For a variety of reasons, some of which have been discussed here before, Ireland possesses a disproportionately small number of domestic dwellings from the 16th and 17th centuries. One might expect therefore that any remaining examples of architecture of this period would be especially cherished. The case of Carstown Manor, County Louth demonstrates the fallacy of such a supposition. As will be shown below, much about Carstown’s origins are, as so often, unclear. However, two pieces of on-site evidence help to date the building even if not exactly in the form it has today. These are a pair of carved limestone plaques, one at the centre of a massive chimney piece in what would have been the main reception room, the other directly above the entrance door. Although differing in shape, they carry the same details, namely the date 1612, a coat of arms combining those of two families, and the initials OP and KH. These stand for Oliver Plunkett and his wife Katherine Hussey, who came from Galtrim, County Meath. Both families were long settled in this part of the country, Oliver being the grandson of another Oliver Plunkett, first Baron Louth and also related to the slightly later Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh who was executed in 1681 and canonised in 1975. The alliance between the Plunketts and the Husseys was thus one linking two important dynasties of the Pale. The plaques may be presumed to indicate either the couple’s marriage or the date on which they completed work of some kind at Carstown.
Carstown is a south-facing five-bay single-storey house over raised basement, the attic lit by gabled dormer windows believed to have been inserted at some date later than the main building’s construction. The façade is notable for a number of oddities, among them the substantial protruding chimneystack on the west gable: that on the east is incorporated into the house. The raised doorway, reached by a flight of stone steps projecting some twenty-four feet out from the house, is off-centre, closer to the east than the west. Add the intermittent use of brick and the fact that some of the dormers are taller than others and it is easy to see why all these anomalies have encouraged speculation into the origins of Carstown, the lands of which appears to have been in Plunkett ownership long before 1612. The most common explanation for the building’s unusual appearance is that it began as a late 15th/early 16th century tower house which stood on the site of the two eastern bays. This theory is strengthened by the existence of a cut-stone arch surviving in the north-west corner of this part of the basement, suggesting it was the tower house’s entrance; a curve in the wall immediately to the north would also propose this was where the spiral staircase began. Throughout the country there are examples of similar buildings being modernised by incorporation into later structures, the whole often then rendered so as to conceal where the old work ended and the new began. Clearly at Carstown the latter started fairly early because the internal plaque of 1612 serves as keystone of a chimneypiece measuring almost nine feet wide and five feet high; this would have heated a space serving as the house’s great hall. Additional work carried out in either the late 18th century or early decades of the 19th century – when it seems most of the fine yard buildings were erected – have further muddled matters, not least because at that time a three-bay, three-storey extension was added behind the main block, thereby giving Carstown a T-shaped plan.
In 2011 Michael Corcoran published a paper proposing an alternative narrative for Carstown. Based on evidence from other contemporaneous buildings in Ireland and England, he suggests the core of the structure could be a late-mediaeval house dating from the late 15th or early 16th century. It would have been a relatively modest gabled rectangular domestic residence but not so greatly different from what can be seen today. The main floor would already have been over a raised basement with attic space above, accessed as now through a door approximately two-thirds along the front towards the eastern end. ‘It is uncertain whether the original entrance would have been elevated, accessed by a staircase for which the current one is a replacement. It is quite possible that the original entrance was at ground-level, possibly through the opening beneath the current stairs. The building would have been heated by at least three ﬁreplaces, one at each gable end and another – the largest – along the back wall of the house, possibly serving a great hall.’ Thus, Corcoran submits, Carstown most likely underwent a remodelling around 1612, with the two stones carrying this date being inserted to mark that occasion, as well perhaps as the marriage of Oliver Plunkett and Katherine Hussey. Jacobean taste would have led to the insertion of larger windows and perhaps the gabled dormers were added at the same time, both to increase light and to provide additional living space. ‘It is at this point, also, that we see probably the earliest appearance of brick at the site, which was used in carefully selected places such as at the tops of the chimneys and in a thin course beneath the eaves of the roof. It is likely that the building remained in this form up until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which there were successive periods of remodelling and extending.’
If Michael Corcoran’s hypothesis about Carstown’s origins holds up under further investigation, then as he writes, ‘it would not only make this rural dwelling unique within the north Pale region, but would place it within a site-type that is vastly under represented in the Irish countryside and under-appreciated in Irish academia.’ The likelihood of that further investigation taking place grows slimmer by the day because Carstown is now in perilous condition. The house was occupied until relatively recently (the photograph top was taken in the 1940s) and it still has electricity; there is even a television aerial on the roof indicating occupancy in the not-too distant past. But as always in our damp climate, lack of constant residency rapidly takes its toll on a building, not least because it then becomes vulnerable to vandalism. This clearly happened at Carstown, so the present owners took the step of blocking up all openings with cement blocks, although limited access to the interior is still possible. Limited because it is no longer safe to venture above the basement and therefore impossible to know the condition of 18th century joinery and plasterwork still in place less than twenty years ago, not to mention the great chimneypiece with its keystone carrying the date 1612. At some point in the past six months lead was stripped from the roof, along with a set of gates beyond the yard, probably by metal thieves. This has exacerbated the house’s decline as large numbers of slates have come free, leaving the floors below exposed to the elements. Time is running out for Carstown, a house that in other jurisdictions would be cherished for its rarity. Unless intervention occurs within the coming year the building is likely to slip into irreversible decline. All those who could and should play a part to ensure its survival, not least the owners and the local authority, need to understand that by failing to act now they are not only diminishing the nation’s architectural heritage but depriving future generations of better understanding our complex history. Take a good look at that date stone: it could soon be replaced by another marking the demise of Carstown.