A scrolled pediment over the main entrance to Millbrook, County Laois carries the date 1885, the year this house was built as a residence for the agent of the de Vesci estate. Its architect was William Chambers (no relation of the 18th century architect of the same name), who just four years later would design Britain’s first purpose-built mosque in Woking, Surrey. Broken windows, lost slates and encroaching vegetation all indicate that Millbrook is now in an imperilled condition.
The former Church of Ireland church at Rathaspick, County Laois. There was an older structure on the site but the present one dates, as a stone over the entrance confirms, from 1813 when it was built with a grant of £553 from the Board of First Fruits. Unusually it is aligned on a north-south axis rather than the more liturgically correct east-west. The building remained in use for services until the 1950s when, like so many others, declining attendances caused its closure. A photograph of it taken some twenty years ago for the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage shows the unroofed church almost submerged in ivy but it has since been cleaned up, and the surrounding graveyard made more accessible.
The distinctive Grace mausoleum that dominates a graveyard to the immediate south of the Roman Catholic church in the village of Arles, County Laois. Descendants of a knight who came to Ireland with Strongbow in the 12th century, the Graces lived nearby in a house called Gracefield. Taking the form of a miniature Gothic chapel (it measures 21 feet in length and 16 feet in breadth, with the pinnacles rising 31 feet), the mausoleum was erected in 1818 on the instructions of Alicia Kavanagh (née Grace), widow of Morgan Kavanagh. It replaced an earlier tomb of her family on the same site and from that structure were salvaged a series of 18th century commemorative tablets: these are embedded around the exterior walls of the mausoleum. A carved panel over the door features the date of the building’s construction and the Grace coat of arms.
The remains of Cullahill Castle, County Laois as seen through the east window of its adjacent former chapel. The castle, really an exceptionally large tower house within its own bawn wall, was constructed on an outcrop of rock around 1425 and served as a stronghold for the MacGillapatricks of Upper Ossory. Rising five storeys and ninety feet, its impressive scale made the castle a target for attack from rivals even in the years after construction but it was eventually destroyed after being bombarded by cannon during the Cromwellian Wars. Recorded in the Down Survey in 1657 as being ‘out of repaire’ it has remained in this condition ever since. There is a Sheela na Gig high on the east wall of the building but sadly this proved impossible to photograph.
Some 150 feet above the plains of County Laois rises an outcrop of limestone called the Rock of Dunamase (from the Irish Dún Másc meaning ‘fort of Másc’). On top of this are the remains of a once-substantial fortress, the origins of which have been discovered by archeological excavation to date back to the 9th century when a hill fort (or dún) was constructed on the site. This cannot have survived very long since Dunamase was attacked and pillaged by Vikings around the year 843-44. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, ‘Dun Masg was plundered by the foreigners, where Aedh, son of Dubdharchrich, Abbot of Tir-da-glas [modern Terryglass, County Tipperary] and Cluain-eidhnach, was taken prisoner; and they carried him into Munster, where he suffered martyrdom for the sake of God; and Ceithearnach, son of Cudinaisg, Prior of Cill-dara, with many others besides, was killed by them during the same plundering expedition.’ It would appear that as a result of this devastation, no further occupation of Dunamase occurred until the 12th century and the arrival of the Normans.
By the second half of the 12th century, Dunamase was evidently in the possession of Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster since it was given as part of his daughter Aoife’s dowry when she married Richard de Clare (‘Strongbow’) in 1171. Thereafter the site continued to pass through the female line for several generations: Aoife and Richard de Clare having no adult sons, their lands went to an only daughter Isabel de Clare who married William Marshall. None of their five sons outliving them, the lands were divided between five daughters, one of whom – Eva Marshall – married the Welsh March lord William de Braose. Once more this couple only had daughters, the second of whom Maud married Roger Mortimer; in the mid-1320s their grandson, another Roger, the first Earl of March, became the lover of Queen Isabella (the She-Wolf of France) and led the revolt against her husband Edward II. When the king’s son, Edward III, had Mortimer executed for treason in 1330, the family lost their Irish property and although it was later restored to them, by that stage Dunamase seems to have come under the control of the local O’Mores. In any case, by the middle of the 14th century it had begun to fall into a state of disrepair and although there are stories that Dunamase was destroyed by Cromwellian troops (as there are about almost every other dilapidated fortress in Ireland), it seems that by the time the latter came to Ireland in the mid-17th century the site had long since become uninhabitable. Some restoration work was undertaken towards the close of the 18th century by Sir John Parnell, Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and Lord of the Treasury (also great-grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell): he incorporated stone door and window cases from other local antiquarian sites into the upper portion of the old castle with the intention of creating a banqueting hall but the work remained incomplete and was abandoned after his death in 1801.
