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.
Above are three images of the main staircase in the former Archbishop’s Palace, Cashel, County Tipperary. Long attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce and dating from c.1730 this building is rightly deemed important for retaining much of its original interior, not least these stairs in red pine. Its features include a richly carved apron below the first-floor gallery and the balusters, those on the return capped with Corinthian columns, the others being fluted in their upper section and with barley-sugar twists in the lower.
One of the past year’s happiest moments has been the discovery of the Cashel Palace staircase’s ‘twin’ in a house in County Westmeath. Although the two buildings have little in common externally (and the latter is usually dated much later), both share this interior feature which in design and execution alike are essentially identical, the Westmeath apron being slightly more elaborate. More research needs to be undertaken on the subject: something to look forward to in 2017…
Seen from the shore of Lough Derravaragh: Coolure, County Westmeath. The house dates from c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. The couple immediately embarked on building their new home and when Lady Louisa Conolly, who had brought up the motherless Louisa Staples (her husband’s niece) at Castletown, County Kildare came to visit, she wrote, ‘The Coolure House is in vast forwardness, and a sweet pretty thing it will be. Tom Pakenham and Louisa seem equally engaged about it, though in different lines. He minds the farm only, and leaves the house, plantation and gardening entirely to her. But both agree in loving the place and wishing to spend their lives there.’ As indeed they duly did, further extending the house in the early 1820s presumably to accommodate their substantial family (Louisa Pakenham had fifteen children). The building’s finest external feature is the tripartite cut limestone Doric doorcase, with sidelights and spoked fanlight beneath a pediment.
On the west wall of St Michael’s church in Castlepollard, County Westmeath hangs this memorial to Catherine Gunning who, as can be read, died in 1751 aged just nineteen (‘Here underlies too sad a truth/Discretion, innocence and youth/Death veil thy face, thy cruel Dart/Has Virtue pierc’d thro’ beauty’s heart’). Catherine was a cousin of those famous 18th century beauties, the Gunning sisters, Maria who married the sixth Earl of Coventry (but then died aged 27, most likely from lead poisoning due to efforts to maintain her pale skin) and Elizabeth who married first the sixth Duke of Hamilton and then the fifth Duke of Argyll (as well as being made a baroness in her own right). The Gunnings had settled in County Roscommon in the 17th century and through the marriage of Catherine’s surviving sister Bridget, this branch of the family’s property at Hollywell would pass to the Blakeneys. The plaque was likely moved from the older church of Killafree when the present St Michael’s was built c.1827 but a puzzle is why Catherine Gunning was laid to rest in this part of the country and not closer to her home?
After Monday’s post about St John’s Church in Clonmellon, County Westmeath, here is an image of another monument in the same part of the world: the obelisk in the grounds of Killua Castle. It was erected in 1810 by Sir Thomas Chapman to honour the memory of Sir Walter Raleigh who supposedly first introduced the potato into Ireland in 1589; the Chapmans originally came to this country thanks to the support of Raleigh who was a maternal first cousin.