In Limbo


The house at Durrow Abbey, County Offaly has a long and frequently unhappy history. As its name implies, this was originally a religious settlement (for more on which, see On the Plain of Oaks, February 2nd 2015). However in the 16th century and following the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands on which it stood were leased to Nicholas Herbert at a rent of £10 per annum payable to the Crown and military service when required. Herbert was granted a second lease in 1574 on condition that he built two stone fortresses on the site within four years. The Herberts remained in residence here until the death without male heirs of Sir George Herbert, third baronet, in 1712. The estate was then inherited by Sir George’s sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox: it was Mrs Fox who rebuilt the old adjacent church that remains today. The Foxes having no direct heirs, Durrow was then inherited by Philip Rawson Stepney and eventually by Herbert Rawson Stepney who, three years before his death in 1818 sold the estate to John Toler, first Lord Norbury. It would appear that during the time of the Stepneys that a new residence was built at Durrow: a surviving drawing made by architect William Murray in September 1829 shows the building – then called Durrow Park – to have been a plain classical structure of three storeys and seven bays, centred on a groundfloor doorcase with portico. Already at that date plans were being made for something more distinctive to be constructed on the site, but ultimately it was Norbury’s son who embarked on this enterprise. here…




Politician and lawyer, John Toler enjoyed a highly successful career at the bar despite being almost universally reviled for his ability to combine corruption with incompetence. He served as Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas for twenty-seven years (1800-1827) during which time he became known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ such was his propensity to prescribe the death sentence and only resigned at the age of 82 when offered an earldom and an annual pension of more than £3,000. Dying in 1831 he was succeeded by his son Hector John Graham-Toler, second Earl of Norbury who some years later decided to embark of a comprehensive redevelopment of the house: Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) mentions that ‘his lordship is erecting a spacious mansion in the ancient style.’ Two years later, in January 1839, Lord Norbury was shot dead by an unknown assailant while out riding: no one was ever brought to court (despite a reward being offered of £5,000 and 100 acres) but it seems likely the person responsible was a tenant recently evicted from a holding on the estate.
The widowed Lady Norbury pressed on with her late husband’s plans to rebuild Durrow and work continued there until 1843 when a fire broke out. A contemporary account in The Nation recorded that ‘The new building which was not completed, joined the old one, which it was intended to adopt as a wing by facing it with stone; in this portion all the valuable furniture was stored and this part of the extensive building is totally destroyed.’ At some later date the new building was completed, and thereafter owned by successive generations of the Graham-Toler family until the 1940s.




Completed around 1860, Durrow Abbey House’s architect is unknown. Designed in the popular Jacobean Revival style, the building was originally of three storeys over a sunken basement with high gable-end windows, raised chimney stacks and corner turrets, the whole in cut limestone. Behind the main block runs a long service wing opening onto a sunken courtyard. At one stage, a large porte-cochere stood in front of the main entrance. This survived until May 1923 when the house was burnt during the Civil War. It was subsequently rebuilt three years later with the top storey and porte-cochere removed, and with simplified Arts and Crafts interiors designed by Dublin architect Ralph Henry Byrne. Following the sale of the property by the Graham-Tolers, Durrow was owned first by the Slazenger family (who later became owners of Powerscourt, County Wicklow) and then the Williams family (who owned the local whiskey distillery). Subsequent owners proposed to change use of the property from private residence to hotel and golf resort as part of a €170 million scheme that would also have included several hundred houses and apartments. This plan was comprehensively rejected by the planning authorities, not least because of the importance of the immediately adjacent medieval site. Durrow languished in uncertainty until 2003 when the Irish State paid in the region of €3.5 million to acquire the place and surrounding 80-odd acres.




