A Man of Taste and Influence

The text below originally appeared here in 2015. Tomorrow at Sotheby’s in London many of the items in the accompanying photographs will be offered for sale; thankfully not all, since some key pieces such as the 1770s sofas, the Axminster carpet from c.1820-30 and 19th century beds with their original hangings have been offered on loan to the state for public display. Nevertheless, the contents of another historic Irish house are being broken up because there is little or no official support for owners of such properties struggling to survive and eventually they are left with no option but to sell.
It is worth pointing out – again – that legislation has existed on the Irish statute books for many decades which is supposed to ensure that valuable paintings, furniture and so forth remain in this country. The Documents and Pictures (Regulation of Export) Act dates from 1945 and was, in theory at least, supplemented by the National Cultural Institutions Act of 1997. The idea behind these pieces of legislation is that before any item over a certain fairly low value can leave the country, the parties responsible are required to seek permission from government-appointed authorities (until July 2015 usually one of the main national cultural institutions.*) However, there is no known instance where such an export licence has been refused; auction houses have long understood that this is a mere paper-filling formality. Tomorrow’s sale, for example, also includes a mahogany dining table attributed to Mack, Williams and Gibton and dated c.1815. It was listed in an inventory made of the contents of Carton, County Kildare in 1818 and has remained in the house until now when, after 200 years, it will be offered for sale tomorrow.
Vendors vend, buyers buy, auctioneers auction. Across millennia collections have been assembled and dispersed. There are no villains here, no one deserves to be castigated for acting in an untoward fashion. But there is, as has been the case for too long, evidence of clear neglect on the part of the Irish state towards what becomes of our patrimony, and an obvious want of concern over how this has been steadily whittled down, year by year, house by house. One must ask what is the function of legislation observed in name only? Surely the purpose of enacting the laws mentioned above was to ensure that a reasonable effort would be made to retain valuable works of art and collections in Ireland? That is currently not the case. A general election takes place here in a few weeks’ time: readers might like to ask any candidates they encounter for an opinion on the national heritage and what might be done to retain whatever is still here. Otherwise expect more sales.

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Despite the many advances made in Irish architectural history over recent decades, some areas remain in need of further investigation. Among the most obvious of these is the question of attribution. There are significant houses across the country yet to be assigned to any architect, and others which need to have their accreditations reassessed. In the latter category are those properties given accreditations by the late Knight of Glin in the early 1960s when he was engaged on his uncompleted thesis on the subject of Irish Palladianism. At the time there was far less information available on or interest in architectural history than is now the case, and therefore the Knight was to a large extent dependent on instinct when allocating various houses to different architects, about whom little or nothing was known. Often he had to rely on his eye rather than on documentation, and as he admitted towards the end of his life, mistakes were made. To date insufficient effort has been made to correct these and as a result attributions made half a century ago still stand. An obvious opportunity for correction occurred with the appearance of the relevant volume in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland series published earlier this year, but the editors failed to avail of this opportunity. A reassessment of the Knight’s attributions still awaits requiring someone able to combine scholarship with connoisseurship. Until such time, in particular the output of gentlemen architects like Francis Bindon (whose name has appeared here on more than one occasion) will remain unclear. On the other hand, thanks to another book published in 2015 we are now in a much better position to assess the oeuvre of another talented 18th century amateur, Nathaniel Clements.

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In 1754 John Carteret Pilkington published the third and final volume of his late mother Letitia’s celebrated memoirs in which he described Nathaniel Clements as being ‘a certain great man in Ireland, whose place of abode is not remote from Phoenix Park…whose acquirements have justly raised him from obscurity to opulence [and] whose extensive plans in building have excited an universal admiration of his taste in architecture.’ As Clements’ new biographer Anthony Malcomson noted, it was perhaps something of an exaggeration to claim he had raised himself from ‘obscurity’ but as a fifth son he would have been expected to make his own way in the world, especially since his father died when he was only seventeen. That father, Robert Clements had inherited an estate in County Cavan but in 1707 had secured the important, and lucrative, post of Teller to the Irish Exchequer. This job passed to his eldest son Theophilus who badly bungled his own financial affairs as was discovered when he died in 1728. Nevertheless, both the family and Nathaniel Clements were by this time sufficiently well connected for the Tellership of the Exchequer to pass to him, a job he held for the next twenty-seven years during which time, as Pilkington commented, he made himself exceedingly rich. His substantial income was boosted by money received from non-residents in receipt of an Irish pension for whom he acted as agent for decades (Malcolmson estimates that by the mid-1740s his annual income from this job alone was £1,500). He also held numerous other offices, all of which brought in additional funds. Much of this was used to acquire land, the most reliable form of investment in a period when banks failed regularly (as did that established by Clements and a couple of partners in 1759). By the end of his life he had bought up some 85,000 acres spread across three counties and producing an income of around £6,000 each year.

