There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of Ireland’s town centres, visible in examples such as that shown above. This house sits in the middle of Erskine Terrace on Farnham Street in Cavan. Dating from the late Georgian period when the Maxwell family, Lords Farnham took an interest in the town, it is today in a state of sad neglect and a blight on the rest of the terrace. Further north on the same street and adjacent to the Roman Catholic cathedral of SS Patrick and Felim is the former presbytery (see below) which it appears was once an early 19th century three-storey house with pitched roof but converted into the present two-storey flat-roofed building in 1962. Like the other property to the south, it stands empty and forlorn, doing nothing to improve the character of the town.
So, what is to be done? The Heritage Council has recently launched a new Podcast series called Putting Town Centres First (https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/projects/podcast-series-putting-town-centres-first). No doubt admirable in its intent, one has to ask what practical difference this series will make. Discussions about urban decline, conferences, reports and analyses: all have been going on for decades with no visible solution to the problem under consideration. There has been much hand-wringing but little real change. Last month in the Irish Times, economist David McWilliams wrote an article in which he stated bluntly that dereliction ‘is vandalism for the property-owning classes’ and that the country’s huge numbers of neglected buildings ‘send out a signal of decay and reveal an enormously wasteful attitude to capital.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-the-rules-of-the-property-game-have-changed-1.4382088). Returning to the subject a couple of weeks later, McWilliams noted that some 15% of the country’s total building stock, almost 200,00 properties, are at present lying empty and neglected, and that in a little over a year 11 buildings had collapsed in the middle of Cork city. He then proposed a simple solution to resolving the issue: ‘use it or lose it’ legislation. Under this proposal, property that is being actively used, ideally for residential purposes, ‘is rewarded with preferential treatment, but one that is vacant is taxed. If the owner can’t pay that tax, the property faces a compulsory purchase order by the State, which then puts it on the market.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-a-plan-to-put-ireland-s-200-000-vacant-buildings-to-use-1.4394673). Sounds radical? Yes indeed, but despite all those conferences and reports and now podcasts, no one else has yet come up with a better solution. The simple question is this: should private individuals be permitted to desecrate the public environment by failing to maintain their property? At what point does it become unacceptable for private interest to trump public good? Talk may salve consciences but solves nothing. There is really no need for any more of it. If Ireland’s town centres are to have a viable future, and our collective architectural heritage preserved, what’s required is decisive – and perhaps radical – action. Otherwise the number of buildings looking like these examples in Cavan will continue to rise.
Last January, the Irish Times reported that a land parcel of 800 acres in County Tipperary was being offered for sale as a single lot with an asking price of €11 million. According to the article, ‘a wide range of investors and land speculators are expected to express their interest in the sale.’ The reason for that interest, and the figure this parcel was expected to make, arises from the fact that the site contains two substantial clusters of wind turbines (18 and 12 respectively), with a third now underway and expected to active in two years’ time. The turbines were originally developed by a mining company which, between 1999 and 2015 extracted zinc and lead from the ground. Long before the mine closed, in 2009 the company embarked on developing the first group of wind turbines, the second commissioned in 2013. The operation of this business is managed by another body, a Canadian-based global fund called Brookfield Renewable Partners, which in 2016 struck a ten-year deal with Facebook to provide its energy needs: the latest cluster of wind turbines here will generate power for Facebook’s data centre campus in Clonee, Co Meath, and its new European headquarters in Ballsbridge, Dublin.
