When History Repeats Itself


At some date in the future, research will probably be undertaken into the consequences of the near-wholesale disappearance of Roman Catholic religious orders from Ireland during the late 20th/early 21st centuries. For more than 100 years, they had been a dominant presence across the country, every town of any consequence having at least one, more often several, large building complexes occupied by various orders who would have been responsible for the area’s education and, as we have discovered of late, other less savoury activities. By and large, the persons responsible for running those institutions have disappeared, primarily due to the fact that since the 1970s fewer and fewer individuals have been prepared to become nuns or monks and so forth. But the buildings remain, still dominating many a neighbourhood, even though their intended residents have departed. Sometimes the properties have found a new purpose, more often they now stand empty, their decaying presence serving as testament to an authority that once erroneously believed itself invincible. Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, they proclaim ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.’ So, aside from the physical manifestations, what have been the consequences of this ebbing of a once-powerful tide? What effect has it, will it have, on the national psyche? That remains to be investigated, but when such work begins, perhaps those responsible might like to consider how we have been here before, that we went through a similar experience back in the second half of the 16th century. 





Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Ballindoon Priory, County Sligo was a late-comer to the company of Ireland’s religious houses. A Dominican foundation, it was established on the banks of Lough Arrow in 1507 by one Thomas O’Farrell under the patronage of the McDonaghs, who were then the most powerful family in the area. The interior of the church is dominated by a remarkable two-storey, triple-vaulted archway. The arches on the ground floor are all the same height but only the centre one provides access from nave to chancel, those on either side probably once holding altars (that to the south has since been blocked). The central arch above is much higher than its neighbours and may once have contained a cross or crucifix although it also has a hole in the ceiling to allow the suspension of a bell rope from further up the tower. This floor, effectively a gallery, is lit by exceptionally tall, narrow windows set into the north and south walls. Reached by an unusual external staircase, the top of the tower is thought once to have contained accommodation for whoever lived on the site, since no domestic ranges were ever constructed around the church (the land to the immediate south of the church drops steeply down to the lakeshore). Both the east and west ends of the church have splendid traceried windows





Ballindoon Priory was almost the last such religious house to be established in Ireland, although Eóghan O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien founded a Franciscan friary at Creevelea, County Leitrim a year later, in 1508. At the time both these buildings were erected, it must have seemed as though little would change, that the Roman Catholic church would continue to have a dominant presence throughout the country, and its properties enjoy a secure future. Just a few decades later, Henry VIII proclaimed himself head of the church in his dominions, which included Ireland, and ordered the dissolution of all religious houses. One by one, they were closed down, their occupants sent away, their possessions confiscated and frequently granted or sold to supporters of the English crown. An entire way of life disappeared, leaving the Irish countryside littered with the decaying remains of what had once seemed an immutable authority. This must have been a unsettling experience for the entire population, who over the space of some 50 years witnessed the loss of the familiar and with it the sense of comforting security. Sound familiar? History has an uneasy way of repeating itself. 

A Familiar Tale



Anyone approaching Sligo town from the south cannot fail to see a large range of rock-faced limestone buildings rising to the immediate east. Erected in 1890-91, this was Summerhill College (or, more correctly, The College of the Immaculate Conception), a secondary school for boys designed by local architect Patrick Kilgallin on the instructions of then-Roman Catholic Bishop of Elphin, Lawrence Gillooly. Further additions to the site were made early in the last century and again in the 1930s. However, ten years ago a new school was built on an adjacent site and the old buildings offered for sale. In 2016, the Diocese of Elphin announced it had sold the property to a Liverpool-based company Eastview Limited for an undisclosed sum (believed to be in the region of €400,000). Nothing further happened until in April 2020 when Eastview sold the former school to another company, RIPL Strandhill Ltd for €1.6 million. However, it appears the agreement was never finalised and last April legal proceedings were initiated by lawyers acting on behalf of Eastview to ensure completion of the sale. At the same time, a fire broke out in the building, believed to have been started by arsonists and inflicting serious damage to the upper storeys. Meanwhile, the rest of the site is being left to deteriorate.


