The façade of Slane Castle, County Meath. This dates from c.1785 for William Burton Conyngham who four years earlier had inherited the estate from a childless uncle. In 1773 and 1775 the latter had asked English architect James Wyatt to come up with designs to replace an old house on the site but nothing came of these. Only after Burton Conyngham came into possession of the place were Wyatt’s proposals realised (James Gandon having previously been consulted). Writing in 1820 Francis Johnston (who later worked on the house’s interiors), Wyatt visited Slane in 1785 ‘for that purpose.’ If this is so, it was the only time he actually came to Ireland, despite having many clients here.
There are always a certain number of country houses on the market in Ireland and such occasions provide an opportunity to inspect properties not otherwise open to the public. At the moment, among the most interesting places for sale is Seafield, located some ten miles north of Dublin. Enjoying the benefits of excellent land and proximity to the capital, this area of the country underwent extensive development in the opening decades of the 18th century. Seafield was constructed during this period: although its precise date is unknown, some time around 1730 is usually proposed. The original owner was one Benedict Arthur, whose family had previously lived in what is now the suburb of Cabra. The Arthurs appear to have remained at Seafield at least for much of the 18th century, but by 1834 it formed part of the inheritance of Sophia Synge-Hutchinson Synge, daughter of the Rev. Sir Samuel Synge-Hutchinson. In that year she married a cousin, the Hon Coote Hely-Hutchinson and the property continued to be occupied by their descendants for the next century. During this period a large extension was added to the east side of the original house; it concludes in a four-storey Italianate tower. Seafield has been occupied by the vendors for more than twenty years.
Some discussion has taken place about who may have been the architect of Seafield. In design it is certainly indebted to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce (who died in 1733) but whether he had a direct hand in the work remains open to question. The exterior is like an Italian villa, particularly thanks to the two-storey granite pedimented Doric portico in antis approached by a flight of steps. Partly inside and partly outside the wall line, it dominates the south-facing facade of seven bays and three storeys over basement. The attic floor has three hip roofs which are echoed by the same number of gables to the rear of the building. The balustrading at the top of the building is presumably 19th century, like the plate glass that now fills all the windows but other elements like the rusticated surrounds on the ground floor windows and the quoins on the corners of the house are presumably original. According to Maurice Craig, ‘slight awkwardness in the handling’ of some features discourages an attribution to Pearce. ‘It is, even so, certain that Seafield is a building of the Pearce school, and even possible that the design was outlined by him and executed by someone else.’
Internally, the most striking feature of the house is its entrance hall which runs the full depth of the building and rises two storeys. This space looks much as it did when photographed by the first Irish Georgian Society for the fifth volume of its Records of Eighteenth Century Architecture and Decoration in Dublin, published in 1913. The walls are lined with superimposed fluted Ionic and Doric pilasters, and the spaces between them filled with grisaille classical figures somewhat in the style, although not from the hand, of Peter de Gree (who only came to Ireland in 1785, dying in Dublin just four years later). There are more such figures on the upper portion of the hall but also a number of gilt-framed canvases featuring polychromatic classical figures: it would appear these were a later addition to the decorative scheme. A gallery runs along this part of the space, providing access to the bedrooms in the eastern side of the building. The gallery is reached via a small staircase at the back of the hall: the greater part of the ground floor on this side of the house is occupied by the drawing room (shown in use as a dining room in the 1913 photograph). It has a richly decorated cornice and frieze and around the panelled walls runs a series of fluted Corinthian columns: here, as elsewhere, the original chimneypieces have long since been replaced. Across the hall are two more reception rooms, that to the rear (at present the dining room), also having panelled walls and fluted Corinthian pilasters. Another feature here is a pair of imaginary landscapes painted directly onto the panels over the doors, something of a rarity in Ireland. Not unlike Bellamont Forest in County Cavan (which can with more confidence be credited to Pearce) Seafield seems designed for use as an occasional villa rather than a full-time residence (there are, for example, only four bedrooms in the 18th century section of the house). It would have served as an ideal rural retreat from the bustle of Dublin life. So many similar historic houses in the greater Dublin area have been lost that its survival is remarkable. One hopes the new owners, whoever they might be, will appreciate the importance of this property.
The former Roman Catholic church in Killyon, County Meath. The building is believed to have been built c.1820 by Fr Laurence Shaw, last of a long line of Dominican friars who had served the community for many centuries in this part of the country. In other words, it predates the Repeal of the final Penal Laws at the end of the decade, which helps to explain the building’s simple T-shape form. It was used for services until the late 1950s when a new church was constructed on the opposite side of the road to the design of architect James Fehily; ironically this church is now undergoing extensive restoration. Meanwhile the older building, which seems to have served other purposes in subsequent decades, is swiftly falling into ruin. With it crumbles part of the area’s history.
