Not necessarily the best photograph to have been shown here, but it gives some idea of an exhibition currently running at 5 Rutland Street, Limerick. The house dates from the 1770s and is one of a terrace that marks both chronologically and literally the onset of the city’s Newtown Pery district. After serving as a butcher’s shop, in recent years the premises – like its neighbours – has stood empty and neglected. However, overseen by conservation architect Cáit ni Cheallachain and historian Dr Ursula Callaghan, and as part of the local Irish Georgian Society chapter’s contribution to Limerick City of Culture leaks have been fixed, an outbreak of dry rot arrested, wallpaper stripped, paintwork cleaned (including all the staircase banisters), and the entire site given a fresh purpose: as a Pop Up Museum exploring aspects of Limerick’s rich cultural heritage from the Georgian era. This is an imaginative and exciting initiative showing what can be done in a building that otherwise risked becoming further prey to vandalism and decay. The Pop Up Museum is open at weekends from 10am to 5pm and on Wednesday evenings from 4pm to 9pm and runs until the end of this month: pop in while you can.
The name Ballyfin derives from the Irish An Baile Fionn, meaning the fair place, and it’s an apt description for the house and estate in County Laois which now bear that name. Originally this part of the country was under the control of the O’More clan, but like so many others they were displaced of their lands during the settlement period in the 16th century. Laois was one of two counties created by Queen Mary in 1556 when it was called Queen’s County (and its main town, now Portlaoise, was Maryborough) and by the early decades of the following century Ballyfin had passed into the control of Sir Piers Crosby who is said to have built a castle here. In the disturbances of the 1640s, however, Crosby lost this territory when it came into the ownership of one Periam Pole, younger son of the Devonshire antiquarian Sir William Pole. In turn his son, likewise called Periam, would be confirmed as being in possession of the land, part of a larger estate of some 3,500 acres.
His son William Pole succeeded him in 1704 and some time later pulled down the old Crosby castle, replacing it with a more commodious house, these changes being described by a nephew as ‘grand and expensive and his designs were elegant, as his gardens show.’ But the expenditure meant that by 1727, the same relation would comment that William Pole ‘died worth no ready money between his improving Ballyfin and his wife’s going constantly every winter to Dublin.’ His elder son, another Periam – who undertook restoration on the house following a fire – died childless in 1748 and so the estate went to his sibling, another William Pole. The latter and his wife Lady Sarah Moore, a daughter of the fifth Earl of Drogheda, greatly developed Ballyfin’s parkland: in May 1759 Emily, Countess of Kildare could write to her husband, ‘Yesterday I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin…There is a piece of water there very like what I fancy ours will be, only broader; fine plantations and the greatest variety of trees and flowers almost that I ever saw anywhere.’ Over 250 years later Lady Kildare’s description remains apt.
In addition to the grounds, William and Lady Sarah Pole also carried out work on the house built by his father, including ‘an elegant and commodious square of offices’ and, in 1778, an extension to the building that provided a new entrance hall and series of reception rooms. In 1784 William Ashford painted a number of views of Ballyfin which provide us with an idea of its appearance at the time; one of these pictures was engraved by Thomas Milton and published in 1787 in his Views of Seats in Ireland. The house is shown across the lake created by the Poles, a fourteen-bay elevation conforming to Milton’s description of it as ‘plain and modern-built’, the result being ‘an excellent family mansion’ with rooms ‘large and commodious, fitted up with taste’. Another engraving of the same building in 1794 shows its uneven façade and provides confirmation that the owners were planning still further developments. On the other hand, as was so often the case in Ireland, ambition outstripped income and it is apparent the Poles were heavily indebted by the time of their deaths in 1780 and 1781 respectively. Still, they were determined the improvements they had undertaken should not be dissipated, William Pole declaring in his will that ‘the person for the time being who shall enjoy my mansion house and demesne of Ballyfin shall engage and employ a skilful gardiner at the salary of one hundred pounds Sterling a year to attend and take care of the improvements…so as to keep and preserve the same in good and compleat order, repair and condition.’
Like his elder brother William Pole had no children, and therefore Ballyfin passed to a godson and great-nephew, William Wellesley, whose father was the music-loving first Earl of Mornington and whose younger brother would become the great Duke of Wellington. Wellesley’s inheritance came with the proviso that he adopt the name Pole, and so he became William Wellesley-Pole. Although he spent time in this country as Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1809 and 1812 and as Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer during part of the same period, Wellesley-Pole, who would be made first Baron Maryborough in 1821 (and on the death of another brother in 1842 become third Earl of Mornington), spent the greater part of his career in England. In 1813 he offered his Irish estate for sale, a fortunate move since it would otherwise have been squandered by his eldest son.
This gentleman was one of the most notorious rakes of the early 19th century. Born William Wellesley-Pole, in 1812 shortly before marrying for the first time he added the surname of his heiress fiancée, thus becoming William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley. The unfortunate bride, Catherine Tylney-Long, at the time generally called ‘The Wiltshire Heiress’ was believed to be the richest commoner in England, with estates providing an annual rental income of £40,000 per annum and financial investments worth £300,000. Her husband, on the other hand, had only debts and within a decade was forced to flee to mainland Europe to evade his creditors. His last years were spent in London, living on a weekly pension of ₤10 provided by his cousin Arthur Wellesley, second Duke of Wellington. On his death in July 1857, the Morning Chronicle obituarist summarised him as follows: ‘A spendthrift, a profligate, and a gambler in his youth, he became debauched in his manhood… redeemed by no single virtue, adorned by no single grace, his life gone out even without a flicker of repentance.’
Instead of being frittered away by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley, the Ballyfin estate changed hands in 1813 when it was bought by Sir Charles Henry Coote, premier Baronet of Ireland. The first of his family to come to Ireland had been an earlier Charles Coote, like Periam Pole originally from Devonshire. As a young soldier he came to this country to make his fortune and was eventually rewarded with large grants of land as well as a lifetime possession of several valuable state offices. He died in 1642 during the Confederate Wars and was succeeded by his son Charles who supported Oliver Cromwell but, after the latter’s death, championed the restoration of Charles II and was thus granted the title of Earl of Mountrath. This title passed down through successive generations until the death in 1802 of the childless seventh earl who left his Mountrath estate of some 50,000 acres to a kinsman, Charles Henry Coote, then a ten-year old schoolboy. The property was held in trust until he came of age, conveniently just as Ballyfin was offered for sale and a year before his marriage to Caroline Whaley (a niece of the famous Irish gambler Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley).
Although the Cootes had been considerable landowners in Queen’s County since the early 17th century, they do not appear to have had a significant residence there. The ruins survive of two houses associated with the family, Castle Cuffe, built by the first Sir Charles Coote and named after his wife Dorothea Cuffe, and Rush Hall, but neither was in use by the time the ninth baronet came into his inheritance. Therefore it made sense to acquire an existing estate, especially one such as Ballyfin which had benefitted from the attention of successive earlier owners. He and his new wife settled here and when the place was visited by Atkinson in 1815, he reported in The Irish Tourist, ‘The dwelling-house of Ballyfin is a large building in the form of a half-square, it has an aspect of neatness and extent, but in its exterior appearance nothing very ornamental or magnificent. The rooms, however, which I saw, were spacious and furnished in a stile of elegance suitable to the place. Under this head may be classed, as an article of the first consideration, a rich and valuable collection of paintings, the work of eminent artists.’
