Complying with Strict Conditions of Conservation?



In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.






As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.






Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?

Recalling a Young Man ‘of Good Character’


Down a narrow lane in North County Tipperary can be found Dorrha Church of Ireland church, which dates from the early 1830s and was built with help from the Board of First Fruits. Next to it are the remains of a much older building, now fallen into ruin. On the north wall is set  a large carved tablet commemorating Lord Bernard (died February 1705) together with his wife Eleanor and ‘my beloved son James Kennedy, a young man of good character, died 9 Jan. 1704…’

There are a number of fine tombstones in the surrounding graveyard, such as that above dating from 1778, and also on the east wall of the old church the remains of a blocked-up arched window (it looks as though a tablet immediately below has been removed), above which is a badly weathered carved head.

Just Perfection


The entrance front of Castle Coole, County Fermanagh. The house was designed by James Wyatt, who took over from Richard Johnston (brother of the better-known Francis Johnston), and built between 1789 and 1798 at a cost of £57,000 for Armar Lowry-Corry, first Earl of Belmore. Wyatt never visited the site, but sent over a number of craftsmen from London to supervise the building work, not least the neo-classical exteriors clad in Portland stone (the garden façade is below). Ownership of the property was transferred to the National Trust in 1951.

In Transition


Killaloe, County Clare derives its name from St Molua, a sixth century monk about whom – like many other religious of the period – relatively little is known. Believed to have been a contemporary of Saints Columba and Gall, and like them trained in the monastery at Bangor, County Down, his original name was Lughaidh, pronounced Lua, and it is from this that Killaloe – Cill-da-Lua , the Church of Lua – comes. Molua’s original church was on Friar’s Island nearby but at the end of the 1920s during the Shannon Electrification Scheme, water levels here were raised meaning the island was submerged. A little 10th/11th century oratory there which was associated with Molua was dismantled and moved to the mainland where reconstructed in the grounds of the local Roman Catholic church. Molua is said to have settled in what is now Killaloe on the western side of Lough Derg and a monastic community grew up around him. Among his foremost students was Flannán mac Toirrdelbaig, son of local chieftain Turlough of Thomond. Flannán became abbot of the house at Killaloe, and the cathedral there still bears his name.





The core of the present St Flannan’s Cathedral originates from the early 12th century when constructed on the instructions of Donal Mór O’Brien, descendant of Brian Boru and last claimant to the title of King of Munster. It will be remembered that O’Brien was also responsible for founding St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick which this year is celebrating its 850th birthday (see A Significant Anniversary, July 2nd 2018). However, this was soon replaced by another building, most of which can still be seen today and which represents the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture. The central arch of the great east window, for example, is round while those on either side are pointed. Unlike many other churches and cathedrals in Ireland, St Flannan’s seems to have survived relatively unscathed from the various upheavals that took place in Ireland over successive centuries: any changes that were made to the structure occurred during times of peace. The great tower was raised twice, in 1775 and 1892 and it was on one of these occasions that castellations were added to the roofline. The glazed oak screen dividing nave and chancel was constructed in the 1880s, primarily to conserve heat for the small local congregation.





St Flannan’s contains a number of fine features, not least a well-preserved Romanesque doorway dating from the 12th century: this may be a survivor from Donal Mór O’Brien’s original cathedral. This was not the doorway’s original location: it was reconstructed here in the early 18th century to mark the reputed burial spot of Muircheartach O’Brien, King of Munster, who died while on pilgrimage to Killaloe in 1119. The carving is especially fine, with chevron patterns on three of the arch rings, while others are decorated with fantastical animal and floral ornamentation. The nave also contains a 12th century High Cross; again this is not original to the building but was brought to this part of the county from Kilfenora in 1821 by Richard Mant who the year before had been consecrated bishop; a keen historian and archaeologist, he would go on to write a two-volume History of the Church in Ireland. Initially the cross stood in the grounds of the nearby Episcopal residence; it was moved to the cathedral only in 1934. The rectangular stone font is original to the building and dates from the 13th century. St Flannan’s is another of Ireland’s ‘pocket’ cathedrals, no larger than the average parish church in other countries but an important survivor from a time when there were many more bishoprics than is the case today: seemingly the Synod of Ráth Breasail (1111) was attended by more than fifty bishops, and it then determined that there should be 24. Today there are half that number in the Church of Ireland (the Roman Catholic church meanwhile has 26).


