The former flour mills at Shrule, County Longford. Rising adjacent to the river Inny and thought to date from the start of the 19th century, it appears to be a rare example of an early industrial premises in this part of the country. Samuel Lewis, in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), wrote that it annually produced around 4,000 barrels of flour. The business must have been successful because around 1850 a five-storey extension was added to the existing L-shaped building. However, the mills appear to have closed down at the start of the last century and the entire complex is now roofless and empty.
The name of Newcastle, County Longford would seem to indicate that the present house, or an earlier one on or near this site, replaced a more ancient building. The earliest information on the place seems to be from 1680 when the lands of its demesne, formerly part of the O’Farrell territory, are recorded as being purchased by Robert Choppyne (or Choppin) who built here ‘a fayre house and a wooden bridge.’ By this date, he had already become High Sheriff of Longford three years earlier and would go on to represent County Longford in the Irish House of Commons in 1692 before dying a year or two later. The Newcastle property was left to his nephew Anthony Sheppard who continued to acquire more land in the area, but not so fortunate when it came to continuing his line: he and his wife had four sons who died young and one who survived to adulthood, only to predecease his father. And while the estate was left to Sheppard’s daughter Mary, who had married Arthur St. Leger, Viscount Doneraille, she also died without heirs not long after. So Newcastle passed to Anthony Sheppard’s widowed sister, Frances Harman (her late husband, Sir Wentworth Harman, had died in 1714 when ‘coming in a dark night from Chapel-Izod, his coach overturning, tumbled down a precipice, and he dies in consequence of the wounds and bruises he received’). For many years, the estate was managed by her younger son, the Rev Cutts Harman, who appeared here some months ago with regard to Castlecor (see A Worthy Recipient « The Irish Aesthete). Once again, the direct line failed and so, on the death of the Rev Harman, Castlecor passed to his nephew, Laurence Harman Parsons, on condition that the latter adopt his uncle’s surname: accordingly, he became Laurence Parsons Harman. He would also, in due course, be created Baron Oxmantown, then Viscount Oxmantown and finally first Earl of Rosse in 1806. His only surviving child was a daughter, Frances, who married Robert King, first Viscount Lorton, of Rockingham, County Roscommon. Their younger son, Laurence Harman King-Harman inherited both the Newcastle and Rockingham estates; on his death in 1875 the two were divided, with Newcastle passing to a younger son, Colonel Wentworth King-Harman. The estate reached its largest extent during this period, running to some 38,616 acres and described in 1900 as ‘a master-piece of smooth and intricate organisation, with walled gardens and glasshouses, its dairy, its laundry, its carpenters, masons and handymen of all estate crafts, the home farm, the gamekeepers and retrievers kennels, its saw-mill and paint shop and deer park for the provision of venison. The place is self-supporting to a much greater degree than most country houses in England.’
The core of Newcastle could date from the late 17th century when Robert Choppyne built his ‘fayre house’ here. However, there is no visible evidence of this building, at least on the exterior where the main facade suggests a classic house from the early-to-mid 18th century of seven bays and two storeys (with perhaps the third added later). Around 1785, soon after Laurence Harman Parsons had inherited the estate, enlargements were made with the construction of slightly projecting wings, single-storey to the east and two-storey to the west. Further alterations took place in the mid-19th century when Newcastle passed into the possession of Laurence Harman King-Harman; the Dutch-style gable over the centre bay probably dates from this period, along with the entrance porch containing a family coat of arms. Internally, the building has undergone many alterations also, so that it is now not easy to detect what is from any particular period. However, there are striking – and now highly coloured – neo-classical Adamesque ceilings in the former drawing and dining rooms, the former featuring a large oval set in a rectangular frame, in which corner panels depict musical instruments. The dining room ceiling is centred on a diamond pattern decorated with urns and scrolling foliage. There is also some extant neo-classical plasterwork on the main staircase.
While the Newcastle estate may have run to more than 38,000 acres in the 1880s, by the time Colonel Wentworth King-Harman died in 1919, various land acts meant that it had shrunk to less than 1,000 acres. His son, Major Alexander King-Harman, sold more land to the Department of Lands in 1934, leaving just the demesne thereafter. Following the major’s death in 1949, Newcastle was inherited by a cousin, Captain Robert Douglas King-Harman, who two years later sold the house and surrounding land for £11,000 to a religious order, the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary. The house was used as a retirement home for nuns and also as a boarding school, but the Missionary Sisters remained for less than two decades, leaving in 1968, after which Newcastle changed hands on a number of occasions and was run as an hotel. Although it is not open to the public at the moment, the property’s current owner, a Hong Kong businessman, applied to the local authority last August for planning permission to create a holiday park on the surrounding land, incorporating 99 mobile homes, together with ‘an area for touring pitches and casual camping spaces’, a reception hut, a playground and separate grass play area. The adjacent woodland accommodates a Centre Parcs holiday resort which also intends to expand its facilities.
