After Monday’s post about the Damer House, here is the medieval castle inside the walls of which that building stands. Roscrea Castle, County Tipperary originally dates from 1213 when King John ordered that a defensive structure be erected here as part of the Norman conquest of the Irish midlands. Work did not begin on the site for a few more decades, until the reign of Henry III, perhaps because the land had been owned by the Bishop of Killaloe who threatened to excommunicate those responsible for the castle (the bishop was duly pacified with the offer of other land). While first made of wood, the stone castle, with motte and bailey, was of stone. In 1315 the building was granted to the powerful Butler family who held it until the early 18th century when the property was sold by the Duke of Ormonde to the Royal Hospital Kilmainham; that institution in turn sold it on to John Damer, responsible for commissioning the house that still stands in the middle of the grounds. As for the castle itself, once moated with the river Bunnow running along one side, it comprises a 40-metre wide courtyard with three-quarter round towers on the south-east and south-west sides and, to the north, the main building, a gatehouse 27 metres high which was built by the Butlers in the 15th century. When the Irish Aesthete lived here 40 years ago, the property, although a dominant presence in the town, was largely in ruins and certainly not accessible without risk to life and limb: it has since been extensively restored and is now open to visitors who can marvel at the groin vaulted ceiling of the former great hall.
This month marks two anniversaries, one of which is that the Irish Aesthete now turns eleven, having made his first appearance on the internet in September 2012. But the month also commemorates an older anniversary: the fortieth anniversary of the Irish Aesthete’s first job, as resident curator of the Damer House in Roscrea, County Tipperary.* The house has a complex history, made more so by the fact that it was constructed within the walls of a 13th century castle around which grew the town of Roscrea. As its name indicates, the building was commissioned by a member of the Damer family, the first of whom Joseph Damer, moved from Dorset to Ireland and here grew wealthy as a banker and moneylender. Having no heirs, he left his money to a nephew, John Damer, who in 1722 bought Roscrea from the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham (that institution had, in turn, bought the town from the Butler family in 1703).
There may have been an older residence on or near the site of the present Damer House which, despite often being called ‘Queen Anne’ in style, likely dates from the 1730s (in other words, during the reign of George II). Of three storeys over basement and with unusually tall narrow windows spread across nine bays, the pre-Palladian house’s finest internal feature is a carved pine staircase, in style not dissimilar to that of the slightly later Cashel Palace. Of course, provincial architecture was often out of step with the latest fashion, which would help to explain the building’s somewhat outdated style. In addition, by the time it was built, wealthy families had largely given up living in regional towns, preferring to reside on their country estates. That would appear to have been the case with the Damers who around the same time as the Damer House was being built, also embarked on the construction of another residence, Damer Court, which stood on land they owned to the west of Tipperary town; although nothing remains of this building – by the mid-19th century it was described as ‘a shell of a building’ – but a townland in the area is called Damerville. As for the Damer House, it does not appear to have served as a residence for the family but was rented out to a succession of tenants for much of the 18th century. In 1798 the house was leased as a barracks and then the whole site sold to the British military in 1858. At the start of the last century the Damer House became ‘Mr. French’s Academy’, a school for boys, reverting to a barracks for the National Army during the Civil War, then being used as a sanatorium, before once again in 1932 serving as a school until 1956, then a library. By 1970 it was empty and unused, and the local authority, Tipperary County Council, announced plans to demolish the house and replace it with an amenity centre comprising a swimming pool, car park, playground and civic centre (it had been nurturing this scheme since as far back as 1957). The council’s chairman wanted the demolition to go ahead, declaring that ‘as long as it stands it reminds the Irish people of their enslavement to British rule,’ and dismissing objectors to the scheme as ‘a crowd of local cranks.’ In fact, most of the so-called ‘crowd’ were members of the Old Roscrea Society and in December 1970 this organisation was offered help by the Irish Georgian Society in the campaign to save the Damer House.
