All that survives of the former Church of Ireland church in Rathconrath, County Westmeath. According to Samuel Lewis writing in 1837 the building had been erected eighteen years earlier ‘almost on the site of the ancient church’ at the cost of £738, the entire sum being provided by the Board of First Fruits. At that time the living was in the patronage of Brinsley Butler, fourth Earl of Lanesborough who had inherited large estates in this part of the country through his grandmother Jane Rochfort, a daughter of the first Earl of Belvedere, notorious for having locked up his wife for over thirty years after he suspected she was having an affair with his younger brother (who he sued for criminal conversation).
Taking its name from the immediately adjacent rath (a circular fortification), Rathcastle House near Rathconrath, County Westmeath is a house likely dating from the late 18th century, although www.buildingsofireland.com proposes c.1815 for its construction. Originally built for the Banon family, its facade features an especially handsome limestone doorcase with fan and sidelights. On Sunday May 13th from 2-7 pm the gardens of Rathcastle House, together with those of neighbouring Balrath Lodge will be open to the public to raise funds for TEAM (Temporary Emergency Accommodation Midlands). Admission €5 per person includes tea.
The rustic grotto in the grounds of Tullynally, County Westmeath. This little pavilion was one of the additions made to the castle’s gardens in the 1780s by Edward Pakenham, second Baron Longford and his heiress wife Elizabeth Cuffe: at that time the estate’s formally designed grounds were swept away in favour of something more ‘natural’ and romantic. Situated on a high site the grotto looks south-west towards Lough Derravaragh whence came the limestone from which its facade is constructed. The octagonal interior has a brick-lined roof which, like the walls beneath would originally have been rendered: the gothic seating is a recent addition.
Stones only, the disjecta membra of this Great House,
Whose moth-like girls are mixed with candledust,
Remain to file the lizard’s dragonish claws.
The mouths of those gate cherubs shriek with stain;
Axle and coach wheel silted under the muck
Of cattle droppings.
Three crows flap for the trees
And settle, creaking the eucalyptus boughs.
A smell of dead limes quickens in the nose
The leprosy of empire.
“Farewell, green fields,
Farewell, ye happy groves!”
Marble like Greece, like Faulkner’s South in stone,
Deciduous beauty prospered and is gone,
But where the lawn breaks in a rash of trees
A spade below dead leaves will ring the bone
Of some dead animal or human thing
Fallen from evil days, from evil times.
It seems that the original crops were limes
Grown in that silt that clogs the river’s skirt;
The imperious rakes are gone, their bright girls gone,
The river flows, obliterating hurt.
I climbed a wall with the grille ironwork
Of exiled craftsmen protecting that great house
From guilt, perhaps, but not from the worm’s rent
Nor from the padded calvary of the mouse.
And when a wind shook in the limes I heard
What Kipling heard, the death of a great empire, the abuse
Of ignorance by Bible and by sword.
A green lawn, broken by low walls of stone,
Dipped to the rivulet, and pacing, I thought next
Of men like Hawkins, Walter Raleigh, Drake,
Ancestral murderers and poets, more perplexed
In memory now by every ulcerous crime.
The world’s green age then was rotting lime
Whose stench became the charnel galleon’s text.
The rot remains with us, the men are gone.
But, as dead ash is lifted in a wind
That fans the blackening ember of the mind,
My eyes burned from the ashen prose of Donne.
Ablaze with rage I thought,
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
But still the coal of my compassion fought
That Albion too was once
A colony like ours, “part of the continent, piece of the main”,
Nook-shotten, rook o’erblown, deranged
By foaming channels and the vain expense
Of bitter faction.
All in compassion ends
So differently from what the heart arranged:
“as well as if a manor of thy friend’s. . .”
Located on a rise in the woods at Meares Court, County Westmeath stands the remains of – what? Most of the buildings on the estate date from c.1760, although the core of the main residence incorporates a much older tower house. This structure is presumably later, its interior accessed via an arched door leading into a space lit by a pair of similarly substantial arched windows that offer views over the landscape. The remains of a summer house perhaps?
A blocked doorcase in the former farmyard at Grangemore, County Westmeath. The main house here, now also a ruin, was built in the opening years of the 19th century by a member of the Fetherston family: it later passed by marriage to the Briscoes. During the last century what remained of what was once a substantial estate fell into decline, the house standing empty for periods until it was stripped of disposable assets and unroofed in the late 1950s. Its shell now stands in the midst of fields, as does the complex of which this doorcase forms a part.