As some readers may be aware, last week the latest recipient of the Historic Houses of Ireland – O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize was announced. The prize is an initiative first devised by the Irish Aesthete in 2020 to acknowledge the importance of our privately-owned heritage properties and to recognise the invaluable work by their owners. For this reason, the prize is hosted by Historic Houses of Ireland, a charity established in 2008 to promote the immediate and long-term future of the country’s privately owned historic properties. All HHI members are owners of such buildings and they understand better than anyone the sector’s particular problems, especially over recent years. Worth €5,000 and adjudicated by a small group of assessors, the prize is generously sponsored by the O’Flynn Group, which has shown itself keenly aware of the importance of providing a viable future for historic buildings, as can be seen in the company’s own redevelopment of the early 19th century former barracks site in Ballincollig, County Cork. The third recipient of the prize is Castlecor, County Longford.
At first glance, Castlecor appears to be a typical small Georgian residence, its otherwise plain three-bay, two storey facade relieved by a central pedimented tripartite doorcase. But venture to either side, or even inside the building, and its design proves to be much more complicated. So too does its history, not least because nobody can be sure when work first began on the site. In the 18th century, the land on which Castlecor stands belonged to the Harman (later King Harman) family, the first of whom was Nicholas Harman who settled in County Carlow in the first quarter of the 17th century. His great-grandson, Wentworth Harman married as his second wife Frances Sheppard, heiress to a large estate in County Longford, with their main residence at Newcastle, just a few miles to the east of Castlecor. This explains how the Harmans came to be based in the Midlands, but does not help to settle on a date when Castlecor was built. The oldest part of the building is often thought to have been commissioned by one of Wentworth and Frances Sheppard’s sons, the Rev. Cutts Harman, a Church of Ireland clergyman who in 1759 was appointed Dean of Waterford and six years later inherited the main Newcastle estate following his childless brother’s death. As we shall see, it is open to question whether the Rev Harman was responsible for the work here, but in any case, following his own death with a direct heir, the Longford property passed to a nephew, Laurence Harman, later Lord Oxmantown and eventually first Earl of Rosse. Around 1820 the second Earl of Rosse sold Castlecor to one Captain Thomas Hussey who is believed to have added an extension to one side of the existing property so as to provide more rooms. However, in 1855 the house and 268 acres of land were offered for sale by the Encumbered Estates Court, and after being briefly owned by David Dunlop Urquhart of Fair Hill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the property was acquired by Thomas Bond, member of another Longford family. In 1913 his granddaughter Emily Bond and her husband Captain Charles James Clerk employed Dublin architect Adam Millar to enlarge the building further, and it was he who designed the present facade. During the War of Independence, the Clerks moved to England and sold first the contents and then Castlecor itself, the house being bought by a local family. In the mid-1940s they in turn sold it on to an American women’s religious order who used it as a Rosary Convent for Novitiates. Sold again in 1973, Castlecor stood empty for four years until it became a nursing home, serving this function some 30 years before being left vacant again. Finally, in 2009 the present owners bought the place and, as funds become available, have gradually been restoring Castlecor.
While the 19th and 20th century additions to Castlecor are of a high standard – not least Millar’s first-floor octagonal gallery that provides the entrance hall with ample light – they rather pall by comparison the building in its original form. Rightly described by Casey and Rowan in 1993 as ‘perhaps the most unusual building of the C18 anywhere in Ireland,’, the property was not intended to be a permanent residence but instead a hunting lodge, of two storeys with the lower floor containing kitchens and service rooms for the single Great Room above. And what a great room it proves to be: a vast octagonal space, 42 feet across with round-headed windows on every second side and single rooms (measuring 20 by 14 feet) opening off the other four. To heat such a substantial area, the centre of the room is taken up by a four-sided fireplace, each of them directly facing one of the windows, the light from which is reflected in mirrors set above the chimneypieces. The structure is framed in each corner by a towering Corinthian column, these supporting a richly ornamented entablature, each having at its centre a mask of Apollo. A single octagonal column then climbs to the coved ceiling. The rest of the walls are covered in 19th century neo-Egyptian stencil work, thought to have been inspired by illustrations in Owen Jones’s Decoration, published in 1856. As mentioned, quite when this extraordinary building was constructed – and by whom – remains open to conjecture, as does its source of inspiration since it is quite unlike anything else in the country. Albeit on a much smaller scale, the building shares some characteristics with Stupinigi, the hunting palace outside Turin designed by Juvarra in the 1720s for the Duke of Savoy, and Maurice Craig also noted similarities with the hunting lodge at Clemenswerth in Lower Saxony, designed a decade later by Johann Conrad Schlaun for Prince Clemens August, Elector-Archbishop of Cologne. Closer to home, as Casey and Rowan note, in 1739 the English architect and pattern-book publisher William Halfpenny, then resident in Ireland, was commissioned to produce designs for a new Bishop’s Palace and Cathedral in Waterford: although none of these was used, some of the plans for the latter building are not unlike what can be seen at Castlecor. Perhaps it was Halfpenny who came up with the idea of the house’s unusual form, but if so it was constructed much earlier than 1765 when the Rev. Cutts Harman inherited the Newcastle estate. We may never know, but at least we can be confident that thanks to the enterprise of Castlecor’s present owners, the future of this wonderful building is secure, making them deserved recipients of the Historic Houses of Ireland – O’Flynn Group Heritage Prize.