In 1971 the local council agreed not to demolish the Damer House. On the other hand, it did nothing to preserve the building and in November 1973, on learning that restoration would cost in the region of £40,000, the authority decided to go ahead with demolition after all. The Irish Georgian Society once more intervened, this time proposing it take on a lease for the building and assume responsibility for its restoration, now budgeted at £80,000 over five years. In February 1974 the council agreed to this arrangement and the Society took on the house for a period of 99 years at an annual rent of one shilling. The restoration of the Damer House was to be its contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year 1975. Work on the project began in mid-August 1974 and was overseen by the late Brian Molloy. The place was in terrible condition, debris and rubbish throughout, the basement full of water, every window broken, the staircase shrouded and boxed in. While professionals worked on repairing the roof, the workforce included a dozen architectural students from Dublin and members of the Old Roscrea Society. Volunteers were advised to turn up at the site ‘in old clothes, bringing brushes, buckets and handy tools.’ Work proceeded slowly and was dependent on enough funds being raised for the purpose, some £5,400 being spent on repairs in 1974 and at least the same again the following year. In 1976 £8,000 was required to repair the staircase, including the replacement of missing balustrades and the removal of sixteen pounds in weight of paint from the carved frieze. By June 1977 £22,000 had been spent on the Damer House which was now deemed ready to admit visitors and host exhibitions. Thereafter, while refurbishment continued on both the Damer House and its slightly later annexe, the venue was regularly used for events such as touring exhibitions organised by the Arts Council. In 1980 some of the most influential members of the Old Roscrea Society, notably local teacher George Cunningham, decided to form a new organisation, the Roscrea Heritage Society which later that year organised a large show in the Damer House. Exhibits relevant to the town’s history were lent by both the National Museum and the National Gallery. With aid from a number of public bodies, the house’s annexe was next restored for use as a heritage centre; the first of its kind in Ireland, this opened to the public in 1983 and shortly afterwards won a special award from the adjudicators of European Museum of the Year. In the autumn of 1983, control of the Damer House was handed over to the Roscrea Heritage Society (and that was when the Irish Aesthete arrived to take up residence in the place). Now under the authority of the Office of Public Works, the Damer House – which was recently subject to further restoration of the exterior stonework and windows – is open to the public, along with the surrounding castle and adjacent gardens. Once scheduled for demolition, the Damer House is today regarded as a major architectural and tourist asset for the midlands region of Ireland.
‘Ireland is far more favoured by latitude than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish…The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds.’
The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed c.731 A.D.
‘The Irish climate is favourable to many plants which, though neglected, do better in Ireland than the countries from which they are imported.’
Dr Peter Lombard, De Regno Hiberniae Commentarius, 1600.
Across the centuries, observers have remarked on the kindly character of the Irish climate. While conditions vary somewhat from east to west, and from north to south, this island does not, as a rule, suffer from extremes of temperature: despite being on the same latitude as Newfoundland in Canada, our winters are generally mild (only dropping a few degrees below 0 °C) and our summers cool (even at their highest they seldom exceed 25 °C). Although winds are plentiful, they are rarely extreme and rainfall is abundant: the eastern half of the country averages 750-1,000 mm of rain per annum, that to the west 1,000-1,400 mm. These circumstances are further aided by the character of Irish soil, much of it rich and fertile. We enjoy a temperate climate perfect for the cultivation of a wide diversity of plants. And yet the cultivation of those plants and the creation of gardens in which to enjoy them, came relatively late to Ireland.
During the last century, in the aftermath of the First World War and the War of Independence, many Irish country house gardens were lost. The breaking up of the great estates, together with increased taxation and rising labour costs, combined to make the maintenance of these sites unfeasible for owners. Just as many country houses fell into dilapidation and ruin, so too did their surrounding demesnes and gardens. But it was not entirely a story of loss. From the late 19th century onwards, a number of Irish houses and estates had been taken over by Catholic religious orders, for use as schools, seminaries and so forth. Often the new owners sought to maintain the grounds of their property, thereby ensuring the survival of their predecessors’ work. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, growing public awareness and appreciation of our historic sites led to the establishment of a Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme. Grant-aided by the European Regional Development Fund and with a £4 million allocation, this scheme oversaw the restoration of some 24 gardens throughout the country.
