Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.
It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’
While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.
Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.