Patrick Hennessy’s 1957 portrait of Elizabeth Bowen presides over a room dedicated to her memory in Doneraile Court, County Cork (her own home, nearby Bowen’s Court, was irresponsibly demolished in 1961). After being closed to the public for the past 25 years, Doneraile Court has once more been taken in hand by the Office of Public Works and officially reopens today. The decoration and furnishing of the ground floor rooms displays terrific flair, with a wonderful mixture of items, some in state ownership, others on loan from private collections, all blended together with aplomb. Having woken from its quarter-century slumber, Doneraile Court proves to be the sleeping beauty of Irish country houses: visits are strongly urged.
The rusticated limestone gate posts that once led to Ballintober House, County Cork. An old print shows these situated on another site, high above the now-lost house which had been built in the mid-to-late 17th century by the Meade family. Of Gaelic origin, the Meades were long-established in the Cork region, their name sometimes spelled Meagh or Miagh. Adapting and prospering according to changing circumstances, they became considerable landowners and by the early 18th century had been created baronets. In 1765 Sir John Meade, 4th Bt of Ballintober married one of the richest heiresses of the period, Theodosia, daughter of Robert Hawkins Magill of Gill Hall, County Down: eleven years later he became the first Earl of Clanwilliam. He later sold Ballintober and other lands in the area to a cousin, but the Meades remained in the area until the 1940s, after which the house here was demolished. Believed to date from c.1720 these gate posts and a few other remnants in the vicinity survive to indicate the importance of the Ballintober estate.
From the exterior, the Church of the Ascension in Timolegue, County Cork looks a typically modest product of the early 19th century. The original place of worship here is first mentioned in 1291, and in the Middle Ages much of the land in this part of the country was under the control of the Barrys, subsequently Earls of Barrymore. The notoriously spendthrift habits of the final holders of this title obliged them to sell their property, which then passed into the possession of the Tonsons, the first of whom had been granted land in Ireland in the mid-17th century. They too were eventually ennobled as Baron Riversdale, and it was the second holder of that title who in 1811, with assistance from the Board of First Fruits, commissioned a new church in Timoleague as the old one had become dangerously dilapidated. The third and last Lord Riversdale died in 1861, by which time the Travers family, who lived beside the church in Timoleague House, were involved with the building. No doubt the interior was still relatively plain, because around this date some controversy arose when, as part of additions to the church – including a new chancel and vestry – a large stained glass window designed by the firm of William Warrington was installed above the altar. Opposed to graven images, the then-Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, William FitzGerald refused to consecrate the chancel unless the window was first covered with a cloth. One suspects he would not have cared for work subsequently undertaken inside the church.
In 1894 Robert Augustus Travers commissioned the decoration of the church’s chancel in memory of his wife Alice. What makes this work exceptional is that it is all in mosaic, supposedly thanks to Italian craftsmen who first laid out each section on the lawns of Timoleague House. The latter building was burnt in December 1920 during the War of Independence, and material relating to the chancel decoration was probably then lost. As a result, today the designer is unknown, but the late Jeremy Williams proposed William Henry Hill of Cork who had earlier served as Diocesan Architect for Cork, Cloyne and Ross, and therefore would have been well-known in Church of Ireland circles. Whoever was responsible displayed tremendous flair. The walls are mostly covered in abstract and floral patterns, with the Greek letters for Alpha and Omega set in oval frames on either side of the East window and elsewhere the Paschal Lamb. Meanwhile the ceiling is likewise decorated, this time a set of eight painted panels each featuring an angel carrying an appropriate text of mourning. In most churches, this might have been deemed sufficient, but more was to follow in due course.
Following the death of Robert Augustus Travers in 1904, the Timoleague estate was inherited by his elder son, another Robert. He decided to continue the decoration of the Church of the Ascension, initially in memory of his father. However, in August 1915 his son Spenser, a Lieutenant in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, was killed at Gallipoli, and so he too is commemorated in a mosaic frieze running beneath stained glass windows on the south wall. Much of the rest of the space is filled with further geometric shapes, along with stylised plants and flowers. As has been widely noted, only on the west wall does the design falter. Here above the entrance door a large panel depicts the Ascension of Christ, eleven Apostles gathered below him and a view of Jerusalem and its Temple shown behind. Both in colour and form, the result is somewhat insipid, a contrast with the boldness found everywhere else in the building. However, all the work might not have been realised, had it not been for assistance from an Indian Maharajah.
Born in 1876, Sir Madho Rao Scindia was ten when, on the death of his father, he became fifth Maharajah of Gwalior. As an adult, one of his closest friends was a man born in the Timoleague area, Aylmer Martin Crofts. The latter studied at what is now University College Cork and became a doctor before joining the British army where he saw service in Afghanistan and Egypt, finally settling in India. For the last twenty years of his professional life, Surgeon-General Crofts acted as chief medical officer for the state of Gwalior, hence his links with the Maharajah. Crofts died in 1915, and it was in memory of his ‘faithful and devoted’ friend that Madho Rao Scindia paid for the remaining decoration of the Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. Work here only finished in 1925, the year in which the Maharajah himself died. A section of the mosaic on the north wall of the nave provides testimony of his support, and the reason he gave it. His involvement helps to explain why much of the semi-abstract floral designs found in the main body of the church is reminiscent of Mughal art. As Jeremy Williams rightly noted, the building is a monument to ‘a living friendship that is being recorded in an extraordinary blend of the European and the Islamic – a hidden masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland.’ It is one which ‘transcended the sectarian divide between Irish Catholic and Protestant, The Indian Muslim and Hindu, personal friendship breaking up distinctions of caste and colour.’
