Inside its own courtyard and therefore well set back from Main Street in Celbridge, County Kildare, this is Kildrought House. Dating from c.1720, it was built by Robert Baillie, a tapestry maker who also acted as land agent for William Conolly of nearby Castletown, the design attributed to Thomas Burgh. The house has had a complex history, serving not just as a private residence (which is now the case) but also from 1782 as an academy and then in 1830 as a cholera hospital. The building was restored thirty years ago by the present owner and offers an excellent example of how to preserve the best features of our towns, an example too rarely followed.
Caught in a (very) momentary lull in traffic, this is Jasmine Lodge, located at the northern end of Main Street in Celbridge, County Kildare. The house is thought to date from c.1750 when built by Charles Davis, then acting as land agent for the Conolly family of nearby Castletown. Its most distinctive feature is the floating pediment at the top of the building, inset with a small Diocletian window. The present doorcase with its wide fanlight and sidelights was, it seems, installed around 1800 while the decorative iron archway was reportedly made using material salvaged from Dublin’s General Post Office after the 1916 Rising.
A week ago, this site explored the old house at Clonalis, County Roscommon and explained why in the last quarter of the 19th century it was abandoned for another residence elsewhere on the property. The branch of the ancient O’Conor family who still live here moved to Clonalis exactly 200 years ago, in 1820; prior to that they had been living elsewhere in the county. As mentioned, by the early 1700s the great O’Conors had been brought low, a consequence of their support over previous decades for the Roman Catholic and Jacobite causes, and the harsh penalties duly imposed on them. The head of this branch, Denis O’Conor, was known as ‘The Heir to Nothing’ as all his ancestral lands had been taken from him; supposedly he advised his own children never to be impudent to the poor because, ‘I was the son of a gentleman but you are the sons of a ploughman.’ In 1720, aided by his uncle, Counsellor Terence McDonagh he won a case in the Dublin courts that restored him a portion – 500 acres – of his patrimony. According to family tradition, he was so poor that he had to walk to the capital barefoot. On this parcel of land at Ballinagare, he built a new house for himself; until then, he had been living in a mud hut in County Sligo. This house became a home for Denis O’Conor’s extended family, including his mother-in-law, Countess Isabella O’Rorke who had been a Maid of Honour at the court of the exiled James II in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and his maternal uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, former Chaplain to Prince Eugene of Savoy but by then the fugitive Catholic Bishop of Killala. The house also became a centre for anyone who espoused the old Gaelic culture, not least the period’s most famous bard and harpist Turlough Carolan who composed airs in honour of Denis O’Conor, his wife Maire, and their son Charles. A harp used by Carolan is still kept at Clonalis, along with the chalice of Bishop Thadeus O’Rorke his pectoral cross, liturgical vestments and an Episcopal ring presented to him by Prince Eugene.
Charles O’Conor was born in 1710, ten years before his father Denis won the court case and was able to move the family to Ballinagare. Having already been educated by a Franciscan friar through the medium of Irish and Latin, in adolescence he was taught by his uncle, Thadeus O’Rorke, before spending time in Dublin where he was taught mathematics, science and French by another Catholic clergyman. In 1731, he married Catherine O’Fagan who brought sufficient fortune with her to allow the couple establish their own household and here he devoted his time to the study of Ireland’s ancient history and culture, paying particular attention to all available original sources, aided by his fluency in both Irish and Latin. He also read all the leading contemporary writers in English and French. Throughout his life he collected, and annotated, Irish manuscripts and in 1753 published the work for which he remains best-remembered, Dissertations on the Antient History of Ireland which, thanks to its rigorous scholarship brought him widespread acclaim, not least from Samuel Johnson who after reading the book wrote to its author, ‘I have long wished that the Irish literature were cultivated. Ireland is known by tradition to have been once the seat of piety and learning; and surely it would be very acceptable to all those who are curious either in the original of nations, or the affinities of languages, to be further informed of the revolution of a people so ancient, and once so illustrious.’
