Buried deep in the undergrowth: the remains of Bellanagare Castle, County Roscommon. This was formerly the seat of the O’Conor family including the antiquarian, proponent of ancient Gaelic culture and ardent advocate of Roman Catholic rights Charles O’Conor (1710-1791) who served as the O’Conor Don (that is, a descendant of the ancient line that provided one hundred Kings of Connacht and eleven High Kings of Ireland). Here he lived until the marriage of his son in 1760 after which he moved to a small cottage nearby. What survives suggests this was a late 17th/early 18th century house, of five bays and with a pedimented façade. Given the importance of Charles O’Conor in Irish history, the building’s present state, on the verge of being entirely overwhelmed by undergrowth, is another sad indictment of how this country treats its heritage.
In 1716 the Cork-born Anglican cleric Edward Synge was appointed Archbishop of Tuam, County Galway, holding the office until his death in 1741. At some time during this period, he built a new archiepiscopal palace which to this day remains the largest and most prominent building in the town. Of three storeys over basement and of seven bays, the centre three forming an entrance breakfront, the house was set amidst gardens that to the rear ran down to the river Nanny. Its most significant external feature is the main doorcase, of cut limestone with fluted Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment. The palace was seemingly vacated in the 1950s; it now serves as the adjunct to a local supermarket.
A detail of the monument to John Butler, second Marquess of Ormonde in St Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. In September 1854, Lord Ormonde had been bathing with his children off the coast of Wexford when he was, according to a contemporary newspaper report, ‘seized with a fit of apoplexy, and no medical assistance being at hand, he expired in a few hours.’ He was aged 46. The marble monument to his memory was carved the following year by English sculptor Edward Richardson and shows the deceased lying recumbent in his robes as a Knight of the Order of St Patrick.
In November 1927 Aileen Sibell Mary Guinness married the Hon Brinsley Sheridan Bushe Plunket and as a wedding present was given by her father Luttrellstown Castle, County Dublin. Situated on the outskirts of the capital, the house stood in the centre of a much-admired park: Hermann, Prince von Pückler-Muskau visited Luttrellstown while in Ireland in 1828 and wrote, ‘The entrance to the demesne is indeed the most delightful of its kind that can be imagined. Scenery, by nature most beautiful, is improved by art to the highest degree of its capability, and, without destroying its free and wild character, a variety and richness of vegetation is produced which enchants the eye…’ By this date Luttrellstown had passed out of the hands of its original owners, the Luttrells the first of whom Sir Geoffrey de Luterel had been granted the estate by King John around 1210. The original castle was built here some two centuries later and descended from one generation to the next until the late 17th century when it passed out of the ownership of Simon Luttrell, a Roman Catholic supporter of James II who, having supported the King, then emigrated to France and was killed while commanding an Irish regiment at the Battle of Lindon in 1693. His younger brother Colonel Henry Luttrell appeared likewise to support the Jacobite cause but during the Siege of Limerick was discovered to be intriguing with the Williamite forces. The new regime permitted him to keep the family estates but his treachery was not forgotten and in 1717 he was shot dead in Dublin while being carried in his sedan chair from a coffee house: despite a reward of £1,000 being offered, his assassin was never discovered. (During the 1798 Rising, his grave was broken open and the skull smashed). Thereafter the Luttrells failed to enjoy public esteem, although Henry’s younger son Simon Luttrell eventually became first Earl of Carhampton. His son Henry, second earl, was a notorious rake who, as Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Ireland made so many enemies that a plot to assassinate him was discovered in 1797. In May 1811 the Dublin Post erroneously reported his death and Lord Carhampton demanded a retraction: this was published until the headline ‘Public Disappointment.’ By then, universally reviled, the Luttrells had left the country, selling the Luttrellstown estate in 1800.
