked by quatrefoils under hood mouldings. The bay is composed of 82 panes of glass and there are further mullioned windows on each of the wings, which ought to have left Corry paying a very substantial tax bill following the introduction of his own legislation in 1799 – except that a clause in the bill allowed for any window, no matter how big, to be considered as just one provided each pane did not exceed 12 inches in width. Nevertheless, financial difficulties eventually obliged him to sell the property some years before his death in 1813. Derrymore then passed through several hands before being donated to the National Trust in 1952. Today the wings are occupied by tenants and the drawing room only intermittently open to visitors.
After last Monday’s post about the house on Fota Island, County Cork, it is worth noting that the immediate demesne, including one of Ireland’s most important late 19th/early 20th century arboretums, also survives and can be visited. To the rear of the main building lie a series of walled gardens which have been well-maintained by the Office of Public Works and at the top of these the Irish Heritage Trust has restored a series of greenhouses now filled with plants. In consequence, the site provides an opportunity to explore an Irish country house in its original setting, something not always possible.
The Irish Aesthete is delighted to announce the publication of his latest book, Left without a Handkerchief. A long time in the making, this tells the stories of ten Irish families across the centuries, leading up to the moment when each of their homes was attacked and most often burned during the troubles of the early 1920s. Whence the title? On January 10th 1923 Louise Bagwell wrote a short letter to her mother-in-law Harriet describing what had taken place during the previous night. Around 12.30am, a large number of men had arrived at Marlfield, County Tipperary, home to generations of the Bagwell family for some 230 years, and informed the occupants they had ten minutes to dress and gather up whatever items they could. Meanwhile, the intruders sprinkled petrol around the ground floor rooms and applied a match. ‘Then’, Louise Bagwell explained, ‘for an hour we had to stand and watch the darling old home burn.’ Only when the fire had done sufficient damage to the building did the men depart: afterwards its chatelaine discovered they had taken her bag and coat with them. Everything had been lost, she lamented, all the family’s possessions going back generations, leaving them with little other than the clothes they had hastily donned: ‘We hadn’t even a handkerchief.’
Photograph shows Ardfert, County Kerry, burnt on 3rd August 1922 and subsequently demolished. Left without a Handkerchief is published by Lilliput Press (please see Left Without a Handkerchief by Robert O’Byrne – The Lilliput Press)
Some readers may be familiar with the history of Richard Barry, seventh and penultimate Earl of Barrymore. He was almost the end of the line of a family which could trace its ancestry back to participation in the Norman Conquest of England (1066) and then the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland (1169 onwards): their name derives from Barry in Glamorganshire, Wales where their forebear had been granted lands by William the Conqueror. In this country, they acquired substantial territories in what is now East Cork, and remained prominent there for many centuries, being created first Baron Barry (c.1261), then Viscount Buttevant (1541) and finally Earl of Barrymore (1628).
One generation of Barrys duly followed another until the advent of the seventh earl (born 1769) who inherited his title and estates at the age of three, following the death of his father. His mother would die when he was eleven, and it was perhaps this absence of parental authority which led to Lord Barrymore acquiring such a notorious reputation for dissipation as an adult, known as the Rake of Rakes or Hellgate. On the other hand, his siblings were as bad. His only sister Caroline was called ‘Billingsgate’ because she swore like a fishwife (London’s Billingsgate was home to the city’s fishmarket) and of his two brothers, Henry, the last earl was called ‘Cripplegate’ because he had a clubfoot, and Augustus, called ‘Newgate’ because, despite being an Anglican clergyman, he was a compulsive gambler (Newgate being the debtors’ prison in London). The seventh earl also liked to gamble, as well as being addicted to boxing, racing and acting (he built his own theatre in Berkshire at a cost of £60,000). Eventually, his debts grew so great that he was forced to sell most of the family’s property in Ireland; he is said to have squandered some £300,000 during his lifetime. This came to an abrupt end in 1793 when, as a Captain in the Royal Berkshire Militia, he was escorting some French prisoners to a camp and his rifle accidentally went off, wounding him so badly that he was dead within the hour: he was still aged only 24.
What has all this to do with the pictures shown here? This is Fota, County Cork, built on an island which had long been part of the Barrys’ lands and had somehow not been sold due the excesses of the seventh earl. In the early 19th century, it passed into the ownership of John Smith-Barry who, while illegitimate, was a descendant of the fourth earl of Barrymore and sought – unsuccessfully – to have the title recreated for him after the eighth earl’s death in 1823. The transformation of Fota, it has been suggested, can be connected with Smith-Barry’s efforts to be raised to the peerage. Hitherto the house had been a modest 18th century hunting lodge, probably used by the Barrys’ agents, since the family were not resident in Ireland. But in the mid-1820s, the building was greatly enlarged by father-and-son team Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison. They proposed two schemes, one of which was for Fota’s transformation into a Tudorbethan mansion, not unlike schemes on which the pair had already embarked at Killruddery, County Wicklow and Glenarm, County Antrim, with an entrance tower indebted to that at Burghley House. This idea was rejected in favour of a neo-classical design, the original five-bay building widened with an extra bay on either side and then further lengthened by the addition of two projecting pedimented wings to create a shallow courtyard, the whole centred on a single-storey limestone Doric portico. Bows were added to the garden front, one of these accommodating the drawing room, while the extensions at either end of the facade hold the dining room and library. The exterior is rendered with limestone dressings, which adds to the impression of crisp severity. A long two-storey extension to the north-west contains the service wing; in the 1870s, the front of his was hidden by a conservatory (later converted into a long gallery) leading to a billiard room.
The first interior encountered at Fota – the entrance hall – is also the most successful. Running the length of the original house on the site and concluding at either end with small lobbies, it is divided into three spaces by screens of paired Ionic scagliola columns supporting entablatures decorated with plasterwork with a repeated pattern of wreaths and the Smith-Barry crest; the floor is covered in Portland stone. The abiding impression is of cool composure and absolute assurance in the handling of what could have been just a long, low corridor. In their decoration, the main reception rooms bear strong similarities with those of the contemporaneous Ballyfin, County Laois, both being indebted to the work of Percier and Fontaine: the ceilings in the drawing room (and its anteroom) were painted and stencilled in the 1890s by the Dublin firm of Sibthorpe & Son. The dining room has a screen of grey scagliola columns at the sideboard end of the space and, once again, rich ceiling plasterwork featuring trellises intertwined with vines. Although sparsely furnished in places, Fota, today in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust, looks so well that it is easy to forget that just a few decades ago the house’s future looked in serious jeopardy, following the death of the last of the Smith-Barrys and the estate’s subsequent sale and resale. The history of a period when it seemed Fota might be left to fall into disrepair is too complex – and perhaps still too recent – to be told here. That it has survived is thanks to a small number of determined individuals (not least plucky Richard Wood) who courageously undertook to go to battle for the place. Too many other such Irish houses, in similar perilous positions, have been at risk – and indeed continue to be so. Let us rejoice, therefore, over this sheep, which might have been lost but has been found and brought back into the fold.