One of the most perfect neo-classical buildings in Ireland: the Courthouse in Carlow town. Constructed of local granite, the courthouse was designed in 1830 by William Vitruvius Morrison and in part funded by the Bruen family who lived not far away at Oak Park (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/10/03/oak-park-2) and who employed the same architect to design their own house. The building stands in the centre of a wide platform approached by two flights of steps. Its pedimented facade featuring a recessed entrance behind eight giant Ionic columns was inspired by the Temple of Illisus in Athens, believed to date from the mid-5th century BC, but destroyed by the Turks in the late 18th century and known only from the work of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett who had recorded the temple a few years before it was lost. The same fate seemed to threaten Carlow’s courthouse towards the end of the last century after it had fallen into a poor state of repair, but thankfully a full restoration was undertaken and it continues to serve its original purpose and to grace the town of Carlow.
The façade of Oak Park, County Carlow, designed by William Vitruvius Morrison in the early 1830s for Colonel Henry Bruen. The building incorporates an earlier house and was originally a grand villa, of two storeys and five bays, one on either side of the giant tetrastyle portico. The latter, featuring four Ionic columns with wreaths in the frieze above, is almost identical to that at Ballyfin, County Laois and can also be seen at Barons Court, County Tyrone and Mount Stewart, County Down, on all of which buildings the Morrisons, father and son, worked. Oak Park was greatly extended in the 1870s and also extensively restored after a fire in 1902, but some of the original interior decoration survives, notably in the entrance hall and the former library. The last of the Bruen family to live in the house died in 1954; some time earlier his wife had run away with an impoverished Montenegran prince, Milo Petrovic-Njegos. After various legal disputes and changes of ownership had occurred, Oak Park and several hundred acres was acquired by the Irish State; today it serves as the headquarters of Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority.
A triumphal arch that formerly announced entrance to the Oak Park estate in County Carlow. Constructed of crisp granite, it dates from the late 1830s when designed by William Vitruvius Morrison for owner Colonel Henry Bruen. The external side has flanking screen walls and a carriage turn, while there are paired Ionic columns on either side of the arch. The park side is simpler with Doric pilasters. It seems the architect and his father, Sir Richard Morrison, had previously proposed a similar design to both Barons Court, County Tyrone and Castle Coole, County Fermanagh, so this is a case of third time lucky. There are rooms on either side of the arch which seemingly was occupied up to 1970. The gates which once stood inside the arch are long-since gone as this is now a public road.
In 1961, the April-June issue of the Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin advised readers that a house in County Carlow called Browne’s Hill ‘is to be demolished if a buyer does not come forward within the next month. Situated in a large park with fine timber, Browne’s Hill is in first-rate structural repair and would make a lovely, easily run family home. Although it is on top of a hill with panoramic views, it is not remote, the town of Carlow being only 1 ½ miles away, and Dublin 50 miles.
The house was built in 1763 by an architect named Peters for Robert Browne, in whose family it remained until recently. The three reception rooms have rich plaster ceilings and the original mantlepieces, the front hall is paved with black and white squares, and the kitchen (with Aga) is on the ground floor. The grand staircase leads up to ten bedrooms of various sizes, he principal one being octagonal with windows facing in three directions. There are two bathrooms, three lavatories, oil fired central heating and E.S.B. main electricity.
The courtyard comprises 15 stables, garages, loose boxes, dairy and groom’s house with excellent living accommodation, approximately 5,000 square feet of lofting, all in good condition. For permission to view, apply to – William Mulhall, Auctioneer and Valuer, 60 Dublin St., Carlow.
Price £2,500 with five acres.
A further 68 acres is available, if required, £7,000.’
Browne’s Hill was occupied by successive generations of the same family until 1951 when William Browne-Clayton offered the house for sale with 700 acres. Two years later an English syndicate purchased the estate, along with another nearby, the 1,500 acre Oak Park. These purchases were not well-received locally, farmers in the area believing the land ought to have been divided up among them by the Land Commission. Eventually in 1961 the syndicate, faced with growing hostility, negotiated a deal with the commission, whereby the estate underwent division and the house with its immediate five acres were put on the market with an asking price of £2,500. It was at this point that the Irish Georgian Society placed a notice in its bulletin warning supporters that unless a sympathetic buyer could be found – and soon – the house would be demolished. This news understandably caused alarm among those who were fighting to ensure the survival of the country’s steadily diminishing architectural heritage. Among them was author Anita Leslie, then dividing her time between her own family home, Castle Leslie in County Monaghan, and Oranmore Castle, County Galway, a property she had bought with her husband Bill King. Anita Leslie was also battling to save Dalyston, an important mid-18th century house that had just been sold to a County Longford firm that specialized in stripping old buildings of all saleable assets. Seeing Dalyston unroofed and gradually picked bare, she was determined the same fate should not befall Browne’s Hill and embarked on a campaign to save the property. For a time, she thought it might perhaps be bought by one of her friends, such as the wealthy Simone, Baronne de Bastard who had just spent huge sums restoring the 17th century château de Hautefort in the Dordogne, but it seems Mme de Bastard did not care to purchase a house in the Irish countryside.
