Patrick Hennessy’s 1957 portrait of Elizabeth Bowen presides over a room dedicated to her memory in Doneraile Court, County Cork (her own home, nearby Bowen’s Court, was irresponsibly demolished in 1961). After being closed to the public for the past 25 years, Doneraile Court has once more been taken in hand by the Office of Public Works and officially reopens today. The decoration and furnishing of the ground floor rooms displays terrific flair, with a wonderful mixture of items, some in state ownership, others on loan from private collections, all blended together with aplomb. Having woken from its quarter-century slumber, Doneraile Court proves to be the sleeping beauty of Irish country houses: visits are strongly urged.
In May 1717 Robert, first Viscount Molesworth wrote from England to his wife Letitia with advice of a planned return to Ireland and the fact that ‘I will carry with me the best architect in Europe.’ The latter was a young Florentine, Alessandro Galilei (1691-1737) who had been brought to London in 1714 by Lord Molesworth’s eldest son John, for the previous three years British Envoy to Florence. It was presumably there that he met Galilei and when Molesworth was recalled to London, he invited the architect, then aged 23, to accompany him with the expectation of commissions from English clients. The Molesworths, père et fils, were key figures in a group of enthusiastic cultural patrons described by the viscount as the ‘new Junta for Architecture.’ Their mission: to reconfigure architectural design on these islands in the neo-classical style, or what one of them called ‘Grecian & best taste’. Although Galilei spent four years in England, with a six-month interlude in Ireland in 1718, and despite backing from the Molesworths and other members of their circle, he achieved almost no success: for example, he made designs for new churches then being commissioned in London but none of them was executed. Similarly, despite being recommended by Lord Molesworth to design St Werburgh’s in Dublin in 1715, he did not get the job: the viscount later wrote that those behind the commission were ‘uncapable of comprehending what an artist Galilei is’. The fact that he was a Roman Catholic is thought also not to have helped his cause. Understandably in August 1719 he returned to Florence, where he was created Engineer of Court Buildings and Fortresses by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Despite further importuning from the Molesworths and others, he never returned to this part of the world. In 1730, the Florentine pope Clement XII invited him to Rome where his best-known work, the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano (1732) can still be seen: he died in the city five years after its completion.
Marmaduke Coghill was born in Dublin in 1673, eldest son of Sir John Coghill, Judge of the Prerogative Court and one of the Masters in Chancery. Marmaduke was something of an infant prodigy, entering Trinity College at the age of fourteen and graduating as a Bachelor of Law four years later. At 19 he was a member of the Irish House of Commons, sitting for the next 50 years first representing the Borough of Armagh and then Dublin University. In due course liken his father before him he served as a judge of the Prerogative Court and later became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland. He was described by a contemporary as being ‘a zealous and active friend, and of an engaging and affable manner, but he was not blessed with good looks’ (another account called him ‘a fat apoplectic looking old gentleman with short legs and a shorter throat’).
Following his father’s death in 1699 Marmaduke Coghill inherited land on the outskirts of Dublin, in an area called Clonturk but now known as Drumcondra. Initially he lived there in an extant house which still stands, Belvedere (or Belvidere), of which more on another occasion. However, in the early 1720s he embarked on building a new residence not far away, Drumcondra House. Here he lived with his sister Mary, like him unmarried, until his death in 1738; five years later she built a church close to the house and inside erected a monument to her brother sculpted by Peter Scheemakers. Following her death, Drumcondra House passed to a niece, Hester Coghill who was married to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville. The family subsequently rented out the property as a private residence until the early 1840s when acquired by a Vincentian priest who established a Missionary College on the site, All Hallows. A few years ago the property passed into the hands of Dublin City University to become part of that institution’s campus.
So what are the links between Drumcondra House and Alessandro Galilei? As mentioned, the latter had scant success gaining commissions while in either England or Ireland, but the one building with which he has always been associated is Castletown, County Kildare. While Galilei was in Ireland with the Molesworths, he seems to have met William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and the country’s richest man: it was for Conolly that the architect proposed the basic design of Castletown’s façade, although work on the building did not begin until 1722 (by which time Galilei had long since returned to Italy) and is thought to have been overseen by Edward Lovett Pearce. Marmaduke Coghill was a friend and political ally of Conolly, so there is no reason why he should not also have met Galilei and indeed likewise have asked him for advice and designs for his own new residence in Drumcondra. To the immediate east of the main house is the shell of a classical temple (see below), its pedimented stone façade featuring a central doorcase with segmental pediment flanked by windows with regular pediments on either side of which is a pilaster topped with Corinthian capital. The design for this building has long been attributed to Galilei, but why not also therefore the façade of the house which the temple faces? As can be seen by the photograph on the top of this page, it has many of the same features albeit on a larger scale, suggesting that whoever was responsible for one was also architect of the other. As Maurice Craig once wrote of the façade, ‘there is nothing much resembling it anywhere else in Ireland.’ Matters are complicated because the south face of Drumcondra House, altogether more severe and pure (a two-storey pedimented breakfront imposed on the central portion of an otherwise plain, three-storey, seven-bay block) was designed Coghill by Edward Lovett Pearce in 1726. And of course, that was precisely when Pearce was also working at Castletown for Coghill’s friend William Conolly. All of which suggests that Galilei achieved more in Ireland than is usually thought, and certainly more than he ever did in England. Meanwhile, as these other images will show, the interiors of Drumcondra House, currently undergoing a gradual programme of restoration and refurbishment, reveal some of the most intact early 18th century panelled rooms in the country. A building worthy of further study.
