In a Sorry (es)State


According to an entry in buildingsofireland.ie, this building ‘gives strong architectural definition to its context, and forms a landmark at a crossroads on the main Virginia-Cavan Road.’ Dating from c.1870, the house was probably built for estate workers employed by the Marquess of Headfort whose former lodge lies not far away.




The building is particularly interesting because although looking like a single house from the front, it actually contained four residences, each with its own entrance. Given such a prominent position on the main road from the north into Virginia, County Cavan and the property’s historic associations its ongoing neglect is regrettable.

First Impressions


The first building seen by visitors to Carton, County Kildare is a boathouse on the north side of the Rye Water. Said to have been constructed in expectation of a visit by Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century, the boathouse makes an excellent first impression, provided not inspected too closely. Look at the other side of the building: here are slates already fallen off the roof, and others on the verge of doing so, allowing rainwater to damage the fabric. Unless necessary repairs are carried out by the hotel owners, the first building seen by visitors to Carton could yet be a ruin.

Ghost House


I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.




I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.




It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.


Ghost House by Robert Frost. 
Crossdrum Lower, County Meath – one of the houses featured in The Irish Aesthete: Ruins of Ireland (Cico Books), now available to order from your favourite local bookshop or online from Amazon…

Reconciled to Ruin


Inside the rear section of the former army barracks at Glencree, County Wicklow. In the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion when this part of the country proved difficult for the authorities to control, a route still called the Military Road was constructed through the Wicklow Mountains, and these buildings erected in 1806 to house 100 troops. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars they vacated the barracks which during the second half of the 19th century was converted into a boy’s reformatory, being used for this purpose until 1940. The site then served as a prison for captured German military personnel (a small cemetery holding the remains of those who died during that period remains close by) and since the mid-1970s one block has been the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation. However, as can be seen, the buildings immediately behind have been left to fall into their present state of disrepair.

Eaten Bread is Soon Forgotten


Portlaw, County Waterford and its association with the Malcolmson family have been mentioned here before (see: A Shell, June 28th 2017). The Malcolmsons were of Scottish Presbyterian origin but in the mid-18th century one branch became members of the Quaker community. A son of this line, David Malcolmson, settled in Clonmel, County Tipperary where from 1793 onwards he became involved in the corn milling industry and enjoyed such success that when Richard Lalor Shiel visited the town in 1828 he could write ‘Malcolmson’s Mill is I believe the finest in Ireland. Here half the harvest of the adjoining counties as well as Tipperary is powdered.’ By that date the family, fearful that the Corn Laws (restrictions on the import of grain which favoured domestic production) were to be revoked by parliament, had moved into another business in another part of the country. In 1825 Malcolmson took a 999-year lease on a house called Mayfield and the adjacent 16 acres from a local landlord, John Medlycott. A small corn mill, damaged by fire, stood on the site and this was redeveloped as a vast, six-storey cotton mill, building a canal to utilize the power of the adjacent river Clodiagh. The enterprise required large numbers of employees and as a result the little village of Portlaw expanded rapidly. Around the time the Malcolmsons began work on the mill, it comprised less than 400 residents living in 71 houses: by 1841 the population of Portlaw had grown to 3,647 souls occupying 458 houses, most of the latter built by the Malcolmsons as part of a planned urban settlement. The family lived on the edge of the town and directly above the mill in Mayfield.






The core of Mayfield was a classical house dating from c.1740 and it was here the Malcolmsons initially lived. However, in 1849 Joseph Malcolmson, who had assumed responsibility for the business, employed architect William Tinsley to enlarge the building. Like his client, Tinsley originally came from Clonmel and had built up a substantial practice in the area, so he was an obvious choice. However, by the time Joseph Malcolmson decided on a further expansion of Mayfield, Tinsley was no longer available: in 1851 he had emigrated with his family to the United States where he enjoyed an equally successful career before dying in Cincinnati in 1885. So in 1857 Malcolmson instead employed John Skipton Mulvany who specialized in a loosely-Italianate style architecture and who was responsible for giving the house its present appearance. Mulvany added many of Mayfield’s most striking features, not least a three-storey tower that served as an entrance on the house’s eastern front. This rises considerably higher than the rest of the three-storey over basement building which is of seven bays: the tower accordingly provided views both down to the factory and over to the village, allowing the Malcolmsons a paternalistic prospect of their workers. Mulvany was also responsible for the single-storey over basement wings on either side of the main block: that to the south served as a conservatory, that to the north held a pair of reception rooms. However the family were not to enjoy this splendor for long, the cotton factory which generated their wealth being ruined in the aftermath of the American Civil War (the Malcolmsons had extended credit to the losing side).






In the last quarter of the 19th century the Portlaw factory was adapted for spinning but this enterprise didn’t last long and it was only in the early 1930s that a new purpose was found for the complex when it was acquired to act as a tannery by the Irish Leathers Group. Mayfield, which had for a period been occupied by members of the de la Poer Beresford family of nearby Curraghmore, now became an office premises for the new enterprise, and remained as such for the next half century. The tannery closed in the 1980s, and as a result Mayfield no longer had any purpose, although to the end of that decade a proposal was put forward to convert both factory and house into a retirement home. The scheme never took off and for the past thirty-odd years Mayfield has stood empty, falling into its present state of dereliction. As can be seen, little of the original mid-Victorian interiors remains other than fragments of plasterwork and rotting timbers. The exterior of the building has proven more sturdy, and retains the same appearance found in old photographs. But it is difficult to know what sort of future, if any, Mayfield might have. There is an old Irish expression Ní bhíonn cuimhne ar an arán a hitear, commonly translated as ‘Eaten bread is soon forgotten.’ Portlaw as seen today owes its existence to the enterprise and initiative of the Malcolmsons: what a shame that so little has been done to acknowledge their contribution to the area.