Hard to Miss


The Browne-Clayton Column stands on a rise in the middle of the Wexford countryside. Modelled on Pompey’s Pillar, erected by the Emperor Diocletian in Alexandria, Egypt in 297, the column climbs 94 feet to a fine Corinthian capital, the whole constructed of Mount Leinster granite. It was built on the instructions of General Robert Browne-Clayton in memory of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, his commanding officer in Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars: Sir Ralph was killed at Alexandria in 1801. The folly is notable for being the only such column with an internal spiral staircase allowing remarkable views of the surrounding countryside from the top. In 1994 it was struck by lightning and the top section so badly damaged that collapse seemed inevitable. Ten years later, following the establishment of a charitable trust devoted to its restoration and financial aid from a number of sources, work ensuring the column’s future was complete and it remains solid to the present day.

Built by His Friends and Countrymen


The garden front of Palmerstown, County Kildare. The estate here was acquired in the middle of the 17th century by a branch of the Bourke family, later Earls of Mayo, who built a residence later described as ‘an old fashioned house, added to from time to time in an irregular manner, the rooms low and small but enriched with some good pictures, particularly a set of Sir Joshuas.’ In 1872 Richard Southwell Bourke, the sixth earl, was assassinated while serving as Viceroy of India. Subsequently a new house was erected for the family, the costs defrayed by public subscription: a plaque over the entrance notes that it was built ‘by his friends and countrymen.’ Designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt in what is generously described as a Queen-Anne style, the second Palmerstown only lasted half a century, being burnt during the Civil War in January 1923: the elderly seventh earl was a Free State Senator and therefore vulnerable to attack from Anti-Treaty forces. The building was subsequently reconstructed under the supervision of architect Richard Orpen but without its original third-storey Mansard roof. Having changed hands several times in the last century, it is now a wedding venue.

Picturesque Remains


Mallow Castle, County Cork has featured here before (see Unrealised Potential, May 8th 2017) when the later house, and its neglect since being acquired by the local authority in 2010, was discussed. Today provides an opportunity to look at the older house on the same site. In fact that older building replaced an even earlier castle, originally built by the Anglo-Norman de Rupe (otherwise Roche) family. In 1282 the Roches exchanged their land here with the Desmond branch of the FitzGerald dynasty for property in Connacht, and a more substantial castle was constructed. The Desmonds remained here for the next 300 years but following the suppression of the second Desmond Rebellion in the early 1580s and the onset of the Munster Plantation, Mallow was granted by Elizabeth I to Sir Thomas Norreys whose descendants would remain there until 1984.





The Norreys – or Norris – family came from Berkshire, several brothers coming to Ireland to fight in the English army in the last quarter of the 16th century. The most successful of the siblings was Sir John Norreys, a personal friend of the queen (his grandfather, Sir Henry Norreys, had been executed alongside Elizabeth I’s mother Anne Boleyn on trumped-up charges of adultery with her). Sir John initially arrived in this country in 1574, spending time in Ulster before spending almost ten years in the Low Countries supporting Protestant opponents of Spanish rule. He was briefly in Ireland in 1584, when appointed President of Munster, but soon left to fight again on mainland Europe. Eventually he came here a third time in 1595, dying in Mallow two years later, supposedly in the arms of his younger brother Thomas. The latter had arrived in Ireland at the end of 1579 and stayed here for the next twenty years until his own death, again at Mallow. During this time, he was almost constantly at war with the native Irish. Nevertheless, during this time he embarked on building a new residence in Mallow where, in addition to the old castle, he had been granted some 6,000 acres.





As seen today, Mallow Castle incorporates part of the older castle but was designed to be a fortified manor house, similar to those erected during the same period at Donegal (see Oh! Solitary Fort that Standest Yonder, April 17th 2017) and Kanturk (see An Abandoned Project, December 7th 2015). Of four storeys with projecting bays at the centre of each long wall flanked by gables, the building has octagonal turrets at the corners of north- and south-west corners: the roofline was decorated with stepped battlements. Mullioned windows provided light to the interior, a stone wall dividing the house in half, other partitions being of wood. It was here that Sir Thomas Norreys died in 1599, the Mallow estate inherited by his only child Elizabeth who married another English soldier, Major-General Sir John Jephson. Their descendants continued to occupy the castle, which survived being siege and capture during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s. However, in 1689 the castle was burnt, seemingly on the instructions of James II, and rendered uninhabitable. The Jephsons then converted the former stable block into a house, before this was made over in the 1830s to the designs of Edward Blore. The old castle has remained as a picturesque ruin.