Luttrellstown’s next owner was Luke White of whom Lady Hardwicke, wife of the Viceroy, wrote in 1803, ‘He was the servant of an auctioneer of books (some say he first cried newspapers about the streets). As he rose in his finances, he sold a few pamphlets on his own account…His talent for figures soon made him his master’s clerk, and he afterwards was taken into a lottery office, where his calculations soon procured him a partnership. Good luck attended him in every speculation, and he knew how to profit by it, but with the fairest fame. He continued his trade in books on the great scale, and was equally successful in all the train of money transactions…’ So successful indeed that he could afford to lend the government £1 million during the 1798 Rebellion and then two years later buy Luttrellstown, ‘to the great offence of all the aristocrats in Ireland,’ according to Lady Hardwicke. In an effort to dispel memories of the previous owners, White renamed the estate Woodlands but his great-grandson on inheriting the place in 1888 reverted to the original Luttrellstown. By this date the family had joined the ranks of the aristocracy, Luke White’s son having been created first Lord Annaly in 1863. Famously Queen Victoria twice visited Luttrellstown, passing through in 1844 while en route to the Duke of Leinster at Carton, County Kildare and then drinking tea by a waterfall in the grounds in 1900. In commemoration, the third Lord Annaly erected in the grounds an obelisk made from Wicklow granite. Following his death in 1922 the next generation decided to live in England and so the Luttrellstown estate was offered for sale.
Always known by his middle name, Arthur Ernest Guinness was the second son of Edward Guinness, created first Earl of Iveagh in 1919. While his elder and younger brothers Rupert and Walter entered politics, Ernest, who took a degree in engineering at Cambridge, trained as a brewer before becoming assistant managing director at the family business in 1902 and vice-chairman in 1913. Ten years earlier he had married Cloe (Marie Clothilde) Russell, only daughter of Sir Charles Russell; her mother was the granddaughter of the fourth Duke of Richmond, making Cloe a direct descendant of Charles II and his French mistress Louise de Kérouaille. The Guinnesses had three daughters, Aileen Sibell (b.1904), Maureen Constance (1907) and Oonagh (1910), in adulthood collectively known as the Golden Guinness Girls. Their Irish names reflect the fact that they spent the greater part of their time in Ireland, even though Ernest had a house in central London at 17 Grosvenor Place (today the Irish Embassy) as well as an estate house at Holmbury, Surrey. But the family’s main residence was Glenmaroon on the edge of Dublin’s Phoenix Park; from here Ernest would walk to his office at Guinness’ every day. Around the time of his death in 1949, Ernest’s granddaughter Neelia Plunket described Glenmaroon as ‘A fascinating but hideous house. Fascinating, because each time we go there, there is some new electrical device or mechanical gadget that makes an organ play, panels in the wall open or something unusual happens.’ Glenmaroon’s features including one of the fist indoor swimming pools in Ireland but also – a reflection of Ernest’s mechanical interests – a coal scuttle with a small button which, when pushed, caused an automatic pipe organ to rise up and begin playing Cherry Ripe, a popular song of the period. A competitive yachtsman, Ernest was among the first young men of his generation to acquire a motor car, and later one of the oldest to be issued a British pilot’s licence. He came to own four aeroplanes, and would often fly one of these to his estate at Ashford Castle, County Galway. Under these circumstances and after such an upbringing, it is easy to see why, when his eldest daughter married in 1927, he felt obliged to present her with Luttrellstown Castle.