Inside the ruined church of Kilcredan, County Cork can be found what was evidently once a fine tomb, its remains protected from the elements by a corrugated tin roof. This marks the final resting place of Robert Tynte, a Somerset-born soldier who came to Ireland in the late 16th century and settled in Youghal, where a late-mediaeval tower house is still called Tynte’s Castle. In 1612 he married Elizabeth Spenser, widow of the poet Edmund Spenser who is said to have begun work on the epic The Faerie Queen while staying in Youghal with his friend Sir Walter Raleigh. Tynte died in 1663 and the tomb has since been much mutilated, both his head and those of the mourning figures who kneel on either side (presumably his wife and daughter) are missing – together with their hands and the commemorative plaque formerly beneath the family coat of arms. Similar butchery has taken place on another memorial tomb high on the facing wall, this one commemorating Edward Harris, a Devon-born lawyer who became Chief Justice of Munster and was buried here, together with his wife Elizabeth, following his death in 1636.
Like many Irish houses, Castle Bernard, County Cork has a long and complex architectural history, some aspects of which are still not clear. The place takes its name from the Bernard family, the first of whom – christened Francis like many of his successors – came here during the Plantation of Munster in the late 16th century. He acquired lands which had formerly been owned by the O’Mahonys and was centred around a great square tower house called Castle Mahon to the immediate south of the river Bandon. This became the Bernards’ residence, its name at some date changed to Castler Bernard, until c.1715, Francis Bernard, great-grandson of the original settler, and Solicitor-General of Ireland, Prime Serjeant and Judge of the Court of Common Pleas initiated work on a new building, seemingly to the designs of John Coltsman of Cork. This involved adding wings to the old tower house, the whole encased in brick with Corinthian pilasters and other ornamentations in Portland stone. A decade later the surrounding demesne was transformed into a formal garden with terraces, cascades, jets d’eau and statuary. This arrangement lasted until the end of the 18th century when Castle Bernard underwent a further transformation.
In 1794 the Cork architect Michael Shanahan, best-known work commissioned in Ulster by his patron Frederick Hervey, Earl-Bishop of Derry, prepared designs for a new house at Castle Bernard. (For more on Shanahan and the Earl-Bishop, see It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013 and Let the Door be Instantly Open, For There is Much Wealth Within, March 31st 2014). This involved pulling down the additions to the original tower house, and instead erecting a structure to its immediate east, a linking corridor running between the two. In 1800 another Corkman, William Deane, prepared estimates of £522.4s.4d. for work in finishing the house. In both instances, the client was Francis Bernard who from 1793 gradually scaled the hierarchy of the peerage until 1800 when created first Earl of Bandon. The house he commissioned was classical in style, of two storeys over basement and with a nine-bay entrance front. The garden front was similar but broken by a substantial full-height bow occupying the three centre bays. Just fifteen years later, Lord Bandon undertook further work, this time by an unknown architect, in order to give it the – largely superficial – appearance of a gothic castle, and thereby provide better links both to the old tower house and to the Bernard family’s ancient pedigree. While the garden front experienced little other than the insertion of gothic tracery in its windows, battlements and turrets were added to the façade, and the Bernard coat of arms carved in stone above the main entrance. No great changes were made to the interior, which despite the gothic fenestration otherwise retained its classical decoration. On the ground floor, an entrance hall with Ionic pilasters and columns gave access to a wide corridor which ran like a spine down the centre of the house. Among the reception rooms, the most notable was an oval drawing room overlooking the garden: one sees in its design the abiding influence of the Earl-Bishop on Shanahan.
The Bernard family remained in residence at Castle Bernard until June 1921 when the 70-year old fourth earl and his wife were woken in the early hours of the morning by a group of IRA members and ordered out of the house, which was then set on fire. Lord Bandon was then taken into captivity by the men and held for the next three weeks, constantly moved from house to house before being released at the gates of the now-ruined Castle Bernard after three weeks: during this time he had lost a stone in weight and never recovered from the experience, dying less than three years later. He and his wife had no children, so the title passed to a first cousin twice-removed, Air Chief Marshal Percy Bernard, widely known as ‘Paddy’ Bandon. But he inherited not a lot else and so, although some compensation was received by the family, Castle Bernard was not rebuilt (the fifth earl constructed a modest bungalow behind the ruin). Since he in turn had no son, the earldom became extinct. Although his descendants still live on the estate, the land in front of Castle Bernard is now a golf course.