After last Monday’s rather dispiriting tale about Syngefield, County Offaly, here is a much more positive story. Almost exactly six years ago I visited Hazelwood, County Sligo and a few months later wrote about the house and its sad condition (see Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata, February 25th 2013). To recap: Located immediately south of Sligo town on a peninsula that juts out into Lough Gill, Hazelwood once had a garden front that looked down through a series of terraces to the water’s edge: the entrance front faces north across a long plain of pasture towards Ben Bulben. As I wrote at the time, ‘It is easy to see why General Owen Wynne should have chosen this spot on which to build a new residence following the purchase of some 14,500 acres in the area in 1722. Nine years later he employed the architect Richard Castle, then much in demand, to design the house. Hazelwood is typical of the Palladian style fashionable in Ireland at the time of its construction. The ashlar-fronted central block, of three storeys over basement, is joined by arcaded quadrants to two storey wings. Above the north front’s pedimented entrance (inset with a carving of the family’s coat of arms) there is a splendid glazed aedicule with Ionic columns and pilasters and flanked by round-headed niches, while the south front boldly proposes a Venetian door below a Venetian window. The building’s sense of significance is increased by both entrances being accessed by sweeping flights of steps. The interiors must have been similarly superlative, since even after many years of neglect enough of their decoration remains to indicate the original appearance. The main entrance hall has recessed arches on its walls above which hang plasterwork swags, and a deep dentilled cornice. A central doorway leads into the south-facing library which contains similar ornamentation and from here one passes into a succession of other reception rooms. Upstairs is equally splendid: a massive staircase hall leads, via a deep coved archway, into the first floor landing the ceiling of which is open to the galleried second storey, the whole series of spaces once lit by a glazed octagon. Most of the rooms have lost their original chimneypieces, replaced by others of a later fashion since the Wynnes were not averse to making alterations, some less happy than others; a two-storey, three-bay bedroom extension on the south-west corner of the building dating from c.1870 for example fundamentally disrupts Castle’s meticulously planned symmetry. Still, whatever about the Wynne family’s modifications to their property, they were nothing to what would follow once Hazelwood passed into the hands of later owners.’
The last Wynne to live at Hazelwood left in 1923, after which the house stood empty for seven years. It was then bought by a retired tea planter who carried out essential repairs before selling house and estate to two government bodies, the Forestry Department and the Land Commission, the latter assuming responsibility for the building. In 1946, after serving for some time as a military barracks, Hazelwood and the immediate surrounds were offered for sale by the commission with the condition that a buyer must demolish the buildings, remove all materials and level the site. Somehow, days before the auction was due to be held, this stipulation was withdrawn and Hazelwood sold for use as a psychiatric hospital; it was shortly afterwards that the original staircase was taken out of the house. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 1969 an Italian company called Snia which produced nylon yarn bought Hazelwood and built a factory for some 600 employees. It would have been perfectly feasible for the business to have erected these premises on a site out of view of the old house and screened by trees, thus preserving the Arcadian parkland created by the Wynnes. Indeed one might have thought the relevant planning authorities in Sligo County Council would have insisted this be the case. But instead the factory, surrounded by an expanse of tarmac, went up just a couple of hundred yards to the rear of Hazelwood, covering a space of no less than six acres and thereby destroying the house’s setting. In 1983 the business closed down and four years later the factory was sold to a South Korean company which produced video tapes; this too went out of business. The following year Hazelwood was sold to Foresthaze, a consortium of predominantly local businessmen and in 2007 they applied for permission to build 158 detached houses and 54 apartments in four blocks (in their defence, they also intended to sweep away the factory). This application was refused by the local authority, litigation among members of the consortium ensued, the recession arrived, Foresthaze went into receivership and – when I visited six years ago – the future of Hazelwood looked extremely bleak.
