The Presbyterian church at Glasleck, County Cavan which, as a cut-stone plaque set into the wall advises, was built in 1836. Its first minister was the Reverend Randal McCollum who remained in this office until his death in 1874. Aside from attending to his flock, he also maintained a farm and wrote a number of works, not least Sketches of the Highlands of Cavan and of Shirley Castle, in Farney, Taken during the Irish Famine, which was published in 1856. A diary he kept for ten years, 1861-71 is now in the collection of Cavan County Council. Evidently there was once a thriving Presbyterian community in this part of the country, thereby justifying the building’s construction, but it gradually declined in the second half of the last century and closed in 1998, when the congregation was amalgamated with that of First Bailieborough.
An entrance into the former demesne of Affane, County Waterford. The core of the house here dated from the 17th century but had a new front added in the first half of the 19th century with canted bows on either side of the entrance. These ashlar gateposts with screen walls on either side and arched pedestrian openings on either side were probably erected around the same time. Once leading towards the main building, now they go nowhere but provide a reminder of what used to be here: the house itself is a ruined shell.
Notable for having been largely designed early in the last century by architect Clough Williams-Ellis, the village of Cushendun, County Antrim has featured here before (see Cornwall in Ulster « The Irish Aesthete). Since the mid-1950s, much of the place has been in National Trust’s ownership, including the Glenmona, former home of Ronald John McNeill, Baron Cushendun who commissioned the house from Williams-Ellis after its predecessor was burnt down by the IRA in 1922. For some time the building was leased to the Health and Social Care Board, and used as a nursing home with the inevitable adjustments made to its interior. That arrangement ended and it appears a new purpose has yet to be found for Glenmona. While the National Trust has undertaken much good work on other properties for which it is responsible, such does not appear to be the case here. However, last year an independent body in the social housing sector, Supporting Communities announced that it had been approached by the National Trust ‘to help them re-engage positively with local stakeholders and the community in general’ and to develop the house ‘into a thriving hub for community activity.’ Let’s hope the eventual outcome is that the trust re-engages with this important part of the region’s architectural heritage and that it receives better care than has been the case of late.
The origins of the Aylmer family in Ireland are unclear, but they were certainly here before the end of the 14th century and by the mid-1400s were living at Lyons, County Kildare (the estate was sold by the hopelessly-indebted Michael Aylmer in 1796 to Nicholas Lawless, first Lord Cloncurry). In 1559 Gerald Aylmer, then aged 11, inherited an estate elsewhere in the county, at Donadea, which had been bought by his father the previous year and where there may well have been some kind of castle, possibly erected by the de Berminghams who had previously held the property. It is thought that in due course Gerald Aylmer constructed a new tower house for himself. This work may have been undertaken around 1587 when he married Mary Travers, widow of the attainted third Viscount Baltinglass. The tower is now the oldest part of the present Doneadea Castle. A lawyer by profession, Gerald Aylmer initially spent much time at the English court but adherence to the Roman Catholic faith might have hindered his chances of preferment. Nevertheless, he was knighted in 1598 and then created a baronet in 1622. Two years later, he and his (second) wife were responsible for building a three-storey block adjacent to the tower. The Donadea estate was duly inherited by the couple’s only son, Sir Andrew Aylmer who, although not a participant in the Confederate Wars from 1641 onwards, was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Meanwhile, the house his father built was burnt and the lands confiscated; they were returned to the family in 1662. Another assault and fire struck the property during the Williamite Wars. Still staunchly Catholic, a succession of Aylmers then all died young, often leaving infant heirs until the time of the sixth baronet Sir FitzGerald Aylmer, who although barely a few months old when he inherited the estate in 1737, managed to live for another 57 years. Raised in England as a member of the Established Church, it was Sir FitzGerald who undertook an extensive reconstruction of the old family house, an old plaque explaining that this work had begun in 1773.
As mentioned, Donadea Castle assumed much of its present form in the last quarter of the 18th century, thanks to Sir FitzGerald Aylmer who inserted large window openings with granite sills into the old building, as well as the canted first-floor Venetian window on the south side of the building. Donadea Castle is U-shaped, a recessed central section flanked by two three-storey towers, one of which was the original residence built by the first baronet. Between the towers is a single-storey bowed entrance screen, probably early 19th century and tentatively attributed (by Andrew Tierney) to Sir Richard Morrison. It may be the latter was also responsible for the rest of the Tudor-style decorations on the building, such as the lines of battlements along the roofs and mouldings above the windows. All of this would have been commissioned by the seventh baronet, Sir Fenton Aylmer, founder of the Kildare Hunt. Morrison could also have been the architect of a free-standing crenellated tower to the west of the building; above a staircase window is a datestone of 1837 with the motto Non Dormit qui Custodit (He who guards does not sleep) proposing that the tower was used as a muniments store. This tower was commissioned by the eighth baronet, Sir Gerald Aylmer, who was also responsible for many other improvements on the estate, not least the creation of an eight-acre enclosed garden immediately behind the castle, as well as the demesne wall, gate lodges and the planting of a fine lime avenue.