Famously described by John Betjeman as the largest pyramid tomb ‘beyond the banks of the Nile, this is the extraordinary Howard Mausoleum, County Wicklow. Clad in granite, the monument’s exterior has a square base six feet high after which it rises to a peak some thirty feet above the ground. The mausoleum was erected Ralph Howard of nearby Shelton (later Shelton Abbey) in 1785, the year in which he was created first Viscount Wicklow: his widow would later be made Countess of Wicklow, the couple’s descendants thereafter being Earls until the death of the ninth holder of the title without heirs. The design is attributed to English-born stonemason and sculptor Simon Vierpyl who had moved to Ireland almost thirty years earlier at the request of the Earl of Charlemont: Vierpyl was placed in charge of the building of Charlemont’s casino at Marino, Dublin designed by Sir William Chambers. Why a pyramid was chosen is unknown but even odder is another tomb to the immediate north and on lower ground. This was erected by another branch of the Howard family and takes the form of an entrance to an Egyptian temple.
Once prominent in the East Muskerry region of County Cork, the Long family is believed to be descended from a branch of the Ui Eachach. By the late Mediaeval period, their base was at Canovee, otherwise called Cannaway, and often referred to as an island since so much of the area is surrounded by water, with the river Lee to the immediate north, north-east and north-west, the river Kame and one of its tributaries to the east and another stream to the west. The Civil Survey of the Barony of Muskerry conducted in 1656 lists a great deal of the land around here as having belonged to ‘John Long of Mount Long, Irish Papist (deceased).’ This John Long was the son of Dr Thomas Long, a doctor of civil and canon law who had evidently prospered since he was able to acquire land elsewhere in County Cork, specifically to the south overlooking Oysterhaven Creek. Here in 1631 John Long embarked on building himself a new residence, named Mount Long.
At the time of its construction Mount Long’s design would have embodied contemporary architectural trends. By this date, Irish domestic dwellings were no longer being built as tower houses but, in misplaced expectation of future peace, as fortified manors. As Stephen Byrne writes, the building ‘exemplifies the new style. Its proportions and detailing, including large mullioned windows, mark the transition from dimly-lit towerhouses with an overt defensive capability to properties boasting comfortable well-lit rooms and a modicum of fortification.’ Of three storeys and three bays on every side, Mount Long features a near-square flanker tower at each of its four corners, a feature borrowed from English architecture and intended to increase both the amount of accommodation and the quantity of light, aided by those aforementioned abundant mullioned windows. Obviously these left the building more vulnerable to attack and the presence of gun loops on the exterior walls indicates this was still deemed a threat. The elevations are notable for their then-fashionable gables: originally twenty in number, today just twelve survive. The present state of the building makes it difficult to understand how the interior looked, or the layout of rooms, not even a chimneypiece remaining. As late as 1907 architect James Franklin Fuller could write that cornices survived ‘with figures representing scriptural subjects and fieldsports’ but these can no longer be seen.
John Long only enjoyed his smart new residence for a very short time. 1641 saw the start of what would become known as the Confederate Wars, in which Long and his two sons took the side of the Roman Catholic forces. They established a camp not far away near Belgooly but the following spring were defeated close to Bandon. Taken prisoner, Long was convicted of treason and hanged. It is said that, knowing his fate, he sent a message to his daughter at Mount Long in 1643 telling her to burn the house in order to stop it falling into enemy hands. Whether true or not, the building was certainly consumed by fire at some date: extant lintels over doors and windows still show evidence of scorch marks. Despite post-Restoration efforts by John Long’s heirs to regain their property, Mount Long was granted to the Busteed family who built another house on higher ground close by. Mount Long fell into dereliction and is now a ruin. The west wall has entirely collapsed, along with most of the towers on either end, but the other three sides still stand, albeit in a somewhat precarious state. With just twelve years between its construction and destruction Mount Long reminds us that owing to changed circumstances buildings can sometimes have very brief lives.
Mount Long is the October Building of the Month on www.buildingsofireland with an accompanying text written by Stephen Byrne.
On Bishop Street in Ballyshannon, County Donegal stands the now-ruinous ‘Shell House.’ Dating from c.1880, the building’s name derives from the decoration of its façade, probably applied in the middle of the last century. The greater part of the surface has been covered with a mixture of shells and small pieces of broken china arranged in geometrical patterns. This appears to have been inspired by the grander shell houses and follies created in the 18th century and found on estates like Carton, County Kildare and Curraghmore, County Waterford. Sadly this example of vernacular embellishment is now in poor repair and sections of the ornamentation have already been lost: the rest is sure to follow soon.