As its name indicates, the County Longford village of Abbeylara (‘Mainistir Leathrátha’, meaning ‘Abbey of the half – or small – fort’) grew up around a religious house. In this instance, a monastery is supposed to have been founded here in the fifth century by St Patrick, who then appointed St Guasacht as its first abbot. Guasacht, who also acted as Bishop of the short-lived diocese of Granard, just a few miles away, was the son of Maelchu, the man under whom Patrick worked as a slave when a youth in Ireland. Following Patrick’s return to this country, it is said that Maelchu preferred to lock himself into his home and set fire to it – perishing in the flames – rather than encounter his former slave. His son Guasacht, on the other hand, did so and was duly converted to the Christian faith.
The present remains of a monastery at Abbeylara can be traced back to 1205 when the Anglo-Norman knight Richard Tuite invited a group of Cistercian monks to settle there. Tuite, who had come to Ireland as one of Richard de Clare’s supporters, was granted large swathes of land in this part of the country and in 1199 had built one of the largest motte and baileys in Ireland. A daughter house of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin, the Abbeylara monastery was likewise dedicated to the Virgin. When Tuite, by then Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, died in 1210, he was buried here. A century later, in 1315, Edward Bruce – brother of Scotland’s Robert Bruce – who arrived in Ireland with his army earlier that year, having first burnt nearby Granard, seized control of the Abbeylara monastery and spent the winter there. The monks returned following his departure but the establishment’s decline appears to have begun soon after: in both 1410 and 1435 the Papacy permitted funds to be raised for the buildings’ repair through the sale of Indulgences.
From the start of the 15th century until its eventual closure, the monastery at Abbeylara had come under the control of a powerful local family, the O’Farrells, as testified by the fact that successive members of this family were appointed its abbot. The last of them to do so, Richard O’Farrell, surrendered the abbey with its lands and possessions to Henry VIII in 1539: in return, he was appointed Bishop of Ardagh. At the time of its dissolution, the Abbeylara house held over 5,500 acres of land but the buildings were falling into ruins. Today little remains other than the former abbey church’s great central tower, and the adjacent north and south walls: high on the latter can be seen a badly weathered figure which may be a Sheela-na-gig. A Church of Ireland church which once occupied part of the surrounding graveyard has long since been demolished.
In the grounds of St Paul’s church, Newtownforbes, County Longford, this is believed to be the grave of Charlotte Brooke, a woman today too-little remembered or celebrated. Born around 1740, she was one of 22 children (only two of whom survived to adulthood) of Irish novelist and dramatist Henry Brooke whose Gustavus Vasa was famously the first play banned under the 1737 Licensing Act: it appears the Prime Minister Robert Walpole the villain of the piece resembled him. From an early age, Charlotte Brooke enjoyed a passionate interest in the Irish language and literature, translating many ancient texts into English so that they could reach an audience beyond these shores: her most celebrated work, Reliques of Irish Poetry, was published in 1788. By that date, she had become impoverished, her own money having been invested in a failed industrial scheme run by a cousin. As a result, she ended her days dependent on friends, dying in County Longford in 1793. Her body is thought to have been buried here, although her name is not on the stone, which instead carried the names of other members of the Brooke family.
Formerly known as Lisbrack House, this building in Newtownforbes, County Longford became an episcopal palace when enlarged and occupied in the early 1870s by George Conroy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise. It continued to serve this purpose until c.1920 when used as a novitiate for the nearby Convent of Mercy before in turn becoming a secondary school in 1951 and finally a nursing home. However, in recent years the property has stood empty, surrounded by newly-constructed houses but left to fall into the present state of ruin. In other words, the all-too familiar scenario for an old building in an Irish town.
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round
The shell of Doory Hall, County Longford, the stable block of which was discussed here some time ago (see Future Uncertain « The Irish Aesthete). Doory Hall belonged for several centuries to the Jessop family who had settled here in the second half of the 17th century on land granted to them by Charles II. There was an earlier house on or near this site, as the present house – or what remains of it – dates from c.1820 and is attributed to Cork architect John Hargrave, much of whose work otherwise involved designing gaols and courthouses. Perhaps this accounts for the severity of the building’s neo-classical design, now softened only by the bows at either end, although it should be noted that originally the central pedimented breakfront had a single-storey Doric porch, since removed. Internally nothing survives to indicate how the house once looked.
