Sometimes confused with Coolamber Manor in adjacent County Longford, this is Coolamber House, County Westmeath, a building which has undergone various additions and subtractions over the centuries. There may have been an old castle on the site originally, incorporated into the present late-Georgian house constructed in the early 19th century for Robert Blackall, a major in the East India Company. It may have been his son, Samuel Blackall, who carried out alterations to the interior, installing the staircase seen here. He died without heirs and Coolamber subsequently became owned by a branch of the O’Reilly family, one of whom Captain Percy O’Reilly, was member of the Irish polo team that won a silver medal at the 1908 Summer Olympics. In 1947 Prince Ernst Heinrich of Saxony (a son of the last King of Saxony) and his second wife, former actress Virginia Dulon, bought the house and surrounding land and lived there until their respective deaths in 1971 and 2002. The present owners bought the place eight years ago and have gradually been restoring Coolamber as a family home, a wonderful but too-rare instance of such a property making a comeback to its original use.
As mentioned a few days ago, in the mid-18th century the first Earl of Belvedere quarreled with his brother George Rochfort and so built the ‘Jealous Wall’, a sham folly that obscured the view of the younger man’s house further south on Lough Ennell. Here is the property in question, Tudenham Park, which, like Belvedere itself, is believed to have been designed by Richard Castle. However, whereas Belvedere is really a villa, this is a proper country house, of three storeys over basement with bowed projections on either side and a seven-bay entrance front, its plainness relieved by the pedimented tripartite Doric doorcase with round-headed niche above and then a circular bracketed niched below the parapet. Occupied by successive families until the early 20th century, Tudenham Park then became a hospital and was in military ownership until the 1950s when unroofed and left a shell. Some 15 or so years ago, plans were hatched to rescue the building and restore it to use but these came to nothing, so it remains the ruin seen in these pictures.
The most famous folly in Ireland, this is the Jealous Wall at Belvedere, County Westmeath. Some 180 feet long, this theatrical sham ruin was constructed around 1760 by Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere. Intended to look like the remains of an ancient castle, the three-storey wall incorporates a series of stepped towers, some of which have arched Gothic windows and, at the centre of the ground floor, a three-bay loggia. Seemingly it was built in order to block the view from Belvedere south towards Tudenham Park, a house further along Lough Ennell which had been erected some years before by the earl’s younger brother, George Rochfort. The siblings subsequently quarreled, hence the wall was put up here.
Designed by Richard Castle c.1740, Belvedere, County Westmeath is an exquisite villa overlooking Lough Ennell built for Robert Rochfort, later created first Earl of Belvedere. The Rochfort family had lived in Ireland since the 13th century, their primary residence being Gaulston, some five miles south-east of Belvedere. The house there, also designed by Richard Castle, was badly damaged after being burnt in 1920 during the War of Independence and later demolished. However, from around 1743 Robert Rochfort made Belvedere his main home after he had become estranged from his second wife, the Hon Mary Molesworth, who he accused of having an affair with one of his younger brothers, Arthur Rochfort. Famously, Mary Molesworth was thereafter kept a prisoner at Gaulston, never permitted to leave or to see anyone for thirty years until after her husband’s death in 1774; only once did the couple encounter each other again, by accident, and after that occasion a servant was required to walk in front of Mary Molesworth ringing a bell in order to warn Rochfort that she might be in the vicinity. Meanwhile, he pursued his younger brother for financial recompense under the legislation covering Criminal Conversation (as adultery was then known). Unable to pay, Arthur Rochfort fled the country but on his return was incarcerated in Dublin’s debtors’ prison where he died.
