A page from the 1897/98 visitors’ book of Dunsandle, County Galway, one of a number of such items being sold today by auctioneer Oliver Usher in Kells, County Meath. Dunsandle itself is now a roofless ruin, although traces of its exquisite interior plasterwork somehow still remain (see Dun and Dusted, December 9th 2013). Therefore surviving remnants of life in the establishment, such as this book, are precious. Curiously visitors to the house had their weight and height taken on arrival: was this common procedure one wonders?
While they claimed direct kinship with Dalaigh, tenth in descent from the 4th century Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, the actual origins of the Dalys of Dunsandle, County Galway are unclear. However they were certainly descended from Dermot Ó Daly (d.1614), described by one recent historian as ‘a chancer whose rapid advancement was due to the success of the Presidency of Connaught and his ability to turn opportunity to advantage…he was an ardent crown supporter and the supposed stability which would accrue as a repercussion of adopting English customs and laws.’ His great-grandson Denis Daly proved equally opportunistic, building up large land-holdings through money made with a thriving legal practice during the turmoils of the late 17th century. In the reign of James II he was made a Judge and Privy Councillor and although a Roman Catholic he managed to hold onto his estates in the aftermath of the Williamite Wars. In fact, both he and his brother Charles continued to acquire more land, supposedly spending some £30,000 so doing: in 1708 Denis Daly paid £9,450 for Dunsandle which had hitherto belonged to the Burkes, Earls of Clanricarde.
As is far too often the case, we do not know a great deal about who was responsible for designing or building the great house at Dunsandle. And great it certainly was until just over half a century ago. Of finely cut limestone, the centre block rose three storeys over basement, of five bays, both the entrance and garden fronts having a three-bay pedimented breakfront. On either side of the main house ran a single-storey screen wall with pedimented doorways and niches which in turn were linked to substantial two-storey courtyard wings. In 1967 the Knight of Glin tentatively attributed the house to the Italian-born architect and engineer Davis Ducart (Daviso De Arcort) and to-date nobody has come up with a satisfactory alternative.
A handful of late 19th/early 20th century photographs give us the only clear idea of what the interior looked like. The saloon had elaborate and very pretty rococo plasterwork not dissimilar to that seen at Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny (which was designed by Ducart) or that of 86 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin which dates from c.1765. The drawing room is said to have had an ‘Adamesque’ ceiling while the entrance hall contained later plasterwork almost certainly designed by James Wyatt (Denis Daly, of whom more later, in 1780 married the heiress of the first Lord Farnham who had likewise commissioned Wyatt to work on his house). Staircases with carved balusters rose on either side of the hall, leading to bedrooms and sitting rooms on the first floor.
In his 1978 guide to Irish Country Houses, Mark Bence-Jones rightly called Dunsandle ‘until recently the finest C18 house in Co Galway’ and one cannot argue with that, since it was long attested by other sources. As far back as 1786 William Wilson in The Post-Chaise Companion or Traveller’s Directory Through Ireland described Dunsandle as ‘the most magnificent and beautiful seat, with ample demesnes of the Rt. Hon, Denis Daly.’ This makes its loss all the greater.
The Rt Hon Denis Daly (1748–1791) seems to have been a man of exceptional character. In his memoirs, Henry Grattan who was a close friend, describes Daly as ‘an individual singularly gifted. Born a man of family, of integrity, of courage and of talent, he possessed much knowledge and great good-nature, an excellent understanding and great foresight…In person Denis Daly was handsome, of a pleasing and agreeable address, and so excellent a manner that by it he conciliated everybody… He was a friend to the Catholics and he always supported them. There were men who possessed more diligence and information, but he surpassed them all in talent.’
A fine portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds testifies to Daly’s good looks. As has been mentioned in 1780 he married Lady Henrietta Maxwell, only daughter of the first Earl of Farnham, and thus increased his estates (in the early 19th century they ran to over 33,000 acres) as well as inheriting a house on Dublin’s Henrietta Street. Here he entertained with flair, but also displayed his intellectual interests: elsewhere Grattan wrote ‘at Mr Daly’s we dined among his books as well as at his table – they were on it – they were lying around it…’ Decades after his death Hely Dutton in A Statistical and Agricultural Survey of the County of Galway (1824) observed that Dunsandle’s late owner had ‘not only collected the best editions of the great authors of antiquity, but read books with the ardour of a real lover of literature. His library was uncommonly valuable.’ At least part of that library passed to his younger son Robert Daly who in 1843 became Bishop of Cashel and Waterford.
In 1845 Denis Daly’s elder son James was created first Baron Dunsandle and Clanconal. He does not appear to have inherited his father’s charm and was widely reported to be unpopular with his tenantry, many of whom supported the cause of the pro-Catholic Ribbonmen in the 1820s; it should be noted that his brother, Bishop Robert Daly was notoriously anti-Catholic. So too was the second Lord Dunsandle who in 1893 disinherited his elder son William when the latter married a Catholic. In any case, William Daly could not have succeeded to the title since he was illegitimate, his parents only marrying twelve years after his birth. It was William Daly’s son Colonel Denis Daly who in 1931 bought Russborough, County Wicklow and thereby ensured that house survived to the present day. Meanwhile William Daly’s brother – yet another Denis (and like his sibling born out of wedlock) – appears to have taken over Dunsandle after their father’s death in 1893. He in turn was succeeded by his son, Major Denis Bowes Daly who was the last of the family to live there.
It is not altogether clear why the Dalys finally sold up and left Dunsandle in 1954. Obviously there was pressure from the Land Commission which wished to acquire the estate so that it could be broken up and distributed among smallholders. But there were also most likely personal reasons too. In 1950 Major Bowes Daly had divorced his first wife to marry Melosine Hanbury (née Cary-Barnard) with whom he had been joint Master of the Galway Blazers for the previous few years. Mrs Hanbury had already had two husbands, her first Wing-Commander Marcus Trundle being in the news a decade ago when it was revealed that in the mid-1930s London police reported he was the secret lover of Wallis Simpson. Whatever the truth about that, it appears that the Major Bowes Daly’s divorce and re-marriage caused a stir in County Galway in the early 1950s with local Catholic clergy advising farmers to boycott the hunt. Eventually the Dalys moved for a few years to Africa, Dunsandle was sold and in 1958 the house unroofed.
As is so often the case, one could write a great deal more about Dunsandle and its owners, although not too much else about the house. Still, as indicated by these photographs taken only last month, it was clearly a building that ought to have been preserved, with only the vestiges of its former splendour remaining. The wings and linking passages are gone, all that remains is the main block and that looks likely to surrender to vegetation in the near future. Soon even the final traces of that elegant plasterwork will be gone and with them three centuries of Irish cultural history, yet another irreparable loss. Below is a photograph of the main façade of Dunsandle included in the 5th volume of the Irish Georgian Society Records published in 1913.