Originally from County Durham in England, by 1651 Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh was living in Philipstown (now Daingean), County Offaly, the first of this family to settle in Ireland. His grandson Thomas married Mary Sherlock from Kildare and the couple moved to Ardagh, County Longford where around 1703 he bought some 235 acres of land from the Farrell family. At some point between this acquisition and his death in 1749 he commissioned a new residence in Ardagh; this building is said to have provided part of the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops to Conquer since the playwright mistook the Fetherstonhaugh’s house for an inn. The couple’s eldest son Ralph sat in the House of Commons of the Irish Parliament for 12 years from 1768 onwards and in 1776 was created a baronet. He also simplified the family surname to Fetherston (other branches retained the name in full). His eldest son Thomas, the second baronet, likewise sat as an M.P., in the Irish Parliament until 1800 and thereafter at Westminster until his death in 1819. The third and fifth baronets, Sir George and Sir Thomas Fetherston respectively were responsible for giving the local village of Ardagh its present appearance, by commissioning new housing for the local population. In the early 1860s Sir Thomas employed Dublin-based architect James Rawson Carroll to design one- and two-storey cottages around a green featuring a clock tower erected to the memory of his uncle, Sir George (see Commemorating a Life-long Devotion « The Irish Aesthete)
Sir Thomas Fetherston had only one son, another George, who was only 13 when he inherited the estate. He later became an Anglican clergyman and travelled widely, meaning he did not spend as much time in Ardagh as had his father. Under the terms of the Wyndham Act, in 1903 Sir George sold most of the estate – by then running to some 11,000 acres – to his tenants, retaining only the house and demesne. When he died unmarried at the age of 70 in 1923 the baronetcy died out also. Within a few years, the former family home had been sold to an order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy who moved into the building and then gradually added extensions to the east side, from which they ran a home economics college. As in the case of so many other such properties, at the start of the present century the nuns gradually wound down operations here and in 2007 the house and surrounding 227 acres was sold at auction for €5.25 million. However, that sale fell through and it was back on the market for €5; by June 2009, as the effects of recession began to be felt, that price had dropped to €3.25 million. It was finally sold at auction in June 2012 for €1.36 million. Since then, the house has sat empty.
As mentioned, the main house at Ardagh is thought to date from the first half of the 18th century when constructed for Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. But much of its present appearance is 19th century, when it was refurbished first by Sir George Fetherston (who laid out the surrounding grounds) and then by his nephew Sir Thomas. The latter was responsible for the present stable block which, like a considerable portion of the adjacent village, was designed by architect James Rawson Carroll and features a series of cut-stone blocks with half-hipped roofs around a central courtyard. Sir Thomas is thought to have been responsible for adding a two-storey, three-bay ballroom wing to the immediate east of the eight-bay house, as well as the latter’s porch and arcaded conservatory. During the Civil War, an attempt was made to burn down the building, but this seems to have caused little damage. A more serious fire in 1948 led to the nuns then in residence removing the top floor, thereby making the house look longer and lower than would previously been the case. Anyone passing through Ardagh village cannot fail to see the building standing forlorn and unkempt across open ground. It seems unfortunate that a property linked to the family who did so much for the area, and which can claim associations with one of the finest comedies ever written in the English language, should today be left in this sad condition.
And today’s example of wasted public resources comes courtesy of Longford County Council. Dating from 1815, the former cavalry barracks in Longford town are believed to have been designed by John Behan, a measurer and architect (and timber merchant) employed by the Board of Works on such military properties. Historically, this is the most important area in the town, since it is where the dominant family, the O’Farrells built a castle (the last parts of which were demolished in the early 1970s: a shopping centre can now be found there instead). In the 17th century, Francis Aungier converted at least part of the site into a manor house with surrounding gardens, building a market house and square immediately adjacent. In 1774 his descendant sold the property to the British authorities for development as a military barracks. Post-Independence, these were occupied by the Irish army until 2009. Three years later, the buildings on some 5.1 hectares were bought by the county council for €450,000, since when the cavalry barracks has sat empty. A number of smaller ancillary blocks to the rear are used by local groups and there’s a large open field running down to the river Camlin. The same questions arise: why do local authorities purchase these places and then leave them unused for so long, meaning that whenever an eventual use is found, the relevant costs are higher? And what sort of example does this set to other owners of historic properties when the county council fails to take adequate care of an important building it owns? Only question always has the same answer. Who’ll eventually have to foot the bill? Answer: the Irish taxpayer.