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.
The 18th century English polymath Thomas Wright has featured here before because of his rightly-renowned work at Tollymore, County Down (Do the Wright Thing « The Irish Aesthete ), but it is apparent that while in Ireland during the year 1746-47, he also designed a number of other garden buildings elsewhere in the country. One of these is a rustic archway at Belvedere, County Westmeath, which would have been constructed around the same time as the villa here and so commissioned by Robert Rochfort, then Baron Belfield and future first Earl of Belvedere. This extraordinary structure is almost Mannerist in style and, as has been pointed out, would not look out of place in the 16th century Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo: the openings on the facade suggest a giant’s startled face. The arch stands at the end of a long drive from the house and although sometimes thought to have been an entrance lodge, this seems unlikely since its rear – which visitors would have encountered first had it served as a point of arrival to the estate – is unornamented. Clearly therefore the building was meant to close a vista and, since it once held several floors, to offer views back to the main residence and across Lough Ennell: note the wonderful rusticated oriel window on an upper level.
Situated to the immediate north-west of Dundalk, the Dún Dealgan Motte is associated with a number of myths, one of them being that this was the birthplace of the Irish legendary hero, Cúchulainn. Around 1180, the Normans were responsible for creating the present substantial earthwork which consists of a flat-topped mound some ten metres above the surrounding countryside, encircled by a deep fosse with a diameter of around 97 metres. It is likely that a wooden fortification was then erected on the top of the site, but this has long since vanished. Towards the end of the 18th century, a local merchant called Patrick Byrne (sometimes described as a ‘pirate’ since he may have been involved in smuggling) erected the castellated tower that can be seen today. Although damaged in the 1798 rebellion, it remained standing and around the mid-19th century was further enlarged and embellished by Colonel Thomas Vesey Dawson as a country retreat. However, the building subsequently fell into disrepair before being burnt out in the 1920s, leaving just a ruin of the tower, commonly known as Byrne’s Folly.
As far back as the late 13th century Herbertstown, sometimes called Harbourstown, County Meath was associated with the Caddells, a family of Anglo-Norman origin who, despite the Penal Laws, remained true to the Roman Catholic faith and at the same time managed to hold onto their lands in this part of the country. Their residence here, of two storeys and six bays with the facade distinguished by an Ionic portico, was originally constructed in the mid-18th century but presumably later enlarged or altered, as it was described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a handsome modern mansion, with a demesne comprising more than 400 acres tastefully laid out and well-planted, and commanding an extensive view from the summit of a tower within the grounds, which forms a conspicuous landmark to mariners.’ Herbertstown House was demolished at some date in the 1930s/40s but the ‘tower’ survives. Dating from c.1760, it is actually a polygonal limestown gazebo, with large round-headed openings on each side, one of which drops to the ground to provide access to the interior. Although now roofless and open to the elements, a balustraded platform around the top of the building (once section missing) indicates this once held a viewing platform, which makes sense as the gazebo stands at the summit of an artificial mound and offers superlative prospects of the surrounding countryside. Local legend has it that the Caddell responsible for constructing the building used it to watch racing at Bellewstown, some four miles away, after he had fallen out with the event’s organisers.
Dominating the local landscape, this is Castleboy Tower, County Galway. Five storeys high and thought to date from the opening years of the 19th century, the building was once part of an estate owned by a branch of the Persse family, who also lived at the adjacent estate of Roxborough (childhood home of Lady Gregory) , and it would appear to have been constructed as a folly, or perhaps converted into one using an earlier building on the site. When the Land Commission divided up the estate, the tower was left stranded to one side of a small road constructed to provide access to various small farms and now provides the only surviving memory of the Persses’ presence here.
Tucked down a minor rural road, the Stroan Fountain, County Kilkenny was for a long time thought to date from the third quarter of the 18th century: a damaged inscription carries the numerals 66, leading to speculation that these were preceded by 17. However, the rest of the legible text notes that the fountain had been ‘erected by subscription by permission of the Landlord Gervase Bushe. Designed and arranged by Thomas Seigne.’ Bushe was resident at the nearby Kilfane estate, where Seigne acted as land agent from c.1830 to c.1870. The structure comprises a limestone basin covered with a dome on top of which sits an obelisk; by means of a buried pipe, the fountain is fed from a cistern approximately 40 metres to the north-west. The cistern is in turn fed by a natural spring. Three stone steps provide access to the fountain and its two outlets, one for filling barrels placed on a donkey and cart and the other for buckets placed on a pair of stones. By the start of the present century, the fountain and its surroundings had fallen into disrepair but thanks to a number of organisations including a local heritage society, the county council and the Follies Trust, it was underwent restoration in 2010.