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Another area of investment in which Clements engaged was housing, beginning with his participation in the development of Dublin’s Henrietta Street. The man behind this project, and others on the northern banks of the Liffey, was Luke Gardiner to whom Clements was related by marriage. Named after Henrietta, Duchess of Bolton, an old friend of Gardiner, whose husband acted as Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant in 1717-20, the street was from the start intended to be the capital’s premier address, its two sides lined with houses of princely splendor. As so often the case throughout 18th century Dublin, the exterior of the buildings, mostly standard red-brick and occupying sites of varying proportions, gave – and continue to give – insufficient notice of what lay behind the facades. Clements was responsible for constructing a number of houses on the street, beginning with Number 8 which was finished around 1733 and let to Colonel (later General) Richard St George. Three or four others then followed before he moved to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, the initial development of which was likewise overseen by Gardiner. Here Clements built several more properties including a family residence that came to be known as Leitrim House. But having become ranger of the Phoenix Park in 1750 (having previously acted as deputy-ranger) he embarked on building himself a smart and substantial new villa. The Ranger’s Lodge was a five-bay, two-storey over full-height basement house on either side of which quadrants connected to L-shaped single-storey wings. Clements and his socially-ambitious wife hosted opulent parties on the premises intended to impress their contemporaries and to cement the couple’s place in Ireland’s hierarchy. In June 1760 for example, it was reported that the Clementses ‘gave an elegant entertainment to several of the nobility and gentry at his lodge in the Phoenix Park, which was illuminated in the most brilliant manner.’ Five years after Nathaniel Clements’ death in 1777, his son Robert sold the lodge to the government which then converted – and subsequently – enlarged the building for use as a Viceregal residence. Today the same property is known as Áras an Uachtaráin and occupied by the President of Ireland.

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Nathaniel Clements’ engagement in speculative building, together with his reputation as an arbiter of taste, led to several buildings being attributed to him by the Knight of Glin. These included Brookelawn and Colganstown, County Dublin; Williamstown and Newberry Hall, County Kildare; and Beauparc and Belview, County Meath. All can be dated to c.1750-65, and all share certain stylistic similarities, not least reliance on Palladianism which by that date was fast falling from fashion. While respecting the Knight’s notion of Clements as an architect, and one responsible for the houses listed above, Maurice Craig in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976) proposes that he was ‘eclectic’ not least because ‘he picked and chose his elements from pattern-books and combined them so that they compose well enough together: but they do not interact on one another.’ However, given his many other professional and financial interests, it must now be accepted that Clements was not an architect as we would understand the term. Rather he was an influence, or as Malcomson proposes, ‘a role model’, someone to turn to for advice. Furthermore, the design of his Ranger’s Lodge provided the prototype for a new generation of villa-farms that were not grand country houses but residences at the centre of working estates. All this is applicable to a house which has long been ascribed to Nathaniel Clements because it was built for his eldest son and heir Robert who in 1795 was created first Earl of Leitrim. Killadoon, County Kildare, shown in the pictures here today, surely ought to have been designed by Nathaniel Clements but even Mark Bence-Jones in his 1978 Guide to Irish Country Houses argued that ‘apart from having the “pattern-book” tripartite doorway with a fanlight, a baseless pediment and engaged columns which he seems to have favoured, it lacks the characteristics of the houses known to be by him or convincingly attributed to him.’ In fact, as Malcomson shows, Nathaniel and Robert Clements had a troubled relationship and he proposes that the older man’s input into the house’s design ‘must have been limited.’ The need for a thorough re-examination of 18th century architectural attribution remains.

*In July 2015 An Taisce took a successful case in the High Court against the state delegating responsibility for the granting of export licenses to cultural institutions such as the National Gallery of Ireland. However, this does not appear to have made any difference to such licenses being granted.


