The former courthouse in Shillelagh, County Wicklow. The main body of the building dates from 1893-94 when erected by local landlord, the sixth Earl Fitzwilliam; a report from the time ascribes the design to one ‘Mr Fieldsend’ who may have worked for the Fitzwilliams on their main estate in Yorkshire (there is no documentation of someone with that name undertaking any other work in Ireland). Originally called the New Hall, the building served a variety of purposes, not just a location for the local petty sessions court but also a venue for meetings and dances. In July 1893 the future seventh Earl Fitzwilliam came of age and his father’s tenants decided to commemorate this event by enhancing the courthouse with a clock tower and weather vane. Seemingly these were again designed by the aforementioned Mr Fieldsend, but the clock came from Johnson’s of Grafton Street, Dublin. Subsequently donated to the village, the building was used as a sessions court until 2001 after which it remained empty for six years until restored as a community centre, although it would now seem to be in need of some attention once again.
Running to some 62 acres, Powerscourt, County Wicklow is unquestionably Ireland’s most famous – and most photographed – country house garden, but what can be seen here today is of relatively recent origin. The building around which it was created has origins in a medieval tower house constructed by the de la Poers, whence derives the site’s name. In the 1730s, this structure was encased in a large Palladian house designed for Richard Wingfield, first Viscount Powerscourt by the architect Richard Castle. But the surrounding landscape remained largely unadorned, the ground behind the building dropping down to a large, irregular stretch of water called Juggy’s Pond, beyond which the vista was closed by the distant Sugarloaf Mountain. Only in the 19th century did the scene begin to change, initially thanks to the sixth Viscount who in 1843 employed architect and landscape designer Daniel Robertson to produce plans that would divide the sloping ground into a series of Italianate terraces, supposedly inspired by those at the Villa Butera (now Trabia) in Sicily. In a book about the estate that he published in 1907, the seventh viscount remembered being brought from his schoolroom one October morning to lay the first stone of this scheme. He also recalled how Robertson, who was forever in debt, would periodically have to hide in one of Powerscourt’s domes when the Sheriff’s officers came to arrest him. As for the gardens, Robertson, who found himself better able to work after sufficient quantities of alcohol had been consumed, in consequence suffered from gout. As a result, he ‘used to be wheeled out on the Terrace in a wheelbarrow, with a bottle of sherry, and as long as that lasted he was able to design and direct the workmen, but when the sherry was finished, he collapsed and was incapable of working till the drunken fit evaporated.’ However, in 1844 the sixth viscount, who had travelled to Italy to buy vases and sculptures for the intended garden, died of consumption before reaching home. Work on the site stopped during his young heir’s minority and it was not until the latter had reached adulthood in 1858 and assumed responsibility for the estate that the garden once more began to receive attention.
By the time the seventh Viscount Powerscourt started taking an active interest in the gardens of his country house, Daniel Robertson had died. However, the estate’s owner took a keen interest in finishing the incomplete job, visiting a number of key sites in Europe, such as the gardens at Versailles as well as those around the Schönbrunn Palace outside Vienna and the Schwetzingen Palace near Mannheim. He also consulted a number of landscape gardeners such as James Howe and William Brodrick Thomas. The second of these was also employed by Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and Sandringham in Norfolk. In the end, however, it was largely Lord Powerscourt himself and his Scottish head gardener, Alexander Robertson (no relation of the previously mentioned Daniel) who drew up their own scheme. Robertson, described by his employer as a very clever man with ‘more taste than any man of his class that I ever saw’ died in 1860 but by then the main outlines of the project had been agreed, and work started, not least on creating the terraces, on which it seems 100 men laboured for ten years. Lord Powerscourt reported that one of the difficulties faced was that because the ground had once been part of a glacier moraine, water kept coming to the surface of the ground and threatening to wash away the work; Robertson proposed thatbefore anything else was done, holes be dug at the back of each terrace so that the water inside, on coming to the surface ‘should fall down through the holes into the next stratum and disappear. This was done and we had no more trouble.’ Similar feats of engineering had to be undertaken to transform what had hitherto been Juggy’s Pond into the basin seen today: inspired by Bernini’s Triton Fountain in Rome, it has a central jet which can reach 100 feet. Another key feature added during this period is the Perron, a terrace situated part of the way down the central walk to the basin, designed by the English architect and astronomer Francis Penrose. This was intended to offer a viewing platform to what lies beyond, but also to break the monotony of the descent. The Perron has elaborate geometric mosaic paving, finished in 1875 and made from different coloured pebbles collected on the nearby beach at Bray. Meanwhile, Lord Powerscourt had continued to add to the collection of statuary and urns begun by his father, buying old pieces and commissioning new ones: the pair of figures representing Victory and Fame were made for him in 1866 by Hugo Hagen in Berlin: the same sculptor was also responsible for the pegasi down by the basin’s edge.
