Thinking Big


The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar was one of the Christian military orders established in Europe during the period of the Crusades, its ostensible function being to protect pilgrims visiting sacred sites in the Middle East. Established at the start of the 12th century, the order quickly grew in prestige, power and wealth, and established a presence in Ireland following the arrival of the Normans here. It soon acquired extensive estates in the country, although these were predominantly in the east and south, where Norman power was most effective. The Templars’ most westerly settlement was some twelve miles south of the port of Sligo where they built a castle. As is well known, at the start of the 14th century, Philip the Fair of France, who was by then heavily indebted to the Knights Templar, resolved to destroy their power – and therefore their financial hold on him – by taking advantage of the papacy then being resident in Avignon. Accordingly he leveled a series of charges against the order, including idolatry and homosexuality, which led to pope Clement V dissolving the Templars in 1312. Everywhere they had held land it then passed into the hands the relevant secular authority. In Ireland, while ostensibly the crown or another chivalric order benefitted from this unexpected property windfall, in practice a dominant local family was often able to seize control of the territory. This happened in County Sligo where the land formerly owned by the Knights Templar came into the hands of the O’Haras. They built a new castle here around 1360. In the 16th century the same lands, along with much more beside, were acquired by John Crofton, who had come here in 1565 with Sir Henry Sidney following the latter’s appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland.





In 1665 Mary Crofton, great-granddaughter of John Crofton, married George Perceval, whose family had likewise come to have large property interests in Ireland. He was a younger son, but his wife Mary an heiress and so the estate once owned by the Knights Templar passed to the couple’s descendants who live there still. Originally they lived in the old castle which had been converted into a domestic residence in 1627, although then besieged and badly damaged in 1641. Repairs undertaken and extensions added, it served as a dwelling house for the Percevals over the next century. Then in the 1760s a new house was erected close by, the servants occupying the former residence. In 1825 Lt-Col. Alexander Perceval decided to embark on building afresh, this time on higher ground and in smart neo-classical taste. The architect responsible unknown, it forms the core of the present Temple House. The opening decades of the 19th century saw extensive building and rebuilding of country houses in Ireland, their owners having little idea of the catastrophe that was shortly to befall the country. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Percevals did their best to assist tenants on the Temple estate, the colonel’s wife Jane dying in January 1847 of ‘famine fever’ but not before leaving instructions ‘not to neglect the tenant families between my death and my funeral.’ Like so many other landowners, the Percevals were effectively ruined in the aftermath of the famine, and following the colonel’s death in December 1848 they were obliged to put the Temple estate up for sale.





The new owners of Temple, unlike their predecessors, showed little interest in the welfare of the tenants and embarked on a policy of evictions and land clearance. However, Alexander Perceval, youngest son of the old colonel, had made his fortune in the Far East, rising to become Taipan of Jardine Matheson and first chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. In the early 1860s he bought back the Temple estate where he not only paid for a number of evicted families to return to their former homes, but also decided to enlarge the house built by his father. Three times the size of what it had been before, the building was designed by the London firm of Johnstone & Jeanes (and their only Irish commission) and looks not unlike a splendid gentleman’s club, its rooms all with high ceilings and bright interiors lit by expanses of plate glass windows. At the centre of the building rises a palatial staircase leading to equally vast bedrooms (one of which is known as the ‘half acre’). The exterior was all clad in crisply cut limestone, the entrance moved from the east to the north front where access is via an impressive porte-cochère. Temple House exudes abundant confidence and authority, and indicates that Alexander Perceval expected to enjoy his family estate for many years. It was not to be: in 1866 he caught sunstroke while fishing in the lake in front of the house and died aged 44, leaving a widow and young family. Despite this and subsequent setbacks – not least the death of the next male heir only two years after the birth of his son – the family managed to hold onto the regained estate and live there still. Having inherited their forebear’s entrepreneurial skills, the present generation of Percevals run a successful business providing country house accommodation at Temple House.


