The remains of Balfour Castle, County Fermanagh. In 1618/19 the surveyor Captain Nicholas Pynnar noted that the Scottish settler James Balfour, first Lord Glenawley had ‘laid the foundation of a bawne of lime and stone 70 ft square, of which the two sides are raised 15 ft high. There is also a castle of the same length, of which the one half is built two stories high and is to be three stories and a half high.’ Because of Balfour’s origins, the castle was built very much in the Scottish style of a fortified house, necessary because it was damaged during both the Confederacy Wars of the 1640s and the Williamite wars later in the same century. However, it remained occupied until 1803 until destroyed by arson, the person responsible believed to have been a member of the Maguire clan which had once owned all the land in this part of the country. Balfour Castle has remained a ruin ever since and now looks over a graveyard on one side and a housing estate on the other.
Florence Court, County Fermanagh was discussed here a couple of weeks ago (see Unravelling the Mysteries, May 15th 2017). Prior to moving to that part of the country, the Cole family lived further north-east on the island of Enniskillen. The castle there is believed to have been originally built in the early 15th century by Hugh Maguire but this, together with surrounding lands was granted in 1607 to Sir William Cole. A few years later a report stated that there was ‘a fair house begun upon the foundations of the old castle with other convenient houses for store and munition.’ The portion shown here, called the Watergate, likely dates from that period. After the Coles moved to Florence Court the castle became a military barracks; today it houses a museum.
Described over a century ago as the finest early Georgian house in this part of the country, Florence Court, County Fermanagh epitomizes the challenges facing anyone who tries to understand the evolution of the Irish architecture. In particular, it raises the two key questions that come up time and again in this field? When was it built? And who was responsible for the design? In the case of Florence Court, the answer to the first question appears to be that the building was developed over a period of time and to the second that a number of parties were involved. But, as will be made apparent, precise dates and names remain maddeningly elusive.
Florence Court was built for the Cole family, the first of whom, Sir William Cole was a professional soldier who arrived in Ireland in 1601 and having acquired large tracts of land in Fermanagh, based himself in Enniskillen Castle. Successive generations of Coles prospered and by the early 18th century it was clear a proper country estate was required, especially as John Cole – who appears to have been responsible for initiating the construction of Florence Court – served as a member of parliament for the area. The house’s name derives from that of the same John Cole’s wife, a Cornish heiress called Florence Wrey. Their son, also John Cole, was raised to the peerage in 1760 as Lord Mountflorence, and in turn his elder son William Willoughby Cole was created first Viscount Enniskillen in 1776 and finally Earl of Enniskillen in 1789. The house remained in the family’s ownership until 1953 when it passed into the care of the National Trust. Two years later a fire badly damaged the property, which was subsequently restored. It is possible that material relating to the building’s evolution was lost on that occasion, since no documentation on the subject survives. Hence when it comes to dates and architects, conjecture must take the place of knowledge.
An anonymous manuscript dating from 1718 makes reference to a ‘very costly and sumptuous building’ which John Cole was then building at Florence Court. However, it is not known how much of this work was accomplished before his death in 1726. His son, the future Lord Mountflorence is likely to have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the present central block. A demesne map drawn up the year after his death in 1767 includes an elevation of the house’s façade which on the top floor had a large framed oculus window on the top floor. This feature is frequently found in buildings designed by Richard Castle, giving rise to speculation that he was responsible for Florence Court. It is possible such was the case, since in the late 1720s Castle was drawing up designs for Castle Hume on the other side of Enniskillen (for more on this, see A Glimpse of the Past, August 22nd 2016).
Furthermore, in discussions of the house’s evolution it has been noted that Castle subsequently went on to design Hazlewood, County Sligo the owner of which, Owen Wynne, was associated with John Cole in the development of a road between Enniskillen and Sligo. At least some of the interiors of the main house do look to be early 18th century (the ground floor library is a particularly curious room, featuring stylistic elements from a number of different periods). But here, as was so often the case, aspiration exceeded income and the Florence Court of c.1730 was internally a relatively plain affair.
