The castellated entrance into the former Camlin estate, County Donegal. The land here was bought c.1718 from William ‘Speaker’ Conolly by William Tredennick, who had moved to Ireland from Cornwall. The drive led to a large Tudor-Gothic house which, like the entrance was designed around 1838 by John Benjamin Keane and featured a plethora of battlements and turrets draped over what was essentially a symmetrical, classical residence. The Tredennicks remained here for more than two centuries, the last of them leaving the place in 1929. Some twenty years later the main house was blown up by the Electricity Supply Board, then engaged in the Erne Hydro-Electric Scheme. It was thought Camlin would be submerged by the new lake but in fact the water’s edge never came close to the site of the building so its destruction was entirely gratuitous. The entrance is all that now remains to indicate the lost house’s appearance.
In a report compiled for the Ordnance Survey in February 1836, Lt. I.I Wilkinson observed that in Raphoe, County Donegal, ‘The bishop’s palace stands on the eastern side of the town, in a pleasant demesne containing groves, serpentine walks, plantations and every other variety to please the human mind. A little distance to the north east of the palace is the residence of the dean, in the midst of an enclosed demesne full of groves and plantations with grand fields all beautifully round. Both places indicate as if Heaven itself had designed the place and situations for the use of the pious servants of the Lord.’ A year later in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, Samuel Lewis wrote of Raphoe, ‘The Episcopal palace, formerly a strong castle, is about a quarter of a mile from the town: it is a handsome and spacious castellated building, pleasantly situated in tastefully disposed grounds…The deanery-house, which is also the glebe-house of the parish, was built in 1739, at an expense of £1680, and has been subsequently enlarged and improved from their own funds by various successive incumbents ; it is pleasantly situated about a mile from the town.’ Of these two buildings, the deanery – otherwise known as Oakfield – still stands and was discussed here a few weeks ago (see Et in Arcadia…, June 26th 2017). The former bishop’s palace, on the other hand, has enjoyed less good fortune.
A date stone on the building advises that Raphoe Palace was begun in May 1636 and finished in August the following year. It was constructed at the behest of the then-Bishop of the diocese, John Leslie. Born in Aberdeenshire in 1571, Leslie spent two decades in Spain before returning to Britain where he became a favourite of James I who made him a privy councillor of Scotland. In 1628 he was appointed Bishop of the Isles, and five years later translated to Raphoe where he found much of the Episcopal lands in lay hands but succeeded in regaining them. Bishop Leslie’s combative nature became more apparent and more necessary after 1641 with the onset of the eleven-year Confederate Wars. Leslie was a staunch royalist, and battled against both the Irish and Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, for this reason becoming known as the ‘Fighting Bishop.’ Despite ultimately being on the losing side, he was permitted to remain in situ during the Commonwealth period. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Leslie – then aged 90 – is said to have rode from Chester to London in order to pay homage to the king. As a reward for his unstinting loyalty, Charles in return recommended the bishop to the Irish House of Commons which voted him a gift of £2,000. By now transferred to the see of Clogher, he used this money which he used to buy the Glaslough estate in County Monaghan. His descendants live there still because at the age of sixty-seven the bishop finally married, his bride being Catherine Cunningham, teenage daughter of the Dean of Raphoe: the couple had five children. Bishop Leslie died in 1671, aged 100.
