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.
To the north-east of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath stand the remains of what was once a very substantial walled garden, running to at least four acres. Certainly one of the largest extant examples of this horticultural form dating from the mid-18th century – although now in a very poor condition – the garden consists of a series of four ascending terraces, the outer walls constructed of rubble limestone lined internally of brick, the latter material also used for the terrace walls. Some of these have curved, or corrugated, sections (thereby offering additional shelter to tender plants) while others have infilled arches. That same device also features in the main entrance to the site, which takes the form of a brick-faced triumphal arch (with Diocletian window inserted into the pediment) flanked by single-storey pavilions. If Waterstown was designed, as is generally the consensus, by Richard Castle then this walled garden must be attributed to him also; the entrance certainly displays just the right amount of eccentrically-used architectural motifs. Today the site is partially used as a farmyard but otherwise stands empty.
In 1825 Eyre Evans Crowe, a young Irish writer now largely forgotten, published his second novel, To-day in Ireland in which he described a country house given the fictional name of Plunketstown. The building is occupied by one Captain Plunket, whose father, the reader is informed, ‘like many of the grandsires, but few of the sires of the present generation, had been a man of taste and travel. The present mansion was of his building, and almost every tree on the estate was of his planting…Plunketstown Hill, which rose behind the mansion and screened it commodiously from a vast extent of bog which stretched for miles behind, was covered with one of those groves of many colours which in autumn wore the appearance of a hill-harlequin tricked out for Carnival. At its foot stood the mansion, at some distance from the lake, of which nevertheless it commanded a view, and to the brink of which its ample lawn extended. It was a solid square building of dark granite, richly ornamented, of almost perpendicular roof, and chimneys of enormous size. It exactly resembled one of the extreme wings, or pavillons, as they are called, of the Tuileries, the height of roof and chimney not perhaps so exaggerated; and had Plunketstown been ornamented with the jalousies of the Pavillon de Flore, the garret windows peeping out of the slates, the filthy funnel holes, and the conductors, the model had been complete. A huge flight of steps, descending like a waterfall, from a central point in the front towards the lawn, was an indispensable appendix; whilst a deep fosse, running quite around the house, attempted to attain the security of the ancient castle, without infringing upon the commodiousness of the modern mansion.’ The inspiration for Plunketstown, certainly for its location if not quite for its appearance, is said to have been Waterstown, County Westmeath.
Waterstown was built for the Handcock family, who had settled in Ireland in the first half of the 17th century and were granted large areas of land in Westmeath. In due course the main branch of the Handcocks became Barons Castlemaine, who lived at Moydrum Castle elsewhere in the county (see An Unforgettable Fire « The Irish Aesthete). But this particular line of the family came to own an estate on which stood a late 15th century castle built by the Dillons. This building most likely occupied the site of Waterstown since, as did the fictional Plunketstown, it offered superlative views across many miles of the surrounding countryside. Commissioned by Gustavus Handcock, the present house – or what remains of it – is believed to have been built in the 1740s and designed by Richard Castle. It was a very substantial property, of seven bays and three stories over basement, around which ran (again as at Plunketstown) a deep moat. Brick-built, Waterstown was faced, not with granite but limestone, and featured a hipped roof with two tall chimneystacks. On the south-facing garden front, it can be seen that the windows had rusticated surrounds, while a now-lost flight of steps led to a central Gibbsian doorcase. The house was originally two rooms deep, but the main front has long since disappeared, making the building unnaturally tall and thin, and exposing the remains of lugged plaster panelling and corner chimneys on the interior walls. Sections of a former kitchen yard survive on the east side (the main stable yard is located a short distance west of the house).
