The Irish Country House in the 21st Century


So, as 2020 draws to a close, how stands the Irish country house? Indeed, in some instances, does it still stand at all? Certainly, the past couple of decades have produced a great deal of information on the subject, and today much more is known about our historic properties, thanks to considerable scrupulous research and many recent publications (the Irish Aesthete has a shelf-long list of new books on his Christmas wish list). But does our being better informed lead to these buildings being better appreciated, and better cherished?




Certainly, there are instances where Irish country houses have been scrupulously restored, both by the state and private individuals. And many of those who have inherited such properties valiantly continue to devote themselves to making sure this legacy will pass to the next generation. What supports exist to assist them in the undertaking? What are the obstacles, what the challenges?




But other country houses have been lost – and a considerable number remain at risk of loss. To what extent does Ireland pay lip service to its architectural heritage? When it comes to our country houses, how well – if at all – is existing legislation enforced? What protection do they enjoy from decay or ill-conceived alterations? Are owners who fail to look after their historic properties taken to task? And are those who do make an effort duly rewarded?




So many and such complex questions. I shall be attempting to tease out a few of the answers in an online lecture available on the Irish Georgian Society website for a week (only) from tomorrow, December 1st called ‘The Irish Country House in the 21st century: Ruins and Restoration’. You can find more information on www.igs.ie/events (Please note, there is a fee for viewing, and you must book before 3pm tomorrow).

More New to Old



Still in County Kilkenny, and around seven miles west of Newtown Jerpoint (see last Monday) is another Newtown: when it came to naming places in this part of the country, someone wasn’t feeling terribly imaginative. In this instance, the remains include a tower house, officially dating from the 1620s but by general consent probably constructed at least 100 years earlier, perhaps for the Sweetmans who were a dominant family in this part of the country. Rising four storeys, the building is fairly plain (hence the suggestion that it dates from well before the 17th century) and as usual is accessed by a single arched doorcase with a murder hole immediately inside. Not far away lie the ruins of a late-mediaeval church, the surrounding graveyard still in use as is so often the case in Ireland. Dedicated to All Saints, the building’s only surviving feature is a window on the east gable. Internally, much of the ground is covered with the remains of old tombstones. 


On the Market


A further example of urban decay in Ireland: the Market House in Portarlington, County Laois. Standing in the centre of a square from which radiate four roads, the building dates from the early years of the 18th century and reflects the town’s prosperity at the time. Readers outside Ireland may be startled to know that for several decades this significant monument to Portarlington’s past operated as a garage where cars were serviced and repaired; for Irish readers, the information will come as no surprise, since it is typical of how we are inclined to treat our architectural heritage. Last July the local authority came to an arrangement with the owners of the market house, taking it over on a long lease. The intention, presumably, is to restore the building and put it to more sympathetic use. But much more needs to be done if such a project is to realise its full potential. At the moment, there are several substantial properties around the surrounding square in various stages of neglect and decay, most critically Arlington House, a five-bay, three storey 18th century house currently vacant (and with a long-time empty lot beside it), also the former Church of Ireland church, and adjacent to that a former cinema dating from the 1940s. Much of the square’s space is given over to car parking, and near-constant traffic discourages pedestrians from exploring the site. If this square and market house were elsewhere in Europe, their full potential would be exploited as a centrepiece for urban renewal and as a means of encouraging visitors to Portarlington. Let’s wait to see what the county council now does with the building and what is for now a bleak and desolate setting…
Incidentally, the Irish branch of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) is now running a Maintenance Week with plenty of advice and help for owners of historic properties. Find out more through the organisation’s twitter account (@SPABIreland) or Instagram page (@spabireland). 