For more information on Temple House, see http://www.templehouse.ie

On the Tiles


Tiles on the entrance hall floor of Temple House, County Sligo. The original early 19th century house here was greatly enlarged and embellished c.1860 for Alexander Perceval who employed the firm of Johnstone & Jeanes. Based at 67 New Bond Street, London the company was better known for its furniture (of which many examples remain in the house) than as an architectural practice: this appears to be the only instance of its work in Ireland.

Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata*

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It was Mariga Guinness who first told me many years ago of a wondrous Palladian house in the north-west of Ireland, directly behind which had been built an immense factory. The tale sounded quite improbable – and Mariga was on occasion inclined to exaggeration for effect – but indeed such was, and remains, the case: step outside Hazelwood, County Sligo and you are confronted by the sprawling spectacle of a now-abandoned industrial complex.
Situated on a peninsula barely two miles beyond Sligo town, Hazelwood occupies, or at least ought to occupy, an enchanting location. The entrance front looks north across a long plain of pasture towards the mass of that geological curiosity Ben Bulben, while to the rear the ground descended through a series of terraces and thereafter an opening in the ancient woodland to close on the shores of Lough Gill. It is easy to see why the Williamite soldier Lieutenant-General Owen Wynne, whose family’s Welsh origins are indicated by his first name, should have chosen this spot on which to build a new residence following the purchase of some 14,500 acres in the area in 1722. Nine years later he employed the architect Richard Castle, then much in demand, to design the house which, despite dreadful mistreatment, has somehow survived to this day.

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Even in its present degraded condition, the house has a magisterial authority. Hazelwood is typical of the Palladian style fashionable in Ireland at the time of its construction. The ashlar-fronted central block, of three storeys over basement, is joined by arcaded quadrants to two storey wings. Above the north front’s pedimented entrance (inset with a carving of the family’s coat of arms) there is a splendid glazed aedicule with Ionic columns and pilasters and flanked by round-headed niches, while the south front boldly proposes a Venetian door below a Venetian window. The building’s sense of significance is increased by both entrances being accessed by sweeping flights of steps.
The interiors must have been similarly superlative, since even after many years of neglect enough of their decoration remains to indicate the original appearance. The main entrance hall has recessed arches on its walls above which hang plasterwork swags, and a deep dentilled cornice. A central doorway leads into the south-facing library which contains similar ornamentation and from here one passes into a succession of other reception rooms. Upstairs is equally splendid: a massive staircase hall leads, via a deep coved archway, into the first floor landing the ceiling of which is open to the galleried second storey, the whole series of spaces once lit by a glazed octagon. Most of the rooms have lost their original chimneypieces, replaced by others of a later fashion since the Wynnes were not averse to making alterations, some less happy than others; a two-storey, three-bay bedroom extension on the south-west corner of the building dating from c.1870 for example fundamentally disrupts Castle’s meticulously planned symmetry. Still, whatever about the Wynne family’s modifications to their property, they were nothing to what would follow once Hazelwood passed into the hands of later owners.