As an area of both study and preservation, the relative neglect of ancillary buildings on Irish country estates has been mentioned here before. While the main house may be – scrutinised, the surrounding structures which did so much to sustain it – is often overlooked. Take the substantial range of buildings shown here today, which lie adjacent to Coolure, County Westmeath. Despite their scale and evident quality of finish, they pass unremarked in Casey and Rowan’s 1993 volume on the Buildings of North Leinster. This is not an unusual circumstance but one that deserves rectification: at the moment if we often know too little about who was responsible for designing and constructing many Irish country houses, we know even less about the origins of their outbuildings.
At least some of those at Coolure must date from the same period as when work began on the house proper c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. It was extended in the 1820s, probably to accommodate their substantial family, and the yards may have been proportionately increased in size then also. Finally a number of buildings, not least a vast and now roofless two-storey barn, were erected in the 1850s, thereby completing the ensemble.
Changing circumstances along with improved technology, the break-up of large estates, better methods of agriculture, alternative means of transport: all have played their part in making country house outbuildings mostly redundant. Who now needs lines of stables (one set occupied by horses required for riding and carriages, one for animals used about the farm) and coach houses, or piggeries and dovecotes? But the buildings once deemed essential for these purposes, and many others beside, still stand, testament to how rural Ireland operated for centuries. The ranges at Coolure are especially fine, and a credit to the family responsible for their erection. Some have been converted to residential use, and some adapted as storage space or to provide temporary shelter for livestock. But what – to pick a single example from many – can now be done with a hen house, its interior specifically designed to contain rows of niches in which eggs could be laid (and from which they were then conveniently collected)? Buildings such as these demonstrate how an estate with sufficient resources would become an almost self-contained world, producing the foodstuffs required by those living there. Surviving account books from the 18th and 19th centuries reveal just how little needed to be bought, other than wine and spirits (beer could be brewed on site), tobacco and a handful of other luxuries. The fields yielded up their harvest to be stored in barns, livestock provided meat, ponds held fish, walled gardens and orchards were filled with fruit and vegetables. No wonder the outbuildings at Coolure are so substantial: they played a critical role in ensuring the estate functioned smoothly.
Deprived of their purpose, buildings such as those at Coolure can slip into decline, although they are perforce so sturdy that frequently they survive longer than the house they were intended to support. Built of rubble and cut limestone, and with slate roofs, these ranges are carefully planned to perform their task with maximum efficiency. Now that job is no longer required, the question needs to be asked: can a fresh purpose be found for them? In recent years an annual series of grants to encourage the preservation of traditional farm buildings has been provided by the Department of Agriculture through GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme) and administered by the Heritage Council. This is intended ‘to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Although admirable, the scheme suffers from two drawbacks when it comes to outbuildings such as those at Coolure. Firstly the grants offered, while obviously much appreciated, are not enormous: between €4,000 and €25,000. Secondly, according to the Heritage Council, ‘the key conservation principle of minimum intervention should apply, that is, carrying out a repair to fix what is wrong but not setting out to do too much work. Works which are, in the opinion of the Heritage Council, restoration works, are very unlikely to be supported with grant aid.’ So outbuildings that need to be restored in order that they can find a new function would seem not to qualify. Perhaps another scheme might be established for this purpose? Fine, well-designed and solidly constructed buildings like those at Coolure merit help in finding a new lease of life.
‘A lot done, more to do’ was the slogan used by an Irish political party in a general election fifteen years ago. It might also apply to the study of this country’s architectural history about which the more we learn, the more we realise how little we know. There are certain areas in which a considerable amount of research has been undertaken, but many others where next to nothing has yet been done. With regard to the latter, investigation into the design and character of ancillary buildings on country estates is a subject that has hitherto not been explored in any depth. Yet these structures – the stable- and farmyards and so forth – were as important to the successful management of an estate as was the large house at its centre. Today there is much interest in what took place beyond the green baize door inside a country house, so that the lives of domestic servants and the quarters they occupied are given increasing notice. However, their outdoor equivalents – those who lived and worked in ancillary buildings – do not seem to attract much attention. Nor do the buildings themselves, even though they were often as well designed, constructed and finished as the big house they were there to sustain. Indeed they are often so sturdy that in instances where the country house has either fallen or been pulled down, the outbuildings remain. Such is the case at Donore, County Westmeath.
