Preparing the Ground

One does not, as a rule, associate the late Knight of Glin with gardens (although his wife, Olda FitzGerald is a very fine gardener who has done much splendid work at Glin Castle). However, in 1976 with Edward Malins he co-authored a wonderful book called Lost Demesnes: Irish Landscape Gardening 1660-1845. The fact that an architectural historian should have been involved in this project draws attention to a crucial and often overlooked fact: that any examination of a country house needs to involve an exploration also if the building’s setting. Also, and just as importantly, it is extremely challenging to appreciate properly the layout of a country house demesne if the property which once stood at its centre – and indeed gave reason for its existence – no longer stands: one thinks of sites like Rockingham, County Roscommon and Heywood, County Laois which are like beautiful frames missing the picture which they once surrounded. Rather like books on country houses, both before and since, there have been publications looking at Irish gardens. A book of that name, for example, written by Edward Hyams, appeared in 1967. But this focussed on individual places, as have many of its successors. What set Lost Demesnes apart was that while naturally containing descriptions of many gardens – most of them, as the title indicates, long gone – the book contained a chronological account of the evolution of horticulture in Ireland across almost two centuries. And, as was so often was the case with the Knight’s work, underlying this scholarly investigation was a plea for better understanding and preservation of what country house gardens remained.





In his Foreword to Lost Demesnes, Desmond Guinness noted that ‘the life expectancy of a garden is short, shorter by far than that of the buildings in whose shadow it may chance to lie. And memory of it is shorter still, for if those who described Irish country houses are few and far between, fewer still are those who had anything at all interesting to say about their gardens.’ What makes Lost Demesnes both so significant, and engaging, was precisely that it gathered together all surviving fragments of memory and knowledge, and for the first time presented them to the reader in a coherent narrative. The text is also complemented by an abundance of illustrations (and this is where, one suspects, the Knight played a leading role) that further help when it comes to understanding the specific characteristics of the Irish country house garden and how this evolved over time.
In 1980, four years after Lost Demesnes had appeared, a companion volume was published, Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830, again involving Edward Malins as one of the co-authors but this time working with garden historian Patrick Bowe. The second book was intended to continue the story begun by its predecessor, as the two writers make plain in their introduction, bringing the story of Irish gardens up to what was then the present day but is now more than 40 years ago. Indicative of how quickly circumstances can change, the book closes with a discussion of four ‘modern’ gardens largely created in the second half of the last century by private individuals. These are Birr Castle, County Offaly; Malahide Castle, County Dublin; Glenveagh Castle, County Donegal; and Mount Congreve, County Waterford. Of this quartet, only one remains in private ownership (Birr Castle), the other three now being in the care of either the state or the relevant local authority. And as Malins and Bowe noted, such ‘majestic paradises of concentrated immensity’, displaying singular vision and grit in their creation, would likely ‘never again be made by private individuals if taxation continues at the present penal level.’ 





At least part of the fascination of Lost Demesnes and its successor lies in discovering places which have since disappeared, which of course is implied in the former work’s title. The earliest, Baroque-style gardens have fared especially poorly in this country, with only a handful surviving, of which the one in Killruddery, County Wicklow is the most notable example, although fragments of others remain in places like Antrim Castle, County Antrim. Otherwise we must rely on a variety of sources, such as contemporary topographical paintings of the likes of Howth Castle, County Dublin, Carton, County Kildare, Stradbally Hall, County Laois and Mount Ievers, County Clare, all of which show what was later swept away as fashions in garden design changed. Another fascinating resource, especially for famous but now vanished gardens such as that created by Viscount Molesworth at Breckdenstown, County Dublin, is John Rocque’s map of County Dublin produced in 1757, Another invaluable resource, much cited by garden historians, is Mrs Delany’s correspondence; it helps that she was herself a keen gardener at Delville (another sadly lost demesne) and an excellent draughtsman, so that she provides both verbal and visual descriptions of sites around the country. Later, painters and engravers began to produce their own images of Irish gardens and once photography became reasonably common in the 19th century, these places were also widely recorded, not least because by that time gardening was of interest to a wider section of society than had earlier been the case. So the Malins/Bowe volume is replete with photographs from c.1860 onwards offering us an idea of how those great Victorian gardens looked at a time when labour was cheap: included, for example, are two pictures taken in the 1890s of the parterre and terrace gardens at Woodstock, County Kilkenny which demonstrate the enormous work required to maintain such spots in pristine condition. The singular combination of interest and effort are required both to establish and sustain a garden, and this is what makes them so vulnerable to loss, especially in Ireland where our temperate climate means Nature will quickly reclaim any ground she has surrendered to a gardener. Lost Demesnes and Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830 were both pioneers in the field, and since then much more research has been undertaken, and published, on the subject of Irish garden history, not least by Drs Finola O’Kane and Vandra Costello. But here, as in other fields of study, it is always worth noting trailblazers who prepared the ground for those who followed.