Lord Powerscourt never stopped adding new features to the grounds of Powerscourt, which extend much further than is indicated here. It is said that he did so because for a long time he and his wife had no children, and he did not want to leave anything for his somewhat disreputable younger brother Lewis Wingfield (and then, after 16 years of marriage, Lady Powerscourt had five children in succession). After he died in 1904, the family struggled to maintain the estate and eventually, in 1961 it was sold to the Slazenger family, which owns it still although, as is well known, the house was tragically gutted by fire in 1974. But the gardens remain much as they were during the seventh viscount’s time and draw large numbers of visitors. The pictures shown today were taken on a rare occasion when the grounds were entirely empty, allowing the Irish Aesthete to have the place to himself. In style, they are intended as a homage to those taken by Eugene Atget a century ago in the Parc de Saint-Cloud outside Paris.
Last Monday’s post featured a very brief synopsis of the history of Coollattin, County Wicklow, believed to be the largest house in Ireland. The core of the building, and that first seen by visitors today, was designed in the 1790s for the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam by John Carr of York. In the mid-1870s the sixth earl decided to expand the property by creating a new entrance front as well as adding a new south range along with servants’ wing, stables and carriage houses, hence the place’s considerable size today. He gave this job to another Yorkshire resident, his clerk of works at Wentworth Woodhouse, William Dickie. Whereas the original house is finished with lined render, the extensions are fronted in local granite, so for the most part, at least on the exterior, it is possible to see which parts are by Carr and which by Dickie.
The most striking addition made by Dickie and his client to the building is a new entrance at what had been the rear of Coollattin. The ground slopes behind the house, so this entrance is at a lower level than its predecessor to the south, and features a great portico with paired Doric columns and a flight of granite steps leading up to the door. Inside is a fine hall with coved ceiling and flagged limestone floor. A smaller inner hall contains a large chimneypiece but to the immediate right is a flight of steps which in due course turns 90 degrees to introduce the main staircase climbing to the ground floor of the original house. Beneath a coffered ceiling and lit by a line of tall arched windows – these matched by a balustraded gallery with similar openings on the facing side of the steps – this staircase has terrific drama, reminiscent of that found in Piedmontese or Sicilian Baroque palaces. It is quite unlike anything else in the entire building, much of the rest of Dickie’s work here being competent but lacking excitement. When eventually restored, this great staircase will provide a most marvelous ceremonial access to this important Irish country house.
Many people will be familiar with the travails in recent years of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, said to be the largest private house in England (and with the longest facade of any house in Europe). However, they are unlikely to know about Coolattin, County Wicklow which, at 65,000 square feet is thought to be the largest private house in Ireland. It is no coincidence that both properties – which suffered such long periods of neglect that their respective futures looked imperilled – were originally built for the same family, the Earls Fitzwilliam. In England and Ireland alike, the Fitzwilliams were very substantial landowners – here they came to have some 90,000 acres – which allowed them to build on a more palatial scale than most other peers. And the rich seams of coal on their Yorkshire property further enhanced their wealth, as was described in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty. However, their direct link with Ireland only began in 1782 when the fourth earl inherited the estates of his childless maternal uncle, the second Marquess of Rockingham: the latter was a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford who had been Charles I’s Irish Lord Deputy in the 1630s and while here embarked on what was then intended to be the country’s largest private house, at Jigginstown, County Kildare (his recall in 1640 left the building unfinished).