Floating serene above the lake, Belvedere seems a world away from this unhappy tale. A two-storey block with semi-circular bow ends with a five-bay front, the centre three bays slightly recessed and those on either side having a Venetian window on the ground floor and a Diocletian window above. Initially the building was just one room deep but at the end of the 18th century a wing was added to the rear. The two most important reception spaces, drawing room and dining room, are at either end, with smaller rooms next to the entrance hall, behind which runs a corridor incorporating a narrow staircase leading up to four bedrooms, the service quarters being in a sunken basement. The great joy of the interior is the delicate rococo plasterwork in which putti and classical figures, surrounded by trailing garlands, shells and volutes, seem to be in the process of emerging from the ceilings. The stuccodore responsible is unknown, but the work, dating from around 1760, has been attributed to Barthelemij Cramillion.
Following the first earl’s death in 1774, Belvedere – and indeed Gaulston – was inherited by his son George Augustus Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere. However, when he died in 1714, he had no direct heir and so the titles became extinct and the settled estate was inherited by his sister Jane and then, after her death, by her grandson Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough. He rarely visited Belvedere and on his death in 1847 it passed to a cousin, Charles Brinsley Marlay, a wealthy bachelor who invited Ninian Niven to devise plans for the walled garden and who was also responsible for laying out a series of terraces between the house and lake. On his death in 1912, the estate was inherited by Charles Howard-Bury, a noted mountaineer, explorer and botanist. Howard-Bury had been born and raised in Charleville Castle, County Offaly but seemingly had such an unhappy childhood there that he preferred to live in Belvedere and when he died in 1963, he left the place to his long-time companion, a former actor called Rex Beaumont, who would be the last private owner of the estate. In 1980, Beaumont announced his plans to leave the place and held a sale of the contents, jointly organised by Hamilton & Hamilton and Christie’s; quite a few of the lots had originally come from Charleville Castle, meaning collections from two different houses were thereby dispersed. In 1982 Beaumont sold the house and surrounding parkland to the local authority, which has managed the place ever since. While much money was spent on restoring Belvedere at the time, 40 years have now passed and the house is looking tired and in need of attention, little having changed there since its acquisition by the county council. The surrounding demesne is extremely popular with local families and much frequented, but Belvedere itself appears an under-utilised resource; at the moment, only a handful of the rooms are even open to the public, with much of it closed up. It’s time fresh consideration, and attention, was given to one of Ireland’s most charming 18th century villas.
On Monday, the Irish Times carried a report noting that Ireland’s Health Service Executive owns hundreds of unused buildings across the state, some of which have been left vacant for decades (see: HSE owns hundreds of unused buildings, figures show (irishtimes.com)). This will not come as news to anyone who is concerned for the welfare of the country’s architectural heritage: the HSE is responsible for many historic sites, and a large number of them have been left not just vacant, but badly neglected, such as the former St Brigid’s Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway (above). A vast range of buildings designed by William Murray and opened in 1833, it closed 180 years later and has stood abandoned ever since. The HSE is by no means the only offender in this respect. Columb (originally Wellington) Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath provided accommodation for troops from 1819 until 2011, when it closed down: owned by the Department of Defence, the site has since been left largely empty, a prey to vandalism and creeping decay. Last winter – a full decade after the last troops left – the Land Development Agency produced a report on the site, with the promise that further information would follow in due course. No doubt something will eventually happen here, but after 11 years nobody can be accused of rushing into hasty decision-making.
A few points need to be made about both these and many other such premises, the first of which is that they are owned by the people of Ireland: the relevant state bodies in whose care they remain, are supposed to be their custodians. These are national assets, and the abysmal failure to take due care of them is at a cost to everyone else: the more they fall into decay, the less they are worth, to the detriment of all of us. In addition, the two examples shown here, and many more besides, are often close to urban centres and therefore ideally suited to provide ample accommodation for those who unfortunately don’t have it at present. In recent days, for example, it has been reported that a tent village is being prepared for Romanian refugees in Gormanstown, County Meath. This is an extraordinary state of affairs: why should anyone have to sleep in a tent when the HSE, and other agencies, own so many vacant buildings. Furthermore, if the state is supposed to lead by example, what sort of example is set by the likes of the HSE and the Department of Defence? Why should private owners worry about neglecting their property, when state authorities do so on a much larger scale? A reminder: this is a shameful – and shameless – squandering of our assets, and we are the losers as a result.