In August 1758 Mrs Delany met the future first Earl of Enniskillen freshly returned from a Grand Tour and observed ‘Mr Cole ((£5,000 a year and just come from abroad), a pretty, well-behaved young man’. While his annual income is likely to have exaggerated, nevertheless the Coles did come into sufficient funds to embark on a further programme of work at Florence Court. Some of this seems to have derived from a legacy following the death without direct heirs of Sir Arthur Cole, Lord Ranelagh but more likely the greater part of the money was received thanks to the periodic sale of two seats in the House of Commons for the borough of Enniskillen which the Coles then controlled: each of these could have raised as much as £1,500-£2,000 at each election. Whatever the source, fresh supplies of money meant first the interiors of the main reception rooms, the staircase and the first-floor ‘Venetian Room’ and then at a slightly later date single storey wings concluding in pavilions were added on either side of the house. On the basis of similarities with Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny and Kilshannig, County Cork these external additions have long been attributed to the architect and engineer Davis Ducart; once again, no documentary evidence exists to tie him directly to the work so one must depend on informed guesswork. The façade was presumably altered at the same time: note how the top-floor oculus shown in the 1767 drawing has gone, replaced by a pedimented niche that complements those immediately below. The alterations it has undergone means that as an object of study Florence Court is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. It tantalizes with hints but never reveals the whole story. Perhaps one day more information will turn up but for the present speculation and surmise must suffice.
The thatched summer house in the grounds of Florence Court, County Fermanagh. This is at least the third such structure on the site, the earliest version being known from a photograph depicting the third Earl of Enniskillen and his family inside the original 19th century ‘Heather House.’ In a memoir published in 1972 the late Nancy, Countess of Enniskillen observed how, ‘On the highest level of The Pleasure Grounds, there used to stand a little “summer house.” Here on a warm sunny day ideally without wind and wrinkled only by the wings of birds and insects, on such a day at Florence Court, the Cole family would adjourn to drink their tea and enjoy the tonic view of the valley and the mountain.’ Inevitably the vulnerable materials used in its construction meant this building did not survive and in 1993 the National Trust commissioned a replica from two craftsmen: it lasted until August 2014 when completely destroyed by teenage arsonists. Since then another replacement has been erected here.
Buried in the midst of trees, the remains of a neo-classical gate lodge in County Fermanagh. Likely dating from the early 19th century, its entrance at the top of a short flight of steps features a fine Tuscan portico flanked by windows each set within a shallow arched niche. Although almost beyond redemption (the rear wall has bulged out and looks on the verge of collapse), the building’s quality of stonework for key features, together with an evident consideration of the overall design, is testament to the care once paid even to such modest dwellings.
The main entrance to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Originally founded by royal charter in 1618 but not moving to its present site until 1778, this educational establishment numbers among its alumni (‘Old Portorans’) both Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett. Neither writer would have passed through these gates however, since they were only moved to this site more recently. The paired Corinthian columns originally formed part of the bow-fronted portico to Innismore Hall, a nearby house dating from the 1840s. Following its demolition in the 1950s the columns were moved here and incorporated into a newly-formed gatescreen.
As its name indicates, Belle Isle is an island located at the very top of Upper Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. Inhabited since the 12th century, it was originally called Ballymacmanus an abode of the MacManus family from which they controlled fishing and trade on the lake. In the 15th century, one of their number Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa, who was not only a chief but also a cleric, was principal compiler of the Annals of Ulster (the original manuscript of which is now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin).
In 1610 Ballymacmanus was part of the estate granted to Paul Gore, a soldier who had come to Ireland some years earlier: in 1622 he was created a baronet. It was his great-grandson Sir Ralph Gore, fourth baronet, who built the core of the present house on the island and renamed the place Belle Isle in recognition of its natural beauty. The latter was much enhanced by his younger son the sixth baronet also called Ralph, who was born on Belle Isle in 1725. For much of his life a soldier, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General, in 1788 he became Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. Over the previous decades he had been created Baron Gore, Viscount Belle Isle and finally Earl of Ross. Between his military duties he found time to improve the island, employing Thomas Wright on the design of the grounds, and building a temple, a grotto and a thatched hermitage, described by Jonathan Fisher in his Scenery of Ireland (1795) as being ‘a handsome cottage with a kitchen and other conveniences, in a sweet retired part [of the demesne].’
