To the north-east of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath stand the remains of what was once a very substantial walled garden, running to at least four acres. Certainly one of the largest extant examples of this horticultural form dating from the mid-18th century – although now in a very poor condition – the garden consists of a series of four ascending terraces, the outer walls constructed of rubble limestone lined internally of brick, the latter material also used for the terrace walls. Some of these have curved, or corrugated, sections (thereby offering additional shelter to tender plants) while others have infilled arches. That same device also features in the main entrance to the site, which takes the form of a brick-faced triumphal arch (with Diocletian window inserted into the pediment) flanked by single-storey pavilions. If Waterstown was designed, as is generally the consensus, by Richard Castle then this walled garden must be attributed to him also; the entrance certainly displays just the right amount of eccentrically-used architectural motifs. Today the site is partially used as a farmyard but otherwise stands empty.
In 1825 Eyre Evans Crowe, a young Irish writer now largely forgotten, published his second novel, To-day in Ireland in which he described a country house given the fictional name of Plunketstown. The building is occupied by one Captain Plunket, whose father, the reader is informed, ‘like many of the grandsires, but few of the sires of the present generation, had been a man of taste and travel. The present mansion was of his building, and almost every tree on the estate was of his planting…Plunketstown Hill, which rose behind the mansion and screened it commodiously from a vast extent of bog which stretched for miles behind, was covered with one of those groves of many colours which in autumn wore the appearance of a hill-harlequin tricked out for Carnival. At its foot stood the mansion, at some distance from the lake, of which nevertheless it commanded a view, and to the brink of which its ample lawn extended. It was a solid square building of dark granite, richly ornamented, of almost perpendicular roof, and chimneys of enormous size. It exactly resembled one of the extreme wings, or pavillons, as they are called, of the Tuileries, the height of roof and chimney not perhaps so exaggerated; and had Plunketstown been ornamented with the jalousies of the Pavillon de Flore, the garret windows peeping out of the slates, the filthy funnel holes, and the conductors, the model had been complete. A huge flight of steps, descending like a waterfall, from a central point in the front towards the lawn, was an indispensable appendix; whilst a deep fosse, running quite around the house, attempted to attain the security of the ancient castle, without infringing upon the commodiousness of the modern mansion.’ The inspiration for Plunketstown, certainly for its location if not quite for its appearance, is said to have been Waterstown, County Westmeath.
Waterstown was built for the Handcock family, who had settled in Ireland in the first half of the 17th century and were granted large areas of land in Westmeath. In due course the main branch of the Handcocks became Barons Castlemaine, who lived at Moydrum Castle elsewhere in the county (see An Unforgettable Fire « The Irish Aesthete). But this particular line of the family came to own an estate on which stood a late 15th century castle built by the Dillons. This building most likely occupied the site of Waterstown since, as did the fictional Plunketstown, it offered superlative views across many miles of the surrounding countryside. Commissioned by Gustavus Handcock, the present house – or what remains of it – is believed to have been built in the 1740s and designed by Richard Castle. It was a very substantial property, of seven bays and three stories over basement, around which ran (again as at Plunketstown) a deep moat. Brick-built, Waterstown was faced, not with granite but limestone, and featured a hipped roof with two tall chimneystacks. On the south-facing garden front, it can be seen that the windows had rusticated surrounds, while a now-lost flight of steps led to a central Gibbsian doorcase. The house was originally two rooms deep, but the main front has long since disappeared, making the building unnaturally tall and thin, and exposing the remains of lugged plaster panelling and corner chimneys on the interior walls. Sections of a former kitchen yard survive on the east side (the main stable yard is located a short distance west of the house).