Killoran House stands less than a mile from the Lisheen wind farms. For many hundreds of years the land here belonged to members of the Campy or Campie family, the first of whom was a soldier Solomon Camby, originally from Norfolk it seems, whose name is mentioned in reports of the Battle of Marston Moor (July 1644) when Parliamentary forces defeated the Royalist army. He was then a member of the cavalry regiment that came to be known as the Ironsides; Camby was part of what was called the ‘Maiden Troop’ headed by Captain Robert Swallow and drawn from Norwich. Subsequently in 1649 he came to Ireland as part of the New Model Army and was involved in crushing opposition here; he appears to have been in County Mayo in 1653 when English troops attempted to burn down Ballintubber Abbey. Like many other soldiers, he was rewarded for his services in land, and this was confirmed by the post-Restoration English government in 1667 when Major Solomon Camby was granted over 1,700 acres in the barony of Lower Ormond, County Tipperary and some 90 acres in the barony of Forth, County Wexford. One may assume that the original Solomon Camby was a staunch Protestant, but in the 18th century one of his descendants married a member of the Lalor family, who had always remained Roman Catholic. By the time Solomon Lalor Cambie inherited the former Lalor estate at Killoran in the following century he must also have been a Catholic (since he was educated by the Jesuits at Clongowes Wood College). His land holding ran to almost 1,600 acres and it was probably for this reason that he decided to build a new residence for himself.
Killoran House dates from around 1850, and is a typical solid gentleman’s residence of the period, with an extensive yard to one side of the building. The three-bay, two storey entrance front is curious because the centre bay entrance projection has its door around one side. The front, on the other hand, is taken up by a large and elaborate fanlight window; inside, the space directly above acts as an additional room off the landing, accessed via a pair of shuttered doors. Otherwise the interior is, again, typical of the time although the cantilevered staircase is lighter than usually the case for the mid-19th century. Currently on the market, the house is in a very poor state of repair, and looks to have been left empty for quite some time. Many of the windows are broken and slates missing from the roof. As a consequence, large quantities of rain water have entered the building and some upper floors have collapsed. Almost all the interior fittings like chimney pieces have been removed. Surrounded as it is by wind turbines, and with more due to be added to their number shortly, Killoran House’s prospects do not look cheering. The property is, naturally, included on the local authority’s list of protected structures.
And today’s example of wasted public resources comes courtesy of Longford County Council. Dating from 1815, the former cavalry barracks in Longford town are believed to have been designed by John Behan, a measurer and architect (and timber merchant) employed by the Board of Works on such military properties. Historically, this is the most important area in the town, since it is where the dominant family, the O’Farrells built a castle (the last parts of which were demolished in the early 1970s: a shopping centre can now be found there instead). In the 17th century, Francis Aungier converted at least part of the site into a manor house with surrounding gardens, building a market house and square immediately adjacent. In 1774 his descendant sold the property to the British authorities for development as a military barracks. Post-Independence, these were occupied by the Irish army until 2009. Three years later, the buildings on some 5.1 hectares were bought by the county council for €450,000, since when the cavalry barracks has sat empty. A number of smaller ancillary blocks to the rear are used by local groups and there’s a large open field running down to the river Camlin. The same questions arise: why do local authorities purchase these places and then leave them unused for so long, meaning that whenever an eventual use is found, the relevant costs are higher? And what sort of example does this set to other owners of historic properties when the county council fails to take adequate care of an important building it owns? Only question always has the same answer. Who’ll eventually have to foot the bill? Answer: the Irish taxpayer.
A week ago, this site explored the old house at Clonalis, County Roscommon and explained why in the last quarter of the 19th century it was abandoned for another residence elsewhere on the property. The branch of the ancient O’Conor family who still live here moved to Clonalis exactly 200 years ago, in 1820; prior to that they had been living elsewhere in the county. As mentioned, by the early 1700s the great O’Conors had been brought low, a consequence of their support over previous decades for the Roman Catholic and Jacobite causes, and the harsh penalties duly imposed on them. The head of this branch, Denis O’Conor, was known as ‘The Heir to Nothing’ as all his ancestral lands had been taken from him; supposedly he advised his own children never to be impudent to the poor because, ‘I was the son of a gentleman but you are the sons of a ploughman.’ In 1720, aided by his uncle, Counsellor Terence McDonagh he won a case in the Dublin courts that restored him a portion – 500 acres – of his patrimony. According to family tradition, he was so poor that he had to walk to the capital barefoot. On this parcel of land at Ballinagare, he built a new house for himself; until then, he had been living in a mud hut in County Sligo. This house became a home for Denis O’Conor’s extended family, including his mother-in-law, Countess Isabella O’Rorke who had been a Maid of Honour at the court of the exiled James II in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and his maternal uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, former Chaplain to Prince Eugene of Savoy but by then the fugitive Catholic Bishop of Killala. The house also became a centre for anyone who espoused the old Gaelic culture, not least the period’s most famous bard and harpist Turlough Carolan who composed airs in honour of Denis O’Conor, his wife Maire, and their son Charles. A harp used by Carolan is still kept at Clonalis, along with the chalice of Bishop Thadeus O’Rorke his pectoral cross, liturgical vestments and an Episcopal ring presented to him by Prince Eugene.