Writing in The Architecture of Ireland (1982) Maurice Craig notes the debt owed by Raphoe Palace to Rathfarnham Castle, built on the outskirts of Dublin half a century earlier (see A Whiter Shade of Pale, August 26th 2013). The latter had likewise been built by an Anglican cleric, Adam Loftus, Archbishop of Dublin, and had similarly been intended to withstand assault: as Craig points out in both instances the main block has four flanking spear-shaped towers which provided the occupants with a defensive advantage in the event of attack. This indeed is what happened during the Confederacy Wars, and the building was later plundered by the troops of James II in 1688. The palace as seen today is taller than would originally have been the case: it has been proposed that originally the palace was two storeys over basement, the additional floors being added in the 18th century. But the dimensions of the building remain as they were in Leslie’s day, the central portion being a square measuring forty-six feet each way, and the interiors of the towers being each 12 and a half feet square: the walls throughout are four feet thick. The palace’s architectural history in the post-Leslie period is unclear, although it remained in use as an Episcopal residence for a considerable time. Restoration works are known to have been carried out after John Pooley was appointed Bishop of Raphoe in 1702, and more alterations took place at a later date, the window openings being enlarged to admit additional light. The east front features a fine stone Gibbsian door with coats of arms inserted into the walls of the towers on either side. An attack during the 1798 Rebellion led to further renovations and the last bishop to live here, William Bissett, carried out improvements including the castellations and bartizans around the top floor. Following his death in 1834, the bishopric of Raphoe was amalgamated with that of Derry and the old palace put up for sale. In 1838 it was gutted by fire, and has remained a ruin ever since. Today the ‘pleasant demesne’ noted by Wilkinson has been turned over to pasture, and at its centre bullocks rather than bishops now occupy the palace.
Closing the fifteenth annual Historic Houses Conference at Dublin Castle last week, Professor Christopher Ridgway urged the importance of ‘moving the narrative beyond the litany of loss and destruction.’ This site might sometimes seem to deal only in the latter currency, to offer a ceaseless round of bad news, of historic properties fallen into disrepair, of estates permitted to slide into ruin. On occasion however, a more cheerful story can be told, one that has nothing to do with loss and destruction. Such is the case this week at Oakfield, County Donegal.
Oakfield is of interest for many reasons, not least its links to one of the loveliest estates in England: Rousham, Oxfordshire. The main house at Oakfield, built in 1739 at a cost of £1,680, was commissioned by William Cotterell, then-Dean of Raphoe. Cotterell was a younger son of Sir Charles Lodowick Cotterell who, like his father before him (and several generations of the same family thereafter) held the court position of Master of Ceremonies. In 1741 Dean Cotterell’s brother, Sir Clement Cotterell who performed the same role in the royal household, inherited the Rousham estate from a cousin. William Kent had already been working on the gardens at Rousham but now also undertook improvements to the house. Clearly the Cotterell brothers were men of taste and this can also be seen at Oakfield even if Kent did not work there. In fact the house’s elevations are stylistically somewhat anachronistic and seem to harp back to the late 17th century. Nevertheless, tit is a handsome building in an admirably chosen setting: on a bluff offering views across to Croaghan Hill some five miles away.
Oakfield remained in use as a deanery until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 when it was sold to Thomas Butler Stoney, another younger son (this time of James Stoney of Rossyvera, County Mayo). A Captain in the Donegal Artillery Militia, Stoney also occupied all the other positions expected of someone in his position: County High Sheriff, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, Justice of the Peace. Following his death in 1912 Oakfield was inherited by his only son, Cecil Robert Vesey Stoney, a keen ornithologist who eventually moved to England in the early 1930s. The house and surrounding lands thereafter passed through several hands before being bought twenty-one years ago by businessman Gerry Robinson who together with his wife Heather has since undertaken an extensive restoration of the property.
Over the past two decades, not only have the Robinsons restored the residence at the centre of Oakfield, but they have created a 100-acre parkland around it. Some of this is based in the old walled gardens immediately adjacent to the house but the rest is spread over two areas bisected by a road. This division applies also to the spirit of the two sections, the upper garden having a more classical aspect thanks to elements such as a Nymphaeum on one side of the lake. The lower garden’s principal architectural feature is a newly-created castellated tower house overlooking another stretch of water. Between this pair of substantial structures are other, smaller buildings to engage a visitor’s interest. Oakfield is an admirable demonstration of what imaginative vision allied with sound taste can achieve. Walking around the grounds, it is hard to believe this is County Donegal. But that is what sets Oakfield apart: like Rousham on the other side of the Irish Sea, once inside the gates one is temporarily transported to Arcadia.
For more on Oakfield, see: http://www.oakfieldpark.com
‘Oh! solitary fort, that standest yonder,
What desolation dost thou not reveal!
How tarnished is the beauty of thine aspect,
Thou mansion of the chaste and gentle melodies!