Nathaniel Clements, 1705-77: Politics, Fashion and Architecture in mid-Eighteenth-Century Ireland by Anthony Malcomson is published by Four Courts Press

A Souvenir


The great house at Summerhill, County Meath and its unhappy destruction have been discussed here before (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/04/01/my-name-is-ozymandias). Following its burning in February 1921 the building, having stood a dramatic ruin for some 35 years, was finally demolished in the late 1950s, and that would seem to have been the end of it. However, it transpires that sections of the building were saved and put to new use in the cemetery at another site elsewhere in the county. In 1927 an Irish Roman Catholic organisation, the Missionary Society of St Columban, bought Dowdstown, an old estate in Meath, to which the society moved permanently in 1941, naming the place Dalgan Park after their former premises in County Galway. At some date, presumably when Summerhill was being knocked down, the Missionary Society acquired cut stone from the building and used it to create a pavilion at the top of the cemetery. Of seven bays, it has a breakfront centre with round-arched loggias on either side. The central bay, the lower section rusticated, rises higher than its neighbours, and is flanked by Doric columns. This is very much a new composition made from older elements but it gives an idea of the fine quality of stonework used in the original construction of Summerhill and provides a souvenir of what was lost when the building was demolished. The only incongruous feature is a cheap metal canopy jutting out above the central arch to protect an altar table beneath (the ugly paint used on this, and the interior of the pavilion doesn’t much help either, but these errors are easily reversible. Incidentally, the date 1921 seen in the pedimented attic storey’s oculus must refer not to the death of Summerhill, but to that of an original member of the Missionary Society.

In Poor Health


Captain Nicholas Pollard was one of the many adventurous Englishmen who came to Ireland in the latter part of the 16th century and was rewarded by the government with a grant of land. Originally from Devon, Pollard arrived here as part of the Earl of Essex’s ill-fated expedition in 1599, but whereas his commander returned home in ignominy, Pollard remained and received land and the castle at Mayne in County Westmeath. His heir, also called Nicholas, settled slightly further to the east where he built a new castle and founded a town, which he duly named Castlepollard. His son Walter carried out further improvements in the area, having received from Charles II a patent for holding fairs and a weekly market in the new town. Walter’s son, another Walter, although he had served in Charles II’s army and was attached to the Stuart cause, nevertheless supported William III and in the aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne became a Member of Parliament, as well as being charged to raise supplies for the crown in Westmeath for a number of years. He died in 1718 and having been predeceased by his only son, the estate passed to his daughter Letitia who in 1696 had married Major Charles Hampson; the latter duly took his wife’s family name, Successive generations of Pollards then followed, none of whom made much of an impression outside the immediate locale, although in the 19th century some of them enjoyed respectable army careers. The family remained in residence until after the death of the last male heir, Francis Edward Romulus Pollard-Urquhart in 1915: two decades later the house and 110 acres were sold to a Roman Catholic religious order, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.





Standing on the outskirts of Castlepollard, the Pollards’ former residence is called Kinturk House. The core of the building is believed to date from c.1760 when it would have replaced an older castle either here or on an adjacent site. This work was undertaken because in 1763 the estate’s then-owner William Pollard married Isabella, daughter and heiress of John Morres. However, one must assume her inheritance was not enormous since Kinturk was only room deep. This changed in the 1820s when the house was enlarged and remodeled for its next resident, William Dutton Pollard by architect Charles Robert Cockerell, who had come to Ireland to work on another commission for the Naper family at Loughcrew. Cockerell doubled the depth of Kinturk and gave the garden front of the building a more imposing presence by increasing the number of bays (from five to seven) with a central breakfront. He also added a single-storey Ionic porch to the façade, and single storey extensions at either end. Inside, the most notable feature is the cantilevered Portland stone staircase with brass banisters but at least one of the ground floor reception rooms retains pretty rococo plasterwork from the 1760s.