It was perhaps because they required a better setting for their collection of ‘rich and valuable’ paintings that in the early 1820s the Cootes decided to embark on a rebuilding programme at Ballyfin. It would appear that the initial intention was to remodel and extend the existing structure, using the services of a relatively unknown architect called Dominick Madden (he would go on to design several Roman Catholic cathedrals in the west of Ireland). However, here as elsewhere Madden ran into trouble with his clients – in 1810 he had been dismissed from a position with the Board of Works for ‘irregular conduct’ including the theft of furniture from the Vice-Regal Lodge – and was replaced by the ubiquitous Morrisons, Richard and his son William Vitruvius. They proposed an entirely new scheme that even involved the demolition of Madden’s recently completed library and vestibule, and somehow succeeded in persuading Sir Charles Coote to go along with their plans.
As Kevin V Mulligan wrote in a 2005 article on the house, ‘The detail and quality of finishes in the executed building, indicate that the Morrisons’ skills in spatial planning and decorative design were matched only by their powers of persuasion. The wealth of materials available to the Morrisons is seen in the ability to execute all the elevations in smooth sandstone ashlar. The conservatory, a feature represented in the Morrisons’ earliest proposals, seems to have been the only element sacrificed until Richard Turner’s fragile curvilinear glass cell was added sometime after 1855. Internally, a stunning collection of scagliola columns included the most expensive that could be obtained from the Lambeth works of William Croggon who almost certainly provided them here, represented by the imitation verde antico Corinthian columns that contribute to the imperial grandeur of the saloon. Elsewhere, endless mahogany for doors and bookcases and an assorted range of exotic woods used to remarkable effect in the parquetry floors constituted more expensive materials; added to this were the contents of seven packing cases sent from Italy in 1821 through the agency of the artist Gaspare Gabrielli which may have included the matching chimneypieces with Bacchanalian friezes that now serve the saloon and dining room or indeed the Roman mosaic set into the stone floor of the entrance hall. But all of this barely compares with the wealth of artistry available in the craftsmen who fashioned these materials, especially those who modelled and cast the extraordinary stuccowork, an eclectic decorative display that remains the principal glory of Ballyfin.’
Ballyfin remained in the ownership of the Cootes for just over 100 years before steeply declining income, the loss of the estate to the Land Commission and changing political circumstances obliged the family to sell. In 1928 the house and demesne were acquired by the Patrician Brothers for £10,000, only a fraction of what it had cost to build the Morrison-designed property a century before. The religious order operated a boarding school on the premises until they in turn announced an intention to sell in September 2001. After visiting Ballyfin the following January, I wrote that by this date some of the rooms had become ‘barely habitable, because in recent years the house has suffered from water seeping through the roof and into the building. A corner of the ground-floor drawing-room, for example, shows evidence of serious damage from this problem.’ While problems with the roof had been stabilised, ‘more costly work is still required on the parapets and corbels. Then money will need to be spent elsewhere on the building, taking care of those sections which have been ruined by damp as well as rescuing such features as the saloon’s marquetry floor, areas of which have become dislodged, and the unique glass and iron conservatory dating from the 1850s and believed to have been designed by Richard Turner…And the grounds are also suffering from a shortage of funds for their upkeep: trees need to be thinned or felled, while other sections of the woodlands should be replanted; the grottoes and follies, including a 19th-century “medieval” observation tower, are suffering; and one of the neo-classical gate lodges is almost derelict. Remarkable and deserving of support as Ballyfin may be, the question must be asked: who can or will come to its salvation?’
Amazingly, a new owner did come forward to save Ballyfin and to undertake the slow and costly programme of restoration that the house required. Work began in 2002 and continued until 2010, meticulous, methodical and almost without equal in this country. Ballyfin then reopened as an hotel, but not – as is too often the case – with its parkland despoiled and its interiors butchered. On the contrary, the sensitivity of the house’s present owners and the skills of the team they assembled to resuscitate the property means that this is one of the finest restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the past century. As a result Ballyfin today once more lives up to its name of being the fair place.
For this week’s account I am much indebted to Kevin V Mulligan’s excellent 2011 publication, Ballyfin: The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne.
Ballyfin is now a superlatively luxurious hotel, for more information see: http://www.ballyfin.com
In his Irish Sketchbook of 1842, William Thackeray describes visiting a cotton mill in Belfast: ‘There are nearly five hundred girls employed in it. They work in huge long chambers, lighted by numbers of windows, hot with steam, buzzing and humming with hundreds and thousands of whirling wheels, that all take their motion from a steam-engine which lives apart in a hot cast-iron temple of its own, from which it communicates with the innumerable machines that the five hundred girls preside over. They have seemingly but to take away the work when done – the enormous monster in the cast-iron room does it all…I have seldom, I think, seen more good looks than amongst the young women employed in this place. They work for twelve hours daily, in rooms in which the heat is intolerable to a stranger; but in spite of it they looked gay, stout and healthy; nor were their forms much concealed by the very simple clothes they wear while in the mill.’ Thackeray came to Belfast with introductions from the Irish novelist Charles Lever who he had met in Dublin (and who the following year in a review of the Irish Sketchbook described it as ‘the pleasantest reading for a morning in the country, and the most amusing text of an evening’s conversation in town.’) Thus he was able to meet the owner of the cotton mill he visited, one of the era’s most successful entrepreneurs, Andrew Mulholland.
Before the Beerage came into existence, there was the Linenocracy: a group of predominantly Ulster families who became exceedingly rich thanks to their involvement in the region’s linen industry. The Mulhollands were one such family, the origins of their rise traceable to Thomas Mulholland, described as a ‘dealer’ who in 1803 bought two houses on Belfast’s Upper Church Lane: the fact that he signed the contract for this transaction with an X is often taken as indicative of his illiteracy but this could be unfair. In any case, he must have possessed abundant shrewdness because in 1815 he and three of his sons entered an already-flourishing cotton industry by purchasing a mill. Five years later Thomas Mulholland died but the trio of siblings carried on the business, building a large spinning mill in the city near York Street. There was a set-back in June 1818 when this premises was almost completely destroyed by fire. Undaunted, the brothers set about rebuilding their property with one crucial difference: instead of cotton, it was now used for spinning flax. Not only was the former business beginning to experience economic problems, but a new method of flax spinning by machine had recently been developed in northern England without yet being subject to patent. Hence the Mulhollands were able to benefit from this technological advance. As indeed they did: when the York Street mill opened in 1830 it had 8,000 spindles, and by 1856 it had grown to 25,000 and was probably the largest such enterprise in the world. Also by that date it had entirely passed into the control of one brother, the aforementioned Andrew Mulholland and it was he who had shown Thackeray around the site. Where Mulholland led, other Belfast businessmen followed: by 1850 the city boasted 29 flax-spinning mills compared with only four premises spinning cotton. On the advent of the American Civil War in the early 1860s, which had the effect of almost cutting off the supply of raw cotton to Britain, linen became ever more important. In 1864, Andrew Mulholland & Son became a limited company, the York Street Flax Spinning Company Limited, its prospectus proclaiming the business possessed ‘the largest flax mill and linen factory in the North of Ireland, covering about four acres of land.’ With branches in Paris (opened 1870) New York (1871) London (1874) Berlin (1876) and Melbourne (1882) it soon became the largest firm of flax spinners, linen manufacturers and distributors in the world.