All today’s photographs taken from Lost Demesnes: Irish Landscape Gardening 1660-1845 and Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830

Still Indispensable


In Ireland, when anyone asks ‘Have you looked at Bence-Jones?’ or begins a sentence with the words, ‘Well, Bence-Jones says…’, the reference is to a specific book: Burke’s Guide to Country Houses Volume 1. Ireland. Published in 1978 and featuring almost 2,000 properties, this was intended to be the first in a series of works covering all such properties in Britain and Ireland. As the publisher announced at the time, successive volumes would include ‘the standing and the demolished, the important and the “illustrious obscure” with the result being a series  that would be ‘uniquely comprehensive’ and break new ground in the stressing family connections with individual houses. In fact, only a handful of further volumes appeared before the project ran out of steam, but that covering Ireland was so successful – it ran to six editions – that a decade later the book was republished, this time with a supplement that described an additional 130 houses, as well as additional information on some of those which had already been included in the original work. It also, very helpfully, included an index of family names and which houses were associated with them. Today, more than three decades later and despite all the published research that has appeared over the intervening period, ‘Bence-Jones’ as the author’s gazetteer has come to be known, remains just as important as ever





Mark Bence-Jones was born in England in 1930, his father the younger son of a family which had formerly owned Lisselane, an estate in County Cork (it was sold the year of Mark B-J’s birth). At the age of four he moved to India, his father Colonel Philip Bence-Jones having been appointed head of the engineering school in Lahore. The colonel’s wife May Thomas was a Roman Catholic and at the time of their marriage he had converted to her faith: their son was also an ardent Catholic. In 1945 the family returned to Ireland and four years later bought a property in north County Cork, Glenville which was Mark Bence-Jones’s home thereafter (for more on Glenville, please see: Glenville Park « The Irish Aesthete). After schooling at Ampleforth, he read history at Cambridge and then attended the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, before coming back to live at Glenville and over the next eight years wrote three novels. However, fiction was not to be his natural metier. In 1966 he published The Remarkable Irish, an amusing if somewhat skewed examination of the country at the time (‘Dior and dog’s dinners go hand in hand’ was a typical sentence, along with ‘Old ladies are the chief occupants of roofless country houses’). He produced three books about India, including one on its Viceroys, and another on English Recusant families, but Ireland and specifically her country houses and their owners, was the subject with which he was most comfortable and assured. First published in 1987 Twilight of the Ascendency was especially and rightly popular. An account of the declining years of pre-Independence Ireland’s ruling class, the book includes an abundance of anecdotes which Bence-Jones had gathered on his travels around the country; he was always a keen house guest. What emerges from Twilight is the impression of a fundamentally decent but doomed cadre, out of its depth in a changing world and, with only a few exceptions, unable or unwilling to move with the times. Bence-Jones’s entertaining and sympathetic prose ensured that the book became a best-seller and, like his guide to country houses, established something of a precedent; thereafter what might be summarised as Anglo-Irish social history became a popular subject. 