In 1725 Gustavus Handcock, later responsible for building Waterstown, married Elizabeth Temple, only child and heiress of the Reverend Robert Temple of nearby Mount Temple, also in County Westmeath. In accordance with her father’s will, the family duly assumed the additional surname of Temple, the couple’s grandson who inherited the estate in 1758 being known as Gustavus Robert Handcock Temple, thereby remembering both grandfathers. The next generation, Robert Handcock Temple, had only one child, a daughter called Isabella. In 1824 she married as his second wife the Hon William George Harris, who five years later would succeed his father as second Baron Harris of Seringapatam and Mysore, in the East Indies, and of Belmont, co. Kent (the first Lord Harris was a soldier who achieved particular success in India where he was involved in the defeat of Tipu Sultan following the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799). The eldest of their children, the Hon Reginal Harris, duly inherited the Waterstown estate, once more taking the additional surname of Temple. Dying unmarried in 1900, he in turn left the estate to his brother Arthur; following the latter’s death six years later, the property passed to his son, Arthur Reginald Harris-Temple, who would be the last of the family to live there. By this date, like many other Irish estates, the future of Waterstown had already begun to look uncertain, not least because expenditure exceeded income. In the early years of the 1920s the Harris-Temples did not have to fear hostility in the area (unlike their cousins at Moydrum Castle, which was destroyed by the IRA in 1921) but it seems likely that an insecure future inspired the decision in 1923 to sell Waterstown, both house and remaining lands, to Ireland’s Land Commission. Five years later the local county council considered buying the building for use as a sanatorium, but these plans never came to fruition and in late 1928 Waterstown was sold and soon after stripped of all fittings, the lead and slates removed from the roof and just a shell left. Since then, it has gradually fallen into the present state of ruin.
Even before the year draws to a welcome close, all language used to describe 2020 has become hopelessly cliched, so let us merely say that its passing will not be much mourned. A lot of what has appeared on this site over the past twelve months has also not been especially cheering, since so much of Ireland’s architectural heritage remains imperilled, vulnerable to the twin risks of neglect and abuse. However, there have been a few happy stories to tell, so today here are some of them again, as a reminder that the past year has not been entirely a period of darkness and gloom: occasional shafts of sunlight were to be seen. Fingers crossed, and glasses raised later this week, that there will be many more such shafts during 2021.
The Irish Aesthete will be taking a break for the rest of the week, returning here refreshed and ready for 2021 next Monday, January 4th. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all friends and followers. Stay safe, stay well.
The shell of Doory Hall, County Longford, the stable block of which was discussed here some time ago (see Future Uncertain « The Irish Aesthete). Doory Hall belonged for several centuries to the Jessop family who had settled here in the second half of the 17th century on land granted to them by Charles II. There was an earlier house on or near this site, as the present house – or what remains of it – dates from c.1820 and is attributed to Cork architect John Hargrave, much of whose work otherwise involved designing gaols and courthouses. Perhaps this accounts for the severity of the building’s neo-classical design, now softened only by the bows at either end, although it should be noted that originally the central pedimented breakfront had a single-storey Doric porch, since removed. Internally nothing survives to indicate how the house once looked.
‘Inver House embodied one of those large gestures of the minds of the earlier Irish architects, some of which still stand to justify Ireland’s claim to be a civilised country. It was a big, solemn, square house of three stories, built of cut stone, grandly planned, facing west in two immense sweeping curves, with a high-pillared portico between them and stone balustrades around the roof.’
‘The high windows of the great room were bare of blinds and curtains, and the hot afternoon sun beat in unchecked. It was a corner room, looking south towards the demesne, and its longer western side was built out in a wide, shallow curve, with two massive pillars of green Galway marble marking at either end the spring of the curve, and supporting a heavy gilt cornice above the broad window.’
‘Everything that had survived of the original conception of the room, the heavy, tall teak doors, with their carved architraves and brass furniture, the huge, brass-mounted fireplace, the high mantelpiece of many coloured marbles, chipped and defaced, but still beautiful, the gorgeous deep-moulded ceiling that Lady Isabella’s Italian workmen had made for her, from the centre of which the wreck of a cut-glass chandelier still hung, all told of the happy conjunction of art and wealth, and of a generous taste that would make the best of both. But a cursory glance would show how long past were the glories of a great room.’
The above passages are taken from Somerville & Ross’s The Big House of Inver, published in 1925, and while their descriptions of Inver are not an exact match, nonetheless in spirit they seem to capture what one can see, and feel, at Scregg, County Roscommon. Dating from the mid-18th century, the house and surrounding land has for hundreds of years belonged to a branch of the ancient Irish Kelly family and was occupied until the 1980s but has since stood empty. How little in some ways has Ireland changed since the time of Somerville & Ross.