After more than six centuries of neglect in an exposed position, it is understandable not a lot of the Rock of Dunamase’s Norman castle survives. Sometimes utilising the natural rock formation for defensive purposes, a series of walls had been constructed, the interior portion of the site accessed by an outer and inner barbican, the second of these incorporating a ditch and a drawbridge. The upper part of the rock was further protected by a curtain wall with its own gatehouse, and at the very top was a large hall or keep. This part of the structure was most modified by Sir John Parnell but it is likely he also undertook remedial work elsewhere on the rock and thereby secured what has survived to the present day since otherwise even more might have been lost. Now a visitor to Dunamase needs to bring along imagination in order to conceive how the place once looked. On the other hand, the views from the top remain superlative, stretching in every direction for many miles and only occasionally spoilt by injudicious development (made even more apparent from such high ground). It is easy to understand why the Rock of Dunamase was chosen as a place of defence but also, given the site’s relative inaccessibility, why it was subsequently abandoned.
The stuccowork found in Irish houses is rightly renowned for its exceptional combination of vivacity and virtuosity. Yet the attention given to this field of design has focussed primarily on practitioners in the 18th century, with little notice paid to those who came later. It is curious that this should be the case: in the decades between the 1800 Act of Union and the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s several waves of house building occurred across the country, and many of these properties were elaborately decorated. By this date plasterwork was no longer created ‘free-hand’ on site but instead frequently made elsewhere in sections and then installed under supervision. But who were the people who carried out this work? While we often know who was responsible for the architecture, the names of firms and craftsmen who created the interiors seen today seem to be unknown, or at least not to have excited scholarly interest. The three houses featured today demonstrate that more could be done to honour and celebrate these virtuosi who did so much to enhance the properties on which they were employed.
Although a much older property existed on this site, Borris House, County Carlow was comprehensively redesigned for the McMorrough Kavanaghs in the second decade of the 19th century by Sir Richard Morrison (see An Arthurian Legend, November 4th 2013). In terms of decoration, the finest room in the building is the one seen first by visitors: the entrance hall. We believe Morrison was responsible for every element of the design here, ceiling plasterwork, scagliola columns, doorcases and chimney piece. Although the room is almost square it appears to be a circular space due to a radiating ceiling and the carefully proportioned screen of paired columns forming a ring around the perimeter wall. On the ceiling eight beams emanate from a central coffered section to meet florid plaster embellishment that includes festoons of fruit, flowers and leaves resting on masked heads, sheaves of wheat and the crescent moon, and a sequence of immense eagles, their heads thrusting into space beyond outstretched wings. The capitals on top of the columns display equal creativity, as they do not correspond to any of the classical orders but are of Morrison’s own design, incorporating a band of lion heads. The skill involved in carrying out this programme of work is outstanding – but who did Morrison employ to transform his ideas on paper into a three-dimensional reality?