Within a few years of buying Kinturk House, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart embarked on a substantial building programme in the grounds, where they erected, among other structures, a chapel linked to the old residence by a corridor and a free-standing three-storey block intended to serve as a 120-bed Mother and Baby Home. All the new buildings, constructed between 1938-41 was designed in a starkly brutalist style by Dublin architect Thomas Joseph Cullen, who throughout a long career worked extensively for the Catholic church. The cost of this project was some £76,000, much of the money coming from the Hospital Sweepstakes Fund. Called St Peter’s, the home operated for 35 years and like other similar establishments elsewhere in the country – some of them also operated by the same religious order – has in recent years rightly been subjected to public scrutiny, not least because of the horrific conditions in which many young women and their new-born infants were required to live. Following the closure of the home, in 1971 the site was sold to the Midland Health Board, and then, like so many other buildings across the country, became the responsibility of the Health Service Executive (HSE). Kinturk/St Peter’s thereafter provided residential care for the disabled until its closure was announced in 2014, shortly before a highly condemnatory inspection report on the facility was issued by the Health Information and Quality Authority. Today, two detached bungalows provide accommodation for ten residents. The rest of the site sits empty and neglected, the various properties visibly falling into disrepair. The original Kinturk House, of evident architectural merit, is closed up and increasingly dilapidated. This is, unfortunately, yet another instance of a state authority failing to look after the buildings supposed to be in its care and leaving it in poor health. As always, ultimately the citizens of Ireland (who own the place) will be the losers.

Once One of the Grandest Places in Meath


‘The place is really magnificent; the old house that was burnt down is rebuilding. They live at present in the offices; the garden (or rather improvements, and parks, for it is too extensive to be called a garden), consists of six hundred Irish acres, which makes between eight and nine hundred English. There is a gravel walk from the house to the great lake, fifty-two feet broad, and six hundred yards long. The lake contains 26 acres, is of an irregular shape, with a fort built in all its forms. I never saw so pretty a thing. There are several ships, one a complete man-of-war. My godson [Garret Wellesley, later first Earl of Mornington] is governor of the fort, and lord high admiral; he hoisted all his colours for my reception, and was not a little mortified that I declined the compliment of being saluted from the fort and ship. The part of the lake that just fronts the house forms a very fine bason, and is surrounded by a natural terrace wooded, through which walks are cut, and variety of seats placed, that you may rest and enjoy all the beauties of the place as they change to your eye. The ground as far as you can see ever way is waving in hills and dales, and every remarkable point has either a tuft of trees, a statue, a seat, an obelisk, or a pillar.’
Mrs Delany writing to her sister from Delville on October 15th 1748.





‘Dangan, the former seat of the Wesleys, is distant about seven miles from Trim, and about twenty from Dublin. On the death of Lord Mornington, it became the property of the Marquis of Wellesley, from whom it was purchased by a gentleman named Boroughs, who, after residing there some time, and adding to it many improvements, let it on lease to Mr. Roger O’Connor. While in his possession the house and demesne were dismantled of every article that could be converted into money; the trees (of which there was an immense variety, of prodigious height and girth,) rapidly fell beneath the axe; the gardens were permitted to run waste. An application to the Lord Chancellor proved utterly ineffective, and at length, the premises being largely insured, the house was found to be on fire, and was of course consumed before any assistance could be obtained to extinguish it. One portion of the building, the walls of which are of prodigious thickness, is still inhabited by a farmer, who superintends the property.’
From Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, & by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall, 1841.





‘Dangan was once one of the grandest places in Meath: all that remains of it now is a ruinous and roofless mansion of cut stone in Italian style, showing by its long range of window opes, and the mouldings of the window-jambs how lordly a dwelling it once was. All of the upper part of the mansion is gone, and of the walls all is destroyed above the height of the parlour windows. Grass grows and cows graze up to the walls. A tree has taken root in what was once the grand hall, and cattle shelter in it at night. An ancient park wall, gapped and broken, encloses what was once an extensive park of over 500 acres. Large herds of cattle have taken the place of deer, and range over it, the property of dairymen, tenants of the park. Long vaulted passages, with groined brick arches, connect the kitchen and the offices with the dwelling-house; these arched ways, once noisy with servants attending upon the gay company that thronged the mansion, are now damp and cheerless and silent as the grave. A large French grille, or gate of florid scroll work, once gave entrance to the park; but grass now grows on each side of the gate, showing how long it is since it was opened to let in company.’
From Dangan and Roger O’Connor by John P. Prendergast in The Irish Monthly, Vol. 12, No. 127 (January 1884)

 

