The remains of a former estate at Clogher in County Cork. In 1837 Samuel Lewis describes the property as belonging to one ‘G. Bond Low, Esq.’ but provides no further details. The house itself, now a ruin, dates from the early 19th century and is of three stories and five bays. A sense of its character is provided by what survives: a pair of handsome limestone gate posts, beside one of which is a derelict lodge. Not far inside the entrance is a very fine yard, typical of the kind then being erected across the country and, despite neglect, still so sturdy that it begs for restoration: the perfect setting for a number of courtyard dwellings, should someone with sufficient imagination (and funds) be prepared to take on the task.
As has been discussed here before, Townley Hall, County Louth is one of Ireland’s most perfect neo-classical buildings (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/06/10/la-tout-nest-quordre-et-beaute). The house was designed in the mid-1790s by Francis Johnston, who until then had been employed primarily by Richard Robinson, Archbishop of Armagh, often to complete commissions left unfinished following the early death of Thomas Cooley in 1784. Townley Hall is his first independent piece of work although here again the client’s involvement was critical since it is known that Blayney Townley Balfour, who owned the property, and his sister Anna Maria were intimately involved in every stage of the design.
Johnston was invited to design not just Townley Hall itself but also a number of ancillary buildings, including a new stableyard. His plans for this survive and are dated between 1799 (work being initiated on the site in May of that year) and 1804. The intention was to build around a rectangular courtyard with coach house and grainstore topped by a cupola on the north side, and stables coming forward to its immediate east and west. The south side was to be taken up by screen wall with arched entrance. Sadly this scheme was never realized, possibly for financial reasons (like many other house builders before and since, Blayney Townley Balfour discovered the initial budget was insufficient). Instead, while the northern range was constructed, it lacked the proposed cupola, and only the western range of stables were finished; a terrace of single-storey cottages runs along the eastern side of the site. Likewise the south wall with entrance arch was left unbuilt, and even a modified plan for railings with piers went unrealized. A drawing of the plan survives a penciled note reading ‘not built yet – 1837 FTB’, those initials standing for Lady Florence Townley Balfour (daughter of the first Earl of Enniskillen) who had married Blayney Townley Balfour in 1797.
As is well known, Townley Hall was sold by the heirs of the Townley Balfour family in the 1950s and, having been owned for a short period of time by Trinity College Dublin, was sold again with the Land Commission taking the greater part of the surrounding estate. Many of the ancillary buildings are no longer part of Townley Hall, including the former stableyard. Almost every other part of the former estate has been restored and brought into use, but sadly this element, which is, it seems, independently owned, has languished in neglect for a number of years, and is now in poor repair. Even if not as originally intended by Johnston, the yard remains associated with what is widely judged to be his masterpiece, and accordingly deserves a better fate.
Everywhere one travels in Ireland, ranges of abandoned old farm buildings can be found in varying states of dereliction. It’s easy to understand why this should be the case; in many instances, the structures were poorly constructed and are unsuitable for adaptation to modern farming methods. The buildings may no longer be in the right location for whoever is working the land, and not have immediate access to electricity and mains water. None of these drawbacks is incapable of resolution, but frequently the simplest answer looks to be the construction of new facilities and abandonment of old. However, an alternative option does exist for those interested in the conservation of traditional buildings in the Irish countryside.
For the past decade, the Heritage Council has been administering distribution of GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environmental Scheme) Traditional Farm Buildings Grants. As the relevant documentation states, ‘The principal objective of this scheme is to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Only farmers approved in the GLAS scheme are eligible, and grants are never for more than 75% of the cost of work with a maximum of €25,000 available. There have been some constraints to the scheme – for example, this year grant offers were only made in April yet all work has to be completed by October – but overall it is hard to fault a programme designed to ensure that not all of Ireland’s traditional agricultural buildings, and the impression they make on our landscape, are lost forever.
Not all agricultural complexes are necessarily best-suited to continue performing their original function, thereby making them ineligible for a Traditional Farm Building Grant. Nevertheless, alternative uses have been found in a number of instances, some of which have featured here in the past, such as the complex at Ballilogue, County Kilkenny (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2013/10/14/in-the-vernacular) and a not-dissimilar property in County Tipperary (see: https://theirishaesthete.com/2017/09/11/making-the-most-of-our-own) . Both cases make it clear that older farm buildings can have an afterlife, provided they are perceived with sufficient vision and imagination. This has also been true of another agricultural range at Dromore Yard, County Waterford. Dating back several centuries, the buildings were in a very poor state until taken in hand a few years ago and adapted as a site for performances and associated entertainment. The complex was used last year on a number of occasions during the annual Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, and will serve a similar purpose during the festival again this year (May 29th-June 3rd). Aside from stabilising the buildings and ensuring their future, intervention has been minimal but masterful: their original character and purpose remain apparent. No effort has been made to give them the architectural equivalent of a face-lift. Their age is apparent, their weather-beaten elevations and interiors left unaltered. Dromore Yard shows how easy it can be to give new life and purpose to an old structure: it offers an example that deserves to be more widely emulated.