The greater part of ‘Bence-Jones’ is given over to an alphabetical listing of houses both standing and lost, but the book opens with a substantial bibliography (which now, more than 40 years later, would have to be much longer) and then an architectural glossary. These are followed by an introduction that gives a brief history of the evolution of Irish country houses across the centuries before turning into a passionate advocacy for their preservation: as the author noted, even during the decade before the book’s appearance a number of the important properties had been lost. Bence-Jones believed all such houses were worthy of consideration, even those ‘of no particular architectural merit’ because ‘they have their own charm and character and the patina of age; while their contents, even if not of much interest to the connoisseur of art, is almost always fascinating to the social historian. One can also truthfully say that they have no counterpart anywhere else in Europe.’ This argument retains its validity but, regrettably, seems still not to have been learnt by the relevant authorities in this country who could still help to ensure a viable future for this part of our national heritage.
Then the reader moves onto the main body of the book which rewards repeated exploration, as there always seems to be another house to discover (even if only on the page since the building in question has long since disappeared). Sometimes the focus is on the architecture of a house, on other occasions the author paid more attention to the history of the owners or to stories associated with the building. So the book, as so often with Bence-Jones, is as much social history as anything else. The text is accompanied by an abundance of photographs, many of them drawn from historic sources, others contemporary with the publication. But in so many cases even since then circumstances have changed. Adare Manor, County Limerick for example was still occupied by the Wyndham-Quins when the first edition appeared; just a few years later, the family had to sell the property, and many of its contents were dispersed at auction. Today Adare Manor is an hotel. Similarly, look at the images of a few pages above. One of them shows Marlfield, County Tipperary which, again, was sold by the Bagwell family a few years later (it is currently back on the market). On a more positive note, Bence-Jones also included the early 17th century Portumna Castle, County Galway which was then in a state of near-total ruin. Now the place has been reroofed and extensively restored, thanks to the Office of Public Works. So this is not entirely a story of loss.
With the passage of time, in addition to its many intrinsic merits, ‘Bence-Jones’ has become an important historic document because, as mentioned, so much has since happened within the world of the Irish country house, both good and bad. It could be argued that the book’s contents have been superseded by more recent, and in some instances more scholarly work. In the interim, for instance, a number of volumes in the Pevsner Buildings of Ireland series have been published, but after 40 years there are only six of these (at most one-third of the country). In addition, they cover all built structures, not just country houses and usually mention only in passing places that have since been lost. A number of online resources have also emerged in recent years and deserve to be mentioned, such as Buildings of Ireland: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage and Landed Estates, NUI Galway both of which contain much useful information. Nevertheless, ‘Bence-Jones’ occupies a special place in the canon and continues to be indispensable. It will remain so until someone tackles the task of producing a new edition for the 21st century. 


All pictures today taken from Burke’s Guide to Country Houses Volume 1. Ireland by Mark Bence-Jones 

Enriched with Treasures



Heywood, County Laois: Gutted by fire 1950, subsequently demolished

Two weeks ago, the fifth and final volume of records published in 1913 by Ireland’s original Georgian Society was discussed here. That might have been the end of such documentation of this country’s 18th century architectural heritage in the years prior to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But in 1915 two men decided that more research into Irish country houses was required, and so produced a volume called Georgian Mansions in Ireland. The individuals involved, Page Lawrence Dickinson and Thomas Ulick Sadleir, are of some interest. Born in 1881 and 1882 respectively, both were sons of clergymen, Sadleir’s father being a chaplain to the army stationed at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Sadleir junior was called to the Irish bar in 1906 and practised on the Leinster circuit for the next ten years. But his real passion was genealogy and even while a student he was working on an unpaid basis in the Office of the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin Castle. In 1915, the year in which Georgian Mansions in Ireland appeared, he was appointed registrar of the Order of St. Patrick at the Office of Arms, becoming Deputy Ulster in 1921, although due to the extensive absences of his superior he was in effect in charge and remained so until 1943 when the Office of Arms was finally transferred to the control of the Irish State. He subsequently became librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, remaining there until his death in 1957. As for Dickinson, he was a son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. In his late teens, he was apprenticed to architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (a brother of the painter William Orpen) with whom he then went into partnership. But he seems to have been as much a writer as an architect, being a frequent contributor to the Irish Builder (of such pieces as ‘Working class homes. Is the present standard reasonable?’ in January 1923, and ‘Competitions. Should they be abolished?’ in November 1924). He was clearly out of sympathy with post-Independence Ireland and for many years lived in England, his nostalgia for the ancien régime apparent in a memoir published in 1929, The Dublin of Yesterday, which as can be imagined was not well received in this country. Nevertheless he did return here, dying at his daughter’s house in County Wicklow in 1958.





