The entrance gates to Swiftsheath, County Kilkenny. The estate takes its name from Godwin Swift who built the original house here: he was the uncle of Jonathan Swift who is believed to have lived here while a student at Kilkenny College. Although it looks much earlier the present entrance of cut limestone and granite dates only from 1874 when designed by Dublin architect Joseph Maguire for R.W. Swifte. The latter’s predecessor was the eccentric Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte who claimed the title Viscount Carlingford (held by a 17th century Swift who had died without male heirs) but also designed and built what he called an ‘aerial chariot’, a form of flying machine. In 1854 he launched this from the top of nearby Foulksrath Castle – with his butler as pilot. The device plunged straight to ground and the butler sustained serious, but not life-threatening, injuries. The Swifte family remained in occupation of Swiftsheath until the early 1970s when it was sold to new owners.
The round tower at Kilree, County Kilkenny. A religious settlement is supposed to have been established here by St Brigid but no buildings from the early Christian period survive. Situated in the south-west corner of the former enclosure, the tower is believed to date from the 11th century and features a door and seven windows. It rises some twenty-nine metres to a battlemented top now missing its cap, thereby allowing views of the sky from the interior.
In 1989 American photographer Andrew Bush published a book of images he had taken at the start of the decade. Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland caused something of a stir at the time and has since become a collector’s item, as it chronicles the last days of a now-disappeared world. The visual equivalent of a Chekhov play, the pictures exude a melancholic dignity. Many of them had previously been exhibited in the United States, and in The New Yorker critic Janet Malcolm wrote that what gave the photographs a special lustre was ‘the frank avowal that they make of their voyeurism. Bush’s images have a kind of tentativeness, almost a furtiveness, like that of a child who is somewhere he shouldn’t be, seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing, touching objects he shouldn’t be touching and struggling with the conflict between his impulse to beat it out of there and his desire to stay and see and touch.’ Anyone who looked at the pictures became willingly complicit in that voyeurism.
As is so often the case, we know relatively little about the history of Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny although conveniently a date stone advises the house was built in 1737 for Samuel Mathews, a mayor of Kilkenny. In other words, this was a merchant prince’s residence, conveniently close to his place of work and yet set in open countryside so that he could play at being a member of the gentry. The house was designed to emulate those occupied by landed families, albeit on a more modest scale. Flanked by short quadrants and of two storeys over a raised basement, it has six bays centred on a tripartite doorcase accessed via a flight of steps. The rear of the building is curious since here the middle section is occupied by a pair of long windows below which is another doorcase approached by a pair of curving steps with wrought-iron balustrades. While much of Bonnettstown remains as first designed, some alterations have been made since the house was first built: the fenestration was updated, although a single instance of the original glazing survives on the first floor. And on the façade, the upper level window surrounds on consoles look to be a 19th century addition. Nevertheless, one feels that were Mayor Mathews to return, he would recognise his property.
Inside, Bonnettstown has a typical arrangement of medium-sized houses from this period. It is of tripartite design, with a considerable amount of space devoted to the entrance hall, to the rear of which rises the main staircase with Corinthian newels and acanthus carving on the ends of each tread. The rooms on either side show how difficult it can sometimes be for aspiration to achieve realisation. As mentioned, Bonnettstown was meant to be a modest-proportioned version of a grand country house, and as a result the requisite number of reception rooms had to be accommodated. To make this happen, some of them are perforce very small, as is the case with what would have been a study/office to the immediate left of the entrance hall. Here a chimneypiece has been incorporated which is out of proportion with the room, although the reason for this could be that it came from Kilcreene, a since-demolished property in the same county. That is certainly the case with the chimneypiece in the dining room, which is wonderfully ample in its scale. The chimney piece in the drawing room looks to be from later in the 18th century, as does another intervention on the first floor, a rococo ceiling in a room above the entrance. The well-worn back stairs lead both to the largely untouched attic storey and to the basement with their series of service rooms.
While hitch hiking around Ireland as a young man in the late 1970s Andrew Bush was offered a lift by an elderly gentleman called Commander Geoffrey Marescaux de Saubruit who invited the American to visit his house, Bonnettstown. Bush took up the offer and over the next few years regularly stayed with the Commander and his octogenarian relations. During this time, the property was sold and so Bush’s photographs, and subsequent book, became a record of what had once been. ‘I guess I was responding to my desperation,’ he later explained, ‘to the anxiety that I was feeling that this place was disappearing. I guess I wanted to soak up as much as I could before it was gone.’ Inevitably it did go, as the new owners put their own stamp on the place and cleared away the atmosphere of shabby gentility which had pertained when Bush saw Bonnettstown. A few weeks ago the house was sold again, and now another generation will take possession. What mark will it leave on the house, and is it likely that another Andrew Bush will wish to make a record of Bonnettstown before the next change occurs? We must wait and see.