Aileen Guinness was related to her husband: his grandmother Anne Guinness had been a sister of her grandfather, the first Earl of Iveagh. (Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, heir to the third Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, who would marry the next Guinness sister Maureen in 1930 was thus not only related to his wife but also a cousin of his brother-in-law Brinsley Plunket since the latter’s mother had been a sister of the first Marquess). The groom was always known as Brinny and his older brother Terence Conyngham Plunket, sixth Lord Plunket, as Teddy. The latter was a talented artist – his portrait of Brinny can be seen above – who chronicled his social life through amusing cartoons. In 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of another Irish peer, the 7th Marquess of Londonderry; her mother had been American actress Fannie Ward who appeared in Cecil B. DeMille’s racy 1915 silent film The Cheat. Dorothé first married Captain Jack Barnato (a nephew of the mining Randlord Barney Barnato) but he had died of pneumonia within months of the wedding. She and Teddy Plunket were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938. As a younger son, Brinny had no estate and little money but his wife’s father was able to provide both. Racehorses and cars were Brinny Plunket’s chief interests and as a result, during the early years of her first marriage Aileen came to own a number of thoroughbreds, including Millennium which she regularly led into the winner’s enclosure. One contemporary later recalled bumping into Brinny, who drove a Delage sports car painted in his racing colours of black and gold, and being persuaded to come to dinner at Luttrellstown that night. Once seated at table, ‘my neighbour turned to me, “I understand you are not interested in horses. Then what are you interested in?” – a difficult question to answer in a company whose sole interest was horses.’
In the early years of their marriage, Aileen and Brinny Plunket hosted many house parties at Luttrellstown, occasions meticulously chronicled in her photograph albums. Sundry entertainments were laid on for them: a report in the Daily Express in December 1932 noted ‘The Luttrellstown party should be particularly gay. One of the features will be a servants’ ball, to which more than 250 butlers, cooks and housemaids have been bidden.’ Teddy and Dorothé were regulars, as was Aileen’s cousin Arthur Guinness, Viscount Elveden (heir to the second Earl of Iveagh), universally known as ‘Lump’: he would be killed in action in 1945 at the age of thirty-two. His sister Honor, who in 1933 would marry Henry ‘Chips’ Channon visited, as did another of Brinny’s brothers Kiwa. Among non-family members who came to stay was the Hon Hamish St Clair-Erskine (briefly Nancy Mitford’s fiance), racing driver Sir Tim Birkin and Major Edward Metcalfe, always called ‘Fruity’, Equerry to the Duke of Windsor (and best man at his wedding to Wallis Simpson in 1937.) One of Aileen’s closest friens was the former lingerie model and chorus girl Sylvia Hawkes, then married to her first husband Anthony Ashley-Cooper, heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury. However, during the early 1930s she began an affair with Douglas Fairbanks Sr, who came to stay at Luttrellstown in November 1933: a report in the Dublin Evening Mail of the actor’s visit to a performance at the Abbey Theatre commented that although widely recognised, ‘there was no attempt to even approach the actor, and he smilingly moved through the crowd to his car, accompanied by his host and hostess…’ The following year he was cited as co-respondent in the Ashley-Coopers’ divorce. (Fairbanks went on to marry Sylvia. Following his death, she married in succession Lord Stanley of Alderley, Clark Gable and the Georgian Prince Dimitri Jorjadze). The Plunkets’ own marriage subsequently began to unravel. After having had three daughters, Neelia (which is Aileen spelt backwards), Doon and Marcia (who died at the age of three) Aileen began to seek alternative amusement to that provided by her husband. Her lovers in the pre-war years included impoverished Austrian playboy Baron Hubert von Pantz, who also had an affair with Coco Chanel (he would later marry Terry McConnell, a rich widow whose former father-in-law had founded Avon cosmetics, and create the ski resort Club Mittersill in New Hampshire). The couple finally divorced in 1940 and Brinny who had joined the RAF was killed in aerial combat over Sudan in November 1941. By this date Aileen had long settled in the United States where she remained until after the Second World War ended. Then she returned to Luttrellstown which in the early 1950s was extensively redecorated by Felix Harbord. But that story must wait for another occasion.
This is the first in a short series of suggestions for gifts this season. David Hicks’ Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is the successor to his 2012 book, Irish Country Houses: A Chronicle of Change. Like the latter, he features a number of properties from each of Ireland’s four provinces but here the conceit (using that word in the old-fashioned sense) is hanging the story of a building on a portrait, the kind of device once loved by film directors as a means of introducing audiences to what might otherwise be too unfamiliar territory. It works just as successfully here and means the text is as much social as architectural history.
