Daingean, County Offaly was formerly called Philipstown, the name given to it in the mid-16th century in honour of her husband (Philip II of Spain) after whom this part of the world was also given the nomenclature King’s County. Philipstown was intended to be the county town (like Maryborough – now Portlaoise – in neighbouring Queen’s County – today County Laois). However, even before the end of the 18th century, the place was being eclipsed by Tullamore and never recovered its status. A couple of buildings survive to show Philipstown’s municipal ambitions, not least the courthouse which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced an earlier building. This one, with a large market square in front, is of five bays and two storeys, the two outer ones pedimented with relieving niches beneath and limestone urns above. The slightly recessed three centre bays are rusticated on the ground floor, and divided by limestone pilasters on the first (seemingly there were once windows between these). The building has had a chequered history, intermittently allowed to fall into poor condition, and it does not appear to be in great shape at present, despite some work being undertaken there a few years ago. In his excellent Pevsner Guide to Central Leinster, Andrew Tierney politely describes the courthouse as being ‘disheveled at the time of writing.’ Others might opt for stronger language.
For those who believe in the supernatural, there’s stiff competition for the title of Ireland’s Most Haunted House. But one property which often appears to lead the field is Leap Castle, County Offaly. Superbly located on a rocky outcrop and with views across to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in its present form the core of the castle is a late medieval tower house but likely built on the site, and perhaps incorporating elements of an earlier fortified structure. The name Leap (pronounced, incidentally, ‘Lepp’), derives from the Irish Léim Uí Bhánáin meaning Leap of the O’Bannons, the latter being a minor sept in this part of the country which for many centuries was dominated by another family, the O’Carrolls, ancient rulers of the kingdom of Éile. Leap Castle became one of their principal strongholds, although their authority was greatly weakened over the course of the 16th century by internecine feuding. To give a flavour of what took place during this period: in 1541 the castle’s then occupant Fearganhainm O’Carroll was murdered by the O’Mulloys, and was succeeded by one of his sons Teige ‘the one-eyed.’ It has been claimed that Teige murdered one of his own brothers, a priest, while the latter was performing the rite of mass in the chapel at the top of the castle. In any case, Teige in due course met a sticky end when he was killed by another of his kinsmen, Cahir O’Carroll who was in turn killed by Teige’s younger brother William. Inevitably William was then murdered by one of his relations, and his son John was killed the following year by one of his cousins, Mulroney, a son of the late Teige. It will come as no surprise to learn that Mulroney was then slain by John’s brother Charles, who would eventually also meet a bloody end: no wonder the place is often thought to be haunted. Somehow, despite this extraordinary roll call of murder and mayhem, the O’Carrolls managed to hold onto Leap Castle and its surrounding lands until the mid-17th century when they were finally displaced by another family.
The first of a long line of men bearing the same name to live there, Jonathan Darby is thought to have been granted Leap Castle in the aftermath of the Cromwellian wars, as a reward for his military services. Although he briefly lost the property back to the O’Carrolls in the aftermath of the 1660 Restoration, Darby and his descendants would remain in residence at Leap until the early 1920s, one Jonathan succeeding the next. In the first half of the 18th century, the building was expanded by the addition of wings on either side of the tower house, and the interiors remodelled in the Gothick style, inspired by Batty Langley’s Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved (1742). Alas, these would all be lost when the castle was gutted by fire in 1922. Typical of the time, the family’s younger sons had to find alternative careers and in two instances, despite the estate being as far inland as is possible in Ireland, they became distinguished admirals in the Royal Navy, George Darby commanding the Channel Fleet during the American War of Independence, and then relieving Gibraltar during the Spanish siege of 1781, and in the next generation Henry d’Esterre Darby being an important naval figure during the Napoleonic Wars. But perhaps the most interesting character produced by the family was John Nelson Darby, his middle name given to acknowledge his godfather and family friend, Horatio Nelson. Typical of many younger sons, John Nelson became an Anglican clergyman renowned as a young curate serving in Delgany, County Wicklow for his fervent, and often successful, evangelising of Roman Catholics in the area. However, he parted ways with the Church of Ireland, ostensibly because of an insistence by the Archbishop of Dublin that converts must swear an oath of loyalty to the English crown, but more likely because it was insufficiently evangelical for his tastes. He then became one of the founders of a new Christian movement which was established in Dublin in the late 1820s: the Plymouth Brethren, its name derived from the first meeting of the group in England which took place in the Devon town (a subset, otherwise known as the Exclusive Brethren, were also called Darbyites). Many visitors to and natives of Dublin will be familiar with the Davenport Hotel close to Merrion Square: this building dates from the 1860s when built as a gospel hall for the Plymouth Brethren. The largest such hall ever constructed, it could hold 3,500 persons seated, or 5,000 standing. The Merrion Hall remained in use for its original purpose until the 1980s when sold, and following a fire which gutted the interior, today only the facade is original. One suspects there is little awareness now of how strong was the Christian evangelistic movement in mid-19th century Ireland, not least among the country’s landed gentry: a number of notable families in County Kerry, for example, became members of the Plymouth Brethren during this period. It is an area ripe for further investigation.