In January 1794 the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam arrived in Ireland as the country’s new Lord Lieutenant. At this time, the French Revolution was at its most violent and the British government rightly feared similar insurrection could occur here: Fitzwilliam believed the best way to avoid such a state of affairs was to promote Catholic Emancipation and curb the power of the Protestant Ascendancy. However, rather like Lord Strafford before him he managed to alienate many potential supporters and by March of the following year he was on his way back to England, his Lieutenancy term having been brought to an abrupt end. Nevertheless, he retained an interest in Ireland and decided to build himself a proper residence on his Wicklow estate here at Coolattin. There seems to have been some building, perhaps a hunting lodge on the site already because as early as 1776 suggestions were made for its improvement. However work only began in 1796, to a design by the Yorkshire architect John Carr whose long life and successful career saw his style move from Palladianism to Adamesque classicism. The Fitzwilliams had already employed Carr in England, which explains how he received the commission in this country. He was not an innovator, so the house is conservative and restrained in style, the entrance front being of two storeys and of five bays, with a three-bay breakfront beneath a substantial pediment holding the Fitzwilliam coat of arms. A relatively modest doorcast with fanlight is framed by free-standing Tuscan order columns supporting a wide pediment.The side elevations are distinguished by generous full-height central bows. Even before this was finished, Coolattin was burnt during the 1798 Rising, so much of it had then to be rebuilt in the first years of the 19th century.
As shall be explained in due course, during the 19th century Coolattin underwent considerable expansion and alteration, so that it is not always easy to see what parts today survive from the original Carr building. The entrance front, for example, was moved from south to north, and the wall between hall and drawing room removed in order to create one large reception space. In the 1880s the adjacent library was hung with a Chinese wallpaper, with a room to the rear of the house receiving the same treatment. From here one moves to the dining room which the plans show was intended to be bowed at both ends but it appears this part of Carr’s scheme was never executed as only the east (window) side concludes in a bow. However, its equivalent on the other side of the staircase hall is double-bowed. Unraveling what parts of the interior design date from which period will be an ongoing challenge, not least in the aforementioned staircase hall, its great coved ceiling holding a dome to light the space. The first floor features a gallery, each of its walls containing three large arches, some blind, some giving access to bedrooms, all topped with glazed fanlights.
Given the size of the place, and the persons involved in its rise and near-fatal fall, the story of Coolattin is a long one, but to summarise: the Fitzwilliams remained in possession of the property well into the last century: in 1943 the eighth earl inherited the estate, along with those in England. As is well known, five years later he was killed in a plane crash, as was the woman with whom he was then having an affair, the widowed Marchioness of Hartington, otherwise known as Kathleen Kennedy, sister of future President John F Kennedy. His widow, Olive Plunket lived on at Coolattin until her own death in 1975 after which it was sold by the Fitzwilliams’ only child, Lady Juliet Tadgell (mother-in-law, incidentally, of British Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg). Coolattin then went through an unfortunate period when it changed hands a couple of times, with much of the surrounding land and all the remaining original contents sold off. In 1983 it was acquired, along with 63 acres, by an American couple, the Wardrops, who did much to ensure the place survived. Twelve years later, her husband having died, the widow sold Coolattin to the local golf club which sought to expand its course from nine to 18 holes. For the next quarter century the building stood unoccupied and although some maintenance work was undertaken, it is now in poor shape. Offered for sale last year, Ireland’s biggest house has just been bought by a small group of concerned individuals who have set themselves the task of bringing the place back from the brink of ruin. They face an undertaking as massive as Coolattin itself.