Located on high ground some distance from the main house at Sopwell Hall, County Tipperary: the remains of what appears to be an 18th century folly, perhaps once serving as a tea house. Constructed from uncut stone, the partially-restored building is circular with arched openings of three sides and a domed roof. What remains of a wall on the upper section suggests this might once have served as a viewing platform, offering visitors the opportunity to admire the surrounding countryside. Francis Bindon has long been credited as architect for Sopwell Hall, so might he have been responsible for the design of this structure also?
A recent video about obelisks on the Irish Aesthete YouTube channel (see (2) Follies Pt 1 – YouTube) served as a reminder of a cenotaph visited last year and located in County Mayo. This commemorates Maria Browne, née O’Donel, whose father Sir Neal O’Donel lived at Newport House elsewhere in the county. In 1797 she had married as his second wife Dodwell Browne, his unusual name being the surname of his paternal grandmother, who lived at Raheens. Maria Browne only lived until 1809, dying soon after arriving in Dublin whence she had gone for treatment of her illness. Her husband duly erected this monument to her memory, a tapering column that rises some 80 feet from a base to an ornamental urn. While rubble is used for the body of the monument, all four sides have quoins of cut limestone. A large plaque on the base written in old Irish may be translated as follows: ‘This is to your memory my friend. Oh my loyal beloved, gone forever, your presence forever lost to me’. Beneath, in English are the words ‘This cenotaph was built in memory of Maria O’Donel Browne, second daughter of Sir Neal O Donel.’ Above it a second plaque is inscribed ‘À Marie Et À L’Amour Par Son Cher Époux Dodwell, 1809”. Further up again is an oval disc containing the deceased’s profile and her name. The opposite side features another plaque, this one proclaiming ‘To Gaiety and Innocence’. A blank space above it suggests that a further tribute inserted here has since been removed. Once part of the Raheen estate demesne, today the monument stands in the middle of a field. As for the house, the supposedly-moated Elizabethan property where Dodwell and Maria Browne lived was pulled down by their son and replaced with a classical building; it has been a ruin since at least the middle of the last century.
In the late 1980s, the Office of Public Works announced plans to build a visitor canned for Ireland thanks to an EU-funded tourism ‘operational programme.’ All three plans would attract support but also extreme opposition, and lead to long-term bitterness in local communities. One of the key arguments against these new centres – another was to be located at Mullaghmore, County Clare – was that they would attract increased quantities of traffic onto what had, hitherto, been minor roads. The latter would therefore have to be widened to accommodate the greater number of cars and buses, which would in turn draw still more visitors to the relevant areas, thereby destroying forever precisely the environment which the centres were intended to celebrate and support. The battle against these schemes went on for many years, with the OPW – which stood to draw seventy-five per cent of funding for the centres from the EU – determined to go ahead despite consistent hostility to its proposals. For example, in 1991 an environmental impact study commissioned by the OPW took the chosen location for the Luggala centre as given and did not consider alternatives. Although the local authority’s own senior planner advised against the project, warning it would create traffic hazards and be ‘seriously injurious’ to the area, contractors were brought onto the site the following year and started work on the centre’s concrete structure. In 1993 however, Ireland’s High and Supreme Courts successively ruled the OPW had no power to build visitor centres, thereby making the development at Luggala illegal. In 1994 the organisation lodged a planning application to go ahead with the centre and duly received permission from Wicklow County Council. The scheme’s opponents then appealed to the state planning authority, An Bord Pleanala, the ultimate arbiter in such matters. It held oral hearings into the case in November 1994 and issued judgement in February 1995: sanction was refused for a visitor centre on which £1.6 million had already been spent. Over two years later the OPW finally promised to initiate work to restore the site to its condition before clearance had taken place for the controversial centre. The same outcome occurred in County Clare, where equal sums had already been spent and works likewise had to be reversed.