As June 1961 drew to a close, the fate of Browne’s Hill seemed sealed: it was destined to be demolished since the best purchase offer had come from the same company that had stripped and unroofed Dalyston. But then the Land Commission, in a rare gesture of sympathy, advised the Irish Georgian Society that it would allow a further six months’ grace before a decision over the house’s future was made. Anita Leslie battled on, helped by another stalwart of the society, Eoin ‘The Pope’ O’Mahony (he had been nicknamed ‘The Pope’ while still a schoolboy after declaring his ambition in life was to hold this title). A wonderfully eccentric character, one-time barrister, orator, genealogist and supporter of many lost causes, in this instance O’Mahony announced that he had persuaded a Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge to back a scheme whereby Browne’s Hill would be bought for 2,000 guineas, to be used as a student hostel. Extensive correspondence survives between Anita Leslie, Eoin O’Mahony, and Desmond and Mariga Guinness of the Irish Georgian Society as all of them – sometimes at cross-purposes – sought the best means of securing Browne’s Hill’s long-term future, each of them, and others besides, hounding the local auctioneer William Mulhall for information about possible rival bids for the place. On July 10th, Anita Leslie wrote somewhat histrionically to the Guinnesses, ‘I feel like Atlas holding up the last Georgian houses in Ireland on drooping shoulders & slender purse.’ If necessary, and as a last resort, she was prepared to pay the £2,500 required for Browne’s Hill, thinking it could either be let to a tenant or else run as a guesthouse. Finally, despairing that demolition awaited without her intercession and without telling her husband of the decision, she sent the auctioneer a cheque for the deposit. The cheque was promptly returned: it transpired that another offer for the property had been made – and not by any firm with demolition in mind. Instead, Browne’s Hill was bought by a local travel agent Frank Tully and his wife Patty. They subsequently moved into Browne’s Hill, which remained a family home until Mr Tully died in November 2018. Last month Browne’s Hill came on the market for only the second time since it was built more than 250 years ago.
The original entrance gates to the Browne’s Hill estate, which took the form of a splendid triumphal arch, were sold during this period and bought by University College Dublin, which in 1962 purchased the Lyons estate in County Kildare to run as a research farm. The gates can still be seen there at the entrance to the now-private house at Lyons.
Kilcoltrim, County Carlow: a substantial, five-bay, three storey over basement house that dates from the mid-18th century, it is listed by Samuel Lewis (1837) as being the residence of Edmund Hegarty but has long fallen into ruin. The most notable feature of the building, a cantilevered stone staircase located at the centre of the building, is documented as still intact when David Griffin compiled his list of vanishing or lost Irish country houses in 1988. This feature has since gone and little beyond a disintegrating shell now remains.
Fruit Hill, Co Wexford recently featured here (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2020/03/07/a-labour-of-love), a sensitively restored house believed to date from the second quarter of the 18th century and notable for being U-shaped with two wings projecting behind the one-room-deep residence with only a narrow passage between them. A similar house stands, just about, in neighbouring County Carlow and is called Mount Pleasant. Mark Bence-Jones’ Guide to Irish Country Houses includes four properties of the same name, but this is none of them. Indeed, little documentation exists about the Carlow house and some of it is erroneous.
Mount Pleasant was built and occupied by the Garrett family. The first of them, James Garrett was the son of a Captain John Garrett, one of five brothers who came to Ireland in the 17th century around the time of the Cromwellian Wars and, like many others, was rewarded for his efforts with a grant of land in County Laois. James Garrett on the other hand settled in Carlow around 1700 when in his mid-20s. He may have been responsible for building a house called Janeville, or it could have been his son whose tomb in the local church refers to ‘the charitable Thomas Garrett of Janeville deceased, Aug.31st, 1759, aged 48 years.’ The same church also contains a monument to another Garrett, the inscription of which runs as follows: ‘Here lie deposited in humble hope of a joyful resurrection the mortal remains of James Garrett, late of Mountpleasant, Esq. – Vain would prove an attempt at panegyric; since no eulogy could do justice to his merits. Reader, wouldst thou be had in everlasting remembrance? Endeavour to emulate his virtues. He departed this life July the 17th, 1818. Aged 72 years.’ Because James Garrett might have been the son of Thomas Garrett, it has often been assumed that the latter’s house, Janeville, was renamed Mount Pleasant by the former, and that they lived in the same property. In fact, this is not the case as Janeville and Mount Pleasant – which is seen in today’s pictures – are different houses, albeit in the same part of the county.