Charles O’Conor was born in 1710, ten years before his father Denis won the court case and was able to move the family to Ballinagare. Having already been educated by a Franciscan friar through the medium of Irish and Latin, in adolescence he was taught by his uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, before spending time in Dublin where he was taught mathematics, science and French by another Catholic clergyman. In 1731, he married Catherine O’Fagan who brought sufficient fortune with her to allow the couple establish their own household and here he devoted his time to the study of Ireland’s ancient history and culture, paying particular attention to all available original sources, aided by his fluency in both Irish and Latin. He also read all the leading contemporary writers in English and French. Throughout his life he collected, and annotated, Irish manuscripts and in 1753 published the work for which he remains best-remembered, Dissertations on the Antient History of Ireland which, thanks to its rigorous scholarship brought him widespread acclaim, not least from Samuel Johnson who after reading the book wrote to its author, ‘I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.’
Like his forebears, he remained a devout Roman Catholic, which at the time had its drawbacks. Conscious of the disadvantages suffered at the time by fellow-members of the same faith, along with historian John Curry, in 1757 he was one of the founders of the Catholic Committee, an organization campaigning for the repeal of the Penal Laws. He experienced the hazards of this legislation in 1777 when one of his younger brothers, Hugh O’Conor, conformed to the Established Church and filed a bill in chancery ‘for obtaining possession of the lands of Belanagare as its first protestant discoverer.’ Long litigation followed, ending only after the threat was seen off by the payment of a large financial settlement.
Following the death of his father Denis in 1749, Charles O’Conor moved to the house at Ballinagare and lived there until 1760 when he handed over the property to his eldest son (another Denis). Then he, moved to a smaller residence which he built and called the Hermitage. The latter still stands, albeit in somewhat precarious condition, but the former has fallen into ruin; this likely occurred after 1820 when Charles O’Conor’s grandson, Owen, moved to Clonalis. What remains are the façade and portions of the walls behind; these are believed to incorporate masonry taken from a late-medieval tower house constructed by an earlier generation of O’Conors. Faced in cut limestone, the entrance front is relatively modest, of three bays and one storey over raised basement, with a single storey extension to one side; a pediment incorporating a single arched window rises above the entablature. Dating from the 1720s, the house was intentionally given this diminutive appearance so as not to draw too much attention to its owners but it must have extended in both depth and possibly width to the rear since the number of occupants – members of the O’Conor family and their servants – is known to have been substantial. The entire interior has gone, as has the back wall, making it impossible to judge how the building looked when still occupied. The same is not true of Charles O’Conor’s second residence, the Hermitage which, as mentioned, still stands This modest house, just one room deep, is of two storeys and three bays, with an extension to the rear accommodating the staircase return. An adjacent yard would have held stables and coach house as well as rooms for the servants. Inside, it is still possible to see some of the decoration in both dining and drawing rooms, and entrance hall but the stairs are now too precarious to risk ascent to the first floor. The house was occupied until at least the middle of the last century, but a bungalow was subsequently constructed immediately in front, since when the older building has been used as a storage space, the ground floor windows enlarged to allow vehicular access. Its future must be considered precarious. Charles O’Conor was one of Ireland’s foremost scholars in the 18th century, and through his writings did much to preserve and disseminate evidence of this country’s ancient, and then-imperiled, culture. Almost thirty years ago, Seamus Deane described O’Conor as ‘one of the disregarded but very important figures of Irish history.’ The neglect of the buildings associated with him demonstrates little has changed in the interim.
