The former Wallace’s Mills at Kilcran, County Monaghan. Dating from c.1790 this substantial range of stone buildings offers evidence of the country’s industrial past. The long range to the left operated as a corn mill while that to the right was a scutch mill, driven by water and used in the manufacture of linen to remove impurities from flax fibre through by means of rotating wooden blades. Seemingly it was customary to have the two manufacturing processes – for food and fabric – operating from adjacent premises. Located down a quiet side road, what use now for these substantial properties?
Handsome doorcases such as this testify to the prosperity of Clones, County Monaghan in the 18th century when it became a market town benefitting from the growth of the linen industry. A series of large properties were built around The Diamond, a triangular open area to the immediate south of the monastery said to have been founded here in the early sixth century by St Tigernach and while some have been refaced, and others demolished, enough survive to give an idea of how Clones might have looked prior to suffering the same, more recent decline as so many other regional urban centres in Ireland.
As the picture above shows, until the late 1860s Bessmount, County Monaghan was a fairly standard, medium-sized country house, of two storeys over basement and with a five-bay façade onto which the box-like porch had been added. With a Wyatt window on the first floor being the only feature of interest, it looks to be of indeterminate date, both 1722 and 1807 having been proposed as when originally constructed. Either or indeed any time in between are possible, since the building gives the appearance of being solid but unimaginative in its design. In the 18th century the land on which it stands belonged to a branch of the Montgomery family and in 1758 an eldest daughter, Mary Montgomery married Alexander Nixon of the now-demolished Nixon Hall, County Fermanagh. The couple’s second son, Alexander Nixon Montgomery, inherited Bessmount where he lived until his death in 1837.
Although Alexander Nixon Montgomery and his wife Eliza (nee Stanley) had no less than nine children, Bessmount was sold a few years after his death. The purchaser was John Hatchell, a wealthy Monaghan brewer who a few years later married Elizabeth Anne Speer from nearby Glaslough. Their daughter Frances Maria in turn married William Henderson whose own family were associated with the linen industry and it would seem that the couple, having sufficient funds from their forebears’ respective businesses, decided to recast Bessmount, transforming what had been a rather staid residence into something completely different.
Despite its extraordinary appearance, and relatively late date, we do not know who was the architect responsible for Bessmount’s makeover. Two names have been suggested, one being the Newry-born William Barre who worked mostly in the Ulster region and whose Danesfort House in Belfast has a very similar entrance tower. But Barre died in 1867 (that is, before work began at Bessmount) so the other architect proposed is John McCurdy, then working nearby on Monaghan’s District Lunatic Asylum (now St Davnet’s Hospital), the largest such institution in the country. Whether one of these gentlemen or another party, whoever received the commission clearly had a field day with the project, no doubt encouraged by his clients whose carved portraits can be seen in medallions on either side of the entrance porch (Mrs Henderson being tricked out to look like Queen Elizabeth I: perhaps a play on the house’s name?). Bessmount metamorphosed from a dull Georgian block into an extravagance of Ruskinian Gothic, thanks to the use of certain devices such as bands of yellow and red brick especially in the aforementioned tower (which originally served the practical purpose of holding the house’s water tanks). Asymmetry rules across the intentionally stepped façade, so that the eye is constantly moving from one feature to the next, whether the large gable featuring crests of the Hatchell and Henderson families, the trefoil-headed canted bay window that lights the drawing room or the first-floor oriel turret on the opposite side of the house. Meanwhile the south-facing garden front is enlivened by a Gothic conservatory raised on arcades, while to the immediate north a short link leads to the only major extension to the property, a large ‘music room’ that both inside and out resembles a Victorian village hall.
The interiors of Bessmount are not as remarkable as the exterior, perhaps because funds – and imagination – ran low. To a considerable extent they retain their pre-refurbishment appearance, albeit here and there tricked out in gothic finery. The majority of chimney pieces, for example, were in the original house, but their interiors now lined with pretty Minton tiles. Really the fun is on the outside, not least the porch where whoever received the commission to carve the capitals (the late Jeremy Williams proposed the Fitzpatrick brothers of Belfast) didn’t hold back. The ornamentation is lavish in the extreme, a bestiary of animal life ranging from bats and monkeys to frogs and rabbits, many of them peeking out of the undergrowth to pull a face as though determined to ruin a staid animal kingdom portrait. It is all rather droll, conveying the impression that the earnest intentions behind Ruskin’s advocacy of the Gothic mode are here being guyed. Fortunately the opportunity to relish this architectural humour remains since Bessmount still stands intact and in good order. The property changed hands in the last century when it once more became a Montgomery house, as is the case to the present. The owners are well aware of the building’s importance and have undertaken repair work where feasible. A cheering note with which to approach the year’s end.