One of Andrew Mulholland’s brothers, St Clair was a Justice of the Peace for County Down and High Sheriff of County Louth while Andrew was elected Mayor of Belfast in 1845. In his speech of thanks he undertook to ‘ameliorate the condition of the operatives,’ proposing the introduction of public gardens and washhouses, free libraries and coffee shops for workers which would promote ‘their health and cleanliness and give them better tastes.’ The onset of the terrible potato famine later that year put paid to such ideas, and instead Andrew Mulholland was a generous contributor to relief programmes. When better times returned to the country, he provided Belfast’s Ulster Hall with the grand organ still in situ. The donation was initially anonymous but once his identity became known, he explained the intention was ‘to give an opportunity to the working classes to hear from time to time the best music from a truly splendid instrument, at such a rate as would enable the humblest artisan to enjoy advantages which even the opulent could rarely purchase until now.’
Andrew Mulholland died in 1866 but before then the family business had passed into the hands of his only son John. He nurtured more overt political ambitions than had his father, serving as a Justice of the Peace for Antrim and Down, and as High Sheriff of Down in 1868 and of Tyrone in 1873. He stood as Conservative candidate for Belfast in 1868 but was beaten by the Orange populist William Johnston of Ballykilbeg. However John Mulholland was subsequently more successful, being elected MP for Downpatrick between 1874 and 1885. Three years before his death, on the recommendation of the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1892 he was created Baron Dunleath of Ballywalter.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an affluent urban entrepreneur must be in want of a rural retreat. Thus Andrew Mulholland, having acquired great wealth through his early engagement with linen production, sought a spot to which he could retire and found a suitable estate on Ulster’s Ards Peninsula. Originally this was called Ballymagown and in 1729 had been acquired by the Matthews family from the Montgomerys of nearby Grey Abbey. Walter Harris’ Ancient and Present State of the County of Down (published 1744) refers to the property built there and now named Springvale, as being of two storeys over a semi-basement and containing a collection of curios gathered by George Matthews while a captain in the Royal Navy (including ‘several Figures of Mummies in divers kinds of Earth, in wood that is said never to decay…’). In 1805 a remodelling of the house was begun but remained incomplete before being abandoned seven years later: this was the building, together with surrounding estate, bought by Andrew Mulholland in 1846 for £23,500. He also acquired the adjoining Ballyatwood demesne, uniting the two of them with a replanting programme that ran to 41,000 trees and shrubs. The whole was now called Ballywalter Park, taking its name from an adjacent town founded in 1605.
Andrew Mulholland also turned his attention to the old Matthews house which over the next few years was encased inside a much larger structure (although traces of it survive in the basement), the greater part of the building being absorbed into a top-lit inner hall sixty feet long. In addition, the entrance was moved from south to east side, signalled by the presence of a porte-cochere with coupled Doric columns. Two single storey wings were added to either side of the main block and these have bows on the garden front the better to contemplate Ballywalter’s well-planted parkland. The eventual house’s appearance is sometimes described as emulating an Italian palazzo but more often and truthfully is said to look not unlike one of London’s smarter gentlemen’s clubs as designed by Sir Charles Barry. In a much-quoted observation, Professor Alistair Rowan has remarked that Ballywalter possesses ‘a metropolitan air and all the architectural trappings of a London club, dropped as if by chance in the open country of the north Irish coast.’
Ballywalter Park was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and the interior is one of his most accomplished pieces of work. As mentioned, the core of the building is its inner hall which rises to a gallery from which in turn springs a glazed roof, thereby filling the entire space with natural light: note how plain Doric columns and pilasters of the ground floor give way to the richer Corinthian order above so as to encourage the eye upwards. Also worthy of attention here and in the other main rooms are the deep and heavily ornamented cornice mouldings, and the beautiful parquet floors. The effect throughout is opulent yet by no means overwhelming: as Alistair Rowan commented the house exudes an air of ‘solid comfort.’
One advantage of the inner hall is that it gives direct access to a succession of reception rooms, moving from morning room to library to drawing room and from thence to dining room. Despite having certain decorative elements in common, each of them possesses a different and distinct character, and all of them has – like the space at its core – ample natural lighting: even the library where the pedimented mahogany bookcases were installed in 1866 is a singularly bright room: Ballywalter is entirely free of the oft-cited Victorian gloom. Although the main block was completed by 1852, in 1863 Lanyon returned to carry out further work, adding a billiard room onto the north-west corner of the garden front and, at right angles to this, a large domed conservatory which provides a spectacular conclusion to any tour of the house.
Ballywalter Park epitomises mid-19th century splendour, but this has proven hard to maintain in subsequent eras. By the time the fourth Lord Dunleath inherited the property more than 100 years after its completion, there were no live-in staff, the house was suffering serious structural problems and its future looked uncertain. What saved the place was both a young owner’s determination to battle on, and a visit in 1961 by future Poet Laureate and life-long champion of Victoriana John Betjeman who urged the house’s preservation at all costs, since he recognised the then-rampant detestation of mid-19th century architecture was a merely a passing fashion in taste. Of course he was proven right, and luckily Ballywalter was not demolished or reduced in size: its survival has become even more precious since two other of Lanyon’s Ulster houses, Dundarave, County Antrim and Drenagh, County Derry, both of which have hitherto remained in the ownership of their original families, are now being offered for sale.
Meanwhile Ballywalter continues to benefit from ample care and attention to its welfare and future. Both inside the house and in the grounds, the sixth Lord Dunleath who succeeded in 1997 has together with his wife tirelessly continued the programme of refurbishment and restoration embarked upon by their predecessors, and as a result Ballywalter today looks better than was likely the case half a century or more ago. Displaying the old Mulholland entrepreneurial spirit, the Dunleaths have made the property available for a variety of events, not least film and television production (as a result of which it has appeared in an disconcerting assortment of guises) and yet the spirit of the place and its distinctive character have remained uncompromised, which is too rarely the case. Ballywalter survives as a tribute to the once-mighty Ulster linen industry and, equally important, as a very happy family home.
For more information on this house, see: http://ballywalterpark.com (and while there don’t forget to look at Lady Dunleath’s stylish blog – http://ballywalterpark.com/category/walled-garden-blog – in which she displays her encyclopaedic knowledge of food).
The ceiling of the south hall, now used as a drawing room, at Cappoquin House, County Waterford. Built in 1779 and believed to have been designed by local architect John Roberts, the house was gutted by fire in February 1923, one of many such buildings lost to arson during the Civil War. Unlike so many others, however, Cappoquin rose from the ruins after its owner Sir John Keane embarked on a programme of restoration that took almost six years to complete. The decoration for the main reception rooms came from the London firm of G Jackson & Sons which billed Sir John £284 for the elaborate plasterwork seen here including the screen of columns and pilasters.
(For more information on the rebuilding of Cappoquin House, see my earlier piece Risen from the Ashes, March 4h 2013).
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the death on May 8th 1989 of Mariga Guinness at the age of only 56. It seems an opportune moment to celebrate her life, especially since an entire generation has since grown up without having had the opportunity to meet Mariga and to benefit in person from her influence.
