Complying with Strict Conditions of Conservation?



In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.






As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.






Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?

Seeking a Viable Future


Tomorrow the Industrial Heritage Association of Ireland is hosting a one-day conference on the operation, presentation and promotion of industrial sites (see http://ihai.ie/calendar-of-events): seemingly some 100 of these around the country are open to the public. Lacking the necessary mineral wealth, Ireland never experienced an industrial revolution similar to that of our nearest neighbour. However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, large mills were erected harnessing the power of water (of which we have a great deal) to engage in activities such as milling. The legacy of that enterprise can still be found in sites across the entire island. Many of them are in various states of disrepair, such as this complex on the banks of the Shannon in Banagher, County Offaly.





An advantageous position on the south-eastern side of the Shannon helped Banagher to thrive from an early period: pilgrims visiting the monastic sites at Clonfert and Clonmacnoise would pass this way and it appears the first bridge across the river at this point was built around the middle of the 11th century. While there was long a military presence in the town, its economic development was initially dependent on the wool trade. Major expansion occurred from the late 1700s onwards, thanks to the development of the Grand Canal, providing this part of the country with access to the ports of Dublin and Limerick. Banagher now became a major centre for the grain trade. A boom followed and around the onset of the Great Famine in the mid-1840s the town’s population was some 3,000 (today it is a little over half that figure). Decline followed in the second half of the century, not least owing to the abolition of the Corn Laws which allowed for the importation of cheap grain from abroad, with inevitable consequences for the domestic trade. The mill by the Shannon offers evidence of the town’s rise and fall.





Now derelict, the core of the complex is a five-storey, twelve-bay grain mill and malting works. Seemingly there was a mill on the site by the late 1700s (shown with an external waterwheel on its north gable on an engraving of c.1800). This was presumably used as a flour and corn mill and parts of it remain incorporated into the present, much-enlarged block. On Ordnance Survey maps of 1838 and 1884 the building is described as being ‘Haughtons Mills.’ Initially it took advantage of water channelled through the arches of a bridge spanning the river at this point but later a steam engine was installed, making the use of water redundant. Around 1880 the buildings were taken over by F.A. Waller and thereafter used for malting. It only ceased to be operational in the 1970s when Waller amalgamated with D.E. Williams of Tullamore and the Banagher buildings were no longer needed. Since then the main block, together with ancillary offices and out-houses, has fallen into ruin. Can the site hope to have a viable future? Perhaps tomorrow’s conference might produce some answers.

Six of the Best

Milltown Park, County Offaly

Lambay, County Dublin

Castletown, County Kildare

Dublin Castle

Moore Hall, County Mayo

Mount Shannon, County Limerick

Six years ago on September 24th 2012, the Irish Aesthete made its debut. What was the intent behind this initiative? Impossible to recall, although then as now a primary motivation was encouraging greater and more widespread engagement with Ireland’s architectural heritage, much of which remains at risk from either neglect or misuse. Over the past six years, some aspects of the site have changed, others remained the same. Very soon, the format of a thrice-weekly posting was established, with longer features each Monday and shorter ones every Wednesday and Saturday. The quality of photographs has certainly improved and, one hopes, will continue to do so (not least thanks to improvements in the calibre of mobile phone cameras). There has been a consistent effort to represent the entire island of Ireland, and to show the good, the bad and – with regrettable frequency – the ugly. What hasn’t altered throughout this period has been the attention of friends and followers, which is enormously appreciated: without regular support and feedback, it is unlikely the Irish Aesthete would have continued for so long. Therefore thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this site: you make it worthwhile. Happily today the Irish Aesthete is read across the world and has led to other opportunities for writing and speaking engagements, thereby helping to spread the gospel of our architectural history. A further outcome is that early next year the first book of Irish Aesthete photographs will be published, about which more in due course. Meanwhile, to mark today’s anniversary, here are six personal favourites taken over the years. You may have made other choices from the site: please feel free to share your own suggestions. Of the six shown above, two are properties in private hands, two are in public ownership, and two are ruins. All however are important elements in our common cultural heritage.

