The Past in Need of a Future

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While claims are made of 12th century origins, in its present form Lackeen Castle, County Tipperary is an example of the later Irish tower house. These defensive dwellings were built from the 15th to early 17th centuries, and it would appear that Lackeen was constructed for Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn, chieftain of Ormond, who died in 1588. Cinneide is the Irish word for ‘Helmeted Head’, it being said that the Ua Cinneides were the first people in this country to wear helmets when going into battle against the Vikings. The name was later anglicised to Kennedy and the family remains widespread in this part of north Tipperary. Although Brian Ua Cinneide Fionn’s son Donnchadh further fortified the castle, in 1653 it surrendered to English forces. Nevertheless his descendants regained possession of the property and were in occupation in the 18th century. Lackeen is of particular interest since it forms part of a group of buildings constructed within a bawn wall, considerable parts of which also survive. The tower house is of four storeys, and contains the remains of several chimneypieces as well as two flights of stairs, initially a straight run to the first floor, and then a spiral staircase to the upper levels concluding in a large open space which was once roofed and would have held the main living chambers.

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As mentioned, the original owners of Lackeen had regained possession of the site by the 18th century. In 1735 John O’Kennedy who was then undertaking work on the tower house discovered an ancient manuscript hidden inside one of its walls. Known as the Stowe Missal the work was written in Latin in the late eighth or early ninth century but in the mid-11th century had been annotated and some additional pages written in Irish. By that date the manuscript seems to have come into the safe keeping of a monastery at nearby Lorrha where it would have remained until the dissolution of such establishments in the mid-16th century; most likely the manuscript was then concealed for safekeeping at Lackeen Castle. Following its rediscovery the missal entered the collection of the Irish antiquarian Charles O’Conor, the O’Conor Don. In 1798 his grandson, a Roman Catholic priest also called Charles O’Conor, was invited to become chaplain to the first Marchioness of Buckingham, and to organize and translate a collection of historic material kept at her husband’s house, Stowe in Buckinghamshire. On moving to England, the younger O’Conor brought with him fifty-nine of his grandfather’s manuscripts including the missal found at Lackeen. Along with the others, this remained at Stowe until the entire collection was sold to the fourth Earl of Ashburnham in 1849: in turn his son sold all the manuscripts to the British government which returned Irish-related material to this country. The Stowe missal is now in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy.

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Adjacent to Lackeen Castle and on the edge of the bawn wall is a group of domestic buildings which look to be from the 17th and early 18th centuries: it would seem at least some of this cluster was erected in the aftermath of 1660 when peace, for a time, returned to Ireland. The most striking, and most intact, of the group is a two-storey, five-bay farmhouse, one-room deep, with a single living space on either side of the entrance hall. The latter is interesting because on coming through the front door one faces a pair of panelled doors, that to the left leading to the staircase (now in part collapsed) that to the right being a cupboard. This decorative flourish, together with simple plasterwork on the ceilings of the ground floor rooms suggest aspirations towards gentry status on the part of the earliest occupants, and make Lackeen House all the more important since such buildings are now relatively rare. In the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, the building’s association with the adjacent tower house is described as being ‘of great importance and illustrates the development of this site for domestic use over several centuries.’ Photographs taken only a few years ago show the house unoccupied but still in reasonable condition. Unfortunately such is no longer the case: there are holes in the roof where slates have slipped, resultant water ingress has led to partial ceiling collapse, a portion of the stairs has given way and the signs are that Lackeen House will soon be just an empty shell. This is a s0-called ‘Protected Structure’ but once again the term is meaningless as no protection is being offered to the house. Time is running out fast here: unless an intervention occurs soon a nationally important collection of historic buildings is set to be lose one of its key elements.

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Take Three

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This week the Irish Aesthete celebrates its third birthday. When first posting in September 2012, I had no idea that the project would develop as it has since done, nor that it would attract such a loyal following (and certainly not that I would still be doing this now). A sincere thanks to everyone who has been reading these pages over the intervening period, and for your support and encouragement which – as any writer can confirm – make such a difference. Your own contributions and comments continue to be most welcome although a courteous tone is necessary if you wish for a response.
Over the past three years many posts have been gloomy or dispiriting in character, reflecting the problems faced by Ireland’s architectural heritage, and its want of sufficient support from public and private quarters alike. But given today’s occasion demands a more celebratory spirit, here is a trio of historic houses which have been featured before, all of them restored and brought back to vibrant life thanks to the imagination and passion of their respective owners.

