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.
‘A lot done, more to do’ was the slogan used by an Irish political party in a general election fifteen years ago. It might also apply to the study of this country’s architectural history about which the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. There are certain areas in which a considerable amount of research has been undertaken, but many others where next to nothing has yet been done. With regard to the latter, investigation into the design and character of ancillary buildings on country estates is a subject that has hitherto not been explored in any depth. Yet these structures – the stable- and farmyards and so forth – were as important to the successful management of an estate as was the large house at its centre. Today there is much interest in what took place beyond the green baize door inside a country house, so that the lives of domestic servants and the quarters they occupied are given increasing notice. However, their outdoor equivalents – those who lived and worked in ancillary buildings – do not seem to attract much attention. Nor do the buildings themselves, even though they were often as well designed, constructed and finished as the big house they were there to sustain. Indeed they are often so sturdy that in instances where the country house has either fallen or been pulled down, the outbuildings remain. Such is the case at Donore, County Westmeath.
For hundreds of years Donore was occupied by a branch of the Nugent family the first of whom, Hugh de Nugent, came to Ireland in the 12th century and received lands in Westmeath. In the fifteenth century one of his descendants, James Nugent, married the heiress Elizabeth Holywood and it appears that through her inheritance the lands of Donore passed to the couple’s heirs. In the 17th century, the Nugents of Donore fought with their Irish compatriots in the Confederate Wars and were duly indicted, yet somehow despite consistently remaining Roman Catholic they managed to retain their property. In fact, by judicious marriages they improved their circumstances. In the 18th century, for example, James Nugent, first baronet, married Catherine King, elder daughter and co-heiress of Robert King of Drewstown, County Meath: that house was discussed here last week. And so it continued into the middle of the last century when, shortly before her death in November 1957 the widowed Aileen, Lady Nugent sold the estate to the Franciscan order which had re-settled nearby on land gifted to the friars by the Nugents. According to the present head of the family, the price paid for this transaction was £20,000. Apparently Lady Nugent had insisted as a condition of the sale that the house would be preserved. However this was not to be. The Franciscans subsequently sold on the greater part of the estate to the Land Commission, Donore was duly condemned, and pulled down. Today a bungalow occupies the site.
There seem to be no photographic records of Donore other than an aerial image of the site, located on rising ground to the south of Lough Derravaragh. However, according to the family it bore striking similarities in design to Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. Now called St Raphael’s and owned by the St John of God religious order, Oakley Park dates from 1724 and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Burgh. Of three storeys over basement, it has a seven-bay façade with a three-bay breakfront centred on the groundfloor doorcase incorporating a segmental pediment. The similarities between this property and Donore are interesting, because the latter is generally considered to have been built at the end of the 18th century, and to have been of little consequence. In his guide to Irish country houses, Mark Bence-Jones summarily dismissed Donore as ‘A plain 3 storey Georgian block,’ and the place does not merit even a mention in Casey and Rowan’s guide to the buildings of North Leinster.
Yet if it dated from the 1720s and shared stylistic traits with Oakley Park, then this would explain the appearance of a once-grand yard still standing to the east. Although now in pitiful condition, it is still possible to see how magnificent this complex must once have been. Employing crisply defined limestone, the southern entrance takes the form of a simplified but rugged triumphal arch, which is then topped by an hexagonal tower at least twice the height of the arch. Inside the yard, the northern side is focused on an equally immense three-bay pedimented breakfront coachhouse, while to the west is another arched entrance, the upper portion of which is occupied by a dovecote. Throughout the complex, the sophistication of both design and execution is remarkable. Bold and confident, its appearance suggests the now-lost house must have possessed the same traits and that, contrary to received wisdom, Donore was built at least half a century earlier than the date of 1790, which is usually given for its construction. If this is the case then its loss, and the lack of a decent photographic record, are all the more tragic. We are nowhere near fully understanding Ireland’s architectural history. A lot done, more to do.
Readers of a certain vintage may remember a long-running English soap opera called Crossroads in which notoriously the sets were as flimsy as the plots. Set in a midlands motel, the series ran for over twenty years with three or four episodes every week, an astonishing achievement considering how little real drama they ever featured. Yet for much of its history Crossroads regularly attracted audiences of up to 15 million. In 1926 the American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote, ‘No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.’ The success of Crossroads demonstrates the truth of this observation.
Today’s building looks as though it could have been constructed for an Irish version of Crossroads. Located in the north-west corner of County Meath, it appears to have been originally a modest farmhouse which was then much-extended to incorporate outbuildings around a central courtyard, the result being a budget hotel with twenty-seven bedrooms and sundry other spaces including a restaurant, bar and conference hall. Everything about the place seems insubstantial and gimcrack, except an enormous Baroque-style sandstone doorcase with open segmental pediment on one side of the property: can this have been salvaged from somewhere else? Is it even Irish? In any case, otherwise the fittings are of poor quality and are correspondingly today in poor condition.