Like his forebears, he remained a devout Roman Catholic, which at the time had its drawbacks. Conscious of the disadvantages suffered at the time by fellow-members of the same faith, along with historian John Curry, in 1757 he was one of the founders of the Catholic Committee, an organization campaigning for the repeal of the Penal Laws. He experienced the hazards of this legislation in 1777 when one of his younger brothers, Hugh O’Conor, conformed to the Established Church and filed a bill in chancery ‘for obtaining possession of the lands of Belanagare as its first protestant discoverer.’ Long litigation followed, ending only after the threat was seen off by the payment of a large financial settlement.
Following the death of his father Denis in 1749, Charles O’Conor moved to the house at Ballinagare and lived there until 1760 when he handed over the property to his eldest son (another Denis). Then he, moved to a smaller residence which he built and called the Hermitage. The latter still stands, albeit in somewhat precarious condition, but the former has fallen into ruin; this likely occurred after 1820 when Charles O’Conor’s grandson, Owen, moved to Clonalis. What remains are the façade and portions of the walls behind; these are believed to incorporate masonry taken from a late-medieval tower house constructed by an earlier generation of O’Conors. Faced in cut limestone, the entrance front is relatively modest, of three bays and one storey over raised basement, with a single storey extension to one side; a pediment incorporating a single arched window rises above the entablature. Dating from the 1720s, the house was intentionally given this diminutive appearance so as not to draw too much attention to its owners but it must have extended in both depth and possibly width to the rear since the number of occupants – members of the O’Conor family and their servants – is known to have been substantial. The entire interior has gone, as has the back wall, making it impossible to judge how the building looked when still occupied. The same is not true of Charles O’Conor’s second residence, the Hermitage which, as mentioned, still stands This modest house, just one room deep, is of two storeys and three bays, with an extension to the rear accommodating the staircase return. An adjacent yard would have held stables and coach house as well as rooms for the servants. Inside, it is still possible to see some of the decoration in both dining and drawing rooms, and entrance hall but the stairs are now too precarious to risk ascent to the first floor. The house was occupied until at least the middle of the last century, but a bungalow was subsequently constructed immediately in front, since when the older building has been used as a storage space, the ground floor windows enlarged to allow vehicular access. Its future must be considered precarious. Charles O’Conor was one of Ireland’s foremost scholars in the 18th century, and through his writings did much to preserve and disseminate evidence of this country’s ancient, and then-imperiled, culture. Almost thirty years ago, Seamus Deane described O’Conor as ‘one of the disregarded but very important figures of Irish history.’ The neglect of the buildings associated with him demonstrates little has changed in the interim.
Another month, another loss: this time of the extraordinary Lindy Dufferin, for over half a century chatelaine of Clandeboye, County Down where she will be buried today. Born in 1941, Lindy seemed always to have lived at breakneck speed. A newspaper notice this week has commented that she might have been the lead character in a novel. But despite being constantly on the move, there were a few constants in her life. One was Clandeboye, the house and estate she was bequeathed by her husband Sheridan on his death in 1988. Thanks to her grit, initiative and flair she turned the place into a flourishing business (one of her greatest successes was Clandeboye Estate Yoghurt, established in 2007) and an important centre for environmental conservation. Thanks to her efforts, she ensured the estate’s future and preserved the house with its remarkable contents. Just as important was her own painting; as a teenager she had studied with Duncan Grant and she remained committed to the practice for the rest of her life; on visits to Clandeboye, one always had to look at, and comment on, her latest work. Regardless of what else was happening or where she was, Lindy made time for painting, always trying new approaches and techniques, never flagging in a determination to find the visual equivalent of her own distinctive voice. To my mind, her best work are the small landscapes, not least pictures of the cattle at Clandeboye (responsible for producing the milk that made all that delicious yoghurt). And friendship was the third constant, aided by insatiable curiosity about everyone else (chronically deaf, she habitually quizzed friends about their private lives in a very loud voice). It was always a joy to stay at comfortable, spoiling Clandeboye, although she could be an imperious hostess: I remember on one occasion being ordered to remain in the library while she showed visitors around the house, ‘otherwise darling you’ll only correct me when I say something wrong.’ The confinement was eased by well-stocked bookshelves and an equally well-stocked drinks table. Now she is gone and one is left with memories, not least of a riotous New Year’s Eve dinner held at the top of Helen’s Tower. A folly erected on the estate in the mid-19th century by the first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, the tower was commemorated in a poem by Alfred Tennyson, which includes the line ‘Love is in and out of time.’ It seems an appropriate way to recall Lindy.