Today the word ‘mall’ is usually applied to shopping centres with pretensions to grandeur, but historically malls were outdoor urban spaces in which the local population would stroll and socialise. No doubt originally The Mall in Wicklow town was intended to perform just such a function. Situated on ground steeply rising above the point where the Vartry river flows into the Irish Sea ,and therefore overlooking the harbour, The Mall is separated from Main Street immediately below by a retaining wall built of local granite and dating from c.1875. A double flight of steps links the two areas and to go from one to the other pedestrians pass under a wrought-iron arch centred on a glazed lantern. There ends whatever charm The Mall has today, since much of it is now a muddle of traffic congestion and neglected buildings, not least the former Bayview Hotel which occupies a particularly prominent spot. Originally constructed as a private residence around 1810 and called Bellevue, the property became a library in 1925 and later an hotel. Before the economic recession, there had been plans that it form part of a shopping centre complex but this never happened and it has been in decline since then. A year ago, the building, along with its neighbours, was sold for €903,000. One must hope the new owners have plans to improve the prospects not just of this site but the entire area. A stroll along The Mall ought to be a pleasure.
The Plunket family has been mentioned here before, not least the Hon Brinsley Plunket who in November 1927 married Aileen Guinness, eldest daughter of Ernest Guinness (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). The couple were related: the grandmother of Brinsley (always known as Brinny) Plunket had been a Guinness, sister to Aileen’s grandfather. Another curiosity: the groom’s great-great aunt, the Hon Katherine Plunket, who died in 1932 when a month short of her 112the birthday, is recorded as the longest-living person in Ireland. Brinny Plunket was younger brother of Terence (known as Teddy), sixth Lord Plunket. A talented cartoonist who later turned to painting portraits, in 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and American actress Fannie Ward. Teddy and Dorothé were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938 while on their way to attend a party at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate. Their close links to the royal family meant the couple’s eldest son Patrick, seventh Baron Plunket, would serve as Equerry to Elizabeth II and Deputy Master of the Royal Household until his death in 1975.
The rise of the Plunkets had begun in the late 18th century with William Conyngham Plunket. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he became a lawyer famous for having been lead prosecutor at Robert Emmet’s trial in 1803. Two years later he was made Attorney-General for Ireland and also became a member of the Irish Privy Council. A supporter of Catholic Emancipation, in 1827 he was created Baron Plunket, became Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas and later served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Obviously a man of such prominence needed to have a country seat and so in the mid-1780s he took a lease on an estate to the south of Dublin called Old Connaught. Originally there appears to have been a late-medieval tower house on this site, built by a branch of the Walsh family, but this was badly damaged by a fire in 1776 and seven years later the property was leased to an Anglican clergyman, the Rev William Gore, Bishop of Limerick. He embarked on building a new house for himself but died almost as soon as it was finished, and before long the lease was acquired, and then bought out, by William Conyngham Plunket, in whose family it would remain for the next 150 years. As demonstrated by the Hon Katherine, provided they weren’t killed in plane crashes, the Plunkets tended to live long, and the first baron was just six months shy of turning 90 when he died in 1854. His eldest son, the second baron (father of the aforementioned Hon Katherine Plunket), was a clergyman who rose to become Bishop of Tuam but had no sons, so following his death the title, and Old Connaught, passed to a younger brother. On the third baron’s death, he was succeeded by his eldest son William Plunket who was another clergyman (for generations, male members of this family either joined the church or practised as lawyers). Like several forebears, the fourth baron rose through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Archbishop of Dublin where he was instrumental in establishing a teacher training school in Kildare Place. That building is long gone (replaced by a mediocre office block housing the Dept of Agriculture) but Archbishop Plunket is commemorated by a statue which depicts him pensively observing his surroundings. In 1863 he married Anne Lee Guinness, and her substantial marriage settlement allowed improvements and extensions to be undertaken at Old Connaught, with both house and gardens benefitting, the former not least by the addition of a large conservatory – since lost – to one side of the building. As mentioned, the archbishop was Brinny Plunket’s grandfather while Anne Lee Guinness was great-aunt of Aileen Guinness, hence the link between the later couple. The archbishop’s eldest son, also William, was a diplomat who served as Governor of New Zealand 1904-10.