The hotel closed down some years ago and has since been offered for sale, with the option of alternative use as a residential nursing home. Wandering about the site, it is unclear whether or not a new owner has assumed responsibility for the building, which at present has the eerie atmosphere of a Bates Motel. Neglect has taken its toll on what was never a very robust building and the place reeks of damp and decay. Not quite as flimsy as a Crossroads set, but not much better either: testament to the transitory nature of deficient design and cheap materials.
Last week, a group of graduate scholars and fellows from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) held a meeting in Dublin to propose the establishment of an Irish branch of the organisation. SPAB was founded in England in 1877 by two idealists, the designer and writer William Morris and the architect Philip Webb. They, and other members of their circle, were concerned about what they, often correctly, saw as ill-conceived and over-zealous ‘restoration’ of old buildings, the effect of which was to obliterate much evidence of a property’s cumulative history. This is a situation that has pertained here too, and on occasion continues to do so: for example, a particular moment in a house’s evolution can be selected and anything not relevant to that moment is scrupulously removed. Not only does this have the effect of air-brushing the background, but it often leads to speculative adjustment, to a recreation of what those responsible for the restoration believe would be correct. This is what Morris deemed ‘forgery’, and what he and Webb witnessed happening to buildings across England, especially old churches and cathedrals, and the same ill-advised approach was often adopted here (viz. what happened to both Christchurch and St Patrick’s Cathedrals in the 19th century). Repair not Restore is the motto of SPAB.
Here is the most significant, and most often quoted, section of the manifesto written by William Morris in 1877 to define the purpose and ideology of SPAB: ‘It is for all these buildings, therefore, of all times and styles, that we plead, and call upon those who have to deal with them, to put Protection in the place of Restoration, to stave off decay by daily care, to prop a perilous wall or mend a leaky roof by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering, and show no pretence of other art, and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying. Thus, and thus only, shall we escape the reproach of our learning being turned into a snare to us; thus, and thus only can we protect our ancient buildings, and hand them down instructive and venerable to those that come after us.’
There are many merits to the creation of an Irish branch of SPAB, not least the opportunity thus provided to draw on its experience, and the skills of both members and graduates from various programmes run by the organisation. We need more skilled conservators across a range of disciplines, and the training courses run by SPAB are unquestionably of high quality. On the other hand, much of what SPAB does in England is already being done here by a number of existing bodies, and there is the risk of already-scarce resources being further diluted by the entry of another player into the field. Multiplication ought not to lead to duplication. Anyone who attended last week’s inaugural meeting could not fail to be impressed by the ardor and commitment of those who had called it. One of the best features of SPAB is the manner in which it puts ideology into practice, through the organising of various events during which members put their talents to use. Today’s photographs show the kind of property where the intervention of SPAB could make a real difference. The pictures are of a collection of buildings in the yards behind an old house in County Wexford. Various structures have undergone alterations and modifications over time, presumably as their purpose, and the needs of earlier owners, has required. Now they have a special patina that only long and diverse history can convey. Repair not Restore would see these buildings retain that patina, while being given the chance to have a viable future. If SPAB in Ireland can do that here, and in many other places around the country, then its establishment will be of inestimable value to us all.
*Anyone interested in making contact with the advocates of an Irish branch of SPAB, at the moment the best means of making contact appears to be through twitter: @SPABIreland.
Earlier this year, the ‘barracks’ at Clomantagh, County Kilkenny featured here (An Architectural Conundrum, August 15th) with some speculation on its origins and date since, as the name implies, it has long been associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary. As a result, a notion had gained currency that the building was constructed as a barracks for the force. However, James Butler, whose family owned the property from the 1870s-80s until the first decade of the present century, has been in touch with information and memories, extracts of which are given below: ‘The barracks would have been purchased by my great great grandfather James Butler, in the second half of the 19th century. I believe the RIC vacated the buildings and moved into another barracks in Tullaroan. I spoke to my grandfather about it in the 1980s and hastily wrote what I remembered when I got back to my uncle Noel’s house (behind the barracks and up the road towards Johnstown) on a scrap of paper which I still have…’
These recollections include the proposal that the adjacent mill (which was only demolished in 2005) had been built after the Great Famine. However, Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (published 1837, that is several years before the onset of famine), notes ‘The Clomanto flour-mills, capable of manufacturing about 12,000 barrels annually, are impelled by a small river that intersects the parish; and attached to them is a large starch-manufactory, both belonging to Mr. W. Lyster.’ It would appear that the ‘barracks’ was owned by Lyster and then passed into the possession of the RIC before eventually being acquired by the Butlers.
Their descendant continues: ‘Now, the state of the barracks. I can assure you it was never attacked or burned down by the IRA. Simply because my grandfather was then the owner and he was also a volunteer in the IRA. There are no scorch marks to be seen anywhere. My grandfather spent most of the war of independence in various English gaols…You mention 1805 on the bell housing. I remember the housing but I don’t remember the year. Considering the RIC was only there from 1840-1860 then I suggest it is not a purpose built barracks but instead belonged to the Lyster family, as did the mill. It would have needed horses to take processed grain to market. The RIC may only have used it temporarily whilst the Tullaroan barracks were built. Although 20 years is a long temporary…The alcove to the right of the exit under the bell was a milking parlour. I remember gun dogs in another ground floor room. Possibly the other alcove to the left. My father remembers a small cinema occasionally set up for the community also in one of the groundfloor rooms. Upstairs was always full of hay. The fields above leading to my uncle’s place was usualy planted with wheat…’
These recollections show how, although Ireland is a small country, much of its architectural history remains to be studied, ideally before the relevant buildings are forever lost.
