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?

Planning Ahead


Last week, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht issued a consultation document designed to inform a new national plan called Heritage Ireland 2030. This, it appears, will ‘recognise the vital role our heritage plays in our community, our economy and our society’ and, in addition, will prpvide ‘a coherent, comprehensive and inspiring framework of values, principles and strategic priorities which will guide and inform the heritage sector over the next decade.’ The strategy is to be built around three core themes: National Leadership and Heritage, Heritage Partnerships, and Communities and Heritage. An open invitation is extended by the department for submissions on the plan’s formation (although curiously no deadline is provided) and more information is available at: https://www.chg.gov.ie/heritage/heritageireland2030.
No doubt many people will have opinions on what ought to be prioritised in Heritage Ireland 2030, but here’s one suggestion. According to the consultation document, an objective of the plan will be the production of ‘An effective policy and regulatory framework and governance structure that supports an integrated approach to the protection, conservation and use of heritage.’ Just such a regulatory framework and governance structure already exists thanks to the 2000 Planning Act. As part of that legislation, owners or occupiers of protected structures are legally required to make sure a building for which they are responsible does not become endangered through neglect, decay, damage or harm. Heritage Ireland 2030 might insist that local authorities act according to the terms of the act, and thus ensure less of our built heritage, despite being listed for protection, is lost forever. Let’s act on existing strategies before embarking on new ones.*

*Interestingly, a conference called Democratising Conservation is being held at University College Dublin on Friday 16th November: publicity for the event announces that ‘a national system of architectural heritage protection has now been in place in Ireland for almost 20 years, providing a rigorous professional framework in which conservation decisions are framed.’ Not everyone will necessarily agree with this opinion.

A View from Above

Lohort Castle, County Cork featured here over a year ago (see Surrendering to the Elements, June 19th 2017). Recently a follower of the site, James McErlain was in touch and  kindly forwarded some aerial photographs of the site taken a few years ago. These are particularly interesting because they show the outline of an octagonal outer fortification around the perimeter of the castle and ancillary structures. This is not the same as the star-shaped Vaubanesque outerworks depicted in an 18th century engraving (these look to have been approximately where are now a belt of trees around the castle) but indicates a further sequence of defences, perhaps constructed during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s when the place was besieged. 

Seeking a Viable Future


Tomorrow the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland is hosting a one-day conference on the operation, presentation and promotion of industrial sites (see http://ihai.ie/calendar-of-events): seemingly some 100 of these around the country are open to the public. Lacking the necessary mineral wealth, Ireland never experienced an industrial revolution similar to that of our nearest neighbour. However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, large mills were erected harnessing the power of water (of which we have a great deal) to engage in activities such as milling. The legacy of that enterprise can still be found in sites across the entire island. Many of them are in various states of disrepair, such as this complex on the banks of the Shannon in Banagher, County Offaly.





An advantageous position on the south-eastern side of the Shannon helped Banagher to thrive from an early period: pilgrims visiting the monastic sites at Clonfert and Clonmacnoise would pass this way and it appears the first bridge across the river at this point was built around the middle of the 11th century. While there was long a military presence in the town, its economic development was initially dependent on the wool trade. Major expansion occurred from the late 1700s onwards, thanks to the development of the Grand Canal, providing this part of the country with access to the ports of Dublin and Limerick. Banagher now became a major centre for the grain trade. A boom followed and around the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s the town’s population was some 3,000 (today it is a little over half that figure). Decline followed in the second half of the century, not least owing to the abolition of the Corn Laws which allowed for the importation of cheap grain from abroad, with inevitable consequences for the domestic trade. The mill by the Shannon offers evidence of the town’s rise and fall.





Now derelict, the core of the complex is a five-storey, twelve-bay grain mill and malting works. Seemingly there was a mill on the site by the late 1700s (shown with an external waterwheel on its north gable on an engraving of c.1800). This was presumably used as a flour and corn mill and parts of it remain incorporated into the present, much-enlarged block. On Ordnance Survey maps of 1838 and 1884 the building is described as being ‘Haughtons Mills.’ Initially it took advantage of water channelled through the arches of a bridge spanning the river at this point but later a steam engine was installed, making the use of water redundant. Around 1880 the buildings were taken over by F.A. Waller and thereafter used for malting. It only ceased to be operational in the 1970s when Waller amalgamated with D.E. Williams of Tullamore and the Banagher buildings were no longer needed. Since then the main block, together with ancillary offices and out-houses, has fallen into ruin. Can the site hope to have a viable future? Perhaps tomorrow’s conference might produce some answers.

Well Lodged

Hare Island, County Westmeath is located at the southern end of Lough Ree is said to derive its name from the number of hares that once inhabited its 57 acres. It appears there was a monastic settlement here established in the sixth century by St Ciarán before he moved on to Clonmacnoise. However, it was subject to repeated attack and plunder, and cannot have been a very secure place to live. At some point in the second half of the 12th century, the Augustinian canons settled on the island, perhaps under the protection of the local Dillon family who controlled this part of the country. They remained in possession of the island until 1653 when Sir James Dillon went into exile, having formed the famous Dillon Regiment which then fought in the French army. His estates passed into the possession of a Dublin merchant Ridgely Hatfield, who was sheriff of Westmeath and in the 18th century Hare Island next came into the ownership of the Hackett family. They sold it to the Handcocks, landowners in Westmeath whose main seat was at Moydrum Castle (see An Unforgettable Fire, August 15th 2018).






