Pay no attention to decorators, designers, or passing fashions: from one season to the next nothing better becomes a house than a well-stocked bookcase (although a well-stocked cellar is also appreciated). Here are two of them within the library at Ballinderry Park, County Galway, an 18th century house that has been discussed before (see Sturdy as an Oak, January 6th 2014) but deserves regular revisiting, if only to linger over some of the many volumes gathered therein.
In recent months this site has featured more than a few derelict historic properties, and is likely to do so again in the months ahead. Today however the focus is on a house which might easily have been lost altogether but instead has been admirably and impeccably restored. Ballinderry Park, County Galway was built during the first half of the 18th century, perhaps some date in the 1740s. For much of the Middle Ages the lands on which it stood belonged to the Franciscan friars of nearby Kilconnell (see Where There is Darkness, Light, November 18th 2013) but in the late 16th/early 17th century they passed into the hands of English-born judge Sir Charles Calthorpe who in 1584 was made Attorney-General for Ireland. Sometime after his death in 1616, they came into the possession of the Church of Ireland Diocese of Clonfert which thereafter remained the landlord until the third quarter of the 19th century.
Ballinderry was leased by the Church of Ireland to the Stanford family, one of whom was a revenue collector in the area in the 1680s. The Stanfords, who are recorded as living not far away in Aughrim Castle in 1837, in turn sub-let the Ballinderry estate to the Wards of Ballymacward. The latter were long-settled in the area, having served as hereditary poets to the O Kellys, Lords of Uí Maine, since ancient times the dominant family in this part of the country. In 1786 the tenant was Lewis Ward whose sister Sabina that year married Andrew Comyn, tenant of a small property at Ryefield, County Roscommon. Ultimately their son Nicholas inherited the tenancy and after the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1871 he purchased the freehold of Ballinderry on 547 acres. His son, another Andrew Comyn, married Mary O’Connell, grand-daughter of Daniel O’Connell. In the 1911 Census he is listed as aged 79 and living in the house with his three sons along with two male and three female servants. The Comyns remained at Ballinderry until 1947. Following the family’s departure the Irish Land Commission subdivided the land with the house, yards and a few immediate acres being bought by Mr. Callanan, a local man.
Ballinderry Park’s current owners George and Susie Gossip write so eloquently that it is best to rely on their own description of the building: ‘The house dates from the first half of the eighteenth century and is largely unaltered, with the exception of a two-storied return at the rear. Two stone-built stable ranges, one mid 19th century and the other considerably earlier, form an enclosed courtyard behind the house, with a pair of tall gates at either end.
Ballinderry is a comparatively small building; seven bays wide and of two stories over a basement. The steeply pitched roof has end gables and hides a third storey, lit by small windows high in the gables. Unusually, the roof over the full-height central bow is taken right up to the level of the main ridge, rather than being returned at a lower level. This gives the house the appearance of having a central tower, rather like a small French château. Apart from the heavy cornice at the eaves and the fine pedimented door case, the façade is free from decoration.
The blank monotony of the end elevations is relieved by the massive stacks, while the rear has been considerably altered, probably on several occasions. In front, the basement is below ground, with its windows opening onto a sunken area like a Dublin town house, but it is several feet above the level of the yard at the rear.
As befits a house of this size the interior is plain, with good shouldered architraves, panelled doors and shutters of heavy 1750s joinery. The staircase, while slightly lighter in style, is the finest internal feature and appears to be original. Were it not for this one would be tempted to suggest that the house could even be earlier, perhaps dating from the 1730s, and this may even be the case. Ballinderry’s chief interest lies in the main façade and in the arrangement and details of the staircase and principal rooms – solid rural grandeur in a miniature scale.’
When the Gossips bought Ballinderry in 2001, ‘it was in a sorry state, used as a store for country furniture, old farm carts, and an amazing variety of agricultural implements and artifacts. While the roof looked intact from the front, the three large Victorian dormer windows at the rear had collapsed, causing considerable damage, both to roof and to the internal fabric. In addition, vandals had smashed the windows and looted the chimneypieces (which in any case were Victorian replacements).’
The first task was to strip the roof so that its main timbers could be repaired and made good while surviving slates were either saved or replaced. The house is constructed of fieldstone covered in lime render which had become defective and had to be removed. This revealed stone lintels, which showed the original positions of the drawing room and dining room windows since reinstated by local masons. As for the windows these were restored to what the Gossips believed to be their original appearance with unequal sashes on the ground floor using heavy early-Georgian glazing bars in the main house and thin Regency glazing bars in the wing, all specially made for the house.
Internally, although the floors were extremely decayed it was possible to save most of the joists; the boards have now been replaced with wide pine boards sawn from old reclaimed beams. The decorative woodwork had been badly attacked by woodworm but all principal doors and most of the shutters were salvaged, together with enough architrave for it to be copied. The skirting had deteriorated beyond repair and the chair-rail had been removed many years ago, so these also had to be replaced.
Apart from shutters and doors, nothing remained of the original decoration in either the drawing or dining rooms. Both were given new ceilings and the walls paneled in the early 18th century style. The drawing room now contains an early Kilkenny marble chimneypiece from a house in County Waterford, the dining room has an early 18th century slate chimneypiece. Similar extensive work took place in the staircase hall and the first floor bedrooms.
Thanks to the ministrations of the Gossips, one suspects that Ballinderry today looks better than at any time in its history. The house has a particularly evocative atmosphere, extremely comfortable and aesthetically satisfying. None of the rooms is especially large but there is everywhere a sense of generous space. In part this is due to the ample staircase, its treads wide and deep, and leading to a first floor landing lit from front and rear and of such generous dimensions that it might serve as another sitting room.
Just as importantly, Ballinderry serves as an example of what can be done to save a house that looks on the verge of being lost forever. Of course it takes imagination and patience to bring back a building like this from the brink of ruination but as the accompanying photographs indicate the result more than justifies the effort. Many abandoned houses in Ireland could still be restored provided prospective owners approach the task with the same determination and flair as did the Gossips. The name Ballinderry derives from the Irish Baile an Daoire meaning town, or town-land, of the oak trees. Today the house is once more as sturdy as an oak and ought to survive for as long.
Ballinderry Park welcomes guests. For more information about the house, including further details of its restoration, see: http://ballinderrypark.com