Returning to Leap Castle, this remained in possession of the Darbys until July 1922 when destroyed during the Civil War. The last of the family to live there, yet another Jonathan, was married to Mildred Dill who had a particular interest in the supernatural and held séances in the house, which helps to explain why it has been associated with hauntings. Writing in the Occult Review in 1909, she described an incident in Leap Castle: ‘I was standing in the Gallery looking down at the main floor, when I felt somebody put a hand on my shoulder. The thing was about the size of a sheep. Thin, gaunt, shadowy. its face was human, to be more accurate, inhuman. Its lust in its eyes, which seemed half decomposed in black cavities, stared into mine. The horrible smell one hundred times intensified came up into my face, giving me a deadly nausea. It was the smell of a decomposing corpse.’ All of which helps to explain why the building has long been associated with hauntings. Meanwhile her husband Jonathan Darby appears to have been a testy man, given to outbursts of temper. Inheriting the estate while still in his teens, he also inherited much debt at a time when the Land Wars were getting underway and tenants resisting efforts to increase the rents they were obliged to pay. Nevertheless, determined to improve his financial circumstances, Darby raised rents by up to 30 per cent. Furthermore, unlike many other landowners, he declined the opportunity to sell the greater part of his estate under the generous terms of the 1903 Wyndham Act. The consequence was that he was not popular in the area, and that Leap Castle was ripe for attack once the War of Independence and then the Civil War saw a widespread breakdown of law and order. In late July 1922 the Darbys were out of the country, and the castle was occupied only by a caretaker, his wife and child. In the early hours of July 30th, the building was set on fire by a party of 11 men, who in the usual fashion, poured petrol over the floors and furniture and then set it alight. As a consequence the castle’s north wing was completely gutted, but the main part of the property remained intact. Looting took place during the day and then, in the early hours of July 31st, the rest of the building was set alight and destroyed. Darby duly applied for compensation for the loss of his property, suing the county council on the grounds that local residents were responsible for destroying his home and that the relevant military authorities had made no effort to intervene and save the castle. He sought £35,000 but, as was almost invariably the case, received only a fraction of this sum, £7,000. Furthermore, the land he had hitherto refused to sell was now compulsorily purchased by the Land Commission and distributed among tenants. By the mid-1930s he no longer owned any part of the Leap estate, and the castle stood a ruined shell. That is how I remember first seeing it almost 40 years ago, not long after the building had been bought by an Australian, Peter Bartlett whose mother had been a Bannon and who therefore felt an affinity with the place. In the years before his death in 1989, he carried out initial restoration work on the site but a lot remained – and remains to be done. In 1991 Leap Castle was bought by traditional musician Seán Ryan who has lived there with his wife and daughter ever since, untroubled by having to share the spot with multiple ghosts. More structural work has been undertaken but, as can be seen, large parts of the building, not least the north wing, remain shells. Whatever about being haunted, Leap Castle is certainly a most haunting place.
This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.
I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.
And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.
