After last Monday’s post about the house on Fota Island, County Cork, it is worth noting that the immediate demesne, including one of Ireland’s most important late 19th/early 20th century arboretums, also survives and can be visited. To the rear of the main building lie a series of walled gardens which have been well-maintained by the Office of Public Works and at the top of these the Irish Heritage Trust has restored a series of greenhouses now filled with plants. In consequence, the site provides an opportunity to explore an Irish country house in its original setting, something not always possible.
Some readers may be familiar with the history of Richard Barry, seventh and penultimate Earl of Barrymore. He was almost the end of the line of a family which could trace its ancestry back to participation in the Norman Conquest of England (1066) and then the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Ireland (1169 onwards): their name derives from Barry in Glamorganshire, Wales where their forebear had been granted lands by William the Conqueror. In this country, they acquired substantial territories in what is now East Cork, and remained prominent there for many centuries, being created first Baron Barry (c.1261), then Viscount Buttevant (1541) and finally Earl of Barrymore (1628).
One generation of Barrys duly followed another until the advent of the seventh earl (born 1769) who inherited his title and estates at the age of three, following the death of his father. His mother would die when he was eleven, and it was perhaps this absence of parental authority which led to Lord Barrymore acquiring such a notorious reputation for dissipation as an adult, known as the Rake of Rakes or Hellgate. On the other hand, his siblings were as bad. His only sister Caroline was called ‘Billingsgate’ because she swore like a fishwife (London’s Billingsgate was home to the city’s fishmarket) and of his two brothers, Henry, the last earl was called ‘Cripplegate’ because he had a clubfoot, and Augustus, called ‘Newgate’ because, despite being an Anglican clergyman, he was a compulsive gambler (Newgate being the debtors’ prison in London). The seventh earl also liked to gamble, as well as being addicted to boxing, racing and acting (he built his own theatre in Berkshire at a cost of £60,000). Eventually, his debts grew so great that he was forced to sell most of the family’s property in Ireland; he is said to have squandered some £300,000 during his lifetime. This came to an abrupt end in 1793 when, as a Captain in the Royal Berkshire Militia, he was escorting some French prisoners to a camp and his rifle accidentally went off, wounding him so badly that he was dead within the hour: he was still aged only 24.
What has all this to do with the pictures shown here? This is Fota, County Cork, built on an island which had long been part of the Barrys’ lands and had somehow not been sold due the excesses of the seventh earl. In the early 19th century, it passed into the ownership of John Smith-Barry who, while illegitimate, was a descendant of the fourth earl of Barrymore and sought – unsuccessfully – to have the title recreated for him after the eighth earl’s death in 1823. The transformation of Fota, it has been suggested, can be connected with Smith-Barry’s efforts to be raised to the peerage. Hitherto the house had been a modest 18th century hunting lodge, probably used by the Barrys’ agents, since the family were not resident in Ireland. But in the mid-1820s, the building was greatly enlarged by father-and-son team Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison. They proposed two schemes, one of which was for Fota’s transformation into a Tudorbethan mansion, not unlike schemes on which the pair had already embarked at Killruddery, County Wicklow and Glenarm, County Antrim, with an entrance tower indebted to that at Burghley House. This idea was rejected in favour of a neo-classical design, the original five-bay building widened with an extra bay on either side and then further lengthened by the addition of two projecting pedimented wings to create a shallow courtyard, the whole centred on a single-storey limestone Doric portico. Bows were added to the garden front, one of these accommodating the drawing room, while the extensions at either end of the facade hold the dining room and library. The exterior is rendered with limestone dressings, which adds to the impression of crisp severity. A long two-storey extension to the north-west contains the service wing; in the 1870s, the front of his was hidden by a conservatory (later converted into a long gallery) leading to a billiard room.
The first interior encountered at Fota – the entrance hall – is also the most successful. Running the length of the original house on the site and concluding at either end with small lobbies, it is divided into three spaces by screens of paired Ionic scagliola columns supporting entablatures decorated with plasterwork with a repeated pattern of wreaths and the Smith-Barry crest; the floor is covered in Portland stone. The abiding impression is of cool composure and absolute assurance in the handling of what could have been just a long, low corridor. In their decoration, the main reception rooms bear strong similarities with those of the contemporaneous Ballyfin, County Laois, both being indebted to the work of Percier and Fontaine: the ceilings in the drawing room (and its anteroom) were painted and stencilled in the 1890s by the Dublin firm of Sibthorpe & Son. The dining room has a screen of grey scagliola columns at the sideboard end of the space and, once again, rich ceiling plasterwork featuring trellises intertwined with vines. Although sparsely furnished in places, Fota, today in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust, looks so well that it is easy to forget that just a few decades ago the house’s future looked in serious jeopardy, following the death of the last of the Smith-Barrys and the estate’s subsequent sale and resale. The history of a period when it seemed Fota might be left to fall into disrepair is too complex – and perhaps still too recent – to be told here. That it has survived is thanks to a small number of determined individuals (not least plucky Richard Wood) who courageously undertook to go to battle for the place. Too many other such Irish houses, in similar perilous positions, have been at risk – and indeed continue to be so. Let us rejoice, therefore, over this sheep, which might have been lost but has been found and brought back into the fold.