Offering Tonic Views


The thatched summer house in the grounds of Florence Court, County Fermanagh. This is at least the third such structure on the site, the earliest version being known from a photograph depicting the third Earl of Enniskillen and his family inside the original 19th century ‘Heather House.’ In a memoir published in 1972 the late Nancy, Countess of Enniskillen observed how, ‘On the highest level of The Pleasure Grounds, there used to stand a little “summer house.” Here on a warm sunny day ideally without wind and wrinkled only by the wings of birds and insects, on such a day at Florence Court, the Cole family would adjourn to drink their tea and enjoy the tonic view of the valley and the mountain.’ Inevitably the vulnerable materials used in its construction meant this building did not survive and in 1993 the National Trust commissioned a replica from two craftsmen: it lasted until August 2014 when completely destroyed by teenage arsonists. Since then another replacement has been erected here.


More on Florence Court in due course.

Into the Woods

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Buried in the midst of trees, the remains of a neo-classical gate lodge in County Fermanagh. Likely dating from the early 19th century, its entrance at the top of a short flight of steps features a fine Tuscan portico flanked by windows each set within a shallow arched niche. Although almost beyond redemption (the rear wall has bulged out and looks on the verge of collapse), the building’s quality of stonework for key features, together with an evident consideration of the overall design, is testament to the care once paid even to such modest dwellings.

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Wide is the Gate, and Broad is the Way…

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The main entrance to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Originally founded by royal charter in 1618 but not moving to its present site until 1778, this educational establishment numbers among its alumni (‘Old Portorans’) both Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Neither writer would have passed through these gates however, since they were only moved to this site more recently. The paired Corinthian columns originally formed part of the bow-fronted portico to Innismore Hall, a nearby house dating from the 1840s. Following its demolition in the 1950s the columns were moved here and incorporated into a newly-formed gatescreen.

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A Scene Extremely Picturesque

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As its name indicates, Belle Isle is an island located at the very top of Upper Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. Inhabited since the 12th century, it was originally called Ballymacmanus an abode of the MacManus family from which they controlled fishing and trade on the lake. In the 15th century, one of their number Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa, who was not only a chief but also a cleric, was principal compiler of the Annals of Ulster (the original manuscript of which is now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin).
In 1610 Ballymacmanus was part of the estate granted to Paul Gore, a soldier who had come to Ireland some years earlier: in 1622 he was created a baronet. It was his great-grandson Sir Ralph Gore, fourth baronet, who built the core of the present house on the island and renamed the place Belle Isle in recognition of its natural beauty. The latter was much enhanced by his younger son the sixth baronet also called Ralph, who was born on Belle Isle in 1725. For much of his life a soldier, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General, in 1788 he became Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. Over the previous decades he had been created Baron Gore, Viscount Belle Isle and finally Earl of Ross. Between his military duties he found time to improve the island, employing Thomas Wright on the design of the grounds, and building a temple, a grotto and a thatched hermitage, described by Jonathan Fisher in his Scenery of Ireland (1795) as being ‘a handsome cottage with a kitchen and other conveniences, in a sweet retired part [of the demesne].’
Arthur Young had likewise been full of praise for the site, writing in August 1776, ‘To Belleisle, the charming seat of the Earl of Ross. It is an island in Loch Earne, of two hundred Irish acres, every part of it hill, dale, and gentle declivities; it has a great deal of wood, much of which is old, and forms both deep shades and open, cheerful groves. The trees hang on the slopes, and consequently show themselves to the best advantage. All this is exceedingly pretty, but it is rendered trebly so by the situation. A reach of the lake passes before the house, which is situated near the banks among some fine woods, which give both beauty and shelter. This sheet of water, which is three miles over, is bounded in front by an island of thick wood, and by a bold circular hill which is his lordship’s deer park; this hill is backed by a considerable mountain. To the right are four or five fine clumps of dark wood – so many islands which rise boldly from the lake; the water breaks in straits between them, and forms a scene extremely picturesque. On the other side the lake stretches behind wood in a strait which forms Belleisle. Lord Ross has made walks round the island, from which there is a considerable variety of prospect. A temple is built on a gentle hill, commanding the view of the wooded islands above-mentioned, but the most pleasing prospect of them is coming out from the grotto. They appear in an uncommon beauty; two seem to join, and the water which flows between takes the appearance of a fine bay, projecting deep into a dark wood: nothing can be more beautiful. The park hill rises above them, and the whole is backed with mountains.’

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John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopedia of Agriculture of 1825 remarked that Belle Isle was ‘charmingly diversified by hills, dales and gentle declivities, which are richly clothed with old timber through which gravel walks are constructed, and a temple erected, from which a panoramic view is obtained, not only of this but all the other wooded islands of the lough.’  It is interesting to compare these observations with those made in by Jonathan Binns just over a decade later in The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (1837): ‘Belleisle, the property of the Rev. Gray Porter, is situated on the higher lake, and in addition to its beauty, is remarkable as being the first grant made in Ireland after the confiscation. It contains upwards of 300 acres, and was originally the property of a Lord Ross, who from this island took the title of Lord Belleisle. It descended by marriage to Sir H. Hardinge, who sold it to the present proprietor. The house, once famed for its hospitality, is now a ruin.’ An explanation for these circumstances is easily provided. The Earl of Ross had died in 1802, predeceased by his young heir. The estate accordingly passed to his only surviving child, an illegitimate daughter Mary who married Sir Richard Hardinge. The couple had no children and following the death of Lady Hardinge in 1824, and that of her husband two years later, the estate was left to the nephew of Sir Richard, the Rev. Sir Charles Hardinge of Tonbridge, Kent who seems to have had no interest in owning a property in Ireland. Accordingly in 1830, he sold the Belle Isle estate for £68,000 to another cleric, the Rev. John Grey Porter of Kilskeery, County Tyrone whose father had enriched himself while serving for over twenty years as the Anglican bishop of Clogher. Descendants of the Porter family would remain thereafter resident at Belle Isle until 1991.