Serena Belinda Rosemary Guinness, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, March 25, 1941-October 26 2020
Monday’s post about the former house at Clonalis, County Roscommon included a photograph of the building when still intact. That image showed much of the facade covered in ivy, but another, and clearer, picture has now been found which shows the same view with much less vegetation. What’s especially interesting is that above each of the windows and niches on ground and first floors there was a carved stone mask. Thankfully, some of these were salvaged and are now kept in the new Clonalis but they are a curious feature. The only other example of this kind of external decoration that comes to mind are the masks above the windows on the central section of the entrance front at Gloster, County Offaly, which also dates from the early 18th century. Does anyone know of other instances?
Clonalis, County Roscommon must be one of the best-known country houses in Ireland, thanks to its long links with the O’Conors, and specifically with the head of that family, known as the O’Conor Don. In the posthumously published The O’Conors of Connaught: An Historical Memoir (1891), the antiquarian John O’Donovan declared ‘No family in Ireland claims greater antiquity, and no family in Europe, royal or noble, can trace its descent through so many generations of legitimate ancestors.’ The line of their forebears can be followed back to pre-Christian Ireland, and from the 5th century onwards they frequently acted as King of Connacht. Such was the case with Conchobar mac Tadg who ruled during the third quarter of the 10th century and from whom the name O’Conor derives. His descendant Toirdhealbhach Mór Ua Conchobhair (anglicized as Turlough Mór O’Conor) became High King of Ireland around 1120, as did his son Ruaidrí mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Conor) who was the last man to hold this title before the Anglo-Norman invasion. Following his abdication, he retired to Cong Abbey, County Mayo and remained there until his death. Incidentally, his father Tairrdelbach was responsible for commissioning what is today known as the Cross of Cong, which was originally held in Tuam Cathedral. Members of the O’Conor family continued to act as Kings of Connacht until the late 15th century. Following the 16th century Reformation, the they remained Roman Catholic and, in due course, were loyal to the Stuart cause, with the result that by 1700 they had been stripped of almost all their former land holdings and left near-penniless. In the mid-17th century Daniel O’Conor Don and his wife Anne succeeded in retaining some 440 acres at Clonalis on the western side of the river Suck and their direct descendants remained there until 1820 when the last of them, Alexander O’Conor Don, died unmarried; it appears he spent much of his time at Clonalis living in a modest cottage since his brother, from whom he inherited the place, had left life-use of the house to his widow. Highly – and expensively – litigious, Alexander O’Conor’s various forays into the courts seem to have depleted what funds and lands were then held. Finally in 1820 a distant kinsman, Owen O’Conor was able to secure the estate and the title of O’Conor Don. It is from him that the present owners of Clonalis are descended.
We know little of what the original house at Clonalis looked like: a photograph (see below) shows the appearance of its façade. From this it is apparent the building’s central block was of two storeys over raised basement, and seven bays. There were three-bay wings on either side, each of one storey over basement. Thereafter much becomes a matter of conjecture, but looking inside what remains, the impression is that the first part of the house to be constructed was probably the front portion which stood just one room deep. Such gable-ended ‘long houses’ appear to have been common among old families who wanted to live in reasonable comfort but had limited financial means: the oldest part of Glin Castle, County Limerick is very similar. At some date, perhaps in the second half of the 18th century, an additional series of rooms was added behind the original block and this now backed onto the adjacent yard (which still stands). A central corridor runs like a spine down the centre of the building, separating old and new sections. The wings were added either then or later and presumably in part or whole acted as servants’ quarters. All this work may have been undertaken around the time that Dominick O’Conor Don (elder brother of the litigious Alexander) married Catherine Kelly, co-heiress with her sister to their father’s estate. The money she brought to the union could have paid for the additions to the house, and help to explain why, following her husband’s death, she was left use of it for the rest of her life (she died 19 years after him in 1814).