Certain artists’ names recur, not least that of William Orpen who is represented in five of the 18 houses featured and they tend to date from the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The buildings on the other hand, span a broader chronology, from 16th century Castle Taylor, County Galway to Kilteragh, the County Dublin Arts and Crafts house designed by William Douglas Caroe in 1905 for that consummate patriot, Sir Horace Plunkett: it was burnt out by the IRA in January 1923. Another house, featured on the cover, is Curraghmore, County Waterford, home of the Marquis of Waterford. The main block of Curraghmore has at its core a mediaeval tower house, and in this lies the billiard room with a rococo ceiling of the late 1740s, its decoration attributed to the Lafranchini brothers. (The picture below comes not from Hicks’ book but from the Sadleir and Dickinson volume featured here on Monday). The Irish Georgian Society has recently made a grant to assist in the conservation of this plasterwork.
Handsomely produced and with many excellent photographs taken by the author, Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters adds further to the genre especially when it covers places not hitherto the subject of much attention. It looks well and reads well: for what more could one wish?
Irish Country Houses: Portraits and Painters is published by Collins Press, €39.99.
In early June 1765 Faulkner’s Dublin Journal reported that the former M.P. Francis Bindon had ‘died suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ before going on to descrive him as having been ‘one of the best Painters and Architects this Nation has ever produced,’ as well as ‘a most Polite, wellbred gentleman and an excellent scholar which he improved by his Travels abroad.’
We know a certain amount about Bindon but some facts elude us, such as the date of his birth although this must have been around the end of the 17th century. He was the fourth of five sons and three daughters born to David Bindon, M.P. for Ennis and Dorothy Burton, whose family controlled the Ennis Parliamentary borough. Based at Clooney, County Clare, an estate they acquired in the 1660s, the Bindons were substantial landowners in that county and in neighbouring Limerick. Among Francis’ siblings, two brothers Henry and Thomas studied at Trinity College Dublin, the former becoming a barrister-at-law, the latter Dean of Limerick. The other two brothers David, who wrote on trade and commerce, and Samuel both served as M.P. for Ennis as indeed did Francis after 1761: even in the 18th century Irish politics was a family affair. However, of especial interest to us here is the fact that in 1716 Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Coote Hill aunt of the distinguished architect Sir Edward Lovett Pearce.
Bindon was a successful gentleman amateur sans pareil: family wealth and connections meant he did not have to earn a living, yet he appears to have been highly productive throughout his life. It would seem he spent some time studying abroad: he is recorded as having been in Padua with his cousin Samuel Burton of Burton Hall, Co. Dublin, in October 1716. He is also believed to have attended the Academy of Painting run by Sir Godfrey Kneller in London between 1711-16. Returning to Ireland and settling in Dublin where he spent the greater part of his time thereafter, Bindon built up a substantial practice as a portraitist, no doubt aided by his family’s political links. Sitters included the Viceroy, Lionel Sackville, Duke of Dorset painted in 1734 and Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral painted four times by Bindon between 1735 and 1740. Many other well-connected clerics sat for him like Dean Patrick Delaney, Archbishop Hugh Boulter and Archbishop Charles Cobbe. Bindon was a member of the Dublin Society in 1733 (two years after its foundation) and that same year was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke in Dublin (the city’s Corporation of Painter-Stayners). By 1758 failing eyesight had forced him to give up painting and the following year he drew up a will, leaving most of his possessions in Dublin and an annuity of £75 for life to Francis Ryan, a house painter of Dublin, who had lived and worked with him for many years.
