Pastoral scene with country house as backdrop: Ardbraccan, County Meath. The central block dates from the 1770s when it was constructed for the then-Bishop of Meath, Henry Maxwell. Visiting the place two centuries ago, the English agronomist and politician John Christian Curwen wrote that Ardbraccan ‘is a modern edifice, erected by the former Bishop on a plan of the late Dr Beaufort; which unites much internal comfort with great external beauty and simple elegance, well designed and appropriated for the residence of so considerable a dignitary of the church. The grounds are laid out with great taste, and the luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs affords incontestable evidence of the fertility of the soil.’
Exactly fifty years ago this month, writing inthe Irish Georgian Society’s Bulletin, the late Knight of Glin proposed that Francis Bindon had been responsible for the design of Drewstown, County Meath. Aside from the presence of certain stylistic details, of which more in due course, one of his reasons for this attribution, given in a footnote, was ‘Verbal information from George McVeagh of Dublin whose family owned the house from c.1780-1950.’ The Knight also noted, as have others, that the house was built for a certain Barry Barry: in the 1993 guide to North Leinster written by Christine Casey and Alistair Rowan, the authors state ‘Little is known of its reputed builder, Barry Barry, who was evidently a man of some sophistication.’
Barry Barry was indeed a man of sophisticated taste, since in due course he would commission work from James Wyatt, but he was not the owner of Drewstown at the time it was built. Barry Barry was born the Hon Barry Maxwell, second son of John Maxwell, first Baron Farnham. In 1757 he married Margaret King whose father Robert owned Drewstown and to which, it appears, she was the co-heiress. But his mother had also been an heiress, her name being Judith Barry of Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), County Wexford. In 1771, when his mother died and presumably for the advantage of an inheritance, Barry Maxwell changed his name to Barry Barry. At that stage it must have seemed unlikely he would inherit the main Maxwell estate in County Cavan. However, in 1778 his elder brother’s only son died, as did the elder brother just a year later. Accordingly the Farnham estate passed to Barry Barry who reverted back to his original surname of Maxwell, and in due course – like his late sibling – he was created Earl of Farnham. Tellingly the Drewstown estate was sold to the McVeagh family the year after he had come into possession of that in Cavan where he asked Wyatt to work on the house. One can see why, until now, confusion has arisen so at least in this respect there is clarification.
To revert to Drewstown, the Knight’s attribution of its design to Francis Bindon is one of a number he made in 1967. Astonishingly these have never since been reconsidered. Bindon’s name has occurred here many times before (as recently as last Saturday), and in regard to such houses as Bessborough, County Kilkenny (In the Borough of Bess, November 25th 2013), New Hall, County Clare (New Blood for New Hall, August 25th 20014), Woodstock, County Kilkenny (Of Wondrous Beauty Did the Vision Seem, May 13th 2013) and St John’s Square, Limerick (When New Becomes Old, March 24th 2014). The Irish Architectural Archive’s Dictionary of Irish Architects features twenty-one entries for Bindon, the majority of them once more relying on the Knight’s attributions. Yet one must wonder whether Bindon was capable of producing as much as has been proposed, given that he was also a portrait painter, a Member of Parliament and a landowner in Counties Limerick and Clare.
We do not know the date of Bindon’s birth but he is recorded as being in Italy in 1716, the year in which his brother Samuel married Anne, daughter of Thomas Coote of Cootehill, County Cavan and aunt of the architect Edward Lovett Pearce. As an architect he was an amateur, in the sense that it was not his full-time profession. In his work in this field, he was associated with Pearce and also with Richard Castle, while as a painter he produced portraits of friends such as Jonathan Swift (no less than four such likenesses) and in Dublin was given the freedom of the Guild of St Luke (to which all painters belonged) in 1733. Some years later he received an official pension of £100 and was reported to have died ‘suddenly in his chariot on his way to the country’ in June 1765.