Arthur Young had likewise been full of praise for the site, writing in August 1776, ‘To Belleisle, the charming seat of the Earl of Ross. It is an island in Loch Earne, of two hundred Irish acres, every part of it hill, dale, and gentle declivities; it has a great deal of wood, much of which is old, and forms both deep shades and open, cheerful groves. The trees hang on the slopes, and consequently show themselves to the best advantage. All this is exceedingly pretty, but it is rendered trebly so by the situation. A reach of the lake passes before the house, which is situated near the banks among some fine woods, which give both beauty and shelter. This sheet of water, which is three miles over, is bounded in front by an island of thick wood, and by a bold circular hill which is his lordship’s deer park; this hill is backed by a considerable mountain. To the right are four or five fine clumps of dark wood – so many islands which rise boldly from the lake; the water breaks in straits between them, and forms a scene extremely picturesque. On the other side the lake stretches behind wood in a strait which forms Belleisle. Lord Ross has made walks round the island, from which there is a considerable variety of prospect. A temple is built on a gentle hill, commanding the view of the wooded islands above-mentioned, but the most pleasing prospect of them is coming out from the grotto. They appear in an uncommon beauty; two seem to join, and the water which flows between takes the appearance of a fine bay, projecting deep into a dark wood: nothing can be more beautiful. The park hill rises above them, and the whole is backed with mountains.’
John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopedia of Agriculture of 1825 remarked that Belle Isle was ‘charmingly diversified by hills, dales and gentle declivities, which are richly clothed with old timber through which gravel walks are constructed, and a temple erected, from which a panoramic view is obtained, not only of this but all the other wooded islands of the lough.’ It is interesting to compare these observations with those made in by Jonathan Binns just over a decade later in The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (1837): ‘Belleisle, the property of the Rev. Gray Porter, is situated on the higher lake, and in addition to its beauty, is remarkable as being the first grant made in Ireland after the confiscation. It contains upwards of 300 acres, and was originally the property of a Lord Ross, who from this island took the title of Lord Belleisle. It descended by marriage to Sir H. Hardinge, who sold it to the present proprietor. The house, once famed for its hospitality, is now a ruin.’ An explanation for these circumstances is easily provided. The Earl of Ross had died in 1802, predeceased by his young heir. The estate accordingly passed to his only surviving child, an illegitimate daughter Mary who married Sir Richard Hardinge. The couple had no children and following the death of Lady Hardinge in 1824, and that of her husband two years later, the estate was left to the nephew of Sir Richard, the Rev. Sir Charles Hardinge of Tonbridge, Kent who seems to have had no interest in owning a property in Ireland. Accordingly in 1830, he sold the Belle Isle estate for £68,000 to another cleric, the Rev. John Grey Porter of Kilskeery, County Tyrone whose father had enriched himself while serving for over twenty years as the Anglican bishop of Clogher. Descendants of the Porter family would remain thereafter resident at Belle Isle until 1991.
While much work had been carried out on the island’s grounds over the previous century, the house bought by the Rev. Porter remained predominantly the modest two-storey lodge built in the early 1700s by the fourth Gore baronet. At some point during the brief Hardinge era a bow-fronted drawing-room had been added to the left-hand end of the original range, and a new staircase added to its rear, lit by an octagonal lantern. John Grey Vesey Porter, who inherited the estate on his father’s death, added the stable courtyard in 1856 and at some date in the 1880s further extended the house and altered its appearance to resemble what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; producing a gabled entrance front with mullioned windows, a projecting porch and a tall church-like, battlemented tower.’ Meanwhile, inside ‘arches were opened up between the staircase hall and the rooms on either side of it…and oak staircase with barley-sugar balusters replaced the original stairs; the walls were panelled in oak or decorated with half-timbering.’ Yet more work was undertaken in the first decade of the last century when the architect Percy Richard Morley Horder was employed to extend the entrance front with a wing in the Tudor style; this holds a long high chamber with timbered roof, elaborate chimneypiece and overmantel, and a minstrels’ gallery, the balustrade of which it has been suggested contains woodwork dating from the late 17th century or early 18th century woodwork and brought from elsewhere. Thus as seen today Belle Isle represents an amalgam of the tastes of some three centuries, harmoniously brought together within its setting. Twenty-five years ago the last of the Porters to live here, Lavinia Baird, sold the estate to the fifth Duke of Abercorn who with his wife has since undertaken an extensive programme of refurbishment to house and grounds alike, with different sections serving as a cookery school or available for weddings, sporting activities, events and self-catering holidays. Today Belle Isle amply lives up to the name bestowed on it by an earlier owner.
For more information on the estate, see http://belle-isle.com