For further information on this year’s Blackwater Valley Opera Festival, including events at Dromore Yard, see: https://blackwatervalleyoperafestival.com
A blocked doorcase in the former farmyard at Grangemore, County Westmeath. The main house here, now also a ruin, was built in the opening years of the 19th century by a member of the Fetherston family: it later passed by marriage to the Briscoes. During the last century what remained of what was once a substantial estate fell into decline, the house standing empty for periods until it was stripped of disposable assets and unroofed in the late 1950s. Its shell now stands in the midst of fields, as does the complex of which this doorcase forms a part.
As an area of both study and preservation, the relative neglect of ancillary buildings on Irish country estates has been mentioned here before. While the main house may be – scrutinised, the surrounding structures which did so much to sustain it – is often overlooked. Take the substantial range of buildings shown here today, which lie adjacent to Coolure, County Westmeath. Despite their scale and evident quality of finish, they pass unremarked in Casey and Rowan’s 1993 volume on the Buildings of North Leinster. This is not an unusual circumstance but one that deserves rectification: at the moment if we often know too little about who was responsible for designing and constructing many Irish country houses, we know even less about the origins of their outbuildings.
At least some of those at Coolure must date from the same period as when work began on the house proper c.1785 following the marriage of Captain (later Admiral) Thomas Pakenham to Louisa Staples. It was extended in the 1820s, probably to accommodate their substantial family, and the yards may have been proportionately increased in size then also. Finally a number of buildings, not least a vast and now roofless two-storey barn, were erected in the 1850s, thereby completing the ensemble.
Changing circumstances along with improved technology, the break-up of large estates, better methods of agriculture, alternative means of transport: all have played their part in making country house outbuildings mostly redundant. Who now needs lines of stables (one set occupied by horses required for riding and carriages, one for animals used about the farm) and coach houses, or piggeries and dovecotes? But the buildings once deemed essential for these purposes, and many others beside, still stand, testament to how rural Ireland operated for centuries. The ranges at Coolure are especially fine, and a credit to the family responsible for their erection. Some have been converted to residential use, and some adapted as storage space or to provide temporary shelter for livestock. But what – to pick a single example from many – can now be done with a hen house, its interior specifically designed to contain rows of niches in which eggs could be laid (and from which they were then conveniently collected)? Buildings such as these demonstrate how an estate with sufficient resources would become an almost self-contained world, producing the foodstuffs required by those living there. Surviving account books from the 18th and 19th centuries reveal just how little needed to be bought, other than wine and spirits (beer could be brewed on site), tobacco and a handful of other luxuries. The fields yielded up their harvest to be stored in barns, livestock provided meat, ponds held fish, walled gardens and orchards were filled with fruit and vegetables. No wonder the outbuildings at Coolure are so substantial: they played a critical role in ensuring the estate functioned smoothly.
Deprived of their purpose, buildings such as those at Coolure can slip into decline, although they are perforce so sturdy that frequently they survive longer than the house they were intended to support. Built of rubble and cut limestone, and with slate roofs, these ranges are carefully planned to perform their task with maximum efficiency. Now that job is no longer required, the question needs to be asked: can a fresh purpose be found for them? In recent years an annual series of grants to encourage the preservation of traditional farm buildings has been provided by the Department of Agriculture through GLAS (Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme) and administered by the Heritage Council. This is intended ‘to ensure that traditional farm buildings and other related structures that contribute to the character of the landscape, and are of significant heritage value, are conserved for active agricultural use.’ Although admirable, the scheme suffers from two drawbacks when it comes to outbuildings such as those at Coolure. Firstly the grants offered, while obviously much appreciated, are not enormous: between €4,000 and €25,000. Secondly, according to the Heritage Council, ‘the key conservation principle of minimum intervention should apply, that is, carrying out a repair to fix what is wrong but not setting out to do too much work. Works which are, in the opinion of the Heritage Council, restoration works, are very unlikely to be supported with grant aid.’ So outbuildings that need to be restored in order that they can find a new function would seem not to qualify. Perhaps another scheme might be established for this purpose? Fine, well-designed and solidly constructed buildings like those at Coolure merit help in finding a new lease of life.
As a rule the focus of architectural heritage is on historic properties with a distinguished, and traceable, pedigree. An unintended consequence of this approach is that across the country the fate of many secondary, vernacular buildings is overlooked and they are permitted to fall into ruin. Many of these, however, have their own inherent beauty even if not always so obviously apparent. Here are two views of an old rubble stone barn in County Meath. Like thousands of others it is entirely functional, even mundane and yet possessed of a distinctive character that deserves to be cherished.
As a rule, old farm buildings in Ireland are allowed to slide into neglect and decay: it is rare to find an owner with the vision to see the possibility of alternative use. But as these photographs from County Cork show, it is possible to give a simple former barn new purpose and convert the building into an extremely attractive residence. If only there were more instances of such intelligent recycling to be found…