The Enkindled Spring by D.H. Lawrence
Photographs of Balrath House, County Meath (balrathcourtyard.com)
Kilcormac is a village in County Offaly which at the last census (2016) had a population of 935 persons (the figure was 973 in 1991). The most prominent building on its main, indeed only really significant, street is that shown here: an eight-bay convent built in 1885, probably to the design of William Henry Byrne who specialized in such commissions, for the Sisters of Mercy. Members of the order remained in residence here until two years ago, when the last nuns left and the premises, together with an acre of land to the rear, were put on the market. This is a story that can be told in almost every town and village across the country, where the decline in clerical numbers has made the maintenance of what is almost invariably the most substantial property in the vicinity unsustainable. Often the buildings then sit neglected for years, the only attention they receive from vandals and arsonists. Let’s hope this one, a handsome solid structure with nice brick detailing around the windows and attractive use of the quatrefoil motif, finds a new owner soon.
Ireland’s recent economic recession which caused such hardship and left such devastation in its wake has frequently been blamed on a national inclination to overspend during the good times with insufficient preparation for when these might come to a close. This is by no means a new phenomenon: the country is covered with large houses built over preceding centuries by owners whose architectural aspirations proved larger than their budgets – with inevitably unfortunate consequences. Charleville Forest, County Offaly is one such building: a vast neo-Gothic castle constructed at such expense that it left subsequent generations burdened with debt and, in the case of the last descendant of the original family, with a deep loathing for the place.
It had all begun so promisingly when, in August 1764 Charles William Bury, then just two months old, inherited not just the substantial estates of his deceased father but also those of his great-uncle Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville who had died earlier the same year. The infant Bury was exceedingly rich, his family owning large amounts of land in County Limerick where they had settled in 1666 (their early 18th century house, Shannon Grove, still survives). In addition, thanks to his grandmother being the only sister and heiress of the Earl of Charleville, he came to own large amounts of land around Tullamore, County Offaly where the Moores had first built a house in the 1640s. When he graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1785 he turned 21 and came into a fortune enjoyed by few other young men. Over the next half-century he proceeded to spend his way through it.
It was formerly a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a peerage. Charles Bury, having sat in the Irish House of Commons as an M.P. for Kilmallock, County Limerick was duly created Baron Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and finally Earl of Charleville (reviving his great-uncle’s title) in 1806. He has been described as ‘an amiable dilettante, with antiquarian interests’ the latter leading to his being elected President of the Royal Irish Academy in 1812. But the same interests were responsible for his decision to build a new residence for himself on his County Offaly estate. As mentioned, a house had existed here since the 1640s, originally known as Redwood and only given the name Charleville Forest (from the ancient oaks all around it) in the 18th century. One might have thought such a building sufficiently antiquarian, but by 1800 Lord Charleville had decided something more ancient-looking was required. Hence he embarked on the construction of an entirely new castle. In concept, if not in detail, he could claim credit for the result: a letter written in November 1800 from Lady Louisa Conolly to Lady Charleville mentions the intended castle and credits the latter’s husband with ‘having planned it all himself.’ Some drawings survive and these, as Sean O’Reilly wrote some years ago, ‘show the crude hand of an amateur, but equally betray a total freedom of imagination unshackled by the discipline of architectural training.’ Lord Charleville was keen that the building should be in the newly fashionable Gothic style but at the same time enjoy all the necessary ‘convenience and modern refinements in luxury.’
While Lord Charleville may have had a hand in outlining the form his new home would take, the details and execution of the project were handed over to architect Francis Johnston, at the time primarily known for his work in the neo-classical idiom. Due to Johnston’s many other commitments, the work took longer than his client would have wished: in 1804 the architect had to agree with Lord Charleville that ‘things went on too slow at the castle’ and so they did as late as 1812 when the job was still not finished. However, enough had been done three years before for the Viceroy, the Duke of Richmond, together with his wife and entourage, to be entertained in the new Charleville Forest. Their host hoped that as a result of their visit he would be appointed to the financially lucrative position of Irish Postmaster General; unfortunately it went to another applicant.