For those unfamiliar with her story, Marie-Gabrielle von Urach was born in September 1932, the only child of Prince Albrecht von Urach and Rosemary Blackadder. Her mother’s family were from the Scottish borders, her father’s a junior branch of the royal house of Württemberg in southern Germany; her grandfather was briefly King of Lithuania, a great-aunt Queen of Belgium and a great-grandaunt the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Although her father had been expected to succeed to the principality of Monaco (an extraordinary story in itself), in the aftermath of the First World War this arrangement was abandoned and so he came of age with little money and no prospects. Both Mariga’s parents were artists and in the mid-1930s they and their daughter moved to Japan where Prince Albrecht was attached to the German embassy as a government photographer. However in 1937 Rosemary von Urach decided the Japanese Emperor was being misled into aggression by his generals, and taking Mariga with her somehow gained admission into the imperial palace to offer him advice. Arrested and sedated by security guards, she was sent back to Britain where she had a breakdown followed by a lobotomy and spent the rest of her life in a Scottish mental hospital. Meanwhile Mariga’s father continued working for the German government throughout the Second World War and did not see his daughter again until she was sixteen and he had remarried (when they reunited he did not tell her this himself and she only found out indirectly). In the intervening years Mariga had been raised in England by a septuagenarian unmarried friend of her grandmother’s who died in 1951, leaving her charge possessed of little other than great intelligence and beauty. That same year she was introduced to the Hon Desmond Guinness by her cousin Prince Rupert Löwenstein. The couple married in June 1954 and moved to Ireland the following year.
Mariga first visited Ireland (at the invitation of the late Mark Bence-Jones) in 1953. He later remembered that she arrived in a ball dress having gone straight from a dance in London to catch an early flight. ‘The first thing they asked me when I got off the ‘plane was “Have you been on a farm?”’ she said with her unerring sense of the incongruous (there had recently been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England). Afterwards she wrote, ‘Ireland is HEAVEN, everyone is so dotty and delicious and no one dreams of taking anything seriously; except, perhaps the Horse Show.’ Of course, after moving here Mariga took the country very seriously, not least in her ceaseless campaigns to preserve its architectural heritage and her founding with Desmond of the Irish Georgian Society in 1958.
The society was run from the couple’s home at Leixlip Castle, County Kildare which they had bought and restored after looking at countless other houses around Ireland. Leixlip represented Mariga’s highly distinctive and influential taste. As architectural historian Mark Girouard has written, ‘In the 1960s Mariga Guinness made Leixlip Castle an unforgettable place: a solid, four-towered mediaeval castle converted in the early 18th century with huge, thick-barred windows and spacious, simple rooms looking down to the Liffey; a massive front door that was never locked; and inside an inspired assembly of mainly Irish 18th-century furniture and pictures, put together and set off with a sense of color and occasion, a mixture of informality and showmanship, to make a setting in which it seemed that anything could happen and anyone might turn up.
One would turn up oneself, pull open the front door and wander into empty rooms with log fires smoldering, until people would, perhaps, begin to appear: millionaires, Irish professors, Anglo-Irish lordlings, pop stars, German princes, architects, priests, art historians, students, all revolving around Mariga, with her drawling voice and mischievous smile, and Desmond, with his charm and blazing blue eyes.
A party might develop or a picnic, or both or neither; intrigues and dramas would get under way, champagne might or might not flow, and the whole charade was given point by the crusade for Irish Georgian architecture, to save or rediscover which forays would be made from the castle all over Ireland.’
Many people can testify, and have done so, to the abiding impact of Mariga’s exceptional taste. Interior designer John Stefanidis has remembered her ‘A wit, a tease, an intelligent and enchanting beauty, gifted with impeccable taste. She had panache…whether in a fur hat and muff, or in fancy dress with a large hat and feather boa, she always looked marvellous. A wonderful hostess, Leixlip Castle was an example on how to live in an historic house – despite it being freezing cold in winter (she longed for central heating).’
It was thrilling to stay there surrounded by marvellous furniture she had found and not an ugly thing in sight. She was the inspiration behind the founding of the Irish Georgian Society – not only did she find houses and restore them but also doggedly charmed her way through bureaucratic red tape in Dublin.’
Likewise in his 1985 book The Inspiration of the Past, architectural historian John Cornforth described Leixlip as ‘the key country house in the British Isles in the late 1950s and 1960s,’ before going on to write that ‘The process of restoring, decorating and furnishing the house was very much a shared enthusiasm, with complementary contributions from two remarkable people; but it always seemed to me that the overall look of the house owed more to Mrs Guinness, who has a rare gift for composing objects and rooms in a stimulating way and combining unlikely, and occasionally uncompromising, objects to create memorable effects…Ultimately it was the feeling for scale in the house and the combination of the Irish pictures and furniture with the simple decoration supported by prints, piles of books and quantities of shells that made it such a complete and convincing Irish country house, very carefully thought out but achieved with such brio and confidence that it seemed natural and not contrived. It managed to be stylish and unfussy; quite grand and yet informal and cut-back; and everywhere there was both a vivid historical air and a sense of fantasy.’ In this context, Cornforth referenced Nancy Lancaster before recalling an observation made by Christopher Gibbs that while Mrs Lancaster’s taste had been ‘patrician’ that of Mariga was ‘princely.’
Although less actively involved with the Irish Georgian Society during the last years of her life, Mariga’s commitment and engagement with the organisation during its early decades was of vital importance. After her death, the late Professor Kevin B Nowlan noted how, ‘In the 1960s and 1970s Mariga Guinness gave a sparkle to the grim struggle to save our heritage of 18th century architecture.’ Indeed, it was her crusading spirit and her exceptional ability to inspire other people that deserve to be forever remembered. As the Knight of Glin commented, ‘She had that vital talent of leading every sort of person into the then often unappreciated world of Irish architecture, decoration, furniture and paintings.’ The society’s membership swelled as a direct result of her passionate advocacy of conservationism; she was a force of persuasive charm impossible to resist. ‘Not a painter, not a writer, not a musician,’ wrote her great friend Maureen Charlton while Mariga was still alive, ‘what she does is to transform life itself into a work of art, to make each passing day a new creation.’
Mariga was always especially good at inspiring the young, who would quickly be beguiled into voluntarily working for the Irish Georgian Society, and in a thoroughly practical way too. During the course of an interview given less than two months before her death, she spoke of the restoration, indeed the salvation of Castletown, County Kildare in 1967 when students were at the top of ladders painting cornices, children scrubbed floors, ‘and even the oldest of the old were able to polish the beautiful door handles and do something to help.’ Mariga too threw herself into activity and led by example, being prepared to climb a ladder with a pot of paint, or wield a banner during a protest against the threatened demolition of an historically important building. A feature in the Irish Independent during this period noted of Mariga that when not in Leixlip ‘dispensing informal hospitality and discussing current such finds as a document-packed sealskin trunk or an ancient set of stocks in a Meath courthouse, she’s paint-stripping or picture hanging at Castletown.’ Although she could sometimes give the impression of being rather vague – she was notorious for introducing even relatively close friends as ‘Mr Thingummy’ – a strong core of practicality ran through her character. And there was a streak of seriousness too. As she told a reporter from the Irish Times shortly before her death, when speaking of the Irish Georgian Society, ‘It was definitely very serious, what we were doing.’
Although we met in passing on a couple of occasions when I was still a student, it was only after she had divorced and I had graduated that Mariga and I came to know each other. By then she had perforce moved out of Leixlip Castle and was living in Tullynisk, the dower house of Birr, County Offaly. It was definitely a house of contrasts, on the one hand a grim little kitchen (out of which surprisingly delicious meals were produced) and on the other the main rooms which were decorated with Mariga’s customary flair and discernment. Despite chaos forever appearing imminent, life at Tullynisk was actually rather well-ordered: overnight guests found their rooms perfectly prepared, logs neatly piled beside the grate (the house was always cold), fresh linen on the beds, and carefully chosen reading matter on an adjacent stand. No matter how late we had all scattered – and it was often very late – the followed morning Mariga would be the first to rise, moving about the house with trays laden for the breakfast table.