The Other Boleyn Girls


In Donizetti’s 1830 opera Anna Bolena, the unhappy queen tells her erstwhile admirer Henry Percy, future sixth Earl of Northumberland, ‘Ambiziosa, un serto io volli’ e un serto ebb’io di spine’ (Ambitious, I wanted a crown, and got a crown of thorns). She came from an ambitious family. Originally of East Anglian yeoman stock, the Boleyns gradually improved their economic and social circumstances during the 15th century: Anne’s great-grandfather Sir Geoffrey Boleyn had been a London merchant who prospered to such an extent that he was elected Lord Mayor of the city, received a knighthood and bought Hever Castle in Kent. His son William married Lady Margaret Butler, a daughter and co-heiress of the seventh Earl of Ormond: this is the origin of the Boleyns’ links with Ireland. Sir William and Lady Margaret’s eldest son Sir Thomas Boleyn further scaled the social ladder by marrying Lady Elizabeth Howard, a daughter of the second Duke of Norfolk. A skilled diplomat and courtier, Sir Thomas lay claim to the Butler title following the death without male heirs of his grandfather, the Earl of Ormond in 1515. This was disputed by an Irish claimant, Piers Butler but once Henry VIII became enamoured of Anne Boleyn, he persuaded Butler to renounce the Ormond title (he was created Earl of Ossory instead). Accordingly in 1529 Sir Thomas Boleyn became not just Earl of Ormond, but also Earl of Wiltshire, his claim to the latter also coming through familial ties with the Butler family. Meanwhile his only surviving son George received the courtesy title Viscount Rochford. Following the downfall and execution of both Anne and her brother in 1536, their ambitious father lost his position at court and retired to the country. The year before his death, the Ormond title was restored to Piers Butler: his grandson, Thomas Butler the tenth earl, was a cousin of Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I who is said to have called him her ‘black husband’ and certainly made him Lord Treasurer of Ireland.




In 1803, a limestone slab measuring eight by four feet is said to have been discovered close to Clonony Castle, County Offaly. This is recorded as bearing the following inscription: ‘Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.’ Understandably there has been much popular speculation about the stone and its words. George Boleyn, as mentioned, was Anne’s only brother: he was executed two days before her in May 1536 on a trumped-up charge of incest. George was as ambitious for advancement as the rest of his family: he had been introduced to the English court at the age of ten and not long afterwards became one of the king’s pageboys. From the mid-1520s onwards, as his sister’s star rose, he became a favourite of Henry VIII receiving a series of ever-more significant grants and offices from the crown. Around this time he married Jane Parker, daughter of the wealthy and well-connected tenth Lord Morley. Following her husband’s disgrace and death in 1536 she retired temporarily from court but then returned and served Henry VIII’s successive wives until February 1542 when, because of her links with Catherine Howard, she too was beheaded. Although they were married for more than a decade, there is no record of George and Jane Boleyn having had any children, either male or female, and no heirs for the couple are known. This is why the stone found at Clonony so curious: it claims his two great-granddaughters were buried there. But since he had no offspring, the matter is open to conjecture.




Clonony Castle is a tower house, probably built at the start of the 16th century by the MacCoghlan family who were hereditary chieftains in this part of the country. They remained in situ until the aftermath of the Nine Years War when dispossessed of much of their land. At the start of the 17th century Clonony had been acquired by an English official Roger Downton and in 1612 he sold it to Matthew de Renzi. The latter was a German-born cloth merchant who, having run up substantial debts in London, moved to Ireland in 1606. The funds to buy Clonony and 100 surrounding acres probably came from his first wife’s dowry. De Renzi is a fascinating character, not least because, a keen linguist who already spoke six languages, he learnt to write and speak both colloquial and classical Irish and composed an Irish grammar. The intention was to help him as he struggled to establish his presence in the Midlands, fiercely resisted by the MacCoghlans whose head, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, told everyone in the locality to neither buy from nor sell to de Renzi (except at excessive rates), and to ignore the boundaries of his territory. Soon he faced such intimidation that he thought it best to spend the winter at the County Roscommon home of his second wife, a daughter of Sir Oliver St John, writing ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’ Nevertheless, by the end of the following decade he had increased his landholding to over 1,000 acres, after which he sold Clonony, moved to Dublin, became a government official and was knighted in 1627, dying seven years later.
Clonony, de Renzi discovered, was not an especially comfortable residence, tall and narrow with very small windows so that little light penetrated the interior. In form it remains a typical tower house, some fifty feet high over three storeys, the greater part of each floor being given over to a single vaulted chamber. Clonony was restored as a private house in the 19th century when repairs were carried out on the bawn wall and, one suspects, larger windows inserted into the tower. The present owner has carried out further repairs and restoration, while retaining the essential character of the place. Incidentally, a 1533 proclamation of forbidding criticism of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was repealed by the Irish government three years ago in July 2015.