By this time Johnston was also working on the Gothic Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2015/11/09/a-spirit-of-theatre) and although intended for very different purposes, the two buildings share many characteristics. The interiors of Charleville Forest are highly theatrical, beginning with the double-height hall with vaulted ceiling, encountered as soon as one steps into the building, a grand staircase leading up to the reception rooms on the piano nobile. A door at the top of the stairs leads into the most fantastical of the rooms, the Gallery which overlooks the garden and has a remarkable Perpendicular Gothic ceiling executed in plaster. Lozenges on the ceiling contain various heraldic devices to illustrate the distinguished pedigree of the Bury family, and these appear also on the ceilings of the other main rooms. Note the Moor’s head: this was one of the symbols used by the Moore family. But it is worth pointing out that, stripped of its surface dressing, the interior of Charleville Forest is essentially classical, with an ordered symmetry maintained throughout the building; this is Strawberry Hill Gothick rather than the pure Gothic promoted a few decades later by Pugin et al.
Lord Charleville’s extravagance was not confined to building a castle in County Offaly. He and his wife kept an establishment in London where they entertained lavishly, they travelled frequently and expensively to continental Europe, and supported their son and his wife in a separate property. As a result, on Lord Charleville’s death in 1835, ‘he left a heavily embarrassed estate.’ His heir (described by Thomas Creevey as being ‘justly entitled to the prize as by far the greatest bore the world can produce’) did not share that embarrassment until forced to do so in 1844 when, as a result of his indebtedness he was obliged to sell his Limerick properties, close up Charleville Forest and move to Berlin. On his death in 1851, the now-diminished estate was inherited by his son the third earl; ultimately ownership of Charleville Forest passed to his youngest daughter, Lady Emily Bury whose husband, the Hon Kenneth Howard changed his surname to Howard-Bury. Their son, Lt-Col. Charles Howard-Bury (whose own extraordinary story must be told on another occasion) was the last of the family to live in the castle, but so detested the place that he would not live there: it remained empty following his mother’s death in 1931 and the contents were sold in a spectacular auction in 1949. Since then the place has had what can best be described as a chequered history, sometimes neglected, sometimes undergoing periods of restoration. Having first visited the house almost forty years ago, the Irish Aesthete has witnessed it in a variety of incarnations. In recent years it has come under the care of a charitable organization, the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust which encourages volunteers from Ireland and overseas to help ensure the building’s preservation. It is also used for a variety of events from weddings to film and television filming. Somehow, although large portions are still in need of much attention, happily the building has survived.
Moore Hall can be found on O’Moore Street, Tullamore, County Offaly. The house dates from the mid-1750s when built by Richard Moore, who may have been related to Charles Moore, Earl of Charleville (of the first creation). It was probably quite simple but just over a century later a doctor called John Ridley added the central limestone bay with its extraordinary first floor window in Jacobean Mannerist style that sits atop a more regular doorcase flanked by Doric columns and finished with a wide fanlight. Aside from the unfortunate uPVC windows, the building survives in good condition, unlike its immediate neighbour, a pretty early 19th century cottage with Wyatt windows on either side of a tall and wide gothic doorcase: sadly this house is fast falling into dereliction.
The roofless remains of Woods Mill, County Offaly, so named because when described in the 1840s it was operated by one Thomas Woods. Dating from the late 18th/early 19th century, a time when increasing numbers of these commercial complexes were being constructed throughout the country, the building is of five storeys and six storeys. It operated as both a flour mill (water-powered thanks to the adjacent Little Brosna river) and a kiln. Converted to a saw mill at the end of the 19th century, it now stands empty, another mute witness to our increasingly lost industrial heritage.
Gloster, County Offaly has featured here before (see Spectacle as Drama, August 31st 2015) not least thanks to the exemplary and ongoing restoration programme being carried out there by the present owners. Their latest initiative has involved the very striking eye-catcher folly situated on high ground to the east of the house. Above are a couple of photographs showing how this looked until recently.