Some four miles apart, Janeville and Mount Pleasant were both once Garrett houses and dated from the early years of the 18th century, but while the first of these is still intact, the second, as can be seen, has fallen into ruin. Stylistically they share similarities, both having five bay facades centred on a granite doorcase with sidelights. Both are also of three storeys, although only two are visible from the front of Janeville which as a delightful Venetian window on the first floor above the entrance. The attic windows can be seen on the double-gabled side elevations. Mount Pleasant, on the other hand, features attic windows on its façade, with a tiny Diocletian window in the centre. And the rear of the building is like that of Fruit Hill, County Wexford, with wings creating a U-shaped house. At Mount Pleasant, the centre of the back evidently had a Gothic arched window, now blocked and the entire west wing was, at some unknown date, allowed to fall into dereliction, the owners only occupying the eastern side of the building. It was sold a couple of years ago, but no work has been done on the property and so the decline continues. However, as Fruit Hill shows, no house is ever beyond redemption; perhaps this one may yet find a saviour.
The entrance to God’s Acre, a small Quaker graveyard in County Carlow. On the north side of the site is a monument erected by Feilding Lecky Watson in memory of his father and all members of his faith who had settled and lived in the area since the first half of the 17th century. In 1923 Mr Lecky Watson and his family moved to Altamont, some eight miles away (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2018/07/16/altamont-2) where first he and then his daughter Corona North created a spectacular garden. Like the rest of the family, following her death in 1999 she was buried here, her resting place marked by a simple stone.
The façade of Ballykealey, County Carlow, a country house dating from c.1830 when built for John James Lecky, replacing a smaller property on the site. The architect responsible was English-born Thomas Cobden who at this time was living in the area and received many such commissions, although he also designed the Roman Catholic cathedral in Carlow town. A few years earlier, his client had married a Yorkshire heiress, which obviously acted as an incentive to overhaul Ballykealey, transformed into a Tudor-Revival mansion with steep gables, battlemented pinnacles and tall chimneys. The Leckys remained here until 1953 when house and residue of the estate were sold. The building subsequently served as a novitiate for the Patrician Brothers, but more recently has undergone another revival to become an hotel.
When the first edition of Burke’s Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland (then known as ‘Burke’s Commoners’) appeared in 1833 it did not include an entry for the Alexanders of Milford, County Carlow. This must have been a matter of some disappointment to the family, as was their absence in subsequent editions until finally in 1871 when they were featured, albeit briefly. The history of the Alexanders is a tale of social ascendancy initially dependent on wealth, and the retention of the former even when the latter had gone. The founder of the dynasty, John Alexander, had modest origins but what he lacked in pedigree was amply compensated by entrepreneurial flair, and resulted in his acquisition of an estate sufficiently substantial for later generations to judge themselves members of the landed gentry. Late in life his heir, also called John Alexander (as remained the case with successive generations) wrote ‘There is not any subject so difficult to me as genealogy. I am very much behind in my knowledge of it as far as relates to my family. I have been endeavouring to grasp some particulars for your perusal, my object being to elicit the truth and to place my family in their right position.’ Likewise he had earlier insisted, ‘’I am not a “retired” merchant, never having served my time to any business, and during the years I was proprietor of the mills on this property, I took almost no part in the working of them’. All of which indicates a desire to distance himself from the mercantile activities which had formed the basis of the family fortune, and to ally himself with a class unsullied by sordid commercial transactions.
The first Alexanders arrived in Ireland as settlers from Scotland in the early 17th century, settling in the Limavady area. In the late 1750s John Alexander, a younger son, moved to Belfast where he became a successful merchant and land agent for the Earl of Donegall before also going into the milling business. His eldest son, likewise called John, moved to County Carlow in 1784 with the intention of becoming involved in the last profession and there joined forces with a wealthy Roman Catholic corn merchant and miller called James Conolly. Already Carlow had become one of the country’s principal area’s for corn production: between 1769 and 1784 the amount of corn sent there to Dublin grew from just 78 stone to 382,953 stone, an astonishing increase. This growth was driven by entrepreneurial businessmen like Conolly and young John Alexander. The former already owned a mill on the river Barrow a few miles from Carlow town, in a townland called Ballygowan, and this was the business John Alexander joined and expanded, notably after 1790 when at the age of 26 he took over direct responsibility for its management. The result was further rapid growth, not least thanks to the construction of additional and larger milling buildings on the site, by then given the name it has carried ever since, Milford. Within three years the mill had become County Carlow’s largest supplier of flour to the capital. In addition, Alexander embarked on a second enterprise on the same site: the production of malt. To the east of the flour mill, he constructed Ireland’s largest and most powerful malthouse, thereby establishing his predominance in a second field. During this period of expansion, Alexander lived in a modest single-storey, three-roomed thatched dwelling adjacent to the mills. However, in 1799 it was time for him to build a residence befitting his status as a wealthy man.