In 1725 Gustavus Handcock, later responsible for building Waterstown, married Elizabeth Temple, only child and heiress of the Reverend Robert Temple of nearby Mount Temple, also in County Westmeath. In accordance with her father’s will, the family duly assumed the additional surname of Temple, the couple’s grandson who inherited the estate in 1758 being known as Gustavus Robert Handcock Temple, thereby remembering both grandfathers. The next generation, Robert Handcock Temple, had only one child, a daughter called Isabella. In 1824 she married as his second wife the Hon William George Harris, who five years later would succeed his father as second Baron Harris of Seringapatam and Mysore, in the East Indies, and of Belmont, co. Kent (the first Lord Harris was a soldier who achieved particular success in India where he was involved in the defeat of Tipu Sultan following the Siege of Seringapatam in 1799). The eldest of their children, the Hon Reginal Harris, duly inherited the Waterstown estate, once more taking the additional surname of Temple. Dying unmarried in 1900, he in turn left the estate to his brother Arthur; following the latter’s death six years later, the property passed to his son, Arthur Reginald Harris-Temple, who would be the last of the family to live there. By this date, like many other Irish estates, the future of Waterstown had already begun to look uncertain, not least because expenditure exceeded income. In the early years of the 1920s the Harris-Temples did not have to fear hostility in the area (unlike their cousins at Moydrum Castle, which was destroyed by the IRA in 1921) but it seems likely that an insecure future inspired the decision in 1923 to sell Waterstown, both house and remaining lands, to Ireland’s Land Commission. Five years later the local county council considered buying the building for use as a sanatorium, but these plans never came to fruition and in late 1928 Waterstown was sold and soon after stripped of all fittings, the lead and slates removed from the roof and just a shell left. Since then, it has gradually fallen into the present state of ruin.
In Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath the Crescent looks as though it could provide the setting for a novel by the likes of Mrs Gaskell. This part of the village was mostly laid out during the second decade of the 19th century, thanks to the endeavours of Jane, second Countess of Belvedere, whose elderly husband died in 1814, and to whom she erected a monument inside the church of St Sinian (although just a year later she married again). Around the open green are a number of domestic residences as well as a former single storey schoolhouse and a two-storey former courthouse. All are well maintained, although some of the fenestration shows evidence of the insidious uPVC virus (when will local authorities take steps to halt the spread of this blight across our architectural heritage?). On the outskirts of the village is a cluster of buildings constructed in the early 1840s as a girl’s orphanage thanks to a bequest left by the countess on her death the previous decade. In the Tudor-Gothic style, these were restored by the county council some years ago and now serve as housing scheme.
Located in the north-west corner of County Westmeath, this is Wilson’s Hospital, a secondary school which in 2011 celebrated its 250th anniversary. The school’s founder was one Andrew Wilson who, the year before his death in 1725, made a will stipulating that if there were no direct male heirs to his estate, then this should be transferred to the Church of Ireland for the establishment of a hospital for elderly Protestant men and a school for impoverished Protestant boys. After a few decades had passed and no male heir had appeared (and a family dispute over the will resolved), work began on the building, its design sometimes attributed to the little-known Dublin architect Henry Pentland. From the front Wilson’s Hospital looks like a Palladian country house, since to the rear of the main block (shown here) are quadrants leading to two-storey wings. And the façade features a two-storey-over-basement limestone breakfront, the three centre bays stepped forward and with fine Venetian windows on the extreme first-floor windows. The institutional nature of the place is indicated by the clock tower visible above the roofline, and, immediately behind the front, by an arcaded, three-storey courtyard that recalls that of the earlier Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, albeit on a smaller scale. Elderly Protestant men are no longer accommodated here, but boys (and for the past 50 years, also girls) continue to be educated at Wilson’s Hospital.
South Hill, County Westmeath is a house of five bays and three-storeys over basement, believed to date from c.1810 and perhaps designed by Dublin architect William Farrell. The building’s most notable feature is a long, single-storey limestone pavilion attached to the facade and centred on a pilastered porch with wide fanlight. Constructed for a branch of the Tighe family, South Hill was then inherited by the Chapmans of Killua Castle, a few miles away; in 1870 Thomas Chapman became owner of the estate, following the death of an older brother. Chapman, who would later become Sir Thomas, seventh and last baronet, had four daughters with his wife, an ardent evangelical Christian. The couple hired a governess for the children, Sarah Lawrence and in 1885 she became pregnant, giving birth to a son. Chapman was the father, and when his wife discovered this, he left the family home and moved with Sarah Lawrence to Wales, where a second son, Thomas Edward, was born; having settled in Oxford, the couple would have several further sons. They and their four half-sisters appear never to have met each other.
