Partying putti in the gardens of Headfort, County Meath: they have evidently heard the news that the building is to reopen its doors as a school next month. Its design attributed to George Semple (a Dublin-based builder and self-taught architect), the house dates from the mid-1760s when constructed for the first Earl of Bective. In the following decade, the latter commissioned Robert Adam to produce decorative schemes for a suite of rooms in the newly completed Headfort. Adam, who never visited this country, duly came up with designs for the entrance and staircase halls, as well for as a series of three adjacent spaces on the garden front culminating in a double-height saloon that was known as the ‘Eating Parlor.’ Even if not all his proposals were fully implemented, the interiors are of immense importance as the only extant examples of Adam’s work in Ireland. In 1949 the property was opened as a school which remained in operation until last March, when the institution’s then-board took the decision to close down. However, since then a group of supporters, many of them past-pupils, have come together to raise funds and re-open the establishment, thereby ensuring the future of this very important house.
As many readers will be aware, Desmond Guinness, the pioneer of architectural conservation in Ireland. died last Thursday, at the age of 88. Led by Ireland’s President, Michael D Higgins, many tributes have quite correctly been paid to Desmond and his decades-long defence of the country’s architectural heritage. So, it is easy to forget that for much of that time, he and his supporters received not encomiums but abuse, not praise but criticism, not support but hostility. And yet he continued on his crusade, one which has left this country and its citizens considerably richer than would otherwise be the case.
Although a member of the Irish Guinness family, Desmond spent the greater part of his life in England until, following his marriage to Hermione Marie-Gabrielle von Urach – universally known as Mariga – he moved with her to Ireland and they began looking for somewhere to make their home. It was while engaged in this quest and travelling about the country that the couple became aware of how many old buildings of note in Ireland were being either neglected or demolished. The 1950s were an especially lean era here and, understandably, the losses to her architectural heritage provoked little, if any, protest or regret among the greater part of the Ireland’s impoverished population. Most of them had other, more immediate, concerns than what happened to properties with which they felt no great affinity; in the popular mind, historic houses were associated with the old regime. Inspecting many sites over a couple of years had the effect of refining Desmond and Mariga’s already intuitive aesthetic sensibilities, and it made them acutely aware of just how many 18th and 19th century buildings around the country were at risk of being lost forever. However, it was the demolition of Georgian buildings in Dublin rather than the disappearance of another country house that inspired the couple to establish the Irish Georgian Society in 1958. On their visits to the capital from 1956 onwards, the Guinnesses had seen Dublin Corporation workers clear away magnificent mansions on Lower Dominick Street and Hardwicke Place and replacing them with blocks of local authority flats. Most of these old properties had long ago deteriorated into squalid tenements; their loss, though unwelcome, was comprehensible. But in July 1957 the government authorised the demolition of two 18th century houses on Kildare Place, only a matter of yards from the Dail in Leinster House. No. 2 Kildare Place had been designed by Richard Castle and executed after his death in 1751 by John Ensor; its neighbour was of a slightly later date. Both houses were in excellent condition and there was no reason for their destruction other than an unwillingness on the part of the State to maintain the buildings. This barbarous act on the part of government spurred Desmond and Mariga into direct action, and the Irish Georgian Society was born.