An abiding problem in the study of Irish country houses is ascribing a date of construction. Not so Bonnettstown, County Kilkenny where on completion of building work the original owner helpfully provided this information. On one of the quoins to the left of the entrance is the gentleman’s name, Samuel Mathews, while its match to the right features the date May 14th 1737. On the other hand, what remains unknown is who was responsible for the design of Bonnettstown: like a number of other houses in this part of the country for the past half-century it has been attributed to the gentleman-architect Francis Bindon.
The phrase ‘history is written by the victors’ has often been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, but the words’ innate fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that no one can say for certain who actually first used them. History is written as often by losers, and by those who played no role in any supposed conflict. And in the present age of alternative truths, history is even more vulnerable to prejudice and selective memory. Irish history is as replete as any other with forgotten or overlooked narratives, usually laid aside because they do not fit into the preferred version. It is easier to propose a clear linear story than one in which there are sundry twists and diversions diverting attention away from the central tale. So it is that visitors to the Castlecomer Discovery Park in County Kilkenny, while they are given the opportunity to learn about the history of coal mining in this region, will hear no mention of a remarkable woman who a century ago lived here as the mine manager’s wife. Despite her subsequent achievements and global fame, she does not fit comfortably into the story being told and has therefore been omitted (to the extent that staff in the Discovery Park are even unfamiliar with her name). That woman was Constance Spry.
In 2004 vacuum-cleaner inventor James Dyson resigned as chairman of London’s Design Museum when the institution’s then-director Alice Rawsthorne proposed organising an exhibition dedicated to Constance Spry, whose career was dismissed by one of the museum’s founders, Terence Conran, as nothing more than “high-society mimsiness”. These glib verdicts say more about the male prejudices of Dyson and Conran than they do about Spry and her considerable achievements, which were twofold. In the first place she revolutionised flower arranging which, while undoubtedly a minor art, is nevertheless one that impinges on all our lives, often for the better. Spry spurned the stiff and excessively formal style of floral decoration that predominated in her youth and replaced it with a looser approach, recognising every plant, whether cultivated or wild, had potential; typically for a London wedding in 1938 she filled the church with vases holding nothing but cow parsley. (Incidentally, in the wake of Conran’s criticism it was pointed out by the Guardian’s James Fenton that the decorative tricks found in every Conran store – a bundle of twigs in a glass vase, say, or an amusing confection of ornamental cabbages – were all first found in Spry’s work.) Furthermore, as an ardent gardener she helped to save many rare plants, especially varieties of old roses, from potential extinction: tellingly when rose specialist David Austin created his first variety in 1961 he named it ‘Constance Spry.’
Spry’s innovations within her field deserve to be acknowledged, but so too, and more importantly, does her position as a role model for women seeking to take control of their lives and run their own businesses. In this respect she already had the example of her father, a remarkable man called George Fletcher, who left school at the age of 14 with minimal qualifications and no social advantages but, thanks to his appreciation of the benefits of education, finished by being head of technical instruction in early 20th-century Ireland (but like his offspring has now been almost entirely forgotten). His only daughter Constance likewise became involved in education, employed by the government in the early 1900s to travel throughout this country lecturing on the advantages of sound healthcare. It was in this capacity that she came to Castlecomer, staying for two weeks to improve the condition of the local miners. And while in the town, she also first met and soon after married the mine manager James Heppell Marr.
Constance Spry lived in the Castlecomer region for six years and gave birth here to her only child before the marriage to Marr broke down and she moved away. A woman who 100 years ago had the courage to leave her husband and search for employment to support an infant son: there was nothing mimsy in Spry’s background or character. She started to arrange flowers professionally in response to demand for her services, and her achievement in this field was entirely unplanned, a coincidence of circumstances to which she responded with avidity. Here is where her significance lies: as one of a number of pioneering women who in the early part of the last century demonstrated it was feasible for members of their sex to develop and run successful businesses. During the same period, for example, Syrie Maugham established an interior-design company of international renown, while soon afterwards Rosemary Hume founded the original Cordon Bleu school of cookery; both women became friends and associates of Spry. The characteristic she shared with them was an ability to spot the potential in a supposedly mundane skill and transform it into a viable commercial concern. Spry, Maugham, Hume et al had no professional predecessors from whom to learn, the expectation being that, like their mothers before them, they would marry and raise children. But perforce breaking free from the constraints of their upbringing, they had the ability to recognise how a natural aptitude could be deployed to generate income and provide employment. Thanks to flower arranging, Spry gained global fame, publishing books and giving lecture tours around the world while running a school where other women could learn the skills that had proven so profitable for her.