Platten Hall, County Meath: demolished c.1950

In their Preface to Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Sadleir and Dickinson rightly acknowledge the work undertaken by the earlier Georgian Society, but note that the fifth volume only examined a few 18th century houses found throughout the country, thereby necessitating their own enterprise. In addition, they observed that while many of Dublin’s great houses had fallen into disrepair, ‘the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rack-rent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
Interestingly, Sadleir and Dickinson remark that Irish country houses seldom held valuable china, but ‘good pictures, plate and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon.’ Waxing poetic, they then write, ‘How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni or that fashionable Irish artist, Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entrail, or marriage with an English heiress.’




Desart Court, County Kilkenny: burnt down by the IRA, February 1923

The main body of text in Georgian Mansions in Ireland is devoted to study of 17 houses (some given more attention than others). Of these, 11 still stand, three remaining in the hands of the original owners’ descendants and another three in private hands, albeit not those of the original family. Two (in Northern Ireland) are National Trust properties, one is an hotel, one belongs to a public company and one has become part of a national institution.  Of the losses, two – Bessborough and Desart Court, both in County Kilkenny – occurred just a few years after the book was published, victims of the campaign waged against such buildings and their owners during the troubles of the early 1920s, one – Heywood, County Laois – was lost owing to an accidental fire in 1950 and two – Platten Hall, County Meath and Turvey, County Dublin – were left to suffer years of neglect before being pulled down.
Despite their optimistic tone about the state of such houses, the authors of Georgian Mansions in Ireland seem to have had an instinctive awareness of impending threat to the buildings’ future, since they made a point of recording not just architectural but also decorative details, describing – and photographing – plasterwork and paintings, chimneypieces and contents of entire rooms, thereby leaving us a detailed record of how such places looked just over a century ago. Occasionally, as with Curraghmore, County Waterford, little has changed during the intervening period, but more often, even if the house still stands, its entire furnishings have been lost or else horribly culled. Again, we owe Sadleir and Dickinson a debt of gratitude for providing us with this invaluable legacy, an opportunity to examine how Irish country houses were once decorated and occupied.



Turvey, County Dublin: demolished, after many years of neglect, 1987 

 

Hot Off the Presses


Due to be officially launched tomorrow, Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is a collection of images of Irish buildings taken over half a century ago. For several years in the 1960s, Paddy journeyed around the country, often in the company of Mariga Guinness and the Knight of Glin, exploring our architectural heritage and recording buildings which, sadly too often, have subsequently been lost. Although not a professional photographer, he had an intuitive eye (and excellent travelling companions) and soon discovered a natural talent for composition. Only a handful of his pictures have ever been published (some in Country Life) and I am very happy to have collaborated with Paddy in producing a representative collection of the work. While the majority of the houses included still stand, and a few have even been restored, others – as mentioned – are no more. Below is a representative example of the latter category, Kenure Park, County Dublin which other than its monumental portico was demolished in 1978.


Paddy Rossmore: Photographs is published by Lilliput Press and is available from all good bookshops (and online from http://www.lilliputpress.ie), price €25.00

Worth a Squint

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Delvin, County Westmeath is one of those small Irish towns through which it is easy to pass without paying attention to the place. In other words, except for residents it is never a point of destination. This is regrettable, because Delvin does have interest, although – again like so many small Irish towns – first impressions would not indicate that to be the case. Essentially a single straggling, untidy street Delvin lacks coherence and order, lacks the kind of communality of vision and presentation that make its equivalents in other countries so satisfying. The town has some fine buildings – there are a number of pretty early 19th century houses – but just as many, if not more, that destroy whatever chance Delvin might have of detaining visitors.
Those prospective visitors would be interested to know that among the reasons they should linger is the town’s appearance in a novel which caused a sensation almost a century ago. Published in 1918, The Valley of the Squinting Windows was written by Brinsley MacNamara (1890-1963), the pseudonym of a local man, John Weldon whose father James was principal of a national school elsewhere in the county. The book is a rather overwrought tale of a young teacher seduced by a wealthy, dissipated man and how a trainee priest who has fallen in love with her avenges this outrage. It owes more to 19th century melodrama than 20th century realism, and is closer in spirit to Peyton Place than to Madame Bovary, the latter presumably being what MacNamara had hoped to emulate.