The ninth Aylmer baronet, Sir Gerald, inherited the Donadea estate in 1878, but died five years later, followed in 1885 by his heir, Sir Justin Aylmer: aged just 21 and an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was killed in a cycling accident. While the baronetcy then went sideways (to a younger son of the seventh baronet and then, just two months later, to his grandson), Donadea was inherited by Sir Justin’s only surviving sister, Caroline Aylmer, who lived there unmarried for the next half-century. On her own death in 1935, she left the property to the Church of Ireland, which quickly sold on the estate to the Land Commission. In due course, the castle was unroofed and the surrounding lands handed over to Coillte, the state-owned forestry body. Alas, while Coillte may be first-rate at looking after trees, its record in taking care of any buildings is pretty dismal, as can be seen by visitors to Donadea who over successive years have seen the castle and its surroundings allowed to fall further and further into dereliction, to the point that now cracks are appearing in walls and collapse is a real possibility. Given the property’s history, its convenient location and popularity as a site, this neglect seems especially reprehensible. Indifference can be the only explanation for Coillte’s failure to ensure Donadea Castle remains in decent repair; why, for example, have surviving features such as the charming Gothic-style wooden frames in many windows, not been removed and preserved? Why is it that a rare example of 17th century bay window with stone mullions should now be crudely filled with cement blocks (while the stonework above is left to become dangerously loose)? Unless serious intervention occurs soon, little of consequence will be left here. Another blot on our record of caring for the country’s architectural heritage.
Two weeks ago, the fifth and final volume of records published in 1913 by Ireland’s original Georgian Society was discussed here. That might have been the end of such documentation of this country’s 18th century architectural heritage in the years prior to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But in 1915 two men decided that more research into Irish country houses was required, and so produced a volume called Georgian Mansions in Ireland. The individuals involved, Page Lawrence Dickinson and Thomas Ulick Sadleir, are of some interest. Born in 1881 and 1882 respectively, both were sons of clergymen, Sadleir’s father being a chaplain to the army stationed at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Sadleir junior was called to the Irish bar in 1906 and practised on the Leinster circuit for the next ten years. But his real passion was genealogy and even while a student he was working on an unpaid basis in the Office of the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin Castle. In 1915, the year in which Georgian Mansions in Ireland appeared, he was appointed registrar of the Order of St. Patrick at the Office of Arms, becoming Deputy Ulster in 1921, although due to the extensive absences of his superior he was in effect in charge and remained so until 1943 when the Office of Arms was finally transferred to the control of the Irish State. He subsequently became librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, remaining there until his death in 1957. As for Dickinson, he was a son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. In his late teens, he was apprenticed to architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (a brother of the painter William Orpen) with whom he then went into partnership. But he seems to have been as much a writer as an architect, being a frequent contributor to the Irish Builder (of such pieces as ‘Working class homes. Is the present standard reasonable?’ in January 1923, and ‘Competitions. Should they be abolished?’ in November 1924). He was clearly out of sympathy with post-Independence Ireland and for many years lived in England, his nostalgia for the ancien régime apparent in a memoir published in 1929, The Dublin of Yesterday, which as can be imagined was not well received in this country. Nevertheless he did return here, dying at his daughter’s house in County Wicklow in 1958.
In their Preface to Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Sadleir and Dickinson rightly acknowledge the work undertaken by the earlier Georgian Society, but note that the fifth volume only examined a few 18th century houses found throughout the country, thereby necessitating their own enterprise. In addition, they observed that while many of Dublin’s great houses had fallen into disrepair, ‘the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rack-rent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
Interestingly, Sadleir and Dickinson remark that Irish country houses seldom held valuable china, but ‘good pictures, plate and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon.’ Waxing poetic, they then write, ‘How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni or that fashionable Irish artist, Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entrail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Desart Court, County Kilkenny: burnt down by the IRA, February 1923
The main body of text in Georgian Mansions in Ireland is devoted to study of 17 houses (some given more attention than others). Of these, 11 still stand, three remaining in the hands of the original owners’ descendants and another three in private hands, albeit not those of the original family. Two (in Northern Ireland) are National Trust properties, one is an hotel, one belongs to a public company and one has become part of a national institution. Of the losses, two – Bessborough and Desart Court, both in County Kilkenny – occurred just a few years after the book was published, victims of the campaign waged against such buildings and their owners during the troubles of the early 1920s, one – Heywood, County Laois – was lost owing to an accidental fire in 1950 and two – Platten Hall, County Meath and Turvey, County Dublin – were left to suffer years of neglect before being pulled down.
