The Well Improved Seat

What remains of The Grange, County Limerick. Dating from the second half of the 18th century, it was described by William Wilson in 1786 as ‘the beautiful and well improved seat of Standish O’Grady.’ The property remained with the O’Gradys until that branch of the family died out in 1861 after which it passed to the Crokers, to whom they were related by marriage. But Captain Edward Croker likewise had no heirs and The Grange was inherited by his two sisters. The house was still intact in the 1940s but thereafter began to deteriorate and is now just a shell. The 19th century entrance gates give an idea how this beautiful and well improved seat must once have looked.


A White Elephant

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.

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).

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.


Knox’s Folly

Close to the shores of Lough Conn and from there looking not unlike a ‘cottage’ constructed for the Vanderbilts in Newport, Long Island, this is Errew Grange, County Mayo designed in the early 1870s by James Franklin Fuller for Granville Knox following the latter’s marriage to heiress Ellen Farrer. Unfortunately Mrs Knox’s resources proved not to be limitless and by the mid-1880s her husband was declared bankrupt: he and his family are believed to have emigrated to Nova Scotia and the newly-completed Errew Grange – otherwise known as ‘Knox’s Folly’ – was seized by bailiffs. After which the building had a somewhat chequered career, serving on several occasions as an hotel (in which capacity it might almost have been the model for the fictional Majestic in J.G. Farrell’s 1970 novel Troubles) and for a short period as a convent school. In 1949 Errew Grange was gutted by fire and the shell thereafter stood empty until some years ago the property was converted into what were intended to be luxury apartments: this scheme appears to have failed since it now stands empty and rather desolate.


Lost History


All across Ireland there are buildings about which little is now known, their histories somehow mislaid between the date they ceased to serve their purpose and the present. Sometimes snippets of a story evolves into a legend which, like a version of Chinese Whispers, bears little relation to the original truth. But on other occasions, the history disappears altogether, as though presaging the fate of the building itself. Kilcrea, County Cork has been mentioned here before, both in relation to the former Franciscan friary (Lo Arthur Leary, November 2nd 2015) and the nearby former McCarthy tower house (With Panoramic Views, June 11th 2016), both of which date from the 1460s and have reasonably well-chronicled histories. However there is a third building in the same area about which little appears to be known, even though it is of more recent construction. This is Kilcrea House, a view of which is shown above (the tower house can be seen in the background on the extreme right of the photograph).

A little information about Kildrea House can be gleaned from that always helpful website In 1750 Charles Smith’s The ancient and present state of the county and city of Cork reported that Kilcrea, formerly the seat of the Earls of Clancarty, had been purchased by Captain Hedges from the Trustees of the Hollow Blade Company. In 1786 William Wilson’s The Post-Chaise Companion noted the ruins of the friary and castle, near to which was a house called Snugborough, the residence of a Mr. Keeffe. By the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the 1850s Robert Gibbons was given as the occupier of Kilcrea House. He held the building (valued at £20) as part of a parcel of land leased by John Hawkes. Yet strangely in March 1851, and again in July 1853, the estate of William Edward Ellis at Kilcrea, including the house and 422 acres, was advertised for sale. It would seem the Hawkes family acquired this, and further land, since by the 1870s the estate of John Devonsher Hawkes of Kilcrea is given as amounting to 2,029 acres.

Of course this information, while helpful, tells us nothing about Kilcrea House itself, when it was built and by whom. The place is now a shell, but this decline would appear to have occurred only relatively recently. While the floors have given way and most plaster come off walls, there are still traces of the wooden window frames and joists. Of two storeys over basement, the house looks north towards the tower house and the breakfront on this side has tumbled down. Constructed of rubble and brick, it has arched ground floor windows of cut limestone, also seen in the single-storey bows on the east and west sides of the building: it would appear these bows were added at a later date. The east side has a short flight of stone steps which gave access to the house while the south and west fronts retain traces of the slates with which they were once covered. Stylistically the house would seem to date from the late 18th century (with subsequent additions) but it is now so far deteriorated that conjecture must be to the fore. It seems strange that despite its size and prominent location there appears to be little knowledge of Kilcrea. Another example of lost history. Below is a view of the house from the nearby tower house.


Meanwhile, Elsewhere in Ballinrobe…

On the road leading from Castlebar into Ballinrobe, County Mayo can be seen the ruins of the old Roman Catholic chapel. With financial support from the local landlord James Cuffe, first (and last) Lord Tyrawley work began on the cruciform building in 1815, in other words some years before the Emancipation Act of 1829. It is notable for being more ample than were many such Catholic churches of the period, for having a splendid four-storey bell tower at the east end, and for fine limestone wall monuments to its earliest parish priests on either side of the crossing. However within decades the building appears to have been deemed insufficient to local needs since a successor was begun closer to the centre of the town in 1849. Before the end of the 19th century the old chapel was unroofed and today its shell languishes on a patch of ground surrounded by housing estates.


The Tiger Awakes

On the gates of Cranmore House in Ballinrobe, County Mayo hangs a planning application notice which proposes the construction here of a three-storey retail and residential block, a second three-storey block to be used as an old persons’ home, seven houses, a terrace featuring that strange new form of accommodation, the ‘townhouse’ and, adjacent to the existing structure, a new 46-bedroom hotel with the inevitable function rooms, bars, gym and swimming pool. Cranmore House was built in 1838 by Alexander Clendenning Lambert, agent for the Knox family to whom the property subsequently reverted. They remained in occupation until the 1920s after which the house passed through a couple of hands before being unroofed in the 1950s, in which condition it remains to the present. The predominantly greenfield nature of site makes it attractive to developers, although the proposal seems both unfortunate and unnecessary when so much of Ballinrobe immediately outside the gates could do with refurbishment, including many existing ‘townhouses.’


An Uncertain Future

The ubiquity of older buildings in Irish towns and villages suffering from insufficient maintenance. Here two fine houses, both probably early 19th century, in Greyabbey, County Down. Above is 88-90 Main Street, below 2 Church Street, the latter closing the long vista down Main Street and therefore sited at a critical point in the village. Both excellent properties that once held commercial premises, both now looking as though facing an uncertain future.