The upper yard of Crocknacrieve, County Fermanagh, described in 1833 as being ‘the seat and fee farm of John Johnston, Esq., and comprehends a nice new built house on the summit of a noble elevation, standing above a demesne of about 100 Irish plantation acres, beautifully dressed and planted.’ The following year, an ordinance survey report called Crocknacrieve ‘a neat and handsome building of modern architecture…It was built and the demesne laid out in 1817…The offices, which are attached to the house are very commodious.’ As they remain to the present day.
One of the great lost palaces of France was called Marly. Located in a little valley some four miles north-west of Versailles, Marly was designed by Hardouin-Mansart as a retreat for Louis XIV, although the scale of the place means one must use ‘retreat’ with a certain caution. The king’s pavilion stood at one end of the site from which a series of elaborate canals and pools on either side of which were six flanking houses, to be occupied by courtiers privileged enough to receive an invitation. The elaborate interiors, many of them frescoed by Le Brun, were matched by ever-more complex hydraulic waterworks. Following Louis XIV’s death in 1715, his successors visited the place less often and even before revolution broke out in France it had been largely abandoned. At the end of the 18th century Marly was sold to an industrialist who installed a cotton factory in the former palace: following the failure of this enterprise in 1806, Marly was demolished and its building materials sold. The only feature to have survived are the famous Chevaux de Marly, commissioned by Louis XV in 1739 from sculptor Guillaume Coustou. Fifty-five years later they were moved to Paris and installed on either side of the junction of the Champs-Élysées (they are now in the Louvre).
Here in Ireland, there is another so-called Palace of Marley (note the slight change of spelling), although it is otherwise known as Knockduff House in County Carlow: seemingly the reason the property sometimes carries the title of palace is because a Roman Catholic bishop was born or lived here. An old rhyme which was shared by someone who knows this part of the country well runs as Sweet Ballybrack I’ll give to Jack,
Inchaphhoka to Charlie,
Ballybeg I’ll give to Peg,
And I’ll live in the palace of Marley’ On the other hand, there are a number of places in Ireland called Palace or else Pallas (which in turn is derived from the Norman word Paleis meaning Boundary Fence so perhaps no bishop had any connection with the house at Marley. Of two storeys and five bays, its most immediately striking features are the pediment at the centre of the façade and the cut granite used for all the dressings including door and window cases. As indicated by the tall, narrow gable ends, inside the house was just one room deep, there being three on the ground floor and the same number above. The building is officially listed as dating from c.1750 but could be earlier, perhaps 1710-20. Unfortunately little of the original interior remains other than a rather crude chimney piece and at least some of the old staircase (much of the latter has fallen into serious disrepair, making it impossible to investigate the upper levels).
The Palace at Marley looks to have been built by a reasonably prosperous tenant farmer, but the question then arises: of whom was he the tenant? The Kavanaghs were for a long time the principal landlords in this part of the country, and according to the Down Survey of Ireland carried out in the mid-1650s, Knockduff then belonged to Anthony Kavanagh, a junior branch of the family. He or his successors may have lost the property (perhaps by remaining Roman Cathlic) because a map dated 1765 features the townland of Knockduff but a parcel of land on it approximating to where the house now stands is listed as belonging to ‘Lord Courtown.’ (The Stopfords, originally from England and settled in County Meath, had bought an estate on the Wexford/Carlow border in 1711: in 1758 James Stopford was created Baron Courtown and subsequently Viscount Stopford and Earl of Courtown.) so the house could be earlier than the start of the 18th century but it is hard to tell. Matters are not helped by the fact that a few years ago a renovation of the building was begun, during which the roof was re-slated and the external walls rendered. However, large openings were knocked in the rear and all the internal walls stripped back to stone, thereby removing almost all evidence of its earlier appearance. This project then stalled, and the house now stands in a vulnerable state, at risk from slipping into the same shambolic condition as the outbuildings to one side which have all but disintegrated. The grand palace at Marly has gone, remembered only through references to it in a handful of memoirs. That at Marley stands but could yet go the same way as its near-namesake.
Like most country houses, Shankill Castle, County Kilkenny has a range of outbuildings close to the main residence. The latter dates from c.1825, its neo-gothic design attributed to local architect William Robertson. The other structures, composed of cut limestone with granite for windows and doorcases, share stylistic similarities and can therefore be presumed by Robertson also. Some of them are used as studios and gallery space by the property’s present owners, but what to do with the others? Expensive to maintain, they no longer appear to have an apparent purpose. This is the conundrum facing everyone today responsible for such buildings.