The sadly dilapidated farmyard at Garbally Court, County Galway. The main house and yards were built by Richard Le Poer Trench, second Earl of Clancarty around 1819: thanks to his diplomatic skills at the Congress of Vienna a few years earlier, he had also been created Marquess of Heusden in the peerage of The Netherlands. Lord Clancarty’s architect for Garbally was the London-based Thomas Cundy senior: this was his only significant Irish commission. The Le Poer Trenches remained here until 1922 when the estate was sold to the Roman Catholic diocese of Clonfert for £6,750. Ever since then it has served as a boy’s secondary school.
Half a century ago, in 1968, the big house at Kilballyowen, County Limerick was demolished. As its then-owner Lt.-Col. Gerald Vigors de Courcy O’Grady – whose family have been based there for hundreds of years – recalled some time later, ‘The huge rooms were too big to live in; it was impossible to live in a house of that nature. If you could live there in warm conditions – yes. It was just a necessity. No I didn’t just want to leave it empty, so there are no remains. I do not like living near ruins; there are too many around here.’ His wife commented that by the late 1960s the house ‘was in a terrifying state of repair and we did not have the money to fix it. We had thought of selling just the house, but then we were afraid we might lose the land as well. It was a great house that had lost its pride.’ There was no support for the owners and no state interest in the preservation of such properties. And so, like very many others, Kilballyowen came down.
The surname O’Grady derives from the Irish Ó Grádaigh or Ó Gráda, meaning ‘noble’. The O’Grady family originally lived in East County Clare where they were based in the area around Tuamgraney (where they built a tower house adjacent to what is now the oldest centre of continuous religious worship in Ireland, St Cronan’s which dates from the 10th century). During the Middle Ages various O’Gradys frequently held high positions in the Roman Catholic Church. It helped that clerical celibacy was then not much enforced. Thus in 1332 Eoin (or John) O’Grady became Archbishop of Cashel and, in 1366 his son, also called John, became Archbishop of Tuam. In turn, the latter’s son, another John O’Grady, was made Bishop of Elphin in 1405. At the same time they were frequently at war with other families in the area, not least their distant cousins and former allies, the O’Briens who eventually drove the O’Gradys out of Clare. One of the family, a younger son called Hugh O’Grady had in the early 14th century married a daughter of the head of the O Ciarmhaic family in Knockainy in east Limerick and this would lead their descendants to settle at Kilballyowen. There successive male heirs became the head of the family and were known as The O’Grady.
The core of the now-demolished Kilballyowen was a tower house dating from c.1500, around which a house had been built in the first half of the 18th century, and then further extended by a new wing in 1810: in 1837 Samuel Lewis described the property as ‘a handsome modern building in a richly planted demesne.’ The building had a five-bay façade with a two-bay projecting extension to one side: the garden front featured a three-bay breakfront. Nothing of the house remains but the stableyard to the immediate north-west remains. Set around an open court, the four blocks are of almost equal dimensions and contain carriage houses, stalls and accommodation for the employees who would formerly have worked here. Although in poor repair, the buildings still bear testimony to the character of the old house. Had times been different, had it survived even a decade or two longer, might Kilballyowen be standing yet? What happened here also happened right across the country during the 1950s and ‘60s. While better support mechanisms are now in place to provide some assistance, they are relatively modest, thereby leaving much of our stock of historic houses at risk. The story of Kilballyowen, a great house that had lost its pride, is a too-frequent story in Ireland.
A blocked doorcase in the former farmyard at Grangemore, County Westmeath. The main house here, now also a ruin, was built in the opening years of the 19th century by a member of the Fetherston family: it later passed by marriage to the Briscoes. During the last century what remained of what was once a substantial estate fell into decline, the house standing empty for periods until it was stripped of disposable assets and unroofed in the late 1950s. Its shell now stands in the midst of fields, as does the complex of which this doorcase forms a part.
As an area of both study and preservation, the relative neglect of ancillary buildings on Irish country estates has been mentioned here before. While the main house may be – scrutinised, the surrounding structures which did so much to sustain it – is often overlooked. Take the substantial range of buildings shown here today, which lie adjacent to Coolure, County Westmeath. Despite their scale and evident quality of finish, they pass unremarked in Casey and Rowan’s 1993 volume on the Buildings of North Leinster. This is not an unusual circumstance but one that deserves rectification: at the moment if we often know too little about who was responsible for designing and constructing many Irish country houses, we know even less about the origins of their outbuildings.
At least some of those at Coolure must date from the same period as when work began on the house proper c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. It was extended in the 1820s, probably to accommodate their substantial family, and the yards may have been proportionately increased in size then also. Finally a number of buildings, not least a vast and now roofless two-storey barn, were erected in the 1850s, thereby completing the ensemble.