Emo Court, County Laois has been discussed here on a couple of recent occasions (see Seen in the Round, February 1st last and Of Changes in Taste, March 14th last). Designed in the 1790s by James Gandon, the house’s interiors were only gradually completed over the next seventy years. One of the first spaces to be completed was the dining room, decorated in the early 1830s under the supervision of London architect Lewis Vulliamy. It is likely that Gandon would have proposed a spare, neo-classical scheme here but Vulliamy came up with something altogether more sumptuous, especially on the ceiling which has been divided into a series of sections centred on a rectangle containing a highly elaborate rose (looking more like a chrysanthemum) from which a chandelier would have been suspended. On either side thick bands running the length of the ceiling are filled with ribboned hexagons from which overflow vine leaves and bunches of grapes: this same motif is used again on the perimeter of the ceiling. Meanwhile a pair of demi-lunes immediately above and below the chandelier rose contain an eagle standing on a rippling band of ribbon, its wings stretching beyond crown of oakleaves encircling the bird. Closer again to the edge bare-breasted maidens are flanked by spirals of foliageputti stand on either side of ornamental urns and pairs of doves flutter within floral coronets. Extravagantly absurd and yet executed with such assurance and aplomb somehow the whole scheme comes together. Who deserves the credit for this feat?
Ballyfin, County Laois (see The Fair Place, July 21st 2014) has been superlatively restored in recent years and now functions as an hotel that sets a standard for all others in this country and beyond. Ballyfin was designed for the Coote family in the early 1820s by Sir Richard Morrison, on this occasion partnered by his son William Vitruvius. The entire house is an exercise in opulent splendour of the kind John Nash was then creating for George IV at Buckingham Palace. Nowhere is this more manifest than the saloon which at either end has screens of green scagliola columns beneath rich Corinthian capitals. These lead the eye up to the coved ceiling over which once more ornament has been incited to run riot. Here panels contain figures of bare-breasted maidens surrounded by scrolled foliage so similar to those found on the dining room ceiling at Emo Court that both must have been executed by the same craftsmen. Likewise in the corners of the saloon ceiling in Ballyfin are pairs of putti, in this instance jointly supporting a lyre. The bordered runs of vine leaves and grapes seen at Emo are here replaced by long garlands of flowers but the spirit and style are consistent between the two houses. The most striking difference can be found on the Ballyfin’s ceiling entablature where snarling lions (or perhaps leopards) face each other separated by a crowned mask. It’s both deft and daft, and above all thrilling to realise craftsmanship of this calibre was available to patrons in 19th century Ireland. Time surely to celebrate the persons responsible, and to ensure their names and contribution to our heritage no longer remain unknown.
Those of us blessed – or perhaps afflicted – with an aesthetic cast of mind are inclined to believe that in matters of taste absolutes exist, and that our own judgement is invariably sound. Yet even a cursory scan of cultural history reveals that taste and its manifestations change from one era to another and are dependent on many factors, not all of them aesthetic. Our own judgement is thereby revealed to be, if not fallible, certainly more subjective than we might imagine to be the case: we are the products of our age, and so is the environment we create around us. The evolution of the interiors at Emo Court, County Laois offer evidence of the ever-changing subjectivity of taste. The history of the house’s gradual construction was summarised a few weeks ago (see In the Round, February 1st 2016) but this can be seen by an exploration of its rooms. The building was commissioned in 1790 by John Dawson, first Earl of Portarlington, his architect being James Gandon who had already designed the neo-classical church at nearby Coolbanagher for the same discerning patron. Emo Court’s entrance front is perhaps the truest expression of Gandon’s intentions, a severe seven-bay facade, the three central bays stepped forward to feature a giant pedimented Ionic portico featuring the family coat of arms. The end pavilions, likewise brought forward, appear to be single-storey, their upper sections featuring Coade stone panels featuring on one side the Arts and on the other a pastoral scene. Relatively little of the rest of the house was finished before Lord Portarlington died in 1798 leaving a widow and young children, after which the project went into abeyance for several decades.