The 18th century English polymath Thomas Wright has featured here before because of his rightly-renowned work at Tollymore, County Down (Do the Wright Thing « The Irish Aesthete ), but it is apparent that while in Ireland during the year 1746-47, he also designed a number of other garden buildings elsewhere in the country. One of these is a rustic archway at Belvedere, County Westmeath, which would have been constructed around the same time as the villa here and so commissioned by Robert Rochfort, then Baron Belfield and future first Earl of Belvedere. This extraordinary structure is almost Mannerist in style and, as has been pointed out, would not look out of place in the 16th century Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo: the openings on the facade suggest a giant’s startled face. The arch stands at the end of a long drive from the house and although sometimes thought to have been an entrance lodge, this seems unlikely since its rear – which visitors would have encountered first had it served as a point of arrival to the estate – is unornamented. Clearly therefore the building was meant to close a vista and, since it once held several floors, to offer views back to the main residence and across Lough Ennell: note the wonderful rusticated oriel window on an upper level.
After last Wednesday’s entry about the mausoleum at Fore, County Westmeath (To the Fore « The Irish Aesthete), here is the burial site of another branch of the same family. Located in Killare, this one holds the remains of the Nugents of Ballinacor, a property they acquired in the first half of the 17th century. Although confiscated by the Cromwellian government, Ballinacor was subsequently returned to Edmond Nugent after he had been declared ‘An innocent Papist.’ Indeed, successive generations remained loyal to their Roman Catholic faith, one of them, John Nugent, fighting for the French army and being awarded the Cross of St Louis for his bravery at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, when the British and Dutch forces under the Duke of Cumberland were defeated. Nugents remained at Ballinacor, an 18th century house, until the aftermath of the Great Famine when it was sold in the Encumbered Estates Court in 1852. Ballinacor was demolished as recently as 1995, meaning this mausoleum provides the only surviving evidence of the Nugent family’s long presence in the area.
Fore, County Westmeath is known for the remains of its mediaeval Benedictine abbey, originally founded much earlier by St Féichín, and the seven ancient ‘wonders’ associated with the site. On a slope high above these ruins can be found a former anchorite’s cell that was subsequently used as a mausoleum. In its earlier incarnation, the squat rectangular, two-storey tower dates from the 15th century, but most likely replaced an earlier building on the same spot. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in the 17th century the cell was adapted as a resting place for members of the Nugent family, Earls of Westmeath. , In 1867 a descendant, Lady Rosa Greville, commissioned Pugin & Ashlin to design an extension to the building to create a small chancel, the work being executed by Sibthorpe & Son of Dublin.
Recently offered for sale, this is Newcastle, County Westmeath, an early 19th century gentleman’s residence that, from the front looks like a relatively modest house, essentially just a couple of rooms on the ground floor and basement. Step around to the rear of the building, however, and one realises how deceptive this initial impression can be. In fact, Newcastle is a lot more substantial than first seemed to be the case, with the projecting staircase bow an especially charming feature.
On a rise to the north-west of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath can be seen one of the former estate’s most distinctive features: a mid-18th century dovecote: like other buildings on the site, its design has traditionally been attributed to Richard Castle and, once again, the building features a decidedly eccentric use of classical motifs. On top of a square base rises an octagonal tower, each with a blind window. The tower is in turn topped by a spire concluding in a delicate weather vane. Near the summit of the spire are a series of square openings with landing ledges: the only overt evidence of the dovecote’s function.
Holding a great vaulted chamber, the square base was originally open to the elements: about two-thirds up each side a key-stoned arch sprung from the projecting string-course. However, at some later date, most of the openings were filled with rubble stone, and smaller windows inserted on three sides: a large fireplace was created on the fourth. Presumably the intention was to convert the space into a summer or tea house. Alas, like everything else at Waterstown, the building’s present condition is perilous.