The ivy-smothered ruins of Bruree Castle, County Limerick. It has been claimed this was originally built by the Knights Templar in the 12th century, but more probably the ‘castle’ is a 15th century tower house erected by the de Lacys, a family of Norman origin which had settled in the area. The building was badly damaged by English forces during the first Desmond Rebellion (1569-73), which seemingly was when its upper storey was lost. How long it will survive is open to conjecture, since sections of the masonry have fallen off in recent years. Sadly, the adjacent, now-disused, Church of Ireland church is likewise in a perilous condition.
It is a year almost to the day since the unexpected death of Rolf Loeber. Dutch-born, he was a specialist in child psychology, with a particular interest in juvenile delinquency and for more than three decades had been based at the University of Pittsburgh: at the time of his death, he was that institution’s Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Epidemiology. But while still a student in Holland in the 1960s, he read Maurice Craig’s Dublin, 1660-1840 (first published in 1952) and become fascinated by Ireland’s architectural history. As a result, despite a busy academic career, he somehow found time to produce a series of invaluable articles and books on the subject, beginning with a Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Ireland 1600-1720 which appeared in1981. He was a pioneer in his meticulous scrutiny of archives and his ability to draw together material from a remarkable range of sources, as can be seen in his last book, which is being issued posthumously this week. Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 is typical in being both scholarly and readable, immensely engaging thanks to the author’s enthusiasm and full of insights into the ways in which diverse buildings across the country correspond to each other. One of the chapters contains several pages devoted to Eyrecourt Castle, County Galway and the remarkable staircase once found inside that house. The last conversation I had with Rolf Loeber concerned this staircase and the possibility that, having left Ireland almost a century ago, it might now return here.
As is so often the case in Ireland, despite its name there was nothing remotely castellated about Eyrecourt Castle. The house was built in the 1670s by Colonel John Eyre, an English soldier who had come to this country twenty years earlier and through diverse methods acquired a considerable amount of land in east County Galway (incidentally, Galway’s Eyre Square indicates how involved the Eyre family became in the affairs of the city during this period). On his estate, he began laying out a new town with broad streets, the principal thoroughfare concluding at the gates leading to his house. Given the unsettled nature of the times, it might have been expected the colonel would make sure this new residence was well fortified. Remarkably, however, Eyrecourt Castle was completely unprotected. As can be seen in the top photograph, it was a two-storey manor with dormered attic, the seven-bay façade having a pedimented three-bay breakfront and the wood entrance doorcase featuring Corinthian pilasters flanking a wide entablature centred on an elliptical window surrounded by carved foliage. Were it still standing, Eyrecourt Castle would be the architectural wonder of the West. Alas! The colonel overstretched his resources in the house’s construction (as early as 1677 a trust had been established in which a portion of the estate was set aside for 61 years to cover arrears) and the family finances appear never to have recovered thereafter. Circumstances were not helped by ubsequent generations of Eyres becoming typical members of the Irish gentry, hard-living and hard-drinking squireens.
It is worth quoting in full the description of John Eyre, created first – and last – Baron Eyre of Eyrecourt in 1768, given by dramatist Richard Cumberland (whose father was then Bishop of nearby Clonfert). According to Cumberland, Lord Eyre was ‘Proprietor of a vast extent of soil, not very productive, and inhabiting a spacious mansion, not in the best repair, he lived according to the style of the country, with more hospitality than elegance, and whilst his table groaned with abundance, the order and good taste of its arrangements were little thought of. The slaughtered ox was hung up whole, and the hungry servitor supplied himself with his dole of flesh sliced from off the carcase. His lordship’s day was so apportioned as to give the afternoon by much the largest share of it, during which, from the early dinner to the hour of rest, he never left the chair, nor did the claret ever quit the table. This did not produce inebriety, for it was sipping rather than drinking, that filled up the time, and this mechanical process of gradually moistening the human clay was carried on with very little aid from conversation, for his lordship’s companions were not very communicative, and fortunately he was not very curious. He lived in an enviable independence as to reading, and of course he had no books. Not one of the windows of his castle was made to open, but luckily he had no liking for fresh air, and the consequence may be better conceived than described.’ As this passage indicates, Cumberland’s memoirs are as entertaining and as informative of life in provincial Georgian Ireland, as those of the slightly later Sir Jonah Barrington.