In late 2014 Hazelwood and some 80 acres was acquired by new owners who possess both vision and financial backing to ensure the place will have a viable future. The proposed scheme sees a whiskey distillery (for a new brand called Athrú) installed in part of the former factory, much of the rest of this enormous site to be deployed as a visitors’ centre and storage facility: the building’s location, surrounded by water on three sides of the peninsula, makes it perfect for a distillery. As for the house, this is to be restored to serve a variety of purposes, all intended to engage with people who come to see Hazelwood and enjoy its new facilities. Already essential conservation work has been undertaken: the west wing, inaccessible six years ago, has been re-roofed and its interior cleared. From attic to basement, dry rot in sections of the main house has been tackled and water ingress stopped. The building is now stable and, while it may still not look too lovely, a further programme of restoration work is planned for the coming years. This looks like being a long-term project, and the better for that: jobs undertaken too fast often prove to be faulty. The owners’ aspiration is that when everything is complete (and that includes tackling many outlying buildings around the former estate) Hazelwood will attract some 200,000 visitors annually. Athrú is an Irish word meaning change or transform. Thanks to this ambitious scheme the future of Hazelwood looks changed and its transformation has begun.
One of the most significant restoration projects in Ireland over recent years has involved not a grand country house or an important public building, but a modest retail premises in central Dublin. We retain so little material evidence of our commercial history that it is difficult to imagine the vibrant economic life of the country in former centuries. That is why the restoration of 3-4 Parliament Street deserves applause. The thoroughfare was opened up by the Wide Street Commissioners in 1762 in order to provide a suitably grand approach from Essex Bridge to Dublin Castle. Almost all the houses lining the street have undergone considerable change over the past 250-plus years but this building retains its original appearance both inside and out, having served for much of the intervening period as Read’s Cutlers.
The interior of Read’s has altered little since first being fitted out in the 1760s. The ground floor shop, where once swords, as well as knives and forks were once sold, still contains its original counters, display cases and fitted wall cabinets, while upstairs is laid out as a family residence. Some years ago, the building having lain empty and neglected, this was all at risk of being lost but thankfully Read’s latest owner Clem Kenny appreciated its value and engaged in a through and meticulous restoration, a private initiative for which he deserves universal applause and appreciation. Next Thursday, November 15th, Dublin Civic Trust – which has long engaged in similarly valiant enterprises – is offering a tour of Read’s for which tickets can be booked on eventbrite.ie Rather than spoil the surprise of what lies behind that modest façade, these pictures are intended simply to whet appetites. Anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to see inside Read’s is urged to do so (and thereby also assist the Dublin Civic Trust’s worthy work).
Robert Rochfort, first Earl of Belvedere is rightly notorious for having imprisoned his wife for over thirty years on the grounds of adultery with one of his brothers: she was only released after his death in 1774. At some date before then, the earl had embarked on building a new residence for himself in Dublin. Located on Great Denmark Street and looking down North Great Georges Street, the incomplete Belvedere House was inherited by the second earl who initially sought to dispose of the property, offering it for sale in 1777. However, either he was unable to find a buyer, or he decided to retain the house, work on which was finished in 1786. Since 1841 it has been owned by the Jesuit Order which runs a secondary school on the site. In plan and composition Belvedere House closely resembles 86 St Stephen’s Green, begun in 1765, the design of which is now attributed to Robert West who, in addition to being a fine stuccodore was also a part-time architect and property developer. When Belvedere House was offered for sale in 1777, interested parties were directed to West, thereby indicating that similarities between this building and 86 St Stephen’s Green were not accidental.
The attribution of Belvedere House’s design to Robert West is of significance because of the building’s remarkable interior decoration. The staircase hall and first-floor reception rooms contain some of Dublin’s most elaborate plasterwork, and divining who was responsible for this tour-de-force has been the subject of much analysis. In 1967 C.P. Curran’s Dublin Decorative Plasterwork of the 17th and 18th centuries noted in the collection of drawings left by stuccodore Michael Stapleton several items directly relating to the design of ceilings in Belvedere House. Accordingly, this work was assigned to Stapleton. However, the fact that West was responsible for designing the house complicates matters, and the consensus now appears to be that both he and Stapleton had a hand in the plasterwork. Conor Lucey (in The Stapleton Collection, 2007) suggests that Stapleton may have been apprenticed to, or trained with, West and the fact that he was named the sole executor of the latter’s will in 1790 indicates the two men were close. The source material for the stucco work is diverse, that in the stair hall deriving in part from a plate in Robert Adam’s Works in Architecture, but the first-floor rooms feature a wider range of inspiration, much of it from France and Italy. The main reception room at the front of the building has an oval in the centre of its ceiling, which seemingly held a scene of Venus wounded by Love taken from Francois Boucher’s painting of the same name. However, when the Jesuits assumed responsibility for the house, the saucy nature of the work led to its removal. The adjacent room’s ceiling contains a roundel showing Diana in a chariot drawn by two stags: this was allowed to remain. In recent years a full restoration of these rooms has been undertaken by RKD Architects, allowing us better to appreciate how they must have looked when first completed, a tribute to the remarkable craftsmanship that existed in 18th century Ireland.