Not Such a BelView


Writing of agriculture and manufacturing in County Offaly in 1801, Sir Charles Coote noted that the linen industry then thrived, with several local landowners ‘who keep looms employed, but do not bleach. Mr Holmes of Prospect and Mr Armstrong of Belview are the most extensive manufacturers, and both have large greens, but they only bleach their own linen, their [sic] being bleach yards for public accommodation.’ Almost twenty years later Peter Besnard, Inspector-General for Trade and Manufacture of Linen and Hemp in Ireland, produced a report in which he commented on Offaly: ‘The Manufacturing and Bleaching branches of the Linen Business are carried on in this county as usual, particularly in the neighbourhood of Clara and Charlestown; in the latter place, a new Linen Hall has been built by Andrew Armstong Esq. of Belview, whose family have long been supporters and encouragers of the Linen Trade. Mr Armstrong has built this Hall at his own expense, and likewise gives a premium for the best Web sold in it; and I cannot avoid remarking, that wherever premiums have been established, and judiciously applied, they have been productive of much benefit.’





The Armstrong family appears to have settled in this part of the country in the 18th century, one John Armstrong (born 1748) marrying Jane Holmes, whose family lived nearby in a house called Prospect (still standing). He married a second time and had a son Andrew Armstrong, the man mentioned by both Sir Charles Coote and Peter Besnard as being active in the linen industry. A large range of now-derelict buildings on ground below Belview testify to the one-time importance of this business, in the 18th and early 19th centuries by far the most commercially viable in Ireland. From the early 1700s onwards Irish linen was imported duty free to England and to the American colonies, so that eventually this one product accounted for around fifty per cent of Ireland’s total exports. It is understandable that so many entrepreneurial spirits became involved in the business and, if they managed their concern sufficiently well, grew rich, as did the Armstrongs. As was so often the case, they gradually climbed the social scale, moving away from the commercial class to become landed gentry. John Herbert Armstrong, for example, who inherited Belview in the mid-19th century , joined the army and served as a major in the Royal Tyrone Fusiliers. He further cemented his gentry status by marrying Eliza Catherine Lowry whose family, related to the Earls of Belmore, lived at Pomeroy House, County Tyrone. Their son in turn married Emily Theodosia Blacker-Douglas whose family were large landowners (with over 8,000 acres in County Kerry) and lived in Elm Park, outside Armagh. However, after selling their estate in 1912 under the Irish Land Act, the Armstrongs left Belview, which was subsequently leased to a variety of tenants.





Located on the border of Counties Offaly and Westmeath, Belview is a substantial house, the front portion of which dates from the second half of the 18th century. To the rear is an older L-shaped building which looks to have been adapted into a service wing when the newer section was added. The latter featured the usual layout of the period, with a drawing room, dining room and morning room/office opening off a central entrance hall on the ground floor: traces of neo-classical plasterwork survive in some of these spaces. Outside the east-facing façade is of five bays, with a Venetian window on the first floor. Below a short flight of stone steps led to a tripartite limestone doorcase with engaged Doric columns and an open pediment. The house testifies to the Armstrongs’ wish to identify themselves with the local gentry, as well as to the wealth that could be accumulated through the linen trade. A folly built in the form of a monastic round tower by Andrew Armstrong in 1817 and now buried in the nearby woodland, likewise provides evidence of the family’s social ambitions. The house was abandoned some decades ago and is now a roofless ruin.

Signs of Affluence


In 1837 Samuel Lewis described Cloghan, County Offaly as a ‘village and post-town’ containing 84 dwellings and 460 inhabitants. Evidently some of the latter enjoyed prosperity because the dwellings they occupied were substantial, not least one on Hill Street which has this handsome doorcase. The five-bay property is believed to date from around 1820, a time when the country experienced greater affluence than would be the case just a couple of decades later, and which led to something of a building boom. Another house on nearby Castle Street was constructed during the same period and features a similar, albeit slightly plainer, doorcase.

A Writer’s Haven



Dating from c.1800, this house in Banagher, County Offaly is described in http://www.buildingsofireland as being a striking feature of the streetscape ‘and one of the grandest structures within the town.’ The bowed breakfront with conical roof and the finely tooled stone doorcase is charming, as are the Wyatt windows on ground and first floor. In use as an hotel from the early 19th century onwards, two celebrated writers spent several years here: Anthony Trollope between 1841 and 1844 while working as a Post Office Surveyor’s Clerk (and writing his first published novel The McDermotts of Ballycloran) and James Pope-Hennessy in the early 1970s while writing biographies of both Trollope and Robert Louis Stevenson. Badly damaged in an arson attack in September 2012, damage to the building was not repaired which now looks in danger of being lost forever.