Donamon Castle, County Roscommon is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland. It is believed that originally there was a fort here (whence the name Dún Iomáin, fort of Iomán), but the first recorded reference to the place occurs in the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1154. In 1232, the Anglo-Norman Adam de Staunton further fortified the site but his works were captured and demolished by the O’Connors a year later. After passing back and forth between different hands, the castle was occupied from the early 14th century onwards by a branch of the Burkes who remained here until in 1688 it passed to the Caulfeilds (the main branch of which became Earls of Charlemont). In the last century, like many other estates Donamon was broken up by the Irish Land Commission, the castle being acquired in 1939 by the Divine Word Missionaries, members of which community remain there to the present time. Although much altered and extended in the 18th and 19th century, the core of the old castle resembles that at Bunratty, County Clare, both front and rear featuring a tall arched recess between square towers.
From Hugh Allingham’s Ballyshannon: Its History and Antiquities (1879): ‘At the close of 1739 this country was visited with a frost of extraordinary length and severity.It extended into the year 1740, lasting in all 108 days. A period of great scarcity and distress followed, and it was at that time that General Folliott, the owner of Wardtown, decided to build Wardtown Castle, thereby giving employment to the distressed classes of the neighbourhood. The remuneration they received during the progress of the work was sixpence per day and their food. Considering the value of money in those days, this was a liberal allowance and fully equivalent to 2s. per day at the present time. Before the erection of Wardtown Castle, the Folliott family had a residence on their property there.’
The first of the Folliotts to come to Ireland was Henry, born in Worcestershire in 1569 who, like many younger sons chose to seek his fortune by joining the army: by 1594 he is listed as serving in County Donegal. In the early 17th century he began to accumulate land in the area and two years before his death in 1622 he was created first Baron Folliott of Ballyshannon. He was succeeded by his nine-year old eldest son Thomas who, on his death, was succeeded by Henry, third and last Baron Folliott. When he died without a direct male heir in 1716, while the unentailed estates were divided between his five sisters, the entailed properties passed to a cousin, the man mentioned by Hugh Allingham, Lieutenant-General John Folliott. He in turn died without male heir and so his estate passed to another cousin, also John Folliott, whose family property was in neighbouring County Sligo. It is for this reason that from the later decades of the 18th century the Folliotts were no longer resident in Donegal.
The early 17th century Plantation of Ulster saw land in that part of the country divided between a number of different parties, including soldiers like the first Henry Folliott and other adventurers, the Established Church and Trinity College, Dublin. The last of these owned the parcel of some 700 acres on which Wardtown Castle stands but in 1616 leased it to the Folliotts who already held a lot of land in the vicinity. When the lease was renewed in 1733 it came with the stipulation that the lessee had to build ‘within ten years, a house of lime and stone forty foot by eighteen foot and one and a half storeys high.’ As can be seen, the house as constructed by General Folliott is very much larger than demanded. Wardtown Castle is of three storeys over raised basement, with three half-round towers on the front and one in the centre of the rear. On the ground floor, the central entrance hall accordingly has apsed ends and is flanked by two large rooms each measuring twenty-one feet square with windows on either side. Off these, to the front are perfectly round rooms both thirteen feet in diameter: on the domed ceilings of these survives delicate plasterwork (likewise some of the more robust plaster panelling in the former drawing room also remains). Behind the round rooms and similarly accessed from the reception areas are identically proportioned square stair halls on the walls of which can still be seen evidence of their former purpose. The design of Wardtown is rigorously governed by symmetry.
The question is: who was responsible for designing Wardtown? Writing in 1979, Alistair Rowan noted that the building is ‘similar to the small conceits by Vanbrugh but on a larger scale.’ Furthermore its exterior bears a striking resemblance to the likewise now-ruined Arch Hall, County Meath (for more of which, including many pictures, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th 2014). Although some alterations to the latter were undertaken in the 19th century (and the fenestration is somewhat different), it too is of three storeys over basement, is one room deep, has three half-round towers to the front,and circular rooms to the front at each end. If not twins, the houses are first-cousins and, speaking of kinship, owing to their Vanbrughian qualities, both buildings have been attributed to his relation, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Certainly the late Maurice Craig thought Pearce responsible for the pair. However, there is a problem with this attribution since Pearce died in 1733, the year in which Folliott signed his new lease with Trinity College, Dublin and at least six years before he initiated building work on the site. Might he have seen Arch Hall at some earlier date and simply ‘borrowed’ the design? Might there have been some, as yet unknown, connection with the Payne (or Paine) family then living at Arch Hall? We may never know but the links are too apparent to be overlooked.
As mentioned, during the 18th century the Folliott’s Donegal estates passed to diverse cousins so while they continued to be the leaseholders of this land from Trinity College, Dublin they did not live there. In Pigott’s Directory of 1824 a Dr Simon Sheil is listed as resident in Wardtown and just over a decade later the Likely family sublet the house from the Folliotts. They seem to have been the last occupants of the building, leaving it around a century ago. Thereafter it seems not to have been used and so fell into the present state of ruin. Even in this condition, it is a striking sight, on a slightly raised piece of land in western Donegal, overlooking the Erne estuary and with nothing remotely like it in the vicinity: it is scarcely possible to conceive the impact such a building must have made when first constructed. The scene remains memorable, a site to the immediate front being occupied by that embodiment of 20th century Irish architectural ambition, the bungalow, while the immediate rear is filled with material relating to the ‘adventure farm’ run here. Between the two stands Wardtown, a remarkable survivor from another age.
The thatched summer house in the grounds of Florence Court, County Fermanagh. This is at least the third such structure on the site, the earliest version being known from a photograph depicting the third Earl of Enniskillen and his family inside the original 19th century ‘Heather House.’ In a memoir published in 1972 the late Nancy, Countess of Enniskillen observed how, ‘On the highest level of The Pleasure Grounds, there used to stand a little “summer house.” Here on a warm sunny day ideally without wind and wrinkled only by the wings of birds and insects, on such a day at Florence Court, the Cole family would adjourn to drink their tea and enjoy the tonic view of the valley and the mountain.’ Inevitably the vulnerable materials used in its construction meant this building did not survive and in 1993 the National Trust commissioned a replica from two craftsmen: it lasted until August 2014 when completely destroyed by teenage arsonists. Since then another replacement has been erected here.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Pourquoi me réveiller?
Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
To the immediate north-west of the castle at Charleville Forest, County Offaly stands an equally substantial block that once served as stables for the property. Like the main house, this was designed by Francis Johnston in 1798 for Charles Bury, Lord Tullamore (later created Earl of Charleville) and is in the same solid Gothic style. Unfortunately whereas the greater part of the castle is still in use, the same is not true of the stable block which as a consequence is now in a poor state of repair.
One of the architectural wonders of Ireland is also one of its greatest mysteries: the forecourt of Curraghmore, County Waterford. This stupendous space, in which matching blocks of stables and offices face each other across an arena, leads up to the main house which has its own, more modestly proportioned wings. Linking the two sections are quadrants accommodating pedimented niches and entablatured doorcases, all executed in crisp limestone. Who was the architect responsible for the mise-en-scène? Both Francis Bindon and John Roberts have been proposed, but to date no one has been able to say for certain: it remains a mystery.
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.
In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.
Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.