Originally from County Durham in England, by 1651 Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh was living in Philipstown (now Daingean), County Offaly, the first of this family to settle in Ireland. His grandson Thomas married Mary Sherlock from Kildare and the couple moved to Ardagh, County Longford where around 1703 he bought some 235 acres of land from the Farrell family. At some point between this acquisition and his death in 1749 he commissioned a new residence in Ardagh; this building is said to have provided part of the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer since the playwright mistook the Fetherstonhaugh’s house for an inn. The couple’s eldest son Ralph sat in the House of Commons of the Irish Parliament for 12 years from 1768 onwards and in 1776 was created a baronet. He also simplified the family surname to Fetherston (other branches retained the name in full). His eldest son Thomas, the second baronet, likewise sat as an M.P., in the Irish Parliament until 1800 and thereafter at Westminster until his death in 1819. The third and fifth baronets, Sir George and Sir Thomas Fetherston respectively were responsible for giving the local village of Ardagh its present appearance, by commissioning new housing for the local population. In the early 1860s Sir Thomas employed Dublin-based architect James Rawson Carroll to design one- and two-storey cottages around a green featuring a clock tower erected to the memory of his uncle, Sir George (see Commemorating a Life-long Devotion « The Irish Aesthete)
Sir Thomas Fetherston had only one son, another George, who was only 13 when he inherited the estate. He later became an Anglican clergyman and travelled widely, meaning he did not spend as much time in Ardagh as had his father. Under the terms of the Wyndham Act, in 1903 Sir George sold most of the estate – by then running to some 11,000 acres – to his tenants, retaining only the house and demesne. When he died unmarried at the age of 70 in 1923 the baronetcy died out also. Within a few years, the former family home had been sold to an order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy who moved into the building and then gradually added extensions to the east side, from which they ran a home economics college. As in the case of so many other such properties, at the start of the present century the nuns gradually wound down operations here and in 2007 the house and surrounding 227 acres was sold at auction for €5.25 million. However, that sale fell through and it was back on the market for €5; by June 2009, as the effects of recession began to be felt, that price had dropped to €3.25 million. It was finally sold at auction in June 2012 for €1.36 million. Since then, the house has sat empty.
As mentioned, the main house at Ardagh is thought to date from the first half of the 18th century when constructed for Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. But much of its present appearance is 19th century, when it was refurbished first by Sir George Fetherston (who laid out the surrounding grounds) and then by his nephew Sir Thomas. The latter was responsible for the present stable block which, like a considerable portion of the adjacent village, was designed by architect James Rawson Carroll and features a series of cut-stone blocks with half-hipped roofs around a central courtyard. Sir Thomas is thought to have been responsible for adding a two-storey, three-bay ballroom wing to the immediate east of the eight-bay house, as well as the latter’s porch and arcaded conservatory. During the Civil War, an attempt was made to burn down the building, but this seems to have caused little damage. A more serious fire in 1948 led to the nuns then in residence removing the top floor, thereby making the house look longer and lower than would previously been the case. Anyone passing through Ardagh village cannot fail to see the building standing forlorn and unkempt across open ground. It seems unfortunate that a property linked to the family who did so much for the area, and which can claim associations with one of the finest comedies ever written in the English language, should today be left in this sad condition.
As 2020 draws to what for many people will be a most welcome close, the Irish Aesthete is delighted to announce some good news: an initiative designed to acknowledge the importance of our privately-owned heritage properties. Devised by this writer, the O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize is the first of its kind: a new national award recognising the really significant role played by owners of historic homes. For this reason, the prize is being presented in association with Historic Houses of Ireland, a charity established in 2008 to promote the immediate and long-term future of the country’s privately owned historic properties. All HHI members are owners of such buildings and they understand better than anyone the sector’s particular problems, especially over the past year.
Worth €5,000 and adjudicated by a small group of assessors, the O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize is intended to be presented annually to one property, the owners of which have demonstrated outstanding dedication and commitment to the preservation of the building in their care. Sponsor the O’Flynn Group has already shown itself keenly aware of the importance of providing a viable future for historic buildings, as can be seen in the company’s own redevelopment of the early 19th century former barracks site in Ballincollig, County Cork. The Irish Aesthete would like to thank the O’Flynn Group for the company’s most generous support of this project.