Demolished lie thy towering battlements –
The dark loam of the earth has risen up
Over the whiteness of thy polished stones;
And solitude and ruin gird thee round.
Thy end is come, fair fortress, thou art fallen –
Thy magical prestige has been stripped off –
Thy well-shaped corner-stones have been displaced
And cast forth to the outside of thy ramparts.’
‘The reason that he left thee as thou art
Was lest the black ferocious strangers
Should dare to dwell within thy walls,
Thou fair-proportioned, speckled mansion!
Lest we should ever call thee theirs,
Should call thee in good earnest Dun-na-gall,
This was the reason, Fortress of the Gaels,
That thy fair turrets were o’erthrown.
Now that our kings have all been exiled hence
To dwell among the reptiles of strange lands,
It is a woe for us to see thy towers,
O, bright fort of the glossy walls!’
A stone on the central archway of the former barracks in Ballyshannon, County Donegal carries the date 1700 but the person responsible for the building’s design remains unclear. Rolf Loeber proposes William Robinson who until that year acted as Surveyor General in Ireland. However, Alistair Rowan and others have put forward the name of Thomas Burgh who succeeded to that position in 1700. Either way the property is, as Donegal County Council’s own Area Plan states ‘of national importance’ and therefore its present condition of neglect must be regretted. In 1760 an official report drawn up on the state of barracks around the country noted that this one ‘hath been suffered by Neglect to fall into Ruin, insomuch, that excepting the outside Walls of the Building, the Whole will require and entire Repair.’ Over two and a half centuries later, little seems to have changed.
From Hugh Allingham’s Ballyshannon: Its History and Antiquities (1879): ‘At the close of 1739 this country was visited with a frost of extraordinary length and severity.It extended into the year 1740, lasting in all 108 days. A period of great scarcity and distress followed, and it was at that time that General Folliott, the owner of Wardtown, decided to build Wardtown Castle, thereby giving employment to the distressed classes of the neighbourhood. The remuneration they received during the progress of the work was sixpence per day and their food. Considering the value of money in those days, this was a liberal allowance and fully equivalent to 2s. per day at the present time. Before the erection of Wardtown Castle, the Folliott family had a residence on their property there.’
The first of the Folliotts to come to Ireland was Henry, born in Worcestershire in 1569 who, like many younger sons chose to seek his fortune by joining the army: by 1594 he is listed as serving in County Donegal. In the early 17th century he began to accumulate land in the area and two years before his death in 1622 he was created first Baron Folliott of Ballyshannon. He was succeeded by his nine-year old eldest son Thomas who, on his death, was succeeded by Henry, third and last Baron Folliott. When he died without a direct male heir in 1716, while the unentailed estates were divided between his five sisters, the entailed properties passed to a cousin, the man mentioned by Hugh Allingham, Lieutenant-General John Folliott. He in turn died without male heir and so his estate passed to another cousin, also John Folliott, whose family property was in neighbouring County Sligo. It is for this reason that from the later decades of the 18th century the Folliotts were no longer resident in Donegal.
The early 17th century Plantation of Ulster saw land in that part of the country divided between a number of different parties, including soldiers like the first Henry Folliott and other adventurers, the Established Church and Trinity College, Dublin. The last of these owned the parcel of some 700 acres on which Wardtown Castle stands but in 1616 leased it to the Folliotts who already held a lot of land in the vicinity. When the lease was renewed in 1733 it came with the stipulation that the lessee had to build ‘within ten years, a house of lime and stone forty foot by eighteen foot and one and a half storeys high.’ As can be seen, the house as constructed by General Folliott is very much larger than demanded. Wardtown Castle is of three storeys over raised basement, with three half-round towers on the front and one in the centre of the rear. On the ground floor, the central entrance hall accordingly has apsed ends and is flanked by two large rooms each measuring twenty-one feet square with windows on either side. Off these, to the front are perfectly round rooms both thirteen feet in diameter: on the domed ceilings of these survives delicate plasterwork (likewise some of the more robust plaster panelling in the former drawing room also remains). Behind the round rooms and similarly accessed from the reception areas are identically proportioned square stair halls on the walls of which can still be seen evidence of their former purpose. The design of Wardtown is rigorously governed by symmetry.
