This weekend, it is announced that the latest recipient of the Historic Houses of Ireland/O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize is Clonalis, County Roscommon. Today home to the 27th generation of the O’Conor family since their forebear was the last High King of Ireland in the 12th century, the present house at Clonalis dates from the late 1870s but occupies a site associated with the O’Conors for hundreds of years, and is filled with historic material linking them with significant events in this country. The library, for example, contains over 7,000 volumes and is one of the finest such collections in Ireland.
The Historic Houses of Ireland/O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize is an initiative devised by the Irish Aesthete to acknowledge the importance of our privately-owned heritage properties and to recognise the invaluable work by their owners. For this reason, the prize is being presented in association with Historic Houses of Ireland, a charity established in 2008 to promote the immediate and long-term future of the country’s privately owned historic properties. All HHI members are owners of such buildings and they understand better than anyone the sector’s particular problems, especially over the past year. Worth €5,000 and adjudicated by a small group of assessors, the prize is generously sponsored by the O’Flynn Group has already shown itself keenly aware of the importance of providing a viable future for historic buildings, as can be seen in the company’s own redevelopment of the early 19th century former barracks site in Ballincollig, County Cork. The Irish Aesthete congratulates Clonalis and its owners on being very worthy recipients of the prize.
Yes, it is painted a rather lurid yellow (and the cut limestone quoins also given a coat of paint). Yes, uPVC windows have replaced the originals. Yes, the extension to one side is rather unfortunate. But at least it is still standing and occupied. This is the octagonal Errironagh Lodge, County Roscommon, originally standing by one of the entrances to the Rockingham estate. The building may have been designed by John Nash (responsible for the main house) or by Humphrey Repton, to whom other such ancillary buildings at Rockingham are attributed. Regardless of who was the architect, the lodge’s unusual shape distinguishes it from anything else in the vicinity.
In the second decade of the 19th century, a new Church of Ireland church dedicated to the Holy Trinity was built in Castlerea, County Roscommon with the aid of a grant from the Board of First Fruits. Replacing an older building which had hitherto been used for services, the second Holy Trinity opened for services in 1819 when the local doctor, Thomas Wills Wilde (grandfather of Oscar Wilde) acted as the Church Warden. Later Douglas Hyde, whose father was a clergyman, would be baptised here. The building is of standard design for the period, of cruciform shape with a two-bay nave and a three-storey entrance tower at the west end. It closed for worship in late December 1997 and then stood empty for many years before being rescued by a local voluntary group who restored the premises for use as a multi-purpose arts and community centre: the group is currently running a gofundme page to ensure the property can continue to serve this purpose. It might also like to consider raising money to landscape the immediate surrounds, because at the moment this rather already somewhat bleak, cement-rendered building sits in an unappetising ocean of tarmacadam and gravel.
The remains of the early 18th church of the Holy Trinity in Castlerea, County Roscommon. This building, and surrounding graveyard, stand in what had been part of the demesne owned by the Sandfords, who owned much of the land in this part of the country. The church ruins are notable for an exceptionally fine limestone Venetian window set into the building’s east gable. The graveyard is the burial place of Oscar Wilde’s grandfather Dr Thomas Wills Wilde, who practised medicine in the town and whose father, Ralph Wilde, acted as land agent for Lord Mount Sandford. The church was abandoned in the early 19th century when a new one was built on higher ground in the town.
The Rathdiveen or ‘Tiara’ gate lodge stands at what was once another of the entrances to Rockingham, County Roscommon. Dating from c.1810 like many other buildings on the estate, this one is believed to have been designed by John Nash, the architect of the main house, but it has also been attributed to Humphrey Repton with whom Nash had earlier worked. However, since the two men had famously fallen out and ended their partnership in 1800, a link with Repton seems highly unlikely. The lodge’s most distinctive feature is a highly-distinctive bowed pediment reminiscent of a tiara which rises above a Doric colonnaded portico: the facade’s frieze echoes that found on the adjacent gate posts. Unfortunately, some years ago the latter were moved during road-widening works and not correctly realigned, thereby disrupting the symmetry of the entrance. Nevertheless, the lodge itself has been well-maintained by private owners, a contrast with the poor condition of the lodge shown here a few days ago which is in public ownership.