A 300-year old country house in County Kilkenny has been chosen as the inaugural winner of the new prize. After buying Ballysallagh in 1987, local pharmacist Kieran White and his wife Geralyn moved into the dilapidated building with their three children (then aged between two and five) and embarked on a gradual programme of rescue and refurbishment undertaken over several decades as their financial circumstances allowed. Today Ballysallagh stands as a model of first-rate restoration, internally furnished with flair and taste. Around the house the Whites have laid out herbaceous borders, a herb garden, maple walk and folly. The aspiration is that the Whites will be just the first of many such equally-deserving recipients of the prize over the years ahead.
For more information about Ballysallagh and its restoration, please see today’s Irish Times: Restoring country home glory takes blood, sweat and tears (irishtimes.com)
and for more on the house’s history:
Of the Middle Size « The Irish Aesthete
The sad end of the main house at Loughcrew, County Meath is well-known. The building was said to be the subject of a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ And so it came to pass. The house, designed in severe neo-classical style by architect Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s, did indeed suffer three fires, the last occurring in 1964 and leading to the demolition of its remains a few years later, so that now the Naper family, resident on the estate since the 1650s, live in the former yard buildings. Today just parts of the facade’s great Greek Ionic portico show where it once stood, but elsewhere on the surrounding land, more active restoration has taken place.
A short distance to the west of the remains of the old house at Loughcrew stands a late-medieval church associated with St Oliver Plunkett who was born here in 1629. The church has a large, three-storey residential tower at the west end, as was often the case with such buildings erected during the late 14th and 15th centuries when much of the country was disturbed by feuding between different families and not even religious buildings were safe from attack. Entrance to the church was via a door at the west end and the interior appears always to have been relatively simple, with a single chapel opening on the south side, the upper portion of the window here being divided in two by a central spandrel featuring the Naper coat of arms. Unlike many such sites, the church continued to be used for services throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite being renovated and re-roofed in 1818, it was abandoned 25 years later when a new place of worship was built elsewhere.
Immediately adjacent to the old church lies the Loughcrew estate’s walled garden, parts of which are believed to date back to the arrival of the Naper family here in the mid-17th century; there is, for example, a classical arched gateway dated 1673. Over the past couple of decades, much of the garden, which had fallen into neglect has been restored and a number of the earlier features – such as a canal and a formal parterre, been re-instated. Some features of an earlier settlement on the site have also been uncovered. Meanwhile, later aspects of a fashionable country house garden, like the 19th century taste for deep herbaceous borders, can once more be found. Loughcrew and its gardens are a work in progress, but already much has been achieved and the future promises even more.
Over the coming weeks, every evening Loughcrew gardens are hosting a musical Lightscape open to the public. Further details, and information on ticket purchase, can be found at https://loughcrew.com/loughcrew-lightscape
So, as 2020 draws to a close, how stands the Irish country house? Indeed, in some instances, does it still stand at all? Certainly, the past couple of decades have produced a great deal of information on the subject, and today much more is known about our historic properties, thanks to considerable scrupulous research and many recent publications (the Irish Aesthete has a shelf-long list of new books on his Christmas wish list). But does our being better informed lead to these buildings being better appreciated, and better cherished?
Certainly, there are instances where Irish country houses have been scrupulously restored, both by the state and private individuals. And many of those who have inherited such properties valiantly continue to devote themselves to making sure this legacy will pass to the next generation. What supports exist to assist them in the undertaking? What are the obstacles, what the challenges?
But other country houses have been lost – and a considerable number remain at risk of loss. To what extent does Ireland pay lip service to its architectural heritage? When it comes to our country houses, how well – if at all – is existing legislation enforced? What protection do they enjoy from decay or ill-conceived alterations? Are owners who fail to look after their historic properties taken to task? And are those who do make an effort duly rewarded?
So many and such complex questions. I shall be attempting to tease out a few of the answers in an online lecture available on the Irish Georgian Society website for a week (only) from tomorrow, December 1st called ‘The Irish Country House in the 21st century: Ruins and Restoration’. You can find more information on www.igs.ie/events (Please note, there is a fee for viewing, and you must book before 3pm tomorrow).