Despite straitened circumstances, throughout the 20th century some country house owners continued to maintain their gardens and, in addition, a number of spectacular new ones were created. Across the millennia, gardening has been a passion exerting authority over some property owners and from which, as a rule, they never wish to be released. Happily, this remains the case in Ireland. And while, in the past, that passion might have been largely private, to be shared only with family and friends, today more and more of our finest gardens are open to the public, permitting all of us to revel in their outstanding qualities.
In Harmony with Nature:: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 is now open at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin and will continue to the end of July. For further information, please see In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)
One of a number of gateways providing access to the four-acre walled garden at Barmeath Castle, County Louth. A map dating from the mid-1770s and drawn up by the surveyor Charles Frizell shows this area of the demesne to be a shrubbery with no evidence of enclosure, indicating the walled garden, like so many others, was only created in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Unusually, all the walls are lined in brick, whereas, as a rule, it was only the south-facing wall that received this treatment since brick retains the heat longer than does stone. The entrances are also distinguished by being given rather grand, pedimented, breakfront gateways. The walled garden here has been restored in recent years and is now open to the public. Readers with no interest in matters horticultural should be warned that the Irish Aesthete is at present curating an exhibition devoted to the history of the Irish country house garden (opening at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House in Dublin on May 19th) and therefore this subject is likely to feature heavily in the coming weeks.
Tomorrow, Thursday 23rd September, sees the opening of an exhibition in Dublin curated by the Irish Aesthete. Stepping through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens features specially commissioned paintings by four artists on this theme, the quartet being Lesley Fennell, Andrea Jameson, Maria Levinge and Alison Rosse. All of them are lifelong gardeners and they bring horticultural understanding to the subject, as well as their inherent artistic skills. Garden historian Terence Reeves-Smith has estimated that there are some 8,000 walled gardens on the island of Ireland, in varying states of repair and use. Many have been lost altogether – one can see their crumbling walls in fields around the countryside – but others still serve their original purpose and some have been brought back to life in recent years. The exhibition includes examples of walled gardens in all conditions and sizes, and gives an understanding of how important these sites were – and are – for producing fruit and vegetables across many centuries. But the pictures also show how different artists can respond to the same theme and, in a few instances, to the same gardens, demonstrating how each of us approach a place with our own interpretation of its appearance.
Stepping through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens takes place at the Irish Georgian Society, City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin 2 and opens to the public on Friday 24th September, running for two months.
For more information, please visit www.igs.ie
Two weeks ago, this site discussed the first four volumes of records published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society, established in 1908. The organisation declared from the start an intention that it should exist for a few years only, during which this series would be issued annually as a visual account of Dublin’s architectural heritage, particularly of buildings dating from the 18th century. However, for the final publication, which appeared in 1913, the society ventured outside the capital to explore historic houses around the rest of the country. As the Introduction explained, ‘the Committee thought they would make this fifth volume more interesting by going abroad through Ireland, and examining in the light of prominent examples, how far the Georgian architecture of country houses in Ireland corresponded with that of the capital during this period. In most cases, gentlemen had a hôtel (as the French would call it) in the city which they used especially when they came up to attend the Irish Parliament.’ The text goes on to note that in many instances, either the town or country house has since been lost, in the case of the latter claiming ‘the disappearance was due, not to neglect or poverty, but to wealth and a change of taste.’ It soon becomes evident that the writer(s) of this text did not care for the previous century’s Gothic revival, regarding the work of Francis Johnston and the Morrisons père et fils with a certain disapproval and commenting ‘even these early nineteenth-century houses, which were not Gothic, differ so completely in style from the work of the eighteenth century, that anyone may recognise it at first sight.’