For hundreds of years Donore was occupied by a branch of the Nugent family the first of whom, Hugh de Nugent, came to Ireland in the 12th century and received lands in Westmeath. In the fifteenth century one of his descendants, James Nugent, married the heiress Elizabeth Holywood and it appears that through her inheritance the lands of Donore passed to the couple’s heirs. In the 17th century, the Nugents of Donore fought with their Irish compatriots in the Confederate Wars and were duly indicted, yet somehow despite consistently remaining Roman Catholic they managed to retain their property. In fact, by judicious marriages they improved their circumstances. In the 18th century, for example, James Nugent, first baronet, married Catherine King, elder daughter and co-heiress of Robert King of Drewstown, County Meath: that house was discussed here last week. And so it continued into the middle of the last century when, shortly before her death in November 1957 the widowed Aileen, Lady Nugent sold the estate to the Franciscan order which had re-settled nearby on land gifted to the friars by the Nugents. According to the present head of the family, the price paid for this transaction was £20,000. Apparently Lady Nugent had insisted as a condition of the sale that the house would be preserved. However this was not to be. The Franciscans subsequently sold on the greater part of the estate to the Land Commission, Donore was duly condemned, and pulled down. Today a bungalow occupies the site.
There seem to be no photographic records of Donore other than an aerial image of the site, located on rising ground to the south of Lough Derravaragh. However, according to the family it bore striking similarities in design to Oakley Park in Celbridge, County Kildare. Now called St Raphael’s and owned by the St John of God religious order, Oakley Park dates from 1724 and is believed to have been designed by Thomas Burgh. Of three storeys over basement, it has a seven-bay façade with a three-bay breakfront centred on the groundfloor doorcase incorporating a segmental pediment. The similarities between this property and Donore are interesting, because the latter is generally considered to have been built at the end of the 18th century, and to have been of little consequence. In his guide to Irish country houses, Mark Bence-Jones summarily dismissed Donore as ‘A plain 3 storey Georgian block,’ and the place does not merit even a mention in Casey and Rowan’s guide to the buildings of North Leinster.
Yet if it dated from the 1720s and shared stylistic traits with Oakley Park, then this would explain the appearance of a once-grand yard still standing to the east. Although now in pitiful condition, it is still possible to see how magnificent this complex must once have been. Employing crisply defined limestone, the southern entrance takes the form of a simplified but rugged triumphal arch, which is then topped by an hexagonal tower at least twice the height of the arch. Inside the yard, the northern side is focused on an equally immense three-bay pedimented breakfront coachhouse, while to the west is another arched entrance, the upper portion of which is occupied by a dovecote. Throughout the complex, the sophistication of both design and execution is remarkable. Bold and confident, its appearance suggests the now-lost house must have possessed the same traits and that, contrary to received wisdom, Donore was built at least half a century earlier than the date of 1790, which is usually given for its construction. If this is the case then its loss, and the lack of a decent photographic record, are all the more tragic. We are nowhere near fully understanding Ireland’s architectural history. A lot done, more to do.
The entrance gates to the former Rockbrook estate in County Westmeath. Dating from c.1780 the adjacent lodge has a charming concave exterior wall, pedimented and with one arched window set off-centre. The building behind is ruinous, as is the main late 18th century house formerly occupied by the Isdell family.
The triumphal arch marking the entrance to Rosmead, County Westmeath. Its design attributed to English architect Samuel Woolley and dating from the mid-1790s, the arch is of limestone embellished with Coade stone ornamentation, now badly weathered: the design once also included urns and statuary but this has all long-since gone. The arch was originally erected at Glananea some seven miles away in the same county. The latter property had been built by Ralph Smyth, whose family owned several estates in the area, and who called his property Ralphsdale. Having had the arch erected, he came to be known locally as ‘Smyth with the Gates.’ Tiring of the nickname he disposed of the arch to its present home, only to find himself given the new title ‘Smyth without the Gates.’ Ironically, while Rosmead is now just a shell Glananea still stands, so perhaps it would have been better for the arch to have remained there.