At the same time, disorder reigned behind the scenes: Mariga’s unparalleled collection of historical costume, for example, remained heaped in a tempting Everest on one bedroom floor, periodically raided for dressing-up on her instruction during parties. And her wonderful library, although the majority of books were eventually shelved, never had any real order put on it. Meanwhile she continued to drive a battered old Citroen, which periodically refused to move and would sometimes spend months outside the house. I remember Mariga’s bafflement when she was summoned to appear in court in Birr for failing to tax the vehicle, her logic being that since it was immobile no taxation ought to be required.
The truth was that during those final years Mariga was deeply unhappy, the melancholia to which I suspect she had always been vulnerable threatening to overwhelm her. Although she tried to keep herself busy and organised regular house parties and outings – a caravan of cars driving slowly down pot-holed laneways in pursuit of an alleged architectural gem that more often turned out to be an undistinguished farmhouse, its owners baffled by the spectacle of this troupe of eccentric gawkers – she was often alone. At such times she must have felt the world of which she had once been so vital a part had moved on and forgotten her. Of course it hadn’t, and more importantly it still hasn’t. All of us remained heavily indebted to Mariga Guinness and her inspirational leadership. Through her dynamism and commitment, Ireland’s architectural heritage became better known and appreciated, and preserved, than would otherwise have been the case. This week’s anniversary of her untimely death allows us an opportunity once more to pay due acknowledgement to a remarkable woman.
Mariga Guinness, 21st September 1932 – 8th May 1989
Most visitors to Collon, County Louth are likely to pass swiftly on their way, unaware the house on the north-east corner of the village’s crossroads has powerful links with a pivotal moment in our history when the country likewise stood at a crossroad: the 1800 Act of Union. This building, known as Collon House, was the birthplace and lifelong residence of John Foster, last speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
The Fosters are believed to have been of English origin, coming from Cumberland to settle in this country sometime around the time of Charles II’s Restoration: the name of a Samuel Foster appears in the Hearth Money return (by which one shilling was paid for every firehearth or stove in a dwelling) for the parish of Dunleer, County Louth in 1666. Samuel Foster’s son Anthony, named as a burgess of Dunleer in 1683, seems to have been a small tenant farmer in the area but his son John studied law, married well and started to acquire land, much of it formerly belonging to an impecunious branch of the Moore family. By the time of his death in 1747 he had built up an estate of some 6,000 acres. This property included Collon where around 1740 John Foster’s son, another Anthony, built the family residence. Land ownership conveyed power and thus with his election as an M.P. in 1737 Anthony Foster was able to wrest control of the Dunleer borough over which he and his son thereafter retained until the abolition of the Irish parliament. Trained as a barrister, from 1760 to 1766 Anthony Foster held the Office of First Counsel to the Commissioners of the Revenue, before being appointed Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer, retiring from this position a year before his death in 1778.
John Foster’s biographer Anthony Malcolmson describes Anthony Foster as ‘an able man whose misfortune it has been to be overshadowed by an even abler son.’ This is evident in his enterprises in Collon and surrounding areas. Finding the land here in poor condition – he recalled it had been ‘a waste sheep walk, covered chiefly with heath, with some dwarf furze and fern’ – he carried out many improvements, not least through drainage. When the English agriculturalist Arthur Young published his Tour of Ireland in 1780 he called Anthony Foster a ‘great improver, a title more deserving estimation than that of a great general or a great minister,’ someone who had ‘made a barren wilderness smile with cultivation, planted it with people and made those people happy,’ altogether a man whose work on his estate was ‘of a magnitude I have never heard of before.’
Anthony Foster gained a patent to hold a weekly market in Collon as well as two annual fairs, and the grounds of his house, in which he built greenhouses in 1763 for the production of exotic fruits, became renowned for their variety of trees and shrubs: this interest in botany would be inherited by his son who is credited with introducing the copper beech to Ireland. However, all this land acquisition and improvement came at a price, and as early as 1740 John Foster the elder was concerned over his level of indebtedness. The family never managed to become solvent and by 1810 his grandson John was estimated to have debts of £72,000. As we shall see, this helps to explain the relative modesty of Collon House.
John Foster was born in 1740, on other words precisely around the time Collon House was being built by his father. Like the latter, he sought to improve the family estate, developing a linen industry in the area, building mills and encouraging Protestant weavers to settle in Collon. Also following the example of Anthony Foster he studied law and was first elected to parliament in 1761. Noted for his interest in the economic and commercial betterment of this country, he was involved in successfully ‘regulating Ireland’s external trade with Great Britain, with other parts of the Empire, with the United States, and with France’. In 1777 he served as Chairman of the Committee of Supply and Ways and Means before succeeding his cousin and brother-in-law Walter Hussey de Burgh as Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1784. In that year parliament passed his corn law, ‘granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation.’ According to the 19th century historian William Lecky, ‘This law is one of the capital facts in Irish history. In a few years it changed the face of the land and made Ireland to a great extent an arable instead of a pasture country.’
Foster only remained in the Exchequer a year before becoming Speaker of the Irish House of Commons in 1785, the final man to hold this position. His understanding of Ireland and her particular circumstances made him a leading opponent of the Act of Union. ‘I declare from my soul,’ he declared when the abolition of the Irish parliament was first proposed, ‘that if England were to give us all her revenues, I could not barter for them the free constitution of my country.’ He was forced to preside over the debate in the Commons for its own eradication, an occasion later recalled by Sir Jonah Barrington who wrote, ‘The Speaker rose slowly from that chair which had been the proud source of his honours and of his high character; for a moment he resumed his seat, but the strength of his mind sustained him in his duty, though his struggle was apparent.’ However, Foster refused to surrender the Speaker’s mace, declaring that “until the body that intrusted it to his keeping demanded it, he would preserve it for them.’ The mace was eventually offered for sale by his descendants in 1937 and bought by the Bank of Ireland. It has ever since remained in that organisation’s premises, the former Irish parliament building.
It is often proposed as evidence of the Fosters’ prudence that they did not indulge in building a lavish country mansion. But the fact that they remained in Collon might just be due as much to ongoing indebtedness as to financial sagacity. And they were not without other properties, having a residence in central Dublin (essential for any member of Parliament) as well as one on the outskirts of the capital (Merville, now part of the University College Dublin campus, but its original owners remembered in the name of adjacent Foster Avenue). Furthermore in the 1770s a short distance from Collon they would build themselves a pleasure pavilion called Oriel Temple and John Foster leased in perpetuity another house in the county, Rathescar Lodge which likewise still stands although much enlarged.
Nevertheless, the principal Foster residence remained that in Collon which, as built by Anthony c.1740 was a exceptionally extended version of the traditional Irish ‘long house’, in this case running two storeys and eighteen bays. It seems to have comprised a series of long, low rooms, none very substantial. Many of these survive, as can be seen in the photographs above and testify to the determinedly modest condition of the family’s living conditions: when Anthony Foster invited a cousin to stay around 1766 he warned that a shared room should be expected, presumably due to the number of other guests due at the same time. Inside the design is determinedly simple, with surviving chimneypieces and cornicing almost devoid of decoration. The want of ostentation was not necessarily to everyone’s taste. Indeed John Foster’s own daughter Anna, Lady Dufferin later wrote that arrangements in Collon House were ‘so uncomfortable as soon to banish all visitors, even of our own family.’ This would change somewhat after Anthony Foster’s death when his son inherited the house and embarked on a programme of aggrandisement.