Here is the Knight’s fifty-year old description of Drewstown, with an explanation why he believed the house to have been designed by Bindon: ‘There, in the detailing, we see the usual concern with moulded block architraves, for the ground floor of the seven-bay entrance is composed with them. A later porch makes the front more awkward than needs be, though as a whole the windows are uncomfortably placed. The richly voluted and pilastered central first floor widow with its segmental entablature carries up to a further pilastered and segmcntally capped attic window which in typical Bindon manner breaks through the frieze of the house. A bow window forms the main ornament on the East front which faces the lake in not dissimilar fashion to Castle’s Rochfort, Co. Westmeath. As an exterior it is best viewed from the south-east for here the contrast of bow and breakfront make a not unsatisfying, solidly plump and peaceful image. The front door opens immediately into a galleried panelled hall with a grand staircase at one end. Heavy segmental and triangular pedimented doors lead off into the other rooms, all of which are relatively plain. The plasterwork in the hall is somewhat crude though the Apollo and rays surrounded by trophies over the stairs are pleasingly executed. As an interior feature this galleried hall is an important hallmark for it rarely occurs in houses of this date in Ireland and it seems always to be associated with buildings that are attributable to Francis Bindon…’
Casey and Rowan were, rightly, more harsh in their description of Drewstown’s design, commenting on ‘ill-conceived classical decoration in the central entrance bay’ of the façade, adding that while the quality of the stonework is good, ‘the detailing is ungainly and ill-proportioned, characteristics which are even more in evidence in the interior.’ With regard to the latter, the authors note the entrance hall’s debt to the Queen’s House in Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones at least a century earlier. The space is a large square with the stairs to the rear leading to a gallery that runs around the entire first floor. Whoever was responsible clearly miscalculated the proportions, as the segmental-headed door pediments ‘collide with the room cornice and with the underside of the gallery.’ Furthermore, inside the hall the entrance itself is slightly off-centre leading to an adjacent window being partially concealed by the wall of the adjoining room.
Drewstown is provincial in the best sense of the word, and suggests that someone even more amateur than Bindon came up with its design: perhaps Robert King who would have owned the property in the mid-1740s when it is believed to have been built. Most wonderfully, the entire original double-entrance hall has survived intact (unfortunately the same is not true of other rooms) with all its panelling, staircase and gallery balustrading. As mentioned, around 1780 Barry Maxwell sold the estate to Major Joseph McVeagh who a few years later married Margery Wynch, daughter of a wealthy East Indian ‘Nabob’, Alexander Wynch, Governor of Madras. Their descendants remained at Drewstown until 1952 when the house and sixty-eight acres of land were sold to an American mission agency which first ran an orphanage and then a boarding school on the site. In more recent years Drewstown has operated as a Christian retreat centre.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Pourquoi me réveiller?
Sur mon front, je sens tes caresses
Et pourtant bien proche est le temps
Des orages et des tristesses.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Demain dans le vallon viendra le voyageur,
Se souvenant de ma gloire première.
Et ses yeux vainement chercheront ma splendor,
Ils ne trouveront plus que deuil et que misère.
Pourquoi me réveiller, ô souffle du printemps?
Readers of a certain vintage may remember a long-running English soap opera called Crossroads in which notoriously the sets were as flimsy as the plots. Set in a midlands motel, the series ran for over twenty years with three or four episodes every week, an astonishing achievement considering how little real drama they ever featured. Yet for much of its history Crossroads regularly attracted audiences of up to 15 million. In 1926 the American journalist H.L. Mencken wrote, ‘No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.’ The success of Crossroads demonstrates the truth of this observation.
Today’s building looks as though it could have been constructed for an Irish version of Crossroads. Located in the north-west corner of County Meath, it appears to have been originally a modest farmhouse which was then much-extended to incorporate outbuildings around a central courtyard, the result being a budget hotel with twenty-seven bedrooms and sundry other spaces including a restaurant, bar and conference hall. Everything about the place seems insubstantial and gimcrack, except an enormous Baroque-style sandstone doorcase with open segmental pediment on one side of the property: can this have been salvaged from somewhere else? Is it even Irish? In any case, otherwise the fittings are of poor quality and are correspondingly today in poor condition.
The hotel closed down some years ago and has since been offered for sale, with the option of alternative use as a residential nursing home. Wandering about the site, it is unclear whether or not a new owner has assumed responsibility for the building, which at present has the eerie atmosphere of a Bates Motel. Neglect has taken its toll on what was never a very robust building and the place reeks of damp and decay. Not quite as flimsy as a Crossroads set, but not much better either: testament to the transitory nature of deficient design and cheap materials.
What still stands of Duleek House, County Meath. The limestone-fronted façade of the building was added c.1750 to a residence probably half a century older, as can be seen by a side-view below. If not designed by Richard Castle the front section was certainly much influenced by him, and the tripartite doorcase is very similar to that of the last surviving 18th century house on Dublin’s O’Connell Street (no. 42).
The interior featured an entrance hall with three arched openings to the rear providing access to the staircase and reception rooms with neo-classical plasterwork. When surveyed for the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, Duleek House was still intact and occupied. Since then it has deteriorated into the present dangerous condition and appears unlikely to survive much longer. The building is of course listed for protection.