Donamon Castle, County Roscommon is said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited buildings in Ireland. It is believed that originally there was a fort here (whence the name Dún Iomáin, fort of Iomán), but the first recorded reference to the place occurs in the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1154. In 1232, the Anglo-Norman Adam de Staunton further fortified the site but his works were captured and demolished by the O’Connors a year later. After passing back and forth between different hands, the castle was occupied from the early 14th century onwards by a branch of the Burkes who remained here until in 1688 it passed to the Caulfeilds (the main branch of which became Earls of Charlemont). In the last century, like many other estates Donamon was broken up by the Irish Land Commission, the castle being acquired in 1939 by the Divine Word Missionaries, members of which community remain there to the present time. Although much altered and extended in the 18th and 19th century, the core of the old castle resembles that at Bunratty, County Clare, both front and rear featuring a tall arched recess between square towers.
The Lloyd Mausoleum in the graveyard at Aughrim, County Roscommon: a church dating from 1744 (and described by Samuel Lewis in 1837 as ‘a neat plain building with a small spire’) stood adjacent until 1955 when it was demolished. Monuments inside the church were moved outdoors and can now be seen in plots around the mausoleum. It was erected in 1907 by Major William Lloyd following the death of his wife May and he was subsequently interred there five years later. Members of the Lloyd family had lived in nearby Rockville House since 1740 but sold the estate in 1918; after passing through several hands, the house was demolished in the 1950s.
It is easy to miss Roscommon Castle: despite the building’s immensity, it scarcely seems to impinge on the horizon. Such was obviously not the case when the castle was first constructed, since there would have been nothing of similar scale anywhere in the area. Work was initiated here in 1269 on the instructions of the Anglo-Norman knight Roger de Ufford, who served as Justiciar, or chief governor, of Ireland for Henry III. There were constant setbacks due to attacks on the site by Aedh O’Conor, King of Connacht; it appears the greater part of the castle was erected only in the years following his death in 1274. Originally much of this area was a lake, Lough Nea, and the castle stood on raised ground to the immediate south-east, surrounded by a moat fed by the lake’s waters. A stone wall stood immediately inside this ditch but the main structure was set further back and featured substantial three-storey D-shaped towers at each corner. The main entrance on the eastern side was flanked by three-storey gate houses, and there was a secondary point of access on the western front. Despite impressive fortifications, Roscommon Castle continued to be subject to attack from the native population and by the mid-14th century had passed into the hands of the O’Conors who remained in occupancy there for the next two hundred years.
In 1569 the then-O’Conor Don Diarmaid mac Cairbre surrendered Roscommon Castle to Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland. Eight years later the building and 17,000 acres were granted by the English government to Sir Nicholas Malby, who was Governor (later Lord President) of Connacht. Malby fundamentally altered the appearance of the castle by transforming it into a Renaissance fortified mansion. The northern side, which had never been of stone, was made into a three-storey domestic dwelling linked to the eastern range to form an L-shaped block: large stone mullion windows were inserted into the upper floors of the latter to admit more light than had hitherto been the case. Within the outer walls a new garden was created. On the northern side, for example, the ditch was turned into a long fish pond while formal geometric parterres were planted to the east and a grand tree-lined avenue to the south. None of these features survive.
Sir Nicholas Malby died in 1584, seemingly a disappointed man since he felt slighted by Elizabeth I who had listened to charges of corruption and violence presented by his political opponents. His estate was inherited by a son who is reported as having been slain in a battle against the Irish at Aughrim in January 1603. But even before that date Roscommon Castle had once more been subject to attack, besieged by Hugh O’Donnell for three months in 1596 and again assaulted in 1599. It changed hands on a couple of occasions during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s before being taken by a Cromwellian force in 1652. In the aftermath of this event, some of the defensive features may have been removed but further damage was apparently done to the structure during the Williamite Wars of the early 1690s. Since then it has stood in a state of decay, and today the castle’s appearance is not much different from that described almost 200 years ago by Isaac Weld in his Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832): ‘It remains merely to say a few words of the general effect of the ruins in a picturesque point of view. From several positions they make a grand and noble appearance, more particularly on the eastern side, where the towers of the portal range in a commanding line with those at the angles…In the evening, when the gleams of the setting sun are seen darting through the ruined casements and narrow loop holes, whilst the main body of the ruins remains involved in deep shade, the effect of the scene is more than usually impressive.’