There were, it appears, always problems with the old building, not least its proximity to the river Suck, which meant that it suffered from damp, especially in winter months when this part of the land was prone to flooding. In 1847, following the death of his father Charles Owen O’Conor inherited the estate at the age of nine; he had been barely two when his mother died. His own health seems to have been delicate, and he spent a number of periods abroad until his marriage in 1868. Four years later, after having four sons, his wife Georgiana Perry died. This series of deaths appear to have been associated with the location of the old house, unhealthily close to the river, and this encouraged Charles Owen O’Conor to think of building an alternative residence on his land. In 1878, a year before his second marriage, he commissioned a design from English architect Frederick Pepys Cockerell and work soon began on a second house, located on a site on higher ground and some further distance away from the Suck. This high-Victorian Italianate building is notable for being one of the first concrete houses constructed in Ireland. Upon its completion, the O’Conors moved from their old home to the new, with the inevitable consequence that the former gradually slid into disuse and disrepair. Fortunately the present O’Conor house, with its many important archives and items telling the story not just of one family but of Ireland, is today wonderfully well-maintained and well-worth a visit.
Kilbeggan, County Westmeath is barely five miles west of Tyrellspass, but the two places couldn’t be more different in character. Both have a crescent but that in Kilbeggan occupies one portion of a bleak traffic roundabout and has suffered badly from neglect and mistreatment. The building dates from c.1830 when constructed in the then-popular Tudor-Gothic style as an hotel, indicating the prosperity of the period and the amount of traffic then passing through the village. The gables on the left-hand portion have been removed, as have the cut-limestone hooded doorcases, replaced by a brutish cement-rendered opening that makes nonsense of the composition. Alas, elsewhere things don’t get much better, with many buildings standing empty and neglected. Typical in this respect is the former Bank of Ireland, dating from c.1890, which closed early in the present century and presents a forlorn face on Market Square.
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.
‘Garrets-town, in this barony, is the seat of Francis Kearny, esq. situated on a rising ground, commanding a prospect of the ocean, on both sides the isthmus of the Old head of Kinsale, and a good part of the neighbouring country, which is here diversified into agreeable hills, and pleasant vales, well cultivated. The house, with the contiguous offices, form a handsome area; the pediments, coignes, doors and window-frames are well built of rustic work, and hewn stone; a considerable part of the ground on which they stand was levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock. Towards the south is a good orchard, with kitchen and pleasure gardens; in which last is a handsome amphitheatre, the ground being naturally formed for that purpose. Under a high terrace walk, that, to the east, affords a good prospect, is a deep glen, the sides covered with wood, and along the bottom a rivulet falls in several pleasant cascades; beyond this are rising grounds, sheltering the plantation from S. and S.W. winds. On the W. is a large park, well walled, and the whole seat is environed with good plantations of timber trees; among which, the French elm and silver fir are observed to stand the severity of the nipping sea winds, better than any others. On the east, is a fine level tract, now converted into meadows and pasture grounds, which a few years ago, was a deep, red, shaking morass, much frequented, in winter, by wild fowl, but impassable for man or beast. On the west of the house, there were lately made a fine basin and decoy, wild duck being very numerous in this part of the country.’
