Dating from c.1800, this house in Banagher, County Offaly is described in http://www.buildingsofireland as being a striking feature of the streetscape ‘and one of the grandest structures within the town.’ The bowed breakfront with conical roof and the finely tooled stone doorcase is charming, as are the Wyatt windows on ground and first floor. In use as an hotel from the early 19th century onwards, two celebrated writers spent several years here: Anthony Trollope between 1841 and 1844 while working as a Post Office Surveyor’s Clerk (and writing his first published novel The McDermotts of Ballycloran) and James Pope-Hennessy in the early 1970s while writing biographies of both Trollope and Robert Louis Stevenson. Badly damaged in an arson attack in September 2012, damage to the building was not repaired which now looks in danger of being lost forever.
The house at Durrow Abbey, County Offaly has a long and frequently unhappy history. As its name implies, this was originally a religious settlement (for more on which, see On the Plain of Oaks, February 2nd 2015). However in the 16th century and following the dissolution of the monasteries, the lands on which it stood were leased to Nicholas Herbert at a rent of £10 per annum payable to the Crown and military service when required. Herbert was granted a second lease in 1574 on condition that he built two stone fortresses on the site within four years. The Herberts remained in residence here until the death without male heirs of Sir George Herbert, third baronet, in 1712. The estate was then inherited by Sir George’s sister Frances, married to a Major Patrick Fox: it was Mrs Fox who rebuilt the old adjacent church that remains today. The Foxes having no direct heirs, Durrow was then inherited by Philip Rawson Stepney and eventually by Herbert Rawson Stepney who, three years before his death in 1818 sold the estate to John Toler, first Lord Norbury. It would appear that during the time of the Stepneys that a new residence was built at Durrow: a surviving drawing made by architect William Murray in September 1829 shows the building – then called Durrow Park – to have been a plain classical structure of three storeys and seven bays, centred on a groundfloor doorcase with portico. Already at that date plans were being made for something more distinctive to be constructed on the site, but ultimately it was Norbury’s son who embarked on this enterprise. here…
Politician and lawyer, John Toler enjoyed a highly successful career at the bar despite being almost universally reviled for his ability to combine corruption with incompetence. He served as Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas for twenty-seven years (1800-1827) during which time he became known as the ‘Hanging Judge’ such was his propensity to prescribe the death sentence and only resigned at the age of 82 when offered an earldom and an annual pension of more than £3,000. Dying in 1831 he was succeeded by his son Hector John Graham-Toler, second Earl of Norbury who some years later decided to embark of a comprehensive redevelopment of the house: Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) mentions that ‘his lordship is erecting a spacious mansion in the ancient style.’ Two years later, in January 1839, Lord Norbury was shot dead by an unknown assailant while out riding: no one was ever brought to court (despite a reward being offered of £5,000 and 100 acres) but it seems likely the person responsible was a tenant recently evicted from a holding on the estate.
The widowed Lady Norbury pressed on with her late husband’s plans to rebuild Durrow and work continued there until 1843 when a fire broke out. A contemporary account in The Nation recorded that ‘The new building which was not completed, joined the old one, which it was intended to adopt as a wing by facing it with stone; in this portion all the valuable furniture was stored and this part of the extensive building is totally destroyed.’ At some later date the new building was completed, and thereafter owned by successive generations of the Graham-Toler family until the 1940s.
Completed around 1860, Durrow Abbey House’s architect is unknown. Designed in the popular Jacobean Revival style, the building was originally of three storeys over a sunken basement with high gable-end windows, raised chimney stacks and corner turrets, the whole in cut limestone. Behind the main block runs a long service wing opening onto a sunken courtyard. At one stage, a large porte-cochere stood in front of the main entrance. This survived until May 1923 when the house was burnt during the Civil War. It was subsequently rebuilt three years later with the top storey and porte-cochere removed, and with simplified Arts and Crafts interiors designed by Dublin architect Ralph Henry Byrne. Following the sale of the property by the Graham-Tolers, Durrow was owned first by the Slazenger family (who later became owners of Powerscourt, County Wicklow) and then the Williams family (who owned the local whiskey distillery). Subsequent owners proposed to change use of the property from private residence to hotel and golf resort as part of a €170 million scheme that would also have included several hundred houses and apartments. This plan was comprehensively rejected by the planning authorities, not least because of the importance of the immediately adjacent medieval site. Durrow languished in uncertainty until 2003 when the Irish State paid in the region of €3.5 million to acquire the place and surrounding 80-odd acres.
In May 2007 a 99-year lease on the main house was agreed by Dick Roche, then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and a charitable organisation called Arts for Peace Foundation. Incorporated in August 2004, Arts for Peace ‘provides therapeutic peace education programmes for children affected by conflict.’ Paying an annual peppercorn rent of €10, the organisation used the house as a respite centre for groups of young people from diverse places around the world. Meanwhile the Office of Public Works carried out necessary work on the old church and moved a mid-ninth century High Cross moved indoors. All seemed well for the future of the entire site until five years ago when Arts for Peace stopped using the main house for its projects. In December 2016 The Times reported that a month before the charity and its founder Elizabeth Garrahy had filed a High Court action against the Office of Public Works and the Irish State seeking damages for alleged breach of contract. The charity alleged the OPW had committed to providing €500,000 and then €250,000 for repair work, but then failed to provide the funding. The OPW in turn accused the charity of failing to carry out necessary repairs and maintenance of the property according to the terms of its lease. It transpires this is why the building has not been occupied or used since 2013: for the past five years the OPQ and Arts for Peace have been at war. Although this matter ought to be of widespread interest (not least because of the potential financial implications for the Irish taxpayer), it seems the only public representative to express concern has been Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness. He has regularly raised the question of Durrow Abbey in Dáil Éireann, and elsewhere. The last time Deputy McGuinness did so was two months ago on February 15th at a meeting of the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform (of which Mr McGuinness is chair) attended by Kevin Moran, current Minister of State for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief. In the course of a discussion on the unresolved problems at Durrow Abbey, Mr McGuinness stated, ‘I firmly believe that with an effort, with both sides sitting down without being tied by legal process and without prejudice, they could reach a resolution, rather than spend unnecessary funds and scarce resources on a case when in my opinion the Arts for Peace Foundation has a good case. Going to court is a step beyond common sense in my opinion in this instance.’
