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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