Help Urgently Needed II



In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Ballindoon, County Sligo was originally called Kingsborough, thereby indicating it was built for a branch of the King family who some lived some 25 miles away at Rockingham, County Roscommon. The latter house was designed by John Nash and Ballindoon has sometimes also been attributed to him, but since it is believed to date from c.1820 perhaps it can only regarded as being in his style: by that date the architect was far too busy with royal commissions in London to have time for an Irish client. Essentially a lake-side villa, Ballindoon is a building of exceptional character, beginning with the immense pedimented Doric portico on the north-facing entrance front, its scale overwhelming the single bays on either side. Similarly the garden front is dominated by an enormous dome-topped bow, with a further series of engaged Doric columns around the ground floor. Unfortunately, like Hollybrook a few miles to the west (see previous entry), Ballindoon has stood empty for some years and is now suffering as a consequence, with what appears to be dry rot appearing on the upper floor: the insertion of uPVC windows throughout the house probably doesn’t help. Ballindoon was offered for sale with 80 acres three years ago, but remains unsold, and accordingly remains at risk.


Help Urgently Needed I



In a wonderful location looking east across Lough Arrow, Hollybrook, County Sligo dates from the mid-18th century when believed to have been built to replace an earlier castle on the site: the estate then belonged to the ffolliott family around 1659, subsequently passing in and out of their possession on at least one occasion. In the last century it was run for several decades as an hotel (see a fascinating piece of film from 1938 showing it in use for this purpose: (1) Holiday at Hollybrook House, Co Sligo 1938 – YouTube) but in recent decades the house has stood empty and falling into the present state of decline; despite being on the market for several years along with 275 acres, it remains unloved. In urgent need of help if it is to survive, Hollybrook is of three storeys over basement and superficially appears to be a typically symmetrical building of the period. However, an examination of the facade shows that the handsome Doric portico is slightly off-centre: note how it is closer to the window on the left than to that on the right. The rear of the building shows similar idiosyncracies in the fenestration placement. One wonders therefore whether the old castle, probably a tower house, wasn’t demolished but, as happened in other instances, incorporated into a new house. Alas, an examination of the interior would be required to take this investigation further.


High Victoriana


Based in County Sligo, the O’Haras are an ancient Irish family, their surname an anglicisation of the original Ó hEaghra, descendants of Eaghra Poprigh mac Saorghus who died in 926. The family’s ancestry is attested by the Book of O’Hara (Leabhar Í Eadhra), a volume of bardic poetry written on vellum for Cormac O’Hara in 1597 and acquired by the National Library of Ireland almost 20 years ago. It might therefore have been expected that during the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, when so many other similar Gaelic families lost everything, the O’Haras would suffer the same fate. However, in this instance, by adapting themselves to changing circumstances, they survived and continue to live in the same area as did their forebears hundreds of years earlier. When Cormac’s son Tadgh O’Hara died in 1616, he left two infant boys, the elder another Tadgh, the younger Kean, who were raised as members of the Established Church by the Court of Wards. In consequence, despite some confiscations, they managed to hold onto more of their ancestral lands than was customarily the case, and although never rich (and frequently in debt) they survived. Their circumstances were helped, as often occurred, through judicious marriages which brought into the family property in northern England and also in Dublin: included in the latter was a site on Essex Street where the original Custom House once stood and another on Wellington Quay today occupied by the Clarence Hotel. 