Subject to Change


Few houses in Ulster have as complex a history of building, alteration and demolition as Montalto, County Down. There was likely some kind of residence on the site in the 17th century when this part of the country was still under the control of the McCartan family. However, at some point around 1650 it was either bought by or granted to George Rawdon who had moved from Yorkshire to Ireland twenty years before to manage another estate in County Antrim. Until 1775 the Rawdons’ principal abode was at Moira elsewhere in County Down; Montalto would therefore have been a secondary property. It was the settler’s great-grandson, John Rawdon, created first Earl of Moira in 1761 who decided to move to Montalto and erect the core of the house still seen today. Quite what was there before he took this decision is unclear, as is the precise date of the house’s construction; in their recently published guide to the Buildings of South County Down, Philip Smith suggests work on Montalto may have begun in the second half of the 1750s, soon after the future Lord Moira had finished erecting a splendid town house on Usher’s Island in Dublin. (Later used by the Mendicity Institution, Moira House was demolished in the 1950s, with only the gateposts into the building’s forecourt surviving.) A couple of pictures from the 1790s (one of them depicting a battle in 1798 which took place in nearby Ballynahinch) show Montalto to have a somewhat disordered exterior, suggesting that work undertaken there in the previous years had been sporadic, and based around an earlier structure. The landscape in which the house sits, not least a fish-shaped lake in front of the east-facing entrance, was also undertaken during the same period.




Following his father’s death in 1793, the second Earl of Moira (later first Marquess of Hastings), a distinguished soldier who participated in the American War of Independence and later served as Governor-General of India, inherited estates in England from his mother and therefore sold his Irish property. Montalto was bought in 1802 by a young man called David Ker whose family lived elsewhere in the county. He appears to have undertaken some alterations to the building; a contemporary description notes that he had ‘much improved the house by putting in larger windows, painting, &, &.’ More than thirty years later, Ker’s son, also called David, decided to enlarge the building. The obvious way to do this would have been to add an additional storey above those already standing. In this instance, however, the owner decided to do down rather than up. In other words, the basement was excavated to create what is now Montalto’s ground floor; something similar had been done by his father in the 1820s at the Kers’ other residence in Portavo. The considerable feat of engineering was most likely due to the involvement of a Newtownards builder/architect called Charles Campbell whose son died in 1849 ‘in consequence of a fall which he received from a scaffold whilst pinning a wall at Montalto House.’ In the 1850s David Ker made further additions by adding a two-storey ballroom extension to the rear (west) of the house, along with a new service section. The Kers sold the estate in 1910 to Arthur Vesey Meade, fifth Earl of Clanwilliam, his wife refusing to live in his family home, Gill Hall on the grounds that it was haunted.




In 1950 Lord Clanwilliam attempted to sell Montalto but was unable to find a buyer. Three years later, his son the sixth earl demolished the ballroom and mid-19th century service wing: the outline of the former can be seen delineated by a new beech hedge on the lawns behind the house. In 1979 the house and what remained of the estate was sold to a business consortium but six years later a fire further extensively damaged the building and led to further demolition, so that Montalto today is less than half the size it was a century ago. Nevertheless, it remains a substantial house and, since being acquired by the present owners in the mid-1990s, has been thoroughly restored and opened to the public for weddings and other events. And, as can be seen, the demesne has also received much attention. The house’s interior will be discussed here at a later date.

In the Roman Manner


After recent somewhat dispiriting posts, time for something more uplifting. Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny was discussed here almost five years ago (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/11/24/of-the-middle-size) but that page really needs to be revisited because, as a visit to the house not long ago revealed, the owners continue to be indefatigable in their improvements to the place. One of the latest additions is to the rear of the main building where a formal Italianate garden has been created. Just a handful of plants have been employed, including beech, box and Irish yew, but sophisticated design, and sound maintenance, means the eye never grows tired. Ballysallagh thankfully shows that growth, as much as decay, is possible in Ireland…

Scant Remains


Further to Monday’s post on the Eyrecourt staircase, it is worth noting that the house in which this remarkable piece of Irish craftsmanship once stood is no more. The building was effectively abandoned in the 1920s, following the sale of its contents – including the staircase – and gradually fell into ruin. When Maurice Craig visited the site in 1957, at least part of the roof was still in place as was the front doorcase. Since then, however, total decay has followed and today only portions of Eyecourt’s outer walls stand, incorporated into a farm yard. A sad end.