The glorious interiors of Glasnevin House, Dublin have been shown here before (see Misjudging a Book by its Cover, December 22nd 2014) with the focus o the building’s plasterwork. Since then the former entrance hall has been restored and now looks as splendid as the other ground floor rooms. Among the space’s outstanding features now properly revealed is a substantial chimneypiece. Dating from c.1760 it looks to be of stained pine and since the overdoors in other areas of the house are attributed to Dublin master carver John Kelly (in Irish Furniture, the Knight of Glin and James Peill, 2007), it seems reasonable to assume this work also came from his hand.
The façade of Walton Court, County Cork. Overlooking Oysterhaven harbor, the house is believed to occupy the site of an earlier tower house constructed by the Roche family. In 1643 land in this area was acquired by Captain Swithin Walton, and it was his descendant Thomas Walton who built Walton Court: on a stone in the pediment are his initials and the date 1776. In the 19th century the property passed by marriage to another local family, the Roberts: it now provides accommodation and food to paying guests. The land in front of Walton Court descends to the water and then looks across the estuary to Newborough House which has recently been restored.
Above is a view of Dripsey Castle, County Cork, a late-mediaeval tower house originally built by the MacCarthys of Muskerry. This was to have been the subject of attention here during 2014, but a great many other subjects intervened. Today seems an opportune moment to look at some of those interventions, buildings explored by the Irish Aesthete over the past twelve months, not least a number which, like Dripsey Castle, are now spectacular ruins.
Ireland is a country strewn with ruins, many of them the skeletal remains of once-great houses. Typical in this respect is Moore Hall, County Mayo seen in the first two photographs above. Dating from 1792, it is is believed to have been designed by Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a mere shell. A Roman Catholic family the Moores were especially good to their tenants during and after the Great Famine but neither their charity, nor the fame of the last heir, writer George Moore, was enough to spare the house, maliciously burnt down by local members of the IRA in February 1923. For more on Moore Hall, see When Moore is Less, June 30th. Next can be seen two photographs of Mount Shannon, County Limerick, once home to John Fitzpatrick, first Earl of Clare. His successors were not as wealthy as their forebear and in 1888 the entire contents of Mount Shannon, including its superlative library, had to be sold to pay creditors. The house itself passed into other hands a few years later and survived until once again burnt out by the IRA in June 1920 (see A Spectacular Fall from Grace, January 20th). Dromore Castle, also in County Limerick lasted a little longer but then it was only built in the 1860s to the designs of Edward William Godwin. Commissioned by William Pery, third Earl of Limerick, Dromore never proved satisfactory (it suffered from damp) and the family seems to have abandoned it by the 1920s. It was sold at the end of the following decade to a local timber merchant but around 1954 the whole place was unroofed to avoid payment of property rates, a common fate for buildings at the time. Dromore was the subject of two features: Une Folie de Grandeur, December 30th 2013 and More and More Dromore, March 3rd.
Even when great houses like Moore Hall or Mount Shannon were newly constructed the countryside was already speckled with ruins, predominantly of medieval religious properties. Typical in this respect is Askeaton Friary, County Limerick seen in the first two photographs above. This was founded in the early 1420s by the Franciscan order and remains notable for its intact cloister with twelve arches to each side. (See A Cloistered World, February 10th). In neighbouring County Galway, the Franciscans also established a great house at Ross Errilly (To Walk the Studious Cloisters Pale, July 14th) which survived until late in the 18th century. Much beloved by romantically-minded Victorians, Ross Errilly was described by John Murray in his 1866 Handbook for Travellers in Ireland as probably containing ‘more grinning and ghastly skulls than any catacomb, some of the tracery of the windows being filled up with thigh-bones and heads – a not uncommon way of disposing of these emblems of mortality in Irish abbeys.’ Ross Errilly remains, but the bones have been tidied away.
Nor are any on display in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Kilkenny (see Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms and Epitaphs, October 20th) which lies in the centre of this ancient town. Around the old church the principal families of the area erected memorials to themselves, making this the finest single collection of Renaissance-style and later tombs in Ireland, including a number of arcaded altar monuments. St Mary’s is due to be restored for civic use but one hopes this will not destroy the character of the graveyard.
There are always a number of important houses in Ireland looking for new and sympathetic owners. One of these at present is Milltown Park, County Offaly (see Waiting to be Woken, July 7th). A blind oculus set into the facade’s pediment is the date 1720, although this may have been added later. Still, Milltown is an important early 18th century property which until now has always belonged to the Spunner (more recently White-Spunner) family and reflects that unbroken continuity.