In May 2007 a 99-year lease on the main house was agreed by Dick Roche, then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and a charitable organisation called Arts for Peace Foundation. Incorporated in August 2004, Arts for Peace ‘provides therapeutic peace education programmes for children affected by conflict.’ Paying an annual peppercorn rent of €10, the organisation used the house as a respite centre for groups of young people from diverse places around the world. Meanwhile the Office of Public Works carried out necessary work on the old church and moved a mid-ninth century High Cross moved indoors. All seemed well for the future of the entire site until five years ago when Arts for Peace stopped using the main house for its projects. In December 2016 The Times reported that a month before the charity and its founder Elizabeth Garrahy had filed a High Court action against the Office of Public Works and the Irish State seeking damages for alleged breach of contract. The charity alleged the OPW had committed to providing €500,000 and then €250,000 for repair work, but then failed to provide the funding. The OPW in turn accused the charity of failing to carry out necessary repairs and maintenance of the property according to the terms of its lease. It transpires this is why the building has not been occupied or used since 2013: for the past five years the OPQ and Arts for Peace have been at war. Although this matter ought to be of widespread interest (not least because of the potential financial implications for the Irish taxpayer), it seems the only public representative to express concern has been Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness. He has regularly raised the question of Durrow Abbey in Dáil Éireann, and elsewhere. The last time Deputy McGuinness did so was two months ago on February 15th at a meeting of the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform (of which Mr McGuinness is chair) attended by Kevin Moran, current Minister of State for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief. In the course of a discussion on the unresolved problems at Durrow Abbey, Mr McGuinness stated, ‘I firmly believe that with an effort, with both sides sitting down without being tied by legal process and without prejudice, they could reach a resolution, rather than spend unnecessary funds and scarce resources on a case when in my opinion the Arts for Peace Foundation has a good case. Going to court is a step beyond common sense in my opinion in this instance.’
The state, which is to say the Irish citizenry, has spent a considerable amount of money acquiring and restoring portions of the historic Durrow Abbey site and, as was announced at the end of last year, the state intends to spend more in the near future making the property more accessible to visitors. However at the same time a substantial group of buildings sits empty and neglected: tellingly, in May/June 2016, despite the ongoing dispute, the OPW undertook emergency remedial works to prevent water ingress to the house). This argument is surely capable of resolution, but the longer it takes to find agreement, the greater the cost. A speedy settlement is obviously advantageous. Until this happens the house at the centre of the estate and of the legal wrangle remains in a state of limbo. This is a situation that benefits no one.

A Ruined House


‘Those who lived here are gone
Or dead or desolate with grief;





Of all their life here
Nothing remains
Except their trampled, dirty clothes





Among the dusty bricks,
Their marriage bed, dusty and bent,
Thrown down aside as useless;
And a broken toy left by their child…’


A Ruined House by Richard Aldington
Photographs of Lakeview House, County Cork.

 

Scant Remains


The shell of Summerhill, County Mayo, a house that retained its roof within living memory. Summerhill is believed to have been built in the 1770s for the Palmer family its five-bay façade centred on a pedimented breakfront with first-floor Venetian window. The site on raised ground was chosen to provide a view down towards the Palmerstown river beside which stand the ruins of the Dominican Rathfran Friary. Today the two complexes rival each other in decay.

Trans-Atlantic Links


‘When Hubert and I were children and after we grew up, we lived at Temple Alice. Temple Alice had been built by Mummie’s ancestor, before he inherited his title and estates. He built the house for his bride, and he gave it her name. Now, the title extinct and the estates entirely dissipated, Temple Alice, after several generations as a dower house, came to Mummie when her mother died. Papa farmed the miserably few hundred acres that remained of the property. Mummie loved gardening. On fine days she would work in the woodland garden, taking the gardener away from his proper duties among the vegetables. On wet days, she spent hours of time in the endless, heatless, tumbling-down greenhouses, which had once sheltered peaches and nectarines and stephanotis. One vine survived – she knew how to prune it and thin its grapes, muscatels. Papa loved them.’
From Good Behaviour by Molly Keane (1981)