Bring It Home


It is a year almost to the day since the unexpected death of Rolf Loeber. Dutch-born, he was a specialist in child psychology, with a particular interest in juvenile delinquency and for more than three decades had been based at the University of Pittsburgh: at the time of his death, he was that institution’s Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Epidemiology. But while still a student in Holland in the 1960s, he read Maurice Craig’s Dublin, 1660-1840 (first published in 1952) and become fascinated by Ireland’s architectural history. As a result, despite a busy academic career, he somehow found time to produce a series of invaluable articles and books on the subject, beginning with a Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 which appeared in1981. He was a pioneer in his meticulous scrutiny of archives and his ability to draw together material from a remarkable range of sources, as can be seen in his last book, which is being issued posthumously this week. Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 is typical in being both scholarly and readable, immensely engaging thanks to the author’s enthusiasm and full of insights into the ways in which diverse buildings across the country correspond to each other. One of the chapters contains several pages devoted to Eyrecourt Castle, County Galway and the remarkable staircase once found inside that house. The last conversation I had with Rolf Loeber concerned this staircase and the possibility that, having left Ireland almost a century ago, it might now return here.



As is so often the case in Ireland, despite its name there was nothing remotely castellated about Eyrecourt Castle. The house was built in the 1670s by Colonel John Eyre, an English soldier who had come to this country twenty years earlier and through diverse methods acquired a considerable amount of land in east County Galway (incidentally, Galway’s Eyre Square indicates how involved the Eyre family became in the affairs of the city during this period). On his estate, he began laying out a new town with broad streets, the principal thoroughfare concluding at the gates leading to his house. Given the unsettled nature of the times, it might have been expected the colonel would make sure this new residence was well fortified. Remarkably, however, Eyrecourt Castle was completely unprotected. As can be seen in the top photograph, it was a two-storey manor with dormered attic, the seven-bay façade having a pedimented three-bay breakfront and the wood entrance doorcase featuring Corinthian pilasters flanking a wide entablature centred on an elliptical window surrounded by carved foliage. Were it still standing, Eyrecourt Castle would be the architectural wonder of the West. Alas! The colonel overstretched his resources in the house’s construction (as early as 1677 a trust had been established in which a portion of the estate was set aside for 61 years to cover arrears) and the family finances appear never to have recovered thereafter. Circumstances were not helped by ubsequent generations of Eyres becoming typical members of the Irish gentry, hard-living and hard-drinking squireens.



It is worth quoting in full the description of John Eyre, created first – and last – Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt in 1768, given by dramatist Richard Cumberland (whose father was then Bishop of nearby Clonfert). According to Cumberland, Lord Eyre was ‘Proprietor of a vast extent of soil, not very productive, and inhabiting a spacious mansion, not in the best repair, he lived according to the style of the country, with more hospitality than elegance, and whilst his table groaned with abundance, the order and good taste of its arrangements were little thought of. The slaughtered ox was hung up whole, and the hungry servitor supplied himself with his dole of flesh sliced from off the carcase. His lordship’s day was so apportioned as to give the afternoon by much the largest share of it, during which, from the early dinner to the hour of rest, he never left the chair, nor did the claret ever quit the table. This did not produce inebriety, for it was sipping rather than drinking, that filled up the time, and this mechanical process of gradually moistening the human clay was carried on with very little aid from conversation, for his lordship’s companions were not very communicative, and fortunately he was not very curious. He lived in an enviable independence as to reading, and of course he had no books. Not one of the windows of his castle was made to open, but luckily he had no liking for fresh air, and the consequence may be better conceived than described.’ As this passage indicates, Cumberland’s memoirs are as entertaining and as informative of life in provincial Georgian Ireland, as those of the slightly later Sir Jonah Barrington.
When Lord Eyre died in 1781 the estate was already heavily encumbered, and the next couple of generations of the family ran up further debts, not least owing to their preoccupation with hunting, for which the Eyres kept a stable of 30-40 horses and their own pack of 80 hounds. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, a considerable part of the estate had to be sold but this did nothing to curb the family’s extravagance, leading to further sales in the 1880s; by the time William Henry Gregory Eyre died in 1925, what had once been a holding of more than 30,000 acres had dropped to a little more than 600. The following year, the remainder of the estate was auctioned, together with the contents of the house. Eyrecourt Castle was then abandoned, but not before its staircase had been carefully removed and taken out of the country.