In County Wicklow, the history of Mount John was charmingly told in Elizabeth Hamilton’s 1963 memoir, An Irish Childhood which recounted her early years living in the house until it was sold by her parents in 1914. Now it is for sale again, and whoever acquires the property will discover it was constructed over several phases, the east-facing front with its large reception rooms and bow ends most likely added some time around 1800. A feature of the facade is its finish of vertically hung slate, which have long been painted white. (See An Irish Childhood, September 29th).
On the other side of the country, New Hall, County Clare is one of the most architecturally important houses currently on the market. New Hall has been attributed to Francis Bindon, although this is open to question. What cannot be doubted is the beauty of this property, with its mellow brick façade focussed on a central balustraded and urned octangular bow window incorporating pedimented front door and concluding on either side in bows. Inside are stucco’ed rooms and in the entrance hall an immense organ that proves to be a cupboard. New Hall was explored over two weeks in Leaving the Empty Room, August 18th and New Blood for New Hall, August 25th.
It is at times impossible not to grow despondent over the want of interest, especially from regional and central government, in the preservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage. In late November Senator David Norris denounced the state of O’Connell Street, Dublin. This is supposed to be the state’s principal thoroughfare and yet for many years it has looked as shoddy as a shanty town with gaping sites and gimcrack shops and games halls. Developed by Luke Gardiner in the middle of the 18th century as Sackville Mall, O’Connell Street was once the capital’s premier address. Its seemingly unstoppable decline was discussed here much earlier in the year (see On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, February 3rd).
Another cause for concern is the threatened sale of the remaining contents of Bantry House, County Cork. During the early decades of the 19th century, this great building was filled with treasures by the second Earl of Bantry. Since then successive generations of the family have struggled to maintain the building and gradually disposed of items from the collection. What is still in place includes valuable French tapestries, some associated with members of the French royal family. These were due to be auctioned on the premises last October but the event was cancelled owing to the absence of a relevant licence. However, it is important to remember the sale has only been postponed and is likely to take place during next spring, thereby diminishing still further Ireland’s collective cultural heritage. The predicament of Bantry House, and the issues it raises, were discussed in When it’s Gone, It’s Gone, September 8th.
Another ongoing scandal is the condition of Aldborough House in central Dublin. After Leinster House the biggest Georgian private residence in the capital and a testament to the second Earl of Aldborough’s ambition, the building was completed in 1798, just two years before the Act of Union rendered such properties surplus to requirements. Although much of the surrounding grounds were lost to public housing in the last century, the building itself survived in reasonable condition in public ownership until the state telecommunications company Telecom Eireann was privatised in 1999 and Eircom (as the organisation was renamed) offered Aldborough House for sale. Six years later it was bought for €4.5 million by a company called Aldborough Developments: contrary to its name, this allowed the house to slide ever further into decay. Aldborough House was sold a few months ago but the new owner does not appear to have any interest in its welfare, if the photographs above – taken just last week – are an indication: windows are left open to the elements, the roof is no better than was formerly the case and the ground immediately behind is being used – presumably with approval from a consistently indifferent Dublin City Council – for parking and car washing. The fate of Aldborough House remains, as described on January 13th, A Thundering Disgrace.
Lest it seems this blog is all gloom, there have been more cheerful circumstances to report, not least various weeks when attention was given to the restoration of an historic building. One such is Ballinderry Park, County Galway, bought by its current owners in 2001 and since then benefitting from a full and sympathetic overhaul. Dating from the first half of the eighteenth century and largely unaltered except for the addition of a two-storied return to the rear, Ballinderry’s finest feature is its staircase which, together with the principal reception rooms, give the building an air of what the owners rightly describe as ‘solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’ (For more on the house, see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th).
Down in a remote part of County Cork, another house lay unoccupied for more than half a century after the death of a previous owner until discovered by its present one. Like Ballinderry, this property had suffered the consequences of neglect, but that did not act as a deterrent: on the contrary as far as was possible, the character of the house was left unchanged; in the kitchen, for example, the original tiled floor and ochre wall colouring was preserved, with all additions determinedly sympathetic. The result is proof both that no building can be deemed beyond redemption and that even the plainest property can be transformed under the right hands, such as those discussed in A Dash of Panache, May 19th.
And so, more recently, to County Kilkenny and Ballysallagh, another country house which might have been lost forever had it not been for the couple who rescued the building in 1987 and since then have devoted huge amounts of effort towards ensuring the spirit of the place is preserved. Ballysallagh dates from the 1720s and has undergone little structural or decorative change since then, aside from the introduction of folding doors with a wide fanlight in 1810 and on the adjacent wall a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze. The property deservedly featured in Maurice Craig’s 1976 book Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and featured again here in Of the Middle Size, November 24th.