Whether or not one agrees with the fifth volume’s judgemental tone about Irish country houses built later than 1800, the work itself is an invaluable document for several reasons. The first is that it includes photographs and drawings of buildings since lost, quite a lot of them within a decade during the years of Ireland’s War of Independence and Civil War. In some instances, they are almost the only visual evidence of these houses that we still possess. Just as importantly, but perhaps less appreciated, these pictures show how such houses were decorated and furnished at the time. Again, this information is quite priceless since almost without exception the contents of such properties has since been lost or dispersed. For a small number, inventories survive of their contents and for others, lists were compiled by owners when applying for compensation following their houses destruction during the aforementioned years of upheaval. But nothing compares with a photograph, showing individual items in situ and giving us a better understanding than any document could of how such a building functioned. Another helpful feature of this volume is the ‘Catalogue of Georgian Houses in Ireland’, which is a list of such buildings in each county in 1913. It is, of course, far from being complete, and reflects the compilers’ prejudices towards post-1800 houses. Nevertheless, the catalogue provides a reader with ample information, since each entry includes not just the name of the property, but also – where known – the architect and date of construction, original and then owner, sources of information about the place (such as references in earlier published accounts) and finally what is described as ‘particulars.’ The last of these is the most tantalising of all, since it often contains details of houses long-since lost. Few people today, for example, are likely to have heard of Pennyville, otherwise called Croydon Park, which stood in Clontarf, County Dublin and which, according to the catalogue’s compilers was an ‘early house, with very thick walls, and long rooms opening off one another. Drawing-room has coved rococo frieze.’ A photograph exists of James Larkin and members of the Irish Citizen Army drilling in front of Croydon Park in 1914: the house was demolished in the 1920s as part of the Marino housing scheme. Also largely forgotten: Hortland, County Kildare, a house dating from c.1748. Believed to have been designed by Richard Castle, and built for Josiah Hort, Archbishop of Tuam, according to the catalogue the building contained ‘Staircase in side hall, similar to No.20 Kildare St., Dublin [also attributed to Castle], and deep cornice above. State bedroom with coved ceiling. Good mantel in drawing room, in two marbles and carved centre panel, Diana with dog, &c. Cut-stone doorway, with Ionic columns in entablatures.’ The house was subsequently demolished.
The fifth volume pays particular attention to nine houses, the majority of which are still standing and only one, Summerhill, County Meath, discussed here in the past (see My Name is Ozymandias « The Irish Aesthete) has been been entirely lost. Of the others, two – Castletown, County Kildare and Rathfarnham Castle, County Dublin – are in state ownership, one managed by a trust (Russborough, County Wicklow), one converted into an hotel (Carton, County Kildare) and the other four remain in private ownership, although only one of these still occupied by descendants of the original family, namely Mount Ievers, County Clare (discussed here also some time ago, see A Place of Magic « The Irish Aesthete). How, one wonders, do these statistics compare to those of other countries? And, as already mentioned, another feature of the texts – and their accompanying images – is the information they provide on the properties’ contents at the time since almost without exception these have since been dispersed/lost/destroyed. Among the greatest losses was a superlative panelled mid-18th century saloon formerly in Rossanagh, County Wicklow. Dismantled and removed from the building in the 1920s and sold out of the country, its subsequent fate is unclear, perhaps blown to pieces in a London bombing during the Second World War, perhaps still surviving somewhere in the United States but certainly no longer in its country of origin. Such, regrettably, has too often been the story of our heritage.