In addition to working as a portraitist, Bindon was also an architect, his ties by marriage with Sir Edward Lovett Pearce being of use in gaining commissions. It appears that he collaborated on at least two projects with Richard Castle, who following Pearce’s death in 1733 had become as the country’s premier designer of country houses. The first of these was the now-ruined Belan, County Kildare (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013), and the second Russborough, County Kildare where Bindon is considered to have been responsible for the interiors following Castle’s own death in 1751. A number of houses in his native County Clare are attributed to him including Carnelly, Newhall and Castlepark as well as two once fine residences in County Kilkenny: Woodstock (see Of Wonderous Beauty did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and Bessborough (see In the Borough of Bess and Back to Bessborough, November 25th and December 2nd 2013). As an architect, Bindon was certainly not of the first rank, his work being derivative and dependent on a handful of leitmotifs. As the Knight of Glin wrote in an assessment of Bindon’s output, examined collectively ‘one cannot help noticing the solid, four square somewhat gloomy quality of many of them. They are often unsophisticated, naive and clumsily detailed but they nevertheless amount to a not unrespectable corpus, worthy to be recorded and brought in from the misty damps that surround so much of the history of Irish Palladianism.
And there is one piece of work that is rather special, namely that shown here today: Bindon’s design for John’s Square, Limerick. Work on this began in 1751, meaning it predates by a couple of years the earliest of similar developments in Dublin, Rutland (now Parnell) Square. John’s Square was a speculative scheme undertaken by two local men, John Purdon and Edmond Sexton Pery (future speaker of the Irish House of Commons) on a site in Limerick’s Irishtown which had never recovered from an assault by Williamite troops during the siege of the city in August 1690. Members of the local aristocracy and gentry when visiting Limerick had nowhere fashionable to stay, and New Square as it was originally called, was created to address this need. Eight houses (with a further two subsequently added) were built on three sides of the square, the fourth easterly side being occupied by the church of St John which still remains, although rebuilt in the mid-19th century and no longer in use for services.
Built at a cost of £630, John’s Square as designed by Francis Bindon consists of two L-shaped blocks of limestone-fronted houses each one identical to its neighbour and sharing certain features such as brick-lined oculi. Eight of the houses are three-bay, three-storey over basement, those at the extreme end of the north and south sides being larger and running to five bays. When the square was completed, Pery and Purdon both took a property, the other houses being let at £32 per annum. Original tenants included Vere Hunt from Curraghchase, William Monsell of Tervoe and Pery’s brother, the Rev. William Cecil Pery, later Bishop of Limerick.
In her 1991 book The Building of Limerick Judith Hill, having noted that the development of John’s Square ‘was Limerick’s first taste of fashionable urban architecture’ goes on to report that a surviving building account made by Pery for the scheme and dating from 1751 to 1757 ‘gives an insight into the materials used and the construction process at this date. Pery appears to have paid each worker separately, a role taken today by the building contractor. He not only paid those on the city site but also quarrymen, stone-cutters and turf carriers presumably operating locally but at a distance. Brick also seems to have been burnt locally for Pery paid for turf “in nine boats” and “the emptying of the boats and casting of turfs into the green brick yard”. He paid men for attending the fire, he paid for reeds for their shelter and for the loading, carriage and landing of kiln-loads of brick at Mardyke. … Brick was used in John’s Square for floors to the kitchen and the passage, the vaulting to the cellars, the internal partitions, as a dry lining to the exterior walls and as an infil for the stone oculi on the facades. There was sufficient faith in the strength and integrity of locally produced bricks to give them a significant structural role.’
Following the demolition of the old city walls, in 1765 Edmond Sexton Pery commissioned the Italian engineer Davis Ducart to design an urban plan for land he owned to the immediate south of Limerick: this became known as Newtown Pery. Its emergence spelled trouble for John’s Square as wealthy residents preferred to move to the newer quarter: typically both Pery and his brother the bishop acquired alternative residences on Henry Street.
Meanwhile John’s Square began going into decline. For example, one Sam Dixon opened a dye works to the immediate rear of his residence at the extreme end of the south side. On the opposite side there appears to have been a brewery established (behind what is today a butcher’s shop). In the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the houses became tenements, although No. 3 on the north side remained the residence of the rector of St John’s Church until 1922 (it is distinguished from all the other houses by a wider doorway with fanlight which one assumes was inserted in the late 1700s). By the 1960s many of the properties were vacant and there was talk of demolishing the entire square. Fortunately this did not come to pass and instead extensive restoration work was carried out in 1975 to coincide with European Architectural Heritage Year. Further improvements were undertaken more recently with the local authority laying down granite paving, upgrading lighting and introducing traffic calming measures.