Prior to the establishment of the Irish Georgian Society there had been no organization, or individuals, taking up the cudgels on behalf of the country’s historic properties. Building up credibility was a long and arduous process: during the first decades of its existence the Society – and its founders – had to fight many battles. Some of these were won, others lost. But the biggest battle was against ignorance and indifference: these twin demons had to be faced down over and over again. Desmond experienced much personal hostility, often from those in positions of power who did not like their decisions being called into question. However, he remained resolute in his enterprise, and never wavered in his determination to conserve the architectural legacy left by earlier generations and to encourage wider appreciation of this legacy. The most important example of his industry and imagination can be seen at Castletown, County Kildare. This important building, the first great Palladian house in Ireland dating from the early 18th century, was at risk of being lost forever when Desmond stepped in and found the necessary funds to save the property. Today Castletown is owned by the Irish State and is rightly lauded as a splendid example of Irish design and craftsmanship. But if it had not been for Desmond’s brave initiative, and then the restoration work that he and Mariga oversaw on the house – helped by the many volunteers they inspired – Castletown would now be nothing more than a handful of old black and white photographs. There are many, many other instances of bold decisions being taken by Desmond leading to the survival of important properties throughout the country. It is worth noting that from the mid-1960s onwards, he regularly visited the United States where his mission, and that of the Irish Georgian Society, was better received and supported than was the case back home. The IGS, like many of the buildings it championed, would not be here still were it not for American friends.
A brief personal note. I first met Desmond Guinness when an undergraduate, but only in passing. In the early 1980s and by then living in the Damer House in County Tipperary (an early 18th century house which the Irish Georgian Society had saved from demolition), I met him again and over the next 35 years had the opportunity to come to know him well. Desmond was a man blessed with many advantages; he was exceptionally handsome (those famous pale blue eyes) and possessed an abundance of personal charm, well able to captivate whoever was in his company. He had a deliciously mellifluous voice and engaging manner, which he put to excellent effect on his fund-raising visits to the United States; even today there are elderly American women who shyly blush when they recall being in his presence over half a century ago. In his heyday, he was a tireless advocate, running the society from a room in his County Kildare home, Leixlip Castle where – when not working elsewhere for the society – he was an unfailingly generous host with flawless manners. Leixlip Castle was always the most hospitable of houses, where Desmond was at his easiest and most charming, ensuring it was always a delight to be in his company. There are a great many people, myself included, who are grateful to have benefited from his unflagging kindness and support.
Unlike most countries, Ireland has no official honours system. During his lifetime, Desmond never received the acknowledgement that he deserved for his pioneering work in the area of architectural conservation. Now that he is dead, the best way the Irish state could honour his legacy is by giving more attention to our country’s historic buildings. Otherwise, like Desmond, it will be too late to give them the attention they merit.
In need of repair: the conservatory attributed to Richard Turner which is attached to the west side of Marlfield, County Tipperary. This house was built for the Bagwell family in c.1785-90. The conservatory here is a later addition, thought to have been added around 1835, which is two years later than that at Colebrooke. Although Marlfield was burnt by Anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War (it was subsequently rebuilt), the conservatory survived intact and is therefore an important example of Turner’s early work.
The conservatory at Kilshane, County Tipperary. The house dates from the 1820s when designed for the Lowe family by John Hargrave, a son of the successful Cork-based architect Abraham Hargrave. The curvilinear conservatory, thought to be the most ambitious of its kind to survive in Ireland, was added around 1860; while very much in the style of Richard Turner, it cannot with certainty be ascribed to him. Along with the house, it was restored by the present owners at the start of the present century.
In 1961, the April-June issue of the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin advised readers that a house in County Carlow called Browne’s Hill ‘is to be demolished if a buyer does not come forward within the next month. Situated in a large park with fine timber, Browne’s Hill is in first-rate structural repair and would make a lovely, easily run family home. Although it is on top of a hill with panoramic views, it is not remote, the town of Carlow being only 1 ½ miles away, and Dublin 50 miles.
The house was built in 1763 by an architect named Peters for Robert Browne, in whose family it remained until recently. The three reception rooms have rich plaster ceilings and the original mantlepieces, the front hall is paved with black and white squares, and the kitchen (with Aga) is on the ground floor. The grand staircase leads up to ten bedrooms of various sizes, he principal one being octagonal with windows facing in three directions. There are two bathrooms, three lavatories, oil fired central heating and E.S.B. main electricity.