When Molly Keane’s novel Good Behaviour was adapted for television in 1983, Coolmore, County Cork – shown in today’s photographs – served as the fictional Temple Alice. A castle was first built here in the 12th century by the Anglo-Norman de Cogans after they had settled in this part of the country. In the 1650s the land on which the castle stood passed into the ownership of William Hodder who lived in the building. Subsequently it came into the possession of John Newenham, who may have bought the estate or inherited it as his wife Jane was a member of the Hodder family. The Newenhams are also of Norman origin: an ancestor John Newenham de Newenham, was one of the commissioners who carried out the Domesday survey for William the Conqueror in the 1080s. John Newenham settled in Cork in the 17th century, serving as Sheriff of Cork in 1665 and Mayor of the city six years later. After acquiring Coolmore, he seems to have demolished the old castle and replaced it with a more comfortable house. An extant estate map dated 1760 shows this to have been of five bays and two storeys over dormered attic. On either side, long service blocks ran forward to create a substantial forecourt. The next couple of generations prospered after making judicious family connections. John and Jane Newenham’s son Thomas married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Blackhall, one-time Lord Mayor of Dublin, after whom Blackhall Place in the capital is named. In turn their son William married Dorothea, daughter and heiress of Edward Worth, a physician, politician and bibliophile: in 1733 his library was bequeathed to Dr Steevens’ Hospital, where it remains to the present day. The next generation also married well (and twice) which meant that there were ample funds in the 1780s for the old building at Coolmore to be demolished and replaced by the present, larger house of six bays with a two-bay breakfront, and of three storeys over raised basement, the whole centred on a pedimented doorcase flanked by Doric columns and with the family arms carved into the tympanum.





One of William and Dorothea Newenham’s younger children was the 18th century politician Sir Edward Newenham, remembered today for his ardent support of the American colonists. As a result of the latter he came into contact and had extensive correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de la Fayette and Washington. The last of these Newenham especially admired, calling him ‘the Greatest ornament of this century.’ Likewise Washington wrote ‘To stand well in the estimation of good men, & honest patriots, whether of this or that clime, or of this or that political way of thinking, has ever been a favorite wish of mine; & to have obtained, by such pursuits as duty to my Country; & the rights of mankind rendered indispensably necessary, the plaudit of Sir Edwd Newenham, will not be among my smallest felicities.’ Despite aspirations to do so, the two men never met (although one of Newenham’s sons-in-law did stay with Washington at his country estate, Mount Vernon, Virginia in 1786) but the Irishman commemorated the American at his own residence, Belcamp on the outskirts of Dublin. Here he not only had a room containing busts of, among others, Washington and la Fayette but in the grounds of the house he raised a monument to Washington. Dating from 1778 and believed to be the earliest such tribute to the general (and the only one erected in his lifetime), it is a two-storey square tower with crenellations bearing the following, now-lost inscription: ‘Oh, ill-fated Britain! The folly of Lexington and Concord will rend asunder and forever disjoin America from thy empire.’ Belcamp and its Washington monument are themselves today in as perilous condition as was the link between America and Britain: the house and grounds have been extensively vandalized in recent years, thereby imperiling this critical association between the respective campaigns for independent government on either side of the Atlantic. As for Coolmore, County Cork – the estate where Sir Edward was raised – ironically the year after Good Behaviour was filmed there, the Newenhams, unable to manage the building any longer, sold its contents and moved into a smaller property elsewhere on their land. It has sat empty for the past thirty years and today an old television series offers the best opportunity to appreciate how the house once looked.

That Old Kitchen Stove

‘That old kitchen stove, how my memory clings,
As my thoughts turn back to the savory things
That emerged from its oven, its pots and kettles
When my mother was matron of those relishing victuals.

With what a rattle and clatter and din,
The table was loaded with the brightest of tin.
The fire was given a punch and a poke,
And the quaint stone chimney, how it would smoke!

The embers on the hearth would sparkle and glow
As if for the occasion they were anxious to go
Enthused, as it were, by my mother’s desire,
For she trusted completely on that old stove fire.’

From That Old Kitchen Stove by David Harold Judd (1901). Pictures of the former gate lodge at Magheramenagh Castle, County Fermanagh.

A Great House that had Lost its Pride


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.

Only a Matter of Time


Without question the most significant domestic dwelling in the village of Killeagh, County Cork – and accordingly, the most neglected. This five-bay, two-storey house dates from c.1770 and, at least on the exterior, still retains many of its original features. But for how much longer? Planting trees and adding street furniture cannot disguise the fact that this is a building at risk of being permanently lost in the near future.