What has all the above to do with today’s photographs? These show the restored walled gardens of Old Connaught House. Following his parents’ death in California in 1938, the estate was inherited by their eldest son Patrick, but he and his siblings were raised by a paternal aunt in London and had little to do with Ireland. But even before then the family had largely abandoned the place, leasing it in 1935 to the Christian Brothers who used the house as a senior novitiate school under the name Colaiste Ciaran. The surrounding land was run as a farm and the old gardens used for growing fruit and vegetables. Having subsequently bought the estate from the Plunkets, the order remained there until 1972 when it was decided to close the novitiate school and sell or lease sections of the estate. The house itself remained in the hands of the Christian Brothers until 1999 when finally put on the market with just 12 acres; today the building is divided into a series of flats. Meanwhile, the old walled garden, long cultivated first by the Plunkets and then the brothers, was left to fall into ruin. In 1996 the gardens and stableyard were leased to a charity founded eight years earlier to provide a range of programmes for the disabled and disadvantaged. This body is called Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly) taking its name from the Plunket family motto, and reflects the process whereby the old walled gardens, running to some two and a half acres, were gradually resuscitated, one section reflecting the character of the site in the mid-19th century when Archbishop Plunket and his family would have lived at Old Connaught. Another part of the gardens is largely divided into allotments, filled with vegetables, fruit trees and flowers, just as would once have been the case. Incidentally, the wooden platforms seen on the middle garden’s long ponds are for the sake of terrapins who live here. The gardens (which also feature a shop and cafe) are open daily to the public for free, although donations are always welcome. Well worth supporting, so do consider hurrying along there (and not slowly).
Located at the northern end of Rathdrum, County Wicklow, this is what remains of Ardavon, once home to the Comerfords, a family responsible for building a mill in the lower part of the town in the mid-19th century. The mill eventually closed in 1935 but the buildings still stand on one side of the bridge crossing the river Avonmore. Meanwhile the Comerfords remained at Ardavon until 1958 when the house was acquired by the Wicklow County Vocational Education Committee. It was then used as a school but in 1991 Avondale Community College opened and Ardavon became redundant, a property owned, but not used, by the local authority. Soon enough the inevitable happened: in 1997 the house was badly damaged by fire and despite undertakings by Wicklow Council to undertake restoration work, it has remained a roofless ruin ever since.
Located at one end of Rathdrum, County Wicklow, this is the former Royal Fitzwilliam Hotel, opened in October 1863 beside the station by the Dublin & South Eastern Railway. Although trains still stop here, the hotel closed in 1931 and appears to have been left empty for many years, although for a brief period earlier this century it was used to house asylum seekers. At the height of the economic boom, it was offered for sale at €1.9 million, but failed to find a buyer: by 2013 the price had plunged to €150,000, but still there were no takers. In the interim it was subject to vandalism before finally, in December 2009, being badly damaged by fire. Since then its condition has further deteriorated and is now in a pitiful state, with the handful of distinguishing features such as the cast-iron drinking fountain, being allowed to rot.
The outer walls of the former Church of Ireland church at Derrylossary, County Wicklow. The present structure stands on the site of a much older one, thought to have been associated with the monastic centre at Glendalough, located some six miles to the south-west. Possibly incorporating parts of the original structure, this church was rebuilt in the 1820s thanks to financial support from the Board of First Fruits, with a tower added the following decade. The site is noteworthy for being the burial place of two well-known figures in 20th century Ireland, the first being Robert Barton who lived not far away at Glendalough House and was one of the signatories of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty (although he then opposed it). The second is his cousin Erskine Childers’ son, of the same name, who briefly served as Ireland’s fourth President until his death in November 1974; his father, Childers senior, had been executed during the Civil War after being arrested by Free State while staying at Glendalough House. Derrylossary church continued to be used for religious services until the late 1960s, after which it was closed and eventually unroofed.