The two-storey gatehouse which formerly provided the main entrance to the Rockingham estate in County Roscommon; this building, like most of the others here, was commissioned by Robert King, first Viscount Lorton from architect John Nash. The gatehouse, however, is not in the classical idiom employed elsewhere at Rockingham but instead is an exercise in Tudorbethan Gothic with a crenellated parapet and pointed-arch windows, sandstone used for the main body of the building and limestone for the dressings. For the past half century this part of the former estate has been in public ownership, jointly managed by the local authority and Coillte. It might therefore have been thought that the historic buildings under their care would be decently maintained, but instead the gatelodge, under which many visitors pass as they arrive at the site, has been allowed to fall into neglect; hardly an impressive introduction to the place. Instead of being left in its present condition, the building ought to be restored, and could repay investment by being offered for holiday lets.
Killaster is – or rather, could be – a particularly good example of Irish rural vernacular architecture. A sturdy, three-bay, gable-ended farmhouse, it probably dates from the early years of the 19th century when many such properties were erected. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation of this part of the country in 1857, the house, valued at £4, together with 100 acres were being rented by one Patrick Coyne from Denis O’Conor who lived a little further north on a property called Mount Druid. Today Killaster, along with is fine yard to the rear, stands empty.
‘Inver House embodied one of those large gestures of the minds of the earlier Irish architects, some of which still stand to justify Ireland’s claim to be a civilised country. It was a big, solemn, square house of three stories, built of cut stone, grandly planned, facing west in two immense sweeping curves, with a high-pillared portico between them and stone balustrades around the roof.’
‘The high windows of the great room were bare of blinds and curtains, and the hot afternoon sun beat in unchecked. It was a corner room, looking south towards the demesne, and its longer western side was built out in a wide, shallow curve, with two massive pillars of green Galway marble marking at either end the spring of the curve, and supporting a heavy gilt cornice above the broad window.’
‘Everything that had survived of the original conception of the room, the heavy, tall teak doors, with their carved architraves and brass furniture, the huge, brass-mounted fireplace, the high mantelpiece of many coloured marbles, chipped and defaced, but still beautiful, the gorgeous deep-moulded ceiling that Lady Isabella’s Italian workmen had made for her, from the centre of which the wreck of a cut-glass chandelier still hung, all told of the happy conjunction of art and wealth, and of a generous taste that would make the best of both. But a cursory glance would show how long past were the glories of a great room.’
The above passages are taken from Somerville & Ross’s The Big House of Inver, published in 1925, and while their descriptions of Inver are not an exact match, nonetheless in spirit they seem to capture what one can see, and feel, at Scregg, County Roscommon. Dating from the mid-18th century, the house and surrounding land has for hundreds of years belonged to a branch of the ancient Irish Kelly family and was occupied until the 1980s but has since stood empty. How little in some ways has Ireland changed since the time of Somerville & Ross.
A week ago, this site explored the old house at Clonalis, County Roscommon and explained why in the last quarter of the 19th century it was abandoned for another residence elsewhere on the property. The branch of the ancient O’Conor family who still live here moved to Clonalis exactly 200 years ago, in 1820; prior to that they had been living elsewhere in the county. As mentioned, by the early 1700s the great O’Conors had been brought low, a consequence of their support over previous decades for the Roman Catholic and Jacobite causes, and the harsh penalties duly imposed on them. The head of this branch, Denis O’Conor, was known as ‘The Heir to Nothing’ as all his ancestral lands had been taken from him; supposedly he advised his own children never to be impudent to the poor because, ‘I was the son of a gentleman but you are the sons of a ploughman.’ In 1720, aided by his uncle, Counsellor Terence McDonagh he won a case in the Dublin courts that restored him a portion – 500 acres – of his patrimony. According to family tradition, he was so poor that he had to walk to the capital barefoot. On this parcel of land at Ballinagare, he built a new house for himself; until then, he had been living in a mud hut in County Sligo. This house became a home for Denis O’Conor’s extended family, including his mother-in-law, Countess Isabella O’Rorke who had been a Maid of Honour at the court of the exiled James II in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and his maternal uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, former Chaplain to Prince Eugene of Savoy but by then the fugitive Catholic Bishop of Killala. The house also became a centre for anyone who espoused the old Gaelic culture, not least the period’s most famous bard and harpist Turlough Carolan who composed airs in honour of Denis O’Conor, his wife Maire, and their son Charles. A harp used by Carolan is still kept at Clonalis, along with the chalice of Bishop Thadeus O’Rorke his pectoral cross, liturgical vestments and an Episcopal ring presented to him by Prince Eugene.