Now for sale for the first time since built, Milford House appears to have been designed by its first occupant, mill owner John Alexander who married not long after construction was complete and then gradually acquired an estate of more than 2,000 acres. Facing west, the core of the building is of five bays and two storeys over basement, with a single-storey extension to the north added around 1813. As testament to Alexander’s want of social pretensions, the facade is unadorned other than a granite portico with four Ionic columns. Inside there is a similar want of ostentation, a generous entrance hall leading to the library at the front and drawing and dining rooms to the rear, and accordingly facing east. A staircase opening to the north of the hall leads to a first-floor lobby from which can be accessed six bedrooms. Since its construction, the house has undergone relatively little modification, the most immediately obvious being the insertion of plate glass in the ground-floor windows: this dates from the mid-1890s when John Alexander III married. It was during the same period that Milford benefitted from electrification: the former oat mill was then reconfigured as a hydro-electricity generating station, which led to nearby Carlow town being the first urban centre in Ireland or Britain to enjoy electric street lighting. Meanwhile the entrance hall had been re-decorated in 1883 with the William Morris ‘Pomegranate’ wallpaper still in place. The only other major intervention was the replacement of the main reception rooms’ chimneypieces. The originals were of plain Kilkenny marble but in the mid-1940s they were removed by Olive Alexander (wife of John Alexander IV) who bought that in the library when the contents of nearby and now-ruinous Clogrennane were being auctioned. Those today in the drawing and dining rooms appear to have been acquired around the same period in Dublin. However, Milford essentially retains its original character and is thus a record of how a mercantile family thrived and used the construction of a country house to assist its transformation into landed gentry.
With thanks to Shay Kinsella whose 2015 doctoral thesis on Milford and the Alexanders was of invaluable assistance.
Milford is currently for sale through Knight Frank (http://www.knightfrank.ie/properties/residential/for-sale/milford-county-carlow/cho180066)
The recent run of good weather in Ireland has turned everyone’s attention to gardens (if only to wonder, given a recent hose ban, how to keep them sufficiently watered). There has always been a strong public appetite for visiting gardens, especially those developed over a long period of time. One of the most popular in recent years has been Altamont, County Carlow, which offers the additional allure of free admission. Running to almost 100 acres, Altamont was developed around a house which, as so often in this country, has a complex and at times unclear history.
Originally known as Rose Hill, the present property at Altamont dates from the 18th century, although it has been proposed that the house incorporates an older dwelling, possibly a mediaeval religious establishment. Various dates are given for the core of the building, anything from 1720 to 1770 but during the earlier period a branch of the St George family was in residence and seems to have been responsible for its construction, including the polygonal bay on the east-facing façade. By the later part of the 18th century Altamont was occupied by the Doyles: curiously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s father, a mid-19th century illustrator and watercolourist, was called Charles Altamont Doyle. By that time, the place was owned by Dawson Borror whose father had been a landscape architect: it was he who initiated changes to the demesne and gardens to provide local employment in the aftermath of the Great Famine (not least the creation of the lake). Borror also extended the house, adding a wing on the north side for a library and other rooms, and then making further alterations in the early 1870s. Half a century later, Altamont came into the ownership of Feilding Lecky Watson: first he and then his daughter Corona North were largely responsible for giving the gardens their present appearance.
Following the death of Corona North in 1999 Altamont passed into the care of the Irish State, which through the Office of Public Works has continued to care for the gardens and keep them open to the public. Hitherto the house at the centre of the site remains closed. An article in the Irish Times in December 2007 noted that the building had been rated by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage as being of national importance and quoted then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government John Gormley as saying that the house would be ‘a very important tourist attraction in the Carlow area and a wonderful amenity for local families.’ The economic recession began soon afterwards and the building stayed shuttered. It also appears legal complexities delayed the formal handing over of the property to the OPW: this only occurred in January 2014 when then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Brian Hayes announced plans to open Altamont House to the public in the future. The following year a government press release reported that Simon Harris, then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works had visited Altamont where he explained his office ‘has already carried out vital remedial and maintenance works to the house and the entrance road and I am pleased to confirm that design work is at an advanced stage for the new Tearooms for which it is hoped to lodge planning permission very shortly.’ In December 2016 local media advised that work was ‘finally going to start in earnest into developing Altamont House into a place for visitors to the gardens to go.’ In February of last year the Carlow Nationalist reported that then-Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works Seán Canney had visited Altamont and announced the organization was close to submitting planning permission for tea rooms in the building: ‘It’s a hugely ambitious project to renovate the house and it’s going to cost a substantial amount of money.’ Since then necessary repairs have been carried out on the roof. Further developments are awaited and, all being well, before too long the building at the heart of Altamont’s gardens will open its doors to the public.