Tadgh O’Hara the younger died unmarried in 1634 and so the estates passed to his brother Kean whose two elder sons also dying without direct heirs in turn the O’Hara lands passed to another Kean. Of the next generation, the elder son Charles sat for some time in the Irish House of Commons but is best remembered now as the close correspondent and almost father-figure to Edmund Burke. Meanwhile his younger brother Kane O’Hara became well-known as a playwright and composer who in 1757 co-founded the Musical Academy in Dublin with the Earl of Mornington (again a talented composer and father of the future first Duke of Wellington). Five years later, he scored a success on stage with Midas, the first-known burletta (a kind of parody of opera seria) to be performed in English. After being performed in Dublin’s Crow Street Theatre, it reached Covent Garden in London in 1764 and was succeeded by a number of other burlesques written by O’Hara. In 1774 he opened Mr. Punch’s Patagonian Theatre on Dublin’s Abbey Street. This was a theatre which staged puppet versions of operas and burlesques and later also transferred to London. The Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who would later sing in operas by Mozart, Gluck and Paisiello, performed in O’Hara’s premises while a young man. Meanwhile his nephew, another Charles O’Hara, duly inherited the family estate in Sligo and, like his father before him, sat in the House of Commons, although described in 1782 as ‘a very dull, tedious speaker.’ He opposed the Act of Union, but then sat in the Westminster parliament representing Sligo until his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Charles King O’Hara who did not stand for election but remained in Ireland where he was prominent in relief efforts during the Great Famine. Dying childless, his estate went to a nephew, Charles William Cooper, with the condition that the latter changed his surname to O’Hara. It is his descendants who have continued to live on the site to the present day. 





The O’Haras were never particularly wealthy, were often heavily indebted and their estates remortgaged: it didn’t help that on several occasions there were legal disputes among them over inheritances (a common phenomenon in late 17th/early 18th century Ireland). In the 1790s, financial circumstances had become so bad that they were facing bankruptcy, and large portions of their property had to be sold to pay some outstanding debts. The family’s base was always close to the town of Collooney, which they sought to improve, not least by establishing a bleach mill there. Likewise they tried to modernise and better the land they owned a few miles to the south-west of Collooney. The house there is now called Annaghmore but for a long time named Nymphfield (or Nymphsfield). A succession of buildings seems to have occupied the site, the first one, which may have been a tower house or fortified manor, thought to have been demolished in the 1680s. Its replacement, on which much money was lavished in 1718, lasted until the start of the 19th century, perhaps around 1822 when Charles King O’Hara inherited the estate. Surviving images of this building show it to have been of two storeys with single storey wings on either side, very typical of the Regency villa. In the early 1860s Charles William O’Hara, having inherited the estate and changed his surname according to the terms of his uncle’s will, embarked on a substantial enlargement of the house, by now called Annaghmore, its design attributed to the ubiquitous James Franklin Fuller. It is this house, a full expression of high-Victorian taste, which can be seen today, all fronted in crisp limestone ashlar. The facade was graced with an Ionic portico, a second storey added to the wings and the building extended to the rear, although part of this was demolished in the last century. Largely unaltered over the past 150 years, the interiors are wonderfully florid, reflecting the bold confidence of this period, post-Famine and pre-Land Wars, when estate owners embarked on a flurry of building work. Long may it remain as a celebration of that era. 

Scattered Stones


The surname O’Gara is an anglicized version of the Irish Ó Gadhra, meaning Descendent of Gadhra, a personal name that in turn derives from the word ‘gadhar’ meaning hound or mastiff. The family originally occupied an area known as Luighne, on the borders of what today are counties Mayo and Sligo. However, by the late 13th century they had been driven out of this part of the country by the MacSurtains (otherwise Jordans) and MacCostelloes, and so moved to what became known as the barony of Coolavin, County Sligo, where they remained in power until the late 16th century. Here, close to the north-west shores of Lough Gara (Loch Uí Ghadhra), they would build a large castle known as Moygara. 