Even if it never returns to fashionability, the future of John’s Square is now secure, although after all the money spent improving the area’s appearance it is a disappointment so many of the houses have inappropriate uPVC windows and other ill-considered alterations. Nevertheless, considering what might have happened here, one should rejoice this very important example of 18th century urban improvement still stands. To end, a photograph of John’s Square taken probably in the 1950s when its survival looked much less certain than it does today.
From George Benn’s The History of the Town of Belfast, with an Accurate Account of its Former and Present State (published 1823):
‘The Belfast Incorporated Charitable Society, or as it is more generally denominated the Poor House, for the reception of aged and infirm persons, as well as for the support and instruction of children destitute of protectors, has long remained a noble proof of the general philanthropy which prevails among the inhabitants of this town. It stands at the extremity of Donegall Street, in an elevated and healthful situation. The ground was granted by the late Marquis of Donegall, the building completed by subscriptions and the produce of a lottery, and first opened for the purposes above stated in the year 1774. Since its commencement, it has preserved annually about three hundred individuals, old and young; the former from want and misery, the latter from idleness and vice. The children are here instructed in the elementary branches of education, till they are capable of being apprenticed out to trades. The old are carefully attended to, being permitted to increase their comforts by their own industry; and it is a proof not less of the instability of fortune than of the great benefits of the establishment, that an individual was lately received into the Poor House who had, in more prosperous times, contributed to its support. All its inmates, varying in number but commonly about three hundred and fifty, are fed and clothed at the expense of the society. The dress of the children is uniform; they walk on the Sabbath Day, hand in hand, to the respective houses of worship; and due care is taken, in every respect, of their moral and religious habits. The whole government of the Institution is conducted in the most methodical manner, and it receives contributions from every denomination of Christians, all being anxious for the continuance of an establishment which is as invaluable to the poor as it is creditable to the opulent.’
In the 18th century Belfast was a small but growing market town and port: as late as 1801 its population stood at just 19,000. Nevertheless, the town’s spirit of enquiry and liberalism can be seen through several developments during this period, such as the publication of what is now the world’s oldest surviving English language daily newspaper, the Belfast News Letter, (started 1737), the creation of the Belfast Academy (now Belfast Royal Academy) in 1785 and the setting up of a library (later to become the Linenhall Library and still extant) three years later. Of interest here today are the origins of another organisation which continues to the present day, the Belfast Charitable Society.
In 1631 Edward Holmes, a former Sovereign of Belfast (as the city’s mayors were called until 1842) left in his will ‘to the poore decayed inhabitants of Belfast 40 pounds.’ This created a fund to which further sums were added over the next hundred years. However by the middle of the 18th century, it was apparent that more was required to assist the poor and needy. Hence in late August 1752 a group of concerned citizens met at an establishment called the George Inn and there resolved ‘to consider a proper way to raise a sum for the building of a poor House & Hospital & a new Church in or near the town of Belfast.’
A site of eight acres for the project was granted by Arthur Chichester, fifth Earl (and later first Marquess) of Donegall, whose family had long owned most of the land on which Belfast developed. The funds required to build the Poor House, at an estimated cost of ₤7,000, were raised through private donations and also by running a lottery based on the model of that already existing in Dublin. Work started promptly and in December 1774 the new premises were officially opened by Lord Donegall with the following accommodation: seven beds for the sick, four double beds for the beggars, twenty-two double beds for the poor and four single beds for vagrants.
