An abandoned farmhouse in County Westmeath. Normally it is the smaller, less-well constructed buildings which are forsaken, but this one was sturdily built and so its neglected condition is somewhat surprising. The interior still contains much of its furnishings, although now in some disarray. Soon the roof will give way and then the walls tumble, allowing Nature to stake her claim to the site.
Despite its French name, the concept of the ferme ornée is of English origin and is usually attributed to the garden designer and writer Stephen Switzer.* His 1715 book The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation criticized the overly elaborate formal gardens derived from French and Dutch examples, and proposed laying out grounds that were attractive but also functional: ‘By mixing the useful and profitable parts of Gard’ning with the Pleasurable in the Interior Parts of my Designs and Paddocks, obscure enclosures, etc. in the outward, My Designs are thereby vastly enlarg’d and both Profit and Pleasure may be agreeably mix’d together.’ In other words, working farms could be transformed into visually delightful places. One of the earliest examples of the ferme ornée was laid out by Philip Southgate who owned the 150-acre Woburn Farm, Surrey on which work began in 1727. ‘All my design at first,’ wrote Southgate, ‘was to have a garden on the middle high ground and a walk all round my farm, for convenience as well as pleasure.’ The fashion for such designs gradually spread across Europe as part of the adoption of natural English gardens: perhaps the most famous example is the ferme ornée is the decorative model farmy called the Hameau de la Reine created for Marie Antoinette at Versailles in the mid-1780s. The most complete extant example of this garden type in Europe is believed to be at Larchill, County Kildare.
*Incidentally, Stephen Switzer was no relation to the Irish Switzers: whereas his family could long be traced to residency in Hampshire, the Switzers who settled in this country in the early 18th century had come from Germany to escape religious persecution.
Larchill was created in the mid-18th century on part of an estate then owned by the Prentices, a Quaker merchant family whose adjacent country retreat, Phepotstown, still stands. As was typical with members of this sect, the house is very plain (the Quakers disapproving of unnecessary ornament) in striking contrast with the buildings on their farm. Here they followed the principles espoused by Switzer, Southgate and others, erecting structures both utilitarian and attractive around a gothick-style yard. However, it is across the surrounding farmland that the greatest, and most conspicuous, effort was expended. The focus of this enterprise is an eight-acre lake to the south of the farmyard. Several buildings are located around this stretch of water, while two others stand on small islands. That to the east is a small temple-like structure, its outer wall marked with decorative recesses, while inside a circle of columns surrounds an open space which may have been a well (the columns supporting a roof that directed rainwater into the centre of the site). A bridge, perhaps composed of pontoons, linked this island to the mainland. Meanwhile to the west, a larger island holds a miniature fort known as Gibraltar, the name deriving from an unsuccessful siege of the peninsula that ran for more than three and a half years from 1779-1783. The fort may have been erected to commemorate the fact that Gibraltar withstood this assault by Spanish and French forces. Between the two islands used to stand a statue of the ancient Greek hunter Meleager: more recently it has been replaced by a similarly-proportioned figure of Bacchus. here…
The statue of Meleager once found in the middle of the lake now has pride of place in the Larchill’s restored walled garden. The south-west corner of this space is occupied by a three-storey battlemented tower, the interior spaces of which – lit by arched gothic windows – have walls covered in shells, reflecting a fashionable pastime of the period such as can be seen inside the cottage decorated in a similar fashion during the same period by Emily, Duchess of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare which stands not far away. Further to the east of this wall is a three-arched loggia which once served as an ornamental dairy, the interior once lined with 18th century Dutch blue-and-white tiles. Like the rest of Larchill, the walled garden has been restored over the past twenty-years by its present owners. The Prentices, who had created the core of the ferme ornée were forced to sell the place, which was then bought by another family the Watsons who maintained and even added other features to the grounds such as the Fox’s Earth, a folly apparently built by Robert Watson, a well-known Master of Hounds who feared reincarnation as a fox (having been responsible for killing too many of them). However, during the 19th century it would seem the ornamental aspects of the parkland were neglected so that it returned to customary agricultural usage. The buildings fell into dereliction, the lake dried out, or was drained, and the special character of Larchill lost. Only after being purchased by the de las Casas family in 1994 did work begin to restore the site. Many of the buildings were carefully cleared of undergrowth and trees, the lake re-established and the distinctive character of this ferme ornée recovered. Thanks to their labours, today it is once more possible to emulate the precedent of Philip Southgate and to walk around Larchill ‘for convenience as well as pleasure.’here…
Larchill, County Kildare is open to the public. For further information, see: https://larchill.ie/
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.