Et in Arcadia…


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

‘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.’





‘Thy doorways are, alas! filled up,
Thou fortress of the once bright doors!
The limestones of thy top lie at thy base,
On all the sides of thy fair walls.

Over the mouldings of thy shattered windows,
The music that to-day breaks forth
Is the wild music of the birds and winds,
The voices of the stormy elements!

O, many-gated Court of Donegal,
What spell of slumber overcame thee,
Thou mansion of the board of flowing goblets,
To make thee undergo this rueful change?’




‘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!’

Extracts from  George Petrie’s 1840 translation of an Irish-language poem Address to the Ruins of Donegal Castle written in 1601 after the building’s intentional mutilation (to prevent it falling into English hands) by then-owner Red Hugh O’Donnell.

Suffered by Neglect to Fall into Ruin



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.


A Remarkable Survivor

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Irish Aesthete Recommends VIII

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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

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The Old Town looks the Same

Ramelton, County Donegal is marketed as a ‘heritage town’ and with the place’s history and excellent stock of old buildings there is every reason to consider the moniker well deserved. However, as so often proves the case in Ireland a sizeable gap opens between aspiration and actuality. Ramelton has potential, but the greater part of it remains unrealised. And given both the country’s economy and an habitual Irish inability to recognise obvious opportunity, that scenario is unlikely to change any time soon.
The town’s situation is particularly lovely. The main approach is from Letterkenny further south, the road suddenly descending until it comes to a halt on Ramelton’s quayside, grandiloquently named the Mall. Across the river Lennon the land is densely wooded, a perfect counterpoise to the urban development it faces and a reminder of how the entire area once looked.
While people have been living in this part of the world for thousands of years Ramelton is essentially a planters’ town, settled by English and Scottish immigrants in the 17th century; tellingly, a meeting house dating from around 1680 (and today the local library) is believed to be the oldest centre for Presbyterian worship in Ireland. The reason for the site’s appeal to settlers is that it lies at a point where the Lennon widens to join Lough Swilly and thence flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

So Ramelton developed as a port with ships regularly travelling between this part of the country and British, French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, their holds filled with produce like corn and bacon and dairy products. A series of stone warehouses along the quays bears witness to the town’s former prosperity, aided by the regional success of the linen industry: by the early 1840s Ramelton had Donegal’s largest linen bleaching works, evident in a still-extent complex of buildings called the Tanyard at the west end of the Mall.
Decline set in soon after, with Belfast’s emergence as Ireland’s pre-eminent centre for linen, along with the silting of the Lennon and the arrival of the railway to Letterkenny. Like so many other Irish towns, from the second half of the 19th century onwards Ramelton suffered from that peculiarly indigenous combination of neglect and apathy.
The trouble is that in large measure it still does. As elsewhere, the boom years saw plenty of building work but on the periphery of the town. Here you’ll find the customary unimaginative new housing estates with names like The Elms (and, naturally enough, not a single example of the species to be seen).

Meanwhile the historic centre was allowed to slide into dereliction. On almost every street there are gaps where houses have been demolished and sites left vacant; Ramelton is a beauty whose smile reveals advanced dental decay. Typically, on Back Lane a row of old houses which could be utterly winning have fallen into such decrepitude that ‘windows’ are now painted onto boarded-up fronts.
Many of the handsome quay warehouses have fared no better; their sturdiness is being severely tested by wilful neglect. Next to one of them on Shore Road, a typically pointless public amenity has been created on a vacant site: a so-called park featuring quantities of unalluring hard grey surfaces and only a margin of grass. Except as a short-cut for pedestrians, it looks little used – as evidenced by a local farmer parking his tractor and trailer so close to the entrance gate that access was well-nigh impossible.

There is apparently a local Tidy Towns committee and no doubt the members work hard to keep Ramelton as litter-free as possible. But their efforts can only go so far. What’s needed here – and elsewhere – is an understanding of how to capitalise on Ramelton’s currently dormant charm. A similar town in France or Italy would not be filled with vacant sites but instead with visitors enchanted by the distinctive character of the place. Ramelton could be a tourist hub – and recover some of its economic viability – if only serious restoration work were undertaken. There’s no point calling it a heritage town if the heritage is then disregarded.