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Rokeby Hall, County Louth which first featured here in February 2013 (Building on a Prelate’s Ambition) was built in the 1780s as a country retreat for then-Archbishop of Armagh Richard Robinson. As his architect Robinson chose Thomas Cooley who had already been responsible for many of the new buildings in Armagh, including the Archbishop’s Palace. Unfortunately Cooley died in 1784 and so his plans were handed over to the youthful Francis Johnston: born in Armagh, Johnston’s abilities had been noticed by Robinson who sent him as an apprentice to Cooley in 1778. The house’s severe limestone façade hides a more inviting interior, of three storeys over basement, since Rokeby contains a particularly generous attic concealed behind the parapet, centred on a circular room lit by glazed dome. A similar circular landing on the first floor provides access to the main bedrooms.
Descendants of the Robinson family remained in possession, although not necessarily in occupation, of Rokeby until the middle of the last century. Thereafter the property passed through a variety of hands often with unfortunate consequences. When the present owners bought the place in 1995, for example, the library had been stripped of its bookcases and divided in two with one half used as a kitchen. Over the past twenty years, a process of reclamation has taken place, driven by the correct balance of enthusiasm, commitment and ongoing research into the house’s history. Most recently the present owners have impeccably restored Rokeby’s mid-19th century conservatory.

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The County Cork farmhouse shown above was discussed here in May 2014 (A Dash of Panache). when I noted that far too many such buildings in Ireland are abandoned to the elements ‘for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose.’ This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Indeed, one has only to venture into the countryside to see bungalows considered the ne plus ultra of modernity a few decades ago now drifting into a ruinous condition. More regrettably the same fate befalls far too many of Ireland’s handsome old farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness could be given fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate: mouldering into dereliction.
That looked the only prospect for this property until it was taken on by the present owner and brought back to life after a half-century of being left unoccupied. A low-key and sympathetic approach was adopted to the rescue programme. The old kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building, as does the large glazed space that now runs along the ground floor. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the artwork was acquired in the same way or came via friends. The result serves as a model of how to transform an apparently unsalvageable old farmhouse into a comfortable and smart private residence

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The double-height entrance hall of Gloster, County Offaly featured here last month (Spectacle as Drama) but the rest of this house merits equal attention. Gloster is believed to date from the third decade of the 18th century and to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce, a cousin of then-owner Trevor Lloyd. The original two-storey building was of nine bays but two further bays were later added on either side making the facade exceptionally long. A series of terraces in front offer views to a lake and then mountains beyond, while another vista is closed by an arch flanked by obelisks. The sense of baroque theatre evident in Gloster’s siting continues indoors, and not just thanks to its spectacular entrance hall. To left and right run further rooms providing a wonderful enfilade rarely found in Ireland. These reflect changes in taste after the house was first constructed. The cornicing in the sitting room above, for example, is evidently from later in the 18th century as is the chimney piece but there is no sense of disharmony anywhere and diverse stylistic elements comfortably co-exist.
Gloster remained in the ownership of the Lloyds until 1958 when it was sold to the Salesian order of nuns who opened a convalescent home in the house and built a large school to the rear. When I first visited in the early 1980s the nuns were still in occupation but it was already evident that they were struggling to maintain the property. Indeed in 1990 they closed down operations and Gloster’s future looked uncertain, especially since it changed hands on a couple of occasions. Thankfully the present owners bought the place in 2001 and since then they have worked tirelessly and splendidly to turn around Gloster’s prospects. Inevitably, given the scale of the undertaking, this remains a work in progress. But already an enormous and admirable programme of restoration and refurbishment has been undertaken. Gloser demonstrates what can be done, even on limited means, provided the task is accompanied by sufficient courage and verve.

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My thanks again to all readers and followers of the Irish Aesthete for your ongoing support. Please encourage more people to become interested and engaged in Ireland’s architectural heritage. You can also discover me on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete), Twitter (@IrishAesthete), Pinterest (irishaesthete) and Instagram (The.Irish.Aesthete).

His Snug Little Farm

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The popular image of the Irish farm house has long been fixed in the global mind. Invariably consisting of just one storey, it has white-washed walls and a thatched roof, as well as an equally simple, mud-floored interior in which a turf fire is forever smoking. Few such houses exist anymore and no wonder: they were almost invariably dank, miserable places that bred ill-health and unhappiness. Fortunately some of the country’s larger, better-constructed farm houses have survived, although the majority of them are today abandoned and in a poor state of repair. On the other hand, in recent years some of these dwellings have been restored by those with enough imagination to recognise their inherent charm and potential.
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The Palladian house first introduced to Ireland in the early 18th century quickly became popular throughout the country and while intended for homes of the wealthy, the design was modified to suit the domestic requirements of all levels of society: even the humblest Irish farmhouse might contain echoes of its grander neighbours. In particular, the formal placement of outbuildings such as barns, sheds and byres around the main residence was borrowed from the Palladian model. These additional secondary structures were located to either side of a forecourt before the front door or else in a similar fashion to the rear. The second layout is seen at the farmhouse shown here. Located in County Cork, it is an archetype of the genre in its functionality and absence of superfluous decoration. It is impossible to date the building, since stylistically it could have been erected at any point between the late 18th and mid-20th centuries.