A fortnight ago the BBC reported that the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland had spent almost £400,000 maintaining an equestrian centre in County Fermanagh that it stopped using four years ago. ‘The Necarne Estate in Irvinestown has been lying empty since equine courses were moved to Enniskillen. In 2012, the department said Necarne had become surplus to its requirements. But it had signed a 25-year lease for £500,000 that runs until 2023 without an early opt-out clause.’ At the centre of this property, which runs to 228 acres, are the remains of a residence called Castle Irvine.
Castle Irvine, sometimes known as Necarne Castle, was originally built around 1618-19 by a Scottish settler called Gerard Lowther: given the uneasy times, the four-storey rectangular building was defensive in appearance, with walls seventeen feet thick and two towers to the rear. The castle and surrounding lands were subsequently acquired by another Scottish settler Christopher Irvine whose descendants remained there until the last century. In 1788 Major Gorges Irvine married the Meath-born heiress Elizabeth D’Arcy, after which the family was known as D’Arcy-Irvine. Thanks to this injection of money, the castle underwent a major overhaul in the first half of the 1830s, the architect responsible being John Benjamin Keane, former assistant to Sir Richard Morrison. Perhaps for this reason the appearance of Castle Irvine bears some similarities to that of Borris, County Carlow which had been revamped some years earlier by Morrison in the same Tudor-Gothic idiom. A new range was added in front of the old castle, of five bays with an arcaded central porch and octagonal turrets at the corners. Further towers and crenellations were scattered liberally elsewhere, so that the whole building became an elaborate gothic fantasy. However, again like Borris, while the exterior of Castle Irvine was in one style, the interiors adopted another, being strictly classical. The entrance hall, for example, was flanked by red scagliola columms with Corinthian columns (once more the entrance hall of Borris is called to mind).
In 1922 Major Charles Cockburn D’Arcy-Irvine gave up living at Castle Irvine: his son Captain Charles William D’Arcy-Irvine had been killed in the Dardanelles seven years earlier. In 1925 a Captain Richard Outram Hermon from Sussex bought the castle and estate and lived there with his own family until the outbreak of the Second World War. During the subsequent period it was used as a military hospital by British and American forces but thereafter Castle Irvine was never occupied. Following Captain Hermon’s death in 1976 the estate was put up for sale and bought first by a local entrepreneur who had developed several other hotels in the Fermanagh region. However, in 1987 Castle Irvine was acquired by the local District Council for about £300,000, after which the same authority spent some £4 million developing equestrian facilities on the site including a 300-seat indoor arena, 80 stables, 16 bedrooms, two dressage arenas, and courses for cross-country, point-to-point and steeplechase. Ultimately this ambitious project came to a premature end, although it continues to cost the NI Department of Agriculture money every year. Throughout this time no funds were spent on the old castle, which despite being a listed building in the care of the council, has deteriorated to the point where it is now just a shell: as one of the authority’s officials told the BBC, ‘Unfortunately a use for the castle has not been found and it would take a very serious amount of money to put it back together.’ It is hard to imagine who might now want to spend such money for what has become a large and derelict white elephant.
As some readers will be aware, over the last weekend two 18th century houses in Ireland suffered catastrophic and irreversible damage due to fire. Although in different parts of the country, what linked these two buildings was their connections to George Washington. Belcamp, on the outskirts of Dublin, dates from the mid-1780s when it was constructed by Sir Edward Newenham, a member of the Irish Parliament and ardent supporter of the American Revolution. In homage to which, he subsequently incorporated into his new residence an oval room modelled on that in the White House (itself designed by Irishman James Hoban in 1792). Furthermore in the grounds of Belcamp Newenham erected a miniature fort, the Washington Tower, built in honour and during the lifetime of the first President of the United States – and the first such monument erected to him anywhere.
Vernon Mount, County Cork has been discussed in detail here before (see Mounting Concern, January 14th 2013): its name is an obvious homage to Washington’s own home in Virginia, Mount Vernon. Contemporaneous with Belcamp, the house stands to the south of Cork city on a raised site with panoramic views over the Lee valley. Highly unusual in design – being a two-storey over basement villa, the curved entrance front having symmetrical convex bows on either side – Vernon Mount was likely designed by local architect Abraham Hargrave for Atwell Hayes a prosperous merchant involved in brewing, milling and glass manufacture. A particular feature of the house were its painted interiors by Nathaniel Grogan the elder who had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to his native city. Here he was commissioned to work on the decoration of Vernon Mount, including a ceiling painting on canvas in the drawing room. Within an octagonal frame, this depicted Minerva Throwing Away the Spears of War, a reference perhaps to the cessation of hostilities at the end of the American War of Independence. Around the central work were a series of lozenge-shaped panels and roundels featuring floral motifs, angels and centaurs. Meanwhile on the first floor, reached by a splendid cantilevered stone staircase with neo-classical wrought-iron balustrade, the oval upper landing was painted with eight marblised Corinthian columns interspersed with seven doors, each having a tromp l’oeil niche ‘containing’ classical statues and urns; these doors led to the house’s bedrooms and a concealed service staircase.