The courtyard comprises 15 stables, garages, loose boxes, dairy and groom’s house with excellent living accommodation, approximately 5,000 square feet of lofting, all in good condition. For permission to view, apply to – William Mulhall, Auctioneer and Valuer, 60 Dublin St., Carlow.
Price £2,500 with five acres.
A further 68 acres is available, if required, £7,000.’
Browne’s Hill was occupied by successive generations of the same family until 1951 when William Browne-Clayton offered the house for sale with 700 acres. Two years later an English syndicate purchased the estate, along with another nearby, the 1,500 acre Oak Park. These purchases were not well-received locally, farmers in the area believing the land ought to have been divided up among them by the Land Commission. Eventually in 1961 the syndicate, faced with growing hostility, negotiated a deal with the commission, whereby the estate underwent division and the house with its immediate five acres were put on the market with an asking price of £2,500. It was at this point that the Irish Georgian Society placed a notice in its bulletin warning supporters that unless a sympathetic buyer could be found – and soon – the house would be demolished. This news understandably caused alarm among those who were fighting to ensure the survival of the country’s steadily diminishing architectural heritage. Among them was author Anita Leslie, then dividing her time between her own family home, Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, and Oranmore Castle, County Galway, a property she had bought with her husband Bill King. Anita Leslie was also battling to save Dalyston, an important mid-18th century house that had just been sold to a County Longford firm that specialized in stripping old buildings of all saleable assets. Seeing Dalyston unroofed and gradually picked bare, she was determined the same fate should not befall Browne’s Hill and embarked on a campaign to save the property. For a time, she thought it might perhaps be bought by one of her friends, such as the wealthy Simone, Baronne de Bastard who had just spent huge sums restoring the 17th century château de Hautefort in the Dordogne, but it seems Mme de Bastard did not care to purchase a house in the Irish countryside.
As June 1961 drew to a close, the fate of Browne’s Hill seemed sealed: it was destined to be demolished since the best purchase offer had come from the same company that had stripped and unroofed Dalyston. But then the Land Commission, in a rare gesture of sympathy, advised the Irish Georgian Society that it would allow a further six months’ grace before a decision over the house’s future was made. Anita Leslie battled on, helped by another stalwart of the society, Eoin ‘The Pope’ O’Mahony (he had been nicknamed ‘The Pope’ while still a schoolboy after declaring his ambition in life was to hold this title). A wonderfully eccentric character, one-time barrister, orator, genealogist and supporter of many lost causes, in this instance O’Mahony announced that he had persuaded a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to back a scheme whereby Browne’s Hill would be bought for 2,000 guineas, to be used as a student hostel. Extensive correspondence survives between Anita Leslie, Eoin O’Mahony, and Desmond and Mariga Guinness of the Irish Georgian Society as all of them – sometimes at cross-purposes – sought the best means of securing Browne’s Hill’s long-term future, each of them, and others besides, hounding the local auctioneer William Mulhall for information about possible rival bids for the place. On July 10th, Anita Leslie wrote somewhat histrionically to the Guinnesses, ‘I feel like Atlas holding up the last Georgian houses in Ireland on drooping shoulders & slender purse.’ If necessary, and as a last resort, she was prepared to pay the £2,500 required for Browne’s Hill, thinking it could either be let to a tenant or else run as a guesthouse. Finally, despairing that demolition awaited without her intercession and without telling her husband of the decision, she sent the auctioneer a cheque for the deposit. The cheque was promptly returned: it transpired that another offer for the property had been made – and not by any firm with demolition in mind. Instead, Browne’s Hill was bought by a local travel agent Frank Tully and his wife Patty. They subsequently moved into Browne’s Hill, which remained a family home until Mr Tully died in November 2018. Last month Browne’s Hill came on the market for only the second time since it was built more than 250 years ago.
The original entrance gates to the Browne’s Hill estate, which took the form of a splendid triumphal arch, were sold during this period and bought by University College Dublin, which in 1962 purchased the Lyons estate in County Kildare to run as a research farm. The gates can still be seen there at the entrance to the now-private house at Lyons.