Bowelk, County Monaghan is one of a number of houses built by the Jackson family, members of which developed the linen industry in this part of the country from the last quarter of the 18th century onwards. The business’s prosperity allowed them to buy land and construct residences such as this one which according to surviving evidence in the house dates from the 1850s. Bowelk has been carefully restored in recent years by new owners keen to preserve features such as the main doorcase with its elliptical fanlight and side lights filled with ornamental leadwork. Not yet restored but still intact is a thunderbox tucked into one corner of the adjacent walled garden, the door of which retains its decorative fretwork.
Given their association with the terrible years of famine in the 1840s, workhouses in Ireland have few admirers. Yet it is often not realised that they followed a model already introduced in Wales and England where 350 such premises were constructed in the mid-1830s. George Wilkinson was responsible for the design of some of these buildings and following the introduction of legislation in 1838 Ireland’s Poor Law Commissioners appointed him their architect, requesting he devise plans for 130 workhouses here. There is a certain generic quality to Wilkinson’s work, reliant on an interpretation of the Tudor domestic idiom which gives the resultant properties a gentle appearance at odds with their purpose. But they are often handsome, sturdily-constructed buildings and, where still standing, have proven capable of adaption for alternative use. Such is the case in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan where the main block of the old workhouse – completed in 1842 at a cost of £5,000 (plus £977 for fittings) – was restored in 2002 and now provides premises for a variety of local social and educational groups.
How fitting that this week’s funeral of Captain Sir John Leslie, otherwise universally known as Jack, should have taken place in glorious sunshine, the same kind he shed on so many peoples’ lives. Jack died last Monday just eight months shy of reaching his centenary, having been born in December 1916. Over the course of ten decades he witnessed many changes in the world but somehow still behaved as though it was much the same as that into which he had emerged: I remember on the first occasion we met our conversation turned to the Romanian author Princess Marthe Bibesco, and he produced a book she had given and signed to him. His own memoirs, Never a Dull Moment, written ten years ago are full of entertaining reminiscences and suggest a personal history untouched by setbacks or misfortune. Of course this was not the case, as evidenced by Jack’s experience during the Second World War. Commissioned in the Irish Guards, he and his platoon crossed to France in May 1940 where they were almost immediately captured by the German army: Jack spent the next five years in a Bavarian Prisoner of War camp with all its attendant privations.
Although he returned to Ireland on his release and was expected to assume responsibility for Castle Leslie, within a few years Jack left again, eventually settling in Rome where he occupied a small palazzo in the Trastevere district, as well as embarking on the restoration of an ancient monastery outside the city, the Badia di San Sebastiano di Alatri. Some twenty years ago he finally came back to Castle Leslie, by this time in the care of his niece Sammy Leslie, and settled down as resident guide and anecdotalist, always delighted to engage with visitors and explain the history of his family and their property.
In later years Jack also became well-known for his fondness for nightclubs where he would energetically dance to what he liked to call ‘boom boom’ music. I accompanied him on these expeditions more than once, initially in the self-appointed role of chaperone. However, like everyone else I discovered he was invariably received with wild enthusiasm, and would soon be surrounded by a coterie of solicitous admirers, on average only a quarter of his age. But there were other instances, notably a tea held in his honour some years ago at Bellamont Forest, where Jack demonstrated older forms of dancing: supported by a sixteen-piece band, that afternoon he gave a lively demonstration of the Black Bottom. So one likes to remember him, light of heart and light of foot. Wherever you may now be Jack: on with the dance.
The ferociously-protected entrance of Freame Mount, County Monaghan. This charming red-brick house dates from 1772 when built by Charles Mayne, agent for the nearby Dawson estate at Dartrey: its name derives from Philadelphia Freame, granddaughter of William Penn and second wife of Thomas Dawson, first Lord Dartrey. A flight of steps leads to the cut limestone tripartite door, the latter’s proportions somewhat too short so that more space than is customary has been given to the gothick fanlight.