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The Valley of the Squinting Windows would likely be forgotten now but for the stir it caused on publication in Delvin. MacNamara always claimed that Garradrimna, the village in his novel, was representative of any small community in Ireland: ‘I used certain descriptions of characters and events because they were typical, were easily identified with local people and happenings. But people in Clare and Limerick have been able to do exactly the same in the case of their own villages. So could people in any county in Ireland.’ However, Garradrimna’s topographical details fix it so precisely as Delvin that locals understandably took umbrage, especially as there are really no attractive characters in the book, everyone being small-minded and greedy, obsessed with discovering and relishing the misfortunes of their neighbours. Seemingly when the novel was published there was great excitement in the region but this quickly changed to indignation once its contents were known: obviously no one thought to notice the title provided a fair warning of what lay inside. Instead of sensibly allowing the work slip into oblivion, the people of Delvin publicly burnt a copy in the centre of the village. Worse, they organised a boycott of children attending James Weldon’s school, as though he were responsible for his son’s novel. In response, Weldon brought a law suit for £4,000 against Delvin’s parish priest and seven parishioners for arranging the prohibition. He lost the case and was forced to emigrate. The Valley of the Squinting Windows has ever since been synonymous with small town pettiness.

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Among the features of Garradrimna that made it easily identifiable as Delvin are several references to a de Lacy castle at one end of the village. Just such a structure remains in place to this day, popularly believed to have been built by the Norman soldier Hugh de Lacy who came to Ireland with Henry II in 1171 and over the next 15 years erected many such structures in this part of the country. Delvin Castle is supposed to date from a decade later, after which it was given to de Lacy’s son-in-law, Gilbert de Nugent whose descendants, later Earls of Westmeath, remained in the area until 1922. Originally a massive keep with four circular corner turrets, the castle is now only half its former size, the north wall having long since gone. The owner of the abutting corner house told me his grandmother who used to live there, on being informed she was responsible for the castle and its upkeep, handed the property over to the Office of Public Works, which seems to have done little since.
Nearby, and even more dejected in appearance, is St Mary’s, the former Church of Ireland church which incorporates a mid-16th century belfry into an otherwise predominantly early 19th century building. Deconsecrated and unroofed in 1963, the building and graveyard have recently undergone refurbishment at the hands of industrious residents, which was necessary for its well-being but has had the unintentional effect of removing much of the site’s romantic charm.

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Goodness knows, otherwise romantic charm is hard to discover in Delvin; opposite the stretch occupied by castle and church, for example, a large site is occupied by a private house presumably dating from the 1970s, never attractive and now an derelict eyesore.
At the other end of the town stands the Roman Catholic Church of the Assumption, unlike its Anglican counterpart still very much in use, designed by George Ashlin in 1873 and described by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan as ‘an accomplished small-scale essay in French Gothic’, although one imagines the French original would not be surrounded by quite so much tarmac. In fictional guise it also appears in The Valley of the Squinting Windows.
MacNamara had little good to say about Garradrimna/Delvin, damning not just the local populace but also the physical appearance of the village itself, describing it as mean and fly-blown, with ugly houses. No doubt the resident population today is quite different to that he castigated: there is even an annual Delvin Garradrimna Book Fair. But it remains the case that the novel was as much a condemnation of place as people. MacNamara’s observations on how Delvin looked – and still looks – have yet to be addressed. If that happened, even visitors unfamiliar with The Valley of the Squinting Windows would be encouraged to linger for longer than is now the case.

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