As already mentioned, the photographs and drawings reproduced in successive volumes published by Ireland’s original Georgian Society during the first years of the last century are often our only record of how Dublin then looked. In particular, these images show many buildings which, over the past 100 years, have been – in many cases needlessly and recklessly – destroyed. One of the reasons why Desmond and Mariga Guinness revived the Irish Georgian Society in 1958 was precisely because they saw fine 18th century houses – such as those in Kildare Place and Dominick Street – being torn down, without any record being kept of how these properties looked. Indeed, the body which should be the foremost custodian and fiercest defender of the city’s architectural heritage, namely Dublin City Council (formerly Dublin Corporation) has instead been consistently negligent in caring for the city’s fabric, in keeping a proper record of its historic architecture and in preserving important parts of buildings that have perforce been demolished. Instead, such work has been left either to charitable organisations such as the Irish Georgian Society and the Irish Architectural Archive, or concerned individuals like Peter Pearson and others. As demonstrated by the recent, and ongoing saga over the future of the city’s Iveagh Markets – as well as the shameful decades-long neglect of O’Connell Street, the lengthy failure to redevelop the historic Mary’s Lane market site, the near-20 year wait to restore a terrace of houses on the north side of Parnell Square (even more important after the grotesque fiasco of a so-called new ‘Cultural Quarter’ failed to materialise) and so forth – the city council continues to show scant concern for ensuring the survival of historic Dublin. Hence the ongoing need today for the same imagination and initiative shown by the original Georgian Society back in 1908. Little, it seems, has changed over the past 110-plus years.
The preface to the first volume of the Irish Georgian Society’s Records of Eighteenth-Century Domestic Architecture and Decoration in Dublin (published 1909) opens as follows: ‘It requires no intimate knowledge of Dublin to perceive that it is not a provincial town, but a fading capital. The great public buildings of the eighteenth century which are its glory make that fact evident.’ The text goes on to note how ‘The gradual disuse of the older residential quarters, as the city gradually shifted and expanded during the last hundred years, has converted most of the fine mansions, once occupied by a wealthy aristocracy, into warehouses and public institutions; while in other cases, whole streets have fallen into decay, and houses set up with decorated walls and ceilings, fine mantelpieces, mahogany doors and carved wood-work, are now occupied as tenement houses by the poor. It followed, naturally enough, that all ornaments which could be utilised elsewhere, notably the old mantelpieces, were removed and sold, and now adorn rich houses far away.’ It was precisely an awareness of these melancholy facts that led to the society’s establishment, and to the production of a series of volumes over five years. The first four of these were exclusively devoted to Dublin (the fifth looked at a number of important Irish country houses), each accompanied by relevant texts that looked not just at the architecture and decoration of the buildings, but also at subjects such as ‘Society in Georgian Dublin’ (Vol.II) and ‘The Furnishing of Georgian Houses in Dublin’ (Vol.IV). As a field of study, art history was then barely in its infancy, so one cannot expect too much academic insight. On the other hand, the compilers of these volumes were much closer to the period under consideration that we are today: some of them would have known people who were actually alive when Georgian Dublin was still in its heyday: the society’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, was born in 1839. But more important that the texts are the abundant photographs and drawings with which each volume is filled. So often, they show buildings since lost and therefore represent an invaluable record, in many instances the only visual source existing today. For that, we owe the original Irish Georgian Society an enormous debt of gratitude.
On Saturday, February 22nd 1908, page 7 of the Irish Times carried a variety of international and local news. Readers were informed, for example, that ‘Thirty-five terrorists were arrested yesterday in various parts of St. Petersburg, many in the open streets; some showed fight, firing revolvers and wounding their captors. A few carried bombs.’ Meanwhile, in Vienna, it was announced that festivities planned that spring to mark the diamond jubilee of the Emperor Franz-Joseph had been cancelled, ‘owing to the state of his Majesty’s health.’ In France, the trial was underway of a Sub-Lieutenant Charles B Ullmo for selling naval secrets to Germany (despite his defence counsel’s pleas for clemency on the grounds that the young man ‘was a victim of the opium habit, and that he had fallen under the influence of an unscrupulous woman, for whom he had squandered his fortune and ruined his life’, Ullmo would be found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment), in San Francisco a private bank collapsed and a Japanese steamer was wrecked off the coast of Alaska. One column, however, was dedicated to reporting on the inaugural meeting held the previous evening on the premises of the Royal Irish Academy of a new organisation. This would come to be called the Irish Georgian Society.