Kilbeggan, County Westmeath is barely five miles west of Tyrellspass, but the two places couldn’t be more different in character. Both have a crescent but that in Kilbeggan occupies one portion of a bleak traffic roundabout and has suffered badly from neglect and mistreatment. The building dates from c.1830 when constructed in the then-popular Tudor-Gothic style as an hotel, indicating the prosperity of the period and the amount of traffic then passing through the village. The gables on the left-hand portion have been removed, as have the cut-limestone hooded doorcases, replaced by a brutish cement-rendered opening that makes nonsense of the composition. Alas, elsewhere things don’t get much better, with many buildings standing empty and neglected. Typical in this respect is the former Bank of Ireland, dating from c.1890, which closed early in the present century and presents a forlorn face on Market Square.
‘Garrets-town, in this barony, is the seat of Francis Kearny, esq. situated on a rising ground, commanding a prospect of the ocean, on both sides the isthmus of the Old head of Kinsale, and a good part of the neighbouring country, which is here diversified into agreeable hills, and pleasant vales, well cultivated. The house, with the contiguous offices, form a handsome area; the pediments, coignes, doors and window-frames are well built of rustic work, and hewn stone; a considerable part of the ground on which they stand was levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock. Towards the south is a good orchard, with kitchen and pleasure gardens; in which last is a handsome amphitheatre, the ground being naturally formed for that purpose. Under a high terrace walk, that, to the east, affords a good prospect, is a deep glen, the sides covered with wood, and along the bottom a rivulet falls in several pleasant cascades; beyond this are rising grounds, sheltering the plantation from S. and S.W. winds. On the W. is a large park, well walled, and the whole seat is environed with good plantations of timber trees; among which, the French elm and silver fir are observed to stand the severity of the nipping sea winds, better than any others. On the east, is a fine level tract, now converted into meadows and pasture grounds, which a few years ago, was a deep, red, shaking morass, much frequented, in winter, by wild fowl, but impassable for man or beast. On the west of the house, there were lately made a fine basin and decoy, wild duck being very numerous in this part of the country.’
From The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork by Charles Smith (1750)
Garrettstown has a rather complex history of ownership. According to Charles Smith, the place derives its name from the Core family who once lived in the area ‘many of whom were successively named Garret.’ Originally the land here was part of the territory owned by the de Courcys, Barons Kingsale, but was sold off towards the end of the 16th century and in 1618 some 979 acres here and a further 424 acres at nearby Kilmore were bought by one James Kearney, a merchant in Cork city. The Kearneys were originally from the Kilmallock area of County Limerick but had moved south following the devastation wrought on that part of the country by the two Desmond Rebellions of 1569–1573 and 1579–1583. James Kearney was the great-grandfather of the Francis Kearney mentioned by Smith as being the owner of Garrettstown. Hitherto the family had remained Roman Catholic (and remained in possession of their property), but Francis Kearney, although married to a Catholic heiress Mary Roche, conformed to the Established Church. He also seems to have been a Protestant Discoverer, that is someone who, under the Penal legislation of the time, could file a bill in the Court of Chancery against a Catholic with a legally deficient lease, and claim the lease for his own benefit. On the other hand, there were instances – and given Kearney’s many Catholic connections this may have been one of them – when the claim was in fact, a ‘collusive discovery’. Here a bogus bill of discovery would be obtained by the discoverer, the document seemingly granting the property in question to a Protestant but in fact leaving it with the original Catholic owner. Whatever was the case, through marriage and other acquisitions Francis Kearney managed to enlarge his estate from less than 2,000 to almost 8,200 acres. On his death in 1776, the now-substantial Garrettstown estate was inherited by James Kearney who served as a local M.P. but never married. As a result, when he in turn died