The Gloster folly is believed to date from the 1720s, making its construction some twenty years earlier than that of the better-known Conolly Folly in County Kildare. As with the main house here, the design is attributed to Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: his aunt had married Menhop Lloyd, owner of the Gloster estate and it was their son Trevor (first cousin of Pearce) who remodelled Gloster following his inheritance of the place. Rising some twenty feet high, the folly consists of a triumphal arch, flanked by obelisks on substantial plinths. Last year the whole site was cleared of vegetation before both the folly and its wing walls underwent full restoration, thereby ensuring its long-term survival and providing another example of what can be achieved in preserving our architectural heritage. Bravo to all concerned.
The entrance front of Tullynisk, County Offaly. Dating from the early 19th century and replacing an older property on the site, the house is a mixture of the classical and gothic, the former evident in the doorcase with its Ionic columns, the latter in the window directly above. The combination of the two is as unselfconsciously assured as the sheep grazing in the immediate vicinity.
In February 2001 the Irish Times reported that Syngefield, County Offaly was being offered for sale. The mid-18th century house had stood vacant for more than two decades, and inevitably was in poor repair as a result. Once surrounded by a substantial amount of land, it now stood on five acres, with factories on either side of the drive, and the outbuildings already sold off. Meanwhile much of the house’s original interior had been either vandalized or stolen – all the chimneypieces were gone, for example – but enough remained, as photographs taken at the time can demonstrate. Most of the main staircase was intact, along with windowcases, lugged architraves, floorboards and some plasterwork. Of particular interest in the Irish Times feature was the information that whoever purchased the property ‘will have to comply with the strict conditions of conservation. Birr Urban District Council sought the advice of the Heritage Council and the property has been assessed by an independent conservation service.’ Hence while the guide price was low – in the region of £150,000 – the costs of bringing Syngefield back to life would be considerably higher.
As is so often the case in Ireland, the origins of Syngefield are unclear. It belonged to a branch of the Synges, cousins of the playwright John Millington Synge, and the house appears to have been built in the middle of the 18th century, perhaps around 1752 when Edward Synge married Sophia Hutchinson. There were many Edward Synges during the Georgian period, almost all of them Anglican clergymen: this one was the grandson of Edward Synge, Archbishop of Tuam and nephew of Edward Synge, Bishop of Elphin and son of Nicholas Synge, Bishop of Killaloe. It was therefore almost inevitable that he too would join the church, becoming archdeacon of Killala, as well as rector of Birr, County Offaly, hence the construction of Syngefield. His eldest son, another Edward, followed the family example and became an Anglican clergyman but a younger son, Robert, became a baronet and it was his family that continued to live in the property. At the time the Synges owned land not just in Offaly but also Counties Meath and Cork. Descendants appear to have remained in residence at Syngefield until c.1870 after which the house was sporadically let, and then sold in the last century.
Syngefield was a curious house, owing to its lop-sided appearance. Of two storeys over a semi-raised basement, it had six bays, that to the furthest left featuring Venetian windows on both ground and first floors, aping one on the upper floor above the entrance doorcase (Another oddity were the Diocletian windows in the basement.) A number of writers have proposed that a matching bay at the other end of the house had been built, thereby completing the symmetry of the façade, but that this was lost in a fire at some unspecified date. However, just as possible is that the original mid-18th century house comprised the five centre bays. The left-hand bay is a later addition, with a match at the other end of the building intended but never built owing to shortage of funds, a not-unusual situation in Ireland. In any case, when a new owner acquired the property in 2002, he decided to finish the house as was once perhaps conceived by tacking a new bay to the right of the existing property. He also doubled the size of Syngefield thanks to a vast extension at the rear that was to include a basement swimming pool, home cinema, ballroom and more bedrooms: readers can judge for themselves whether this work complied, as the Irish Times had reported would be the case, ‘with the strict conditions of conservation.’ This job, said to have cost in the region of €1 million, was never completed, presumably owing to the onset of economic recession, and in October 2009 Syngefield was offered for sale again. There appear to have been no takers, because today the unfinished structure stands with exterior and interior alike bereft of every original feature. How is it that what was intended to be a model of correct conservation came to look like this?