When Lord Eyre died in 1781 the estate was already heavily encumbered, and the next couple of generations of the family ran up further debts, not least owing to their preoccupation with hunting, for which the Eyres kept a stable of 30-40 horses and their own pack of 80 hounds. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, a considerable part of the estate had to be sold but this did nothing to curb the family’s extravagance, leading to further sales in the 1880s; by the time William Henry Gregory Eyre died in 1925, what had once been a holding of more than 30,000 acres had dropped to a little more than 600. The following year, the remainder of the estate was auctioned, together with the contents of the house. Eyrecourt Castle was then abandoned, but not before its staircase had been carefully removed and taken out of the country.
Dating from the time of the house’s construction, Eyrecourt Castle’s staircase took up an extraordinary one-third of the total interior space, and is unlike anything else in Ireland. Made of elm, oak and pine, it comprises two flights of steps that gradually rise to the return where they unite to offer single access to the upper floor, the piano nobile holding the main reception rooms. Rolf Loeber described it as though still in situ: ‘As seen from the downstairs hall, the staircase is partly screened by the Eyre family’s coat of arms, flanked by two arches, ingeniously suspended from the ceiling. On the first steps, the balustrades and newel posts with their wealth of botanical detail become visible, including many carved vases with flowers. At the half-landing, the full extent of the staircase first becomes visible, showing contrasts between the straight lines of the massive bannisters and the rolling down of the carved acanthus leaves from the railings.
The gradual ascent continues to the first floor, where a wall of decorative panelling with superimposed pilasters on each side of the double doors announced the saloon. The high point of the staircase is its rich carving dedicated to nature. The newel posts alone carry thirty carved vases of flowers, mostly freestanding, while others adjoin the walls. Two carved heads of “green men” at the top of the staircase spout acanthus leaves from their mouth, with the leaves rolling down the foliated frieze below the massive bannisters. Other faces of “green men” feature up and down the staircase.’
In 1926 some of the interiors of Eyrecourt Castle, including its staircase, were purchased by the decorating firm of White, Allom & Co., removed from the house and taken to London. White, Allom was run by Sir Charles Allom who specialised in period interiors for American clients: his firm was responsible for laying out the rooms in what is now the Frick Collection in New York. From the mid-1920s Allom worked with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, then fitting out the vast castle he had built in San Simeon, California. Hearst bought the Eyrecourt staircase in 1927 and, taken apart and packed into a series of wooden crates, it was shipped to the United States.* There it sat in the crates until 1951 when Hearst died. His estate subsequently donated the staircase – and much other material besides – to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The crates remained in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, until they were finally opened a few years ago and the multiple pieces of carved wood unpacked.
Among architectural historians, the Eyrecourt staircase enjoys legendary status but it’s safe to say that only a handful of Irish people have ever seen it: two years ago, the Irish Aesthete went to Detroit specifically to do so, and was very kindly taken by one of the institute’s curators to the repository where the photographs shown today were taken. The experience was fascinating, since although dispersed around various sections of the space the structure’s various parts are all present. Numbered and ready for reassembly, the work first needs restorative attention, not least because at some date in the past the wood was stripped and this has had an adverse effect on its condition. But it is a marvel, a stupendous work of Irish craftsmanship and, as already mentioned, unlike anything else now in this country. At the time of his death, Rolf Loeber was investigating the possibility of repatriating the Eyrecourt staircase: this was the subject of our final conversation. Still stored in a suburban warehouse, the likelihood of the item ever being reassembled by its present custodian looks remote. The staircase is a national treasure and ought to be in Ireland. While the cost of doing so is considerable, overlooking this opportunity to bring a masterpiece home would be an unforgiveable oversight. The time has come to start a campaign, so that this exile can return to its native country.
*In 1928 White, Allom assembled the panelled former drawing room from Eyrecourt Castle at an antiques show held in Olympia, London, where it was photographed and described as a ‘Charles II Room.’ The panelling was subsequently acquired by Hearst and installed in two rooms in St Donat’s Castle, Glamorgan.
Irish Houses and Castles, 1400-1740 by Rolf Loeber is published by Four Courts Press, €55.
Born in Dublin in 1798, Richard Turner inherited the family ironworks which he developed to manufacture the glasshouses for which he became renowned: among the best-known examples of his work are the Palm Houses in Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens, and the Curvilinear Range at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. His earliest commission in this area was for a conservatory at Colebrooke, County Fermanagh, believed to date from 1833. Like a giant skeleton the frame still survives but unfortunately almost all the glass has been lost, and while the present owners of the estate would much like to undertake a restoration, the cost of doing so is too prohibitive.