The clock tower which stands in the centre of Ardagh, County Longford. The village was part of the estate belonging to Sir Thomas John Fetherston who in the early 1860s employed James Rawson Carroll to design new houses and amenities for its residents. Built in 1863 by the architect’s brother, Thomas Henry Carroll, the clock tower stands in the centre of Ardagh’s picturesque Green and was erected in memory of Sir Thomas’ uncle, Sir George Ralph Fetherston. His widow paid for the monument which, according to an inscription at the base, commemorates her late-husband’s ‘life-long devotion to the moral and social improvement of his tenantry.’
From The Tuam Herald of Saturday, September 4th 1920: ‘A correspondent gives some interesting but sad details of the malicious burning of Tyrone House [County Galway]. It was in the late Georgian style and the finest house in Ireland. The ceilings were all painted by Italian masters and were regular works of art. The mantle pieces were all of rare Italian marble and very costly. In the hall was a fine full sized marble statue of Baron St George the founder of that once great family. It was the work of an Italian artist. The head was broken off the night of the raid deliberately it must be said. All the ceilings are now ruined and the mantle pieces also, and the entire structure an empty shell and ruin. There was no grounds for the report that the military or police intended or were to occupy the house, and agrarian motives are believed to have inspired and instigated this most foul and reprehensible act of purely wanton destruction. Of late years the place was freely allowed to be used by pleasure parties who came out from Loughrea and other places to have a dance which cost them nothing and to enjoy themselves, and who were never prevented from having their pleasure and a dance on the spacious floor of the dining room, and they can now no longer do so, and where in olden days the finest balls in the Co. Galway took place.’
This month marks the sad centenary of the burning of Tyrone House. For further information on the building and its former owners, the St George family, see https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/09/18/tyrone-house/ or watch on the Irish Aesthete’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=irish+aesthete
Rathcoffey Castle, County Kildare has a complex history, involving multiple changes of ownership. The first to be recorded dates from the late 12th century when lands in this part of the country were granted by the Anglo-Norman knight Adam de Hereford (responsible for building Leixlip Castle elsewhere in the same county) to his brother John. When that line of the family failed, the land reverted to the crown and in the early 14th century Edward II granted it to John de Wogan, Justiciar of Ireland. The Wogans, thought to be originally from Wales, retained the property (albeit with a certain amount of the inevitable internecine feuding) until the mid-18th century, despite remaining Roman Catholic, and rising against the Crown in 1581 and again in 1642. They also supported James II, the last of the line and so went into exile. The last of the male line, Charles Wogan, led a rather romantic existence, escaping from London’s Newgate Prison in 1716 on the eve of his trial for high treason. He managed to reach France where he joined a regiment under the authority of another Irish exile, Colonel Arthur Dillon. Next, he became involved in securing a bride for the Old Pretender: this included securing her release after she had been captured by the Austrians, for which he was made a Roman Senator by Pope Clement XI. The Old Pretender (James III to loyal Jacobites) made him a baronet, while in France he was known as the Chevalier Wogan. Next he joined the Spanish army where he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and made Governor of La Mancha. While living there he corresponded with Jonathan Swift in Dublin, sending the latter more than one cask of wine and some writings which he hoped Swift would help to get published. This never happened, although Swift described Wogan as ‘a Scholar, a Man of Genius and of Honour. As late as 1746 he was still trying to help the Jacobite cause, travelling to France in the hope of joining the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in England, an aspiration never realized. He died, it appears back in La Mancha in 1752.