We end therefore on an optimistic note, buoyed by an awareness some people here in Ireland do care for our architectural heritage and are playing their part to make sure it has a long and loved future. Below is a photograph of another house, Gloster, County Offaly, which is also the beneficiary of an extensive and ongoing programme of restoration. As they have during the past year, such buildings will continue to feature in The Irish Aesthete in 2015.
Among the most engaging books of architectural history published during the last century was Maurice Craig’s Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size (1976). From its title alone, one recognises this was a work out of the ordinary: Maurice was not interested in examining the more familiar big houses of Ireland many of which even by that date had been ‘accorded some fitting attention in fittingly sumptuous books.’ Instead he turned his well-honed eye on a category of dwellings which had hitherto been the subject of little scrutiny; indeed since then it has not received much more coverage. ‘If I have laid what some readers may think is undue emphasis on certain buildings which may appear small, insignificant and not very exciting to look at,’ he wrote in his preface, ‘it is because I believe they are essential links in the chain of evolution.’
Later in the Introduction he commented, ‘An unhappily high proportion of the houses illustrated in this book have either disappeared or have been mutilated or have fallen into disrepair. There are three reasons for this. One is that there seems to be a baleful correlation between architectural quality and misfortune. Too often it is the best buildings which fall victim to malice, neglect, ignorance, poverty or some amalgam of these evils; or to what can be worst of all, uncertainty of title especially when combined with bucolic paranoia. A second reason is that when a house is threatened or destroyed, the least we can do for it is to record its qualities, since it can no longer speak for itself. Finally there are times when the dereliction of a house gives opportunities for investigating, measuring and anatomising it, which would not occur if in normal occupation.’
So Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size concentrated on those properties ‘built by or lived in by minor gentry or prosperous farmers, or by manufacturers or traders, or occupied as dower houses, agent’s houses or as glebe-houses. The gulf between the ‘big house’ and the cottage has perhaps been over-emphasised by historians, and too much has been made of the absence of a middle class.’ The house featured today, Ballysallagh, County Kilkenny, is a representative example of this category.
The land on which Ballysallagh stands was for long owned by members of the Purcell family. The Purcells were of Anglo-Norman origin, their name believed to derive from the old French word ‘pourcel’ meaning piglet. Sir Hugh Purcell is said to have participated in the Norman invasion of Ireland and in the early 13th century his grandson, also called Sir Hugh, married a daughter of Theobald FitzWalter, Chief Butler of Ireland. This union was the origin of the link between the family and the powerful Butlers; in 1328 James Butler, first Earl of Ormond granted the Purcells the feudal title of Baron of Loughmoe, County Tipperary. The grandfather of the late 17th century composer Henry Purcell was a cousin of the Baron of Loughmoe.
Allied to the Butlers, the Purcells were concentrated in Counties Tipperary and Kilkenny and the lands of Ballysallagh remained in their possession during the Tudor colonisation despite periodic attempts at rebellion: in December 1571 Nicholas Purcell fitz Edmund of Ballysallagh was pardoned by the crown authorities, as was Edmund Purcell in 1589 and Edmund Purcell fitz Nicholas in 1600. However in 1653 Nicholas Purcell forfeited Ballysallagh and 758 acres under the Cromwellian seizures, and a large number of members of the family were certified for transplantation to Connaught. Yet the family remained on the site, most likely as tenants; in the early 18th century James Purcell was living at Ballysallagh and in 1720 his daughter and heiress, Mary Purcell wed Gerald Byrne from County Carlow who was assigned the property as part of the marriage settlement. It seems likely the couple built the present house soon afterwards: a stone at the front carries the date 1722.
Gerald and Mary Byrne had several children, only one of whom, their daughter Catherine, survived to adulthood. (Gerald Byrne also had an illegitimate son, James Byrne to whom in his will he left farm stock and land.) Dying in 1740 at the age of 26 Catherine predeceased both her parents but not before marrying William Doyle of County Kildare, with whom she had three children, two sons and a daughter. One of those sons, Gerald Doyle, inherited Ballysallagh from his grandfather Gerald Byrne in 1760. Two years after the death of Catherine Doyle her husband, Gerald Doyle’s father, had married again, his second wife being Frances Purcell of Usher’s Island, Dublin; with her, he had another three children, once more two sons and a daughter. However, neither Gerald Doyle nor his older brother Laurence married and in 1785 they sold their interest in Ballysallagh and its 450 acres to the family of their step-mother. Thus it remained in the possession of the Doyles, albeit not descended by blood from the original Purcells. Instead it belonged to the children of William Doyle’s second marriage, first another William Doyle, who also lived in Rutland Square, Dublin and died unmarried in 1847 and then Joseph Doyle, a doctor who served as Surgeon to the College at Maynooth, County Kildare. He likewise married a Purcell and the couple had a son John Joseph Doyle who inherited Ballysallagh and lived there until his death in 1890 at the age of 75. John Joseph’s son Gerald Doyle was the last of the family to live at Ballysallagh: following his death in 1939 for the first time the place was put on the market.