Despite their optimistic tone about the state of such houses, the authors of Georgian Mansions in Ireland seem to have had an instinctive awareness of impending threat to the buildings’ future, since they made a point of recording not just architectural but also decorative details, describing – and photographing – plasterwork and paintings, chimneypieces and contents of entire rooms, thereby leaving us a detailed record of how such places looked just over a century ago. Occasionally, as with Curraghmore, County Waterford, little has changed during the intervening period, but more often, even if the house still stands, its entire furnishings have been lost or else horribly culled. Again, we owe Sadleir and Dickinson a debt of gratitude for providing us with this invaluable legacy, an opportunity to examine how Irish country houses were once decorated and occupied.
A number of state-sponsored programmes exist to encourage the revival of the country’s smaller urban centres, such as the Town and Village Renewal Scheme (begun 2016) and the Historic Towns Initiative (begun 2018). And yet, wherever one goes around Ireland, the same scenario can still be found: perfectly decent houses being left to fall into ruin. The question needs to be asked: why? Especially during what is universally acknowledged to be a national shortage of decent housing, why should this be the case. Why, for example, do local authorities – which have the relevant powers available to them under the 2000 Planning Act, not intervene? Why do we all seem to take it for granted that our towns and villages should display ample evidence of abandoned and neglected properties? Here is an example of this unhappy state of affairs: a fine red-brick house on the outskirts of Ardee, County Louth. Behind the double canted bay facade, the building is L-shaped and incorporates a small yard, while to the rear and now incorporated into a range of (equally dilapidated) outbuildings, stands a 15th century tower house: all are in equally neglected state. The national Buildings of Ireland website (www.buildingsofireland.ie) proposes a date of c.1900 for its construction, but a pediment over the main entrance contains the initials LCC (presumably representing Louth County Council) and the date 1931: does this mean the building was constructed at that time, or simply taken over at that time by the local authority? But more importantly, why today is it being allowed to deteriorate?
The outer walls of the former Church of Ireland church at Derrylossary, County Wicklow. The present structure stands on the site of a much older one, thought to have been associated with the monastic centre at Glendalough, located some six miles to the south-west. Possibly incorporating parts of the original structure, this church was rebuilt in the 1820s thanks to financial support from the Board of First Fruits, with a tower added the following decade. The site is noteworthy for being the burial place of two well-known figures in 20th century Ireland, the first being Robert Barton who lived not far away at Glendalough House and was one of the signatories of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (although he then opposed it). The second is his cousin Erskine Childers’ son, of the same name, who briefly served as Ireland’s fourth President until his death in November 1974; his father, Childers senior, had been executed during the Civil War after being arrested by Free State while staying at Glendalough House. Derrylossary church continued to be used for religious services until the late 1960s, after which it was closed and eventually unroofed.
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)
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.
The preface to the first volume of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records of Eighteenth-Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration in Dublin (published 1909) opens as follows: ‘It requires no intimate knowledge of Dublin to perceive that it is not a provincial town, but a fading capital. The great public buildings of the eighteenth century which are its glory make that fact evident.’ The text goes on to note how ‘The gradual disuse of the older residential quarters, as the city gradually shifted and expanded during the last hundred years, has converted most of the fine mansions, once occupied by a wealthy aristocracy, into warehouses and public institutions; while in other cases, whole streets have fallen into decay, and houses set up with decorated walls and ceilings, fine mantelpieces, mahogany doors and carved wood-work, are now occupied as tenement houses by the poor. It followed, naturally enough, that all ornaments which could be utilised elsewhere, notably the old mantelpieces, were removed and sold, and now adorn rich houses far away.’ It was precisely an awareness of these melancholy facts that led to the society’s establishment, and to the production of a series of volumes over five years. The first four of these were exclusively devoted to Dublin (the fifth looked at a number of important Irish country houses), each accompanied by relevant texts that looked not just at the architecture and decoration of the buildings, but also at subjects such as ‘Society in Georgian Dublin’ (Vol.II) and ‘The Furnishing of Georgian Houses in Dublin’ (Vol.IV). As a field of study, art history was then barely in its infancy, so one cannot expect too much academic insight. On the other hand, the compilers of these volumes were much closer to the period under consideration that we are today: some of them would have known people who were actually alive when Georgian Dublin was still in its heyday: the society’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, was born in 1839. But more important that the texts are the abundant photographs and drawings with which each volume is filled. So often, they show buildings since lost and therefore represent an invaluable record, in many instances the only visual source existing today. For that, we owe the original Irish Georgian Society an enormous debt of gratitude.