Knocked from a Lofty Place



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.


A Grand Approach II



The façade of Oak Park, County Carlow, designed by William Vitruvius Morrison in the early 1830s for Colonel Henry Bruen. The building incorporates an earlier house and was originally a grand villa, of two storeys and five bays, one on either side of the giant tetrastyle portico. The latter, featuring four Ionic columns with wreaths in the frieze above, is almost identical to that at Ballyfin, County Laois and can also be seen at Barons Court, County Tyrone and Mount Stewart, County Down, on all of which buildings the Morrisons, father and son, worked. Oak Park was greatly extended in the 1870s and also extensively restored after a fire in 1902, but some of the original interior decoration survives, notably in the entrance hall and the former library. The last of the Bruen family to live in the house died in 1954; some time earlier his wife had run away with an impoverished Montenegran prince, Milo Petrovic-Njegos.  After various legal disputes and changes of ownership had occurred, Oak Park and several hundred acres was acquired by the Irish State; today it serves as the headquarters of Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority.


Escaping the Wreckers’ Ball


In 1961, the April-June issue of the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin advised readers that a house in County Carlow called Browne’s Hill ‘is to be demolished if a buyer does not come forward within the next month. Situated in a large park with fine timber, Browne’s Hill is in first-rate structural repair and would make a lovely, easily run family home. Although it is on top of a hill with panoramic views, it is not remote, the town of Carlow being only 1 ½ miles away, and Dublin 50 miles.
The house was built in 1763 by an architect named Peters for Robert Browne, in whose family it remained until recently. The three reception rooms have rich plaster ceilings and the original mantlepieces, the front hall is paved with black and white squares, and the kitchen (with Aga) is on the ground floor. The grand staircase leads up to ten bedrooms of various sizes, he principal one being octagonal with windows facing in three directions. There are two bathrooms, three lavatories, oil fired central heating and E.S.B. main electricity.
The courtyard comprises 15 stables, garages, loose boxes, dairy and groom’s house with excellent living accommodation, approximately 5,000 square feet of lofting, all in good condition. For permission to view, apply to – William Mulhall, Auctioneer and Valuer, 60 Dublin St., Carlow.
Price £2,500 with five acres.
A further 68 acres is available, if required, £7,000.’





Browne’s Hill was occupied by successive generations of the same family until 1951 when William Browne-Clayton offered the house for sale with 700 acres. Two years later an English syndicate purchased the estate, along with another nearby, the 1,500 acre Oak Park. These purchases were not well-received locally, farmers in the area believing the land ought to have been divided up among them by the Land Commission. Eventually in 1961 the syndicate, faced with growing hostility, negotiated a deal with the commission, whereby the estate underwent division and the house with its immediate five acres were put on the market with an asking price of £2,500. It was at this point that the Irish Georgian Society placed a notice in its bulletin warning supporters that unless a sympathetic buyer could be found – and soon – the house would be demolished. This news understandably caused alarm among those who were fighting to ensure the survival of the country’s steadily diminishing architectural heritage. Among them was author Anita Leslie, then dividing her time between her own family home, Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, and Oranmore Castle, County Galway, a property she had bought with her husband Bill King. Anita Leslie was also battling to save Dalyston, an important mid-18th century house that had just been sold to a County Longford firm that specialized in stripping old buildings of all saleable assets. Seeing Dalyston unroofed and gradually picked bare, she was determined the same fate should not befall Browne’s Hill and embarked on a campaign to save the property. For a time, she thought it might perhaps be bought by one of her friends, such as the wealthy Simone, Baronne de Bastard who had just spent huge sums restoring the 17th century château de Hautefort in the Dordogne, but it seems Mme de Bastard did not care to purchase a house in the Irish countryside.





As June 1961 drew to a close, the fate of Browne’s Hill seemed sealed: it was destined to be demolished since the best purchase offer had come from the same company that had stripped and unroofed Dalyston. But then the Land Commission, in a rare gesture of sympathy, advised the Irish Georgian Society that it would allow a further six months’ grace before a decision over the house’s future was made. Anita Leslie battled on, helped by another stalwart of the society, Eoin ‘The Pope’ O’Mahony (he had been nicknamed ‘The Pope’ while still a schoolboy after declaring his ambition in life was to hold this title). A wonderfully eccentric character, one-time barrister, orator, genealogist and supporter of many lost causes, in this instance O’Mahony announced that he had persuaded a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to back a scheme whereby Browne’s Hill would be bought for 2,000 guineas, to be used as a student hostel. Extensive correspondence survives between Anita Leslie, Eoin O’Mahony, and Desmond and Mariga Guinness of the Irish Georgian Society as all of them – sometimes at cross-purposes – sought the best means of securing Browne’s Hill’s long-term future, each of them, and others besides, hounding the local auctioneer William Mulhall for information about possible rival bids for the place. On July 10th, Anita Leslie wrote somewhat histrionically to the Guinnesses, ‘I feel like Atlas holding up the last Georgian houses in Ireland on drooping shoulders & slender purse.’ If necessary, and as a last resort, she was prepared to pay the £2,500 required for Browne’s Hill, thinking it could either be let to a tenant or else run as a guesthouse. Finally, despairing that demolition awaited without her intercession and without telling her husband of the decision, she sent the auctioneer a cheque for the deposit. The cheque was promptly returned: it transpired that another offer for the property had been made – and not by any firm with demolition in mind. Instead, Browne’s Hill was bought by a local travel agent Frank Tully and his wife Patty. They subsequently moved into Browne’s Hill, which remained a family home until Mr Tully died in November 2018. Last month Browne’s Hill came on the market for only the second time since it was built more than 250 years ago.