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While much work had been carried out on the island’s grounds over the previous century, the house bought by the Rev. Porter remained predominantly the modest two-storey lodge built in the early 1700s by the fourth Gore baronet. At some point during the brief Hardinge era a bow-fronted drawing-room had been added to the left-hand end of the original range, and a new staircase added to its rear, lit by an octagonal lantern. John Grey Vesey Porter, who inherited the estate on his father’s death, added the stable courtyard in 1856 and at some date in the 1880s further extended the house and altered its appearance to resemble what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; producing a gabled entrance front with mullioned windows, a projecting porch and a tall church-like, battlemented tower.’ Meanwhile, inside ‘arches were opened up between the staircase hall and the rooms on either side of it…and oak staircase with barley-sugar balusters replaced the original stairs; the walls were panelled in oak or decorated with half-timbering.’ Yet more work was undertaken in the first decade of the last century when the architect Percy Richard Morley Horder was employed to extend the entrance front with a wing in the Tudor style; this holds a long high chamber with timbered roof, elaborate chimneypiece and overmantel, and a minstrels’ gallery, the balustrade of which it has been suggested contains woodwork dating from the late 17th century or early 18th century woodwork and brought from elsewhere. Thus as seen today Belle Isle represents an amalgam of the tastes of some three centuries, harmoniously brought together within its setting. Twenty-five years ago the last of the Porters to live here, Lavinia Baird, sold the estate to the fifth Duke of Abercorn who with his wife has since undertaken an extensive programme of refurbishment to house and grounds alike, with different sections serving as a cookery school or available for weddings, sporting activities, events and self-catering holidays. Today Belle Isle amply lives up to the name bestowed on it by an earlier owner.

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For more information on the estate, see http://belle-isle.com

Commodious Offices

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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.

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A White Elephant

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A fortnight ago the BBC reported that the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland had spent almost £400,000 maintaining an equestrian centre in County Fermanagh that it stopped using four years ago. ‘The Necarne Estate in Irvinestown has been lying empty since equine courses were moved  to Enniskillen. In 2012, the department said Necarne had become surplus to its requirements. But it had signed a 25-year lease for £500,000 that runs until 2023 without an early opt-out clause.’ At the centre of this property, which runs to 228 acres, are the remains of a residence called Castle Irvine.

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Castle Irvine, sometimes known as Necarne Castle, was originally built around 1618-19 by a Scottish settler called Gerard Lowther: given the uneasy times, the four-storey rectangular building was defensive in appearance, with walls seventeen feet thick and two towers to the rear. The castle and surrounding lands were subsequently acquired by another Scottish settler Christopher Irvine whose descendants remained there until the last century. In 1788 Major Gorges Irvine married the Meath-born heiress Elizabeth D’Arcy, after which the family was known as D’Arcy-Irvine. Thanks to this injection of money, the castle underwent a major overhaul in the first half of the 1830s, the architect responsible being John Benjamin Keane, former assistant to Sir Richard Morrison. Perhaps for this reason the appearance of Castle Irvine bears some similarities to that of Borris, County Carlow which had been revamped some years earlier by Morrison in the same Tudor-Gothic idiom. A new range was added in front of the old castle, of five bays with an arcaded central porch and octagonal turrets at the corners. Further towers and crenellations were scattered liberally elsewhere, so that the whole building became an elaborate gothic fantasy. However, again like Borris, while the exterior of Castle Irvine was in one style, the interiors adopted another, being strictly classical. The entrance hall, for example, was flanked by red scagliola columms with Corinthian columns (once more the entrance hall of Borris is called to mind).

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In 1922 Major Charles Cockburn D’Arcy-Irvine gave up living at Castle Irvine: his son Captain Charles William D’Arcy-Irvine had been killed in the Dardanelles seven years earlier. In 1925 a Captain Richard Outram Hermon from Sussex bought the castle and estate and lived there with his own family until the outbreak of the Second World War. During the subsequent period it was used as a military hospital by British and American forces but thereafter Castle Irvine was never occupied. Following Captain Hermon’s death in 1976 the estate was put up for sale and bought first by a local entrepreneur who had developed several other hotels in the Fermanagh region. However, in 1987 Castle Irvine was acquired by the local District Council for about £300,000, after which the same authority spent some £4 million developing equestrian facilities on the site including a 300-seat indoor arena, 80 stables, 16 bedrooms, two dressage arenas, and courses for cross-country, point-to-point and steeplechase. Ultimately this ambitious project came to a premature end, although it continues to cost the NI Department of Agriculture money every year. Throughout this time no funds were spent on the old castle, which despite being a listed building in the care of the council, has deteriorated to the point where it is now just a shell: as one of the authority’s officials told the BBC, ‘Unfortunately a use for the castle has not been found and it would take a very serious amount of money to put it back together.’ It is hard to imagine who might now want to spend such money for what has become a large and derelict white elephant.

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A Light Touch

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The double return Imperial staircase in Crom Castle, County Fermanagh. The house was designed in the mid-1830s by Edward Blore, a protégé of Sir Walter Scott who specialised in Gothic Revival architecture. Here a mixture of timber and plaster was employed to create a feather-light sequence of soaring arcades in the late Perpendicular style leading up to an octagonal lantern.

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