In its present form, Moygara Castle consists of a large square bawn, each side measuring 51 metres, with a slightly angled residential tower in every corner and the remains of a gatehouse on the western side. The tower in the south-west corner is three storeys high, whereas those in the other corners rose just two storeys. Investigation of the site by the Moygara Castle Research & Conservation Project suggests originally a tower house stood here prior to the construction of the castle at some period between the early 16th to early 17th centuries. In 1538 Manus O’Donnell, after capturing Sligo Castle marched on and took the castle at Moygara, his son being killed by a shot fired from within the building. More than four decades later, in 1581, Moygara Castle was again attacked, this time by a number of Scots mercenaries in the hire of Sir Nicholas Malby, Lord President of Connaught. They burnt the castle and killed the son of Cian O’Gara.





By the 17th century, Moygara and its surrounding territories belonged to Fearghal Ó Gadhra who is believed to have attended Trinity College Dublin. Ó Gadhra is remembered for being the patron of The Annals of the Four Masters, a history of the country compiled by a number of Franciscan friars led by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh during the 1630s. There is some dispute over why Ó Gadhra should have assumed this position: it may be that while an undergraduate he had come into contact with antiquarian scholars James Ussher and James Ware and this inspired an interest in Irish history. Alternatively it may have come about because when young Ó Gadhra had been a ward of Sir Theobald Dillon, first Viscount Dillon who had close associations with the Franciscan order. In the aftermath of the Confederate Wars, the family’s lands were confiscated and it may be around that time that Moygara Castle began to fall into ruin. The later years of Ó Gadhra are unclear, although it is thought he was still alive at the time of the Restoration of 1660. One of his grandsons was Oliver O’Gara, an ardent Jacobite who, after the Treaty of Limerick, went into exile and joined the Irish Brigade in the French army. 

Frieze It



Details of a frieze below the cornice in the drawing room of Newpark, County Sligo. The main part of the present house dates from the last quarter of the 18th century when it was built for the Duke family, which had originally settled in this part of the country in the early 1660s. Much of the decoration of the frieze is in typical late-rococo style, garlands of flowers and leaves scrolling across the surface, intermittently interrupted by urns. But references to the family occur, such as the shield featuring a chevron and three birds, and on another section a coronet from which rise three ostrich plumes. The coronet may be a pun on the Duke family name, but more likely represents the coat of arms of Lucinda Parke, wife of Robert Duke who was responsible for the construction of Newpark.

Built by Captain John St. Barbe


From A Statistical Survey of the County of Sligo by James McParlan (1802): ‘Ballynafad Castle – near the town of that name, was not built by the McDonoghs, as Mr Grose erroneously states. It was built by Captain John St. Barbe, according to an inscription on Mr St. Barbe’s tomb, who died in A.D.1628.’

A Transformation



After last Monday’s rather dispiriting tale about Syngefield, County Offaly, here is a much more positive story. Almost exactly six years ago I visited Hazelwood, County Sligo and a few months later wrote about the house and its sad condition (see Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata, February 25th 2013). To recap: Located immediately south of Sligo town on a peninsula that juts out into Lough Gill, Hazelwood once had a garden front that looked down through a series of terraces to the water’s edge: the entrance front faces north across a long plain of pasture towards Ben Bulben. As I wrote at the time, ‘It is easy to see why General Owen Wynne should have chosen this spot on which to build a new residence following the purchase of some 14,500 acres in the area in 1722. Nine years later he employed the architect Richard Castle, then much in demand, to design the house. Hazelwood is typical of the Palladian style fashionable in Ireland at the time of its construction. The ashlar-fronted central block, of three storeys over basement, is joined by arcaded quadrants to two storey wings. Above the north front’s pedimented entrance (inset with a carving of the family’s coat of arms) there is a splendid glazed aedicule with Ionic columns and pilasters and flanked by round-headed niches, while the south front boldly proposes a Venetian door below a Venetian window. The building’s sense of significance is increased by both entrances being accessed by sweeping flights of steps. The interiors must have been similarly superlative, since even after many years of neglect enough of their decoration remains to indicate the original appearance. The main entrance hall has recessed arches on its walls above which hang plasterwork swags, and a deep dentilled cornice. A central doorway leads into the south-facing library which contains similar ornamentation and from here one passes into a succession of other reception rooms. Upstairs is equally splendid: a massive staircase hall leads, via a deep coved archway, into the first floor landing the ceiling of which is open to the galleried second storey, the whole series of spaces once lit by a glazed octagon. Most of the rooms have lost their original chimneypieces, replaced by others of a later fashion since the Wynnes were not averse to making alterations, some less happy than others; a two-storey, three-bay bedroom extension on the south-west corner of the building dating from c.1870 for example fundamentally disrupts Castle’s meticulously planned symmetry. Still, whatever about the Wynne family’s modifications to their property, they were nothing to what would follow once Hazelwood passed into the hands of later owners.’