The state, which is to say the Irish citizenry, has spent a considerable amount of money acquiring and restoring portions of the historic Durrow Abbey site and, as was announced at the end of last year, the state intends to spend more in the near future making the property more accessible to visitors. However at the same time a substantial group of buildings sits empty and neglected: tellingly, in May/June 2016, despite the ongoing dispute, the OPW undertook emergency remedial works to prevent water ingress to the house). This argument is surely capable of resolution, but the longer it takes to find agreement, the greater the cost. A speedy settlement is obviously advantageous. Until this happens the house at the centre of the estate and of the legal wrangle remains in a state of limbo. This is a situation that benefits no one.
One of the gates at the entrance of the Keep Gate standing in the grounds of Birr Castle, County Offaly incorporating the Parsons family coat of arms. With machicolations, slit and loop windows, and crenellated battlements, this two-storey miniature castle was designed by Mary, third Countess of Rosse in 1847-8 and constructed as a famine relief project. Well inside the grounds of the estate, the Keep Gate forms part of a star-shaped moat around the castle, the moat being designed by the Countess’s uncle Captain Richard Wharton Middleton.
The Keep Gate is one of many buildings to feature in a splendid new publication Flights of Fancy: Follies, Families and Demesnes in Offaly written by County Architect Rachel McKenna. After initial chapters investigating the nature of follies and other demesne architecture, McKenna goes on to consider in depth fifteen different estates in Offaly, some well-known – like Birr and Charleville – others less familiar such as Ballycumber, Prospect and Acres’ Hall. Running to 348 pages, the work is extensively and admirably illustrated with abundant colour photographs, maps and plans, drawings old and new and many other images to complement the text. Published by Offaly County Council, this is a model of the kind of book all local authorities should be producing: one hopes others will follow Offaly’s lead in demonstrating such pride in the region’s built heritage. Hard to fault and impossible to resist, not least because the volume’s price is a very affordable €30.
To the immediate north-west of the castle at Charleville Forest, County Offaly stands an equally substantial block that once served as stables for the property. Like the main house, this was designed by Francis Johnston in 1798 for Charles Bury, Lord Tullamore (later created Earl of Charleville) and is in the same solid Gothic style. Unfortunately whereas the greater part of the castle is still in use, the same is not true of the stable block which as a consequence is now in a poor state of repair.
If anyone ought to be familiar with the library at Birr Castle, County Offaly it is the building’s present chateleine, Alison Rosse. Located to the immediate right of the entrance hall, this rooom has been the victim of no less than two accidental fires, the first in 1832 and the second ninety years later. But on both occasions the library was restored and its shelves restocked so that today it looks as though the place never suffered any damage. Like all good domestic libraries, it serves a multitude of purposes: not just as a repository for books, but somewhere to take tea or repose, a space in which to seek sanctuary or hospitality. All this is evident in the watercolour seen above which shows the castle library well able to fulfill these functions, and many others besides. It appears in a new publication, Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries featuring twenty-five such spaces as captured by Alison Rosse, accompanied by William Laffan’s text. Most of those included, a mixture of public and private libraries, still exist but one that has since been dispersed is that of the late Maurice Craig, shown below. When Maurice and Agnes Bernelle lived in Sandymount, Dublin he maintained this room on the first floor of their house. Following her death and his move to a smaller residence, he brought a great many of the books with him: I remember them being crammed into shelves and heaped on every available surface along which a resident cat (Maurice loved cats) would step with such care that no volume was ever displaced. Despite the seeming disorder, he was familiar with the place of every work in the collection and immediately able to lay his hand on whatever was needed for consultation. Bibliophiles love books not just for their physical beauty but also for their content. And such will be the case with the present publication, recommended as a last-minute gift (although book lovers will appreciate receiving a copy any time).
Room for Books: Paintings of Irish Libraries by Alison Rosse and William Laffan is published by the Irish Georgian Society, €10.00
The stone doorcases of Tullamore, County Offaly, an evocation of the prosperity once enjoyed by this Midlands town. The first belongs to a house dating from c.1730 and is the centrepiece of a full-height bow with conical roof on the projecting bow. The second can be seen on a very substantial property, of five bays and three storeys over basement built in 1789. Like the door, the window surrounds are of tooled stone but these features would look still handsomer were the facade’s render to be restored.
The façade of the former gaol in Tullamore, County Offaly, the only portion of this building to survive (all that lay behind was demolished in 1937-38). Designed by surveyor and canal engineer John Killaly, a plaque above the machiolated gatehouse reads: ‘The first stone of this prison was laid by Charles William Baron Tullamore on the 13th day of September in the year of our Lord 1826 under the 7th year of the reign of his most gracious majesty George the fourth.’ While the gaol is hard to miss, its entrance gates are likely often overlooked: note how the cast-iron piers are composed of bound bundles of staves from the centre of each rises an axe finial.