Charles O’Conor was born in 1710, ten years before his father Denis won the court case and was able to move the family to Ballinagare. Having already been educated by a Franciscan friar through the medium of Irish and Latin, in adolescence he was taught by his uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, before spending time in Dublin where he was taught mathematics, science and French by another Catholic clergyman. In 1731, he married Catherine O’Fagan who brought sufficient fortune with her to allow the couple establish their own household and here he devoted his time to the study of Ireland’s ancient history and culture, paying particular attention to all available original sources, aided by his fluency in both Irish and Latin. He also read all the leading contemporary writers in English and French. Throughout his life he collected, and annotated, Irish manuscripts and in 1753 published the work for which he remains best-remembered, Dissertations on the Antient History of Ireland which, thanks to its rigorous scholarship brought him widespread acclaim, not least from Samuel Johnson who after reading the book wrote to its author, ‘I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.’
Like his forebears, he remained a devout Roman Catholic, which at the time had its drawbacks. Conscious of the disadvantages suffered at the time by fellow-members of the same faith, along with historian John Curry, in 1757 he was one of the founders of the Catholic Committee, an organization campaigning for the repeal of the Penal Laws. He experienced the hazards of this legislation in 1777 when one of his younger brothers, Hugh O’Conor, conformed to the Established Church and filed a bill in chancery ‘for obtaining possession of the lands of Belanagare as its first protestant discoverer.’ Long litigation followed, ending only after the threat was seen off by the payment of a large financial settlement.
Following the death of his father Denis in 1749, Charles O’Conor moved to the house at Ballinagare and lived there until 1760 when he handed over the property to his eldest son (another Denis). Then he, moved to a smaller residence which he built and called the Hermitage. The latter still stands, albeit in somewhat precarious condition, but the former has fallen into ruin; this likely occurred after 1820 when Charles O’Conor’s grandson, Owen, moved to Clonalis. What remains are the façade and portions of the walls behind; these are believed to incorporate masonry taken from a late-medieval tower house constructed by an earlier generation of O’Conors. Faced in cut limestone, the entrance front is relatively modest, of three bays and one storey over raised basement, with a single storey extension to one side; a pediment incorporating a single arched window rises above the entablature. Dating from the 1720s, the house was intentionally given this diminutive appearance so as not to draw too much attention to its owners but it must have extended in both depth and possibly width to the rear since the number of occupants – members of the O’Conor family and their servants – is known to have been substantial. The entire interior has gone, as has the back wall, making it impossible to judge how the building looked when still occupied. The same is not true of Charles O’Conor’s second residence, the Hermitage which, as mentioned, still stands This modest house, just one room deep, is of two storeys and three bays, with an extension to the rear accommodating the staircase return. An adjacent yard would have held stables and coach house as well as rooms for the servants. Inside, it is still possible to see some of the decoration in both dining and drawing rooms, and entrance hall but the stairs are now too precarious to risk ascent to the first floor. The house was occupied until at least the middle of the last century, but a bungalow was subsequently constructed immediately in front, since when the older building has been used as a storage space, the ground floor windows enlarged to allow vehicular access. Its future must be considered precarious. Charles O’Conor was one of Ireland’s foremost scholars in the 18th century, and through his writings did much to preserve and disseminate evidence of this country’s ancient, and then-imperiled, culture. Almost thirty years ago, Seamus Deane described O’Conor as ‘one of the disregarded but very important figures of Irish history.’ The neglect of the buildings associated with him demonstrates little has changed in the interim.
Monday’s post about the former house at Clonalis, County Roscommon included a photograph of the building when still intact. That image showed much of the facade covered in ivy, but another, and clearer, picture has now been found which shows the same view with much less vegetation. What’s especially interesting is that above each of the windows and niches on ground and first floors there was a carved stone mask. Thankfully, some of these were salvaged and are now kept in the new Clonalis but they are a curious feature. The only other example of this kind of external decoration that comes to mind are the masks above the windows on the central section of the entrance front at Gloster, County Offaly, which also dates from the early 18th century. Does anyone know of other instances?