The last Wynne to live at Hazelwood left in 1923, after which the house stood empty for seven years. It was then bought by a retired tea planter who carried out essential repairs before selling house and estate to two government bodies, the Forestry Department and the Land Commission, the latter assuming responsibility for the building. In 1946, after serving for some time as a military barracks, Hazelwood and the immediate surrounds were offered for sale by the commission with the condition that a buyer must demolish the buildings, remove all materials and level the site. Somehow, days before the auction was due to be held, this stipulation was withdrawn and Hazelwood sold for use as a psychiatric hospital; it was shortly afterwards that the original staircase was taken out of the house. As if this wasn’t bad enough, in 1969 an Italian company called Snia which produced nylon yarn bought Hazelwood and built a factory for some 600 employees. It would have been perfectly feasible for the business to have erected these premises on a site out of view of the old house and screened by trees, thus preserving the Arcadian parkland created by the Wynnes. Indeed one might have thought the relevant planning authorities in Sligo County Council would have insisted this be the case. But instead the factory, surrounded by an expanse of tarmac, went up just a couple of hundred yards to the rear of Hazelwood, covering a space of no less than six acres and thereby destroying the house’s setting. In 1983 the business closed down and four years later the factory was sold to a South Korean company which produced video tapes; this too went out of business. The following year Hazelwood was sold to Foresthaze, a consortium of predominantly local businessmen and in 2007 they applied for permission to build 158 detached houses and 54 apartments in four blocks (in their defence, they also intended to sweep away the factory). This application was refused by the local authority, litigation among members of the consortium ensued, the recession arrived, Foresthaze went into receivership and – when I visited six years ago – the future of Hazelwood looked extremely bleak.





In late 2014 Hazelwood and some 80 acres was acquired by new owners who possess both vision and financial backing to ensure the place will have a viable future. The proposed scheme sees a whiskey distillery (for a new brand called Athrú) installed in part of the former factory, much of the rest of this enormous site to be deployed as a visitors’ centre and storage facility: the building’s location, surrounded by water on three sides of the peninsula, makes it perfect for a distillery. As for the house, this is to be restored to serve a variety of purposes, all intended to engage with people who come to see Hazelwood and enjoy its new facilities. Already essential conservation work has been undertaken: the west wing, inaccessible six years ago, has been re-roofed and its interior cleared. From attic to basement, dry rot in sections of the main house has been tackled and water ingress stopped. The building is now stable and, while it may still not look too lovely, a further programme of restoration work is planned for the coming years. This looks like being a long-term project, and the better for that: jobs undertaken too fast often prove to be faulty. The owners’ aspiration is that when everything is complete (and that includes tackling many outlying buildings around the former estate) Hazelwood will attract some 200,000 visitors annually. Athrú is an Irish word meaning change or transform. Thanks to this ambitious scheme the future of Hazelwood looks changed and its transformation has begun.