The question is: who was responsible for designing Wardtown? Writing in 1979, Alistair Rowan noted that the building is ‘similar to the small conceits by Vanbrugh but on a larger scale.’ Furthermore its exterior bears a striking resemblance to the likewise now-ruined Arch Hall, County Meath (for more of which, including many pictures, see The Untriumphal Arch, December 15th 2014). Although some alterations to the latter were undertaken in the 19th century (and the fenestration is somewhat different), it too is of three storeys over basement, is one room deep, has three half-round towers to the front,and circular rooms to the front at each end. If not twins, the houses are first-cousins and, speaking of kinship, owing to their Vanbrughian qualities, both buildings have been attributed to his relation, Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. Certainly the late Maurice Craig thought Pearce responsible for the pair. However, there is a problem with this attribution since Pearce died in 1733, the year in which Folliott signed his new lease with Trinity College, Dublin and at least six years before he initiated building work on the site. Might he have seen Arch Hall at some earlier date and simply ‘borrowed’ the design? Might there have been some, as yet unknown, connection with the Payne (or Paine) family then living at Arch Hall? We may never know but the links are too apparent to be overlooked.
As mentioned, during the 18th century the Folliott’s Donegal estates passed to diverse cousins so while they continued to be the leaseholders of this land from Trinity College, Dublin they did not live there. In Pigott’s Directory of 1824 a Dr Simon Sheil is listed as resident in Wardtown and just over a decade later the Likely family sublet the house from the Folliotts. They seem to have been the last occupants of the building, leaving it around a century ago. Thereafter it seems not to have been used and so fell into the present state of ruin. Even in this condition, it is a striking sight, on a slightly raised piece of land in western Donegal, overlooking the Erne estuary and with nothing remotely like it in the vicinity: it is scarcely possible to conceive the impact such a building must have made when first constructed. The scene remains memorable, a site to the immediate front being occupied by that embodiment of 20th century Irish architectural ambition, the bungalow, while the immediate rear is filled with material relating to the ‘adventure farm’ run here. Between the two stands Wardtown, a remarkable survivor from another age.
A survey conducted in Northern Ireland in 2005 concluded that while there had been 40,000 thatched dwellings in the six counties half a century earlier, only 150 of these now remained. Joseph Gallagher and Greg Stevenson, authors of Traditional Cottages of County Donegal, believe the situation is no better, and very possibly worse, in that county despite it being ‘home to one of the largest surviving concentrations of such vernacular cottages in Ireland.’ They also note that ‘One of the most enduring images of Ireland and Irishness is that of the traditional rural cottage.’ In 1935 the Swedish ethnologist Dr Åke Campbell who had arried out a survey of rural housing in this country, wrote ‘the Irish peasant house never stands out in bold relief against its background but melts into it even as a tree or a rock. Built of stone, clay, sods, grass and straw brought from the vicinity, the house harmonises with the landscape to which it belongs.’ One might add that being made of natural, local materials when these dwellings are forsaken, they dissolve back into the soil from whence they came. Would that the same could be said of the bungalow which is the most common form of housing type found in rural Ireland today.
One must avoid succumbing to excessive sentimentality: despite what we perceive as its inherent charm the traditional cottage tended to be small, dark, with poor insulation and extremely limited facilities. It is understandable that anyone inhabiting such a place would wish to replace it with a more comfortable residence. Still, it remains a matter of shame and disappointment that so little has been done to ensure the conservation of our historic dwellings since their loss means part of the nation’s collective history also disappears; tellingly many of the best examples featured by Gallagher and Stevenson have been preserved in open air museums and folk parks, or else converted into holiday homes. But very many more have fallen into dereliction and this book is as much a lament as a celebration of Donegal’s traditional cottages. The book is splendidly produced and illustrated, and with a text both informative and engaging. It also serves as an invaluable record of what still survives, but may not do so for much longer…
Traditional Cottages of County Donegal is published by Under the Thatch Ltd. For further information, see: http://www.underthethatch.co.uk/book