The original entrance gates to the Browne’s Hill estate, which took the form of a splendid triumphal arch, were sold during this period and bought by University College Dublin, which in 1962 purchased the Lyons estate in County Kildare to run as a research farm. The gates can still be seen there at the entrance to the now-private house at Lyons.

Another Unhappy Fate



Following Monday’s piece on Mount Talbot, County Roscommon, here is the church where the Talbot family used to worship, and in the grounds of which they were buried. The building dates from 1766 and like the nearby house must originally have been classical in form, as indicated by the great three-stage tower at the west end which has a large niche on the lowest level. It would appear that at some date in the 19th century, perhaps when work was being undertaken at the main house, the church was similarly Gothicised, since the east end was given a tripartite window with pointed arches and the three windows along the south wall were similarly altered. Having closed for services in the 1960s, the building fell into ruin but a number of years ago restoration work began on the site, including the installation of a new roof. This job now seems to have stalled and soon church and house may look much like each other.


Contrasting Styles II


Two country houses, both in County Meath and both now hotels. Today, Dunboyne Castle which dates from the mid-1760s and in its present form was designed by Drogheda architect George Darley for the widowed Sarah Hamilton. Although only 15 or so years later than Bellinter (see the previous post), Dunboyne Castle’s interiors are quite different, rococo having usurped baroque as the preferred style of decoration. The plasterwork of the ground floor saloon’s ceiling is reminiscent of work from the same period at Dowth Hall which was also designed by Darley (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2012/12/24/netterville-netterville-where-have-you-been) and which has been attributed to Robert West.

Contrasting Styles I


Two country houses, both in County Meath and both now hotels. Today, Bellinter which dates from c.1750 and was designed by Richard Castle for brewer and M.P. John Preston, whose son would become first (and last) Baron Tara. Since Castle died in 1751, he is unlikely to have overseen the work, which is vigorous but somewhat unsophisticated in execution, as demonstrated by the ceiling of the ground floor saloon. Its exuberant baroque plasterwork looks indebted to the Lafranchini brothers but probably executed by lesser hands.

A Photographic Record


In 1650 Captain Theophilus Sandford, who came from the town of Audenshaw, a few miles east of Manchester, sailed from Liverpool to Ireland at the head of 80 horsemen, and joined the English army then suppressing the Irish uprising. Following the end of hostilities, Captain Sandford was rewarded for his services with a large grant of land, formerly held by the O’Conor family, in County Roscommon. To this he added further lands by purchase, as did his heir Henry Sandford in the aftermath of the Williamite wars. The Sandfords were based in Castlerea where on the edge of the town they erected a substantial house in the early 18th century, of seven bays and three storeys over basement. The centre block of this building was seriously damaged by fire in 1895 and replaced by a single storey, prefabricated house linking what survived of the two wings. Following the departure of the family from the area in the aftermath of the First World War, and the division of their former estate by the Land Commission, Castlerea House was demolished and nothing now remains of the property.






Through marriage and a seat in parliament the Sandfords rose to become respectable members of the Landed Gentry and, in 1800, Henry Sandford was rewarded with the title Baron Mount Sandford. Having no children, he was succeeded by his nephew, another Henry Sandford who in June 1828 at the age of only 23 met an unfortunate end. He and some friends stopped in Windsor on their way to Ascot for the races and observed a drunken brawl taking place on the street. Lord Mount Sandford was attacked by one of the brawlers who knocked him down and then kicked him in the head; he died from his injuries nine days later. An elderly uncle then inherited but he had no children, so eventually the estate was jointly inherited by the first baron’s two daughters, one of whom married a Pakenham (and her eldest son Henry married Grace Mahon, heiress to another Roscommon estate, Strokestown). The other sister Mary married William Robert Wills who also had an estate, Willsgrove, not far from Castlerea but the couple and their children lived in the old Sandford home and changed their name to Wills-Sandford. Their great-grandson Thomas George Wills-Sandford was the last of the family to occupy Castlerea House, while his younger brother Edward lived a few miles west of the town in the property seen here today, Cashlieve.






It is difficult to date the origins of Cashlieve which may have begun in the 19th century as a hunting lodge. However, the building was most likely enlarged following Edward Wills-Sandford’s marriage to Amy Guinness in 1889; the couple would have two daughters. The manner in which the entrance is wedged in a canted bay between the main block and a long wing, seems to suggest the latter was added to an earlier structure. Inside a handsome hallway contains the main staircase lit by a glazed dome and doors to the main reception rooms on one side; the single storey canted bays in both dining and drawing room in this portion of the building appear to be later additions and between them is a little vestibule which was clearly the original entrance before the whole site was turned around. Speculation about, and research into, Cashlieve’s history will need to occur soon, because it looks set to meet the same fate as Castlerea House before long. As was the case there, the surrounding lands were sold by the Land Commission and the property then seems to have been owned by a number of different persons. It has now stood empty for a number of years and much of what can be taken from a house – such as chimneypieces – has been taken, in a rather cack-handed fashion. Another house, one suspects, soon destined to be known only through old photographs.