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.
Writing to his daughter Alicia in May 1747, Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin, County Roscommon described the new residence he was then building: ‘The Scaffolding is all down, and the House almost pointed, and It’s figure is vastly more beautifull than I expected it would be. Conceited people may censure its plainess. But I don’t wish it any further ornament than it has. As far as I can yet judge, the inside will be very commodious and comfortable.’ He had to wait a further two years to find out whether or not this was the case, but finally in early June 1749 was finally able to advise Alicia, ‘The House is as dry as you could wish. I lay last night as well and as Warm as ever I did in my life, and quite free from the only nuisance I fear’d, the smell of paint and am, I bless God, as well to day, as I was, when I wrote from Palmer’s…’ The design of the Bishop’s Palace at Elphin is attributed to Dublin architect Michael Wills, not least because a ‘Mr Wills’ is frequently mentioned in Synge’s correspondence in relation to the house’s construction. Very much in the Irish Palladian mode, it consisted of a three-storey, east-facing central block, its first-floor Venetian window of the same style and proportions as the main entrance below: quadrants linked this building to wings on either side. Unfortunately the main block was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1911 and subsequently demolished, leaving the quadrants and wings on either side looking rather lost. In recent years, the south wing as been restored as a family residence. However, its match to the north is a ruin with a bungalow built immediately in front, making the site look even more lop-sided.
The only remaining evidence of Ashfort, County Roscommon: its entrance gates, beyond which it is best not to venture. The estate formerly belonged to the Waldron family whose residence stood on raised ground behind the trees to the right. It was long-since demolished, and the lodge here is now used to house animal feed. Sic transit…
This week the Irish Aesthete marks its fourth anniversary. It is remarkable that an initiative started almost on a whim has continued for such a long period, and looks set to carry on doing so. The need to find ‘fresh’ (albeit old) material for this thrice-weekly site has encouraged me to take greater interest in, and investigation of, this country’s architectural heritage, providing opportunities to return to old favourites as well as abundant chances to explore other sites hitherto overlooked, at least by myself. There continues to be no shortage of places to visit, photograph (with mixed results) and write about. Sometimes the outcome is a feeling of despondency, but just as often one comes away elated, thrilled to learn there are people across Ireland who care passionately for the preservation of our country’s tangible history and are actively ensuring it has a viable, vibrant future. Such is the case with the house shown today.
Rush Hill, County Roscommon featured not long after the Irish Aesthete began (see The Folks Who Live at Rush Hill, November 12th 2012) and after an absence of almost four years was recently revisited. Listed as one of the four ‘gentlemen’s seats’ in the area in Samuel Lewis’s 1837 Topographical Dictionary of Ireland it is the only one remaining. The core of the house dates from c.1700 and until almost the end of the 19th century it was the residence for successive generations of the same family of tenant farmers. A fire which broke out not long after it was taken on by another family resulted in a programme of rebuilding and augmentation, as can be seen by the ground floor bay windows. But much of the building would look familiar to earlier occupants, especially after the under the care of its present owners. Rush Hill’s renewal has been a gradual process, one by no means complete. It was fascinating to see how much more had been accomplished over the past four years, and to hear of intended work during the years to come. Thanks to such care the house looks as though it will continue to serve as a ‘gentleman’s seat’ long into the future.
The Irish Aesthete rather too often focusses on ruins, so it is a delight to feature a building which, prior to being taken on by the present owners, seemed destined to go the way of so many others in this country. One looks forward to reporting more such stories; please feel free to get in touch if you know of any. This site is always looking for further material, and welcomes your thoughts, comments and – provided politely phrased – criticisms and corrections. There are many plans for the year ahead, including expansion into other areas and media. In the meantime, please continue to follow the Irish Aesthete not just here but also on Facebook (TheIrishAesthete) Twitter (@IrishAesthete) and Instagram (the.irish.aesthete). And thank you as always to friends and followers for your kind words and encouragement, these are very much appreciated.