Changing circumstances along with improved technology, the break-up of large estates, better methods of agriculture, alternative means of transport: all have played their part in making country house outbuildings mostly redundant. Who now needs lines of stables (one set occupied by horses required for riding and carriages, one for animals used about the farm) and coach houses, or piggeries and dovecotes? But the buildings once deemed essential for these purposes, and many others beside, still stand, testament to how rural Ireland operated for centuries. The ranges at Coolure are especially fine, and a credit to the family responsible for their erection. Some have been converted to residential use, and some adapted as storage space or to provide temporary shelter for livestock. But what – to pick a single example from many – can now be done with a hen house, its interior specifically designed to contain rows of niches in which eggs could be laid (and from which they were then conveniently collected)? Buildings such as these demonstrate how an estate with sufficient resources would become an almost self-contained world, producing the foodstuffs required by those living there. Surviving account books from the 18th and 19th centuries reveal just how little needed to be bought, other than wine and spirits (beer could be brewed on site), tobacco and a handful of other luxuries. The fields yielded up their harvest to be stored in barns, livestock provided meat, ponds held fish, walled gardens and orchards were filled with fruit and vegetables. No wonder the outbuildings at Coolure are so substantial: they played a critical role in ensuring the estate functioned smoothly.
Deprived of their purpose, buildings such as those at Coolure can slip into decline, although they are perforce so sturdy that frequently they survive longer than the house they were intended to support. Built of rubble and cut limestone, and with slate roofs, these ranges are carefully planned to perform their task with maximum efficiency. Now that job is no longer required, the question needs to be asked: can a fresh purpose be found for them? In recent years an annual series of grants to encourage the preservation of traditional farm buildings has been provided by the Department of Agriculture through GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme) and administered by the Heritage Council. This is intended ‘to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Although admirable, the scheme suffers from two drawbacks when it comes to outbuildings such as those at Coolure. Firstly the grants offered, while obviously much appreciated, are not enormous: between €4,000 and €25,000. Secondly, according to the Heritage Council, ‘the key conservation principle of minimum intervention should apply, that is, carrying out a repair to fix what is wrong but not setting out to do too much work. Works which are, in the opinion of the Heritage Council, restoration works, are very unlikely to be supported with grant aid.’ So outbuildings that need to be restored in order that they can find a new function would seem not to qualify. Perhaps another scheme might be established for this purpose? Fine, well-designed and solidly constructed buildings like those at Coolure merit help in finding a new lease of life.
The concept of ‘rural Ireland’ and its preservation are much touted, especially by those who live in the countryside and believe their traditional way of life should be given more attention. In practice however little has been done to ensure the traditional appearance of rural Ireland is preserved. Across the country old houses are abandoned, their replacements – often built on sites immediately adjacent to an abandoned property – looking no different from those found in Britain or the United States. This cottage in County Meath, although habitable until recently, has now been left to fall into ruin.
Two centuries ago large parts of Ireland enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, and thanks to this affluence there was something of a rural building boom in the post-1800 period with many new houses constructed by both landowners and their more affluent tenants. This Tipperary property would appear to be just such a house. Standing on land that was once part of a large estate, it was probably erected by and for a lessee at the start of the 19th century; the wide overhanging eaves are a feature of that period and in this instance they project almost a foot from the walls, supported on slabs of cantilevered slate. The same slate, which comes from a local quarry extensively mined in earlier centuries but long since abandoned, also covers the roof which is hipped rather than gable-ended. The latter style, easier and less expensive to create, is the norm across much of Ireland and hipped roofs tend to be found in those parts of the countryside where farmers enjoyed the largest incomes. In this instance, the roof was so well constructed that when the present owner bought the house in 1995 he found it required no restoration, other than replacement of old guttering.
While the exterior was sound, a lot of work had to be done to the interior because although uninterruptedly occupied from the time of its construction until the late 1980s, the house had no plumbing of any kind and the only evidence of electricity was a single light bulb hanging from the ceilings of the kitchen, parlour and principle bedroom. Throughout the premises are indications the original builders had aspirations to raise themselves in the social hierarchy of pre-famine Ireland. The most primitive aspect of the house’s design is found in its treatment of the staircase which, in spite of its elegant joinery, is awkwardly sited to cut across the frame of a door leading into a former pantry (now the kitchen). Likewise its wide treads interrupt the lines of the window immediately beyond – on the other hand this feature can be in many large country houses also. Unsatisfactorily resolved design elements indicates the house’s first owners wanted to build themselves a home that aped aspects of bigger properties but obviously were not sufficiently wealthy or important enough to employ an architect or able to work out certain technical difficulties for themselves.
