In Transition


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.  

The Most Elegant Summer Lodge




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.



Step into the Garden



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.


Left Without a Handkerchief


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

 

Saved for the Nation


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. 

The Little Sister


The ruins of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire, Wales are justifiably famous, but less well known is what remains of her little sister, also called Tintern Abbey, in County Wexford. This foundation was often called Tintern de Voto, owing to the fact that it was established as the result of a vow taken by William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke. Seemingly while sailing to Ireland in 1200, his ship was caught in a violent storm and he promised to establish a monastery close to the spot where he landed. The vessel came into Bannow Bay and here the abbey was duly built, and endowed with 3,500 hectares of land. Marshal was already patron of the Cistercian Tintern Abbey in Wales (which was duly known as Tintern Major), and so monks from that house were brought to this country to set up the new monastery, which soon grew into one of Ireland’s most important religious settlements, successive abbots sitting as peers in the Irish parliament until the mid-15th century and enjoying considerable prestige. 




Cistercian monks remained in residence at Tintern Abbey until 1539 when, on instructions from the English government, the entire property, valued at over £93, was seized and granted first to Sir James Croft, future Lord Deputy of Ireland, and then in 1557 leased to the Staffordshire-born soldier Sir Anthony Colclough; 18 years later he received ownership of the former abbey, which he had already converted into a domestic residence (although it had been attacked and burnt by the Irish in 1562). Although the building was subject to attack during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, Colclough’s descendants remained on the site, albeit often through complicated lines of inheritance, until 1959 when the last member of the family to live there, Lucy Biddulph-Colclough, handed over what remained of the property to the Irish state. 





Placed in the care of the Office of Public Works in 1963, it was almost twenty years later before restoration began on Tintern Abbey, an enterprise that involved returning the site to its monastic origins. One must lament that this approach was taken, since the place had been a rare surviving example in Ireland of a religious building converted to secular, domestic use; had a different approach been taken during the restoration, today it would offer a fascinating opportunity to explore that aspect of post-Reformation history. Little evidence now remains of the Colcloughs’ centuries’ long occupation of the property, although of course it can be detected in the layout of the surrounding landscape. But the building itself is almost clinically clean and largely devoid of personal character. A short walk away from the main complex is a little late-mediaeval single cell chapel, known as a Capella-ante-portas, built to serve the needs of the local lay population who were not permitted within the precincts of the abbey. It contains a number of Colclough funerary monuments, including a large stone plaque mounted on the south wall commemorating the original Sir Anthony. Here, rather than within the monastery, can be found a better sense of the former secular ownership of Tintern Abbey.

 

A Bit of a Sham


The  sham fort at Tyrella, County Down. This charming little folly stands on a rise above the main house and with views across the surrounding countryside and seascape. It is believed to date from the mid-19th century, being created to accommodate three cannon rescued after the SS Great Britain – at the time the world’s largest passenger ship – ran aground on a nearby beach in 1846 (seemingly the ship’s crew mistook the newly constructed St John’s Point Lighthouse for a lighthouse on the Isle of Man).

The Cause of Jealousy



As mentioned a few days ago, in the mid-18th century the first Earl of Belvedere quarreled with his brother George Rochfort and so built the ‘Jealous Wall’, a sham folly that obscured the view of the younger man’s house further south on Lough Ennell. Here is the property in question, Tudenham Park, which, like Belvedere itself, is believed to have been designed by Richard Castle. However, whereas Belvedere is really a villa, this is a proper country house, of three storeys over basement with bowed projections on either side and a seven-bay entrance front, its plainness relieved by the pedimented tripartite Doric doorcase with round-headed niche above and then a circular bracketed niched below the parapet. Occupied by successive families until the early 20th century, Tudenham Park then became a hospital and was in military ownership until the 1950s when unroofed and left a shell. Some 15 or so years ago, plans were hatched to rescue the building and restore it to use but these came to nothing, so it remains the ruin seen in these pictures.