The original Collon House ran east-west facing onto what is now the main road from Drogheda to Kells, County Meath but was then open countryside. Around the late 1770s John Foster enlarged the building at its western end, adding an additional storey to the final five bays and then to the immediate north creating a substantial entrance hall, high-ceilinged saloon and, behind these two, a stairhall lit by two big round-headed windows as it turns upon itself to climb to the upper floors. These windows look out on a courtyard around which run the various original outbuildings and service quarters. The proportions in John Foster’s addition are more generous, the cornicing and chimneypieces more elaborate but at the same time the earlier element of cautious restraint has not been forsaken: even in its late 18th century adjunct the house holds onto a certain self-effacement, all the more surprising since first Mrs Foster and then her husband were granted peerages.
The Fosters likewise held on to Collon House and its estate, although later generations, who became Viscounts Massereene, tended to spend the greater part of their time in County Antrim. Thus Collon House was neglected and indeed the more easterly part of the property internally separated from the main part of the building, hence today it runs to seven bays. In his biography of John Foster Anthony Malcolmson records that when he first visited the house in 1977 it was in ‘a fairly ruinous state.’ Having since changed residents a couple of times, Collon House has in recent years undergone extensive and meticulous restoration and, one suspects, now looks better than it did even when occupied by the Fosters. To give just one example the present owners panelled the dining room and thereby greatly improved its appearance; they have also created rather splendid gardens, a recollection of those made by Anthony Foster, as can be seen below. Today Collon House is in splendid shape. Visitors ought not to rush through the village but consider lingering there in order to experience the abiding spirit of the last Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.
Collon House is now open for guests. Further information can be found at: http://www.collonhouse.com/index.html
This small domed stone temple was originally erected around 1740 by Sir Compton Domville on his estate at Templeogue, Dublin. Later moved to Santry Court, it was lying in pieces on the ground when discovered in the late 1940s by architectural historian Maurice Craig. He encouraged Oonagh Guinness to rescue the monument and re-erect it at Luggala, County Wicklow on the shores of Lough Tay. In recent years her son Garech has further restored the temple and replaced its lost ball finial.
*from Baudelaire’s Correspondences.
From George Benn’s The History of the Town of Belfast, with an Accurate Account of its Former and Present State (published 1823):
‘The Belfast Incorporated Charitable Society, or as it is more generally denominated the Poor House, for the reception of aged and infirm persons, as well as for the support and instruction of children destitute of protectors, has long remained a noble proof of the general philanthropy which prevails among the inhabitants of this town. It stands at the extremity of Donegall Street, in an elevated and healthful situation. The ground was granted by the late Marquis of Donegall, the building completed by subscriptions and the produce of a lottery, and first opened for the purposes above stated in the year 1774. Since its commencement, it has preserved annually about three hundred individuals, old and young; the former from want and misery, the latter from idleness and vice. The children are here instructed in the elementary branches of education, till they are capable of being apprenticed out to trades. The old are carefully attended to, being permitted to increase their comforts by their own industry; and it is a proof not less of the instability of fortune than of the great benefits of the establishment, that an individual was lately received into the Poor House who had, in more prosperous times, contributed to its support. All its inmates, varying in number but commonly about three hundred and fifty, are fed and clothed at the expense of the society. The dress of the children is uniform; they walk on the Sabbath Day, hand in hand, to the respective houses of worship; and due care is taken, in every respect, of their moral and religious habits. The whole government of the Institution is conducted in the most methodical manner, and it receives contributions from every denomination of Christians, all being anxious for the continuance of an establishment which is as invaluable to the poor as it is creditable to the opulent.’
In the 18th century Belfast was a small but growing market town and port: as late as 1801 its population stood at just 19,000. Nevertheless, the town’s spirit of enquiry and liberalism can be seen through several developments during this period, such as the publication of what is now the world’s oldest surviving English language daily newspaper, the Belfast News Letter, (started 1737), the creation of the Belfast Academy (now Belfast Royal Academy) in 1785 and the setting up of a library (later to become the Linenhall Library and still extant) three years later. Of interest here today are the origins of another organisation which continues to the present day, the Belfast Charitable Society.
In 1631 Edward Holmes, a former Sovereign of Belfast (as the city’s mayors were called until 1842) left in his will ‘to the poore decayed inhabitants of Belfast 40 pounds.’ This created a fund to which further sums were added over the next hundred years. However by the middle of the 18th century, it was apparent that more was required to assist the poor and needy. Hence in late August 1752 a group of concerned citizens met at an establishment called the George Inn and there resolved ‘to consider a proper way to raise a sum for the building of a poor House & Hospital & a new Church in or near the town of Belfast.’
A site of eight acres for the project was granted by Arthur Chichester, fifth Earl (and later first Marquess) of Donegall, whose family had long owned most of the land on which Belfast developed. The funds required to build the Poor House, at an estimated cost of ₤7,000, were raised through private donations and also by running a lottery based on the model of that already existing in Dublin. Work started promptly and in December 1774 the new premises were officially opened by Lord Donegall with the following accommodation: seven beds for the sick, four double beds for the beggars, twenty-two double beds for the poor and four single beds for vagrants.
The building’s design has an interesting history. Both the Scottish-born architect Robert Mylne and his former draughtsman and clerk Thomas Cooley submitted proposals, but eventually the person responsible was a local amateur, Robert Joy (1722-1785). He and his brother Henry were co-proprietors of the aforementioned Belfast News Letter, which had been founded by their father Francis Joy; they were also uncles of the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. The siblings were among the key figures behind the Poor House’s foundation and hence it is understandable that Robert Joy should have been permitted to have the final say in its design. However, extant drawings by Mylne indicate that his work provided a basis for the eventual structure. Corridors off a passage behind the entrance hall, for example, retain walled-up Tuscan columns, part of what was once an open-air colonnade, a feature of Mylne’s scheme. On the other hand, Joy replaced the dome and lantern proposed by Mylne with an octagonal stone tower and spire rising behind the brick facade the appearance of which mimics that of a Palladian country house. Despite the spire, the church which was originally intended to be part of the scheme was never built.
It is instructive, if a little disturbing, to read the role played by the Poor House’s more youthful occupants in the establishment of the cotton industry in Ulster. This account is taken from Philip Dixon Hardy’s 1820 publication The Northern Tourist:
‘In 1771, at which time there was not a single cotton loom in the whole North of Ireland, the late Robert Joy conceived the scheme of introducing into this then desponding kingdom the cotton manufacture which had proved an unfailing source of industry and consequent opulence to the sister country. Having, in conjunction with Thomas M’Cabe, suggested that the spinning of cotton yarn might, as an introductory step to the establishment of the manufacture, be at once a fit and profitable employment for the children in the Belfast Poor-house, several of them were set to work…And shortly after an experienced spinner was brought over by Mr Joy from Scotland, to instruct the children in the Poor-house. Also, under the same direction, and at the expense of the gentlemen mentioned, a carding machine was erected at Mr Grimshaw’s, to go by water, which was afterwards removed to the Poor-house, and wrought by hand. A firm was now formed of the original projectors, and others, under the name of Joys, M’Cabe and M’Cracken, who contracted with the same charitable institution for the employment of a number of its children, as well as for the use of its vacant rooms…In less than ten years from their first introduction in the country, several thousand looms were employed in the manufacture of cotton in the towns of Belfast, Lisburn and Hillsborough.’