in 1812, Garrettsown passed to a cousin, Thomas Rochfort who was Roman Catholic. He and his wife had married relatively late and as a result, once again, there was no direct heir, the estate in due course being left to Thomas Rochfort’s brother-in-law Thomas Cuthbert, on the condition that he took the additional surname of Kearney. Perhaps because Cuthbert was a member of the Church of Ireland, unlike his late brother-in-law, the will was disputed in court in 1832 but eventually he was able to come into his inheritance. There are more changes of ownership in the 19th century, again between family relations, after 1886 the estate being jointly owned by cousins, Abraham Thomas Forster (whose own family had previously lived at Ballymaloe, elsewhere in the county) and Matthew Franks. When Forster died five years later, he left his share to a brother, Colonel Francis Rowland Forster, Master of the Horse at Dublin Castle (and, incidentally, a constant companion of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria during her visits to Ireland in 1879/80). In 1903 Colonel Franks sold his share of the Garrettstown estate to Matthew Franks who in turn took advantage of the Wyndham Act to dispose of most of the land other than the demesne. The Franks family remained in possession of what remained until the middle of the last century; in 1952 the Land Commission acquired house and demesne, selling on the latter to the owners of a nearby hotel who subsequently unroofed the buildings. The property was sold again to the present owners who for many years have operated a caravan park on the premises.
What remains of Garrettstown is rather tantalising. The site, which sits high above the sea was, as Smith wrote ‘levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock’ in order, it is commonly believed, to construct there a fine Palladian house. Both the wings were constructed but then funds ran out and as a result the central block was never built. Instead, one of the wings served as stables (which was probably always the intention) while the other was steadily enlarged to the rear in order to form a decent residence. This notion certainly makes sense, since the two wings have identical facades facing each other across an open space between them and, at least on one side, the suggestion of what might once have been a colonnade linking it with the unbuilt main house. The date often provided for this development is some time during the first two decades of the 18th century, but it hardly makes sense that a family owning relatively little land would embark on such an ambitious project. More likely it was Francis Kearney, following his marriage to a Roche heiress and his acquisition of many thousands more acres, who in the late 1730s/early 1740s began to build a fine new house for himself – before recognising that its realisation was beyond his means. We know little of what the place looked like even when semi-finished. Samuel Lewis describes Garrettstown in 1837 as being ‘a handsome house in beautiful grounds, laid out in terraces, gardens and shrubberies, with extensive plantations.’ As mentioned, the two wings share the same façade design, of two storeys and five bays, the centre three bays breaking forward and pedimented; tooled limestone is used for the quoins, window surrounds and fine Gibbsian doorcases, hinting at how ambitious Mr Kearney’s house would have been, had his plans come to fruition. The residential wing was perhaps no more than one room deep, but additions to the rear mean its side elevation now runs to seven bays; an adjacent courtyard held further accommodation for staff and other services, meaning the establishment would have been decently substantial. As can be seen almost nothing other than exposed walls remains of the interior. The stable block has been restored and re-roofed, and is now used as office space. There were plans to undertake similar work on the other wing, but these have for the moment put on hold. One must hope they come to pass in due course.
The Lanesborough Arms Hotel opened in Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh 200 years ago, in 1820 and is testament to the prosperity of the area at the time. No longer, however. Of five bays and three storeys with a free-standing Tuscan porch, it closed for business some time ago: a fire believed to have been started deliberately caused major damage in 2016. Today the building is in poor shape, and reflects the decline seen in many small towns across the island of Ireland even before the start of the present pandemic.