Jealous Minds



The most famous folly in Ireland, this is the Jealous Wall at Belvedere, County Westmeath. Some 180 feet long, this theatrical sham ruin was constructed around 1760 by Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere. Intended to look like the remains of an ancient castle, the three-storey wall incorporates a series of stepped towers, some of which have arched Gothic windows and, at the centre of the ground floor, a three-bay loggia. Seemingly it was built in order to block the view from Belvedere south towards Tudenham Park, a house further along Lough Ennell which had been erected some years before by the earl’s younger brother, George Rochfort. The siblings subsequently quarreled, hence the wall was put up here.


An Underutilised Resource


Designed by Richard Castle c.1740, Belvedere, County Westmeath is an exquisite villa overlooking Lough Ennell built for Robert Rochfort, later created first Earl of Belvedere. The Rochfort family had lived in Ireland since the 13th century, their primary residence being Gaulston, some five miles south-east of Belvedere. The house there, also designed by Richard Castle, was badly damaged after being burnt in 1920 during the War of Independence and later demolished. However, from around 1743 Robert Rochfort made Belvedere his main home after he had become estranged from his second wife, the Hon Mary Molesworth, who he accused of having an affair with one of his younger brothers, Arthur Rochfort. Famously, Mary Molesworth was thereafter kept a prisoner at Gaulston, never permitted to leave or to see anyone for thirty years until after her husband’s death in 1774; only once did the couple encounter each other again, by accident, and after that occasion a servant was required to walk in front of Mary Molesworth ringing a bell in order to warn Rochfort that she might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile, he pursued his younger brother for financial recompense under the legislation covering Criminal Conversation (as adultery was then known). Unable to pay, Arthur Rochfort fled the country but on his return was incarcerated in Dublin’s debtors’ prison where he died. 





Floating serene above the lake, Belvedere seems a world away from this unhappy tale. A two-storey block with semi-circular bow ends with a five-bay front, the centre three bays slightly recessed and those on either side having a Venetian window on the ground floor and a Diocletian window above. Initially the building was just one room deep but at the end of the 18th century a wing was added to the rear. The two most important reception spaces, drawing room and dining room, are at either end, with smaller rooms next to the entrance hall, behind which runs a corridor incorporating a narrow staircase leading up to four bedrooms, the service quarters being in a sunken basement. The great joy of the interior is the delicate rococo plasterwork in which putti and classical figures, surrounded by trailing garlands, shells and volutes, seem to be in the process of emerging from the ceilings. The stuccodore responsible is unknown, but the work, dating from around 1760, has been attributed to Barthelemij Cramillion. 





Following the first earl’s death in 1774, Belvedere – and indeed Gaulston – was inherited by his son George Augustus Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere. However, when he died in 1714, he had no direct heir and so the titles became extinct and the settled estate was inherited by his sister Jane and then, after her death, by her grandson Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough. He rarely visited Belvedere and on his death in 1847 it passed to a cousin, Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy bachelor who invited Ninian Niven to devise plans for the walled garden and who was also responsible for laying out a series of terraces between the house and lake. On his death in 1912, the estate was inherited by Charles Howard-Bury, a noted mountaineer, explorer and botanist. Howard-Bury had been born and raised in Charleville Castle, County Offaly but seemingly had such an unhappy childhood there that he preferred to live in Belvedere and when he died in 1963, he left the place to his long-time companion, a former actor called Rex Beaumont, who would be the last private owner of the estate. In 1980, Beaumont announced his plans to leave the place and held a sale of the contents, jointly organised by Hamilton & Hamilton and Christie’s; quite a few of the lots had originally come from Charleville Castle, meaning collections from two different houses were thereby dispersed. In 1982 Beaumont sold the house and surrounding parkland to the local authority, which has managed the place ever since. While much money was spent on restoring Belvedere at the time, 40 years have now passed and the house is looking tired and in need of attention, little having changed there since its acquisition by the county council. The surrounding demesne is extremely popular with local families and much frequented, but Belvedere itself appears an under-utilised resource; at the moment, only a handful of the rooms are even open to the public, with much of it closed up. It’s time fresh consideration, and attention, was given to one of Ireland’s most charming 18th century villas.