The next burst of activity occurred during the period 1824-36 when the wastrel second Earl of Portarlingon commissioned English architect Lewis Vulliamy to draw up designs for Emo Court. Born in 1791 and apprenticed to Robert Smirke before establishing his own practice, Vulliamy is summarised in one biographical notice as being an ‘eclectic designer’ who was ‘competent in any style required of him.’ Buildings designed by him range from the since-demolished Italian Renaissance Dorchester House, London to Jacobethan Westonbirt House in Gloucestershire. Vulliamy oversaw the completion of the garden front with its own giant Ionic portico and, indoors he initiated work on the rotunda and completed the dining room. The latter’s most notable feature is the ceiling plasterwork, richly ornate in the style preferred during the late Georgian period and almost certainly not what Gandon would have had in mind for this space (or any other within the building). This is even more the case with the next stage of work at Emo which only occurred following the second earl’s death in 1845. He left the estate, and considerable debts, to a nephew, the third earl who was only in a position to embark on a fresh programme of decoration in 1860. The architect now employed was Dubliner William Caldbeck who designed what is now the library (but was originally a drawing room) with its neo-rococo ceiling and extraordinary Carrara marble chimneypiece that features putti frolicking amongst grapevines, and the salon (formerly a library/ballroom) which has screens of green marble Ionic columns at either end. During this period the walls of the drawing room were hung with damask silk, and those of the entrance hall with embossed leather. We move further and further from the neo-classical concept of James Gandon and his patron.
In 1920 Emo Court and its surrounding demesne were sold to the Land Commission, not an organisation ever renowned for its taste. The land was broken up and the house sat empty and stripped of all contents until 1930 when, with the immediate parkland and lake, it was sold to the Jesuit Order for use as a novitiate. One of the residents during the following decades was Fr Francis Browne, the well-known photographer who would record the interior of so many remaining Irish country houses. During their time there, the Jesuits made a number of changes to the interior of Emo Court. The rotunda and adjacent drawing room, for example, were adapted for use as a chapel. This necessitated the removal of the mahogany double doors between the two spaces, together with two of the Corinthian Siena marble pilasters immediately inside the former and the chimneypiece in the latter. Part of the rotunda’s inlaid floor was also taken out to accommodate an altar in what was now a chapel sanctuary (the drawing room holding the congregation). Likewise the salon was altered to act as a refectory, the end screens including the green marble columns being taken out, along with its chimneypiece. Meanwhile the drawing room became a conference room.
Owing to a decrease in their numbers, the Jesuits left Emo Court in 1969 and the house was soon afterwards bought by Major Cholmeley Dering Cholmeley-Harrison who had already restored one property in this country, Woodstown, County Waterford (which famously he rented to Jacqueline Kennedy and her family in the summer of 1967). Major Cholmeley-Harrison employed the London firm of Sir Albert Richardson & Partners to oversee Emo’s restoration, and it was discovered most of the elements removed by the previous occupants had not been destroyed but stored and could therefore be reinstated. Thus The warped mahogany doors were flattened with weights and braces to return to their original form before being once more hung, while the demolished wall of the rotunda was rebuilt and the floor re-inlaid. The drawing-room got back its neo-rococo chimney piece and became a library and the Jesuit’s refectory was similarly given back its chimneypiece, screens and marble columns. In the entrance hall, coves to either side were were painted by Geoffrey Ghin in trompe l’oeil to Gandon’s unexecuted design for stuccowork here. In 1994 Major Cholmeley-Harrison presented Emo Court and its land to the Irish state, remaining in residence there until his death eight years ago. Today Emo is an accumulation of different eras’ taste, not least that of only four decades ago. The present decoration of the main reception rooms – the hessian-covered walls in the dining and drawing rooms, the acid green paint covering both walls and ceiling in the salon – are reflections of another period’s taste. Were Emo Court to be restored today, it is inconceivable such materials or colours would be employed. No doubt some visitors, and perhaps some employees of the Office of Public Works which is now responsible for the property, must yearn to instigate a programme of redecoration which would include an assiduous investigation of original paint shades and finishes so that these could be reinstated. The craze for historically ‘accurate’ decoration is a reflection of our own age and as likely to be superseded as have many others before. What makes Emo Court so interesting is precisely the building’s ability to incorporate so many shifts in taste without giving first place to any one of them. Instead they must perforce co-exist. There’s a lesson here for all of us blessed or cursed with an aesthetic cast of mind.