Originally from Lancashire, William Handcock was the first member of his family to settle in Ireland, arriving here during the 1650s. Within a decade he had become a member of the Irish parliament, representing Athlone as did many of his descendants. In this area he built a house called Twyford, which still stands but is now ruinous. The Handcocks prospered and in 1812 William’s great-grandson, also called William, was created the first Baron Castlemaine of Moydrum. Around the same time and presumably to mark his elevation to the peerage, he commissioned the design of Moydrum Castle from Richard Morrison. It is believed that the same architect was responsible for the lodge on Hare Island. A keen sportsman, Lord Castlemaine used the building for fishing and shooting expeditions.






Mark Bence-Jones comments that the lodge on Hare Island gives the impression ‘of having been concocted out of the “left-overs” from several different houses of various styles and periods. Among the elements incorporated are an 18th century classical pedimented doorcase, gothick windows, one of them with a mullioned bay and, on the exterior, a Regency veranda its wide eaves supported by slim iron columns. The main lodge is quite small and of one storey, the main room obviously serving for receptions, parties and dancing. Behind are a handful of smaller spaces, perhaps acting as accommodation. But behind the lodge are further ranges, including a pair of two-storey pavilions facing each other across a narrow courtyard. From what remains, these appear to have been for guests (Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, a cousin of Queen Victoria is said to have stayed on Hare Island in 1850 as a guest of the third Lord Castlemaine). Behind these pavilions are further outbuildings, probably for servants, livestock and so forth. The buildings remained in use until relatively recently, being available for rent. Unfortunately they have now fallen into serious disrepair and the lodge’s future does not look encouraging.

Faulty Vision

 

At the end of last August the Heritage Council, a statutory body ‘working for heritage’ released a five-year strategic plan which proposes to set out a new ‘vision’ for the country’s heritage and to map a route towards its realization (see: https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/news/news-features/heritage-at-the-heart-heritage-council-strategy-2018-2022). As so often with such documents this one is strong on lofty aspiration but rather weak on specific action leading to the achievement of goals. However, the idea is that by 2022 thanks to the council’s vision ‘heritage will be at the heart of Irish society and decision-making and that Ireland will be internationally recognised as a centre of excellence in heritage management, conservation and community engagement.’
On Wednesday a building less than ten minutes’ walk from the Heritage Council’s premises in Kilkenny city was gutted by fire. Adjacent to the Nore and across the river from Kilkenny Castle, for which it once served as a dower house, 88/89 Lower John Street dates in large part from the mid-18th century although it incorporated fabric from a much earlier building and contained the remains of a mid-17th century staircase. Despite its enormous architectural and historic significance – and despite being listed for preservation – the house was permitted by the local authority to stand empty for many years, its garden sheared off for the construction of an hotel, thereby severely compromising the site. Last year the house was finally sold, and hopes were raised that the property, its exterior a much-photographed landmark, would finally be restored. Instead it remained in the same condition until this week when left a smoking ruin.
One might have expected the Heritage Council – which declares its vision to be that ‘heritage is enjoyed, managed and protected for the vital contribution that it makes to both our social and economic well-being’ – would make a statement about this terrible loss so close to its own property. Yet it has remained silent: on Wednesday, the council’s Facebook page opted to post a video of Basque dancers in Galway. And ironically on the day after the fire, the Heritage Council was involved in a conference about urban renewal entitled ‘Unlocking Prosperity through Heritage-Led Regeneration.’ A building within Kilkenny offered an opportunity to demonstrate that the benefits of such regeneration, but that opportunity was missed. The Heritage Council’s home page bears the slogan ‘Our Heritage: Where the Past Meets the Future.’ In the case of 88/89 Lower John Street the past wasn’t given the chance to meet the future and all of us are the poorer. Articulating a ‘vision’ is admirable but occasions like this prove it to be insufficient.

 

A Matter of Concern


The old market house in Ballybay, County Monaghan. It was built in 1848 to replace an earlier building serving the same purpose which stood on another site but found to be in poor condition and demolished. Markets were held on the ground floor under the arches, while the space upstairs was used for a variety of purposes: a schoolhouse, a courthouse, a library and an assembly room for dances and concerts. Designed by William Walker, last year the building was offered for sale: now the old market house stands sadly neglected with the threat that it could yet go the same way as its predecessor.

Nature Stakes Her Claim


An abandoned farmhouse in County Westmeath. Normally it is the smaller, less-well constructed buildings which are forsaken, but this one was sturdily built and so its neglected condition is somewhat surprising. The interior still contains much of its furnishings, although now in some disarray. Soon the roof will give way and then the walls tumble, allowing Nature to stake her claim to the site.

At a Crossroads



On the cusp of dereliction: a two-storey, three bay house of coursed rubble limestone at Glencara Crossroads, County Westmeath. Likely dating from the early to mid-19th century, the building is close to Glencara House and may have been associated with that estate, perhaps built for an agent or worker there. Glencara House was constructed c.1824 for the Kelly family to the designs of an unknown architect but alterations were made around 1840 (attributed to J.B. Keane). These included the addition of canted bays, not unlike the clearly added to this little two-storey property, although this is somewhat less sophisticated: note how the entrance and window above are slightly off-centre. Unfortunately the househas stood empty and neglected for a number of years and, like the location, its future is now at a crossroads.


How to Kill a Street


The former entrance to a house on Lower O’Connell Street, Kinsale, County Cork. One of a terrace testifying to the long-standing prosperity of the town, these handsome residences date from c.1800 and have fine cut-limestone door cases and slate covering their upper storeys. All of them have been incorporated into an hotel which faces the harbour. This means the entrances have all been closed, and insensitive uPVC windows inserted at every level. As a consequence an entire section of Lower O’Connell Street has lost both character and, just as important, public engagement. Shabby and neglected, what ought to be a thoroughfare just as bustling as others in Kinsale has instead become a dead space.