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From the start, farmhouses of this kind conformed to certain norms in all having the same thick walls made from rubble stone covered in render as well as small, almost square, windows and single pitch slated roofs. Inside they were equally understated with a narrow entrance hall leading to the best room, or parlour on the left (a room rarely used except on special occasions such as a visit from the parish priest) while to the right stood the family room and kitchen. A staircase would lead to several bedrooms on the first floor. The starkness of design led to the houses falling from favour in recent decades as Ireland grew more affluent and farming families sought a greater degree of comfort. Throughout the country large numbers of old properties were simply abandoned in favour of new bungalows and the majority of them fell into complete ruin. It takes a particular eye to recognize the merits of this housing type and fortunately the owner of the house in question possesses just such an eye.

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When the present owner first saw his home 18 years ago it had been unoccupied for more than two decades and, as he says, ‘the place was in rag order.’ Cattle had been permitted access to the ground floor which as a result had turned into a mess of churned mud. Neither plumbing nor electrical wiring had ever been installed and most of the windows were missing. Thankfully the slate roof had somehow survived but even so the restoration programme took some 12 months, with the owner acting as his own architect. Ten years ago he embarked on further building work to add a large kitchen at the back of the house, constructing it on the footprint of an old outbuilding. Just as much attention has been paid to the building’s surroundings: the owner has created a vegetable garden and planted an orchard containing forty different trees: apple, pear, quince, medlar and damson. Other sections of the garden are given over to pot with herbs and flowering plants.

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At all stages, while comforts such as bathrooms were added, the owner wisely never attempted to disguise his home’s relatively humble origins. So, for example, the original tongue-and-groove paneled ceilings have been retained. Likewise in the kitchen/dining areas the floor is covered in nothing grander than untreated concrete tiles, albeit they enjoy the benefit of underfloor heating; elsewhere plain seagrass matting has been used. On the first floor, the old doors and their surrounds were kept intact since these had been carefully ‘grained’ by a previous occupant to give the impression that they were made from expensive dark wood rather than cheap pine. And former residents would have appreciated some of the present furniture, such as the stained kitchen table surrounded by dark green chairs; timber was often painted in Irish farmhouses both to disguise the fact that different woods had been used in the same piece and to provide some very necessary colour. That was certainly the case with the large painted dresser dominating the kitchen. Once a staple in every Irish farmhouse, thousands of these pieces were thrown out of homes in the closing decades of the last century and whatever survives is now highly collectible. This example, with its paneled doors and carved board, is especially fine and acts as an ideal display unit for some of the owner’s substantial collection of John ffrench pottery. Seemingly destined to become a ruin like so many of its ilk, instead this old Irish farmhouse has been returned to vibrant life.

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Shine Kindly Light

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The main door at Upper Crossdrum, County Meath with its exceptionally handsome fan- and sidelights. The house dates from the third decade of the 19th century – a bill from 1820 exists with the building’s specifications and breakdown of costs – and appears to have been constructed for the Harman family, gentlemen tenants of the Loughcrew estate; it can therefore be classified as a farmhouse, albeit grander than the average. In an essay published in Volume XII of the Irish Georgian Society’s Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies journal Lynda Mulvin attributes the design of Upper Crossdrum to English architect Charles Robert Cockerell who was then working in the area, not just on the main house at Loughcrew but also other properties in the area.

Intelligent Recycling

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As a rule, old farm buildings in Ireland are allowed to slide into neglect and decay: it is rare to find an owner with the vision to see the possibility of alternative use. But as these photographs from County Cork show, it is possible to give a simple former barn new purpose and convert the building into an extremely attractive residence. If only there were more instances of such intelligent recycling to be found…

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A Dash of Panache

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‘In an orderly country,’ chided the German travel writer and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl after a visit to Ireland in September 1842, ‘ruins should really not be tolerated. They should be demolished either in order that the material of which they consist can be availed of in constructing new and more useful buildings, or the site that they occupy can be put to different use, or because they threaten to collapse completely and endanger human activity, or because they present an unpleasant sight.’
Kohl believed that members of ‘an orderly, vigilant and progressive human community’ should eradicate all ruins, before he went to note that, ‘In Ireland, the opposite to all this has happened, as it is unique in all of Europe for its many ruins. One finds here a plethora of ruins from all periods of history, like in no other country.’ Furthermore, he remarked, this melancholy condition was not unique to ancient buildings since ‘down to our days every century – one could say every decade – has deposited its ruins on the land. For everywhere one sees a multitude of dilapidated houses that have only recently fallen into ruin but yet seem also to have been built only recently.’