The Lion in Winter


The Lion Gate at Mote Park, County Roscommon. This was once one of the entrances to an estate owned by the Crofton family who settled here in the second half of the 16th century; in 1798 they became Barons Crofton of Mot . In the 1620s their forebear George Crofton built Mote Castle, but it was replaced by a new house at some date between 1777-87. This property was in turn rebuilt after being gutted by fire in 1865 but only survived another century: the last of the Croftons left Mote in the 1940s after which the contents were auctioned: the house itself was demolished in the 1960s. In February 2015 its former portico, rescued at the time of the demolition, was sold at auction for €12,000.



According to a history of Mote Park compiled in 1897 by Captain the Hon Francis Crofton, the Lion Gate was erected in 1787 and its design has sometimes been attributed to James Gandon, although this is disputed. Whatever the case, it takes the form of a Doric triumphal arch with screen walls linking it to what were once a pair of identical lodges (but are now used for housing livestock). A plinth on top of the arch features a Coade Stone lion, one foot resting on a ball. Over time this had become much weathered (not helped by bees nesting inside the animal) and when taken down a few years ago three of its feet fell off. Following restoration work at the Coade workshop in Wiltshire, the lion was reinstated in September 2016 and now once more surveys what is left of the Mote parkland: this restoration was funded by a number of sources, predominantly American supporters of the Irish Georgian Society.

Fallen Out of Use


Baron Trimlestown is one of the oldest titles in Ireland, created in 1461 for Sir Robert Barnewall. The family were of Norman origin, their name originally de Berneval (from the small seaside town of Berneval-le-Grand, where Oscar Wilde stayed following his release from Reading Gaol in June 1897). Having first moved to England, following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, they followed Richard de Clare to Ireland, the first to do so, Sir Michael de Berneval, landing in Cork in 1172. Rising to power in the Pale, they were responsible for building Drimnagh Castle, now in a suburb of Dublin, and then gradually acquired substantial land holdings in County Meath. Here in Trimlestown, a few miles west of the town of Trim, they erected a mighty castle, probably in the 15th century and perhaps around the time that the title of baron was granted to Sir Robert Barnewall.






The core of Trimlestown Castle is late mediaeval, rising three storeys and with a massive square tower in the south-west corner. The main block is some 114 feet long and 40 feet wide, internally dominated by a two-storey vaulted great hall that faces towards the river Trimlestown: the exterior of this side is marked by massive corner buttresses. On the south-east side of the tower there is (or perhaps was) a shield bearing the arms of the Barnewall and Nugent families – the two had intermarried – but whether it remains in place is impossible to tell due to vegetation covering much of the walls. Considerable alterations to the building were undertaken in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a large addition was made on the northern section of the site. It is likely that at this time towers similar to those on the river front were demolished and a modern house built, the most notable feature of this being a large bow-front with views to the east. Similarities with the work undertaken during the same period at Louth Castle (see Saintly Connections, August 28th 2017) have led to suggestions that Richard Johnston might have been the architect responsible in both instances. This may have happened around 1797 when the 14th Lord Trimlestown, then aged 70, married a woman less than a third of his age: the suggestion is that she got a new house in return for an old husband. Soon afterwards, her husband also inherited Turvey, County Dublin from a distant cousin and in due course the family moved there, leaving Trimlestown Castle to slip into decay.






For much of the 18th century, although the Barnewalls held onto the greater part of their lands, they were unable to use the title Baron Trimlestown. Their problems had begun in the 1640s when Matthias, eighth Lord Trimlestown, had supported the royalist cause, deprived of his estates by Cromwell and banished to County Galway. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he regained the greater part of his original property, but remained true to the Roman Catholic faith, as did his son Robert who sat in James II’s parliament in 1689. The next couple of heirs, because of their support for the Jacobite cause and their loyalty to Catholicism, were not allowed to use the old title. They lived in France and it was only in 1746 that Robert Barnewall (who claimed the title of twelfth Lord Trimlestown) returned to Ireland and took up residence in the old castle. It is likely to have been during his lifetime (he died in 1779) that the building was first modernised. As an ardent supporter of the Catholic cause, it must have been a blow to him when his heir Thomas conformed to the Established Church (thereby reversing the government attainder and allowing him to be acknowledged after his father’s death as the 13th Lord Trimlestown). Thereafter one generation succeeded another, although more than once the title had to go to a cousin as there was no direct heir. However while there is still a Lord Trimlestown – the 21st – he has no known heirs. It seems likely that after more than 550 years one of Ireland’s oldest peerages will go the same way as the castle from which its name was derived, and fall out of use.

Class Dismissed



The former Brockagh National School in County Leitrim. Located outside the village of Glenfarne, this opened to pupils in 1885 and is typical of the buildings then being constructed for this purpose and would originally consisted of a single room (later divided into two). Seemingly closed in the 1970s when a new school was built and several smaller establishments amalgamated, like so many others across the country it has since fallen into ruin.


A Survivor


Set into a wall to the immediate west of the main entrance into Mearescourt, County Westmeath is this pedestrian gateway. It appears to be a survivor from the main house at the end of the drive: this was developed over the 17th and 18th century around an earlier tower house and the building’s present front dates from c.1760. Probably when this work was completed and a classic Paladian doorcase installed, the earlier version was removed. However, rather than simply dispose of it, the owners recycled the stone here. So this is a late-Baroque ashlar limestone doorcase with moulded architraves, the cornice supported by carved brackets, a rare survivor from the period although in need of some attention to ensure its future.

Complying with Strict Conditions of Conservation?



In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.






As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.






Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?