With the death of the Chevalier Wogan and then his younger brother Nicholas, what remained of the family’s Kildare estate was divided between the latter’s two daughters, one of whom Frances married John Talbot of Malahide. In the 1780s their grandson, Richard Wogan Talbot, second Baron Talbot of Malahide, sold Rathcoffey to another fascinating character, Archibald Hamilton Rowan who just a few years later would be a founding member of the Dublin Society of United Irishmen. In 1792 he was first arrested for seditious libel and two years later was jailed in Dublin. However, just like Charles Wogan, he managed to escape and to flee to France. Finding the Revolutionary climate too unstable, in July 1795 he moved to the United States, settling first in Philadelhia and then Wilmington, Delaware, borrowing money to operate a calico mill in the area. Finally in 1799, following persistent appeals from his wife Sarah to the British government, he was allowed to return to Europe, being reunited with his family in Hamburg. Then in 1803 he was permitted to live in England and finally, following the death of his father in 1805, back in Ireland. Thereafter he divided his time between the family’s original home, Killyleagh Castle, County Down and Rathcoffey where his loyal wife, then his eldest son and finally he all died in the same year, 1834. After which the contents of the building were auctioned and the estate leased, then sub-leased before being taken back by the Hamilton Rowan family. However, as early as 1902 the house was described as being a ruin, in which state it has remained ever since.
The site at Rathcoffey contains a number of substantial ruins, the oldest being an L-plan late-medieval gate house, possibly dating from the 15th century. This would have provided access to the main castle enclosed within a bawn wall, which has since gone. The gate house has undergone changes since first constructed and, it is speculated by Andrew Tierney, may have been converted into a coachhouse in the 18th century. That is certainly when the old castle, which stood a short distance to the east, was radically altered and given the form it still retains. The work is thought to have occurred after the estate was acquired by Archibald Hamilton Rowan in the 1780s: in his Beauties of Ireland (1826) James Norris Brewer noted that Hamilton Rowan had ‘commenced a less austere residence’ at Rathcoffey. Its design has been attributed to amateur architect and neighbour Thomas Wogan Browne, a relation of the previous owners. It will be remembered that the Wogan property was inherited by two sisters, one of whom married a Talbot. The other married a Browne, who lived not far away on an estate called Clongowes Wood (since 1814 a school run by the Jesuit order)*. Thomas Wogan Browne was responsible for giving his family home its Gothick appearance, but Rathcoffey on the other hand, although already a castle, was now thoroughly classicized. The older building to the rear and occupying the north-east corner of the site, was incorporated into the new and the greater part of the ground floor is groin-vaulted, even the handsome ashlar, three-bay loggia that sits between the three-storey façade’s projecting wings, each once finished with pedimented gables. Since it has stood empty for so long, little of the interior survives; one of the small reception rooms to the south-east has an internal bow-end and its equivalent in the south-west retains a number of niches. Otherwise it is impossible to determine what the house looked like when occupied by the Hamilton Rowans.
*There was another, and later link between Rathcoffey Castle and Clongowes Wood, since for much of the last century the Jesuits resident in the latter owned the land on which the former stands.
And so, another former church falling into ruin: this one in Aghinagh, County Cork where the congregation can never have been very substantial. The building dates from 1791 when £500 was provided by the Board of First Fruits but the east wall of the chancel (added in the mid-19th century) incorporates a late-medieval window, now completely smothered in ivy and other creepers, which suggests that, as so often, there was an earlier church on the site. One curious feature on the exterior of the three-stage tower at the west end may also have been recycled from a previous building: the head of a bishop carved in sandstone and resting on top of a Solomonic column.
Following Monday’s piece on Mount Talbot, County Roscommon, here is the church where the Talbot family used to worship, and in the grounds of which they were buried. The building dates from 1766 and like the nearby house must originally have been classical in form, as indicated by the great three-stage tower at the west end which has a large niche on the lowest level. It would appear that at some date in the 19th century, perhaps when work was being undertaken at the main house, the church was similarly Gothicised, since the east end was given a tripartite window with pointed arches and the three windows along the south wall were similarly altered. Having closed for services in the 1960s, the building fell into ruin but a number of years ago restoration work began on the site, including the installation of a new roof. This job now seems to have stalled and soon church and house may look much like each other.