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More than 170 years after Kohl made his observations, they remain pertinent: Ireland continues to be a country of ruins, many of them of recent vintage. Indeed in the last decade we have acquired a fresh crop, so to speak, of ruins thanks to the advent of ‘ghost estates’, those ill-planned, ill-sited and incomplete spatterings of houses begun during the badly-managed economic boom and then abandoned at the onset of the downturn. They join the throng of architectural decrepitude which has been so noted by visitors to Ireland over hundreds of years and yet seems to pass unnoticed by the indigenous population.
What is especially noticeable is the gratuitous abandonment of buildings for no apparent reason other than the fallacious notion that they have ceased to be fit for purpose. This is especially true of the country’s older domestic dwellings, ripe for adaptation to contemporary use but instead deserted in favour of something newer – something which will in turn no doubt suffer the same fate. Hence throughout the countryside one comes across a superabundance of farmhouses which with just a modicum of inventiveness and panache could be given a fresh leases of life as an alternative to their more common fate, which is to moulder into ruin.

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Such might well have been the fate of the house seen here today, had it not been discovered a decade ago by the present owner. Located in a remote part of County Cork and originally lying at the centre of a 100-acre holding, the building dates from the late 19th/early 20th century and is in a style that had remained almost unaltered over the previous hundred years. As the American historian Kerby Miller has noted, such houses which belonged to relatively affluent farmers, tended to be ‘well-built – perhaps two-storied, with stone walls and roofs which were slated rather than thatched – and well furnished.’
Whatever furniture it once contained had long since disappeared by the time the house was rescued and restored. Unoccupied for more than half a century since the death of a previous owner, its isolation seems to have discouraged anybody else from settling there. Today that remoteness gives the place romantic appeal, as do the surrounding vistas of rolling fields on three sides of the property, the fourth offering an uninterrupted view of the Irish Sea several hundred feet below: during the summer months, the owner has been known to descend to the shore for a swim.

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Aside from inaccessibility, another reason why the building would not have won widespread favour is its understated design: unlike smaller and more overtly endearing thatched cottages, the average Irish farm house was never known for superfluous embellishment. Indeed this particular example possesses an unpretentious simplicity typical of the genus. It rightly celebrates the virtues of clean, unfussy composition.
But before these could be celebrated an extensive programme of refurbishment was called for because at the time of purchase the building was close to collapse. The roof demanded immediate attention, as did walls, doors and windows. Internally the main feature to be salvaged was the old staircase although even here sections required repair and replacement. While this was going on, changes were made to the south, sea-facing front with the three existing windows lowered to create a trio of double doors opening onto a terrace flagged with limestone. More recently the terrace has been enclosed by a full-length conservatory that now serves as sitting room, dining room and, as we Irish like to say, whatever you’re having yourself. In addition the first floor plate-glass windows were changed to double sashes with glazing bars, a modification which immediately softened the house’s unadorned exterior. As was the custom with such properties, the walls are cement-rendered and then left without even a lime wash but weathered by time and exposure to the elements. Several out-buildings have also been restored, a vegetable garden created and a secure area for hens and geese devised. Otherwise the rest of the 20 acres acquired by the owner has been left in its familiar state of fields interspersed with copses of trees.

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The same low-key approach has been adopted inside the house. The kitchen, for example, retains its original tiled floor and as much of the old ochre wall colouring as could be preserved; new cupboards have been sympathetically painted to harmonise with what was already in situ. The diningroom opposite is equally understated, with clay plaster used to cover the walls, an old oven used as open fireplace and the furnishings of plain pine. A slightly more elaborate approach was taken to the decoration of the two reception rooms to the front of the house – the chimneypieces here are clearly not original – but they share the same comfortable, unassuming character found throughout the building. Chairs, tables and other items of furniture have been picked up over a period of time and during the course of extensive travels, none of them for great price. Most of the pictures were acquired in the same way or were painted by friends.
The result offers a model of how to convert an old farmhouse into a comfortable, smart private residence. In every county throughout Ireland, there are many similar properties sliding into what looks like inexorable decay and thus adding to our already ample list of ruins. Were Johann Georg Kohl to visit our island today, he would find little had changed since the last time he was here – except in this little corner of the country. Here, for once, a house has been saved from ruin and its character improved rather than destroyed in the process.

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