Around 11pm on June 4th 1974, John Hely-Hutchinson, 7th Earl of Donoughmore and his wife Dorothy returned to their home, Knocklofty, County Tipperary having been out to dinner. As the couple got out of the car, a number of men ran towards them waving guns. They seized the elderly pair and when Lord Donoughmore, then aged 71, resisted, he was struck on the head a number of times. He and his wife were then forced into a car and driven away their eyes covered so that they could not see where they were being taken. The kidnap made international headlines, not least because there appeared to be no motive for the crime. In fact, the Donoughmores had been picked almost at random, their captors being members of a maverick IRA unit who sought to influence official policy on an on-going hunger strike in British jails by five IRA prisoners, including the Price sisters. But at the time this was unknown and the family thought that perhaps ransom money was sought. Later the couple explained that once they reached their place of captivity, they had been well treated and well fed. Senior Stewart of the Irish Turf Club, Lord Donoughmore was always keen to hear the racing results, and was provided with newspaper sports pages, the details of which he was evidently happy to share with his captors. ‘We did not talk about politics with them,’ he said, ‘but they know a lot more about racing now.’ Meanwhile, nationwide efforts were underway to find the couple and protests held in the local town of Clonmel against the kidnapping. Those responsible now found themselves in bad odour with senior IRA figures because a ntionwide police and army search had caused considerable problems for the organisation. Then, happily ongoing mediation led to the hunger-strike being called off and after four days, the Donoughmores were driven to Dublin and in the early hours of the morning released in the middle of Phoenix Park.
The Hely-Hutchinsons can be traced back to the Ó hÉalaighthe or O’Healy clan in County Cork, based around Donoughmore which lies some 12 miles south-west of Mallow. Like so many other families, they lost much of their territory and power during the 17th century, However, by the early 18th century one Francis Hely, described in contemporary reports as a gentleman, was living in Gortroe, to the west of Mallow. In 1724 he and his wife Prudence had a son, John Hely, who after studying at Trinity College Dublin was called to the Bar and rose to become one of the most notable lawyers and politicians of the period, also serving as Provost of his Alma Mater for many years. In 1751 John Hely married Christiana Nickson of Wicklow, great-niece and heiress of one Richard Hutchinson whose own forebear had been granted by the English crown some 1,200 acres of land around Knocklofty in County Tipperary: the married couple duly changed their name to Hely-Hutchinson. Despite his brilliant career, John Hely-Hutchinson declined a peerage but instead his wife was created Baroness Donoughmore, a recollection of her husband’s family background. Their eldest son Richard duly inherited the title on his mother’s death, before in turn being created Viscount Donoughmore and then in 1800 Earl of Donoughmore. He commissioned the construction of the present house at Knocklofty, the entrance front of which had a central block of seven bays and three storeys flanked by gable-ended two-storey wings that come forward to create a forecourt. At some point, a third inner bay was added to these wings while in the early 19th century along the front of the house a single storey corridor was added, with a three-bay domed projection at its centre. Other extensions were made to the building later in the same century, resulting in a very substantial house, along with several adjacent service wings. Inside, curiously, the largest reception space is not the drawing room but, at the centre of the house overlooking the gardens, a double-height library, a wrought-iron gallery running around three sides. Some of this work was presumably undertaken by the second Earl who inherited title and estate from his unmarried elder brother; rising to the rank of General the former had enjoyed a distinguished military career, not least in Egypt during the French Wars, and as a result had been granted his own title as Baron Hutchinson of Alexandria and Knocklofty. But he too died unmarried and so title and estate passed to a nephew John Hely-Hutchinson, from whom subsequent generations were descended.