During its first decades of operation, the Poor House looked after inmates well, not least by providing them with all necessary clothing and food. With regard to the latter, daily meals included bread, cheese, milk, broth, rice and porridge. Beef and veal were added to the diet on Sundays. On Sundays, the meal included beef and veal, this at a time when around a third of the country’s population lived on potatoes and buttermilk.
Local physicians attended the sick in the Poor House, their services provided without charge, and there was also a dispensary where the same doctors would see the unwell from outside the house on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In 1794 the Belfast Charitable Society opened Ireland’s first Fever Hospital in a rented building on Factory Row (now Berry Street) and soon afterwards, as a means of raising funds, it started a cemetery in the city. Other methods of generating income included taking responsibility for Belfast’s water supply, which it did from 1795 to 1840, and then charging households for access to fresh water.
By the time the society gave up this role (in return for financial compensation), much else had changed, not least new Poor Laws and a more active role by the state in the provision of assistance to those citizens unable to support themselves. However, the Poor House remained true to its original purpose and indeed expanded premises during the course of the 19th century. In 1821 and 1825 respectively extensions were made behind each of the end wings and then in 1867 a block was built at right angles to these; five years later it was linked to the rest of the property by further additions thereby creating a quadrangle as had originally been envisaged by Robert Mylne.
After the Belfast Charitable Society celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2002, a decision was taken to build a new nursing home elsewhere in the city. The old property was handed over on a seventy-year lease to another charity, Helm Housing Association, the funds thus generated allowing for a programme of necessary renovation. Since then the building has been shared between the two organisations, offering sheltered accommodation and operating as an old persons’ home. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the opening of Belfast’s Poor House (now called Clifton House), the oldest complete surviving building in the city, a wonderful example of 18th century philanthropy, a landmark structure and yet somehow little known even by the local population.
Two sections of the marquetry floors in the saloon at Ballyfin, County Laois. Dating from the 1820s and designed by the Morrisons père et fils, the house was built for Sir Charles Coote, premier baronet of Ireland. As such it was intended to reflect his status and was decorated with unusual lavishness and with inspiration from diverse sources: the floor here seemingly derives from Southern Spain’s Moorish architecture and is the most exotic in the country.
Much more on Ballyfin in the coming weeks.
It seems only fitting that Lough Cutra, County Galway should be battlemented and turreted, and have the, admittedly deceptive, appearance of impregnability since for a long time it was associated with military families. But the spot on which it stands is deeply romantic: the castle is reached at the end of an exceptionally long drive through open parkland and eventually one arrives at a spot which, as the Knight of Glin and Edward Malins wrote in their 1976 book on Irish demesnes, is ‘picturesquely situated high above the banks of the lough, whose waters lash the terrace walls.’ Glin and Malins likewise admired the ‘extensive and deep planting of woods and plantations, and wooded islands with ruins of churches and mountains in the background.’
Based around the 1,000 acre lake several square miles in extent and from which the estate takes its name, Lough Cutra’s ruins indicate how long there has been human settlement here. The present owners explain succinctly the history of the estate, noting that ‘the local area is rich in remnants of churches, cells and monasteries due to the introduction of Christianity. A number of the islands on the lake contain the remnants of stone altars. It is quite likely that St. Patrick passed Lough Cutra on his travels and St. Colman MacDuagh was a relative of Gort’s King Guaire. A holy well with a cross with the date 1745 lies on the Eastern shore of Lough Cutra. The ruined church of Beagh on the North West shore was sacked by the Danes in 866 A.D. and war raged through the district for nearly 1000 years.’
From the 12th century onwards, this territory was controlled by the Ó Seachnasaigh (anglicised as O’Shaughnessy) family. The last to hold the land, Sir Roger O’Shaughnessy, supported James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and died seven days later in his castle at Gort. His son and heir William went into exile and eventually became a general in the French army. In 1697 the O’Shaughnessy lands were seized and presented to Sir Thomas Prendergast who likewise became a general. The two men, O’Shaughnessy and Prendergast, would fight on opposing sides at the Battle of Malplaquet in September 1709 during which the latter was killed (O’Shaughnessy lived another thirty-five years in exile).
Despite the best efforts of successive O’Shaughnessys they never regained their former estates which remained in the possession of the Prendergasts, a branch of a family which had likewise been in Ireland for many centuries, descendants of from Maurice de Prendergast, a Norman knight who came to the country in 1169. Following the death of Sir Thomas Prendergast at Malplaquet, the newly-acquired estates in County Galway passed to his seven-year old son, also called Thomas, who in adulthood managed to sit in both the Irish and British Houses of Commons. Since he had no children, on his death in 1760 the property passed to a nephew John Prendergast Smyth, youngest son of Sir Thomas’ sister Elizabeth. Having begun life in the army, he subsequently became a parliamentarian (although in 1793 he was appointed Colonel of the Limerick Volunteers) and joined the peerage first as Baron Kiltartan in 1810 and then six years later as Viscount Gort. He died in 1817, again without children and so once more the estate passed to a nephew, his sister’s son Colonel Charles Vereker. Of Dutch origin, the Verekers had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century and prospered despite supporting the two unfortunate Stuarts, Charles I and James II.
Like so many of those who owned Lough Cutra before and after, Charles Vereker was an army man: leading the Limerick Militia established by his uncle, in September 1798 he checked the advance of the French force led by General Humbert at Collooney, County Sligo and later took part in the Battle of Ballinamuck where he was wounded. For all that, again like his uncle he was vehemently opposed to the 1800 Act of Union, declaring ‘I have defended my country with my blood, and there is nothing in the gift of the Crown that would tempt me to betray her by my vote.’ After the Union he represented Limerick in the British House of Commons until becoming second Viscount Gort. Incidentally, he was also last to hold the ancient feudal post of Governor and Constable of the Castle of Limerick.
The second Lord Gort inherited some 12,000 acres from his uncle, and even before then he had received that part of the estate which included Lough Cutra (then often called Lough Cooter). Here he decided to build a new residence, his initial intention being to commission an Italianate villa at a spot called Situation Hill on the opposite side of the lake from where the house actually stands. However at some date he saw architect John Nash’s own property, East Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight. Supposedly accompanying the Prince Regent on a visit to East Cowes, he exclaimed ‘How I wish I could transport this Castle to the banks of Lough Cooter’ to which Nash replied, ‘Give me fifty thousand pounds and I will do it for you.’
In fact the eventual cost was closer to £80,000, probably because extensive work had to be carried out on creating the demesne envisaged by landscape designer John Sutherland: in 1855 J.B. Burke’s Visitation of Seats and Arms reported that the greater part of the area around the house and outbuildings ‘was blasted to a considerable depth out of the solid rock, and the gardens then filled with rich soil carried from distant spots, their walls being formed of limestone laboriously cut to the size of bricks…the undulating sward, which extends from the castle towards the lake is also to a great extent artificial.’ In addition, because of the site’s slope a terrace had to be built up in front of the lake before work on the house could begin.