On the other hand, they were in a position to borrow certain decorative details from elsewhere and to impose these on the structure. The space above the main bedroom’s windows, for example, is filled with curved plaster decoration that makes the room look far grander than would otherwise be the case. And in the parlour immediately below, a handsome, glass-fronted cabinet was inserted into the wall to the immediate left of the fireplace, presumably for the display of cherished pieces of china and other heirlooms. All the windows have the same fine shutters but on the groundfloor metal bars protect the windows from possible intruders – another sign of the early tenant farmers’ relative prosperity. Aspirations towards gentility can also be found in the different ceiling treatments: those in the parlour and main bedroom are plastered and corniced (and had centre plaster roses – although no light ever hung from either), whereas that in the central room – which would once have been the kitchen – has exposed beams and, in contrast to the parlour’s elegant fitted cabinet, contained a traditional dresser, the impression of which could still be seen on one wall when the present owner bought the house. Likewise, instead of plaster the substantial upper landing ceiling was originally open to the rafters but for a long time has been covered in painted timber sheeting. This first floor landing is one of the house’s most distinctive attributes. Located directly above the kitchen which had an open fireplace, it would most likely have been warmer than the bedrooms to either side and so perhaps this was where the house’s children would have slept. here…
Houses such as this can be found in abundance throughout the Irish countryside, but – unlike this one – they are almost invariably in poor condition or have been abandoned. Our traditional vernacular architecture has been insufficiently appreciated, with the result that much of it has been irretrievably lost. Yet as this building demonstrates, such houses – once occupied by tenant farmers – possess many sterling qualities and can with relative ease be made into comfortable homes (and probably at less expense than undertaking a new-build). Additions, like the conservatory here on the garden front of the house, help to ease the span of centuries and make the place suitable for contemporary living. These properties are as much part of our national heritage as any other historic house. Accordingly they ought to be better cherished than is presently the case.
This month marks the fifth anniversary of the Irish Aesthete: hard to imagine when the site made its debut in September 2012 that it would continue for as long – and that there would still remain so much to show and discuss. Yet the fact is that the country’s architectural heritage requires constant observation and comment. Whether large or small, grand or humble, our historic buildings deserve to be better understood and better protected. Without wishing to sound grandiose or self-important, such is the purpose of the Irish Aesthete: to bring Ireland’s architectural heritage to as broad an audience as possible because the more people know and appreciate what we have, the higher the likelihood it will survive into the future. Very many thanks to all friends and supporters over the past five years, your ongoing interest has proven invaluable. Please spread the word. As today’s building shows, we need to learn how to make the most of our own. here…
‘1699. My father when he maryed (sic) my mother set up house-keeping at Stradbally and the year after he marryed he built the Big house that is the Hall, Big Staircase, and Big Parlour. My G-Fr. Pole gave him all the timber and 500 deal Boards to build it. He then planted a good many ditches and trees, made the south hedge of ye avenue, enclosed ye kitchen garden and the new orchard, and set the hedges round ‘em. He kept race horses which my G-Fr. Pole did not like and he gave him £100 on condition he wo’d never keep any more which he never strictly observed.
My eldest sister was born at Ballyfin, my sister Betty and I at Stradbally.
1703. My father’s circumstances were so bad that it was thought best he sho’d go into the Army and he therefore borrowed £300 from William Doxy of Rahinahole with which he purchased a Capts Commission in … Regiment. In 1704 he brook up the house and let Stradbally to Major Lyons and he was sent out of peque by the Late Duke of Ormond (now James Butler) (because he wo’d not vote for him in Parlmt) to Spain with recruits, and thereby also got one vote out of the way…’
1714. ‘[My father] left London and came over to Ireland to his new post and now by his long absence from his own home, and liveing in a manner as an exile in a parsimonious way, and by lands encreasing in value and leases falling and thereby his estate riteing, he was left in considerable circumstances, and so resolved to repair and refit his mansion House of Stradbally, in order to bring home his familly and spend his days at home, and so the latter end of 1714, he began to improve Stradbally, he made ye avenue that is, planted the trees, he built the Bridges going to it, added the Drawing-room to the big house next to the Big parlour, he winscoted the second floor entirely, floored the garret, built the Back stairs to the big house, built and finished the road to the Big house, made the big stairs, winscoted and floored the little Parlour and finished in a plain way the second floor of the little house, built a Brew house, walled the garden at the N:E: end of the house, also the Partarre, he laid out the new kitchen garden and planted it all with the choicest fruits, and planted the orchard at the N:W: side of the garden, he did all this and a good dail more in about 18 months time, and in April 1716 he came over to York to bring us over…’
From the time my Father came from England he lived very handsomely, more so than anyone in this county except my Uncle Pole, he kept his coach and chariot and six mares and four servants in Livery besides his Butler, and other outservants, as steward, gardner, etc., he kept a very plentifull house and table, his allowance was, 12 beefs a year, 40 muttons, 26 barrels of wheat for bread, 60 barrels of Mault, 2 hogsheads of wine, pork, veal, lambs, Wilde and tame fouls, and all other things in proportion. He continued in this method, and never encreased or decreased, when there was the least company, his table was never covered with less than 5 & 6 but very often with more, he used to have variety of white wines, the Poor never went away empty from his door, for both F: and M: were exceedingly charitable.
My father was ever doing some improvement or other, for Stradbally, when he came to it in 1716 was but a rough uncouth place.’
Extracts from the Autobiography of Pole Cosby (1703-1766) originally published in the Journal of the Co Kildare Archæological Society and Surrounding Districts, Vol V, 1906-1908.
Photographs show the stableyard at Stradbally, County Laois as designed for Robert Cosby by Lanyon, Lynn & Lanyon in 1866-67.