What survives of Castlemore, County Cork. Standing on a limestone outcrop, this once-substantial building (caisleán mór: big castle) is believed to have been constructed in the 15th century by the McCarthys, then the dominant family in this part of the world. Towards the end of the 16th century it was held for them by the MacSwineys but then passed into the hands of the Ryes whose main seat, Rye Court, lay just a few miles away (see June 1921 II, January 26th 2019). It was subsequently owned, and occupied, by the Travers family but must have been abandoned by them because photographs of the castle taken by Robert French in the late 19th/early 20th show it as a ruin. Still, at least then it was relatively clear of vegetation and also of other properties. Today Castlemore lies in the middle of a quarry and is in very poor condition.
Charles Fort outside Kinsale, County Cork has been discussed here before (see On the Defensive, May 29th 2017). Built between 1678-83 it stands on land to the south-east of the harbor. Directly across on a promontory to the south-west is an earlier fortification known as James Fort. Both structures were named after British monarchs, Charles Fort deriving its title from Charles II, James Fort from his grandfather James I. He had succeeded to the English throne in 1603, just over a year after the combined Irish and Spanish forces had been defeated at Kinsale by Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. The vulnerability of Ireland’s southern coastline to invasion led the crown authorities to initiate the construction of a fortress from which any approaching ships could be seen and the occupants of which could provide a defence of Kinsale Harbour.
Work began on the construction of James Fort even while James I predecessor, Elizabeth I, was still alive. Its advantageous position meant there had already been an earlier fortification on the site; known as Castle Ny-Parke this had been occupied for a time during the Siege of Kinsale by Spanish troops before they were displaced by Sir Richard Smyth, a brother-in-law of Richard Boyle, the future Earl of Cork. But there was a concern that the Spaniards could return, and in greater numbers, hence the decision to build anew. The fortress’s design came from a military engineer Paul Ive who in 1589 had published a treatise The Practise of Fortification. A few years later Ive was praised by Walter Raleigh for his ‘judgement, invention and industry’ so it is understandable he was given the commission of overseeing the construction of James Fort which cost £675. This is four-sided fortress at the centre of a pentagonal bastion; inside the fort’s walls are various other structures to provide accommodation for troops and so forth. The remains of a hexagonal blockhouse lies close to the water’s edge.
Developments in fortification design, especially the construction of increasingly sophisticated star-shaped bastions following the example of those created by the French Comte de Vauban, meant Ive’s work at James Fort quickly came to look old-fashioned. Hence the decision to build the larger and more modern Charles Fort on the other side of the harbour entrance. Before then James Fort had seen some action in the 1640s during the Confederate Wars but it suffered greater damage in the Williamite Wars towards the end of the 17th century when a gunpowder store exploded. Thereafter the building went into steady decline and by the 19th century was already described as being a ruin: it has remained in this condition to the present day.
As already mentioned, June 1921 was a particularly bad month for country house burnings in north-west County Cork. One of those then lost was Rye Court, seat of the Tonson Rye family: the Ryes were originally living in Cork city (where one of their number was mayor in 1667 and 1668) but had moved to Ryecourt before the end of the 17th century. There they built a fine house and, at some date in the second half of the 18th century changed their name to Tonson Rye as a result of marriage into another family. Ryecourt looked south over a fine parkland, many trees of which still survive but the building was gutted by fire in 1921 and subsequently demolished (a small house was built inside the adjacent walled garden). Immediately behind the old house stood a courtyard with offices to east and west, and with gates and railings closing its north side: all these survive, albeit in poor condition, as can be seen here.
Looking like a miniature fort, this is the former gatelodge to Belmount, County Cork which sits across a bridge spanning a tributary of the river Bride. The main part of the building rises three storeys, with two-storey castellated extensions to the rear running along the waterfront. Above the entrance are the remains of an Oriel window, a finial over that bearing the date 1837: sadly now roofless, there are only traces remaining of how the interior once looked.
Conna Castle, County Cork, few owners of which appear to have enjoyed happy lives. Situated on a limestone outcrop above the river Bride, work on this tower house began in 1554 and seemingly took ten years to complete for the FitzGeralds, a branch of the Earls of Desmond. Hoping to inherit the title, they did not participate in either of the Desmond Rebellions and following the death of the fifteenth earl in 1583 petitioned Elizabeth I to be recognised as his successor. Unfortunately, they were descended from a marriage between the fourteenth earl and his own grandniece, judged to be outside the acceptable boundaries of consanguinity, thus making offspring from the union illegitimate. James FitzThomas FitzGerald, who had hoped to become the sixteenth earl, on his return to Ireland from London was mockingly known as the the Sugán or ‘Straw’ Earl. In 1598 he joined in the rising initiated by Hugh O’Neill but was defeated and went into hiding, eventually being betrayed to the English forces by a cousin Edmund FitzGibbon, the White Knight: taken to London, FitzGerald died in the Tower of London apparently having become insane. The lands around Conna then passed through a number of hands before becoming part of the territory owned by Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In 1645 during the Confederate Wars it was captured by the third Earl of Castlehaven: five years later the English forces made an unsuccessful attempt to take the castle back. However damage occurred a few years later owing to a fire which also claimed the lives of the steward’s three daughters. Conna has been in state ownership since 1915.