Although Nash designed Lough Cutra, it is unclear what part, if any, he played in its actual construction. He does appear to have visited Ireland at least once: in 1821 he told the landscape artist and diarist Joseph Farington that he ‘had travelled in the three Kingdoms 11,000 miles in the year and in that time had expended £1,500 in chaise hire.’ The work at Lough Cutra was supervised by James Pain who had been apprenticed to Nash and was highly regarded by the latter. Pain came to Ireland in 1811, and remained here the rest of his life, being joined by his younger brother George Richard in 1815 after which the siblings ran a very successful practice for several decades.
Since James Pain arrived here in 1811 it is assumed that work started on Lough Cutra around that time. It was still going on in October 1817 since in that month the Limerick Gazette reported ‘with deepest regret’ that earlier in the month when Pain ‘was surveying some part of the beautiful building now going forward at Loughcooter Castle, County Galway, the intended mansion of Lord Viscount Gort, the scaffolding on which he stood gave way, and he was precipitated from an eminence of four stories high – his side first reached the ground, with the head inclining downwards – the collar bone has been broken, the brain has received a severe concussion, and several bruises on different parts of the body. – A report was current in the town on Sunday that he was dead, but we are happy to say, the arrival of Surgeon Franklin who (together with Surgeon Gibson of the City Regt. pofessionally [sic] attended) has not only contradicted that rumour, but has been given sanguine hopes of a speedy recovery.’ Indeed he did make a full recovery, living until 1877.
As originally built, Lough Cutra was more compact than later became the case, with sufficient variation in the disposition of towers and windows to give interest to the exterior. Inside, the main block of two storeys over sunken basement has a vaulted entrance hall behind which runs three reception rooms overlooking the lake. A round tower to one side contains the staircase leading to the first floor bedrooms opening off a top-lit central corridor.
It would appear that not only did Lord Gort spend much more on the property than had been intended but when he inherited his uncle’s estate it was discovered to carry debts of some £60,000. As a result he was rather impoverished and following his death in 1842 so too was his heir. The third Viscount did his best to provide assistance to his tenants during the years of the Great Famine by not collecting rents and providing work on the estate. The consequence was that he bankrupted himself and in 1851 Lough Cutra was offered for sale by order of the Encumbered Estates Court. Some sections of the estate were parcelled off and in 1852 the castle and immediate land was purchased by James Caulfield, in trust for a Mrs Ball, Superior of the Loreto Convent, Rathfarnham, County Dublin for £17,000. Lord Gort moved to England and ironically a few years later as a result of his second marriage came to own East Cowes Castle, the inspiration for his own former property. It was occupied by the family until requisitioned by the army during the Second World War during which the building suffered severe damage. East Cowes Castle was eventually demolished in 1960.
For a short period of time Lough Cutra Castle became a convent school. However in 1854 it reverted to private ownership after being bought by Field Marshall Hugh Gough, first Viscount Gough. Like the Verekers, the Goughs were another family long settled in this part of Ireland, being descended from three brothers, all Anglican clergymen, who had come here in the early 17th century. Likewise they subsequently became stalwarts of the British army, Hugh Gough’s father serving with Charles Vereker in the Limerick Militia during the 1798 Rebellion. Hugh Gough entered the forces when still in his teens (he was already promoted to the rank of Lieutenant a month before his fifteenth birthday) and fought with the future Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula War. After being responsible for the British forces in China during the First Opium War, he became Commander in Chief of the army in India and was responsible for the defeat of the Sikhs in two wars. It was following his retirement and advancement to the peerage that he decided to buy Lough Cutra, also purchasing back much of the original estate.
Following his acquisition, the castle was considerably extended to the designs of an unknown architect. In April 1855 the Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal advised readers, ‘Loughcooter Castle…the property of General Lord Viscount Gough, is now undergoing vast alterations and improvements There is a new tower at present in a state of progression; there have been large numbers of artizans and labourers employed during the last four months, and from the extensive works about to be executed are likely to be constantly employed for the next two years.’ In the late 1890s the third Viscount Gort commissioned a further extension, known as the Library Wing, from architect George Ashlin to house his grandfather’s war spoils: this was demolished in the 1950s and the cut stone used in the restoration of Bunratty Castle, County Clare. Changes were made to the interior also, some of which have survived. In the drawing room, for example, the walls are papered with the Gough coat of arms created by Coles, and the elaborately painted ceiling is believed to be by John Gregory Crace.
Commentators have often been rather sniffy about the Goughs’ interventions at Lough Cutra, one author opining ‘The additions were heavy and ill-proportioned and turned a neat and successful composition into an unwieldy and rambling one.’ But photographs of the building from the late 19th/early 20th centuries show that some of the changes were not unattractive. Full-length projecting window bays on either side of the main entrance, for example, probably increased the amount of light in the hall immediately behind, while the drawing room certainly benefitted from a similar window overlooking the lake: all of these have long since gone.
In the 20th century the Gough family, no longer as affluent as had been the case and with the greater part of their estate taken by the Land Commission, could no longer afford to maintain the castle and in the 1928 the family converted part of the stable yard into a residence. Thereafter Lough Cutra stood empty except during the years of the Emergency (1939-45) when it was occupied by members of the Irish army; as with East Cowes Castle at the same time, the outcome was not beneficial for the house. In 1952 the estate was placed on the market and eventually bought by the seventh Viscount Gort, great-grandson of the man who had sold it a century earlier. Lord Gort is today remembered for having bought and restored Bunratty Castle in the 1950s (when stone from parts of the Gough extensions to Lough Cutra were used to make repairs). He gave Lough Cutra to his great-niece the Hon Elizabeth Sidney who in 1966 married Sir Humphrey Wakefield. Together the Wakefields embarked on a restoration of Lough Cutra which by this date was in a near-derelict condition, with much of the interior decoration including the staircase pulled out. Had they not done this work, almost certainly the castle would no longer stand.
However in 1971 the Wakefields divorced and once more the estate was put onto the market. As is well-known Sir Humphrey, who worked in the furniture department of Christie’s before becoming a director of Mallet, went on to buy and restore Chillingham Castle in Northumberland. Here he has one significant souvenir of Lough Cutra: an equestrian statue of the first Viscount Gough. The work has had a troubled history: it was designed by John Henry Foley who died before its completion and there was then difficulty finding a site. Eventually the statue was placed in Dublin’s Phoenix Park where on Christmas Eve 1944 the figure of Lord Gough was beheaded and his sword removed. In November 1956 the right hind leg of his horse was blown off and the following July the entire statue was hurled from its base by a huge explosion. It then languished for almost thirty years in storage before being bought by Robert Guinness, a friend of Wakefield, who afterwards brought the statue to Chillingham where it can now be seen.
As for Lough Cutra, in the aftermath of the Wakefields’ departure the estate was bought by the present owner’s family. Since then the programme of refurbishment has been ongoing, with a new roof on the main body of the castle completed in 2003 and other remedial work done on the tower roofs, plus attention given to buildings such as lodges and yards, as well as the woods and what survives of the once-extensive gardens. As is so often the case, this is a project without visible end but thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of the owner it is also an enterprise that exudes success. Nash’s East Cowes Castle today can be recalled only through old photographs but what might be described as its progeny Lough Cutra Castle looks set to enjoy a long and happy life yet.
The Lough Cutra estate hosts a wide variety of events. For more information, see: http://www.loughcutra.com/
*Virtue Overcomes All Things: the motto of the Gough family.