Less Talk, More Action



There has been much talk in recent years of the decline of Ireland’s town centres, visible in examples such as that shown above. This house sits in the middle of Erskine Terrace on Farnham Street in Cavan. Dating from the late Georgian period when the Maxwell family, Lords Farnham took an interest in the town, it is today in a state of sad neglect and a blight on the rest of the terrace. Further north on the same street and adjacent to the Roman Catholic cathedral of SS Patrick and Felim is the former presbytery (see below) which it appears was once an early 19th century three-storey house with pitched roof but converted into the present two-storey flat-roofed building in 1962. Like the other property to the south, it stands empty and forlorn, doing nothing to improve the character of the town.
So, what is to be done? The Heritage Council has recently launched a new Podcast series called Putting Town Centres First (https://www.heritagecouncil.ie/projects/podcast-series-putting-town-centres-first). No doubt admirable in its intent, one has to ask what practical difference this series will make. Discussions about urban decline, conferences, reports and analyses: all have been going on for decades with no visible solution to the problem under consideration. There has been much hand-wringing but little real change. Last month in the Irish Times, economist David McWilliams wrote an article in which he stated bluntly that dereliction ‘is vandalism for the property-owning classes’ and that the country’s huge numbers of neglected buildings ‘send out a signal of decay and reveal an enormously wasteful attitude to capital.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-the-rules-of-the-property-game-have-changed-1.4382088). Returning to the subject a couple of weeks later, McWilliams noted that some 15% of the country’s total building stock, almost 200,00 properties, are at present lying empty and neglected, and that in a little over a year 11 buildings had collapsed in the middle of Cork city. He then proposed a simple solution to resolving the issue: ‘use it or lose it’ legislation. Under this proposal, property that is being actively used, ideally for residential purposes, ‘is rewarded with preferential treatment, but one that is vacant is taxed. If the owner can’t pay that tax, the property faces a compulsory purchase order by the State, which then puts it on the market.’ (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/david-mcwilliams-a-plan-to-put-ireland-s-200-000-vacant-buildings-to-use-1.4394673). Sounds radical? Yes indeed, but despite all those conferences and reports and now podcasts, no one else has yet come up with a better solution. The simple question is this: should private individuals be permitted to desecrate the public environment by failing to maintain their property? At what point does it become unacceptable for private interest to trump public good? Talk may salve consciences but solves nothing. There is really no need for any more of it. If Ireland’s town centres are to have a viable future, and our collective architectural heritage preserved, what’s required is decisive – and perhaps radical – action. Otherwise the number of buildings looking like these examples in Cavan will continue to rise.


A Good Barracking



And today’s example of wasted public resources comes courtesy of Longford County Council. Dating from 1815, the former cavalry barracks in Longford town are believed to have been designed by John Behan, a measurer and architect (and timber merchant) employed by the Board of Works on such military properties. Historically, this is the most important area in the town, since it is where the dominant family, the O’Farrells built a castle (the last parts of which were demolished in the early 1970s: a shopping centre can now be found there instead). In the 17th century, Francis Aungier converted at least part of the site into a manor house with surrounding gardens, building a market house and square immediately adjacent. In 1774 his descendant sold the property to the British authorities for development as a military barracks. Post-Independence, these were occupied by the Irish army until 2009. Three years later, the buildings on some 5.1 hectares were bought by the county council for €450,000, since when the cavalry barracks has sat empty. A number of smaller ancillary blocks to the rear are used by local groups and there’s a large open field running down to the river Camlin. The same questions arise: why do local authorities purchase these places and then leave them unused for so long, meaning that whenever an eventual use is found, the relevant costs are higher? And what sort of example does this set to other owners of historic properties when the county council fails to take adequate care of an important building it owns? Only question always has the same answer. Who’ll eventually have to foot the bill? Answer: the Irish taxpayer.



Taken to Court



One of the most perfect neo-classical buildings in Ireland: the Courthouse in Carlow town. Constructed of local granite, the courthouse was designed in 1830 by William Vitruvius Morrison and in part funded by the Bruen family who lived not far away at Oak Park (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/10/03/oak-park-2) and who employed the same architect to design their own house. The building stands in the centre of a wide platform approached by two flights of steps. Its pedimented facade featuring a recessed entrance behind eight giant Ionic columns was inspired by the Temple of Illisus in Athens, believed to date from the mid-5th century BC, but destroyed by the Turks in the late 18th century and known only from the work of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett who had recorded the temple a few years before it was lost. The same fate seemed to threaten Carlow’s courthouse towards the end of the last century after it had fallen into a poor state of repair, but thankfully a full restoration was undertaken and it continues to serve its original purpose and to grace the town of Carlow.

Two in One II


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.

Two in One I


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.

Disregarded


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 Souvenir



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?