From The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork by Charles Smith (1750)
Garrettstown has a rather complex history of ownership. According to Charles Smith, the place derives its name from the Core family who once lived in the area ‘many of whom were successively named Garret.’ Originally the land here was part of the territory owned by the de Courcys, Barons Kingsale, but was sold off towards the end of the 16th century and in 1618 some 979 acres here and a further 424 acres at nearby Kilmore were bought by one James Kearney, a merchant in Cork city. The Kearneys were originally from the Kilmallock area of County Limerick but had moved south following the devastation wrought on that part of the country by the two Desmond Rebellions of 1569–1573 and 1579–1583. James Kearney was the great-grandfather of the Francis Kearney mentioned by Smith as being the owner of Garrettstown. Hitherto the family had remained Roman Catholic (and remained in possession of their property), but Francis Kearney, although married to a Catholic heiress Mary Roche, conformed to the Established Church. He also seems to have been a Protestant Discoverer, that is someone who, under the Penal legislation of the time, could file a bill in the Court of Chancery against a Catholic with a legally deficient lease, and claim the lease for his own benefit. On the other hand, there were instances – and given Kearney’s many Catholic connections this may have been one of them – when the claim was in fact, a ‘collusive discovery’. Here a bogus bill of discovery would be obtained by the discoverer, the document seemingly granting the property in question to a Protestant but in fact leaving it with the original Catholic owner. Whatever was the case, through marriage and other acquisitions Francis Kearney managed to enlarge his estate from less than 2,000 to almost 8,200 acres. On his death in 1776, the now-substantial Garrettstown estate was inherited by James Kearney who served as a local M.P. but never married. As a result, when he in turn died in 1812, Garrettsown passed to a cousin, Thomas Rochfort who was Roman Catholic. He and his wife had married relatively late and as a result, once again, there was no direct heir, the estate in due course being left to Thomas Rochfort’s brother-in-law Thomas Cuthbert, on the condition that he took the additional surname of Kearney. Perhaps because Cuthbert was a member of the Church of Ireland, unlike his late brother-in-law, the will was disputed in court in 1832 but eventually he was able to come into his inheritance. There are more changes of ownership in the 19th century, again between family relations, after 1886 the estate being jointly owned by cousins, Abraham Thomas Forster (whose own family had previously lived at Ballymaloe, elsewhere in the county) and Matthew Franks. When Forster died five years later, he left his share to a brother, Colonel Francis Rowland Forster, Master of the Horse at Dublin Castle (and, incidentally, a constant companion of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria during her visits to Ireland in 1879/80). In 1903 Colonel Franks sold his share of the Garrettstown estate to Matthew Franks who in turn took advantage of the Wyndham Act to dispose of most of the land other than the demesne. The Franks family remained in possession of what remained until the middle of the last century; in 1952 the Land Commission acquired house and demesne, selling on the latter to the owners of a nearby hotel who subsequently unroofed the buildings. The property was sold again to the present owners who for many years have operated a caravan park on the premises.
What remains of Garrettstown is rather tantalising. The site, which sits high above the sea was, as Smith wrote ‘levelled at a great expence, being hewn out of a deep solid rock’ in order, it is commonly believed, to construct there a fine Palladian house. Both the wings were constructed but then funds ran out and as a result the central block was never built. Instead, one of the wings served as stables (which was probably always the intention) while the other was steadily enlarged to the rear in order to form a decent residence. This notion certainly makes sense, since the two wings have identical facades facing each other across an open space between them and, at least on one side, the suggestion of what might once have been a colonnade linking it with the unbuilt main house. The date often provided for this development is some time during the first two decades of the 18th century, but it hardly makes sense that a family owning relatively little land would embark on such an ambitious project. More likely it was Francis Kearney, following his marriage to a Roche heiress and his acquisition of many thousands more acres, who in the late 1730s/early 1740s began to build a fine new house for himself – before recognising that its realisation was beyond his means. We know little of what the place looked like even when semi-finished. Samuel Lewis describes Garrettstown in 1837 as being ‘a handsome house in beautiful grounds, laid out in terraces, gardens and shrubberies, with extensive plantations.’ As mentioned, the two wings share the same façade design, of two storeys and five bays, the centre three bays breaking forward and pedimented; tooled limestone is used for the quoins, window surrounds and fine Gibbsian doorcases, hinting at how ambitious Mr Kearney’s house would have been, had his plans come to fruition. The residential wing was perhaps no more than one room deep, but additions to the rear mean its side elevation now runs to seven bays; an adjacent courtyard held further accommodation for staff and other services, meaning the establishment would have been decently substantial. As can be seen almost nothing other than exposed walls remains of the interior. The stable block has been restored and re-roofed, and is now used as office space. There were plans to undertake similar work on the other wing, but these have for the moment put on hold. One must hope they come to pass in due course.
The Lanesborough Arms Hotel opened in Newtownbutler, County Fermanagh 200 years ago, in 1820 and is testament to the prosperity of the area at the time. No longer, however. Of five bays and three storeys with a free-standing Tuscan porch, it closed for business some time ago: a fire believed to have been started deliberately caused major damage in 2016. Today the building is in poor shape, and reflects the decline seen in many small towns across the island of Ireland even before the start of the present pandemic.