Sir Thomas Chapman never returned to Ireland, although he continued to receive an annuity from the estate. His second son, who would become famous as Lawrence of Arabia, was aware of his Irish ancestry and of the fact that his father had lived in South Hill; in later years he considered acquiring land in the area, but this didn’t happen before his early death. Eventually the property was sold to an order of nuns and became an educational establishment. Today South Hill is surrounded by institutional buildings of outstanding architectural mediocrity.
Boarded up and falling into dereliction: the former administration block of the workhouse in Mullingar, County Westmeath. Many of the other buildings that were part of this complex have since been given fresh purpose by the Health Service Executive (albeit with the introduction of uPVC windows: when will official Ireland ever provide a lead here?). However, this handsome house, which is at the entrance to the site, is in a wastefully poor state, only saved from total ruin by being constructed in sturdy limestone. Dating from 1841 and built in the Tudor-Gothic style to the design of architect George Wilkinson, the building’s present state is a shameful waste of state resources.
Internationally acclaimed for his work, the astronomer William Edward Wilson was born in 1851 in Belfast, where his grandfather, also called William, had made a fortune in the shipping business. As a result, William senior bought each of his four sons an estate, that given to William junior’s father, John Wilson, being Daramona, County Westmeath. The younger William, not enjoying good health as a child, was educated at home but when he was 19 the opportunity arose to join an expedition travelling to Algeria to witness a total solar eclipse. This inspired his interest in astronomy and in due course he acquired his first telescope. When aged thirty, he constructed his own observatory at Daramona, on a site immediately adjacent to the house. Here he worked for the rest of his life, until his early death in 1908. Among the scientific breakthroughs with which he is credited are the production of the first photo-electric measurements of the brightness of stars and the first accurate determination of the temperature of the solar photosphere. He was also responsible for making a series of outstanding celestial photographs. As a result of his work, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896 and awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by Trinity College Dublin in 1901.
Daramona is a mid-19th century, three-bay, two-storey Italianate villa probably built by John Wilson soon after the birth of his son, the future astronomer. There was an older house immediately behind the present one, but it has long since been demolished; it is suggested that the somewhat over-scaled limestone Doric entrance porch was recycled from the previous building. The doorcase behind has a particularly wide fanlight and sidelights. The interior is typical of the period, the most interesting space being the very substantial library, the largest room on the ground floor, which has timber panelled walls and, above the chimneypiece, a panel bearing the family coat of arms. Immediately behind the house, on the site of the earlier house, are two long service wings. Wilson’s two-storey observatory, completed around 1892 and originally domed, stands left of the rear of the house. Beyond it is a curtain wall topped with a balustrade and incorporating a pedimented doorcase leading providing access to the rear avenue.
Not long after Edward Wilson’s death in 1908, his widow and children moved first to County Cavan and then, following the outbreak of troubles in the 1920s, to England. His telescope was offered to the University of London where it remained until 1974; it is now in Liverpool’s Merseyside County Museum. Much of his original instrumentation when to Trinity College Dublin. Meanwhile, Daramona was sold to another family who lived in and maintained the property until it was put on the market in 2000. House and land were then bought by a local building firm which applied to construct 38 houses on the site. Thanks to a campaign by scientists in Ireland and around the world, this application was refused by the county council which in due course conferred protected structure status on the main building, ancillary outhouses, demesne wall and gates. Since then it would appear nothing has been done, so that today Daramona is fast falling into decay and – once more – taking with it part of the national history. Looking for a solution to this problem? One might as well follow William Wilson’s example, and look to the stars.