Visitors ascending Mount Pelier on the southern outskirts of Dublin eventually reach a large ruined building, popularly known as the Hell Fire Club. This dates from c.1725 and was originally constructed as a hunting lodge by William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and then the richest man in the country. Supposedly the lodge was erected on the site of, and incorporated stone from, a prehistoric cairn, so when shortly after it had been built, the property lost its roof in a strong wind, popular belief held that this was because Conolly had desecrated the site. However, nothing daunted, he had a new roof put in place, this time of stones keyed together, as is the case with bridges, capable of withstanding any wind. Following Conolly’s death in 1729, his widow rented out the lodge which is believed to have been used for meetings by a short-lived group set up c.1737 and known as the Hell Fire Club. This was an informal body, primarily a band of (excessive) drinking companions which seems to have been established in emulation of the original Hell Fire Club in England: coincidentally, the founder of that organisation, Philip, Duke of Wharton, had sold the land on which the lodge stands to Conolly. It is generally agreed that while, as mentioned, a number of meetings of the club took place in Conolly, the Irish Hell Fire Club more commonly met in Dublin at the Eagle Tavern on Cork Hill (a short street adjacent to Dublin Castle and City Hall). But that didn’t stop many popular myths being created around the old lodge, most of them involving satanic rites and general debauchery. In fact, the building soon fell into poor condition, as was noted by antiquarian Austin Cooper who on a visit to the site in July 1779 found it ‘now entirely out of Repair.’ So too did Joseph Holt, a leader in the 1798 rising who spent a night here while on the run from authorities. In 1800, the Conolly family sold the property to the wealthy Luke White, one of whose daughters Matilda married the fourth Lord Massy. His residence, Killakee, stood nearby so Mount Pelier passed into the ownership of the Massys until, following the seventh baron’s bankruptcy in 1924, the land was acquired by the state. In recent years, it has been under the control of Coillte, the country’s commercial forestry organisation.
Last June the national planning authority, An Bord Pleanála – which in recent years seems to have jettisoned any effort to display discernment (or indeed an understanding of planning) – granted permission for the creation of a €15 million visitor centre on the grounds of the Hell Fire Club site. Submitted by South Dublin County Council and supported by Coillte, the proposal includes the construction of a 950-square metre building, a car park to accommodate 280 vehicles (including five coaches), and a ‘tree top canopy walk.’ All of this looks suspiciously familiar: a scheme dreamed up in a well-appointed office about how best to exploit one of the country’s natural resources. At the moment, Mount Pelier Hill is believed to attract around 100,000 visitors per annum. The project’s ambition is to triple this figure, hence the requirement for all that car parking, despite the fact that Coillte – and indeed the Irish state and its sundry arms – is committed to adopting more environmentally friendly measures, which would surely include attempting to reduce rather than increase private car use. Incidentally, in order to give better access to the site, the proposal also features the widening of local roads, again something that flies in the face of the direction in which Ireland is supposed to be going. If the council and Coillte are so keen to bring more people to the site, instead of pouring tarmacadam over large areas of ground, how about offering decent – and frequent – public transport, thereby reducing the flow of cars in the area?
And even if there are more visitors, why should they need a ‘centre’. Really, a visitors’ centre: how quaint, how very 1980s. Just like shoulder pads, and equally pointless. Perhaps someone could take aside whoever was responsible for this proposal, and let him/her know that since that era a marvellous thing called the internet has been invented. That most people today have a mobile phone. And that an app on this instrument would easily carry all the information visitors would ever need, without the construction of a ‘centre’, thereby saving Irish taxpayers the best part of €15 million.
Be aware that the expenditure won’t end there. Inevitably, admission charges will be introduced to a location that has hitherto been free to access. Furthermore, long after the person responsible for the scheme has retired on an index-linked public service pension, the rest of the country will still be paying: for the cost of staff, for insurance, for security, for maintenance. Ah yes, the maintenance. Look at the pictures here and see just how much concern South Dublin County Council and Coillte have hitherto shown for the maintenance of a building to which they wish to invite so many more visitors. The Hell Fire Club is in a pitiful condition, a graffiti-scrawled, litter-filled mess that shows scant evidence of any engagement on the part of those responsible for its care. South Dublin County Council and Coillte could save themselves, and the rest of the country, a great deal of money and aggravation – as well as helping the environment – by looking after what already exists. William Conolly erected an extravagant folly here in 1725. There’s no need for a second one today.
The Hellfire Massy Residents Association is a voluntary body campaigning to stop this scheme going ahead. It can be contacted via twitter (Hellfire Massy Residents Association (@HellfireMassy) / Twitter) and Facebook ((5) Hellfire Massy Residents Association | Facebook) and also has a petition on change.org (Petition · Save the Hellfire & Massy’s Wood · Change.org)
Further to a recent account of Killoran House, County Tipperary, (https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/11/16/killoran/) here is another building that was once part of the same estate. On raised ground several hundred yards from, but within sight of the main dwelling, stands this round tower commanding a fine prospect of the surrounding countryside (although, alas, today this mostly encompasses a forest of wind turbines).
Rising three storeys to a castellated turret, Killoran Tower is believed to date from the 1860s and would therefore have been constructed by the estate’s then-owner Solomon Lalor Cambie. The interior divisions are long gone, but originally the ground floor would have been accessed from a doorway, while those above were reached after ascending a flight of stone steps; presumably there was a viewing platform at the top. Built of roughly-dressed rubble limestone, it is a sturdy structure and could well be restored as a holiday home, although, as with Killoran House, the proximity of turbines is likely to act as a deterrent for anyone who might think of such an undertaking.