Both Belcamp and Vernon Mount have been allowed to stand empty for more than a decade, victims of the elements and of vandalism, since neither building was sufficiently maintained nor safeguarded. Now both are effectively ruins, with next to nothing left to salvage. In the year of a Presidential election on the other side of the Atlantic, one wonders how must our American friends view the way in which we Irish have allowed these historic links with one of their founding fathers to be squandered. The connection with George Washington ought to have been cherished and honoured, not least as a means of showing this country’s long-held belief in independence and self-government. Imagine how much the restoration of both buildings could have demonstrated the shared cultural values of our two countries: it must be asked why did not government, tourism bodies and others with a stake in promoting the state’s interests recognise so obvious an opportunity. Equally the relevant local authorities in both instances had the legal right to intervene and ensure the buildings were looked after and not allowed to fall into dereliction. Neither chose to exercise their legislative obligations and instead stood by while Belcamp and Vernon Mount slipped further and further into a pitiful condition before finally succumbing to fire. As an indictment of our state’s inability to care for its own heritage, and to recognise its own interests, the fate of these two buildings would be hard to surpass.
Some 150 feet above the plains of County Laois rises an outcrop of limestone called the Rock of Dunamase (from the Irish Dún Másc meaning ‘fort of Másc’). On top of this are the remains of a once-substantial fortress, the origins of which have been discovered by archeological excavation to date back to the 9th century when a hill fort (or dún) was constructed on the site. This cannot have survived very long since Dunamase was attacked and pillaged by Vikings around the year 843-44. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, ‘Dun Masg was plundered by the foreigners, where Aedh, son of Dubdharchrich, Abbot of Tir-da-glas [modern Terryglass, County Tipperary] and Cluain-eidhnach, was taken prisoner; and they carried him into Munster, where he suffered martyrdom for the sake of God; and Ceithearnach, son of Cudinaisg, Prior of Cill-dara, with many others besides, was killed by them during the same plundering expedition.’ It would appear that as a result of this devastation, no further occupation of Dunamase occurred until the 12th century and the arrival of the Normans.
By the second half of the 12th century, Dunamase was evidently in the possession of Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster since it was given as part of his daughter Aoife’s dowry when she married Richard de Clare (‘Strongbow’) in 1171. Thereafter the site continued to pass through the female line for several generations: Aoife and Richard de Clare having no adult sons, their lands went to an only daughter Isabel de Clare who married William Marshall. None of their five sons outliving them, the lands were divided between five daughters, one of whom – Eva Marshall – married the Welsh March lord William de Braose. Once more this couple only had daughters, the second of whom Maud married Roger Mortimer; in the mid-1320s their grandson, another Roger, the first Earl of March, became the lover of Queen Isabella (the She-Wolf of France) and led the revolt against her husband Edward II. When the king’s son, Edward III, had Mortimer executed for treason in 1330, the family lost their Irish property and although it was later restored to them, by that stage Dunamase seems to have come under the control of the local O’Mores. In any case, by the middle of the 14th century it had begun to fall into a state of disrepair and although there are stories that Dunamase was destroyed by Cromwellian troops (as there are about almost every other dilapidated fortress in Ireland), it seems that by the time the latter came to Ireland in the mid-17th century the site had long since become uninhabitable. Some restoration work was undertaken towards the close of the 18th century by Sir John Parnell, Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and Lord of the Treasury (also great-grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell): he incorporated stone door and window cases from other local antiquarian sites into the upper portion of the old castle with the intention of creating a banqueting hall but the work remained incomplete and was abandoned after his death in 1801.
After more than six centuries of neglect in an exposed position, it is understandable not a lot of the Rock of Dunamase’s Norman castle survives. Sometimes utilising the natural rock formation for defensive purposes, a series of walls had been constructed, the interior portion of the site accessed by an outer and inner barbican, the second of these incorporating a ditch and a drawbridge. The upper part of the rock was further protected by a curtain wall with its own gatehouse, and at the very top was a large hall or keep. This part of the structure was most modified by Sir John Parnell but it is likely he also undertook remedial work elsewhere on the rock and thereby secured what has survived to the present day since otherwise even more might have been lost. Now a visitor to Dunamase needs to bring along imagination in order to conceive how the place once looked. On the other hand, the views from the top remain superlative, stretching in every direction for many miles and only occasionally spoilt by injudicious development (made even more apparent from such high ground). It is easy to understand why the Rock of Dunamase was chosen as a place of defence but also, given the site’s relative inaccessibility, why it was subsequently abandoned.