Thinking Big


The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, otherwise known as the Knights Templar was one of the Christian military orders established in Europe during the period of the Crusades, its ostensible function being to protect pilgrims visiting sacred sites in the Middle East. Established at the start of the 12th century, the order quickly grew in prestige, power and wealth, and established a presence in Ireland following the arrival of the Normans here. It soon acquired extensive estates in the country, although these were predominantly in the east and south, where Norman power was most effective. The Templars’ most westerly settlement was some twelve miles south of the port of Sligo where they built a castle. As is well known, at the start of the 14th century, Philip the Fair of France, who was by then heavily indebted to the Knights Templar, resolved to destroy their power – and therefore their financial hold on him – by taking advantage of the papacy then being resident in Avignon. Accordingly he leveled a series of charges against the order, including idolatry and homosexuality, which led to pope Clement V dissolving the Templars in 1312. Everywhere they had held land it then passed into the hands the relevant secular authority. In Ireland, while ostensibly the crown or another chivalric order benefitted from this unexpected property windfall, in practice a dominant local family was often able to seize control of the territory. This happened in County Sligo where the land formerly owned by the Knights Templar came into the hands of the O’Haras. They built a new castle here around 1360. In the 16th century the same lands, along with much more beside, were acquired by John Crofton, who had come here in 1565 with Sir Henry Sidney following the latter’s appointment as Lord Deputy of Ireland.





In 1665 Mary Crofton, great-granddaughter of John Crofton, married George Perceval, whose family had likewise come to have large property interests in Ireland. He was a younger son, but his wife Mary an heiress and so the estate once owned by the Knights Templar passed to the couple’s descendants who live there still. Originally they lived in the old castle which had been converted into a domestic residence in 1627, although then besieged and badly damaged in 1641. Repairs undertaken and extensions added, it served as a dwelling house for the Percevals over the next century. Then in the 1760s a new house was erected close by, the servants occupying the former residence. In 1825 Lt-Col. Alexander Perceval decided to embark on building afresh, this time on higher ground and in smart neo-classical taste. The architect responsible unknown, it forms the core of the present Temple House. The opening decades of the 19th century saw extensive building and rebuilding of country houses in Ireland, their owners having little idea of the catastrophe that was shortly to befall the country. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Percevals did their best to assist tenants on the Temple estate, the colonel’s wife Jane dying in January 1847 of ‘famine fever’ but not before leaving instructions ‘not to neglect the tenant families between my death and my funeral.’ Like so many other landowners, the Percevals were effectively ruined in the aftermath of the famine, and following the colonel’s death in December 1848 they were obliged to put the Temple estate up for sale.





The new owners of Temple, unlike their predecessors, showed little interest in the welfare of the tenants and embarked on a policy of evictions and land clearance. However, Alexander Perceval, youngest son of the old colonel, had made his fortune in the Far East, rising to become Taipan of Jardine Matheson and first chairman of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce. In the early 1860s he bought back the Temple estate where he not only paid for a number of evicted families to return to their former homes, but also decided to enlarge the house built by his father. Three times the size of what it had been before, the building was designed by the London firm of Johnstone & Jeanes (and their only Irish commission) and looks not unlike a splendid gentleman’s club, its rooms all with high ceilings and bright interiors lit by expanses of plate glass windows. At the centre of the building rises a palatial staircase leading to equally vast bedrooms (one of which is known as the ‘half acre’). The exterior was all clad in crisply cut limestone, the entrance moved from the east to the north front where access is via an impressive porte-cochère. Temple House exudes abundant confidence and authority, and indicates that Alexander Perceval expected to enjoy his family estate for many years. It was not to be: in 1866 he caught sunstroke while fishing in the lake in front of the house and died aged 44, leaving a widow and young family. Despite this and subsequent setbacks – not least the death of the next male heir only two years after the birth of his son – the family managed to hold onto the regained estate and live there still. Having inherited their forebear’s entrepreneurial skills, the present generation of Percevals run a successful business providing country house accommodation at Temple House.


For more information on Temple House, see http://www.templehouse.ie