Faith of our Fathers


‘St Patrick’s, Ardragh, County Monaghan – This church, or rather part of a church, has just been consecrated and has been built by Mr. E.P. Shirley from Messrs. Slater and Carpenter’s designs. It is a simple oblong building, with an apsidal sanctuary opening out of it by an arch at the east end. The whole is to form the chancel of a much larger church, but for the present it will be used for the parishioners. It is four bays in length, and has lancets moulded on the inside. The chancel arch is built up in the west wall, and encloses a traceried rose-window, with a temporary door and porch under. The roof is of timber, with arched principals. The sanctuary is apsidal, with a moulded lancet in each side. The roof is of solid stone, arched on the inside and weathered on the outside.’ (The Builder, 9th January 1869).




St Patrick’s, Ardragh was built on the initiative of Evelyn Philip Shirley, owner of the Lough Fea estate some six miles to the south-west of the church. It has been proposed that the building was, at least in part, intended as a mortuary chapel for the family, since a vault was placed beneath the sanctuary but this was more likely due to the fact that the ground outside drops steeply at this point. Just as significantly, neither the building’s first patron, nor any of his descendants, have been buried in the church, making the argument for the building being their mortuary chapel even less likely. On the other hand, it does appear that the initial plan was for a much larger church, of which the present one would have served only as chancel and choir, but the reality of attendance numbers at Church of Ireland services probably put paid to that idea. In any case, a foundation stone was laid here in November 1865 and work on the site began the following May, the church being consecrated in October 1868. Designed by London architect William Slater (who specialised in such religious buildings), it is situated amid a grove of beech trees on a rise, so that the church can be seen from some distance. The exterior takes the form of a four-bay gabled hall with a bellcote above the western gable front and a polygonal apse at the east end with an ashlar roof, which, as has been often noted, looks like a miniature baptistery. The four drop arched lancets of the nave are framed between off-set buttresses which continue around the chancel. While locally-quaried limestone was used for the main body of the building, a pinkish sandstone was employed for decorative features such as the window surrounds (linked by bands in the same material) and quoins on the buttresses and little entrance porch. In addition to the bellcote, the roofline also carries a slender round chimneystack in the north-west corner.



The interior of St Patrick’s reflects the simplicity of its exterior, although a key feature has since been lost. As originally decorated, the walls of the apse were lined in blue and red alabaster mined from a quarry on the Shirley estate and worked by the Dublin firm of Sibthorpe & Son; this has since been removed owing to incursion of damp. Alabaster from the same quarry can still be seen in the shafts of the columns of the chancel arch. These terminate in carved capitals of stone from Lough Fea, also used for the surrounds of the windows and western door. The windows throughout the church were made by the London firm of Clayton & Bell, those on the north and south sides simply decorated with shamrocks, roses and acorns, those in the chancel showing Christ as the Good Shepherd, the True Vine and the Light of the World, while the small rose window at the west end contains scenes from the life of St Patrick. The chancel floor carries Minton tiles showing the various Shirley coats of arms. Architect William Slater was also responsible for designing the furnishings, not least the reading desk of blue alabaster, its front carved into multiple panels containing shamrocks. Note too the octagonal baptismal font of Caen stone with more alabaster for inlays and Connemara marble for the shafts. St Patrick’s remains beautifully maintained to the present time, and still in use for services.




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Before and After


The ceiling of a first-floor reception room in a house on the north side of Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Many of these properties were among the first to be developed on the site and the building appears to date from the second decade of the 19th century. The plasterwork on the ceiling is free-hand and not taken from moulds, which soon after became the norm. At the moment, it is covered in layers of paint but a ceiling in the adjacent room has recently been cleaned and restored, revealing just how fine is the workmanship here.

Dancing on the Ceiling


As David Skinner explains in his 2014 monograph on Wallpaper in Ireland, in the early 19th century some French manufacturers began to produce narrative papers, each one different and intended to be hung in sequence so as to tell a story. These ‘papiers-peints paysages’ as they were called, became popular throughour Europe and North America, and a number of them were hung in Irish houses. One particular monochrome set, telling the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche was first created in 1816 by Joseph Dufour of Paris, based on a series of pictures specially produced by two neo-classical artists of the time, Louis Lafitte and Merry-Joseph Blondel. At least three Cupid and Psyche sets could once be found here but two of the houses where they were installed, Kinlough, County Leitrim and Piltown, County Louth, are now ruins (for the latter, see https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/03/13/pourquoi-me-reveiller). The third set remains in situ in the library/ballroom of Stradbally Hall, County Laois where in the 1860s it was placed not on the walls but rather unusually in sequence around the outer perimeter of the ceiling.