Dating from the time of the house’s construction, Eyrecourt Castle’s staircase took up an extraordinary one-third of the total interior space, and is unlike anything else in Ireland. Made of elm, oak and pine, it comprises two flights of steps that gradually rise to the return where they unite to offer single access to the upper floor, the piano nobile holding the main reception rooms. Rolf Loeber described it as though still in situ: ‘As seen from the downstairs hall, the staircase is partly screened by the Eyre family’s coat of arms, flanked by two arches, ingeniously suspended from the ceiling. On the first steps, the balustrades and newel posts with their wealth of botanical detail become visible, including many carved vases with flowers. At the half-landing, the full extent of the staircase first becomes visible, showing contrasts between the straight lines of the massive bannisters and the rolling down of the carved acanthus leaves from the railings.
The gradual ascent continues to the first floor, where a wall of decorative panelling with superimposed pilasters on each side of the double doors announced the saloon. The high point of the staircase is its rich carving dedicated to nature. The newel posts alone carry thirty carved vases of flowers, mostly freestanding, while others adjoin the walls. Two carved heads of “green men” at the top of the staircase spout acanthus leaves from their mouth, with the leaves rolling down the foliated frieze below the massive bannisters. Other faces of “green men” feature up and down the staircase.’
In 1926 some of the interiors of Eyrecourt Castle, including its staircase, were purchased by the decorating firm of White, Allom & Co., removed from the house and taken to London. White, Allom was run by Sir Charles Allom who specialised in period interiors for American clients: his firm was responsible for laying out the rooms in what is now the Frick Collection in New York. From the mid-1920s Allom worked with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, then fitting out the vast castle he had built in San Simeon, California. Hearst bought the Eyrecourt staircase in 1927 and, taken apart and packed into a series of wooden crates, it was shipped to the United States.* There it sat in the crates until 1951 when Hearst died. His estate subsequently donated the staircase – and much other material besides – to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The crates remained in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, until they were finally opened a few years ago and the multiple pieces of carved wood unpacked.



Among architectural historians, the Eyrecourt staircase enjoys legendary status but it’s safe to say that only a handful of Irish people have ever seen it: two years ago, the Irish Aesthete went to Detroit specifically to do so, and was very kindly taken by one of the institute’s curators to the repository where the photographs shown today were taken. The experience was fascinating, since although dispersed around various sections of the space the structure’s various parts are all present. Numbered and ready for reassembly, the work first needs restorative attention, not least because at some date in the past the wood was stripped and this has had an adverse effect on its condition. But it is a marvel, a stupendous work of Irish craftsmanship and, as already mentioned, unlike anything else now in this country. At the time of his death, Rolf Loeber was investigating the possibility of repatriating the Eyrecourt staircase: this was the subject of our final conversation. Still stored in a suburban warehouse, the likelihood of the item ever being reassembled by its present custodian looks remote. The staircase is a national treasure and ought to be in Ireland. While the cost of doing so is considerable, overlooking this opportunity to bring a masterpiece home would be an unforgiveable oversight. The time has come to start a campaign, so that this exile can return to its native country.
*In 1928 White, Allom assembled the panelled former drawing room from Eyrecourt Castle at an antiques show held in Olympia, London, where it was photographed and described as a ‘Charles II Room.’ The panelling was subsequently acquired by Hearst and installed in two rooms in St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan.

Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 by Rolf Loeber is published by Four Courts Press, €55.

Hot Off the Presses


Due to be officially launched tomorrow, Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is a collection of images of Irish buildings taken over half a century ago. For several years in the 1960s, Paddy journeyed around the country, often in the company of Mariga Guinness and the Knight of Glin, exploring our architectural heritage and recording buildings which, sadly too often, have subsequently been lost. Although not a professional photographer, he had an intuitive eye (and excellent travelling companions) and soon discovered a natural talent for composition. Only a handful of his pictures have ever been published (some in Country Life) and I am very happy to have collaborated with Paddy in producing a representative collection of the work. While the majority of the houses included still stand, and a few have even been restored, others – as mentioned – are no more. Below is a representative example of the latter category, Kenure Park, County Dublin which other than its monumental portico was demolished in 1978.


Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is published by Lilliput Press and is available from all good bookshops (and online from www.lilliputpress.ie), price €25.00