30 Jervis Street, Dublin (since demolished)
The Irish Georgian Society’s inaugural meeting was chaired by the new organisation’s president, John Pentland Mahaffy, who then held the chair in Ancient History at Trinity College Dublin, becoming the institution’s Provost in 1914. According to the Irish Times, the ever-busy Countess of Aberdeen, wife of Ireland’s then-Lord Lieutenant, although on her way to another meeting, ‘showed her interest in the proceedings by paying a short visit, remaining while the Chairman was explaining the objects for which the society was to be formed.’ These were, in brief, to preserve as far as possible by means of photographs or drawings, a record of the decorative work inside houses built during what Mahaffy described as Dublin’s golden epoch. Warming to his theme, the chairman imagined a stranger visiting the city and quickly recognising its exceptional character, being that of a former capital. The stranger would note that although houses around Dublin were designed by different architects, built by different men, in different but on the whole harmonious styles, and carried out mainly or almost altogether by Irish genius and Irish workmen. If the same stranger then ventured inside these houses, ‘he would find a beauty of decoration and dignity of style which would strike him as one of the most remarkable things in the Europe of that day.’
Speaking at the same meeting, the National Gallery of Ireland’s Registrar, Walter Strickland made many of the same points, noting how many historic buildings in the centre of Dublin were already being destroyed, but not before the contents of their interiors had been stripped out. Chimneypieces, he commented, ‘were sold to grace the drawingrooms of London’, stucco was hacked away, iron- and wood-work replaced or allowed to fall into decay. If the members of the society could not prevent this wanton destruction, he argued, ‘they could at least record and preserve pictorially the beauties of their old houses’, and this would be the organisation’s purpose: to provide testimony for the future of ‘the ceilings, the carved woodwork, the staircase, the beautiful doorways and lamp standards, and in doing this they would record work not only beautiful, but work executed by Dublin craftsmen.’
Professor Mahaffy advised those attending the meeting that the Irish Georgian Society intended to exist only for a short period, three or perhaps five years (in the event, it was the latter). However, at the end of that time the organisation planned to leave a lasting legacy which would ‘restore to the architects and craftsmen of Dublin their true credit,’ which had hitherto been obscured by the widespread belief that this work had been undertaken by foreigners ‘whilst our people were looking on helplessly.’ He recalled a recent visit to his house of a young cabinetmaker who admired a piece of furniture in one of the rooms with tears in his eyes. When asked what was the matter, the man replied, ‘I am thinking of the poor fellow that made this. He was a great workman. He is dead and gone now; his name is forgotten, and none of us will ever know who he was.’ Professor Mahaffy hoped that the newly-formed Irish Georgian Society would prevent the work of the 18th century being forgotten, ‘and would preserve a worthy record of it for succeeding generations.’
Gable-fronted houses in Sweeny’s Lane, Dublin (since demolished)
Since travel restrictions are once more in place, and look likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, over the coming weeks this site will intermittently look at endeavours which since the early 20th century have sought to curb widespread desire in Ireland to obliterate evidence of the country’s exceptional architectural heritage.
All photographs taken from Volume 1 of the Irish Georgian Society Records (published 1909)
Five years ago, the Irish Aesthete featured a tribute to the late Mariga Guinness, co-founder of the Irish Georgian Society; for anyone not familiar with her history, please see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2014/05/05/marvellous-mariga. Today is the thirtieth anniversary of Mariga’s death at the horribly early age of 56, and so it is opportune to remember her again and to celebrate all that she did for her adopted country of Ireland. An inspiration to so many people during her lifetime, she deserves to be recalled and celebrated as a pioneer in the still-ongoing battle to save our architectural heritage.