Despite Ballysallagh’s somewhat convoluted history of descent given above, the fact that the house did not pass beyond different branches of the same family for more than 200 years explains why it remained relatively unchanged after being first built in the early 18th century. There are a few decorative elements that were altered according to shifts in fashion and perhaps the advent of additional funds: the drawing room, for example, contains a white marble chimney piece that looks to be from the mid-19th century. Prior to that, in 1810 folding doors were introduced halfway back the entrance hall so as to separate it from the rear stairs. Above those doors is a splendidly wide fanlight (to provide more light to the front section of the hall should the doors be shut) and on an adjacent wall hangs a matching glazed wall cabinet with columns and a richly carved frieze.
Internally the house follows a tripartite plan, with main reception rooms to right and left of the entrance hall and behind these smaller rooms, a study and butler’s pantry. The wooden staircase is accommodated in a full height extension to the rear of the main block and leads to a spacious first-floor landing, an especially pleasing feature in houses such as this, with four bedrooms, two on either side. Another staircase of Kilkenny limestone, also fitted into the rear extension, provides access to the basement which continues to hold the house’s kitchen and other service areas. Externally, the building has a simple but satisfying symmetry, of five bays and two storeys over a raised basement. Maurice Craig reproduced the facade in Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size and noted a number of distinctive features such as a limestone plat-band in place of a cornice beneath the steeply pitched roof (in fact, there is a cornice but partially obscured by the guttering), and the fact that the end quoins are bolder and better finished than those of the single-bay breakfront. The entrance is approached by a flight of limestone steps, its door having a Gothic-glazed fanlight that the present owners have copied for the small lunette window in the breakfront pediment.
In February 1940 Ballysallagh and some 117 acres were offered for sale, a poster produced by the auctioneers describing it as a ‘splendid stone-built residential and agricultural property.’ At the start of the following month, a two-day auction saw the dispersal of the house’s contents: a newspaper advertisement went through many of the lots, including in the entrance hall a ‘large Antique Hanging China Display Press, enclosed by two glazed panel doors of unique design, Ornamental Frieze and Fluted Columns.’ Either this failed to find a buyer or the difficulty of removing the cabinet from the wall was recognised. Whatever the explanation, it remains in place, unlike other pieces accumulated by successive generations of Purcells, Byrnes and Doyles, such as the drawing room’s ‘Splendid Round Mahogany table, with rope edge and claw feet’ or the dining room’s ‘Small Sheraton mahogany wine cooler, with brass mountings on castors.’ These meagre descriptions are all that remain to indicate how the house was furnished over the course of two centuries. The present owners bought Ballysallagh in 1987 and since then have worked without cease to bring the place to its present excellent condition: looking at it today, one might imagine the property had never changed hands. Extensive work has been undertaken both indoors and outside. With regard to the latter, new formal gardens have been laid out behind the house and a maple walk created leading to a small folly. In his Introduction to Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size, Maurice Craig advised that the buildings featured had been chosen ‘for a combination of their architectural quality and the significance of their typology of the subject.’ Ballysallagh deserves attention and plaudits for the same reasons: even since the book first appeared quite a number of properties it covered have been lost. This makes Ballysallagh’s survival all the more precious.
The Dawson family of County Monaghan came from Yorkshire to Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I, Thomas Dawson becoming a Burgess of Armagh. Subsequently Richard Dawson, a Cromwellian cornet of horse, assembled the nucleus of the family’s estate in the 1650s and 1660s through the acquisition of thirty-one townlands, based around a property called Dawson’s Grove on the banks of a chain of lakes separating counties Cavan and Monaghan. Richard Dawson’s only child, a daughter named Frances, married her cousin Walter Dawson. Their son Richard was an Alderman of Dublin, an MP for County Kilkenny and the owner of a family bank. He further expanded the estates both in County Monaghan and elsewhere. With his wife Elizabeth, daughter of John Vesey, Archbishop of Tuam, he had four children, their third son being Thomas Dawson born in 1725. After coming into his inheritance the latter built a new house at Dawson’s Grove in the early 1770s and also bought and redeveloped a residence in London, Cremorne House, Chelsea where the garden designer Nathaniel Richmond was commissioned to lay out the grounds (although the house is long gone, this is now the site of Cremorne Gardens, just down river from Battersea Bridge). In May 1770 Thomas Dawson was created Baron Dartrey of Dawson’s Grove, and in June 1785 Viscount Cremorne.