Frank Browne, better known as Fr Browne, was without doubt the finest photographer working in Ireland during the middle decades of the last century. Taking some 42,000 pictures, all of which he carefully catalogued before his death in 1960, he left behind an astonishingly rich record of daily life throughout the country over that period. Even more remarkably, photography began, and remained, an extra-curricular hobby because Frank Browne was first and foremost a Jesuit priest. His activities as a photographer had to be fitted in – and sometimes set aside – as and when was required by his superiors in the order. This makes his achievement in the medium all the more impressive. It is clear that he could have made a comfortable living from his work, but chose not to do so. All financial compensation he received for his work, and during certain busy periods the amounts were substantial, he was not permitted to retain: the money was immediately forwarded to the Provincial Treasurer of the Jesuit order. Among the payments he received were those for a series of images of Ireland’s country houses, commissioned by the Irish Tatler & Sketch. Published monthly, the photographs were accompanied by Browne’s own texts, in which he discussed the building in question and its history. It says a great deal about the man’s character that he managed to gain the trust of so many owners, who allowed him access to their properties, which were then still private and not open to the public. The pictures he took on these occasions are a fantastic but hitherto insufficiently explored resource, since they show interiors of many houses either since lost or radically altered. What’s particularly interesting is to look at how such buildings, still occupied by their original families, were then furnished as it is indicative of decorative taste at the time, often little altered from the 19th century. The pictures also provide viewers with a wistful awareness of what has been lost, usually sold at auction and frequently taken out of the country. Some of these images are included in a newly-published book, Wandering Wicklow with Father Browne, and they are shown here.
Killruddery, County Wicklow is today one of Ireland’s most popular and visited country houses, enjoying the benefits of being located on the edge of Dublin. It has been home to successive generations of the Brabazon family, Earls of Meath, since the early 17th century. The core of the building dates from that period, but heavily encased in a number of later additions, the most substantial being made by father and son architects Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison during the 1820s when they greatly enlarged the house and transformed its exterior to resemble an immense Tudor mansion, further alterations being made some forty years later when William Slater added a Dutch gable and Oriel window to the south front. A decade earlier, the present conservatory was constructed, replacing an earlier one that was part of the Morrisons’ contribution. Browne’s photographs were taken in 1947 when all of this was still in place. But just a few years later, extensive dry rot was discovered in parts of the building and the fourteenth Earl of Meath took the decision that demolition was the only option. Accordingly, in the early 1950s the entire entrance front on the north side was pulled down and the remainder remodelled by Claud Phillimore. At least a third of the house was lost including the double-height entrance hall seen here, along with an equally monumental dining room and other spaces. Browne’s pictures provide an invaluable record of how Killruddery appeared before these revolutionary changes were instigated.
The Howard family came from the village of Shelton in Nottinghamshire, and remembered this when they chose to name their Irish house Shelton Abbey. The original building here is thought to have been constructed for Ralph Howard, first Viscount Wicklow, in the mid-1750s, its design attributed to English architect Matthew Brettingham. In 1819 Howard’s grandson, William-Forward Howard, 4th Earl of Wicklow invited the Morrisons père et fils to remodel the building so that it might resemble ‘an Abbey erected in the fourteenth century, and…formed into a baronial residence shortly after the Reformation’ although the architects complained the result was less perfect than they might have wished since the owner wished to retain as much as possible of the original fabric. Some of the interiors, such as the library and dining room, retained their classical decoration but others, not least the main drawing room, were made over in Tudor Gothic style with wonderful fan vaulted ceilings. During the 1740s the first Ralph Howard had undertaken a Grand Tour during which he was painted by Pompeo Batoni and acquired a number of old master works and antiquities. Subsequent further generations of the family married well and added to Shelton Abbey’s contents so that by the time the eighth, and last, Earl of Wicklow inherited the place it was filled with treasures. Unfortunately, his bank balance was less well stocked and in 1947 he decided to open his home as an hotel. Just before this happened, Browne was invited to photograph the building, the first such job he undertook for Irish Tatler & Sketch. His pictures therefore show Shelton Abbey when still a private property. Sadly, the earl’s scheme was not a success – it was perhaps too early for the allure of a country house hotel to be appreciated – and in 1950 he made the decision to sell the estate. A sale of the contents duly followed and took an astonishing 13 days, an indication of how impressive they were, with dealers coming from England and the United States to snatch up many bargains. Today Shelton Abbey is an open prison and its interiors, bereft of their former contents, have suffered from indifferent maintenance. This gives Browne’s pictures a particular poignancy, not least one showing Mr Virtue, the house’s long-serving butler, looking apprehensively out the front door as he awaits the arrival of paying guests.
Wandering Wicklow with Father Browne is published by Messenger Publications (www.messenger.ie) and now available in all good bookshops.