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His son having predeceased him, in 1737 Lt Gen. Wynne left Hazelwood to a nephew also called Owen; indeed with one exception successive heads of the family bore the same first name. Owning not just the surrounding farmland but also much of Sligo town, the Wynnes were a dominant presence in the region. Still, if they were sometimes motivated by self-interest, successive generations were wise enough to know that keeping town and countryside economically vibrant would be to their advantage. In his 1802 statistical survey of Sligo, Dr James McParlan wrote of Hazelwood, ‘the more the soil of this demesne is unfriendly to agriculture and ungrateful, the more it reflects honour on the masterly exertions of Mr Wynne, who as a farmer stands unrivalled in this and perhaps in most counties of Ireland.’ The Wynnes were never absentee landlords, nor did they seek titles or honours and during the Great Famine in the 1840s they lowered their tenants’ rents. The last male Wynne to live at Hazelwood, Owen VI, died in 1910 leaving four daughters, the eldest of which had married a Perceval of nearby Temple House. She and her husband lived in Hazelwood until 1923 when they left the house, thus ending a family link going back two centuries.
Having stood empty for seven years, Hazelwood was acquired by a retired tea planter who carried out essential repairs before selling house and estate to two government bodies, the Forestry Department and the Land Commission. For those unfamiliar with its work, the latter organisation was charged with responsibility for breaking up estates throughout the country and dividing land into small (and as it subsequently proved economically unviable) plots for farmers. The Irish people have in the past shown themselves to be at best indifferent to and at worst disdainful of the country’s architectural heritage. But this is as nothing to how it was treated by the Land Commission which displayed an almost visceral hatred of fine buildings. So it was with Hazelwood. In 1946, after serving for some time as a military barracks, the house and immediate surrounds were offered for sale by the commission with the specific condition that the buyer must demolish the buildings, remove all materials and level the site. Somehow, days before the auction was due to be held, this stipulation was withdrawn and Hazelwood sold for use as a psychiatric hospital; it was shortly afterwards that the original staircase was taken out of the house.

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Worse was to come. In 1969 an Italian company called Snia which produced nylon yarn bought Hazelwood and built a factory for 500 employees. It would have been perfectly feasible for the business to have erected these premises on a site out of view of the old house and screened by trees, thus preserving the Arcadian parkland created by the Wynnes. Indeed one might have thought the relevant planning authorities in Sligo County Council would have insisted this be the case. But instead the factory, surrounded by an expanse of tarmac, went up just a couple of hundred yards to the rear of Hazelwood, thereby destroying the gardens and blocking the view of Lough Gill. In 1983 the business closed down and four years later the factory was sold to a South Korean company which produced video tapes; not surprisingly, given changes in digital technology, in 2005 it too went out of business.
The following year Hazelwood was sold to Foresthaze Developments, a consortium of predominantly local businessmen. In 2007 they applied for permission to build, amongst other structures, 158 detached houses and 54 apartments in four blocks (in their defence, they also intended to sweep away the factory). This application was refused by the local authority, belatedly waking up to an awareness of its responsibilities with regard to Sligo’s heritage. On the other hand the County Council, while since insisting the owners act to ensure Hazelwood’s roof be kept watertight, has not come up with any feasible proposal or practical help for the building’s future. In the meantime the members of Foresthaze Developments have become mired in litigation with each other; funds which might be spent on restoring the house are going instead on legal fees. A local group of hard-working enthusiasts (http://hazelwoodheritagesociety.ie) continues to campaign for the building’s preservation.
This really is a shabby tale in which state hostility and local authority apathy have conspired to ensure the worst possible outcome. Hazelwood is one of Ireland’s most important early 18th century houses and occupies an important place in the nation’s architectural pantheon. Given what has been allowed to happen over the past half-century, it is truly astonishing the main structure still stands. As a report in the Buildings of Ireland survey for Sligo observes, ‘In spite of abject neglect and inappropriate alteration, it is testimony to the quality of the building that it has survived relatively intact.’ But we should not take that survival for granted. Hazelwood’s condition has steadily deteriorated over recent harsh winters and unless serious remedial work takes place soon it will be lost forever, a further blot on Ireland’s already shameful record in this area.

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*For non-opera aficionados, the opening words of the eponymous heroine’s last act aria in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

A Clement Vision

These three small oil panels, each measuring just 15×20 cms, are from Clement McAleer’s current Coastal Series. McAleer (b.1949) is one of the artists breathing new life into that potentially moribund genre: Irish landscape painting. His work manages to be both meditative and emotional since, as has been noted, he is concerned not so much with capturing the specifics of place ‘but rather the restless, shifting aspects of nature where cloud or water, land or sea transform themselves atmospherically, one into another.’
On Thursday evening I shall be opening an exhibition of Clement McAleer’s new work at the Hamilton Gallery, Castle Street, Sligo; the show continues until December 1st.