In August 1754 Thomas Dawson married Lady Anne Fermor, youngest daughter of the first Earl of Pomfret, with whom he had two children before she died in March 1769. Her husband’s grief was considerable, but not so great as to prevent his marrying just over a year later Philadelphia Hannah Freame. She was the granddaughter of William Penn, whose family owned land in County Cork but who is better known as the founder of Pennsylvania. By his second marriage to Hannah Callowhill William Penn had eight children one of whom, Thomas Penn, married Lady Juliana Fermor, eldest daughter of Lord Pomfret. This explains how Thomas Dawson should have met his second wife Philadelphia, whose mother Margaret Freame, was another of William Penn’s children. In other words, he married his first wife’s niece. And, as her name indicates, she was born in the city of Philadelphia in 1740.
Philadelphia Freame’s marriage to Thomas Dawson was marked by the building of a house for the Dartrey estate’s agent, Charles Mayne, which was then given the name Freame Mount. Lady Anne Fermor, however, was commemorated in a more original fashion with the construction of a mausoleum which stands in the middle of Black Island on raised ground facing the former site of Dawson’s Grove. Based on a surviving elevation for the west front which shows the inspiration of the Pantheon in Rome, the design of the Dartrey Mausoleum has been attributed to James Wyatt, making it the English architect’s first commission in Ireland and contemporaneous with Wyatt’s Pantheon, the famous assembly rooms on London’s Oxford Street.
The building in Monaghan is a tall, square block built of locally-fired red brick raised on a limestone plinth. The exterior, featuring a sequence of blind windows and oculi, is relieved on the western front (which would have been visible from Dawson’s Grove) by a shallow tetrastyle portico with four pilasters (note their unusual fluted capitals) beneath a pedimented entablature. Above this cube rises a dome, its open centre providing the only light for the interior which would have been even more dramatic when viewed on nights with a full moon.
In August 1774 the Dublin Hibernian Journal reported, ‘A few days ago was landed in Dublin a beautiful Marble Monument done by Joseph Wilton, Esq., of Portland Street, London, which Lord Dartrey is to erect in a Temple at his seat in Co. Monaghan, to the memory of his late wife, Lady Anne Dawson, daughter of the late Earl of Pomfret.’ The London-born Wilton, a founder-member of the Royal Academy, had in 1764 been appointed ‘Sculptor to his Majesty’ by George III. His funerary monument in the Dartrey Mausoleum, for which he was paid 1,000 guineas, is the only commission he received in Ireland; during the same period he also sculpted a bust of Thomas Dawson, now in the Yale Center for British Art.
Like that piece, Wilton’s work inside the mausoleum is carved in Carrara marble and was installed against the eastern wall above a plain altar. A plaque recalls both Lady Anne, described as possessing ‘all the external Advantages which contribute to form a shining Distinction on Earth’, and the couple’s prematurely deceased daughter Henrietta Anne ‘who lived long enough to justify all the fairest Hopes of a Mother.’ To one side of a large funerary urn are the lifesize figures of Lady Anne’s grieving husband and their young son clinging to his father in both terror and sorrow; the pair of them gaze up at the hovering form of an interceding angel. It is a remarkably theatrical piece of work, and must have been especially effective when seen by moonlight.
The subsequent fortunes of the Dartrey Mausoleum have been mixed. At some date in the 19th century, the dome was taken, or fell, down and replaced with a shallow slated pyramidal roof, and the brick walls plastered. The last member of the Dawson family to live at Dartrey, Lady Edith Windham, eldest child of the second Earl of Dartrey, sold the estate in 1946 to the Irish Forestry Commission (now Coillte) which continues to own the land on which the mausoleum stands. Dawson’s Grove, rebuilt in the 1840s as Dartrey Castle, was demolished and the view across to Black Island obscured by dense planting of evergreen woodland. Meanwhile the mausoleum was left to languish and although the Irish Georgian Society undertook some repairs in the 1960s, the building succumbed to decay, its roof was lost and the sculptural group – as can be seen in photographs above – seriously vandalised.
Such might have remained the case, had it not been for the energy, imagination and commitment of a local group, the Dartrey Heritage Association which over the past decade has steadily worked to ensure the restoration of this outstanding monument. Securing funding from a variety of sources, including the local County Council, the Heritage Council and once more the Irish Georgian Society, together with monies raised by other means, the DHA has now almost completed this project. The building is once more intact and with a domed roof, and inside the sculptural group has been repaired with missing sections scrupulously replaced. The entire project is a wonderful testament to what can be achievied by a local voluntary body with sufficient determination and persistence, and ought to serve as an example for others throughout the country. Above all the restoration of the Dartrey Mausoleum shows that nothing is beyond salvation, provided the will is there.