The building’s design has an interesting history. Both the Scottish-born architect Robert Mylne and his former draughtsman and clerk Thomas Cooley submitted proposals, but eventually the person responsible was a local amateur, Robert Joy (1722-1785). He and his brother Henry were co-proprietors of the aforementioned Belfast News Letter, which had been founded by their father Francis Joy; they were also uncles of the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. The siblings were among the key figures behind the Poor House’s foundation and hence it is understandable that Robert Joy should have been permitted to have the final say in its design. However, extant drawings by Mylne indicate that his work provided a basis for the eventual structure. Corridors off a passage behind the entrance hall, for example, retain walled-up Tuscan columns, part of what was once an open-air colonnade, a feature of Mylne’s scheme. On the other hand, Joy replaced the dome and lantern proposed by Mylne with an octagonal stone tower and spire rising behind the brick facade the appearance of which mimics that of a Palladian country house. Despite the spire, the church which was originally intended to be part of the scheme was never built.
It is instructive, if a little disturbing, to read the role played by the Poor House’s more youthful occupants in the establishment of the cotton industry in Ulster. This account is taken from Philip Dixon Hardy’s 1820 publication The Northern Tourist:
‘In 1771, at which time there was not a single cotton loom in the whole North of Ireland, the late Robert Joy conceived the scheme of introducing into this then desponding kingdom the cotton manufacture which had proved an unfailing source of industry and consequent opulence to the sister country. Having, in conjunction with Thomas M’Cabe, suggested that the spinning of cotton yarn might, as an introductory step to the establishment of the manufacture, be at once a fit and profitable employment for the children in the Belfast Poor-house, several of them were set to work…And shortly after an experienced spinner was brought over by Mr Joy from Scotland, to instruct the children in the Poor-house. Also, under the same direction, and at the expense of the gentlemen mentioned, a carding machine was erected at Mr Grimshaw’s, to go by water, which was afterwards removed to the Poor-house, and wrought by hand. A firm was now formed of the original projectors, and others, under the name of Joys, M’Cabe and M’Cracken, who contracted with the same charitable institution for the employment of a number of its children, as well as for the use of its vacant rooms…In less than ten years from their first introduction in the country, several thousand looms were employed in the manufacture of cotton in the towns of Belfast, Lisburn and Hillsborough.’
During its first decades of operation, the Poor House looked after inmates well, not least by providing them with all necessary clothing and food. With regard to the latter, daily meals included bread, cheese, milk, broth, rice and porridge. Beef and veal were added to the diet on Sundays. On Sundays, the meal included beef and veal, this at a time when around a third of the country’s population lived on potatoes and buttermilk.
Local physicians attended the sick in the Poor House, their services provided without charge, and there was also a dispensary where the same doctors would see the unwell from outside the house on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In 1794 the Belfast Charitable Society opened Ireland’s first Fever Hospital in a rented building on Factory Row (now Berry Street) and soon afterwards, as a means of raising funds, it started a cemetery in the city. Other methods of generating income included taking responsibility for Belfast’s water supply, which it did from 1795 to 1840, and then charging households for access to fresh water.
By the time the society gave up this role (in return for financial compensation), much else had changed, not least new Poor Laws and a more active role by the state in the provision of assistance to those citizens unable to support themselves. However, the Poor House remained true to its original purpose and indeed expanded premises during the course of the 19th century. In 1821 and 1825 respectively extensions were made behind each of the end wings and then in 1867 a block was built at right angles to these; five years later it was linked to the rest of the property by further additions thereby creating a quadrangle as had originally been envisaged by Robert Mylne.
After the Belfast Charitable Society celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2002, a decision was taken to build a new nursing home elsewhere in the city. The old property was handed over on a seventy-year lease to another charity, Helm Housing Association, the funds thus generated allowing for a programme of necessary renovation. Since then the building has been shared between the two organisations, offering sheltered accommodation and operating as an old persons’ home. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the opening of Belfast’s Poor House (now called Clifton House), the oldest complete surviving building in the city, a wonderful example of 18th century philanthropy, a landmark structure and yet somehow little known even by the local population.