Seven years after being kidnapped, the seventh Lord Donoughmore died in 1981 and soon afterwards Knocklofty was placed on the market. In 1984 the house and 105 acres were bought by a couple for £750,000 and sections of it developed as apartments in a time-share scheme, then a new concept in Ireland, while the rest was turned into an hotel. A nine-hole golf course was installed in the grounds, a swimming pool in the building and other facilities like tennis and squash courts created. Initially the business seemed to go well but within a decade it had failed badly. Protracted court proceedings with creditors ensued and in October 1991 the property was placed on the market with an asking price of £1.5 million. Failing to secure a buyer, Knocklofty went into receivership and in 1993 was again advertised for sale, this time with an expected price of £500-600,000. The complexity of dealing with the established timeshare commitments made by the previous owners seems to have deterred many potential purchasers. In any case, again there were no takers, so at the end of the year the place was once more offered on the market, this time with a disclosed reserve of £360,000, less than half of what had been paid for it a decade earlier, and less than a quarter of the asking price in 1991. Finally it sold to a local businessman, Denis English, who had previously bought another historic house in the same area, Marlfield (currently on the market) which he divided into self-contained apartments.
After buying the place, Denis English announced his intentions to convert Knocklofty into a series of apartments, as he had already done at Marlfield. However, the place continued to operate as before as an hotel until the advent of an economic recession at the end of the last decade. In 2013 the house was once more offered for sale, this time on 80 acres and for a price of €3 million. Two years later, that figure appears to have dropped to €1.9 million. Matters then grew more complicated when court proceedings were taken by US private equity group Cerberus Capital Management for possession of the property; it transpired that in 2014 the company had acquired a loan portfolio from Ulster Bank, which included a number of loans made to Knocklofty’s owner. He in turn disputed the matter and further legal arguments ensued until, in May 2017, it was announced that the High Court had granted Cerberus the right to take control of the property. All should have been resolved then but, alas, that does not look to have been the end of the matter. Although there has been no further reports on the matter, it looks as though dispute between relevant parties continues. Meantime, the looser in this, Knocklofty, has stood empty and falling into ever-greater disrepair. As these photographs demonstrate, unless circumstances are resolved soon, this has all the makings of a Jarndyce v Jarndyce scenario, with an equally unsatisfactory outcome.
Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.
The former Castle Strange in County Roscommon derived its name from a family who held this land in the late Middle Ages, called L’Estrange. There seems some confusion about whether they were of Norman origin, or whether this was an Anglicised version of an old Irish name. In Edward MacLysaght’s Surnames of Ireland (1969) the author proposes that the L’Estranges in County Westmeath had originally been called Mac Conchoigcriche, meaning border hound. Was this also true of the family of the same name in Roscommon? In any case, by the second half of the 17th century the L’Estranges, like so many other old families, had been driven out of their territory, the land in this instance passing into the hands of one Thomas Mitchell, a Scottish soldier sent to Ireland by General Monck in 1659 and seven years appointed by then-Lord Lieutenant James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, to serve as Cornet to a troop of horse under the command of Captain Nicholas Mahon. Mitchell subsequently settled in this part of the country and married, producing a large family, generations of which would live at Castle Strange. In the 19th century, successive members served in the British army, John Wray Mitchell rising to the rank of Major-General, while his son Edward became a Colonel. But further information about them, and their home, is not easy to find.
The first two photographs shown here show what remains of Castle Strange today: little other than sections of the two gable ends with portions of their chimney stacks. Seemingly built in the 1830s (after the estate was inherited General Mitchell’s father, another Edward), there appears to be nothing on record about its appearance when still intact and occupied, nor how it came to be in its present state (should anyone have such material, do please share). Meanwhile, the nearby yard to the east is in much better condition, in that at least the outer walls and sections of the roof remain in place. This very large, U-shaped block is constructed of limestone ashlar and, older images indicate, features a carved coat of arms above the central carriage arch, now impossible to see due to the thickness of ivy covering the building. The scale of this development indicates the affluence of the Mitchell family at the time, as do further ranges of farm buildings to one side. The other building of architectural interest is the now-derelict east lodge, again thought to date from the early 1830s and an exercise in romantic Gothic, with arched windows on either side of a central two-bay canted projection with a door on one side. Like so much else on this site, information about the building is scarce, making it another instance where a place’s history has been almost entirely obliterated. All very strange.