Another ruinous church, this time of more recent vintage: the former Church of Ireland premises in Drumlumman, County Cavan. A plaque over the small west door carries the inscription ‘ ‘This Church was Built Chiefly at the expence of William Gore of Woodford Esq in the year 1789.’ The gothic windows on the east and south sides are believed to be a later addition. The church continued to be used for services until the 1970s and has since fallen into its present sad state.
William Gore, at whose expense the church was principally built, inherited an estate at Woodford, County Leitrim, originally owned by the O’Rourkes, one of their castles being incorporated into the house. His son, also William, married a Shropshire heiress Mary Jane Ormsby in 1815 and changed his surname to Ormsby Gore: the couple’s eldest son John was created first Baron Harlech in 1876. Having briefly represented Leitrim in the House of Commons, William Ormsby Gore and his family lived primarily in England: by 1837 Samuel Lewis described Woodford as having formerly been ‘a place of great splendour.’ The house no longer stands and it now looks as though the church Mr Gore had helped to build is going the same way.
Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.
It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’
While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.
Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.
‘There are probably more derelict buildings in Ireland than in any other country of Western Europe,’ opens a television report on the rescue of Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary (see: https://www.rte.ie/archives/2017/1122/922043-damer-house-gets-new-life). That statement was made in 1977 and is probably just as applicable today, as can be seen by the condition of this house, in the townland or Irby on the outskirts of Roscrea.
The building looks to be early-to-mid 19th century and constructed as a residence for an affluent tenant farmer. It was designed like a miniature gentleman’s house, with a number of reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms upstairs, all inside sturdy walls. These still survive but the interior has been almost entirely lost and the roof is on the verge of going. Although capable of restoration and reuse, the place will likely only decline further: after all, Ireland has a reputation to maintain as the country with more derelict buildings than anywhere else in Europe…
Coote Terrace is a row of three late Georgian three-bay, two-storey over basement villas in Mountrath, County Laois, the name derived from the Coote family who lived nearby in Ballyfin. They are in diverse condition, this one being well-maintained and with a handsome front garden. Its neighbour, on the other hand, looks in need of serious attention if the house is to survive.
Moore Hall can be found on O’Moore Street, Tullamore, County Offaly. The house dates from the mid-1750s when built by Richard Moore, who may have been related to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville (of the first creation). It was probably quite simple but just over a century later a doctor called John Ridley added the central limestone bay with its extraordinary first floor window in Jacobean Mannerist style that sits atop a more regular doorcase flanked by Doric columns and finished with a wide fanlight. Aside from the unfortunate uPVC windows, the building survives in good condition, unlike its immediate neighbour, a pretty early 19th century cottage with Wyatt windows on either side of a tall and wide gothic doorcase: sadly this house is fast falling into dereliction.
The former Market House in Eyrecourt, County Galway. The building dates from c.1750 and is one of a number erected in the 18th century by local landlords the Eyre family to improve the circumstances of the locality. The linen industry, one of the few businesses free from import duties on goods sent to England, thrived during this period and both Eyrecourt and nearby Lawrencetown became active centres for the fabric’s manufacture, hence the need for a market house.
Designed on a T-plan and of five-bays and two-storeys, the building subsequently appears to have served a number of other purposes, including court house, school, town hall and theatre. However, at some date in the last century it was damaged by fire and has stood a roofless ruin ever since, last witness to what was once a thriving industry in the area.
Wilton House on College Square North, Belfast. Dating from the early 1830s, the neo-classical building was originally constructed as two houses and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Jackson, a young Waterford-born architect who had recently gone into partnership with the older Thomas Duff of Newry. Towards the end of the 19th century, the pair of houses were combined into one so as to operate as the Hotel Metropole. In 1907 it began to be used as a mission hall for the Adult Deaf and Dumb Organisation which through various incarnations remained on the site until 2011. Since then it has sat empty and falling into dereliction, although at least the property still stands, unlike many others in the immediate vicinity which were lost to bombing and subsequent demolition during the 1970s. Wilton House was finally sold last year to developers who have lodged a planning application to convert the house into eight apartments, with a seven-storey extension to the rear containing a further 19 apartments.