Today’s photographs show what remains of a lodge beside gates opposite Castlecomer Discovery Park. These gates mark the entrance to the now-lost Castlecomer Park, permitted to fall into ruin before being demolished in 1975. It was here that Constance Spry first stayed when she came to the town, the house’s residents being also owners of the local coal mine for some three centuries. The lodge and gates were designed by Dublin architect George Francis Beckett in 1912-13, during the period when Constance Spry was here. More recently the building has been gutted by fire and there is every likelihood it will soon be as little remembered as the exceptional woman who came to the area in 1910 in order to improve the health of the local coal miners.
Further instances of the near-ubiquitous urban dereliction now found in Ireland: houses close to the central square of Johnstown, County Kilkenny, a town laid out in the 18th century by the Hely family who lived nearby in Foulkscourt House. The latter has since been lost, although some of the associated buildings survive. However, it looks like these little properties will not last much longer.
Here is a scenario familiar to anyone engaged with or concerned for the welfare of our architectural heritage. At some date in the 18th/19th centuries a house is built on the outskirts of a town, often by a prosperous burgher keen to demonstrate his affluence. Over the intervening decades, the adjacent urban centre gradually expands so that a building once surrounded by open fields is increasingly encircled by housing estates. Eventually these press up against what remains of the former estate, which comes to acquire a besieged appearance. As a result, the owners – perhaps no longer so prosperous or perhaps knowing it is time to realise an asset – sell up. The place is then bought by someone more interested in the commercial value of the land on which the house sits than in the historic property. Accordingly, despite being listed for preservation the building is not maintained, begins to decay, is subject to vandalism, possibly even an arson attack, and falls into total dereliction. At which point the relevant authorities will relist the property as dangerous and require its demolition. The land will be cleared, a new housing estate built and the original property perhaps only recalled in the name this development is given: a fait accompli.
Brandondale, County Kilkenny lies on a site above the river Barrow on the outskirts of Graiguenamanagh. The house dates from c.1800 when it was built by Peter Burtchaell whose family had come to Ireland in the middle of the 17th century. The Burchaells were involved in the linen industry which then thrived in this part of Ireland, and also seem to have acted as agents for the Agars, Lords Clifden, large landowners whose seat was Gowran Castle in the same county. Peter Burchaell married the heiress Catherine Rothe and her fortune duly passed into the family which would have provided the necessary money for building a house like Brandondale. In his Handbook for Ireland (1844) James Fraser wrote that the property, ‘occupying a fine site on the northern acclivities of Brandon hill, commands the town, the prolonged and lovely windings of the Barrow, the picturesque country on either side of its banks, and the whole of the Mount Leinster and Black Stairs range of mountains.’ The architecture of the house was that of a two-storey Regency villa, old photographs showing it distinguished by a covered veranda wrapping around the canted bow at the south-eastern end of the building which had views down to the river. Within this sightline must have been a little gothic tea house now roofless and submerged in woodland; built of limestone rubble, this square structure incorporates granite window and door openings that may be of mediaeval origin (perhaps recycled from the Duiske Abbey in the centre of Graiguenamanagh).
The last of the Burtchaell line to live at Brandondale was Richard, who livd there until his death in 1903. He and his wife Sarah had no children and she remained on the property for the next twenty-nine years, struggling to make ends meet by taking in paying guests. After her death the house and remaining fifty acres were sold to the Belgian Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove who first lived there and then rented the place before he in turn sold it. In the 1980s Brandondale was bought by an Englishman Walter Dominy who moved in with his family and established a printing business. After this failed, in 1993 Mr Dominy left a suicide note in his car while travelling on the Rosslare to Fishguard ferry: fifteen years later an English tabloid newspaper found him living in France. But meanwhile Brandondale changed hands yet again and at some point was subject to a spectacularly poor refurbishment which saw the Regency veranda removed and all the old fenestration replaced with uPVC. In recent years it was taken into receivership and offered for sale on 25 acres for just €150,000, an indication of the building’s atrocious condition (and also of a Compulsory Purchase Order from the local council on part of the land). The place has apparently been sold once more but still sits empty and deteriorating: it can only be a matter of time before Brandondale’s condition is judged so bad that, despite being listed for preservation, demolition is ordered. After which, no doubt, an application will be lodged for houses to be built on the land. A fait accompli.
Below is a Burtchaell tomb in the graveyard surrounding an already-demolished Church of Ireland church in Graiguenamanagh: very likely soon to be the only recollection of Brandondale.